Note: This article first appeared in Voices from the Vaults, the publication of the Dracula Society. Details about the Society and a link showing how to join are below this piece.
‘But Arthur never faltered. He looked like a figure of Thor as his untrembling arm rose and fell, driving deeper and deeper the mercy-bearing stake, whilst the blood from the pierced heart welled and spurted up around it. His face was set and high duty seemed to shine through it…’ (Dr Seward’s diary, Chapter 16, Dracula)
Rarely has male violence against women been presented in such perversely self-righteous language as in this passage of Bram Stoker’s celebrated 1897 novel. Before Lucy Westenra is staked by fiance Arthur Holmwood, the look in her eyes causes Dr. Seward to muse that if he had to kill her he would go about the task with “savage delight.”
The sexual landscape in Dracula is one of extremes. The Lucy of Stoker’s novel must not be confused with the sexually liberated character who turns up in Francis Ford Coppola’s 1992 epic or, more recently, the third part of 2020’s Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat mini series.
Until she dies and rises with demonic, “voluptuous” power, Stoker’s Lucy is all about sweetness and “innocence” which in late-Victorian world means submissiveness and sexual inexperience. When she receives multiple marriage proposals within a short time Lucy reacts like a twittery child. One of her suitors, Quincey Morris, even repeatedly calls her “little girl” as he declares his love.
It is the contrast in Lucy alive and Lucy (un)dead that so unhinges Seward. He tells us he sees Lucy “in form and colour; but Lucy’s eyes unclean and full of hell-fire, instead of the pure, gentle orbs we knew.”
It might be tempting to believe that Dr. Seward’s descriptions are part of a literary trick. If these passages appeared in a novel from a much later era, we might assume Seward is an ‘unreliable narrator’ and that his reactions have been planted to disquiet the reader and make them confront misogyny head on.
But there is little in the novel or in Stoker’s life to suggest he was interested in sneaking feminist codes into his novels, nor that he intended his band of brothers — Seward, Harker, Quincey Morris and Arthur Holmwood — to be anything other than valiant knights saving Lucy’s soul from depravity.
To try to understand Stoker is to take in a number of contradictory aspects of his life and character. He was a conservative man, especially when it came to ideas of gender roles, yet he was drawn to bohemian circles. He was undoubtedly interested in prestige and societal approval but took the riskiest path towards achieving his ends, deserting a legal career, and throwing his energies into serving the great actor Henry Irving and the Lyceum Theatre. Most importantly, he was always extremely busy, and likely compensated for multi-tasking by hyper-focus and overwork.
While Dracula was meticulously planned and timetabled, it is the author’s fevered imagination, driven by (in modern language) subconscious fears and emotions that drive the plot. This is one of Stoker’s strengths as a writer. In Dracula and other works, he draws from folklore without inhibition or any sense of worry about what he might be revealing about himself. He even gives us a hint of this in the early chapters of Dracula when Jonathan Harker refers to the Carpathians as an “imaginative whirlpool” which draws in every superstition. This ‘imaginative whirlpool’ is the perfect metaphor for Dracula, a novel which draws from Stoker family memory, folklore and research ranging from Ireland to eastern Europe. And it also draws from every fear. Like all constructed folktales, the moral values end up being merely a reflection of the era in which the story is written.
Reviews of Dracula were at the time fairly positive overall. The criticisms that came tended to focus on the believability factors and there was little, if any, mention of misogyny. The closest comes, and it’s not very close at all, from a publication called The Athenaeum June 26, 1897, which noted that “The people who band themselves together to run the vampire to earth have no real individuality or being” (Retrieved from The Bela Lugosi Blog). This blind spot to those aspects of Dracula that are all too obvious today suggests that in its view of female sexuality, Dracula was an accurate barometer of its age.
For the twenty-first century writer wishing to revisit the novel the question is this: What was it about the 1890s that shielded author, reviewers, and readers to the most disquieting aspect of the novel?
Dracula was written during the last gasp of the Victorian era. Despite Mina’s facetious reference to “the new woman”, the novel’s reader will sometimes have to pinch themselves to remember that the suffragette movement had been in full swing for decades by the time of its publication. Even before the Great War, the patriarchal and cap-doffing society represented by Arthur Holmwood and friends might be seen to be numbered. It’s easy to imagine people, consciously or otherwise, holding on with an even firmer grasp than usual to some old-fashioned notions.
The emerging discipline of psychiatry, very much in evidence in Dracula, is a perfect convergence of old and new ideas. It still inhabited a murky borderland with pseudo sciences such as physiognomy (the determining of a person’s character by the shape of their skull), in which Stoker had a particular interest.
Asylums, such as Dr Seward’s, were often about social control, especially of women. One concept in contemporary use was ‘moral insanity’. This designation was used by alienists to explain how even if a person acted rationally, their deviation from moral norms might still be harmful to society. This backdrop of belief might go a little way to explain how 1890s readers might not have balked at the idea that it was necessary for Arthur to ‘stake’ Lucy.
While the novel stresses the completeness of Lucy’s possession by evil, the fact that she recognizes and speaks to Arthur by name suggests she is still the same person. It is possible to argue then that Dracula‘s contemporary readership was primed by the then-current notions of insanity. Lucy is neither insane nor completely possessed. But her behaviour is so far removed from accepted norms that the men feel justified in putting an end to her. The fact that Lucy in the story is already technically dead is the device through which Arthur, Seward et al avoid responsibily for her death in any legal or moral sense.
Dracula remains a many-layered labyrinth of horrors largely because Stoker kept his imagination open and unfettered and he wrote by instinct. My hope in Mina’s Child is that in moving the action ahead one generation to 1921 to a less obviously gendered society, and one whose understanding of the mind was a little more rooted in science, some more ‘hidden’ aspects of Dracula‘s horror will be thrown more sharply into relief.
Note: The Dracula Society welcomes anyone with an affinity for supernatural fiction. Details on how to join can be found here!
Paul Butler is the author of Mina’s Child, a novel which shifts Dracula‘s story ahead one generation from the 1890s to the 1920s and deals with the doubts that the Harkers’ daughter has about her parents’ tales of an evil foreigner and women’s demon sexuality.
Mina’s Child is widely available through most book retailers. In Canada, it can be purchased through any good independent bookstore, through the publisher Inanna, through the Chapters-Indigo chain or through amazon.ca.In the US, Mina’s Child can be purcahsed through Barnes and Noble or amazon.com In the UK, it is available through amazon.co.uk.