Strong but batty

BRAM STOKER: A Biography of the Author of Dracula by Barbara Belford, Weidenfeld pounds 25
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
After a rough Atlantic crossing, Bram Stoker once remarked that in such circumstances, "the only real comfort a poor woman can have is to hold on to a man. I happen to be a big one, and therefore of extra desirability in such cases of stress." Like one of his own adventurous male characters, he liked to present himself as bluff, honest and true, gallant to women, proud of his muscularity and his grey eyes, which latter attribute he bestowed on favourite characters, male and female.

Stoker's novels frequently feature brave men rescuing good women. Dracula explicitly contrasts disturbing, erotic Lucy (who dies) and admirable Victorian wife Mina (who is saved). Stoker's special genius was to construct a single text which purported to uphold clean, masculine values while furtively admitting all sorts of sexual contraband: "seduction, rape, gang rape, group sex, necrophilia, paedophilia, incest, adultery, oral sex, menstruation, venereal disease and voyeurism", as Barbara Belford usefully summarises Dracula. Perhaps, like the heroin-smuggling "mule", Stoker would not have got away with it had he been altogether aware what he was carrying.

At Trinity College, Dublin, he played rugby, rowed, swam, hiked and won awards for weight-lifting, but he had spent the first seven years of his life in bed, a heavy-eyed, pudgy child who was not expected to live. These years paid dividends for the writer: Stoker was dependent on his mother, who told him the supernatural tales of Ireland. His father, a civil servant at Dublin Castle, was a remote figure who popped his head round the nursery door with a cheery "How's my little man today?"

When Stoker read Leaves of Grass at Trinity, he wrote a letter to Walt Whitman which contains a shrewd self-portrait: "I have read your poems with my door locked late at night, and I have read them on the seashore ... I am six feet two inches high and 12 stone weight naked ... I am ugly but strong and determined... I am equal in temper and cool in disposition and have a large amount of self-control and am naturally secretive to the world." The letter was never posted, though he and Whitman were later to become friends.

At Trinity, Bram met and admired another large-boned, sensitive Irish dough-boy - Oscar Wilde. He even ended up stealing Oscar's girl, the lovely Florence Balcombe. News of their impending marriage caused a flurry of pettish letters from Oscar, demanding she return his trinkets. Later in the book, Belford goes off on an extraordinary fantasia around the legend that Stoker saved the disgraced Wilde from destitution in Paris: "They would go first to the Cafe de la Regence for Courvoisier, and Wilde would order a box of gold-tipped cigarettes. They would dine at the Cafe de Paris and talk of Trinity, of Florence and her beauty. That one evening they would be Dubliners." If this is to anticipate, then it's no more than Belford frequently does, flinging in unchronological references to Dracula and the other works whenever they occur to her.

Henry Irving, the most popular actor of the day, invited the young man who had written such a perceptive account of his Hamlet in the Dublin Evening Mail, to dine with him one rainy night in December 1876. Thus began a passionate and irksome master-slave relationship which ended only with Irving's death in October 1905. A year after their first meeting, Irving offered the prestigious but largely thankless task of acting-manager to the young man, who distressed his family by abandoning his career in the civil service and running away with the troupe to England.

Belford has a habit of referring to psychological speculations as though they were facts, asserting, for example, that Mark Twain "had an obsession with cleanliness, and his trademark white suit was a fetish, a way of dealing with forbidden and thus unclean thoughts". Her assumption that Irving is Dracula is persuasive, however; Stoker's description of the Count - his age, flowing locks and hooked nose - sounds much more like Irving than Christopher Lee. Stoker seems always to have hoped that Irving would play the part on stage, though Irving steadfastly refused. After a rehearsed reading of Dracula the play, which Irving had attended, Stoker approached him in his dressing room to ask what he'd thought of it. "Dreadful," said Irving, brusquely, and that was that.

Belford's picture of Victorian and Edwardian theatre is the great delight of this book, which paints vivid scenes of the green-room and the Beefsteak Club, and describes the tempestuous, tight-knit family formed by Stoker, Irving and Ellen Terry. They were famous figures in their day, the manager hardly less so than the performers. Irving was a great innovator with stage lighting; one of his men stunned a 1916 Hamlet by asking which finger was to be illuminated on the line: "I doubt some foul play." Therefore, claims Belford in one of her dizzy leaps: "Lucy's fiance, Lord Godalming, is named after the town of Godalming, 34 miles southwest of London, among the first to use electricity for public lighting in 1881."

Despite the subtitle, this is chiefly an account of Stoker's theatrical career, and scant mention is made of his progressively more lurid literary oeuvre. But Belford has a way with footnotes. How fascinating to learn that the sword Edmund Kean wore as Richard III in 1814, passed down by tradition from actor to actor, was once owned by Irving and descended at last to Gielgud in 1938. He gave it, six years later, to Olivier, that most jealous of actors, who kept it, and made no provision for its disposal at his death.