1897 was a good year for vampires. Philip Burne-Jones’s painting The Vampire was exhibited for the first time and caused a sensation with its depiction of a sexually alluring female vampire looming over a prostrate male; Rudyard Kipling, inspired by Burne-Jones’s painting, wrote a poem, also called ‘The Vampire’; the spiritualist and novelist Florence Marryat published a novel about psychic vampirism called The Blood of the Vampire and, most enduringly of all, Bram Stoker’s iconic novel, Dracula, was unleashed on an unsuspecting public.
The cover design is simple but striking: bold red lettering standing out against a yellow cover. Yellow was synonymous with the more adventurous and transgressive elements of the Victorian fin de siècle. It was the colour used for the jackets of disreputable French novels. Dorian Gray in Oscar Wilde’s novel The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890) is seduced and poisoned by the contents of a yellow book (usually taken as being À rebours by the French novelist Joris Karl Huysmans). The quarterly periodical The Yellow Book, published from 1894 to 1897, with its distinctive illustrations by Aubrey Beardsley became the definitive embodiment of the transgressive spirit of the age. By giving Dracula a yellow cover the publishers were deliberately aligning the novel with this more experimental, and for many rather disreputable, form of literature.
In truth, however, Dracula is surprisingly conservative in many ways. The character of Lucy, who is overtly New Womanish in her attitudes, especially towards sex, meets a ghastly end. The Count, representing old, superstitious, aristocratic Europe, threatens to spread the taint of vampirism through the streets of modern London, leading a distinctly Anglo-Saxon collective of vampire hunters to track him down. Mina Murray, meanwhile, is able to resist the Count's attentions, through her dutiful devotion to her fiancé, and then husband, Jonathan Harker. Everywhere in the book traditional Victorian values are set against decadence, decay and transgression and usually they come out on top. The Count himself, however, with his sexual magnetism, super-human strength and ability to defy age and death is a genuine, late-Victorian Gothic nightmare. The character of Dracula, at least, is fully deserving of the decadent shade of yellow that adorns the first edition of the novel that bears his name.