By Roger Luckhurst
Bram Stoker was always a man in the shadows, the back-room boy who for thirty-years had organised the life and finances of the greatest actor of his age, Sir Henry Irving. Almost as soon as Irving died, Stoker suffered a debilitating stroke and retired to a private, financially precarious existence. He had to be bailed out by the Royal Literary Society in the last year of his life, unable to survive.
Stoker’s death one hundred years ago today, on 20 April 1912, conformed to type: it was utterly eclipsed by a much larger catastrophe. He died quietly at home only five days after the R. M. S. Titanic hit an iceberg and sank with the loss of 1500 lives. The papers were as yet crammed with the breathless accounts of survivors, the obituaries of the rich and famous, and confusing news about the identity of the three hundred bodies that had been fished from the sea and even now were heading mournfully for port on the cable ship the Mackay-Bennett. Heroes were being created amongst those who went down with the ship. Meanwhile, buried on page 15, The Times in London carried an obituary of Stoker, largely dedicated to the man’s faithful service to the great actor Irving. Stoker had ensured Irving’s marvellous success at the Lyceum theatre, the company taking over £2 million between 1878 and 1905, all down to careful management. As a writer, the obituary stated, Stoker’s “chief literary memorial will be his Reminiscences of Irving” which he had faithfully published in 1906, working feverishly despite his illness. There was only a passing mention of Stoker’s penchant for “particularly lurid and creepy kind of fiction”, but that was clearly marginal and irrelevant.
In the next decades, people would go on to dimly remember reading that lurid Gothic shocker Dracula in the 1890s, a period piece redolent of a by-gone age, fading into memory like Stoker’s widow — a relic of that lost era who lived to the age of 91, eventually dying in 1937. Our obsession with Dracula dates from a much more recent time.[callout title= ]There is something about those who mess around with the dead[/callout]There is something about those who mess around with the dead that means that we inevitably pay a more than usual morbid attention to the manner of their passing. Stoker’s primal scene in his Gothic fiction is of a group of men standing around a woman’s corpse. In Dracula, of course, it’s the band of blood-brothers brought together by Professor Van Helsing, who steal into Lucy Westenra’s tomb in a London cemetery in order to quell her un-Dead pollution. Her husband stakes her through the heart in a jaw-dropping moment of sexual punishment. The same scene happens again in The Jewel of Seven Stars, published in 1903, when Professor Trelawney and his group unwrap the bandages of the mummy of Queen Tera to reveal her full naked glory in a miraculous state of preservation. The outcome is a little different this time: the transgressors are blasted with radioactive energy by the vengeful Queen, and all but the narrator are killed. There is another scene of an apparently undead woman in a coffin in The Lady of the Shroud. It is perhaps little wonder that after the private burial service for Bram Stoker at Golders Green his body was cremated. Cremation was still relatively unusual: perhaps he didn’t want to take any risks.
There remains some controversy about what killed Bram Stoker in the end. Rather notoriously, Stoker’s nephew Daniel Farson published a biography in 1975 in which he suggested that the death certificate stating one of the causes of death as ‘Locomotor Ataxy 6 months’ was a euphemistic way of avoiding any announcement of the shame of death by the sexually transmitted disease syphilis. There was no cure for syphilis and the last degenerative stages were marked by severe mental and physical decline. Could this account for the entirely unhinged nature of Stoker’s notorious last novel, Lair of the White Worm? Did Stoker’s public life as Irving’s right-hand man hide something more dissolute? Is this the enigma at the heart of Stoker’s rather odd marriage to Florence Balcombe, a society beauty who turned down Oscar Wilde’s proposal but was courted by many literary men in the 1880s and 1890s whilst Stoker spent all his evening hours at the theatre? Is that why she preferred not to have her ashes interred with Bram, but scattered to the winds? We shall never know. There is no proof – and no body to disinter.
What makes a Gothic shocker like Dracula so enduring is that it refuses to give itself up to any final explanation. Even the most reductive biographical readings hit a blank wall around the life and death of Bram Stoker himself.
Roger Luckhurst is Professor of Modern Literature at Birkbeck College, University of London. He has most recently edited our edition of Dracula, but has also edited Late Victorian Gothic Tales, also for Oxford World’s Classics. You can see Roger Luckhurst in this OUPblog video discussing why we’re still enthralled by the original Dracula novel.
To commemorate the centenary of Stoker’s death, the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography Online has granted free access for a limited time to the biography of Abraham Stoker.