The Real Count Dracula

Extract from new post for the Wordsworth Editions Blog…

When Bram Stoker died after a series of strokes on April 20, 1912, his obituary in The Times made only a single and cursory reference to Dracula noting that ‘He was the master of a particularly lurid and creepy kind of fiction’. The book that we regard as Stoker’s masterpiece, his enduring contribution to global popular culture, is lumped in with his ‘other novels’ (which weren’t very good), his journalism, and an interest in musical comedy. It is his Personal Reminisces of Henry Irving (1906) that is cited as his ‘chief literary memorial’. In fact, the whole obituary is pretty much about the colourful actor Sir Henry Irving, and Stoker’s long association with him as a close friend and business manager: ‘Few men have played the part of fidus Achates to a great personality with more gusto.’ Even in death – Irving had gone to his grave in 1905 – the monolithic presence of the great tragedian completely eclipses the author of Dracula.

Largely forgotten nowadays, Irving was a giant of the Victorian stage; a national treasure to some, a grotesque ham to others, he was a living legend either way who became the first actor ever to be knighted in 1895. Intense and narcissistic, Irving was notoriously demanding and difficult to work with. His frequent collaborator – and sometime lover – Ellen Terry described him as ‘half-devil, half-saint’, and when he died even The Time had to admit that his melodramatic style and tendency to rewrite Shakespeare did not suit all tastes:

In no single case was his own performance universally accepted as even good … Some found his marked mannerisms insuperable obstacles to enjoyment or sympathy; some objected to an actor who, whatever he did or did not, always insisted upon having his own reading of every part and every play.

(George Bernard Shaw described Irving’s interpretation of Hamlet as ‘performing Hamlet with the part of Hamlet omitted’.) These ‘mannerisms’ included wild, emphatic gestures, stentorian diction, and a habit of thunderously stamping his foot on the boards at regular intervals to ensure that all eyes remained on him during the play. At the Lyceum, which he managed from 1878 to 1902, Irving held court like a king, gathering around him the great and the good of London Society for lavish dinners after a performance. His prejudices were many and his whims capricious. Stoker adored him.

Stoker had first seen Irving perform in 1867, inspiring in him a lifelong love of theatre. They later met in Stoker’s native Dublin in 1876. Stoker had written two very favourable reviews of Irving’s Hamlet at the Theatre Royal for the Dublin Evening Mail, and the actor had invited him to dinner. Part of the evening’s entertainment took the form of recitations. Irving chose Thomas Hood’s gothic poem ‘The Dream of Eugene Aram’, which Stoker later described in his Personal Reminisces:

The recitation concluded, Irving ‘collapsed half fainting’. By his own admission Stoker was overcome, writing that, ‘after a few seconds of stony silence following his collapse I burst out into something like a violent fit of hysterics.’ Irving at this point magically recovered and went to his dressing room, returning with an autographed photograph of himself inscribed ‘My dear friend Stoker – God bless you! God bless you!’ According to the actor’s grandson, Laurence Irving, the whole event had been contrived to hook and land Stoker. Irving was by then planning his takeover of the Lyceum from current manager Sidney Frances Bateman, and was assembling his team. Superfan Stoker was being groomed for one of the top slots in the organisation. When Irving took over the Lyceum, the newly married Stoker left Dublin and the Irish Civil Service to become his business manager in London, a post he held until Irving’s death almost thirty years later.

Such was Irving’s commanding force, so great was the magnetism of his genius, so profound was the sense of his dominance that I sat spellbound … That night Irving was inspired. That night for a brief time, in which the rest of the world seemed to sit still, Irving’s genius floated in blazing triumph above the summit of art. There is something in the soul which lifts it above all that has its base in material things. If once only in a lifetime the soul of a man can take wings and sweep for an instant into mortal gaze, then that ‘once’ for Irving was on that, to me, ever memorable night.

Born in the affluent Dublin suburb Clontarf in 1847, Stoker was the epitome of male middle-class Victorian respectability. The son of an Anglo-Irish Civil Servant, Stoker distinguished himself at Trinity College athletically and academically. He was a track and field champion, a capped rugby player, and President of both the Philosophical and Historical Societies, graduating BA in 1870 (he later claimed his degree was in Pure Mathematics but there’s no record of this at the university). He followed in his father’s footsteps and went to work in Dublin Castle as a clerk, quickly rising to become Inspector of Petty Sessions, overseeing magistrates’ courts across Ireland. He made a good marriage in 1878, stealing the twenty-year-old beauty Florence Balcombe away from his university friend Oscar Wilde, to whom she had been engaged. The couple had one child, Noel, born a year later. He also wrote, contributing reviews and the occasional short story to the Dublin Evening Mail, the Halfpenny Press (which he also edited for a time), and the Shamrock. His first book was The Duties of Clerks of Petty Sessions in Ireland, published in 1879, which is exactly what it sounds like. This was followed in 1881 by Under the Sunset, a collection of children’s stories, suggesting, as did his voluntary and hobbyist journalism, that there was an imagination in there somewhere, vying with the meticulous bureaucrat.

But it was the meticulous bureaucrat that Irving had wanted, and Stoker took over all his affairs, managing his accounts, his correspondence, the theatre and its staff, advertising, tours (domestic and international), and bookings. The needs of his family, meanwhile, were always subordinate to Irving’s schedule and the requirement that he be forever ‘on call’. Being at the head of Irving’s otherwise fluid entourage (it was very easy to fall out of favour), Stoker became an intimate of many of the leading figures of his day, such as Gladstone, Conan Doyle (who admired Stoker’s fiction), W. B. Yeats, George Moore, Sir Richard Burton, David Livingstone, and Alfred Lord Tennyson. Remarkably, Stoker continued to find time to write. His novels were by and large unremarkable, although The Snake’s Pass (1890) reflects a similar creative interest in Irish folklore to the work of his old boss at the Dublin Evening Mail, J.S. Le Fanu.

The workaholic Stoker seemed quite content to live in the shadow of his hero, while theatrical management appealed to both sides of his personality, the administrator and the dreamer. It was a deal more interesting than the minutia of the petty sessions as well. And despite attempts by several biographers and literary theorists to argue otherwise, casting Stoker as variously homosexual, bisexual, asexual, and syphilitic, his marriage to Florence appears to have been just as respectably middle-class and Victorian as the rest of his life. As a gentleman of letters, he was middle of the road but, again, respectable. He wrote for the Daily Telegraph, his novels sold modestly to indifferent reviews – neither good nor bad – and he could hold his own in a room full of literary lions. And so, his career at the Lyceum rolled respectably along until the night of March 7, 1890, when Stoker had a mother of a nightmare. The dream unsettled him so much that he scrawled the gist of it down on Lyceum notepaper the following day, possibly as a trigger for a story. The setting was a derelict Eastern European castle. ‘Young man goes out,’ he wrote, ‘sees girls one tries to kiss him not on lips but throat. Old count interferes – rage & fury diabolical – this man belongs to me I want him.’ Though he didn’t realise it at the time, he had just begun writing Dracula.

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