Tag Archives: Henry Irving

Dracula’s Origins: A Review and Summary of Barbara Belford’s Bram Stoker and the Man Who Was Dracula

Barbara Belford’s Bram Stoker and the Man Who Was Dracula (1996) is a biography of Stoker’s entire life, with some commentary on the history of Dracula’s influence after Stoker’s death and what happened to some of Stoker’s family and those close to him. More specifically, it gives a close look at Stoker’s relationship with Henry Irving, the famous actor whom Stoker worked for. The book’s premise is that Henry Irving was the inspiration for Dracula. Irving is depicted as a controlling man. Belford suggests Stoker was at his beck and call, and apparently enjoyed Irving’s power over him. This implies homeroticism in their relationship.

I do not doubt Irving was very demanding, but Belford’s argument feels weak or exaggerated to me. She has all the biographical facts here of Stoker and Irving’s lives, and I do not doubt Stoker idolized Irving, but she goes overboard in talking about how Bram Stoker considered Irving his master, much as Renfield calls Dracula master. She states that “The fascination and horror of Dracula, for males, was as a humiliator of men,” (9) focusing upon how Dracula is able to seduce all the women in the novel, taking them from the men, and especially how he is able to force Mina into drinking blood from his breast (symbolic of fellatio) while Harker lies there unconscious. I completely agree with this statement, but to suggest that Irving also was a humiliator of men and Stoker enjoyed this feels a bit of a stretch. I am not saying it isn’t very possible, but Belford is reading between the lines of their relationship without a lot of hard evidence. She makes other statements such as that Stoker, “even more than wanting to be admired, liked admiring” (28), and “Being anywhere with Irving was contentment for Stoker, who felt complete in his company, safe and protected” (121). I do not doubt Stoker admired Irving or he would not have gone to work for him, but that he worshipped Irving seems a stretch to me, and how can we know he felt safe and protected by him? Maybe he did in some financial sense since Irving gave him employment, but Stoker was a tall and strong man, who did not physically need Irving’s protection. Other such broad and sweeping statements include “As he approached middle age, Stoker’s infatuation with men of power continued, doubtless aided by his growing insecurity over Iriving’s affection” (189).

I am sure Stoker had affection for Irving as one would for a close friend, and there may well have been homerotic feelings between them, at least on Stoker’s end—but Belford’s statements seem overreaching and she does not always provide evidence to back up her claims. Of course, in Victorian England, neither Stoker nor Irving would have committed to paper any overt love felt for the other. This is made even more clear in the context of Dracula, in the sense that Stoker himself later advocated for censorship of overtly sexual and pornographic novels, yet Belford notes that Dracula is full of sexual imagery and overtones. That no one tried to censor the novel reflects that no Victorian was willing to admit they understood its overtones.

Henry Irving in the role of Shylock from The Merchant of Venice. A Jewish character who would influence treatment of the Wandering Jew figure in literature and later characters like Svengali in Du Maurier’s Trilby, which in turn would influence Dracula.

Belford’s biography has many strong points beyond her questionable interpretation of Stoker and Irving’s relationship. It is an informative look into the Victorian theater, especially of Irving’s numerous and varied roles, many of which may have influenced Stoker’s creation of Dracula—performances such as Faust, for example. Other interesting plays are The Three Bells, a translation of The Polish Jew, about a mayor who kills a Jew and feels guilt over it. Eventually, a mesmerist causes him to confess his guilt. This play is a perfect example of the Victorian fascination with crime and guilt and Gothic wanderer figures. Belford also mentions many mesmerism novels of the Victorian period, including George Du Maurier’s Trilby, which sold more than 200,000 copies and was the first novel to really succeed by publicity efforts.

Of greatest interest to me were the many possible sources of inspiration for Dracula that Belford outlines. She notes that the heroine Trilby also has three rescuers/suitors like Lucy in Dracula, and that Trilby succumbs to the villain Svengali’s power through mesmerism much as the women succumb to Dracula’s hypnotic power. Both are also anti-Jewish novels since Svengali is a Jew and Dracula is often seen as a symbol of the Jewish or at least Eastern European immigrants into England. Belford notes that Shaw’s Pygmalion, which later became the musical My Fair Lady, may also have been inspired by Trilby. Belford goes a bit far, though, in suggesting that Irving himself was able to use hypnotic powers on his audiences and that Stoker was subject to this power, which made him subject to Irving. However, here Belford gives a source, saying that Gordon Craig actually believed this. Craig was the son of Ellen Terry, who was Irving’s leading lady (74). It is possible Irving studied and tried to use hypnotism on audiences to keep them mesmerized by his performance, but whether he deliberately used it on Stoker we can’t know.

The great threat of Dracula to other men, and the idea that he controls them, supposedly influenced by Irving and Stoker’s relationship, is definitely a powerful theme in Dracula, particularly when Dracula warns the female vampires “This man belongs to me.” Belford notes that this line is a constant throughout Stoker’s notes and various revisions of Dracula—and there were many. (Stoker typically wrote a book a year; The Lair of the White Worm he wrote in three months, and it shows. He was typically a wordy, second-rate writer, but to Dracula, he devoted seven years and it went through many revisions, a dedication that made it far superior to his other works.) However, Dracula does not sexually desire Harker like he does Mina and Lucy. Rather, he wants to keep Harker alive so he can accomplish his goal of invading England where he can find fresh blood. Dracula is not interested in Harker for sexual reasons or to dominate him in a sexual way but simply as a tool to get him to England.

A painting of Irving performing the role of Mephistopheles in Faust, a play about a man selling his soul to the devil, a theme that would influence the Gothic and reflects the very close fatal deal Mina finds herself in with Dracula.

Other sources for Dracula include Macbeth, which Irving often performed. Dr. Seward of Dracula may be based in Lord Siward, Earl of Northumberland, from the play. Belford notes that Macbeth and Dracula both end up trapped in their castles. (Dracula actually is trapped in his coffin just before reaching his castle.) And both contain the cathartic ancient Celtic ritual of severing a head to release evil. (Dracula doesn’t lose his head but Lucy does.) Tarot cards also had an influence—Van Helsing is equal to the Magician card, and the 1901 Constable edition had a tarot-inspired drawing on the cover that shows readers saw a tarot influence on the novel. Interestingly, there was also a Joseph Harker who worked for Irving’s company—he is the only person Stoker knew whose name got borrowed for the novel in the character of Jonathan Harker.

Stoker’s first encounter with the name Dracula happened as a result of visiting the Whitby library (where Dracula comes ashore and where Mina is visiting Lucy). At the library, he read William Wilkinson’s An Account of the Principalities of Wallachia and Moldavia.

Once Dracula was published, Stoker wanted to create a play version for Irving to star in, but Belford says Irving likely never read the novel nor expressed interest in a play version. What Irving actually said or didn’t say about the novel we don’t know, but Belford sees this as further reason to show Irving degraded Stoker, perhaps thinking he could not act in a play by someone who was his inferior as Bram, as his manager, apparently was.

I have sought elsewhere for sources for the name of the character Mina, which is a strange name not common in England. I have found the name in Paul Feval’s vampire novel Knightshade (1860), but as Belford notes, Stoker was also influenced by Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White, primarily for the novel’s use of numerous voices. (The result of the characters collecting documentation of the chain of events in both novels, although I wonder whether Collins’ character Marian Halcombe may not have inspired Mina Harker since the characters’ initials are the same. Belford, however, notes that Stoker was fond of creating female names that started with M, perhaps as a tribute to his mother and his sisters Margaret and Matilda. That said, there’s no reason why he might not have chosen names for multiple reasons and layered them with meaning.)

Dracula’s publication coincided with the display of the painting The Vampire by Philip Burne-Jones. Burne-Jones painted it because he fell in love with a well-known actress, Mrs. Patrick Campbell. She rejected him in favor of another; in revenge, he painted her as a vampire! People recognized her in the painting.

Beyond the Dracula origins information, Belford’s book is interesting for the insights it gives us about Stoker’s relationships with many other literary people of his time, including Wilde, Shaw, W.S. Gilbert, Mark Twain, and Walt Whitman. Anyone interested in late Victorian literature and Victorian theatre would find this book fascinating, whether or not they are convinced by Belford’s arguments about Stoker and Irving’s relationships.

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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. Visit Tyler at www.ChildrenofArthur.com, www.GothicWanderer.com, and www.MarquetteFiction.com.

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Filed under Classic Gothic Novels, Dracula, The Wandering Jew