Lady Athlyne or Lady Ninny? Bram Stoker’s Sexist Novel

Given how fascinating I find Dracula, it may be surprising to some that I have not devoured everything else by Bram Stoker. I have been very slowly working my way through several of his other novels, but the truth is that Stoker was not a great writer, and while some of his novels are interesting, especially the ones with supernatural plots, his writing style could be loose, wordy, and weak. After Dracula, I think the best novel he wrote was The Jewel of the Seven Stars, although the realistic The Man is also interesting. Even a relatively bad novel like The Snake’s Pass has its moments of great atmosphere, and The Lady of the Shroud and The Lair of the White Worm keep readers interested, despite their weaknesses. I admit to not having read the other six novels by Stoker (The Primrose Path, The Watter’s Mou’, The Shoulder of Shasta, Miss Betty, The Mystery of the Sea, and Seven Golden Buttons). Truth be told, if not for Dracula (I have written too many blog posts about it to link to them all here but they can be easily searched for), it is unlikely anyone would remember Stoker or any of his other novels. In this blog post, I will discuss Lady Athlyne (1908), which I have to say it is one of the silliest Victorian novels imaginable.

Lady Athlyne

Lady Athlyne’s biggest weakness is the overall concept of its plot. Joy Ogilvie, on a trip from New York to Italy, meets a woman who fostered the Earl of Athlyne. The woman raves about him so much that Joy and her aunt start to joke about her marrying him and referring to Joy as Lady Athlyne. Eventually, this leads to rumors that get back to the earl that someone is impersonating his wife. He goes to America to investigate, calling himself Hardy. At a horse race, he happens to save Joy’s life, not knowing she’s the one calling herself Lady Athlyne. Wanting to keep his identity secret, he continues to call himself Mr. Hardy. Of course, he and Joy fall in love. Eventually, Athlyne/Hardy returns to England. The Ogilvies then visit, but Joy’s father cannot understand why Mr. Hardy doesn’t correspond with them, not knowing his sister-in-law and daughter are carrying on a correspondence with him. Eventually, Joy sees Hardy again and they go joyriding in his car. A string of circumstances results in a compromising situation that is resolved by their marriage.

The whole plot is highly strained, and Stoker, while trying to write something like a drawing room comedy novel in the style of Oscar Wilde’s comic plays, fails to pull it off. The novel’s denouement goes on for chapters until the reader wishes he’d just get it over with.

There is nothing Gothic about this book. Wikipedia has a very poor entry on it that tries to draw comparisons between Lady Athlyne and Dracula and also find references in it to the historical events of the time, but it fails abominably. The novel is not Gothic. Stoker is not trying to build Gothic atmosphere, and there is no real social commentary in the novel other than Stoker’s sexist comments (more on that in a minute).

For Dracula fans, the only thing about the novel of interest is that among the earl’s string of names is that of Westerna. This name is very close to Westenra, the surname of Lucy in Dracula, which critics have made a lot over to argue it reflects the superiority of the West over the East. That Stoker uses the same name with the placement of the “r” in it changed, suggests maybe he wanted to make some link between Dracula and Lady Athylyne’s characters, but then he changed his mind. The similarity is interesting but not significant. Stoker can’t even get his main character’s full name right, the first time presenting it in Chapter 1 as “Calinus Patrick Richard Westerna Hardy Mowbray FitzGerald 2nd Earl of Athlyne” and then in Chapter 23 as “Calinus Patrick Richard Westerna Mowbray Hardy Fitzgerald, Earl of Athlyne” lowercasing the g in Fitzgerald and reversing the position of Mowbray and Hardy.

Other critics have talked about Lady Athlyne in relation to the New Woman, showing how Joy’s aunt is more modern in her willingness to correspond with the earl and how as an old maid of forty-five, she reflects the New Woman who doesn’t settle for marriage. However, Stoker suggests she’s unhappy to be an old maid, and in the end he marries her off. If anything, as in Dracula, Stoker is showing concern about the New Woman and any efforts by women to better their position in society and be equal to men.

The sexism of the novel is apparent in the ridiculous statements Stoker makes about the sexes. In Chapter 7 is this surprising statement:

“Joy was a woman in whom the sex-instinct was very strong. She was woman all over; type of woman who seems to draw man to her as the magnet draws the steel. Athlyne was a very masculine person and therefore peculiarly sensitive to the influence. That deep thinking young madman who committed suicide at twenty-three, Otto Weininger, was probably right in that wonderful guess of his as to the probable solution of the problem of sex. All men and all women, according to him, have in themselves the cells of both sexes; and the accredited masculinity or femininity of the individual is determined by the multiplication and development of these cells. Thus the ideal man is entirely or almost entirely masculine, and the ideal woman is entirely or almost entirely feminine. Each individual must have a preponderance, be it ever so little, of the cells of its own sex; and the attraction of each individual to the other sex depends upon its place in the scale between the highest and the lowest grade of sex. The most masculine man draws the most feminine woman, and vice versa; and so down the scale till close to the border line is the great mass of persons who, having only development of a few of the qualities of sex, are easily satisfied to mate with any one. This is the true principle of selection which is one of the most important of Nature’s laws; one which holds in the lower as well as in the higher orders of life, zoological and botanical as well as human. It accounts for the way in which such a vast number of persons are content to make marriages and even liaisons, which others, higher strung, are actually unable to understand.”

Interestingly, Otto Weininger, cited in the quote, wrote a book titled Geschlecht und Charakter (Sex and Character) which became popular after his death. The book influenced the Nazis, and according to Wikipedia: “Weininger’s views are considered an important step in attempts to exclude women and Jews from society based on methodical philosophy, in an era declaring human equality and scientific thought.” Just one stupid thing Weininger wrote was “In the Jew and the woman, good and evil are not distinct from one another.” Seriously, Bram. This man was not someone to draw your philosophy about women from. Why would anyone listen to a twenty-three-year-old who killed himself? Stoker was thirty-three years older than Weininger and should have known better.

In Chapter 8, Joy’s aunt, Judy, spouts more sexism to her, saying:

“A woman wants a man to be master, and specially to be her master. She wants to feel that when it comes to a struggle she hasn’t got a chance with him, either to fight or to run away. That’s why we like to make a man follow when in truth we are dying to run after him—and to catch him up!”

In Chapter 10, we are told of Joy’s relationship to the earl:

“In that moment she had accepted him as her Master; and that acceptance on a woman’s part remains as a sacred duty of obedience so long as love lasts. This is one of the mysteries of love. Like all other mysteries, easy of acceptance to those who believe; an acceptance which needs no doubting investigation, no proof, no consideration of any kind whatever. She had faith in him, and where Faith reigns Patience ceases to be a virtue.”

Finally, Stoker makes several references to Eden and how God established marriage there. Toward the end of the novel, in Chapter 22, as Joy and Athlyne admit their love, Stoker tells us, “Instinctively the woman recognised the tone and obeyed, as women have obeyed the commands of the men they loved, and were proud to do so, from Eden garden down the ages.” What Bible was Stoker reading? I don’t remember Eve being very obedient to Adam about anything.

The novel might have actually worked as a fun comedy of errors over mistaken identity if the speeches didn’t go on for so long and include such inane sexist ideas. Instead, Stoker wrote an atrociously bad novel with characters none of us can remotely care about. As far as I am concerned, Joy is a complete ninny and any self-respecting twenty-first century woman would find her completely unsupportable.

I am left wondering how the author of Dracula could have written one of the greatest novels ever written and then followed it up with so much drivel. Stoker apparently worked harder on Dracula than on any other book and it’s also possible he had help from a good editor—a matter that still needs more investigation and was suggested first by H.P. Lovecraft, who stated that he once met a woman who had told him she had offered to revise Dracula for Stoker and that the manuscript she saw was in a terrible state. This suggests Stoker may have been seeking help with the novel. It also seems to me that a lot of Dracula’s strength comes from its first-Ottperson narration while many of his works, including Lady Athlyne, are in third person, allowing the narrator to intrude with his silly philosophical and sexist remarks, thus weakening the novel’s flow and the character development. That said, both The Snake’s Pass and The Lady of the Shroud are in first-person and fail to be great, though still readable, novels. Lady Athlyne, however, is an embarrassment to the author of the masterpiece Dracula.

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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 many other titles. Visit Tyler at www.GothicWanderer.com, www.ChildrenofArthur.com, and www.MarquetteFiction.com.

2 Comments

Filed under Classic Gothic Novels, Dracula

2 responses to “Lady Athlyne or Lady Ninny? Bram Stoker’s Sexist Novel

  1. ellenandjim

    I sometimes think the success of a book depends on the amount of literary tact a writer has. When he or she lets that tact — or instinct not to write sides of views expressed in unacceptable and especially explicit ways. Like Trollope, Stoker not good at broad burlesque; here like Richardson he lacks the tact not to be explicit. His guard is down. Perhaps he was tired. Ellen

    • Thanks for the comment, Ellen. I do think he didn’t think the novel through thoroughly or work hard enough on it. I suspect he was also writing for money and just wanted to keep producing books.

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