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Dracula and Bram Stoker – a novelist’s review

2013 November 14

by Ann Victoria Roberts

'Dracula' cover 1909 edition

Would Bram Stoker recognise the characters in Sky’s new TV series? I doubt it. But Dracula the TV series is just one more twist on a popular theme, one that has been endlessly re-interpreted since the unauthorised film, Nosferatu, first appeared in 1922. Stoker’s widow sued the German production company, and in doing so created the publicity which led to a fresh surge of interest in the novel. After good reviews at the time of its publication in 1897, it was hardly a success in terms of sales. Until the Nosferatu court case, Stoker’s novel had languished in obscurity. Since then, it has rarely been out of print.

Researching the author a century later, I found him a fascinating man of great energy and imagination. In his 25 years as business manager to the Shakespearean actor, Sir Henry Irving, Stoker combined the attributes of lawyer, accountant, secretary and playwright. In his spare moments – largely on holiday – Stoker wrote novels, most of which would have been better if only he’d devoted more time to them.

The exception, of course, is his novel Dracula, which everyone knows but few people have read. Nowadays we tend to regard it as a Gothic novel – and yet Stoker was at pains to anchor it as a ‘modern’ work, set very clearly in the last decade of the 19th century. The young solicitor Jonathan Harker records his observations in shorthand; in the Count’s library he discovers a Bradshaw’s Railway Guide; he mentions a Kodak camera, and that his fiancée Mina is a working woman. For the Victorian reader, these up-to-the-minute details would have made Dracula’s ancient evil even more unsettling.

Through Harker’s diary we meet the Count as an old man – tall, thin, white-haired. By the end of the opening chapters, however, when the Count is preparing to leave on his journey to England, he has become mysteriously younger and far more virile.

From this point on we are back in England and firmly in the ‘modern’ world. The story unfolds through a collection of papers: diary entries, official reports, letters, telegrams, and newspaper accounts. The order in which they appear gives the impression of snapshots capturing the movements of a nightmare being.

Stoker doesn’t spell it out – he heightens the suspense by suggestion, leaving the reader to assume the worst. Dracula’s visits to Lucy Westenra in Whitby are conveyed by mere glimpses – the bat, the gleaming red eyes of a figure seen close by – enough for us to suspect the cause of Lucy’s ‘illness’. The author’s descriptions of her subsequent ‘treatment’ by Dr Seward and Prof Van Helsing, suggest the kind of intimacy Victorian readers would have found titillating. Radical action and blood transfusions are in vain, however: Lucy has to die in order to carry the story forward.

The scene in which the group of male friends and lovers kill the vampire Lucy has become, is conveyed in prose that today reads like a perverted description of sexual penetration. And again, with the return to the story of Jonathan Harker and Mina – now married – Stoker describes Dracula’s visit to their marriage-bed in shockingly erotic prose. The modern reader is more sophisticated, of course, and able to spot references that Stoker’s original audience may have missed. But this is no doubt the content that has set film-makers down the route of love, lust, possession and sexual aberration.

But Dracula the novel is far more than that. Like an early James Bond, it concerns the abuse of power, with a few brave warriors willing to risk life and soul in the fight against this superhuman enemy. It plays on Victorian fears – of invasion, of the occult, of sex. Most of all perhaps, fear of powerful, dominant male figures. Stoker was living in London when the Ripper murders were happening – those brutal, sexual crimes almost certainly informed his story. He was also a visitor to the little port of Whitby, which – at least before the arrival of the railway some fifty years earlier – had more direct connections with northern Europe than with the rest of the UK.

Dracula’s arrival in Whitby is one of the novel’s most dramatic episodes. Everyone remembers the wreck of the Russian ship, the crew all dead, and the great hound leaping ashore. The description is so alive, the setting so real, it seems like something that really happened. As a native of Yorkshire, married to a seafarer, I often wondered why Whitby? In his journey from the Black Sea, why did Dracula (and the author) not choose Falmouth, one of the most southerly ports in Britain? The answer is probably that Stoker hadn’t visited Falmouth, but he did know Whitby. Shipwrecks abound along that coast, but the wreck described in the book is curious. Stoker’s Demeter of Varna (a port on the Black Sea) is taken directly from an actual wreck that occurred during a violent storm in 1885 – the Dmitry of Narva, on the Baltic.

That coincidence – and the inversion of names – caught my imagination while staying in Whitby during the long hot summer of 1994. I was fortunate to be there for several weeks, walking the town and cliffs, and thinking about my next book. With its history of fisher-lasses and photographers, Whitby in the 1880s provided the perfect setting. Moon Rising could have turned into a Victorian romance between a young woman and a sophisticated stranger – but the man became Bram Stoker, the author of Dracula. Once he entered the scene, my story became much darker.

Front cover of 'Moon Raising' Chatto & Windus edition 2000.

I re-read Dracula and started to do my research in earnest. Whitby’s 19th century remoteness, its dramatic location with church, graveyard and ruined Abbey standing atop the cliffs, made it popular with Stoker and the London literati. Local characters, retired seafarers, strange folk tales of the un-dead, would have provided the author with a stock of material. Certainly, the great spectral hound – the Barghest – said to haunt both the town and moors, was utilised in Dracula to great effect. And, legends aside, who inspired the central character? My choice is Henry Irving, Stoker’s friend and employer. Irving fits the description like a glove: aquiline features and autocratic manner; his passion for sitting up talking all night after a performance at the Lyceum; and most of all, his ability on stage to transform himself into another being. As Stoker once reported, ‘his eyes were like cinders glowing red…’

Perhaps Stoker had Irving in mind all along? He did a rough script adaptation to protect the copyright, but although the Lyceum company did a run-through of the play, Irving refused to play the part of the Count. Perhaps it was too much off-stage – the part not big enough for a star of his magnitude. But his one comment, ‘Dreadful!’ must have cut the writer to the quick.

Regarding Irving, it’s impossible not to see the Count’s blood-sucking activities as a metaphor for the actor’s ability to feed off other people’s creativity. Famous, powerful, the first actor to be knighted, Irving demanded, and got, everything from the people around him. He could not have succeeded without Stoker’s wide-ranging talents and steadfast friendship. In the end, Irving sucked Stoker dry – and then dropped him. Their relationship fascinated me. Irving, hypnotic, powerful; and Stoker his star-struck acolyte, working literally all hours to further the great man’s career. In my novel, Moon Rising, Stoker has reached breaking point, escaping to Whitby before his life in London tips him over the edge. Young Damsy Sterne, photographer’s model, attracts his attention, and thus begins a month-long affair which changes the course of both their lives. Stoker’s psychology, his work and writing, are part of the warp and weft of the tale, as is the genesis of that immortal classic, Dracula.

Author

A lover of history, art and the sea, Ann Victoria Roberts is the author of 5 character-driven historical novels, set mainly in the late 19th & early 20th centuries. She is intrigued by the parallels between past and present, and by the effect of place upon character. Bram Stoker, Capt Edward Smith of the Titanic, a modern sea-captain and a young WW1 soldier have each provided inspiration for her books. A keen researcher, reader and artist, she enjoys painting pictures with words, and regards good historical fiction as a pleasurable way to discover how life was lived in the past. She is currently re-editing and re-publishing her early novels, and working on a memoir to be published in 2014.

Novels: LOUISA ELLIOTT, LIAM’S STORY, DAGGER LANE, MOON RISING, THE MASTER’S TALE

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