Updated: Friday, 5th June 2020 @ 4:07pm

Bram Stoker centenary: The creation of Dracula – Part Two

Bram Stoker centenary: The creation of Dracula – Part Two

By Steve Balshaw, MM and Grimm Up North film columnist

As 2012 marks the centenary of Bram Stoker's death, Grimm Up North are treating fans of the blood-suckers to a Vampire Sunday film marathon.

MM's Steve Balshaw continues his exploration of just why 'the blood is the life...' For part one, click here.

Stoker had learned a valuable lesson from Dr John Polidori: the importance of tapping into popular opinion; of using his own associations in hisfavour, and suggesting links between his creations and certain controversial public figures of his acquaintance. There is nothing most people like more than prurient gossip about a celebrity…

The role model for Dracula is usually said to have been Stoker’s sometime employer, Sir Henry Irving, and it is certainly the case that Stoker derived certain of the Count’s physical characteristics and mannerisms from Irving. But this, I think, is all. The main inspiration lay elsewhere. On its initial publication, Dracula was dedicated to Stoker’s close friend, the Manx writer Hall Caine. This dedication is not simply an act of friendship, but the acknowledgement of a literary debt.

A best-selling novelist in his day, Caine is now best remembered as a friend and early biographer of one of the more outlandish and controversial figures of his age, the painter and poet Dante Gabriel Rossetti.

At heart a gentle, generous, outgoing man, Rossetti was transformed by neurosis, paranoia, and hypersensitivity to criticism, into an isolated, insomniac recluse, about whom increasingly bizarre and baroque rumours flourished. In earlier years, he had consciously encouraged such rumours, playing up to the role of eccentric artist, filling his home with exotic trinkets and artworks from all over the world and giving free reign to a menagerie of exotic animals, from armadillos to wombats, Brahma bulls to boxing kangaroos.

But in later years, Rossetti’s life really did begin to resemble the plot of a gothic horror novel. When his young wife, Elizabeth Siddal died of a (possibly deliberate) drug overdose in 1862, he was so overwhelmed by grief and guilt that he buried the only existing manuscript of his as yet unpublished poems with her.

Seven years later, fearing that his eyesight was failing, and he would no longer be able to paint, he was persuaded to have the poems exhumed from the coffin, so he could revise and publish them. The grisly facts of the exhumation were largely kept a secret during his lifetime, although dark rumours persisted, but Rossetti was haunted by what he had done, claiming that Siddal visited him every night for the rest of his life.

Hall Caine was the first person to make this story public. His Recollections of Rossetti, published only months after Rossetti’s death in 1882, contains a lurid account of the exhumation, including the somewhat improbable claim that:

“…the body was apparently quite perfect on coming to the light of the fire on the surface and …when the [manuscript] book was lifted, there came away some of the beautiful golden hair in which Rossetti had entwined it.”

An exhumation, a body untouched by death, a dead woman who is nevertheless seen every night by the man she loved. Stoker must surely have had this story in mind when creating the narrative of Lucy Westenra in Dracula. Lucy, Lizzie - even the names are similar.

Then, too, there is the close resemblance between Caine’s account of his first visit to Rossetti’s home at 16 Cheyne Walk and that of Jonathan Harker’s account of his arrival at Castle Dracula: Night-time; a forbidding, run-down building; not a servant in sight, only the odd, elusive master of the house there to greet his increasingly nervous guest.

The parallels are obvious enough, and I am not the first to have noticed them: Anyone wondering why there are armadillos pottering about Castle Dracula in the Tod Browning / Bela Lugosi film might be interested to learn that Rossetti kept several in his menagerie.

Dracula’s physical appearance, it is true, owes more to the tall, gaunt, hawkish Irving than to the balding, overweight, slope-shouldered Rossetti, but Rossetti did have the intense, hypnotic eyes and commanding, persuasive voice Stoker ascribes to the vampire. Living virtually alone, a recluse, refusing all visitors, sleeping during the day and only going out, if at all, at night, Rossetti even had a tendency to wear big cloak-like coats and tinted glasses on the rare occasions he did venture outdoors.

He had already been the likely model for the charming, charismatic, amoral Count Fosco in one of Stoker’s key influences, The Woman In White (Wilkie Collins knew Rossetti through his brother, Charles Alston Collins, who had been a member of the original Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood and an unsuccessful suitor of Rossetti’s sister, Maria), and for the sinister painter (and manipulative emotional vampire) Walter Hamlin in Vernon Lee’s 1884 feminist gothic novel Miss Brown (which, like Dracula, had drawn on elements of J Sheridan LeFanu’s Carmilla).

What is more, Rossetti had a direct family connection with the first vampire to appear in English fiction - his mother, Frances, was the sister of Dr John Polidori. All of these factors surely attracted Stoker to Rossetti as a model for his sinister vampiric count.

It is not simply elements of Rossetti’s life and personality that influenced Stoker in the writing of Dracula, however, but what he represented. A child of Italian immigrants, Rossetti was viewed by hostile critics as essentially “un-English” in his approach to art; a “foreigner”, importing unwholesome attitudes and values from the Continent.

His dense, complex verse, with its rich fusion of metaphysical symbolism and frank eroticism was widely criticised as decadent, “fleshly”, somehow “unmanly”. His intense, lushly-rendered images of tall, gaunt, haunted-looking women with bee-stung lips and pale long-fingered hands offered a new type of female beauty; strong, powerful, sensual, dangerous; a direct contrast, almost a rebuke to the diminutive, submissive unthreatening ideal of the time.

Women perceived as “bad” in late-Victorian fiction are almost invariably described in a manner that suggests a Rossetti painting. Stoker probably had one such painting in mind when creating the character of the flighty, ill-fated Lucy Westenra.

Sinister “foreign” villains have a long history in English popular fiction, and the Victorians seem to have been particularly fond of them. But the 1890s does seem to have been particularly rife with such characters. In addition to Dracula (1897), there was Svengali in George Du Maurier’s Trilby (1894), the evil master-criminal and mad scientist Dr Nikola in Guy Boothby’s A Bid For Fortune (1895), and the (quite literally) Satanic Count Lucio in Marie Corelli’s The Sorrows of Satan (1895).

All have their origins in the racial paranoia and immigration phobia of the era. Following various state-sponsored Pogroms in Eastern Europe, England - and in particular the East End of London - found itself faced with a huge influx of what today would be termed Asylum Seekers. Then, as now, there was much talk in the popular press about “floods of foreigners” with habits and cultural values entirely unlike our own Levels of hostility became so extreme that there were attempts to attribute the 1888 Jack the Ripper killings to East European Jewish immigrants.

Stoker very consciously taps into such paranoid fears: Dracula arrives from abroad hidden in a crate in the hold of a ship - exactly like an illegal immigrant. And immediately he begins to seek out victims. Female victims. He could thus almost be seen as a living embodiment of contemporary fears of decadent foreigners seducing virtuous  Englishwomen.

But there were other fears at play here.

Though the sensuality and frank emotional eroticism of Rossetti’s paintings and poetry were seen as decadent, effeminate, and unmanly, he was nevertheless heterosexual. A number of his circle, however, would certainly have offended the sexual morals of the day. The painter Simeon Solomon was gay, the poet Algernon Swinburne was a sadomasochist. Rossetti was widely seen as the central figure in a whole school of equally degenerate artists and writers, and a truly unhealthy influence on all.

And influential he most certainly was, not only upon those in his immediate circle, but on the generation of artists and writers who followed.

The Aesthetic Movement of the 1890s revelled in its opposition to the prevalent social mores of the age. Their attitude was one of (self)-consciously adopted bored moral and sexual ambivalence; celebrating artifice over nature and art for its own sake, devoid of context; almost wilfully decadent in their choice of subject matter; deflecting criticism with droll wit and an affectation of indifference.

A self-elected artistic and literary avant-garde, centred around the quarterly periodical The Yellow Book - which derived its name from the plain yellow paper in which supposedly lascivious French novels were bound -  they took their cues from precisely the kind of debauched and sinister foreigners that everyone else seemed so afraid of.

Foremost among them was Oscar Wilde. While many of the others seemed content to remain outsiders, Wilde took the attitude and values of the Aesthetes right into the mainstream. And then, in 1895, it all came crashing down around his ears, as he found himself on trial for homosexuality.

Nowadays, such a trial seems grotesque, barbaric. But at the time it was a major national scandal, revealing the existence of a sexual underworld that seemed to be occupied by a great many powerful and influential people. Added to existing fears about “sinister foreigners flooding the country” was a new fear about a growth in what was then perceived as “sexual abnormality”.

Thus we have the shape- and gender-shifting - and of course foreign - eponymous antagonist of Richard Marsh’s The Beetle (1897), using his mesmeric powers to seduce men and women alike. And we have Dracula.

It is worth noting that the novel was first published on May 26th 1897, precisely one week after Oscar Wilde was released from prison, and it is tempting to see a connection; to see in Wilde another possible model for the charismatic and predatory count.

After all, the association of vampirism with sexual ambiguity was a central element of the novel’s most immediate source, Le Fanu’s Carmilla, and although Dracula himself favours female victims, he does make Renfield into his cringing slavish familiar, and comes very close to preying on Jonathan Harker, in scenes rife with sexual overtones.

The novel might thus seem to be a reaction to the social anxieties stirred up by the recent trial, and the figure of Dracula thus essentially a folk devil designed to play on contemporary homophobia as well as racist paranoia.

But there is a problem with such a reading. Stoker and Wilde were friends. They had known each other as students in Dublin. They had both courted the same woman, Florence Balcombe, who Stoker married in 1878, but they did not fall out over this, nor did Stoker reject Wilde following his fall from grace - indeed he visited him in exile on the Continent. If Stoker did incorporate elements of Wilde into Dracula, then surely his intention cannot have been to attack or demonise a friend he stuck by even when that friend became a pariah.

Similarly, when considering the other models for Dracula, it must be remembered that Stoker greatly respected and admired Sir Henry Irving, and while Stoker’s knowledge of Rossetti was derived second hand from his close friend Hall Caine, it is worth noting that Caine idolized Rossetti.

Perhaps herein lies the source of Dracula’s longevity in comparison with the other books cited above. It is more challenging than it first appears. While Stoker dramatises and plays up to the racial and sexual anxieties of his age, he does not necessarily share them. Perhaps he is trying to explore his own feelings, his own deepest-felt anxieties.

More than one critic, noting the novel’s emphasis on male bonding and apparent suspicion of female sexuality, as well as his continued friendship with and support of Wilde, has argued that Stoker was gay, albeit heavily-closeted, and that the novel is a coded plea for tolerance. Well, maybe.

What is certain is that, for all of its fast-paced, thrill-ride sensationalism and ultimately reassuring narrative trajectory, in which the status quo and the values of the age are ultimately reaffirmed, Dracula has an ambivalence at its very heart: the figure of the Count himself, complex and multilayered, ambiguous and seductive, transcending the novel that spawned him, seizing his own place in the popular imagination for ever after.

Of course, there could be another, far simpler explanation for Dracula’s pre-eminence among vampire characters, as well as for the way in which the character seems so quickly to have broken free of the narrative restrictions of the eponymous book in which he first appeared. Stoker failed to follow proper copyright procedure, meaning that, while it was protected in Europe until 1962, under the Berne Convention on copyrights, in the USA the novel has always been in the public domain.

Anyone and everyone could adapt the book however they liked, could make use of the character, in whatever context. And you need only look around you to see that they did, and continue to do so. Unleashed from any one person’s control, Dracula was free to become an archetype. And thus he has become truly unstoppable.

Grimm Up North will be celebrating the Centenary of Stoker’s death with a marathon screening of Vampire films on Sunday July 22 at the Danchehouse Theatre.

They will be featuring classic Hammer adaptations of both Dracula and Carmilla, alongside Guillermo del Toro’s striking re-imagining of vampire mythology, Cronos, and an exclusive cast and crew screening of gritty new British independent vampire vigilante movie Harsh Light As Day, which is being billed as “Death Wish with fangs”.

There’s a chance to catch cliff-hanging chapter-play for the 21st Century Blood and Bone China,  and a reading from Vampire Gene author Sam Stone. Something for everyone to get their teeth into. Fancy dress is encouraged. Kick off at 2pm.

For more information on Grimm Up North's Vampire Sunday, click here.