Author: Bram Stoker (1847–1912)
Publisher: Wordsworth (2000 edition)
Bought from: Book Depository
One of the highlights of 19th century English literature is the publication of three horror masterpieces that have remained influential until today. The first is Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818), published at the end of the Romantic period (1798 – 1837). The other two, Robert Louise Stevenson’s Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886) and Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897), were written during the Victorian period (1837 – 1901).
Bram (short for Abraham) Stoker was born in Ireland. After graduating with a BA in Mathematics from Trinity College, Dublin (1870), Stoker worked as a civil servant and free lance drama critic. He became a close friend and later personal manager of Henry Irving (one of the most famous actors of that era). In 1878, he married Florence Balcombe, who was then being courted by his friend Oscar Wilde. Stoker and his new bride moved to London where he managed Irving’s Lyceum Theatre in London’s West End from 1878 to 1905. In London, Stoker moved in the same circle as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Lord Tennyson as well as Oscar Wilde. Stoker wrote most of his novels after he arrived in London. Stoker never visited Transylvania, home of Count Dracula.
Dracula (1897) is his most famous work. Stories about vampires (creatures who feed on the blood of living beings) are as old as civilisation itself. Vampire literature first appeared in the late 1700s. One of the first stories in this genre, John Polidori’s novella The Vampyre (1819), originated in the famous ghost story contest in 1816 which also gave rise to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. The next major vampire story was Irish writer Sheridan Le Fanu’s novella Carmilla (1872) with a lesbian vampire. But it is Bram Stoker who created the definitive character and legend which have endured to this present day.
Stoker wrote Dracula in the form of a epistolary novel, a format that was popular during that period and used for example by Wilkie Collins in The Woman in White (1860) and The Moonstone (1868).
What is the story about?
The story will be familiar even to someone who has not read the novel. Count Dracula left Transylvania for London “where, perhaps for centuries to come, he might, amongst its teeming millions, satiate his lust for blood, and create a new and ever-widening circle of semi-demons to batten on the helpless” (p. 45). He corrupted Lucy Westenra and tried to do the same to Mina Harker née Murray. Abraham Van Helsing led a group of men to foil Dracula’s plans.
The Victorian Period was a time of male-dominated morality where ladies were expected to be submissive and virtuous. Yet, it was also characterised by truly transformational developments in many areas, including science (Darwin, etc), medicine (chloroform, antiseptics, etc) and technology (phonograph! typewriter!). The British Empire was at the height of its power but at home The Irish Question was proving to be a thorn in its flesh. As a result of the Industrial Revolution, a middle class of merchants, industrialists and professionals was emerging to challenge the aristocracy’s monopoly over wealth and political power.
In Dracula, every woman who was openly sexual (the term “voluptuous” was often used to describe both Dracula’s brides as well as Lucy Westenra) was an abomination that could only be redeemed by a stake driven by a man through her heart. Some critics detect a homoerotic undercurrent in Dracula (for example between Dracula and Jonathan Harker) perhaps reflecting Stoker’s repressed feelings for Henry Irving. It is striking that Stoker must have written part of Dracula at the time Oscar Wilde was famously tried and ultimately convicted for “gross indecency” in 1895.
The conflict between Dracula and Van Helsing’s men can be seen as a class struggle between an evil member of the upper class (a literal blood-sucker) and upright members of the middle class. It is a also a representation of the clash between science and superstition. Last but not least it is an example of the archetypical battle between good and evil.
England during the fin de siècle was marked by the apogee of British imperialism and ironically also by a deep fear of reverse colonialism. The latter gave rise to invasion fiction, the most famous of which was H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds (1898). Dracula can be considered as an example of this genre. But what invader did Dracula represent? On the surface, he could be a proxy for any Continental European. Looking deeper, though, he could have stood for a Jew (given the obvious connections with blood as well as Stoker’s description of his physical features and love of gold). It is also possible that Stoker, an Irishman, conceived of Dracula as a grotesque representation of the English who was then ruling the whole of Ireland from Westminster.
A modern reader may find parallels between vampirism (spread through penetration of the body and exchange of bodily fluid) with sexually-transmitted diseases like AIDS.
How is the book?
This is a complete and unabridged edition under the Wordsworth Classics imprint. It comes with an introduction and brief notes written by David Rogers, Kingston University. This novel is in the public domain but this Wordsworth Classics edition costs only S$3.96.
The language is surprisingly modern. Page-turner. Easy read. The Francis Ford Coppola movie Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992) is a fairly faithful adaptation. It did away with characters like Mrs Westenra and Mr Swales but added a connection between Dracula and Mina that is not in the novel.