DRACULA

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Author: Bram Stoker (1847–1912)
Publisher: Wordsworth (2000 edition)
Bought from: Book Depository

Introduction

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.

Themes

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.

Finally …

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.

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DR JEKYLL AND MR HYDE

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Author: Robert Louis Stevenson (1850–1894)
Publisher: Wordsworth Classics (1999 edition)
Bought from: Book Depository

Introduction

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 published in 1818, towards 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).

Robert Louis Balfour Stevenson was a Scottish writer. His most famous works are Treasure Island (1883), Kidnapped (1886) and Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886). The first two titles were written for young readers and are generally considered today as classic children literature. However Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, a novella originally published as Strange Tale of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, was intended for mature readers. It was very well received when first published and continues to be widely read and frequently adapted for both big and small screens. It was included in a list of the 100 greatest novels of all time published by the Observer (2003).

What is the story about?

Like his predecessor Dr Victor Frankenstein, Dr Jekyll was a man of science. While Frankenstein created life externally, Jekyll unleashed the dark side from within. In both cases, tragic consequences ensued.

Themes

The Victorian Age was characterised by high and strict moral standards, conformity, prudishness and sexual repression (what is now known as, sometimes derisively, Victorian Morality). Yet, it was also a time of truly transformational developments in many areas, including science. Charles Darwin had rocked the scientific world with his description of evolution through natural selection in his book On the Origin of Species (1859). But a sense of pessimism pervading the fin de siècle gave rise to the realisation that evolution is not a one-way street. Building on Darwin’s work but without knowledge of molecular genetics, biologists applied the idea of atavism to the recurrence in a organism of certain primitive characteristics that were present in an ancestor but have not occurred in intermediate generations. Jekyll is the archetypical ‘evolutionary throwback’ described by atavism.

The great leaps in science and technology created tension in a society struggling to reconcile the modern world with centuries-old religious beliefs. There were suspicions about the practice of science without a moral compass, about scientists playing God. Jekyll and Hyde is a parable of the peril of science unfettered by morals and Dr Jekyll is the stereotypical mad scientist, like his predecessor Mary Shelley’s Victor Frankenstein (1818).

The central premise in Jekyll and Hyde is the notion that a man’s psyche or soul is made up of different parts. This is an idea that has been around for ages. Plato (c 427–347 BCE) argued in Phaedrus and Republic (both c 380–370 BCE) that the human sole is made up of three elements, namely logos or reason (rational judgment of what is good), eros or appetite (desires for the pleasure of food, sex, money and other gratification) and thymos or spirit (positive emotions such as righteous indignation etc). In Plato’s conception, the virtuous man is one whose reason, allied with spirit, holds appetite in check. More than 2,300 years later, Sigmund Freud (1836–1939) would develop his own model in Beyond the Pleasure Principle (1920) and The Ego and The Id (1923). According to Freud, the id is man’s basic instincts in particular his sexual and aggressive drives, the super-ego his conscience and the ego the regulator of the often-opposite pull of the other two elements.

Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde can be read as an allegory in a number of ways. Some scholars even say that the dualism in the novella represents the Edinburg where Stevenson lived.

How is the book?

This is a complete and unabridged Wordsworth Classics edition. It comes with an introduction and brief notes written by Tim Middleton, University College of Ripon and York. The novella is in the public domain and should be read on-line. This Wordsworth Classics edition, costing S$3.71, is not worth it.

FRANKENSTEIN

Frankenstein

Author: Mary Shelley (1797–1851)
Publisher: Wordsworth Editions Limited (1999 edition)
Bought from: Book Depository

Introduction

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 published in 1818, at the end of the Romantic period (c 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 (c 1837 – 1901).

Mary Shelley née Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin was born in London. Her father William Godwin was an early supporter of anarchism, a school of thought that argued for stateless societies. Her mother Mary Wollstonecraft was an advocate of women’s rights and her treatise A Vindication of the Rights of Women (1792) is still studied today. Like many privileged children of that era, Mary Shelley was educated at home. In 1814, before she was even 17, she eloped to mainland Europe with the then-married poet Percy Bysshe Shelley with her step-sister Claire in tow. The following year, Mary gave birth to a premature baby who died after 2 weeks. According to some sources, Percy ignored his baby and went off with Claire. Later reconciled, the three continued on their travels. It was in the village of Cologny near Lake Geneva in 1816 that Mary apparently first conceived the story that would evolve into Frankenstein. She was only 18 years old. Frankenstein: or, The Modern Prometheus was first published anonymously in 1818 with a preface written by Percy Bysshe Shelley followed by a second edition naming Mary as author in 1823. A revised edition in one volume and including an Introduction written by Mary was published in 1831.

Mary wrote a number of novels, short stories and travelogues but Frankenstein has eclipsed them all. The novel was included in the Observer’s pick of the 100 Greatest Novels of All Time (2003). It is sometimes considered the first science fiction novel ever published.

What is the story about?

Victor Frankenstein created life and then discarded it, leading to ruinous consequences for his loved ones and ultimately himself.

Themes etc

Dr Siv Jansson’s introduction is useful, surveying the literary and scientific influences on the novel. The influence of the Prometheus myth is clear, as suggested from the secondary title of the novel itself. John Milton’s Paradise Lost is also a strong influence. The monster actually read a copy of the poem and considered Satan as an emblem of his being: “for often, like him, when I viewed the bliss of my protectors, the bitter gall of envy rose within me” (p. 100). When he came face to face with his maker, he said: “Remember, that I am thy creature; I ought to be thy Adam; but I am rather the fallen angel, whom thou drivest from joy for no misdeed” (p 77-8). Frankenstein himself also drew a parallel between himself to Milton’s Satan: “… like the archangel who aspired to omnipotence, I am chained in an eternal hell” (p. 161).

Victor Frankenstein is literature’s archetypical mad scientist, paving the way for Robert Louise Stevenson’s Dr Jeykll (1886) and H. G. Wells’ Dr Moreau (1896) and the Invisible Man (1897). Frankenstein played God and paid the price.

Frankenstein: or, The Modern Prometheus is a tale of hubris and revenge. But who is the real monster — the monster or his maker Victor Frankenstein?

How is the book?

This is a complete and unabridged Wordsworth Classics reproduction of the 1831 edition. It contains Mary’s introduction for that edition as well as Percy Bysshe Shelley’s preface for the first edition. It also comes with an introduction and brief notes written by Dr Siv Jansson, University of Greenwich. Frankenstein is in the public domain. But this Wordsworth Classics edition, costing only S$3.88, is attractively priced.

Finally …

This is a short novel, very talky (Frankenstein’s monster is surprisingly articulate for those of us only more familiar with the movie adaptations) and all the violence take place offstage.

Et cetera

The origin of Frankenstein is a story in itself. In April 1815, Mount Tambora on the island of Sumbawa, Indonesia erupted. It was one of the most powerful volcanic eruptions ever recorded and led to a pronounced drop in average global temperatures, other climate abnormalities and crop failures across the world. In June of 1816 (the Year Without Summer), Mary Shelley, Percy Bysshe Shelley and their friends were confined indoors by rain. They decided to hold a contest to see who could come up with the scariest story. Frankenstein sprang from Mary Shelley. Some years later, John Polidori (1795–1821) who was present at the gathering, published a novella titled The Vampyre (1819), which is considered the forerunner of vampire fiction.

WAR AND PEACE

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Author: Leo Tolstoy (1828 – 1910)
Translator: Louise and Aylmer Maude
Publisher: Wordsworth Classics (2001 edition)
Bought from: NoQ Store

Introduction

Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy, more popularly known as Leo Tolstoy, is one of the giants of Russian literature. His parents, both members of Russian nobility, died when he was small and he was brought up by relatives. In 1851, he joined the Russian army and fought in the Crimean War (1848 – 1856). His experience in the war greatly influenced his writings as did the time he spent in Europe (1857 and 1860–1). His most famous novels are War and Peace (1869) and Anna Karenina (1877). In his later years, Tolstoy became a moral and religious thinker, espousing non-violent resistance.

Tolstoy began writing War and Peace some 60 years after the historical events it was based on. It was part historical fiction, part romance, interwoven with Tolstoy’s ruminations on history, and war and peace. War and Peace was voted number 20 in a poll of the 100 best-loved novels conducted by the BBC’s Big Read in 2003.

What is the story about?

The epic is set between 1805 and 1820 against the backdrop of Napoleon’s invasion of Russia. We follow the lives of members of 5 Russian aristocrat families in war and in peace. Natalya (Natasha) Rostova is the emotional core of the story, touching the lives of major characters such as protagonists like Pierre Bezukhov and Andrei (Andrew) Bolkonsky and villains like the siblings Helene and Anatole Kuragin. Historical figures, such as Alexander I (Tsar of Russia) and Napoleon (Emperor of France), appear in the story.

Themes

In 19th century Russia, there was a struggle between two schools of thought for influence amongst Russian intellectuals. One school embraced the Western European culture and philosophy that first arrived in Russia during the reign of Tsar Peter the Great (1682 – 1725). The other school, called Slavophilism, emerged in the 19th century as a rejection of Westernism in favour of traditional Russian Orthodox values. The clash between these two ideologies spilled into Russian literature of that period, for example in works by Ivan Tugenev (a Westerner) and Dostoevsky (a Slavophile). In War and Peace, the West represented by Napoleon was ultimately defeated by Russian spiritualism as embodied in Platon Karataev.

The Napoleonic invasion of Russia was a monumental event in European history. Napoleon’s defeat burst the myth of his invincibility. For the Russians, victory over the French boosted their sense of patriotism. The 1812 Overture was written by Russian composer Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840 – 1893) in 1880 to commemorate the Russian victory.

Victory against Napoleon also strengthened ordinary Russians’ desire for modernization and pitted them against the increasingly dictatorial Romanov monarchy. In the 1825 Decembrist Uprising, army officers (including many who fought in the Napoleonic wars) rose up but was crushed by Tsar Nicholas I. Tsar Nicholas II was not so fortunate: the 1917 February Revolution ended with his abdication and the fall of the Romanov Dynasty.

Tolstoy inserted into the book his thoughts on history and war, in particular his criticism of the Great Man Theory. This theory was popularised by the 19th century Scottish historian Thomas Carlyle who wrote: “The history of the world is but the biography of great men”. Tolstoy rebutted this:

The actions of Napoleon and Alexander, on whose words the events seem to hand, were as little voluntary as the actions of any soldier who was drawn into the campaign by lot or by conscription. This could not be otherwise, for in order that the will of Napoleon and Alexander (on whom the event seemed to depend) should be carried out, the concurrence of innumerable circumstances was needed without anyone of which the event could not have taken place. It was necessary that millions of men in whose hands lay the real power – the soldiers who fired, or transported provisions and guns – should consent to carry out the will of these weak individuals, and should have been induced to do so by an infinite number of diverse and complex causes … A king is history’s slave.
(p 478–9)

How is the book?

This is a complete and unabridged reprint of the 1920 translation by Louise (1855 – 1939) and Aylmer Maude (1858 – 1938). The Maudes met and got married in Russia and lived there for a number of years. They were friends with Tolstoy and Aylmer wrote a biography of Tolstoy.

Tolstoy’s works are in the public domain. But this Wordsworth Classics edition, costing only S$3.58, is attractively priced. It comes with an introduction and useful notes written by Henry and Olga Claridge of University of Keny at Canterbury. It is a hefty 994 pages with very small print.

Finally …

Tolstoy’s digressions are very dense and make the book difficult to read.