The Woman in White’s Influence on Dracula

Similarities between Wilkie Collins’ 1860 novel The Woman in White and Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel Dracula have long been noted by critics and readers. Recently, I reread The Woman in White with fellow members of the Trollope and His Contemporaries group online that I have long belonged to. During this read, several similarities between the two novels stood out to me and some of the other members, particularly Ellen Moody, which I will discuss here. Personally, I believe Stoker was influenced in numerous ways by The Woman in White, many of which he may not have realized himself.

An 1880 portrait of Wilkie Collins by Rudolph Lehmann

The biggest and most often noted similarity between the two novels is their structure. The Woman in White is written as a compilation of various documents and eyewitness testimonies by various people involved in the strange events depicted in the novel. Stoker adopted this same technique for Dracula. While previous novels had claimed to be collections of documents—for example, Samuel Richardson’s novels and all the epistolary fiction that followed—Collins was the first to have multiple characters compile documents for the purpose of sharing them with the public and documenting events to provide evidence of what happened. By comparison, Richardson’s characters’ letters are simply “discovered” by the author who claims to be their editor. Stoker goes a step farther than Collins in Dracula by even employing new technology, such as phonographs, to compile the record, but the results are the same—numerous pieces by different eyewitnesses that are put together to create a complete narrative.

Several similarities also exist between Collins and Stoker’s characters beginning with the villains. Our primary villain in both novels is a count and a foreigner. Count Dracula is from Transylvania while Count Fosco is from Italy. Several scholars have written about how Dracula may be a commentary on the concern of Eastern European immigrants coming into England and the need to hold back that threat. (For more details on this theory, see my book The Gothic Wanderer.) Such prejudice or racism directed at foreigners is also apparent in The Woman in White when Laura Fairlie’s aunt marries Count Fosco, thus resulting in her being disinherited and only able to collect her inheritance should her niece Laura die. Of course, Count Fosco is not a desirable husband, but that the foreigner is made into a villain still suggests a note of racism in the text. Another foreigner in The Woman in White is Mr. Fairlie’s servant Louie, whom Mr. Gilmore describes as “miserable”; Louie, far from being a villain, is subservient and mistreated by Mr. Fairlie, but disliked regardless.

The primary female character in Dracula is Mina Harker. In The Woman in White, it is Marian Halcombe. Notably, the women have the same initials. Marian is similar to Mina in several ways I will discuss below, but as Ellen Moody noted, Marian also takes on the role of Mina’s husband, Jonathan Harker, when she is seen crawling on the rooftops so that she can overhear conversations in other rooms to learn her enemies’ secrets. Similarly, Jonathan Harker makes explorations of Dracula’s castle, including going out on the ramparts to try to find a means of escape.

Hints of homosexuality and fear of it also exist in both novels. In The Woman in White, Mr. Fairlie is a weak and effeminate male who is constantly whining and acting like a hypochondriac. Notably, he is also much impressed by Walter Hartright, complimenting him on how strong he is when he first arrives at Limmeridge House, suggesting a sexual attraction or at least an admiration for men who are stronger and, thus, manlier, than he is. By comparison Marian is very mannish and dresses in mannish ways.

Bram Stoker may have had homosexual feelings himself. He liked to play with gender themes in many of his novels, including The Lair of the White Worm and The Man.

While there is no overt homosexuality in either novel, there is a definite fear of it in the novels’ subtexts. Most notably, in Dracula, the men all fear the count as the alpha male figure who has the power to defeat and, thus, emasculate them, including by taking their women from them. Dracula succeeds in taking Lucy from the men who love her, and then he attempts to do the same with Mina. The most horrifying moment in the novel is when the men discover the count with Mina. Dracula has broken into Mina and Jonathan’s bedroom and apparently overpowered Jonathan, who lies there unconscious while Dracula forces Mina to drink blood from his breast. While Dracula does not drain Jonathan, that he takes Jonathan’s woman is sufficient to show he has unmanned Jonathan. This fear of a more powerful male draining another male of their manhood is a subtext for homosexuality and specifically fellatio.

A similar, though less explicit, event happens in The Woman in White after Walter Hartright falls in love with Laura Fairlie. However, Laura is engaged to Sir Percival, who also is depicted in alpha male terms. Walter leaves Limmeridge House just before Sir Percival arrives. He apparently feels unmanned that the woman he loves could prefer Sir Percival. Consequently, the next time we hear of Walter, he is described by Mr. Gilmore as having been seen walking about London looking “pale and haggard.” In other words, by taking his woman, Sir Percival has drained the manhood out of Walter Hartright.

Stoker takes this image of Walter walking about London and reverses it in Dracula. When Jonathan Harker first sees Dracula at his castle, the count is pale. Later, Jonathan sees him walking about in London and notes how he has grown young, which he has done by drinking blood. Jonathan is also weak and pale by the time he leaves Dracula’s castle, having undergone a great shock. The female vampires wish to feed on him, but Dracula tells them “This man belongs to me.” Stoker gives no indication that Dracula has sucked Jonathan’s blood, but perhaps we are to read between the lines. Again, the sense is that one man can drain the life and manhood from another. Later, Dracula warns all the men, “Your girls that you all love are mine already. And through them you and others shall yet be mine, my creatures, to do my bidding and to be my jackals when I want to feed.” In other words, if Dracula comes to control the men, they will be his inferiors and thus be unmanned. They will become beta males whose job is to assist the alpha male in fulfilling his needs—both food-wise and sexually.

I will not go so far as to say there is lesbianism in Dracula between Mina and Lucy, although some critics have speculated upon this and Coppola’s 1992 film Bram Stoker’s Dracula shows the two women kissing. However, hints at lesbianism definitely exist in The Woman in White. Marian, as previously stated, is very mannish in her behavior and how she dresses. She is also very protective of Laura, like a man would protect a woman—this is understandable given that they are sisters, yet the subtext is still there. It’s also noticeable that in the end, Marian does not marry. Collins could have easily married her off to one of the lawyers or doctors who are minor characters in the novel if he wanted to end the novel with neatly tied up marriage knots. Instead, that Walter ends up living with two women, Marian and Laura, may be reflective of the fact that Collins himself had two simultaneous mistresses, although they never all lived together. It also suggests that Marian wants to remain close to Laura and also that perhaps she feels some attraction to Walter. Certainly, Marian is more Walter’s equal than Laura. That Marian is mannish suggests a male homosexual bond between Marian and Walter while also suggesting a lesbian connection between Marian and Laura.

If Marian is a pseudo-man, it is telling that she admits at one point she would also fold Count Fosco’s cigarettes for him like his wife does—a sign not that she is attracted to him so much as that she would be submissive to him, just as men fear being submissive to a more alpha male.

Connections to Dracula also exist in Marian and Count Fosco’s relationship. Although the count has no supernatural powers, he insinuates himself into Marian’s mind so much that she states she can recall his conversation and hear it in her head later as if he’s in the room. Similarly, Dracula and Mina are able to communicate telepathically. Later when Marian is sick, Dr. Dawson accuses Count Fosco of using mesmerism on her.

Dracula, of course, does have supernatural powers, including the power of mesmerism through his hypnotic eyes. Dracula also has power over other, weaker animals, including rats and wolves. Fosco has power over, or at least an affinity for, his mice and birds, and he is even capable of taming a great violent dog by telling it that it is a coward.

Secret societies also come into play in both novels. Toward the end of The Woman in White, it is revealed that Count Fosco has belonged to a secret society, The Brotherhood, and he has a mark upon him showing that he has been denounced by them—a mark reminiscent of the Mark of Cain that made the biblical Cain an outcast. While Dracula is not a member of a secret society, per se, the vampires are a sort of secret society in themselves. Similarly, the men are part of a “band” in their efforts to defeat Dracula. While it remains questionable whether Stoker was inspired by Vlad Tepes in creating Dracula, we know Vlad belonged to the Order of the Dragon, from which the name Dracula is derived. Vampires are also outcasts, unable to receive heaven’s salvation. At one point, Jonathan strikes Dracula on the forehead, resulting in a mark remaining there, again recalling the mark of Cain. Later, Van Helsing presses a Eucharistic host to Mina’s forehead and it also leaves a mark there, showing she is an outcast now that she has become Dracula’s minion.

The latest film of The Woman in White, which aired on PBS’ Masterpiece Theatre in 2018.

It’s notable also, although Collins only drops the name, that we learn Fosco has belonged to several secret societies, including the Rosicrucians. The Rosicrucians claimed to have two major secrets: the elixir of life, which provided them with life extension and also the philosopher’s stone which gave them the alchemist skill of turning lead into gold. Fosco does not claim to have either of these secrets, but he does have chemical (if not alchemical) knowledge that allows him to administer drugs to Marian. As a side note, numerous critics have commented upon how Laura ending up in an insane asylum may have been based on Edward Bulwer-Lytton locking up his own wife in such an institution. Notably, Edward Bulwer-Lytton belonged to a Rosicrucian society himself, and the title character of his novel Zanoni (1842) is a Rosicrucian.

Finally, early in The Woman in White, Walter meets “the woman in white”—Anne Catherick. Dracula also has its woman in white—Lucy, who as a vampiress preys upon many children before she is put to rest.

I don’t think Stoker plagiarized from The Woman in White, but I think too many similarities exist between the novels not to believe he was heavily influenced by Collins’ novel. I am sure Stoker was aware of how he adopted from Collins’ novel a similar narrative structure for Dracula, but I think the way he took Collins’ themes and characters and developed them on a more supernatural level must have been done largely subconsciously. Clearly, The Woman in White had a profound influence upon Stoker beyond his own awareness.

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Tyler Tichelaar, PhD, is the author of King Arthur’s Children: A Study in Fiction and Tradition, The Gothic Wanderer: From Transgression to Redemption, The Children of Arthur novel series, Haunted Marquette: Ghost Stories from the Queen City, and numerous other books. For more information about Tyler and his books, visit him at www.ChildrenofArthur.com, www.GothicWanderer.com, and www.MarquetteFiction.com.

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3 Comments

Filed under Classic Gothic Novels, Dracula

3 responses to “The Woman in White’s Influence on Dracula

  1. ellenandjim

    Thank you for mentioning me – twice! Yes we discovered a direct linkage from Collins’s Woman in White to Stoker’s Dracula, and this is an impressive convincing demonstration. I think the “line” is also of interest — beginning with Richardson moving on into Collins’s further development of the epistolary narrative, and then Stoker’s apotheosis.

    The Woman in White is more of a masterpiece than people give it credit for. Highly original, hard-worked achievement.

    Ellen

    • Thanks, Ellen. I think The Woman in White really is stunning. It was like a breath of fresh air to Victorian literature, even if not a cheery one. I think in Bleak House we can see Dickens trying to create a detective genre but it is so convoluted there. Collins took the genre by the reins and made it readable and into a real page-turner while still making it literature.

  2. Pingback: Wilkie Collins’s Woman in White & The Moonstone Resist Adaptation | Ellen And Jim Have A Blog, Two

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