Bram Stoker: a century in the shadows

 

THE MAN:HE WAS BORN INTO a middle-class Church of Ireland household in Marino Crescent in Clontarf. He studied maths at Trinity College and got a job in the Civil Service. It was, in many ways, the most conventional of lives, but from the mind of this conscientious civil servant came one of the creepiest classics of the horror canon.

For biographers of Bram Stoker, it’s a seductive narrative arc: from umbrella-wielding bureaucrat to the creator of Dracula. The title of his first book, The Duties of Clerks of Petty Sessions in Ireland, lends support to the story.

The outwardly conventional Stoker had, however, cultivated a richly unconventional inner life from his earliest years. The third of seven children, he was a sickly child, unable to walk unsupported until the age of seven. His Donegal-born mother – a writer herself and part-time charity worker – spent a good deal of time with her bedridden baby, reading to him and telling him stories.

“I was naturally thoughtful, and the leisure of long illness gave opportunity for many thoughts which were fruitful according to their kind in later years,” was Stoker’s characteristically dry summary of this time in his life.

Having attended a private school run by the Rev William Woods, Stoker went to Trinity – where he promptly caught the theatre bug. He began writing pieces of theatre criticism for the Dublin Evening Mail. The paper was co-owned by Gothic writer Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu, which may or may not have played a part in encouraging the young reviewer to take an interest in ghostly goings-on of the literary kind.

In the winter of 1876, Stoker attended a performance of Hamlet at the Theatre Royal in Dublin, giving a good review to the lead actor, Henry Irving. He met Irving shortly afterwards. Oh, to have been a fly on the wall; their meeting inspired Stoker to move to London where he dedicated the rest of his life to Irving, working as his personal assistant and then, until his death, 100 years ago on Friday, as general manager of the Lyceum Theatre.

The intensity and longevity of this friendship – as well as what some critics see as the homoerotic undertones of Dracula – have prompted much speculation about Stoker’s sexuality. The fact he married an actor called Florence Balcombe, with whom he had a child, Irving Noel Thornley Stoker, simply adds fuel to these interpretative flames, because Balcombe’s boyfriend before Stoker had been none other than Oscar Wilde.

Stoker was part of the Wilde family circle and, while a student at Trinity, spent Christmas at their home. Yet after Wilde was jailed for homosexual offences, Stoker removed all mention of him from his personal papers – including his autobiography. While some of Wilde’s friends came to his defence, Stoker stayed quiet. Dracula was written just a month after Wilde was sent to jail, and one critical theory suggests the book was written as a way of expressing Stoker’s inner pain over the trial, and Wilde’s subsequent social lynching.

All of which may, of course, just be the spurious wisdom of hindsight – or critical over-heating. During Stoker’s lifetime, homosexuality was so far off the cultural radar the word didn’t even exist. The term “sexual inversion” was used instead, and it was considered not only sinful but also, as Wilde’s appalling treatment shows all too clearly, criminal.

Certainly, Stoker was not made of the same flamboyant social stuff as Wilde. He was so private that we know little of his life: he was a liberal monarchist who believed in Home Rule for Ireland within the benign family of the British Empire; he was an admirer of the Liberal politician William Ewart Gladstone. There is a story about him rescuing a drowning man from the River Thames. The man ended up dying on Stoker’s kitchen table – to the irritation, we are told, of Stoker’s wife.

In recent years several bits and pieces of Stoker memorabilia have turned up that add tantalising glimpses that add to this oddly blurry biographical picture. In October last year a notebook dating from his student days was found by Stoker’s great-grandson Noel Dobbs, in an attic on the Isle of Wight. In the early 1980s a typed manuscript of Dracula was found in a barn in northwest Pennsylvania, revealing that its original title was The Undead. But while these nuggets of archive material prompt plenty of questions about the author’s life, they provide strikingly few answers.

Part of the problem may be that we tend, nowadays, to see Stoker’s life through a Dracula-shaped lens. But the vampire stories were just a small part of a total oeuvre of 18 books that ran the gamut of commercial fiction from chick-lit through “tombs of the Egyptian mummy” adventures to something resembling sci-fi.

The Primrose Path, Stoker’s first book, follows a Dublin carpenter who moves to London with his wife, works in a theatre and dies of drink. The Shoulder of Shasta is a romance set in northern California in which an English heiress falls for a bear hunter by the name of Grizzly Dick.

Few, if any, of these works have been revived or rediscovered because of the continued success of Dracula. Nobody clamours for the reissue of Miss Betty or Lady Athlyne. If his complete works were read nowadays, the works of Bram Stoker might be filed on the pink shelves rather than the black ones.

A fate worse than undeath?

Getting it in the neck? What the reviewers - and Conan Doyle - said

It would be gratifying to be able to report the critics dismissed Dracula when the book appeared in May 1897, published by Constable in the UK, Hutchinson in the colonies and Doubleday in the US. In fact, the novel got a mixed but generally positive reception – aided, no doubt, by the 50-year-old author’s prominence on the London literary scene.

“We started reading it early in the evening,” reported that bastion of British moral philosophy the Daily Mail. “By ten o’clock the story had so fastened itself upon our attention that we could not pause even to light our pipe”. Country Life took a suitably down-to-earth line. “Vampirism,” the reviewer wrote, “is like hydrophobia, but worse, and the short way of dealing with vampires is to destroy them.”

One grumpy response comes from the literary magazine the Athenaeum. “Dracula is highly sensational, but it is wanting in the constructive art as well as in the higher literary sense,” it declares. “It reads at times like a mere series of grotesquely incredible events; but there are better moments that show more power, though even these are never productive of the tremor such subjects evoke under the hand of a master. An immense amount of energy, a certain degree of imaginative faculty, and many ingenious and gruesome details are there. At times Mr Stoker almost succeeds in creating the sense of possibility in impossibility; at others he merely commands an array of crude statements of incredible actions.”

As a theatre manager and former reviewer himself, Stoker was, one imagines, sanguine about these pronouncements. He was more likely to have treasured the note he received from the creator of Sherlock Holmes on August 20th, 1897:

“My dear Bram Stoker, I am sure that you will not think it an impertinence if I write to tell you how very much I have enjoyed reading Dracula. I think it is the very best story of diablerie which I have read for many years. It is really wonderful how with so much exciting interest over so long a book there is never an anticlimax. It holds you from the very start and grows more and more engrossing until it is quite painfully vivid. The old Professor is most excellent and so are the two girls. I congratulate you with all my heart for having written so fine a book.

“With all kindest remembrances to Mrs Bram Stoker yourself.

“Your very truly, A Conan Doyle”