Racism, misogyny, sexual anxiety

Wed, Apr 18, 2012, 01:00

THE THEMES:LET’S BE HONEST. As a novel, Dracula is no great shakes. Parts of it are compelling and it has a few memorable set pieces, but it also has no shortage of long-winded detours in which very little happens, plus several superfluous and unmemorable characters, and the ending is a bit of a shambles.

So why does it continue to exert such a fascination a century after its creator’s death?

A good argument can be made that all the great genres of our popular culture – the murder mystery, the Western, science fiction and so on – were forged in the late 19th century, at the moment when widespread literacy and industrialised mechanical reproduction came together in the English-speaking world for the first time to create the modern entertainment industry.

This was the era that saw the coining of terms such as “potboiler”, “penny dreadful” and “yellow press”. The phrases may have gone out of fashion, but the forms they describe are still with us. Like the restless undead, the Victorian imagination and sensibility still walk among us.

Certainly, the 21st-century understanding of these genres has mutated under waves of interpretations and revisions. But from modernism to surrealism to high camp to postmodernism; from feminism to postfeminism and back; from film to graphic novel to TV series to video game, the tropes themselves have endured remarkably well.

Perhaps it’s because of the vividness of that first explosion of mass culture or maybe it’s due to the rich peculiarities and sheer oddness of the Victorian mind. Or it could just be that, if you strip it all back, we’re still living in the aesthetic universe created more than a century ago by writers such as Bram Stoker.

The themes running through Dracula – deep unease about female sexuality, fear for the future of the nation and fascination mingled with revulsion at anything exotic or foreign – seem to work as well for the 21st century as they did for the 19th.

The Transylvanian tourism industry has reason to thank Stoker for his benevolence in locating the count’s home in what is now that region of Romania.

Although the author was a little vague about the count’s origins – it’s suggested that he may be a Hungarian Székely, then that he’s actually the 15th-century warrior king Vlad the Impaler – the image of the remote, wolf-ridden Carpathian Mountains, where evil lives in a forbidding castle, has lodged firmly in the popular consciousness.

Few readers will be bothered that Stoker didn’t know his Wallachians from his Transylvanians.

In the 18th century, there had been a fascination with stories of vampirism from the Balkans; these found their way into the writings of Goethe, Shelley, Coleridge and Byron.

It was Byron’s physician, John Polidori, who elaborated on a fragment of writing by his patient to create The Vampyre, which went on to influence later works on a similar theme by Rymer and Le Fanu.

In these and in most other 19th-century vampire stories, the blood-sucking villain is usually a decadent member of the local gentry rather than an eastern European. And increasingly the image of the vampire

became associated with economic exploitation.

In Das Kapital, Marx repeatedly refers to capital as a vampire, “capable at once to suck living labour out of the workers and to transform them in an integral part of itself”.

By returning the myth to the Balkans, Stoker added an essential dash of the exotic to the mix. Southeastern Europe occupied a prominent place in the late Victorian consciousness, much as the Middle East does today.

As the home of the various peoples who had emerged from centuries of Ottoman domination over the course of the 19th century became the focus of international geopolitics, the public imagination was seized by stories of noble boyars fighting for their freedom against the cruel Turk.

More troubling is the suggestion that the novel is a not-too-subtly-coded anti-Semitic tract. When he slips ashore at Whitby in the guise of a dog, the count is, after all, an illegal immigrant.

The largest influx of immigrants into Britain in the final two decades of the 19th century was of Jews from eastern Europe. The physical descriptions of Dracula in the novel conform closely to the stereotype of the evil Jew in other literature.

The metaphor of the Jew as bloodsucker was a commonplace in respectable society. The financier Melmotte in Anthony Trollope’s The Way We Live Now is characterised as a parasite “fed with the blood of widows and children”. In 1891, the Rothschild family was described in one British newspaper as “leeches that have for years hung on with distended suckers to the body politic of Europe”.

Anti-Semitism was widespread and socially acceptable at the end of the 19th century and racial decline was a widespread concern in Britain.

Bolstered by the racist pseudosciences of social Darwinism and eugenics, it gave credence to concepts such as purity of blood and race, which a few decades later were to lead directly to the Holocaust.

The fact that, in Transylvania, Dracula and his fellow vampires survive on the blood of local peasant children sounds very like the blood libel alleging that Jews drank Christian children’s blood in their religious ceremonies. His hoarding of gold reflects one of the most longstanding anti-Semitic prejudices.

As the novel progresses, the vampires are increasingly likened to disease-carrying vermin; the heroes sterilise Dracula’s nests around London, then pursue him eastwards to his original lair, to stamp out the pestilence once and for all.

You don’t need to be an expert in the foulest outpourings of European anti-Semitism to spot the connections.

Is Stoker using coded language? It might be fairer to argue that he was drawing on the profoundest psychosexual fears of his time and place, and that hatred of Jews was an important part of that, along with fear of syphilis and other sexually-transmitted diseases.

The novel is riddled with sexual anxiety; the way in which horror and desire are intertwined is surely the main reason it has remained so popular.

Female sexual appetite is depicted as wrong and as terrifying, whether from the vampires or the humans.

“He is young and strong; there are kisses for us all,” screams one of the vampire brides as she descends on the unfortunate Jonathan Harker. Later, Lucy Westenra longs for multiple partners. “Why can’t they let a girl marry three men, or as many as want her . . .?” she asks. And we know what happens to Lucy, like thousands of other sexually adventurous women in horror stories that followed.

So, an indifferently written, racist, woman-hating fantasy about sexual disease, decay and not-quite-death. It’s no surprise that Dracula has become one of the most influential fictions of modern times.

Stoker’s genius lay in tapping into the most deep-seated and morbid fears of his age and turning them into a fairy story for grown-ups. It would surely surprise him and his contemporaries that, all these years later, we’re still in thrall to his fanged creation.