I vant to suck your blood… and varn you about ze spoilers ahead! (And also tell you zis book is #56 on my Classics Club list, bleh bleh).
On a dark and stormy night, in a castle in Transylvania, an English clerk named Jonathan Harker discovers a terrible secret about his host. It leads to an epic chase across the whole of Europe, from East to West, and back again. It’s the plot of Dracula, one of the most recognisable literary villains in history. Decades of literary criticism have shown us just how much there is to uncover in a book like Dracula. There’s no way I can possibly cover everything there is to find in a book like this, so I thought I’d start with some of the things which really caught my attention while I was reading.
Men Writing About Women Writing About Men (And Why It Always Makes Me Laugh)
In Dracula, women are everywhere. The plot revolves around two women in particular: Lucy Westenra and Mina Harker, the wife of Jonathan. In his characterisation of them, Stoker articulates anxieties about a range of issues, from Victorian sexuality to the fear of foreign invasion.* And women in the book fall, rather neatly, into two distinct categories. The first is, of course, the unspoilt English lady, who acts as victim in the book: she is desired, pursued, overcome, consumed. Then there are the shadier ‘vampire women’ of Transylvania who embody just about every Victorian sexual fantasy you can think of. Between them there’s very little of ‘real’ Victorian women.
It’s been a while since I read Victorian fiction, so one of the principal challenges for me was getting back into the frame of mind. It is always incredibly frustrating to read Victorian fiction, especially those books written by men. The stifling, excessive, overly-devoted, overly-good Victorian ideal of womanhood is so incredibly unrealistic that it almost hurts to read. The worst part is that, because it’s written by a male writer, even the woman’s thoughts are under his control. Sample sentences:
Oh, it did me good to see the way that these brave men worked. How can women help loving men when they are so earnest, and so true, and so brave!
(Mina Harker’s Journal, Chapter XXVI)
Excuse me while I step outside to pointedly dry-heave onto the grass. And it’s not just the women who idolise the male characters. In order for the male characters to seem greater, better, they must be loved by equally good women. Mina Harker becomes a kind of mascot for the Anti-Dracula League, minus the weird costume. Dr Seward describes Mina as “that sweet, sweet, good, good woman”, full of “tender faith” and “radiant beauty” (Chapter XXIII). Frankly I’m amazed that, with all this praise, Mina doesn’t spontaneously sprout wings and a halo. Of course, in their effort to protect Mina like she’s a china doll, excluding her from their plans and discussions on how to destroy Dracula, they unwittingly open her up to the vampire’s advances. While the menfolk chat downstairs and send Mina to bed like a naughty child, Dracula sneaks in and begins drinking Mina’s blood. Oops. If only they’d let Mina take a few Krav Maga classes in all those millions of hours of spare time that she has, this book would have been a lot shorter, and Dracula would probably have wound up minus one eyeball.
Van Helsing. Yes, That Van Helsing, and Why the Story Felt a Little Bit Like a Victorian Version of The Avengers.
It’s easy to forget just how many clichés about Dracula began somewhere. The character of Van Helsing, for instance, began life as a character in Stoker’s book. Although, to be honest, he was less this:
And more this:
Less of a muscle-man and more of a quick-thinking, long-studying, scientist-slash-doctor, Van Helsing is the ideal Victorian hero: educated, scientific, but still devoted to his religion. And when he and his friends assemble a kind of Anti-Dracula League, they could very well be a Victorian version of the Avengers. Van Helsing is, obviously, Iron Man, the real hero of the tale: clever, quick-talking, and just a little bit sexy (actually, that last one’s probably just Robert Downey Jr). Quincey Morris is Captain America, mostly because he’s the only American in the League, but also because he’s a goody-two shoes who dies valiantly at the end and saves many lives. Then there are Arthur Holmwood (The Hulk, given his amazing changes in personality) and Jonathan Harker (Thor, maybe, given that he’s a bit of a fish out of water when he first comes to visit Dracula?), and Dr Seward (the guy with the arrows that nobody really cares about).** Finally, there’s Mina Harker (the token woman). Of course, there’s a lot less gunfighting with the Victorian Avengers and a lot more sitting around in parlours reading old books and waiting for telegrams. Cue theme song!
Aaah, Noo, All the Clichés! They Burn!
Every good legend has to start somewhere. What might amaze you is just how many clichés began life right here in Stoker’s novel: not in the later movie versions, as so often happens (cough*Frankenstein*cough), or in books and films that follow. Let’s take a little look:
- Garlic. Apparently it keeps vampires at bay, though it doesn’t seem to do Lucy Westenra much good.
- Crucifixes and other holy objects.
- Dracula sleeps in a coffin.
- He can make mist, turn into a bat, and control wolves.
- He sleeps in the day, remaining comatose until nightfall.
This last one is actually a great disadvantage, as Dracula can be killed while lying in his coffin without fighting back, which sounds very lame – but then, let’s be honest, don’t most of us prefer the idea of dying peacefully in our beds? Apart from the ‘getting stabbed’ part, Dracula’s weakness actually isn’t that bad, and the fact that he sleeps in a coffin just means there’s less tidy-up afterwards. There’s not many villains who are that thoughtful (exploding aliens, anybody?). In either case, it’s interesting to see how much vampire lore Stoker incorporated into his book. He certainly wasn’t the first person to come up with a vampire story (some credit Polidori, a friend of Byron’s, with that honour; he composed a tale called ‘The Vampyre’ during the same ghost-writing competition that saw the birth of Frankenstein, and consequently got a little upstaged by a teenaged Mary Shelley). But there’s no doubt that Stoker’s villain captured the popular imagination. By the throat, in fact. And so far, he hasn’t let go.
Rating: 4 Stars
*Lucy’s name, some critics have pointed out, is a clumsy hint at her role as the ‘Western’ nation being penetrated and possessed by a dark, mysterious foreign force. Then of course there’s the weird stuff that her own countrymen do to her for her own ‘safety’: blood transfusions (I won’t even go into all the levels there), voyeurism, and finally, penetration via a stake through the heart. There’s enough there to keep a department full of literary critics happy for decades.
**As you can probably tell, I only watched about half of The Avengers. Sorry, Joss Whedon. I tried, I really did, but let’s face it – Avengers is no Buffy.