Astonishing with Apples, Paul Cézanne
‘With an apple I will astonish Paris’, which is precisely what Cèzanne did, producing works of genius in his final years from his studio in Aix.
Count Dracula, disguised as a dog, is on board a Russian schooner bound for the English coastal town of Whitby. The day of the ship’s landing had started fine but by afternoon gossips congregating by Whitby’s East Cliff churchyard had registered the appearance of ‘mares-tails’ high in the north-west sky, signalling an approaching storm. And then the coastguard noticed a strange schooner out at sea ‘knocking about in the queerest way.’ It seemed to see the storm coming yet it steered erratically, turning this way and that with every puff of wind. As time passed, it absorbed much of the town’s attention.
It was now nearly the hour of high tide, but the waves were so great that in their troughs the shallows of the shore were almost visible, and the schooner, with all sails set, was rushing with such speed that, in the words of one old salt, “she must fetch up somewhere, if it was only in hell”…
The wind suddenly shifted to the northeast, and the remnant of the sea fog melted in the blast. And then, mirabile dictu, between the piers, leaping from wave to wave as it rushed at headlong speed, swept the strange schooner before the blast, with all sail set, and gained the safety of the harbour. The searchlight followed her, and a shudder ran through all who saw her, for lashed to the helm was a corpse, with drooping head, which swung horribly to and fro at each motion of the ship. No other form could be seen on the deck at all…
But, strangest of all, the very instant the shore was touched, an immense dog sprang up on deck from below, as if shot up by the concussion, and running forward, jumped from the bow on the sand. Making straight for the steep cliff.
At the end of July 1890 Abraham Stoker, his wife Florence and their son Noel, visited the Yorkshire seaside town of Whitby where they spent three weeks in Mrs Veazey’s guesthouse at 6 Royal Crescent, in a suite overlooking the sea on the West Cliff. Stoker was taking a break from his London job at the Lyceum Theatre as business manager for Henry Irving, the most famous actor of his time. Irving had recommended Whitby to him, having once run a circus there. Stoker had already published three novels and was mulling over a new story to be set in Austria, featuring an evil character called Count Wampyr. His visit to Whitby marked the first time that he made notes for a supernatural story about an undead man.
Thirty years previously Elizabeth Gaskell had also visited Whitby, when traces of the original medieval fishing village were more apparent, and she used it as the setting for her novel Sylvia’s Lovers. The town had now become a fashionable Victorian resort but it lends itself beautifully to a tale of Gothic horror, for on its eastern clifftop looms the stuff of nightmares: the skeletal remains of the thirteenth-century Whitby Abbey. In front sits the twelfth-century church of St Mary’s, surrounded by the gravestones of many sailors who were shipwrecked or lost at sea.
Florence and Noel were diverted by the entertainments in town, but after a busy season at the theatre Stoker preferred solitary walks along the cliffs. The local fishermen who gathered at St Mary’s churchyard entertained him with accounts of drownings, shipwrecks and local folklore, and he later incorporated some of these stories into the novel, having taken pains to record their distinctive Yorkshire dialect. Stoker liked to linger in the graveyard, savouring its spectacular view of the town, harbour and the North Sea, and admiring the ‘myriad clouds of every sunset-colour flame’. He recorded the epitaphs of many of the drowned sailors, those that were still legible on the headstones. At sundown he watched bats swooping over the remnants of the Abbey, ‘a most noble ruin’, he wrote.
In the Whitby Library Stoker came across Wilkinson’s An Account of the Principalities of Wallachia and Moldavia and in a chapter on the Carpathians he read:
Dracula in the Wallachian language means Devil. Wallachians were accustomed to give it as a surname to any person who rendered himself conspicuous by courage, cruel actions or cunning.
The coastguard from the lighthouse told Stoker about the Russian ship ‘Dmitry’ that had run aground on Whitby beach in 1885 and he read a newspaper report of the event in the library. There are echoes of this account in the quote about the Whitby stranding of Dracula’s ship the ‘Demeter’. He incorporated many of the town’s features: its 199 steps leading to the church, its graveyard and abbey, and its unpredictable weather that whips the sea heavenwards.
Masses of seafog came drifting inland – white, wet clouds, which swept by in a ghostly fashion, so dank and damp and cold that it needed but little effort of imagination to think that the spirits of those lost at sea were touching their living brethren with the clammy hands of death, and many a one shuddered as the wreaths of sea-mist swept by.
Although large parts of Dracula are set in Transylvania (now Romania), which Stoker described as ‘one of the wildest and least known parts of Europe’, Whitby is where he began the work, and where he found many of the threads that he later wove into one of the greatest horror stories of all time.
Count Dracula, a centuries old vampire, plans to establish an empire in England. He arranges for Jonathan Harker, a young English solicitor, to visit his ancestral Transylvanian castle to conduct a real estate transaction; the deal is complicated because the count is an ‘undead’ being. By day, he is confined to his coffin and he can move around freely only between sunset and sunrise. Harker’s company has secured for him an abandoned estate called Carfax, near Whitby, on the remote Yorkshire coast.
During his stay Harker is drawn into a waking nightmare as he stumbles on the count’s secret: he is a vampire who survives by drinking human blood. His monstrous true nature is shared by three alluring female vampires who also lurk inside the castle and try to attack him. Dracula leaves Harker trapped in the castle and departs for England, sustaining himself with the blood of the ship’s crew members along the way.
In Whitby, Harker’s fiancée Mina Murray has been visiting her best friend, Lucy. Shortly after the arrival of the derelict ship in the harbour, Lucy begins to sleepwalk and have nightmares. As she grows weaker and more languid, Mina writes in her diary: ‘Some sort of shadowy pall seems to be coming over our happiness.’ At night Mina wakes to find Lucy sitting up in bed, pointing at the window. A great bat circles outside before swooping across the harbour towards the Abbey. Dracula succeeds in turning Lucy into a vampire and despite blood transfusions and other ministrations from Dr Seward, she dies. Harker returns to England in time to witness Mina beginning to fall prey to Lucy’s symptoms. The rest of the story involves the struggle to save Mina and rid the world of the count.
In outline, the story may not sound particularly scary. But Stoker’s skill is in establishing the menacing atmosphere in the first and most famous chapter of his book. At the approach to the castle, Harker is given an intimation of what is to come:
…the moon, sailing through the black clouds, appeared behind the jagged crest of a beetling, pine-clad rock, and by its light I saw around us a ring of wolves, with white teeth and lolling red tongues, with long, sinewy limbs and shaggy hair. They were a hundred times more terrible in the grim silence which held them than ever when they howled. For myself, I felt a sort of paralysis of fear. It is only when a man feels himself face to face with such horrors that he can understand their true import.
The central player is vividly drawn as a cadaverous, colourless creature with satyr ears, sharp teeth and an animal appetite. After chapter four the count disappears for long stretches of the book, returning only briefly to attack his victims. Yet although he is physically absent, the threat of Dracula’s sinister presence permeates every scene. In what has become a well-used device for writers of horror, the absence of the evil one serves to heighten the reader’s imagination and fear. As Stephen King in his dissection of horror fiction (Danse Macabre,) observes: ‘What’s behind the door or lurking at the top of the stairs is never as frightening as the door or the staircase itself.’
Bram Stoker seemed to most to be a pillar of late Victorian respectability. After studying at Trinity College he became a civil servant in Dublin, while moonlighting as a drama critic for a local paper.
Moving to London in 1878 with his new wife Florence Balcombe, he became the business manager and master of ceremonies at the Lyceum Theatre, off the Strand. He worked slavishly for his boss and friend, the great actor Henry Irving. Stoker was a genial, meticulous person and in his theatrical role he befriended members of the literary and political establishment. Extravagantly loyal, he worked tirelessly to keep the theatre solvent, persuading Irving to rein in his lavish tastes.
Stoker was an almost perversely reticent man who hid behind codes and puzzles. His thousands of letters are business like and betray little that is personal. He kept a jotting diary but this centred mainly on the achievements of Henry Irving. One of his biographers, Barbara Belford, says of him:
Stoker was not an obliging person to think about for five years. He frustrated intimate probing; his reticence was monumental. At times he fascinated and irritated me…In response to the question “Who are you?” I imagine him saying, “I am who you want me to be.”
The question of what transformed a Victorian bureaucrat and mediocre writer into the creator of Dracula is a mystery. But a clue might perhaps be found in the critic Ludovic Flow’s assessment:
He is a master of the commonplace style in which clichés flow as if they were impelled by the same pressure as genius. I don’t say this lightly. There is a semi-heroic, Everyman quality about his intense command of the mediocre … When such a man, just once, is thoroughly afraid, the charade stops and what you get is Dracula.
What was it that may have frightened Stoker so powerfully? What could have unlocked his imagination – for possibly the only time in his life – and spurred him to create a book which caused those who knew him well to say: ‘I had no idea Stoker had it in him’?
Serious critics have agreed that Dracula was in part a product of unconscious influences outside Stoker’s awareness. It was written not long after the Jack the Ripper murders and as Stoker himself observed, Dracula’s crimes ‘seemed to originate from the same source and cause as much revulsion as the infamous murder’. Certainly it appears the shadow of these crimes was on his mind as he wrote Dracula. And there is more than a faint echo of Dracula in the way the press at the time characterised the Ripper, as a lurid, Gothic cliché: ‘A nameless reprobate – half beast, half man…The ghoul-like creature who stalks through the streets of London…is simply drunk with blood, and he will have more.’
Some suggest that Dracula represents a fear of the colonisation of Britain from the east. The British Empire was at its most powerful at that stage and Victorians wanted to cling onto that power. They feared the exotic outsider, regarding a foreign influx as a disease that could weaken their position. Dracula is godless and both culturally and physically different. He yearns to master English customs and traditions so that he can prey on perceived weaknesses. He makes his physical invasion through the innocent and privileged Englishwomen Lucy and Mina; after he bites Lucy, she becomes ‘other’ too.
Dracula is full of homoerotic undertones and it has been suggested that it expresses deeply repressed pain about the trials of Oscar Wilde which were occurring while Stoker wrote the novel. Wilde had been a constant presence in Stoker’s life. Both were Irish-born graduates of Trinity College; Stoker was a frequent guest at Wilde’s mother Speranza’s Dublin salon, and both men had fallen for the same woman, the very beautiful Florence Balcombe. It was Stoker who won her hand but Oscar stayed in touch with Florence up to two years before his trials. Yet it is not clear at all whether Stoker was upset about his friend’s demise and humiliation (see the connection story below).
Stoker was, however, prone to the sentimental idolatry of a number of male figures and his life was filled with intense friendships with charismatic men.
As a young man, he wrote a highly emotional letter to the American poet Walt Whitman, whose Leaves of Grass celebrated ‘the manly love of comrades’. Stoker could not have escaped the rich homoerotic themes of these poems.
I have to thank you for many happy hours, for I have read your poems with my door locked late at night and I have read them on the seashore where I could look all round me and see no more sign of human life than the ships out at sea: and here I often found myself waking up from a reverie with the book open before me. I love all poetry, and high generous thoughts make the tears rush to my eyes, but sometimes a word or a phrase of yours takes me away from the world around me and places me in an ideal land surrounded by realities more than any poem I ever read.
The letter sat on his desk for four years before he sent it. Before signing off he added:
I don’t think you will laugh, Walt Whitman, nor despise me, but at all events I thank you for all the love and sympathy you have given me in common with my kind.
What did Stoker mean by ‘my kind’? Is it possible he was grateful to Whitman for the fact that his difference had been validated by such a radiant work of art? Some years later on a trip to America, Stoker met Whitman and said that he found him to be all he had dreamed of in Dublin,
large-minded, broad viewed, tolerant to the last degree…No wonder that men opened their hearts to him – told him their secrets, their woes and hopes and griefs and loves! A man amongst men!
The visit helped him revive his youthful ambitions and he resolved to no longer neglect his writing. He recognised that he needed a life other than Irving and the Lyceum.
Irving became the most important person in Stoker’s life, more so than his wife. In Dublin in 1867 when Stoker first saw him perform he said he was struck by a man who stood out from his surroundings,
A figure full of dash and fine irony, and whose ridicule seemed to bite; buoyant with the joy of life; self-conscious; of supreme and unsurpassable insolence, veiled and shrouded in his fine quality of manner.
After their second dinner together Irving recited a dark, dramatic monologue, ‘The Dream of Eugene Aram’, in which a murderer is overwhelmed by guilt and the fear of God. Stoker, thrilled to witness this private performance, later wrote,
That night for a brief time in which the rest of the world seemed to sit still, Irving’s genius blazed in floating triumph above the blazing summit of art.
They talked until daybreak, forging a deep bond – at least on Stoker’s side. ‘Soul had looked into soul’, he wrote. ‘From that hour began a friendship as profound, as close, as lasting as can be between two men’ (although Stoker gave far more than he received).
It was the start of a complex relationship characterised by sycophancy, admiration and conversations that lasted until dawn, while Stoker helped Irving to come down from the highs of his evening performances. As David Skal points out, ‘Henry Irving was the master he had been searching for all his life…Stoker’s devotion to the man would be the exquisite ecstasy of a martyr.’
Irving’s celebrated partner, the actress Ellen Terry, became close friends with Stoker. He fell a little in love with her, describing her moving through the Lyceum like ‘embodied sunshine’. With distaste, Ellen observed how Irving often treated Stoker like a servant.
There is little doubt that Irving, a mesmerising, saturnine man, was a model for the count. More recently, a descendent of Stoker’s (Ivan Dixon) has claimed that Dracula was inspired not by idolatry of Irving but by Stoker’s deep resentment of this man, who had drained his own energies with work that became all-consuming, thwarting his literary ambitions in the process.
Notes for Dracula dating between 1890 and 1897 reveal that details were altered as the story crystallised in Stoker’s mind. But the one constant was a nightmare that Stoker told his son Noel had been the source for the story. In March 1890 he wrote: ‘young man goes out – sees girls one tries – to kiss him not on the lips but the throat. Old Count interferes – rage and fury diabolical. This man belongs to me – I want him – a prisoner for a time…’ The nightmare is repeated in various shorthand forms throughout the notes.
Stoker transcribed his recurring nightmare in Chapter III where it became Harker’s fictional journal account of his dream during his visit to the count. ‘I suppose I must have fallen asleep; I hope so, but I fear…I cannot in the least believe that it was all sleep…’ Dracula’s wives (sometimes called brides), themselves vampires, crowd around him in his bedroom. The flesh tingling women fill him with wicked desire and unease. Egged on by her dark sisters, the fair, coquettish one,
…went on her knees, and bent over me, simply gloating. There was a deliberate voluptuousness which was both thrilling and repulsive, and as she arched her neck she actually licked her lips like an animal, till I could see in the moonlight the moisture shining on the scarlet lips and on the red tongue as it lapped the white sharp teeth.
She is interrupted by an enraged count:
“How dare you touch him, any of you? How dare you cast eyes on him when I had forbidden it? Back, I tell you all! This man belongs to me!”
The novel is full of such erotic primal scenes as the one above. When it was first published many Victorians found it slightly distasteful but could not quite articulate their reasons. That same year Ibsen’s Ghosts had shocked audiences with its honest depiction of the effects of hereditary venereal disease. Ibsen was vilified for exploring sexual relationships in contemporary society. Yet beneath the prim narration and decorous Victorian prose of Dracula lies something far more savage and confronting. The count, part rapist, part seducer, forces his way into bedrooms and sucks the life out of women who lie sleeping beside their husbands. Dracula twins a violent threat with a carnal one.
The book’s sexual complexities and contradictions are a perfect mirror of the Victorian split between public and private behaviour. It centres on two types of women: the pure, virtuous and respectable Victorian ideals of Lucy and Mina, and the voluptuous but repulsive fallen women (the three vampires) who entrap men and cause them to lose their social position. As suggested by David Skal,
Dracula read today is first and foremost the sexual fever-dream of a middle-class Victorian man, a frightened dialogue between demonism and desire.
Stoker masked the erotic in the supernatural and got away with it. He was helped at the time by critics who lauded it as a jolly good page turner. As Stephanie Demetrakopoulos declares: ‘It is obvious that the very attraction of the novel was that all of this sexuality was masked and symbolic; it can be enjoyed surreptitiously and hence denied even to oneself.’
The novel was published in 1897, just at the start of Freud’s investigations into psychoanalysis. But it took sixty years before Freudian Maurice Richardson gave it an explicit appraisal, writing that what gives the story such force is the fact that it is ‘…a kind of incestuous, necrophilious, oral-anal-sadistic all-in-wrestling match’. (To which contemporary critic Robert McCrum added: ‘What’s not to like?’) Richardson was writing in the fifties during the period of the Hammer films that magnified the sexual relationship between vampire and victim to the strain of music swelling to orgiastic heights, and this is the interpretation that has remained ever since.
Stoker would probably be astonished by the success and longevity of his story. It was released in May 1897 to a mixed reception. The Athenaeum, which had panned all of Stoker’s fiction to that point, complained that Dracula was deficient in ‘constructive art as well as in the higher literary sense. It reads at times like a mere series of grotesquely incredible events’.
Others were kinder. Anthony Hope Hawkins (The Prisoner of Zenda) told Stoker: ‘Your vampire robbed me of sleep for nights’, and Arthur Conan Doyle said: ‘I think it is the very best story of diablerie which I have read for many years. It is really wonderful how with so much exciting interest over so long a book there is never an anticlimax.’ It was called weird and powerful, and favourably compared with Frankenstein. But it had been published at the height of literary realism and naturalism, long past the era of the Romanticism that had celebrated Frankenstein, and it failed to establish a solid literary reputation or provide much of an income for Stoker.
After he died, his obituaries made much of his genial nature and long-standing friendship with Irving. There was little reference to the nineteen books that he had written, and barely a mention of Dracula. Today they would talk of nothing but Stoker’s Gothic masterpiece.
In spite of its undistinguished style and clunky plot, Dracula has become a minor classic, one of the most widely read novels of the late nineteenth century. This is largely due to its powerful psychological resonance, its capacity to inspire fear, and the count’s compelling presence on the big screen.
In fact, not until the adaptations began, starting with FW Murnau’s 1922 silent motion picture Nosferatu, did the story really take off. Since then, Dracula has become one of the most filmed characters in the history of cinema. The primal image of the black cloaked figure hovering silently over a beauty in her bedroom, about to open his dark lips to bite her neck, has become a fixture of our modern imaginations. It has scared the wits out of generations of readers and viewers ever since. Bram Stoker’s menacing, shape-shifting Dracula has been the vampire without equal. The current ‘king of horror’, Stephen King, says of Dracula: ‘Of all the monsters in my closet, this is the one that scares me most, and probably always will.’
‘The Brides’, Wojciech Kilar, from the soundtrack for Dracula, (1992)
This eerie waltz with its Eastern European flavour, summons up those creepy vampire women well, I think. This was Kilar’s first score for an English language production, although he had composed music for more than a hundred Polish films. Coppola handed him complete artistic freedom.
There’s a wealth of good Dracula music out there. Here is a list of vampire inspired classical music.
After Stoker married Florence Balcombe, Oscar Wilde, who had also been a suitor, kept sending her notes, flowers, and copies of his books. He was very much a part of the Stokers’ social calendar, particularly after he married Constance Lloyd in 1884. Florence, a vain woman and a snob like Oscar, enjoyed his reflected celebrity and increasing cult status. His last communication with her was in 1893, two years before the trials when he sent her a copy of his play Salomé published in French. ‘My dear Florence, Will you accept a copy of Salomé – my strange venture in a tongue that is not my own.’
When Wilde was sentenced to a two-year prison term, most of his friends deserted him. Some began saying there had always been something repulsive about him and his work. ‘Open the windows! Let in the fresh air’, proclaimed the Daily Telegraph. But there were others who defended him. During the trial at the Old Bailey, a veiled woman delivered him a bunch of violets. There were rumours it was Irving’s partner Ellen Terry (both were sympathetic to his plight). His older brother Willie Wilde, who had been Stoker’s former classmate at Trinity, wrote:
Bram, my friend, poor Oscar was not as bad as people thought him. He was led astray by his Vanity – & conceit, & he was so ‘got at’ that he was weak enough to be guilty – of indiscretion and follies – that is all…I believe this thing will help to purify him body & soul. Am sure you & Florence must have felt the disgrace of one who cared for you both sincerely.
There is no record of Stoker’s response. Five years later, when Stoker drew up a list of a thousand famous guests who had been entertained at the Lyceum, Oscar Wilde, who had always loved the romantic candle-lit theatre, was absent. Yet there was a rumour that Stoker brought him money when Wilde was destitute in Paris after his imprisonment.
As for Florence, at the time of Oscar’s trials she was preoccupied with sitting for a portrait by well-known Dublin artist Walter Frederick Osborne who depicted her draped in fur. The painting was accepted for exhibition by the Royal Academy of Arts in 1895. There she sits with a sly knowing look, and an air of decadence.
At primary school our teacher began reading us a chapter of Dracula each week and had our rapt attention. But one day she announced the Dracula reading had been cancelled as a mother had complained it was giving her son nightmares, so we were obliged to get the rest of our horror fix at the library.
The scene in Dracula of the derelict ship, its dead captain lashed to the helm, had stayed in my mind and I was thrilled to see the place where the count fetched up in England. At the first opportunity I climbed the 199 steps that he had bounded up when he leapt off the ship disguised as a dog. At the top I roamed the cemetery where Stoker had chatted with the fishermen and Lucy had sleepwalked before becoming one of the undead. It’s the perfect setting for grand, Gothic imaginations.
As I’ve mentioned in the notes for Sylvia’s Lovers, we arrived in Whitby at the tail end of Halloween, just in time to see the exodus of hordes of Goths after their big weekend. On the West Cliff, where Bram Stoker and his family had stayed, I saw in the window of one guesthouse a party of Goths who had not yet left. They were seated at the dining table, wearing top hats and tails and Victorian garb. It lent a surreal edge to the evening.
The Victorians were obsessed with death, the paranormal, the occult, clairvoyance, mesmerism and seances. Some of the alternatives to rational science attracted the interest of Tennyson and Dickens and were sometimes woven into their work. Think, for instance, of Tennyson’s ‘The Lady of Shalott‘, where it is not clear whether the poem tells a human story with supernatural elements or vice versa. Dickens of course gifted us with the ghost of Christmas past and was fascinated by mesmerism.
Much of the jewellery popular with Goths is made from jet, a black semi-precious gemstone formed from the fossilised remains of trees. Great seams of it run through the cliffs of Whitby all the way to the Yorkshire moors. After Prince Albert’s death in 1861 Queen Victoria wore Whitby jet jewellery exclusively and it began a trend in mourning jewellery.
We stayed at La Rosa Hotel, where I took advantage of rooms bursting with Victorian kitsch. The hotel is linked to another literary great, Lewis Carroll, author of Alice in Wonderland. He first stayed there as a 22 year-old student, while attending a mathematics conference, and he visited Whitby another seven times. A blue plaque in his memory is attached to an outside wall of La Rosa Hotel.
Bram Stoker’s Dracula can be read here.
Dracula came in at number 31 on Robert McCrum’s list of the 100 Best Novels.
Four of the finest films based on Dracula:
Tod Browning and Karl Freund’s Dracula (1931) starring Bela Lugosi as Dracula.
Terence Fisher’s The Horror of Dracula (1958) starring Christopher Lee as Dracula, and Peter Cushing.
Francis Ford Coppola’s (1992) Dracula, starring Gary Oldman as Dracula, with Winona Ryder, Anthony Hopkins and Keanu Reeves.
The Bram Stoker Festival in Dublin.
Some of the remarkable photographs of Frank Meadow Sutcliff. In the nineteenth century he captured working-class Victorian life in Whitby prior to industrialisation.
The Whitby Ghost and Dracula Walk. https://www.whitbystoryteller.co.uk/guided-walking-tours-of-whitby/whitby-ghost-walk/
Belford, Barbara. Bram Stoker: a biography of the author of Dracula, Knopf, 1996
Frayling, Christopher. ‘Dracula: the man behind the cape’, The Guardian, 5 May, 2012
Frayling, Christopher. Vampyres: Lord Byron to Count Dracula, Faber and Faber, 1991
King, Stephen. Danse Macabre, Everest House, 1981
Mah, Ann. ‘Where Dracula Was Born, and It’s Not Transylvania’ in The New York Times Footsteps: From Ferrante’s Naples to Hammett’s San Francisco, Literary Pilgrimages around the world, Penguin Random House, 2017
Skal, David, J. Hollywood Gothic: The Tangled Web of Dracula from Novel to Stage to Screen, Norton, 1991
Stoker, Bram. Dracula, Penguin, 2003
Stoker, Bram. Personal Reminiscences of Henry Irving, Heinemann, 1906