Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Bram Stoker

“Welcome to my House! Enter freely and of you own will!”

                                                                             Dracula 1897

And with that Abraham "Bram" Stoker an Irish novelist introduced the world to the most famous vampire in literature, Count Dracula. No other novel has been scrutinized, analyzed, and mulled over more than Dracula. Dracula is by far one of the most popular novels of the English language, a novel that has never been out of print since it was first published over 100 years ago.

 Life for Bram Stoker began on November 8, 1847 in Clontarf, Ireland. A strange illness kept him bedridden for the first seven years of his life. It was not until after he was seven years old that young Stoker began to walk. During his long illness he was totally dependent upon his mother who introduced her young son to scary stories of superstition and local folklore. Stoker’s mother told him strange tales of creatures who came back from the dead and threatened people and tales of children being stolen away in the night. She also shared her experiences of the cholera epidemic when she was a child and how people were hauled off and buried alive. Of his early childhood Stoker once wrote, "I was naturally thoughtful, and the leisure of long illness gave opportunity for many thoughts which were fruitful according to their kind in later years."

               Whatever the strange illness was that plagued Stoker in his early years he apparently made a full recovery with no recorded relapses during his lifetime. During his college years, Stoker became a star athlete. He excelled at rugby, race walking, and gymnastics and became the athletic champion of the year at Trinity College where he received a degree in mathematics.

 After college Stoker’s father helped him get a job as a civil servant at Dublin Castle were the elder Stoker also worked.  It was during this time that Bram Stoker began writing theater reviews as a means to escape from his humdrum life. Stoker had become interested in theater during his college years and became a theater critic for the Dublin Evening Mail Call which was co-owned Joseph Sheridon Le Fanu who was a writer of gothic stories. Two of Le Fanu’s stories, Carmilla and The Room in the Dragon Volant would not only become the basis for the 1932 French-German horror film Vampyr, but would be a major influence on Stoker’s writings.

               Although theater critics were held in low regard in this time Stoker was noted for the quality of his reviews. In December 1876 Stoker gave a raving review about Henry Irving’s performance in Hamlet at the Royal Theatre. Irving at this time was the world’s most popular stage actor. Irving read Stoker’s raving review about his performance and invited the young man to dinner at his house. That evening at dinner, Irving presented Stoker with an autograph photograph of himself. This dinner with Henry Irving would forever change Stoker’s life. The two men soon forged a friendship that would last until Irving’s death in 1905.

In 1878 Stoker married Florence Balcome. Bolcome had once been engaged to Oscar Wilde but broke off the engagement. Stoker and Wilde had attended school together and were friends. The marriage did strain Stoker’s friendship with Wilde, however the two men did reconcile later in life.

 In 1877 Irving bought the 2,000 seat Lyceum Theater and asked Stoker to manage it for him. Stoker agreed and in 1878 at the age of 31 he and Florence  moved to London. There Stoker became the manager of the most prestigious theater in London for the most famous actor in the English-speaking world. The cream of society including Mark Twain, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Oscar Wilde, and George Bernard Shaw flocked to the Lyceum Theater making it one of London’s premier hotspots.

  Despite his enormous responsibilities running the theater and managing Irving’s career Stoker still found time to write. In 1881 he published “Under the Sunset” a collection of eight creepy fairy tales for children. In 1890 Stoker began his research on the subject of vampirism. He wrote his notes and manuscript on whatever he could find available, scraps of paper, hotel stationery, and even napkins. Stoker was an excellent researcher, using his skills as a newspaper reporter, he studied the tiniest details such as train schedules, maps, and geography. He spent several years researching European folklore and stories of vampires. It would take over seven years for Stoker to write the novel “Dracula.” He wrote whenever and wherever he could, this of course would help explain why there are several internal inconsistencies in the novel.

The original 541-page manuscript of “Dracula”, once thought to be lost, was found in a barn in Pennsylvania during the 1980s. The manuscript was type written, but the title “The Un-Dead” was handwritten.   The novel’s main character, “Count Dracula,” was originally named “Count Wampyr.” Stoker had come across the name Dracula while researching the history of Transylvania and discovered the name Dracula meant “son of the devil.” This prompted Stoker to change the name of his main character.

Shortly before Dracula’s release, Stoker staged a reading of a play based on the novel and invited Henry Irving to watch the play. It is believed by many that Stoker had aspirations of Irving playing the main character in the play. However Stoker’s hopes were dashed when after watching the play for only 20 minutes Irving stood up and walked out calling the play,  “Dreadful, absolutely dreadful”. Stoker would never again witness a live performance depicting the character he had created.

               In Victorian England the vampire was sometimes used as a metaphor for immigrants or in some cases repressed sexuality. But some scholars believe that Dracula may have been a more personal and deeper metaphor for the author’s life. Henry Irving was a demanding employer and Stoker was in charge of every aspect of the theater and of Irving’s social and professional commitments which left little time for Stoker’s personal life. It is for this reason that some scholars believe that Irving may have been the model for Count Dracula a character who sustains himself by draining the life from others. And if this hypothesis is true it is very likely that Stoker was a model for the character Hawken, who found himself trapped inside Castle Dracula with no means of escape.

Whatever meanings are metaphors that Stoker may or may not have incorporated into this novel he struck a chord that has reverberated for over 100 years. The novel received respectable reviews and did sell well but was not the hit that it would later become. Unfortunately Stoker would never live to see his vampire become the household name that it is today. After suffering several strokes Stoker died on April 20, 1912. His death would go virtually unnoticed by the world, overshadowed by the sinking of the Titanic which dominated the headlines that week. Stoker was cremated and his ashes were placed in an urn at Golders Green Crematorium.  After his only child, Irving Noel Stoker died in 1961, his ashes were added to Stoker's urn. Due to the fear of vandalism, visitors wishing to view Stoker’s urn must be escorted to the room where it is kept.        

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