Sunday, 15 September 2013

The Gothic classic with a sexy bite

Gary Oldman as a less clichéd screen Dracula
When Jonathon Harker, a newly-qualified solicitor, is sent to visit a client in Transylvania, he little realises that his trip to the Carpathians will change from romantic journey to life-threatening horror.

But his experiences at Count Dracula’s castle are just the beginning. While Harker is still on his way home, his fiancé, Mina, is visiting her best friend in Whitby.

And when Lucy falls mysteriously ill, shortly after the arrival in port of a ship that is manned only by a dead skipper, lashed to his wheel, her friends call on Professor Van Helsing to come to their aid.

Not the ‘original’ vampire tale by a long chalk – Polidori’s The Vampyre, from 1819, was the first to employ vampires as a stock figure in gothic horror – but Bram Stoker’s is the one that, since its initial publication in 1897, has stood the test of time.

It remains an excellent example of the genre. Taking an epistolary form made up of letters, notes, newspaper reports and diary entries from various characters, Stoker avoids overly flowery language, while his theatre background (he was stage manager to the legendary Victorian actor, Sir Henry Irving) shows in his ability to write various characters’ in a way that helps you ‘hear’ their voices. Van Helsing, for instance, ‘speaks’ and writes English with a slight hint of Germanic foreignness, while various working-class figures speak in the expected manner.

But what makes this novel stand out are the themes that Stoker deals with.

New-fangled technology and science rear their heads – typewriters, cameras and recording machines are seen alongside the new-fangled sciences such as psychology. In the novel, science in particular needs, if not to be overcome, then tamed.

Van Helsing’s understanding of what Dracula is depends on his ‘openness’ to things other than science and the empirical world. The other characters have to learn to accept what they find so difficult to believe – the message being that that difficulty is a direct consequence of faith in science etc.

And religion is important – not simply for the artifacts that protect (crucifixes, crosses and holy water) – but those fighting Dracula increasingly appeal to God for help in their quest. Folklore too is a help, seen in the role of garlic in keeping vampires away.

This is fin de siècle Europe, with Stoker appealing for the ‘old beliefs’ in the face of the new. But his concerns go further.

Max Schreck being scary as Nosferatu
The dominant theme here is of the danger of female sexuality – specifically, its danger to men.

The main threat to Harker’s life in Transylvania is not from Dracula himself, but from his three vampire brides, whom he rejects and flees, although it nearly kills him.

Once the count has made his way to England, though, he infects the innocent Lucy.

Stoker’s choice of vocabulary leaves no doubt.

The vampire brides and the infected Lucy are examples of “voluptuousness” and “wantonness”, while the pre-infected Lucy is “pure” and “innocent”. Such vocabulary is used time and time again.

Dracula comes to Lucy – and later Mina – at night, when they’re in bed.

The scene where he takes Mina is clearly sexual – having bitten her, he cuts his own breast and, forcing her head to him, makes her drink his blood. They’re discovered with Mina at his breast – a parody of maternity.

And what would men have to be so frightened of, other than sexuality itself?

In the late 19th century, syphilis was rife. Theories of the origins of the disease are manifold. Suggestions include it having come to Europe via the Spanish conquest of the New World.

However, in England, the disease was known at a 13–14th century Augustinian friary in the north-eastern port of Hull (not very far from Whitby). That Hull is a port suggests that the virus could have been ‘imported’ via its maritime links.

Dracula AD72 – a different sexual aspect
What is clear is that syphilis has long been blamed on foreigners. It has been variously called the ‘French disease’ in Italy and Germany, and the ‘Italian disease’ in France. The Dutch called it the ‘Spanish disease’, the Russians called it the ‘Polish disease’, the Turks called it the ‘Christian disease’ or ‘Frank disease’ and the Tahitians called it the ‘British disease’.

In Stoker’s England, respectable women didn’t like sex – the only reason for it was to procreate. As a result, with little or no sexual outlet at home, middle-class Englishmen visited prostitutes widely.

And the fear of syphilis caused them to hunt for virgins, in an effort to stay ‘clean’. Hunting for virgins then translated into a hunt for ever younger prostitutes, in order to be more sure that they were indeed virgins.

On a visit to London, the French writer Émile Zola was shocked to be propositioned by a child he estimated to be as young as six. She gave him a mouthful when he refused, but tried to give her some money.

In Dracula, the deadly infection is imported by a foreigner, who ‘seduces’ women in their beds at night, exchanging bodily fluids as he passes on the killer infection.

Arthur Holmwood cannot be allowed to kiss his dying Lucy, because it would infect him. Only after the undead Lucy is staked can she really die and, her soul cleansed once again, take her place in Heaven.

With Mina, after Dracula’s assault on her, she is ‘unclean’ – to the extent that, when van Helsing presses a communion wafer to her forehead, a mark is ‘burnt’ onto her skin. Even God blames and rejects her, and sees her as unholy.

Female sexuality is presented as an inevitable – women need little or no tempting. Mina and Lucy are “pure”, exemplary women – yet neither is able to resist the count’s blood lust. They need to be protected by men and by religion. Men need to protect themselves, by controlling and subduing female sexuality.

The contradictions are obvious – the idea that men are somehow ‘innocent’ in all this, together with the refusal to recognise that female ‘respectability’ is itself a part of the problem.

Evolving vampire sexiness in Underworld
But the attitudes are far from new – they hark back to ancient beliefs, including Biblical ideas of female impurity and the myth of Adam and Eve and the serpent.

And they still exist today – for instance, in the idea of a Muslim woman needing to cover herself ‘modestly’ so as not to tempt men.

Vampires have remained popular, from the obviously sexual Christoper Lee incarnation in the Hammer films, to Anne Rice’s Lestat series or Kim Newman’s enjoyable Anno Dracula novels, the Buffy TV series or the Underworld films.

They have evolved beyond simplistic representations of dangerous foreigners, but have retained a strong sexual element.

One suspects that this is at least part of the continuing attraction.

Thus Stoker’s Dracula is not only a great work of gothic horror, but an insight into Victorian social attitudes and fears. And that alone makes it a worthwhile and absolutely fascinating read.

* This was originally a 2008 piece written for a literature forum, that came to mind during an online discussion of the novel. It has been slightly edited and extended here.

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