by Christopher Frayling
Dracula first appeared in bookshops on 26 May 1897, price 6 shillings, in a print-run of three thousand copies. It was bound in yellow cloth, with red lettering. Four years later, Dracula was reissued in a slightly abridged form as a sixpenny yellow-covered paperbackwith, on the jacket, one of the only illustrations Bram Stoker ever had the chance to approve himself. This shows the Count as a white-haired military commander, with a bushy moustache and bat-like cloak, shinning down the stone walls of Castle Draculaa very far cry from the seductive lounge-lizard of countless movie versions (more than two hundred, at the last count), the charismatic man in evening dress and opera cloak who says portentously "children of the night, what music they make!". It is almost impossible today to exorcize visual images of Max Schreck in Nosferatu or Bela Lugosi in Dracula or Christopher Lee in The Horror of Dracula or Gary Oldman in Bram Stoker's Dracula to reach back to the novel as Bram Stoker wrote it.
The original reviews were so-so. The Athenaeum, which in the past had panned all the fiction Stoker had put his name to, reckoned that Dracula was wanting in "constructive art in the higher literary sense. It reads at times like a mere series of grotesquely incredible events": Gothic novels came in one of two categoriesthe suggestive ones and the blood-and-thunder ones; Dracula was definitely in the latter category. Others were more kind, after a fashion: "we read nearly the whole with rapt attention", said The Bookman. Most reviewers found that the book made them feel uneasy, for one reason or another, but not nearly as uneasy as the works of Oscar Wilde, the plays of Henrik Ibsen and the illustrations of Aubrey Beardsley. Dracula was probably transgressing somethingbut the critics weren't quite sure exactly what. And they weren't sure whether the author was sure either. Late Victorian readers seem to have read the book as an early piece of techno-fiction: blood-transfusions, phonograph-recordings and shorthand typing, in an adventure yarn about a committee of the forces of good (science, religion and social connections) versus the demon king and his ilk from the land beyond the forest in the east.
Actually, the Count as originally conceived (according to one of Bram Stoker's earliest manuscript notes, written on Lyceum Theatre notepaper when Dracula was still called "Count Wampyr") would have been very much at home with Wilde and Beardsley at a Lyceum opening night. Stoker's list of vampire characters at this early stage of drafting includes:
Stoker's fin-de-siècle vampire cannot appreciate good music, loves to create evil thoughts for the hell of it, cannot possibly have his portrait painted or his studio photograph taken, seems to be on a diet and cannot stand looking in a mirror: all of which give him a family resemblance to Wilde's Picture of Dorian Gray (1891), with its society aesthete who has a passion for the latest French yellow-backed novels. But by 1897, most of these vampire characteristics had been jettisoned from the finished novel. Perhaps out of deference to his employer Henry Irving's very public prejudicesand in the wake of Oscar Wilde's trial of 1895, with subsequent hue and cryStoker had decided to repress the aesthetic side of his demon's personality; as indeed he tended to repress his own. He was later to write a spirited article in support of the censorship of "unclean" contemporary novels and in a note attached to one of the five hundred presentation copies of Dracula he enthusiastically sent out to the great and the good, Stoker wrote to W.E. Gladstone no less that he sincerely hoped there was "nothing base in the book": "the book is necessarily full of horrors and terrors", he continued defensively, "but I trust that these are calculated to cleanse the mind by pity and terror".
- "power of creating evil thoughts or banishing good ones in others present"
- "goes through fog by instinct" and can "see in the dark"
- "insensibility to music"
- "Painters cannot paint him. His likeness always like someone else"
- "could not Codak [photograph] himcomes out black or like skeleton corpse"
- "No looking glasses in Count's housenever can see his reflection in oneno shadow"
- "never eats nor drinks"
The writing certainly seems from the evidence to have been an act of cleansing. On the surface, Bram Stoker was a pillar of late Victorian respectabilitya man who was, in the rather patronizing words of one recent critic, "a master of the commonplace" in most of what he wrote. An ex-clerk in the fines and penalties section, and later the petty sessions office, of Dublin Castle, who grew up in the seaside suburb of Clontarf, he had been, since 1878, the business-manager, box-office administrator and front-of-house master of ceremonies at the Lyceum Theatre, off the Strand in Londona career move which led to him routinely rubbing shoulders with the artistic and political establishment of the day. He was by all accounts a hearty, down-to-earth and meticulous man. Doing the accounts for actor-manager Henry Irving at his most flamboyant, keeping the Lyceum solvent and persuading Irving not to overdo the special effects was more than a full-time job. Stoker seldom left the theatre before one in the morning, because his boss liked him to organize regular dinners after the show, in the Beefsteak Room behind the stage which, with typical extravagance, Irving had decked out as a Gothic parlor (complete with its own chef) for the purposes of making useful contacts. Stoker made careful lists of them, in a tiny and tidy handwriting. He missed out Oscar Wilde for some reason.
But beneath this glittering surface, Bram Stoker had something gnawing away at his mind. The event which seems to have unlocked his imaginationpossibly for the one and only time in his lifeleading indirectly to the book which caused everyone who knew him well to say I had no idea Stoker had it in him; he was such a feet-on-the-ground sort of personthe event seems to have happened on the night of March 7th, 1890. It was a bad dream, which on March 8th Bram Stoker dutifully jotted down on another piece of Lyceum headed notepaper: "Young man goes out," he wrote, "sees girlsone tries to kiss him not on the lips but throat. Old Count interferesrage & fury diabolicalthis man belongs to me I want him." This bad dream was eventually to turn into Jonathan Harker's fictional journal entry for the night of May 15 in the novel: "I suppose I must have fallen asleep; I hope so, but I fear... I cannot in the least believe that it was all sleep... ". It was the origin of Dracula. Among the many changes that happened to the book between March 1890, the month of the dream, and May 1897, the month of publication, one incident and one alone remained constant: the dream which was a bizarre mixture of the witches from Macbeth (one of Irving's favorite plays), Stoker's own anxieties about his masculinity"This man belongs to me," says the Counta tug-of-war over his sexuality, a domineering employer whom he worshipped and a voyeur's fantasy of hungry female vampires. All couched in the rhetoric of the Gothic. As a critic has written, "when such a man as Bram Stoker, just once, is thoroughly afraid, the charade stops and what you get is Dracula".
The novel was to be full of references to the plays which Henry Irving put on at the Lyceum in the 1880s and 1890sincluding a misquotation from Hamlet which introduces Harker's waking nightmare and which Irving always insisted on including in his version of the tragedy: "My tablets! quick, my tablets! 'Tis meet that I put it down"; a process which George Bernard Shaw wittily called "performing Hamlet with the part of Hamlet omitted." At one point, the book itself had the traditional four-act structure of a play: Transylvania to Whitby, in which the Count arrives from the east on to English soilbringing his own soil with him so he can get a good day's sleep; Tragedy in Whitby and London, in which the Count attacks Jonathan Harker's fiancée and her friend Lucy Westenra and threatens to start an epidemic; Discovery by the intrepid vampire-hunters, including Professor Van Helsing; and Punishment, in which the forces of Victorian normality counter-attack, and put the vampires back in their boxes so Mina Harker can become a conventional, repressed young lady again. But the sheer intensity of the primal scene was never to be repeated anywhere else in Stoker's writings. Harker, incidentally, was the name of the Lyceum's in-house designer, and throughout the novel writes in the no-nonsense style of a junior civil servant. He was evidently a surrogate for Bram Stoker himself.
To judge by the many different headed notepapers he used, Bram Stoker tended to write on the run in hotels, on trains, in libraries and on leave from the Lyceum: Irving allowed him little time for such pursuits in the normal schedule and what today we would call staff development was not his strongest suit. Stoker's first jottings were developed into the beginnings of a story during a wet family holiday in Whitby, Yorkshire in July-August 1890. He found the name "Dracula" in a dull book about Wallachia and Moldovia written by a retired diplomat, shelved in Whitby's Museum and Subscription Library. Between Summer 1890 and Summer 1896, and between several major writing assignments including three other novels, he methodically worked on the longest piece of work he had ever undertaken: he worked in the British Museum, on summer holidays along the Buchan coast of Scotland, on tour with the Irving Company and at home in Chelsea. The form of Dracula matched the fragmentary way in which the book was assembled: a collection of letters, diary and journal entries, press cuttings, transcribed phonograph recordingsthe documents in the case, from the points of view of all the main characters except the Count himself. At the very last minute, Stoker sensibly changed the novel's title from "The Un-Dead" to Dracula.
When Bram Stoker died in 1912 (leaving just £4,723), not a single newspaper obituary mentioned Dracula by name: today, the obituaries would mention little else. In the intervening century, and especially since the 1970s, the literary-critical context of Dracula has shape-shifted beyond all recognition.
Maurice Richardson famously called the text: "...a kind of incestuous, necrophilious, oral-anal-sadistic all-in wrestling match." Others have more recently related it to civilization and its discontents, the return of the repressed, sex from the neck up, homo-eroticism, bisexuality and gender bending; reverse colonialism (the East getting its own back on the West) and a cosmic racial conflict between modern Anglo-Saxon stock and the 1,400-year-old bloodline of Attila the Hun; hysteria, the empowerment of women, the disempowerment of women; the sense of displacement of a middle-class Protestant Dubliner, complete with retreat into the occult, crumbling aristocracy and sense of being strangled by red tape. And so on. Dracula contains legions.
Stoker himselfas a straight-down-the-line science graduatewould have been amazed at all this analysis, and at the public discussion of themes which he considered as among the great unmentionables: one reason why he was so very frightened by his dream in the first place. He would have been equally amazed at Dracula's assured status as a literary classic, its continuation in print all over the world and its pivotal place within popular culture. He listed as his recreation in Who's Who "pretty much the same as those of the other children of Adam." The ambiguities of that Whitman-inspired statement, when read over a century later, combined with Stoker's determination to appear so very conventional, are part of the novel's continuing appeal.
Christopher Frayling is Rector of London's Royal College of Art and Professor of Cultural History there. A well-known historian, he is also a critic and an award-winning broadcaster on British radio and TV. He was knighted in 2001. His many books include Vampyres: Lord Byron to Count Dracula (1991) and Nightmare: The Birth of Horror (1996).
read more »
« back to essays