Selected products from Bram Stoker
Abraham Stoker was born at 15 Marino Crescent, Dublin, on the 8th of November 1847. Both his parents were Irish, his father Abraham Stoker (1799-1876) from Dublin and his mother Charlotte Mathilda Blake Thornley (1818-1901) from County Sligo. He was raised as a Protestant in the Church of Ireland. He had six siblings, the eldest of whom was Sir William Thornley Stoker, who became an eminent medical writer and surgeon. Both parents belonged to the Church of Ireland Parish of Clontarf and the children regularly attended mass with their parents, and were all baptised there. Stoker was ill from birth until the age of seven when he started his schooling at a price school run by the Reverend William Woods. He was often bedridden for long periods of time but went on to make a complete recovery while at school, though it was never established quite what he had suffered from. He credited his long periods of illness as key to the formation of his contemplative mind, stating “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”.
Having overcome his childhood illness Stoker went on to find athletic prowess while at Trinity College, Dublin (1864-1870), where he was named University Athlete while studying for a B.A. in Mathematics, which he achieved with honours. As auditor of the College Historical Society, one of Trinity College’s two debating societies, he oversaw the operation of arguably the oldest University society in the world. Meanwhile he acted as President of the University Philosophical Society, writing his first paper on “Sensationalism in Fiction and Society”. One of Stoker’s more notable actions as President was to propose membership for Oscar Wilde, then a young student at the college. The two maintained a respectful acquaintance throughout their lives. He found an interest in theatre during his time as a student through his friend Dr. Maunsell which led him to becoming the Dublin Evening Mail’s theatre critic. One of the paper’s co-owners was Sheridan Le Fanu, a famous author of Gothic short stories. Around this time Stoker began writing short stories and his first, The Crystal Cup, was published in 1872. Meanwhile he was developing an interest in art, and in 1874 co-founded the Dublin Sketching Club.
Though theatre critics were generally held in ill repute, Stoker gained notoriety for the quality of writing in his reviews themselves. One such review, of Henry Irving’s 1876 Hamlet at the Theatre Royal in Dublin, attracted the attention of Irving himself and with it an invitation to dinner at the Shelbourne Hotel, where Irving was staying. The two became friends. Stoker continued his writing and followed The Crystal Cup with The Chain of Destiny in four parts which was published in The Shamrock in 1875. Stoker’s acquaintanceship with Oscar Wilde led to his introduction to Florence Balcombe, the daughter of Lieutenant-Colonel James Balcombe, who was widely celebrated for her beauty and had been one of Wilde’s former lovers. The two became fond of each other and were eventually married in Dublin in 1878. Though this union upset Wilde and put strain upon his and Stoker’s relationship, Stoker eventually settled things and went on to visit Wilde on the Continent after his public ordeal, incarceration and loss of reputation.
In 1879, having struck up a strong relationship with Henry Irving which began with his review of Irving’s Hamlet, Stoker took up a position as acting manager at Irving’s Lyceum Theatre in London, which required that he and his wife move to London permanently. He proved adept at running the theatre, introducing a number of innovative practices such as seat-numbering, advertising a full season and selling advance tickets. The theatre thrived and his performance in the role ensured that he was soon promoted to business manager, a position which he would hold for the next twenty seven years. Irving was arguably the most famous actor of the decade, and his theatre certainly the busiest, meaning Stoker was both highly influential within artistic circles, and very busy. Nonetheless Stoker meanwhile embarked on non-fiction work, publishing The Duties of Clerks of Petty Sessions in Ireland in 1879. His and Florence’s first and only child, Irving Noel Thornley Stoker, was born on the 31st of December of that year. Through Irving, Stoker was able to ingratiate himself with London’s higher society, becoming acquainted with, amongst others, the famous and celebrated painter James Abbot McNeill Whistler and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. He also met Hall Caine, with whom he struck up a very close friendship, and to whom his most famous work, Dracula, is dedicated. It is clear from Stoker's memoirs that he held Irving in extremely high regard, perhaps to the extent of idolisation.
Irving toured the world with his theatre, and often took Stoker with him as a friend, confidant and tour manager. Though Stoker travelled widely, he never actually visited Eastern Europe, where he Dracula is famously set. Irving’s popularity in the United States saw their invitation to the White House on two occasions, and Stoker wrote fondly of his time in America. Indeed, Quincey Morris, Dracula’s protagonist, is an American. He personally knew both William McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt, and was able to meet another of his artistic idols, Walt Whitman.
Though kept busy by his duties at the theatre, Stoker was able to continue to satisfy his interest in travel and, in 1890, paid the visit to the English town of Whitby which is part-credited as the inspiration for Dracula. Though he conceived of the idea, it was not until 1897 that the book would be published, and Stoker wrote and published other works before then. The first of these was The Snake’s Pass in 1890, followed by The Watter’s Mou’ and The Shoulder of Shasta, both in 1895.
These earlier novels clearly served as a practice ground in which Stoker perfected his narrative style and voice; indeed, he deals with various themes which reoccur in a much more nuanced fashion in Dracula, and none of them were met with particularly favourable reviews. During his earlier forays into a career as an author he became a member of The Daily Telegraph’s London-based literary staff, where he continued work as a critic and honed his own writing skill.
Key to the conception of Dracula is Stoker’s encountering Ármin Vámbéry, a Hungarian writer and traveller, who wrote dark horror stories set in the Carpathian mountains. Clearly intrigued by the landscape and peasant culture presented by these stories, Stoker developed a fascination with the area which saw him conducting extensive research into European folklore and vampiric myth.
Dracula takes the form of an epistolary novel, comprising a collection of diary entries, newspaper articles and other similar disparate pieces of writing which, when compiled in a narrative form, afford the story an added dimension of realism. The form itself had been in consistent use for over three hundred years as a narrative mode. So prevalent was it that it had attracted the parody, not just of whichever story happened to employ it, but of the form itself. The most notable example of this is Henry Fielding’s 1741 novel Shamela, parodying Pamela, Samuel Richardson’s 1740 epistolary novel. Fielding addresses the unlikelihood of his protagonist managing to meticulously diarise her increasingly improbable and farcical experiences while they are still ongoing. Pamela is an example of a monologic novel, written in just one character’s voice. This was the earliest form of epistolary novel, and it evolved to dialogic, with two voices, and finally polylogic, containing three or more voices. Dracula belongs to this final category, avoiding the absurdity highlighted by Fielding and others by not relying on a protagonist capable of writing his diary while he fends off evil.
By the time Stoker wrote Dracula, he had learnt a wide enough variety of writing styles through his work as an essayist, a writer of non-fiction, a journalist, and critic and a novelist that he was able to write this breadth into Dracula with strong authority. It was quickly accepted into the canon of horror writing as a “straightforward horror novel” which “gave form to a universal fantasy … and became a part of popular culture”. Though “straightforward” indicates the novel’s simple purpose as a horror novel and does not remark on the complexity of the novel itself, it also disregards a clear social influence on the narrative. By the 1880s and 90s invasion literature was in incredibly high popular demand, reflecting the fragile state of the British Empire in the face of European economic and military development. Increasing hostility between the Empire and her European colonies brought with it a nervousness in the face of invasion. A popular Victorian superstition was that, while military attention was directed towards trouble in the farther reaches of the Empire, the British Isles would be defenceless and vulnerable. This idea is explored by George Tomkyns Chesney in 1871 in The Battle of Dorking, imagining a surprise German naval invasion for which the British are utterly unprepared. It was extremely popular and served as a springboard for a succession of novels fashioned in its image by authors such as H. G. Wells and Robert Louis Stevenson.
Though it is often referred to as the first vampire novel, there had in fact been several before it, most notably John Polidori’s 1819 The Vampyre which was conceived in the same circumstances as Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, while they were staying on Lake Geneva with Lord Byron. Byron partly inspired Polidori’s vampire as a mysterious, aristocratic man, and Irving in turn inspired Dracula’s elegance and sweeping mannerisms. Stoker intended to adapt his novel for the stage and have Irving play Dracula, though he was never able to see this through. Stoker’s working title for the manuscript was The Dead Un-Dead, later shortened to The Un-Dead. Then, only a couple of weeks before publication, he came across the patronym Drăculea. This was given to the descendants of Vlad II after he had inherited the Romanian word ‘Dracul’ on being invested in the Order of the Dragon. In that context the word means ‘the dragon’ though, by the time Stoker encountered it, had become more commonly translated to ‘the devil’.
Though Stoker was never formally involved in politics he kept strong personal opinions, supporting Home Rule for Ireland, though insistent that it be achieved peacefully. He strongly supported William Ewart Gladstone, then Prime Minister, who saw Home Rule as a reaffirmation of Irish nationalism within the framework of the British Isles and its monarchy, rather than the oppositional, threatening separatist faction that was painted by his Conservative rivals. He observed scientific progress closely, paying particular attention to medicinal development. Alongside this progressive perspective on science he maintained a curiosity about the occult, his interest bourn of a writer’s fascination with rituals and human behaviour. This distinction is important, for he was disgusted by fraud, particularly the use of such practices as mesmerism for fraudulent purposes, condemning superstition in favour of scientific method.
In 1898 Stoker followed Dracula with Miss Betty, though he was unable to sustain Dracula’s popularity. It was four years before his next novel, The Mystery of the Sea (1902), and in that time Stoker was focused on theatre company tours, often in America and, most importantly tho his newest novel, to Cruden Bay in Scotland, where it is set. He had first visited the bay in 1888 with Irving for research purposes. he had since visited on holiday, and was there when he finished Dracula. In 1901 while on holiday he encountered an old woman who, according to the locals, was possessed of supernatural powers, encouraging him to write a short story, The Seer, which he expanded into The Mystery of the Sea. The novel’s protagonist, Archibald Hunter, is often considered to be autobiographical, having endured a sickly infancy and gone on to study law, both details of Stoker’s life. Moreover, the two share similar views on technology and scientific advance. The novel was met with a largely positive critical reception, called “one of those weirdly sensational stories that no living author writes better than Mr. Bram Stoker”. It addresses issues of national identity, race, and femininity, though these more socially-concerned aspects are sometimes overlooked in favour of the novel’s “glowing melodrama”.
In 1902 his tenure at the Lyceum Theatre ended, though his personal friendship with Irving continued until Irving’s death on the 13th October 1905. Stoker went on to publish Personal Reminiscences of Henry Irving in two volumes, celebrating and remembering his close friend and business partner. Stoker went on to act as Production Manager at the Prince of Wales Theatre while continuing to write, completing five more novels including The Lady of the Shroud (1909) and The Lair of the White Worm (1911), his last novel. His health was beginning to deteriorate as he suffered numerous strokes of increasing severity until he died on the 20th of April 1912.
It has been postulated that he suffered from tertiary syphilis, though his death is often attributed to being overworked. Though he had been celebrated as an author during his life, it was only after his death and the enormous popularity which Dracula garnered owing to the 1922 production Nosferatu which, though immensely successful, was produced without permission from Florence, executrix of Stoker’s will and estate. Though she eventually sued the filmmakers, the story had gained such notoriety that it was only a decade before the burgeoning film industry produced an authorised version. Since then Stoker’s name has been held in high repute as an author of thrilling and intense mystery and horror, though for those readers who look further into his bibliography there is a wealth of social commentary and literary brilliance waiting to be explored.