In the words of his grandnephew Daniel Farson, Abraham ‘Bram’ Stoker (1847-1912) is ‘one of the least known authors of one of the best known books ever written’. The book in question is late Victorian gothic horror novel Dracula published in 1897. As befitting the father of the cult of the un-dead, Stoker’s success as a novelist was largely posthumous and his masterpiece of the vampire genre not even mentioned in his Times obituary. Stoker first appears in the Henry Poole & Co ledgers in 1895 when he was writing his masterpiece and residing at 11 St Leonard’s Terrace in Chelsea.
Bram Stoker’s life before Dracula does give clues as to how a civil servant turned theatre manager could create such a powerful, monstrous myth. Bram Stoker was born in a suburb of Dublin and was bedridden for the first seven years of his life. The sickly child’s mother would recite stories from Irish folklore that sparked an early interest in mystical narrative. As Stoker wrote ‘the leisure of long illness gave opportunity for many thoughts which were fruitful according to their kind in later years’.
Stoker read Mathematics at Trinity College, Dublin, and was President of the Philosophical Society where he delivered his first paper on the subject ‘Sensationalism in Fiction and Society’. On graduation, Stoker worked as a civil servant at Dublin Castle for ten years while also writing unpaid theatre reviews for the Dublin Evening Mail; a paper co-owned by gothic novelist Sheridan Le Fanu whose 1871 vampire tale Carmilla brought the blood-drinking un-dead back into fashion in popular fiction.
In 1876 the celebrated actor/manager Henry Irving appeared at the Theatre Royal, Dublin in Hamlet and his performance entranced Stoker. The young reviewer was invited to a supper party at which Irving recited Thomas Hood’s poem The Dream of Eugene Aram. As the Leeds Times reported ‘one of Irving’s auditors, a young man with a brilliant reputation at Trinity College, was so affected by the tragedian’s delivery that he burst into tears.
At Irving’s invitation Stoker moved to London, married his sweetheart Florence Balcombe in 1878 and worked as secretary to the Victorian age’s greatest actor. He was swiftly promoted to business manager of Irving’s Lyceum Theatre: a position he would hold for nearly thirty years until the actor’s death in 1905. Stoker would accompany the actor and his leading lady/mistress Ellen Terry on American tours working as company manager and writing appreciations of their performances for British and US newspapers.
In London Stoker formed part of the fashionable circle of novelists, playwrights, artists and poets including Whistler, Yates, Conan Doyle and Wilde. He was one of the few who didn’t turn their backs on Wilde after his fall from grace in 1895. Stoker contributed to the Daily Telegraph as an arts critic and corresponded with contemporary novelists and poets such as Alfred Lord Tennyson, Mark Twain and Walt Whitman who he finally met while on tour with Irving in American in 1884.
The 1890s was a golden age for horror, science fiction and supernatural literature with H. Ryder Haggard, Rudyard Kipling, Robert Louis Stevenson, Arthur Conan Doyle and H. G. Wells exploring the dark side of fiction. But Dracula’s epistolary form most closely followed fellow Henry Poole & Co customer Wilkie Collins’s sensational novels such as The Woman in White and The Moonstone. Sir Henry Irving is acknowledged as the model for Count Dracula’s appearance, mannerisms and mesmeric character.
On publication in 1897 The Spectator review read ‘Mr Bram Stoker gives us the impression – we might be doing him an injustice – of having deliberately laid himself out in Dracula to eclipse all previous efforts in the domain of the horrible – to go one better than Wilkie Collins (whose method of narration he has closely followed), Sheridan le Fanu and all the other professors of the flesh-creeping school’. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle penned a note to say ‘I write to tell you how very much I enjoyed reading Dracula. I think it is the very best story of diablerie (sic) which I have read for many years’.
Though favourably compared with Poe, Mary Shelley and even Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights, Dracula did not make Bram Stoker’s fortune. Soon after Sir Henry Irving died in 1905, Stoker suffered the first of a series of strokes. He wrote Personal Reminiscences of Henry Irving in 1906 and continued to write horror fiction titles such as The Lady of the Shroud (1909) and The Lair of the White Worm (1911) that deserve more attention than they received. A year before his death, Stoker petitioned the Royal Literary Fund for a compassionate grant of funds to relieve poverty. Stoker died in dire financial straits in 1912 with hypotheses for cause of death including syphilis, exhaustion and a fatal stroke. A year later his widow auctioned the Dracula papers at Sotheby’s.