Dracula’s Bridesmaid

(This appeared in Verbal Magazine in October ’10 as BRAM STOKER: ALWAYS THE BRIDESMAID, NEVER DRACULA’S BRIDE)

Recently, Vampire Diaries star Paul Wesley exclaimed in an interview: “They’ve made this whole vampire thing recently like a sex thing.Back in the day it used to be like Dracula. They were genuinely frightening but now it’s a very sexual tone.”

As for many people, his image of Bram Stoker’s Dracula is that of a neck-chasing stalker with an opera cape and a thick Hungarian accent. Mainly responsible for this image is the – it has to be said – toothless movie with Bela Lugosi. If people who are put off by this creaky Count read the book, they’d find a story filled with adventure, strong characters, romance and, indeed, sex: everything you’ll find in The Vampire Diaries, True Blood, Being Human and Twilight

Stoker’s book of blood is a surprisingly modern read: events happen in ‘real time’ through the use of letter fragments and diary entries. Victorian gadgetry blends scientific authority with folklore. It further convinces the reader because, unwittingly or otherwise, Stoker wrote about the things that kept him awake at night, and populated his novel with the people he knew.

In Count Dracula, beneath the disguise of the Wallachian prince Vlad Tepes, it’s easy to recognize the distinguished actor Henry Irving, who employed Stoker as manager of his Lyceum Theatre. Likewise, the equally celebrated actress Ellen Terry doubles as Stoker’s resolute, independent heroine Mina Harker. Irving and Terry were married but Stoker often found himself their go-between. Where Irving was years their senior, Stoker and Terry were of the same age and shared the playful, friendly manner of honeymooners. Terry nicknamed Stoker, “Ma” and herself “dutiful daughter”. 

Their relationship was more affectionate – though not necessarily intimate – than that of Stoker and his wife. It’s often been claimed that Florence Stoker was frigid and that the sexual undercurrents of Dracula represent Bram’s repressed sexuality boiling over. This is most notable in this scene, early in the book, in which Stoker’s protagonist is beset by a trio of female vampires:

“I felt in my heart a wicked, burning desire that they would kiss me with those red lips. It is not good to note this down, lest some day it should meet Mina’s eyes.”

And even more explicitly: 

“I lay quiet, looking out from under my eyelashes in an agony of delightful anticipation. The fair girl advanced and bent over me till I could feel the movement of her breath upon me.”

Legend has it that Bram dreamed this scene after a too generous helping of dressed crab. This seems a bowdlerized version of events, even if it’s still terribly Freudian. Perhaps Stoker did have that nightmare, prompted by his subconscious, but the truth about Florence’s frigidity is less than straightforward.

Born in Dublin in 1847, by 1877 Bram had a respectable career as a civil servant at Dublin Castle. He had just finished a “dry as bones” book on the reformation of clerical duties, but also wrote theatrical reviews. Florence Balcombe, then 18, had been Oscar Wilde’s first love, but she chose security and a stable life with Bram. As she told Oscar: “He never gets into debt, and his character is excellent.” Irving beckoned and they married hastily, similar to Count Dracula summoning Harker on the eve of his wedding.

Florence was stunningly beautiful. She enjoyed a rich social life in the absence of Stoker, who worked long and late for Irving, with only weekends set aside for his wife. While pregnant, Florence realized that further pregnancies would destroy her looks, and that she wanted to entertain artists, not children. So, not so much the loveless marriage of rumour, as a rational choice by an emancipated woman who enjoyed her freedom – there’s more than a bit of Mina in Florence, too. 

While “Mrs. Bram” was a social butterfly, Stoker himself was well enough liked and hugely respected. Respect, however, was not to be had from the one person of whom Stoker seemed to require it the most: Henry Irving. A mesmeric figure onstage and off, his Hamlet unsurpassed, Irving rose from shoestring provincial tours to the London stage before opening his Lyceum in 1878. Stoker flattered Irving in a review, and when they met, he became hysterical with adoration. Irving’s ego was so tickled that he hired Stoker as his manager on the spot, but despite Stoker’s hard work and evident worship, Irving treated him as a mere servant. 

It’s revealing that the characters in Dracula are defined by their response to the magnetic figure of the Count, either resisting him or becoming enthralled. Stoker got caught by Irving’s gravitational pull and reflected this, perhaps in buried resentment, when he depicted Dracula as a monster of heartless manipulation and ambition. 

When Stoker did a reading of Dracula with the Lyceum cast, Irving watched a while from the back, then exclaimed, “Dreadful!’, before striding off. Dracula only made it to the stage in 1925, well after Stoker’s death in 1912, and then only as a “barnstormer”; actor-producer Hamilton Deane was a far cry from Irving, and the play was a far cry from Shakespeare. Yet it was this crowd-pleaser that was eventually adapted into the film with Bela Lugosi. 

Stoker didn’t live long enough to experience – or coast on – Dracula’s eventual fame. Despite ill health and stroke, his later years were quietly spent writing horror potboilers and articles, including a bizarre expose of Elizabeth I as a male imposter. The hallucinogenic prose of his last book, The Lair of the White Worm, prompted later suspicions that he was crazed by syphilis, contracted from prostitutes supposedly visited when Florence wouldn’t oblige.

Since Stoker’s death, increasingly bizarre theories have been posited, casting the author as a repressed homosexual, the victim of ‘haemosexual trauma’, and a conspirator hiding Jack the Ripper’s identity. It seems that in reality, Stoker was the perfect Victorian gentleman, and perhaps that inspires the search for a literary fatal flaw. 

If anything, he lacked a risk-taking spirit and was conservative. He was a writer but could never become a true artist, and lived this ambition through Irving. Consequently, if one character in Dracula sums up Stoker, it’s Renfield: the dedicated solicitor who ends up as a minion and herald of the Count, catching flies, then spiders, wanting a kitten but never getting a shot at the ultimate reward. 

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