Dracula & the Fears of Victorian England

November 18, 2011 § Leave a comment

Every Friday I am going to take a look some fiction from before the current economic crisis, Bram Stoker’s horror classic Dracula is the first in this series. This Post was originally published on a short-lived blog called Literature Under Capitalism for those who have already read it I apologize. I would however like to point readers to the excellent article on the influence of the Paris Commune on Dracula in A Presage of Horror!”: Cacotopia, the Paris Commune, and Bram Stoker’s Dracula by Eric D Smith 

Bram Stoker's Dracula


Bram Stoker’s Dracula is considered one of the great classics of horror fiction and along with Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein and Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde is one of modern horrors founding texts.

These are some of my thoughts on the novel, the author and the relationship between the two.

To understand how and why Dracula was created it is necessary to not only look at the creative labor of the writer (Bram Stoker) but also at the age in which he was living in and how this affect his writing.  As Leon Trotsky the great Russian Revolutionary said artistic creation is ‘a deflection, a changing and transformation of reality, in accordance with the peculiar laws of art’. To just focus on the writer would be to slip into individualism and cut yourself off from understanding Dracula‘s place in the late-Victorian era as well as miss an opportunity to delve into many of its themes. However to simply talk about the lat-Victorian Era and the literature it produced would also be a mistake and not take into account the ‘peculiar laws of art’ and how they played out for Bram Stoker in contrast with other more convention writers of his day. Instead we must bring the two together, the writer Bram Stoker and the historical period in which he lived. As well as understand the relationship between the two and Stoker’s novel.

Bram (Abraham) Stoker (1847-1912) was born and studied in Dublin were he also worked for seven years as a civil servant for Dublin Castle. Early on he had an interest in dramatic criticism, history and literature and wrote and spoke on such subjects at Dublin Trinity College. The 1840′s, 50′s and 60′s of his youth were considered the golden days of Victorian England, although living in Ireland Stoker was a part of a section of Irish that had long ago given up much of their cultural heritage and saw themselves as a part of the general British-Victorian Empire. Along many especially those in the middle class (the social circles in which Stoker mainly found himself) there was a sense of satisfaction in the industrial and political preeminence of England. Along with this came a glorification of progress, empire, commerce and apparent ‘civilization’.

The Victorian Era was also known for it’s traditions of sexual moralism, domestic propriety and imperialist ambition. The figure of the aging but almost immortal Queen Victoria embodying many of these ideas. Their were massive moral reform campaigns led by middle class men and woman and eventually the English state and government itself. The working class family that had been uprooted and severely disrupted by the transition into capitalism had degenerated greatly and as the future of the laboring class became bleak the rulers of British capital intervened to to save themselves and their future. The campaigns first started by the more far sighted sections of the middle class were designed to implant the middle class family life into the working masses. Women and children were forced out of work and a family wage was created so that the male of the family could fed, clothe and shelter his family. So throughout this period we see massive interventions by the British state to establish and then enforce sexual and social mores that were once more commonly held in the middle classes.

This whole new sexual ideology was made in contrast to that of the parasitic, autocratic of feudalism who were seen as sexually depraved, morally corrupt and spiritually unwell. So the social and moral campaigns were portrayed as sweeping away the old, dead and depraved ideas of the past and establishing the basis for civilized society. In reality it was an attempt by the ruling class of England to shore up their power and ensure the continuation of the dominance of British capital throughout the world by creating a constant supply of new labour.

However by the time that Bram Stroker was starting to write Dracula things had started to move on, the British Empire’s hegemony over the world was starting to crack and the transition into the modern era that would led to World War One was beginning. The British ruling class had to face a round of economic crisis (which it had falsely thought would cease to happen under capitalism) and growing resistance to it’s overseas empire by both national liberation movements and imperial rivals.  There were massive social panics about the collapse of social order, the decay of British society and the like. Bram Stoker at this time was working in England as the manager for a famous actor Henry Irving and would not have been immune to this. Among the middle class it was especially felt that the British Empire was under threat and with it there whole way of life. Many of these feelings were heightened after the Trial of Oscar Wilde who Stoker had actually known for some time as a rival for the love of his first wife.

Sexual deviance was seen as another sign of the crisis of the British way of life for some it seemed to be the greatest threat of all. One advocate for sexual purity attacked sexual deviance with this lofty passage, ‘Rome fell; other nations have fallen; and if England falls it will be this sin and her unbelief in God, that will be her ruin.’

It is  the empire under threat by forces within and without that provides much of the background to Bram Stoker’s Dracula.

As I said before Bram Stoker was the manager for the famous actor Henry Irving at this time most of his time was spent in the middle class social circles that were around the various playhouses and theaters that Irving acting in. Stoker seems to have seen himself as integrated into these middle class circle. His article on censorship and interview with Winston Churchill reveal as much. Although slightly bohemian in nature the middle class dramatic professions were definitely an integrated part of the British establishment. From Shakespeare to more modern writers the plays were a symbol of England’s cultural importance and a source of entertainment mainly aimed at the middle class itself and to hold up the social and moral ideas of that class.

The original seed for Stoker’s novel came from a dream he had, on a piece of notepaper the day after the bad dream he wrote ‘Young man goes out, sees girls one tries to kiss him not on lips but throat. Old count interferes – rage & fury diabolical – this man belongs to me I want him.’ The homoerotic undercurrent should be obvious, this was later expanded into Johnathan Harker’s journal entry in the novel itself.

From this was written what is really a mixture of Victorian adventure story, gothic romance and supernatural horror in which a group of courageous middle class and upper class Englishmen (and one woman) take on the demonic vampire count from the backwoods of Eastern Europe who represents all the treats to England grafted together. Sexual immorality, foreign backwardness, dated aristocracy and peasant style superstition. The characters use a combination of the latest scientific advances, rational thought and righteous action to force the count out of England and track him back to his homeland were they destroy him and his wives.

Is Stoker’s book then trying to swim against the tide of middle class pessimism and doubt that many novels of this time revel in? Is the triumph against the chaos surrounding the empire as complete as Stoker might have wanted? While Dracula concerns itself with saving Victorian society from the darkness both inside and outside it is far from just an infantile fantasy about protecting a degenerating era. Although Stoker may have wanted the book to end with a tone of smug satisfaction and may have thought it did there is a contradiction for many passages and themes explored in the novel are left unresolved. As Maurice Hindle argues in her introduction to the penguins Classic edition: ‘Something else has ‘passed into” the body of little Quincey (Mina and Johnathan’s son born after the death of the count) too; Dracula’s blood. Of all Dracula’s victim’s, it is Mina Alone who has been forced to drink his blood,having made her as he gloatingly boasts, ‘flesh of my flesh; blood of my blood; kin of my kin my bountiful wine – press for a while’…. The Harkers and the rest of naively optimistic Crew of Light are all convinced that Count Dracula and his kind have been vanquished. Yet one has to wonder: Was Stoker as convinced? Or was this another case of him evading what he had guessed…’

The other currents of madness, increasing sexual revolt and the weakening empire are also not fixed, the count maybe dead but all the threats him represented lived on. I think one critic said it best ‘when such a man as Bram Stoker, just once is thoroughly afraid, the charade stops and what you get is Dracula.’ Despite being couched in the rhetoric of the Gothic (although this shapes and molds it) the novel’s great shocks and horrors are apparently real ones at least for the defenders of middle class life and empire.

I don’t have the space to go into great depth of Stoker’s novel but I hope some of these thoughts have been useful, Dracula is a tortured and disturbing bridge between the stifling moralism of the Victorian era and the violent madness of the Modern era. Written by someone who felt apart of the crumbling British Empire makes it all the more interesting as the novel digs wider and deeper than the middle class professional who wrote it would have liked to admit.


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