Dracula: vampires, perversity and Victorian anxieties
First edition of Dracula
Front cover to the first edition of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, 1897. Yellow was synonymous with the more adventurous and transgressive elements of the Victorian fin de siècle - it was the colour of bruising and decay.View images from this item (1)
Poster promoting the 1958 film adaptation of Dracula
Poster advertising the 1958 film version of Dracula.View images from this item (1)
Copyright: © HAMMER
Copyright: © Allstar Picture Library
Anxiety and the vampire in late-Victorian BritainDracula – described by a reviewer in the 26 June 1897 edition of Punch as ‘the very weirdest of weird tales’ – presents a series of contrasts and clashes between old traditions and new ideas. Stoker uses the figure of the vampire as thinly-veiled shorthand for many of the fears that haunted the Victorian fin de siècle. Throughout the novel, scientific rationality is set against folklore and superstition; old Europe is set against modern London; and traditional notions of civilised restraint and duty are threatened at every turn by the spread of corruption and wanton depravity.
Dracula’s forays into London, for example, and his ability to move unnoticed through the crowded streets while carrying the potential to afflict all in his path with the stain of vampirism, play upon late-Victorian fears of untrammelled immigration. The latter was feared as leading to increased levels of crime and the rise of ghetto communities. Dracula creates several lairs in the metropolis, including one in Chicksand Street, Whitechapel – an area notorious for the Jack the Ripper murders of 1888 – and one in Bermondsey, the location of Jacob’s Island – the low-life rookery immortalised by Charles Dickens in Oliver Twist. The Ripper murders had created a storm of hysteria in the press with the local Jewish community bearing the brunt of the outbursts. The secretive nature of the Jewish ghetto was also cited as a reason why the murders were never solved, with the Jews seen as having closed ranks around one of their own number who had committed the crimes. Such fears, which Dracula mirrors very closely, ultimately lay behind the introduction of The Aliens Act of 1905, which was put in place largely to stem immigration from Eastern Europe.
'Seventh Ripper murder' from the Illustrated Police News
Newspaper coverage of the seventh Jack the Ripper murder in Whitechapel, 1888. In Dracula, the post-Jack-the-Ripper urban environment is seen as an area where sensibilities of control are neutralised, and where free-thinking women lack the moral steadfastness to resist evil.View images from this item (1)
Copyright: © British Library Board
Sex and the VampireVictorian literature tends to present the vampire myth as a sexual allegory in which English female virtue is menaced by foreign predators. For example Sheridan Le Fanu’s short story ‘Carmilla’ (1872) places the virtuous English girl Laura at the mercy of the predatory East European vampire of the title. Dracula follows a similar pattern, with the Count’s attentions focused in particular on Mina, a woman who selflessly (and symbolically) spends her honeymoon nursing her sick husband in a convent, and the beautiful Lucy Westenra, who is, by contrast, dangerously modern in her ways. All women, though, are seemingly at risk: as the Count suggests when he pointedly taunts Professor Van Helsing and his followers by saying ‘Your girls that you all love are mine already’ (ch. 23). During the course of the book Dracula attacks both Mina and Lucy; but Mina, due to the traditional Victorian qualities of determination and loyalty towards her husband is able to resist his advances. The rather more free-spirited Lucy is not so lucky.
Promotion for the film adaptation of Dracula starring Helen Chandler and Bela Lugosi
Promotional still from the 1931 film version of Dracula; the scene shows Dracula at the point of attacking Lucy. The two women in Dracula (1897), Lucy Westenra and Mina Murray, embody two different vews of womanhood, and meet very different fates.View images from this item (2)
Copyright: © UNIVERSAL
Copyright: © Allstar Picture Library
Keynotes, a collection of short stories
Keynotes (1893) by George Egerton (Mary Chavelita Dunne) is a collection of short stories seen at the time as typical of the ‘new woman’ sensibility. In the stories women manage their relationships with other women in a way that excludes patriarchal power structures.View images from this item (1)
Dracula and ModernityBram Stoker includes numerous references to the very latest ideas and inventions in his novel. Dr Seward keeps his diary using a phonograph which was a relatively new and expensive piece of technology in 1897; similarly, references to Kodak cameras, portable typewriters, telegrams being sent across Europe and the blood transfusions carried out by Professor Van Helsing all reflect the rapid technological changes taking place in the late-Victorian period. In addition, as already shown in the earlier mention of Max Nordau and Cesare Lombroso, the characters in the novel frequently refer to contemporary theories in medicine and psychology.
The entire novel is presented in the form of letters, diaries and newspaper cuttings: so the scientific method of observing and recording information is integral to both the structure of the book itself, and to the attempts of Van Helsing and his friends to destroy Dracula. Set against this atmosphere of scientific advance, however, are the intangible concepts of religious faith and the supernatural. Van Helsing may use blood transfusions in an attempt to keep Lucy alive, but he also resorts to garlic flowers and crucifixes to hold the vampire at bay. Throughout the novel there is a sense that Dracula, with his ability to pass through keyholes like a mist and his affinity with bats, rats and wolves, represents the inexplicable; an alien force which science on its own cannot defeat. Early in the novel Jonathan Harker observes the Count climbing lizard-like down the outside of the castle walls. Unsurprisingly the sight shakes him to the core. Returning to his room he writes ‘… in my diary in shorthand all that has happened since I closed it last. It is the nineteenth century up-to-date with a vengeance. And yet, unless my senses deceive me, the old centuries had, and have powers of their own which mere “modernity” cannot kill’ (ch. 3). Dracula suggests modernity and science may have their limits and, faced with the supernatural figure of the Count, Harker fears such limits may have been reached.
The text in this article is available under the Creative Commons License.