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Coitus Interruptus: Sex, Bram Stoker, and Dracula

  • Elizabeth Miller

…plus d’informations

  • Elizabeth Miller
    Professor Emerita, Memorial University

Imagine a Dracula in which wooden stakes are wooden stakes, and blood is merely blood. This is not an easy task when we consider the extent to which the text has been pushed to the brink of total libidinal abandon. If we take Bram Stoker at his word, we must assume he did not deliberately intend his novel to be concerned with sex. We need only recall his comment to William Gladstone in 1897 that “There is nothing base in this book” (Letter 48) and his later declaration that “the only emotions that in the long run harm are those arising from sex impulses” (“Censorship” 436). Scholars disagree on whether the author of Dracula was aware of any sexual subtext of his novel. On the one hand, Maurice Richardson doubts that Stoker had any inkling of the erotic content of the vampire superstition (420). But Barbara Belford is certain that Stoker not only was fully aware of it but deliberately developed a “coded eroticism” (8), while H.L. Malchow is convinced that “Stoker was no prude, and the world of the theater in which he was immersed was full of the sexually unconventional and ambiguous” (136). Nothing in the numerous reviews of Dracula suggests that his contemporaries detected sexual themes in the novel, nor did the Lord Chamberlain’s Office require any deletions from the text of the dramatic reading presented in May 1897. [1]

Yet we have been assured repeatedly that Bram Stoker’s Dracula is all about sex. Indeed, every imaginable sexual practice, fantasy and fear has been thrust upon the pages of the novel: rape (including gang rape), aggressive female sexuality, fellatio, homoeroticism, incest, bestiality, necrophilia, paedophilia, and sexually transmitted disease. In some cases, words have been twisted to yield new meanings, whole passages have been examined out of context, and gaps in the text have been declared intentional omissions. The incessant pursuit of sexual innuendo has led some down the slippery slope of reductive textual nitpicking and revisionist biography. Most alarming of all, as critics comb every aspect of Stoker’s life looking for evidence for their particular brand of psychosexual analysis, they have at times distorted or even invented “facts” to support flimsy theories.

Sex and the Vampire Text

The great push began with Ernest Jones, the Freudian scholar who saddled Shakespeare’s Hamlet with a massive Oedipal complex. In On the Nightmare (1931), Jones asserts that the latent content of vampire belief “yields plain indications of most kinds of sexual perversions, and that the belief assumes various forms according as this or that perversion is more prominent” (98). Using Freud’s underlying thesis that morbid dread always signifies repressed sexual wishes, Jones expands on the way in which the vampire legend combines the two major ingredients of blood and death. The theme was picked up and applied specifically to Dracula in 1959 by Maurice Richardson, who contends that vampirism in the story makes sense only from a Freudian perspective, that Dracula is a “kind of incestuous, necrophilous, oral-anal-sadistic all-in wrestling match”, a “blatant demonstration of the Oedipal complex” (418-19), and that the novel presents the vampire count as a father-figure of great power, the evil father who hordes all the women and the young men (sons), who kill him to destroy his sexual monopoly.

This initiated an avalanche of psychoanalytical readings of Dracula during the 1970s. Most influential (in that it reached a wide popular market) was Leonard Wolf’s A Dream of Dracula, which draws heavily on Jung’s theory of the visionary novel that is a “primordial experience which surpasses man’s understanding, and to which he is therefore in danger of succumbing” (206). Wolf’s conclusion is that Dracula “squirms with [...] primordial, dark or forbidden news from the abyss” with its “configuration of sex, blood and death” (209), as well as a “spectrum of incest possibilities, marriage, homosexuality, immortality and death” bound together by blood (222). More significant than Wolf in terms of impact on future scholarship were two articles originally published in mainstream academic journals in 1972. Christopher Bentley examined Dracula in the context of Ernest Jones’s thesis, focusing on sexual undertones in the sucking and the transfusing of blood and drawing attention to both the phallic symbolism of the wooden stake and the novel’s covert treatment of perverted sexuality. Carrol Fry’s “Fictional Conventions and Sexuality in Dracula” noted the connections between vampirism and female sexuality—a theme that would be explored in much more detail in the ensuing decade—attributing much of the novel’s appeal to its latent sexuality as a story of pure women, fallen women and a rake.

These early psychoanalytical readings of Dracula focus for the most part on universal anxieties encoded in the text. While still rooted in the psychoanalytical, Phyllis Roth shifted the focus, claiming in 1977 that the central motif is a “desire to destroy the threatening mother, she who threatens by becoming desirable” (65). Later scholars began to explore the novel as an expression of the specific concerns of late Victorian England with regard to issues of sex and gender. Feminist critics, focusing in part on what the text reveals about Victorian attitudes towards women, borrowed heavily from psychosexual readings. Not surprisingly, some of these critics read the text as misogynous. Judith Weissman, for example, sees it as a representation of the male fear of female sexuality:

Their fight to destroy Dracula and to restore Mina to her purity is really a fight for control over women. It is a fight to keep women from knowing what the men and women of the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries knew, and what people of the nineteenth century must also have known, even if they did not want to—that women’s sexual appetites are greater than men’s.

77

According to this reading, Dracula is feared because of his ability to release unbridled female sexuality.

Once it became acceptable to think of Dracula in terms of Victorian society’s most repressed and forbidden sexual fantasies, the question became one of whether these fantasies were heterosexual, homosexual or even bisexual. Every possible variation has been explored. Some have shone the spotlight on male desire, viewing Dracula as “the sexual fever-dream of a middle-class Victorian man, a frightened dialogue between demonism and desire” (Skal, Hollywood 28) or as a novel obsessed with the definition of masculinity: “bestial male energy, here highly sexualized, is displaced onto the vampire” (Harse 229). In contrast, Christopher Craft argues that the conflict in Dracula is essentially homoerotic and is rooted in Dracula’s “unfulfilled sexual ambition to fuse with a male [Jonathan]. Always postponed and never directly enacted, this desire finds evasive fulfillment in an important series of heterosexual displacements” (170). Others have viewed sexuality in the novel in terms of late Victorian anxieties about degeneration, atavism, evolutionary theory, and reverse colonization. [2]

Why the almost obsessive preoccupation with sexuality that has pervaded interpretations of Dracula since the mid-twentieth century? Gabriel Ronay once likened Dracula to a “weathervane indicating the direction of the prevalent social winds” (171). From the pop psychology of the 1960s through the AIDS-anxious 1990s, sexual readings of Dracula owe as much to the tenor of the readers’ times as they do to the original text. In fact, some reflect the late twentieth century’s voyeuristic obsession with sexuality in all its forms, coupled with a determination to project (sometimes in condescending fashion) its own self-proclaimed sophisticated and liberated views onto a text (and an author) shaped by what is viewed as late Victorian repression.

While it would be folly to deny any erotic potential in Dracula (it is, after all, a novel about biting and sucking), it is possible to go too far. Take, for example, the oft-quoted passage that describes Lucy’s staking:

Arthur took the stake and the hammer, and when once his mind was set on action his hands never trembled nor even quivered [...]. [He] placed the point over the heart, and as I looked I could see its dint in the white flesh. Then he struck with all his might.

The Thing in the coffin writhed; and a hideous, blood-curdling screech came from the opened red lips. The body shook and quivered and twisted in wild contortions; the sharp white teeth champed together till the lips were cut. And the mouth was smeared with a crimson foam. But Arthur never faltered. He looked like a figure of Thor as his untrembling arm rose and fell, driving deeper and deeper the mercy-bearing stake, whilst the blood from the pierced heart welled and spurted up around it [...]. And then the writhing and quivering of the body became less, and the teeth seemed to champ, and the face to quiver. Finally it lay still. The terrible task was over.

310

Perhaps the most widespread interpretation of this episode is that it displays what has to be the worst horror in the novel: not Dracula himself, but the “released, transforming sexuality of the Good Woman” (Griffin 148). Others read it as a perverse orgasm, or even as gang rape (Bentley 30; Leatherdale 165). But could it be, as Robert Mighall has recently (and refreshingly) suggested, that “Dracula is a horror story about vampires; the scene in the crypt depicts a vampire-slaying; the stake is a stake; and Lucy is a vampire who is being destroyed according to the method prescribed by folklore” (246)? Is there anything inherently erotic about Lucy as vampire? Or is this no more than a specifically male construct? After all, as Mighall reminds us, the “explanation” of Lucy’s vampirism is given to us by Dr. Seward, who is not only a rejected suitor but a rationalist who eroticizes the vampire in order to contain “this threat to his professional self-identity which this intrusion of the supernatural represents” (232). Or, given the Christian framework of the novel (which most contemporary critics choose to overlook), what is happening here may be no more than the salvation of Lucy’s immortal soul brought about by the destruction of the demonic power that controls her vampiric self.

The text of Dracula has been subjected over the years to a painstaking search for linguistic fig-leaves as words are squeezed for every erotic potential. When Dr. Seward comments that Arthur’s “stalwart manhood seemed to have shrunk somewhat” (253), is he suggesting impotence or is he merely commenting on Arthur’s inability under the circumstances (the deaths of his father and his fiancée) to maintain the “stiff upper lip”? Are Count Dracula’s hairy palms indicative of a masturbatory degenerate, or are they no more than a trait that Stoker picked up from his reading of Sabine Baring-Gould’s The Book of Were-Wolves? Can we claim that the object of Dracula’s attacks on the Demeter are the “se(a)men,” even though there is nothing in the text to verify that Dracula feeds on the members of the crew? What are we to make of Mina’s description of her bedroom encounter with Dracula, during which she exclaims that she felt she must “either suffocate or swallow some of the—” (397)? Is the missing word sperm or merely blood? And what of the Count’s frequently quoted exclamation to the female vampires in his castle: “This man belongs to me!” (82)? Why does he “want” Harker? Does he plan to feed on a male? Is it for sexual gratification? Or should we take the text literally and conclude that he needs Harker to facilitate his journey to England?

Surely Dracula has had sex thrust upon him. Film versions notwithstanding, the Count offered to us by Stoker is anything but erotic. Described as tall, thin, with “peculiarly arched nostrils,” massive eyebrows, a “fixed and rather cruel-looking” mouth, extremely pointed ears, red eyes, coarse hands with broad squat fingers and hairs growing in the centre of palm, long sharp fingernails and—least appealing of all—rank breath (51-2), he is hardly a candidate for the sexiest man of the year. That is an attribute added by Hollywood in its quest to shape a vampire that is more erotic than horrifying to meet the twentieth-century audience’s insatiable appetite for more explicit eroticism. Consider the movies of the 1970s, which redefined the Count in romantic-erotic terms, giving us Jack Palance, Louis Jourdan, and Frank Langella. In contrast, Stoker offers Dracula as the embodiment of evil, supported by the textual overlay of biblical and Christian discourse. As an “un-dead,” Dracula is in a state of damnation: the vampire is a “foul Thing” whose powers are bestowed by Satan himself (311); its immortality is ill-gained, in contrast with the immortality offered through faith in Christ. If we consider the staking of Lucy in this context, something very different, and surely much closer to Stoker’s intention, emerges. Van Helsing’s rationale for Lucy’s staking (which Stoker may have intended to be taken literally) is that “when this now Un-dead be made to rest as true dead. Then the soul of the poor lady whom we love shall again be free [... and] she shall take her place with the other angels” (308-9). Again, after her staking he proclaims that “No longer is she the devil’s Un-Dead. She is God’s true dead, whose soul is with him” (311). Mina even suggests this possibility for Dracula himself: “Just think what will be his joy when he too is destroyed in his worser part that his better part may have spiritual immortality” (423). That most critics see the vampire hunters in Dracula as misguided and the vampires as misunderstood says more about the sexual politics of our own times than about Stoker’s text.

Sex and the Married Author

Ken Gelder says that Dracula is “a novel which seems (these days, especially) to generate readings, rather than close them down” (65). Approaching a novel, especially one with such widespread appeal as this one, from different critical perspectives (including sexual readings) is a healthy academic exercise. But I do have a quarrel with those who presume to find “evidence” in Stoker’s life to account for sexual subtexts, an exercise all the more problematic given the many gaps in the biographical sources. We are asked to accept that Stoker was a wellspring of neuroses overflowing onto the pages of Dracula, as well as conclusions reached using the flimsiest of evidence or, in the most blatant cases, no evidence at all: that he was a victim of childhood sexual abuse; that he was in love with Henry Irving; that the Oscar Wilde trials provided the inspiration for Dracula; that Stoker’s frigid wife suffered from severe menstrual pain; that the author had full-blown syphilis while writing the novel; or even that Stoker was inspired in part by the sexually explicit means of punishment carried out by his “model” for Count Dracula—Vlad the Impaler.

We need to begin with Stoker’s childhood illness, which unfortunately (or fortunately for some who like to embellish it) is shrouded in mystery. Stoker wrote of it: “In my babyhood I used, I understand, to be often at the point of death. Certainly till I was about seven years old I never knew what it was to stand upright. This early weakness, however, passed away in time and I grew into a strong boy” (Reminiscences 1: 31-32). No researcher has been able to unearth the exact nature of this supposed ailment, though there has been no shortage of hypotheses. [3] One psychoanalytical scholar, Joseph Bierman, has explored this illness in some depth and proposed some rather startling conclusions. Building on Richardson’s contention that Stoker had an unusually strong father fixation, Bierman adds that the genesis of Dracula lies in Stoker’s childhood illness along with his repressed feelings of rivalry towards his brothers. Applying the concept of the “oral triad” (the wish to eat, to be eaten and to sleep), he argues that the novel concerns itself with death wishes towards younger brothers, nursing at the breasts, and primal scenes expressed in nursing terms and then proceeds to find the explanation in Stoker’s own childhood: Stoker “might have been in the parental bedroom and would have wanted to get rid of the baby-making sounds in order to stay asleep” (“Childhood Illness” 195). More recently he has expanded on this, proposing that the dominant motifs of Dracula have their source in treatments of “bleeding” and sibling rivalry, both occasioned by Stoker’s childhood malaise:

The bloodletting would have been experienced by him first as being eaten up, and then as a castration threat. This would set the stage for increased castration anxiety and fixation for regression to oral fantasies especially with the long period of time (if only in his fantasies) of being the dependent child unable to stand on his own two feet, or to stand erect in the physical and/or phallic sense. He would have experienced the birth of four brothers before he was seven, thus being afforded ample opportunity for seeing his mother pregnant and his brothers nursing, and shaping his rivalrous and angry feelings about the babies at the breast.

“Crucial Stage” 169

Bierman draws additional support for his theory from another problematic source. In 1962, Harry Ludlam reported the rumour that Dracula had its origins in a nightmare: “[Stoker’s] dream, however, did not arise from an intense conversation, as did Mary Shelley’s, nor from illness and worry, as did Stevenson’s; but from a too generous helping of dressed crab at supper one night”; however, he hastened to add that the story was one that Stoker “persistently told” but that “nobody believed” (Ludlam 112). [4] But Bierman read symbolic significance in the non-existent crab: “Crab, when viewed horoscopically [...] is that sign of the Zodiac that covers the period between June 23 and July 23. George, Stoker’s youngest brother, was born under the sign of the crab on July 20th. Eating the dressed crab meant, unconsciously, eating up and killing baby George” (“Childhood Illness” 196).

Bierman is by no means alone. In 1973, Seymour Shuster, in an article published in the British Journal of Medical Psychology, claimed that Dracula resulted from “the emergence of long-repressed anxiety relating to childhood experience with doctors.” Further, Harker’s terror and helplessness at Castle Dracula is “that of the child who has been left by his mother in a hospital to undergo surgery and/or bloodletting.” The baby in Dracula’s bag “represents not only a fellow child victim in the hospital, but Stoker as well”; and the vampire’s bite is in fact the jab of the needle into the terrified child (qtd. in Farson 159-60). Dracula, we need hardly be told, is the Doctor! After all, according to Shuster, Stoker often referred to him as “Drac,” which sounds like “Doc,” and the first two letters of his name form the abbreviation “Dr.” (qtd. in Farson 160). The problem with all of this is that no medical records of Stoker’s illness have been found; we do not know if he ever spent time in a hospital.

Clinical psychologist Daniel Lapin contends that Dracula derives unconsciously from Stoker’s own repressed childhood sexual abuse. He writes, “I wonder how many physicians came to that boy’s bedside, were unable to explain his dis-ease, unable to specify its mechanism and decided he wasn’t really ill” (58). Lapin further posits that Jonathan, Lucy and Mina function as “unconscious derivatives”—a brother and his two sisters of whom Stoker feels “very protective” (29). He also proposes that “the original abuser in Stoker’s life, from whom our fictional Count derives, was [...] a man of many positive qualities, as sexually abusive fathers frequently are” (147). Lapin’s theory relies, by his own admission, on an interpretation of the novel by a clinical analyst who deals frequently with victims of sexual abuse. Recurring images and language patterns in Stoker’s text—which echo the testimony of his patients—have convinced Lapin, even in the absence of evidence, that his theory is sound. Literary scholars, on the other hand, would more likely attribute such recurrence to the fact Stoker was a genre writer who churned out numerous works of fiction; that images and language patterns should recur is to be expected.

Far more widespread in academic circles is the thesis that Dracula derives from Stoker’s unfulfilled homoerotic longing for his employer, Henry Irving. Stoker says plenty about the actor in Personal Reminiscences of Henry Irving, published in 1906, nine years after the appearance of Dracula. If one takes the contents of Reminiscences at face value, there is no doubt about how he felt about his employer. He worshipped him. Writing of their initial meeting, Stoker records that “From that hour began a friendship as profound, as close, as lasting as can be between two men” (1: 33); he recalls that “I never found his appearance, bearing or manner other than the best” (1: 260). Later, he declares that “my love and admiration for Irving were such that nothing I could tell to others—nothing that I can recall to myself—could lessen his worth” (2: 341).

Richardson first suggested the Irving-Dracula link in 1959, noting that “Hero-worship is often accompanied by ambivalence and has its obverse side” (421). For many, this was a cue to explore Irving as the prototype for Count Dracula. Reading between the lines of Personal Reminiscences, a few scholars conclude that Stoker’s hero-worship masks what he was unable to admit to himself: that he resented the man under whose shadow he had laboured for so long. For example, Nina Auerbach includes this comment in her biography of actress Ellen Terry: “Always, there was something perverse about Irving, something not only crafty but cruel: Bram Stoker’s devout reminiscence expunges the sinister, invasive magnetism that made his Dracula another unforgettable Irving caricature” (200-1). Roxana Stuart goes further, charging that the relationship on Stoker’s part was “composed of worship, fear, and hatred” (190). Barbara Belford built her entire biography of Stoker on the premise that “Any understanding of Bram Stoker’s life and the reason he wrote Dracula begins with this first meeting [between Stoker and Irving]” and that “Dracula is all about Irving as the vampire” (4, 106). Predictably, this relationship has been seen in sexual terms: “Working on Dracula enabled him [Stoker] to load onto the armature of his tale all the confusion and pain he suffered from because he could not acknowledge that he was in love with the famous actor Henry Irving” (Wolf, Connoisseur’s Guide 57). Interviewed for the television documentary “Great Books: Dracula” (1999), Wolf draws attention to Stoker’s emotional response to Irving’s recitation of Thomas Hood’s “The Dream of Eugene Aram,” interpreting Stoker’s comment that he “burst into something like hysterics” as the reaction of someone falling madly in love. [5] Was Stoker’s adulation for Irving a disguise for “the love that dare not speak its name”? If so, does that explain the homoeroticism so prevalent in Dracula (assuming, of course, that one accepts that the novel is homoerotic)? [6]

Then we have the “Wilde” card. The notion that Oscar Wilde was a major influence on the writing of Dracula has been around since the 1960s. But the eagerness to make the connection has led to some serious distortion of the facts. Grigore Nandris suggested in 1966 that “Perhaps it is not too imaginative to bring in the fact that when Dracula was written the minds of Londoners were preoccupied with the trial of Oscar Wilde” (378). This was picked up by Florescu and McNally in 1973: “The Oscar Wilde scandal in London society may also have excited Stoker’s imagination [...]. The Oscar Wilde case erupted at the very moment when Stoker was writing his novel [...]. Wilde spent two famous years in prison [...] from 1895 to 1897, precisely the very time period when Stoker began and completed his Dracula story” (159-60). Because of the discovery of Stoker’s working notes for Dracula, we now know that this is not the case: by the spring of 1895, when the Wilde trials were in the limelight, Stoker had already spent five years planning the book. Yet the misinformation continues. We are told that “Dracula was written one month after Wilde went to jail” (Schaffer 471); that “the Wilde trials generated the terror that took the form of Dracula” (Auerbach, Preface vii; emphasis mine); that in failing to mention Wilde in his tribute to Henry Irving, “Stoker was protecting the door to the closet in which he hid his own sexual identity.” (Wolf, Connoisseur’s Guide 145). To read Dracula in the context of 1890s anxiety about “monstrous” sexuality is one thing; to claim authorial intention without substantiating facts is an invitation to challenge. On the other hand, one would be foolhardy to deny that Stoker was aware of the Wilde trials. All of Britain was mesmerized by them. Moreover, Wilde was a fellow Dubliner whose family Stoker knew well; in fact, Wilde had courted Florence Balcombe before she was wooed by Stoker. As both were theatre men, their paths would surely have crossed from time to time. Two years before his downfall, Wilde had sent Stoker’s wife a copy of Salomé with a short note. Stoker may have had Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray in mind when he included a “painter” in his earliest notes for Dracula. It is even possible that Wilde’s conviction and imprisonment influenced Stoker’s writing of the final draft. We do not know.

How rumour can be turned into proof is well illustrated in the case of Stoker’s failed sexual relationship with his wife. Florence was, “according to authorities, frigid as a statue” (Shuttle 266). Who are these “authorities”? Most likely they are Daniel Farson (Stoker’s great-nephew) and one of his chief sources (Stoker’s granddaughter Ann), who seem to have taken delight in repeating family gossip. How reliable is such information, dependent as it is on family folklore? While Stoker may have neglected his wife—he must have spent hours, days and weeks away from home—her frigidity is a matter of conjecture. But so widely accepted is this rumour that it has served as a premise for other “conclusions”—for example, that Florence suffered from menstrual problems. “It is likely,” we are told, “that a woman with an unsatisfactory sex life will have very bad menstrual disturbance. Was it some image of these that gave Stoker’s subliminal mind the hint that formulated a myth of formidable power, out of the ferocity of a frustrated bleeding woman, crackling with energy and unacknowledged sexuality? It is certainly possible” (Shuttle 266). It is but a short step to the claim that in Dracula Stoker “subconsciously tries to control and even eliminate the dysmenorrhoea that was blighting their marriage” (Mulvey-Roberts 85).

Nor does it all end there. Stoker is supposed to have in desperation turned to prostitutes with the result that he contracted syphilis. The original conjecture placed the so-called contraction “around the turn of the century, possibly as early as the year of Dracula, 1897” (Farson 234). The rumour spread like wildfire. Florescu and McNally tell us that faced with the fact that his wife “had refused to sleep with him since their only son Noel was born in 1879,” Stoker “did the Victorian thing. He turned to prostitutes [...]. From his dalliances he contracted syphilis.” They go on to make a direct link with the novel: “So when he began to work on Dracula at Cruden Bay, Scotland, [in 1895], one can envision him as a prematurely aged, syphilis-ridden man, tottering with a cane along the shores of Cruden Bay as he contemplated the creation of his Dracula” (Dracula 20). One critic, Pascale Krumm, goes even further, claiming that “Stoker contracted syphilis around 1890, probably in Paris,” in order to support the theory that Dracula is a book about disease written by a diseased author (7). To read the vampirism in Stoker’s novel as a metaphor for the prevalence of syphilis in 1890s London is a valid exercise, and one that had particular resonance for readers during the 1990s with the spread of AIDS. But it is quite another thing to support such a contention using flimsy (or even non-existent) biographical information. Even had Stoker contracted the disease, it would not likely have occurred early enough to have been an influence on Dracula.

As for the cause of Stoker’s death: the evidence is not conclusive. Before 1975, it was generally assumed that he had died of “exhaustion,” but now there is a widely held view that he died of syphilis, a “fact [that] was kept secret during his lifetime, and even beyond” (Krumm 7). The notion that Stoker died of syphilis is based almost entirely on a reading of the term “Locomotor Ataxy,” which appears on his death certificate. Medical experts consulted by Farson assured him that this term was the equivalent of “tertiary syphilis” (Farson 233). This revelation provided a new bandwagon for others to jump on. Skal considers the term Locomotor Ataxia a “polite medical description of tertiary syphilis” (Vampires 182). Schaffer finds it significant that “both Wilde and Stoker died from syphilis” (481n8). A counter-strike has been launched by Leslie Shepard, an antiquarian and long-time Stoker scholar living in Dublin. Describing Farson’s revelations as “reckless mythology,” he insists “there is no definite justification for assuming that syphilis killed Stoker.” Indeed “the circumstances surrounding his later years would seem to militate against the possibility”: he was mentally alert and alive with literary work almost up to his death; he had suffered two strokes, in 1906 and 1909 (Shepard 414-15). The evidence is inconclusive. As Belford notes, there “is now sufficient medical opinion to cast doubt on syphilis as the cause of death or even a factor in Stoker’s medical history” (122). Moreover, even if syphilis were what the attending physician meant, he might have been wrong. We should also keep in mind that Stoker suffered from several other ailments that might have contributed to his death (two strokes and Bright’s disease). Given that ashes tell no tales, we may never know.

Finally, there is the ubiquitous connection with the historical Dracula, Vlad the Impaler, whose fondness for impalement as a means of execution has led some to speculate about his sexual neuroses and their influence on Stoker’s novel. There is the improbable assumption that Stoker knew about Vlad’s unfortunate experiences as a hostage of the Sultan of Turkey: “What was it that made [Vlad] so fitting a model for Stoker’s derivative Count? Vlad was a man who, as a child (aged 13-17), had to helplessly watch his beautiful brother, Radu (aged 5-9), sexually abused” (Lapin 34). Presumably, Vlad grew up “to reenact compulsively in the role of the rapist, impaling thousands [...] on fatal penis symbols” (Lapin 34); or as Malchow, commenting on the connection in nineteenth-century fiction between strong odours and sexual perversion, argues: “Certainly, association with the fifteenth-century Walachian tyrant Vlad the Impaler, notorious for the staking of victims through their fundaments (displaced in the literary vampire by impalement through the heart), reinforces such an interpretation” (141). That Stoker knew of what may have happened to Vlad while he was imprisoned in Turkey (about which, incidentally, existing historical records are vague) is highly improbable. It is just as unlikely that he knew of Vlad’s fondness for impalement. The similarity between the method for disposing of a vampire and Vlad’s favourite means of execution is coincidental: Stoker’s source for the staking of vampires through the heart clearly lies in folklore and earlier vampire literature.

In fact, existing evidence forces us to accept that Vlad the Impaler was not the inspiration for Stoker’s Dracula. Although for many people today the two have become almost synonymous, the nature of the connection is highly speculative. There is no longer any doubt about where Stoker found the name “Dracula.” We know from his working papers (housed at the Rosenbach Museum in Philadelphia) that by March 1890 he had already started work on the novel and had even selected a name for his vampire—Count Wampyr. We also know from the papers that, in the summer of the same year while vacationing at Whitby, Stoker came across the name “Dracula” in a book that he borrowed from the Whitby Public Library: William Wilkinson’s An Account of the Principalities of Wallachia and Moldavia (1820). It contains a few brief references to a “Voivode Dracula” (never referred to as Vlad) who crossed the Danube and attacked Turkish troops. But what seems to have attracted Stoker was a footnote in which Wilkinson states that “Dracula in Wallachian language means Devil” (19). Stoker supplemented this with scraps of Romanian history from other sources (which he carefully listed in his notes) and fleshed out a history for his Count Dracula. Wilkinson is Stoker’s only known source for information on the historical namesake. Everything else is speculation. [7]

There is little doubt that much of the growing appeal of Dracula throughout the twentieth century was due to the text’s potential for yielding up a variety of sexual readings. This has been accompanied by an increasing tendency to identify with the vampire as the “sexually liberated” Other, an erotic force which creates undue anxiety for the repressive society which it invades. Consequently, the Victorians become the villains while the vampires promise the sexual liberation that Victorian England supposedly denied. But in the flush of excitement to validate the novel, to give it relevance in a postmodern world, one can too easily fall victim to distortion or even the creation of information to support a theory. That is where, in the view of this writer, we should pull back. For sometimes a wooden stake is just that—a wooden stake.

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