A speculative stake in the future

Roy Foster says no fangs for the memory: Bram Stoker by Barbara Belford, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, pounds 25
Click to follow
Indy Lifestyle Online
Why does Dracula stay undead? Late 19th-century sadistic shockers were published in huge numbers but disappeared after their first outing. Vampires were a popular subject half a century before the Count flapped down the wall of his castle in 1897. But Stoker's masterpiece (and the word is well-advised) retains its pre-eminence and its uniqueness. Is this because it is the apotheosis of the genre, or because it is different? For a start, its author is atypical, and well recorded; one way of analysing the phenomenon might be through his life.

Stoker was a stage-struck Dubliner who migrated to the Lyceum theatre and organised Henry Irving's lecture-tours. Well established in the worlds of Victorian journalism and haute Boheme, he wrote hastily-constructed stories and novels, and was a popular and public figure, but remained slightly oblique, reticent and possibly arrested (''a great shambling good-natured overgrown boy'', remarked one American newspaper). Only for Dracula did he spend years of preparation and consideration, and it raises echoes from his present and his past.

Notably, it might be related to a tradition of Irish Protestant writing about the occult; even to the insecurity felt by the Ascendancy in decline. Is the Count an Irish landlord, transporting his uncertainly-held acres about with him ? And why is the magic that combats him, brought by Van Helsing, so specifically Catholic? Besides the implicit images of bisexuality, menstruation, penetration and fellatio which embellish the text, there is a background of social reference worth investigating, and good deal of biographical evidence to prospect.

Belford has worked through much of the source material, but its significance often eludes her. Since her English editors let her get away with inventing a ''Prime Minister Archibald Primrose'' (aka Lord Rosebery) and listing as late Victorians interested in the supernatural Dickens, Tennyson, Carlyle and Keats (yes, Keats), it is hardly surprising that references to her subject's Irish background demonstrate an impenetrably tin ear for the resonances of a subculture. Bram Stoker was a middle-class Irish Protestant from the professional classes - not, as Belford repeatedly states, Anglo-Irish. She also states that he ''had a proper British accent but often put on a Milesian brogue'', and that the feuding political parties arising out of the Parnellite split in 1890 ''exist to this day''.

Connacht appears as ''the West Country'' and the Holyhead mailboat is the ''Channel ferry'', while the couche sociale of Trinity College, Dublin, is hopelessly misread. Unsurprisingly, the fact that his family were buried in St Michan's church, whose limestone crypt famously preserves corpses ''undead'', is simply given a passing note, while his reading of travel books about Transylvania which specifically compare conditions there to Ireland goes unmentioned. So does the influence on Stoker of contemporary Trinity authorities on Mary Shelley and Polidori. For her, Dracula's genealogy lies elsewhere.

In Belford's reading, the Count was conceived when Stoker left behind the family security of a civil-service career in Dublin Castle to become Henry Irving's theatre manager. She is happier with this milieu - the late- Victorian heyday of the Lyceum Theatre, the American tours, Irving's combined charisma and unpleasantness, the partnership with Ellen Terry, the enmity with Shaw - and there is much of interest about Irving's Jack Russell terrier, Fussie.

But the genesis of Dracula becomes lost among novelettish scene-setting (''the Decadent, Yellow, Naughty Nineties'') and pointless speculations ("Perhaps Irving praised his acting manager - even said 'I could never have done it all without you.' And then perhaps not.'')

Symbolically, much more space is devoted to the copyright-reading of a pasted-together dramatic version at the Lyceum, than to the publication of the novel itself. This arises from Belford's determination to link Dracula to Stoker's exploitation by Irving, who sucked him dry and for whom Stoker felt a fascinated reverence likened here to the madman Renfrew's for his ''Master'' the Count.

This is suggestive, as is the theory, borrowed from Elaine Showalter, that 1890s shocker-fiction demonstrates fear of women, dislocation of sexual relations, and homosexuality masquerading as homosociality. Belford adroitly works in Stoker's adulation of Whitman, as well as his uneasy relationship with Wilde, who had courted Stoker's future wife, the great Dublin beauty Florence Balcombe. ''Florrie'' remained affectionate about ''poor O'' throughout, but unfortunately for Belford, there is no record of Stoker's reaction to Wilde's fall. Unwisely, on the basis of a ''story'' that Stoker brought him money in Paris, she ''imagines'' an encounter. (''They would go first to the Cafe de la Regence for Courvoisier, and Wilde would order a box of gold-tipped cigarettes...'') For all Belford's unwise claims, this is very far from ''definitive''. It is the record of a life, lived in the shadows and margins of larger, more defined characters; even the legendary success of Stoker's creation came after his own death at the age of 64.

The character who remains oddly vivid is the enigmatic Florence: an independent spirit, obviously resentful of Irving and rather detached from her husband. Belford's theory that she combines elements of Dracula's frivolous Lucy and resourceful Mina seems well founded. Intriguingly, she converted to Catholicism in 1904. After her husband's death in 1912 she lived on for 25 years, still beautiful in her seventies, the terror of the Society of Authors as she implacably pursued the makers of Nosferatu for royalties.

Nothing was forthcoming, but the Bela Lugosi film was a moneyspinner and she died much better-off than Bram, after a merry Knightsbridge widowhood. A frankly speculative novel based on her life and influence might be more enlightening than a laborious but unsatisfying biography of her elusive husband.