Coming Out of the Coffin

2012 should have been Bram Stoker’s year. Vampires have arisen everywhere. In time for the centenary of Stoker’s death, his immortal creations now command enormous box office: Vampires in the True Blood and Twilight franchises hold more viewers in their thrall than their hunters Buffy and Blade, predecessors in mass-culture Stokerism, ever did. But Stoker himself has never been showered with equal attention, and there is little chance he will ever be. So tiny is our knowledge of Stoker’s private life that apart from his name below Dracula’s, he seems himself to have achieved a vampirish invisibility—a dark shadow silently wandering among his contemporaries, carefully sheltering his figure from the light of popular interest.

Lest you think this comparison is stretched, please consider the following: in March, The Robson Press, a division of Biteback publishing, published The Lost Journal of Bram Stoker. Discovered by Stoker’s great-grandson Noel Dobbs in the dusty attic of his house and edited by his cousin Dacre Stoker, and Elizabeth Miller, a leading expert on Dracula, this book-length collection of notes, scribblings, jokes, observations and sketches aims to shed the light of day on the man. But even in his own diary he remains a mystery: the entries contribute little to extending our knowledge of Stoker. One page in the Journal features the phrase: “The cryptic meaning of silence.” It is a fitting description of the whole enterprise.

For us, as for his contemporaries, Stoker remains a figure very much entombed in the closet. His desire is imprisoned in cryptic texts; his private life undecipherable through thick layers of transference. Endlessly secretive, Stoker is the great codifier, the author who dared not speak his own name. Instead, he transforms it into numerous riddles and fictions, like those which fill the pages of his Journal. Reading it, you might not get the slightest hint of Stoker’s relationships with men, particularly with his friend Oscar Wilde, or this friend’s centrality to the Dracula story. But it was this silence itself that shaped Stoker’s desire. The cryptic meaning of Stoker’s silence demands from the reader of his journal, as it does from the reader of Stoker’s later fiction, the counter-process of decryption — a process revealing how the cryptic content embeds in the specific literary form of the journal.

For generations, bookkeeping was the Stoker family’s trade. Bram’s son and his great-grandsons worked as chartered accountants; the writer himself was responsible for keeping and balancing books of London’s Lyceum Theatre, where he worked as business manager. His Journal, written between 1871 and 1881, consists of a series of neatly kept and carefully organized notes and are easily identifiable reflections of a mind inclined towards factual accuracy, economy and organization.

The air of musty secrets unveiled that surrounds the discovery, analysis and publication of the Journal seems almost scripted for a Stoker biopic, but the entries themselves, which are categorized thematically with lengthy introductions, only deepen the man’s mystery. Why was Bram Stoker, a young clerk in Dublin Castle and later a successful theatre manager in London, so obsessive about writing down the details of his life, if he was so secretive? Why did he keep a journal at all, if he never dropped his guard? “On first sight, the Journal contains very few truly personal comments such as one might find in a diary,” Miller and Stoker accept in the introduction. “Yet a careful reading of the entries in light of what we do know about Bram’s life and relationships reveals much more than initially meets the eye.”

Stoker’s notes for future stories resemble those taken by Jonathan Harker in Dracula. The editors of the book are therefore quick to point to the parallel between the “young traveling solicitor (Jonathan Harker) and the young traveling clerk of the court (Bram Stoker) who would in time be called to the Bar.” Dracula begins with Jonathan’s diary. Renfield, the lunatic character in that book, is an avid journal keeper as well; he has a little notebook “in which he is always jotting down something.”

The two diarists, Jonathan and Renfield, are classic opposites: one is a healthy gentleman, the other a villainous lunatic. But this was exactly how Stoker viewed his own character. Victim of a weak immune system, he had suffered from various childhood diseases. Until he was eight, Stoker was often carried in people’s arms to beds and sofas. He is described as being “captive and vulnerable”—a weak child who was often confined to his bed and loneliness. His self-image was that of an ugly, weak creature. His Journal ends up in constant flight from his own subjectivity.

In a letter to Walt Whitman, Stoker described himself as “naturally secretive to the world”. Even in his Journal, he seems to take more pleasure in remaining detached. Many stories are quoted from his friends; numerous observations belong to his friends and acquaintances as well. This wall of detachment makes it difficult for the reader to see the person who holds the pen. But one sketch, written in Greystones on August 5, 1871, suddenly reveals a Stoker without his rhetorical garments: “Will men ever believe that a strong man can have a woman’s heart & the wishes of a lonely child?” he asks. He seems very real in this moment—feminine, lonely and vulnerable. Elsewhere in his letter to Whitman, he takes pleasure in sharing his secretive nature with the great poet and produces a strange self-portrait: “I have a heavy jaw and a big mouth and thick lips,” he wrote, carefully advertising himself for the attention of the great poet, “sensitive nostrils — a snub nose and straight hair.”

This admiration for Whitman is a telltale sign of writerly Victorian homosexuality, and was not the least of Stoker’s shared interests with Oscar Wilde. At first sight, it seems as if no writer of his generation could have been more different from Stoker than the flamboyant figure of Wilde. Seven years his junior, Wilde was nothing if not unhidden in his sexual preferences. On the contrary, Wilde’s life was a concerted effort to remove boundaries between one’s private and public selves. He favored revealing secrets (those of his own and of others), instead of keeping them. But Stoker and Wilde met at an early age and remained life-long acquaintances. By the time of Wilde’s death in 1900, though, Stoker wasn’t among his two dozen mourners. In 1912, the year of his own death, Stoker was so fiercely homophobic that he went so far as to demand imprisonment of all homosexual authors in Britain—a group to which he, inevitably, belonged.

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Stoker and Wilde were probably first introduced to each other during one of the famous evening matinees of Jane Wilde, Oscar’s flamboyant mother. A fiercely nationalistic poet with a passion for writing, Lady Wilde loved society and hosted a literary salon which was held every Saturday in Wilde’s family house on Merrion Square, Dublin. Having befriended Oscar’s older brother Willie, who was his classmate at Trinity, Stoker admired the intellectual boldness of the Wilde family and was a fan of the storytelling gifts of Sir William Wilde. During his wife’s matinees, Sir William would take refuge in his study where he was followed by a group of curious attendees, among them the young Stoker. There he would recount many interesting stories; the Journal features an entry that transcribes a tale of robbery “told by Sir W. Wilde.”

Both Sir William and Lady Wilde seemed to have loved and cherished Stoker. In a letter to his son, Lady Wilde expressed her admiration for Stoker’s “excellent” character. The description might have invoked Oscar’s jealousy. When Wilde first came to Trinity College in 1871, Stoker already had a reputation as a cosmopolitan intellectual. He enjoyed Whitman’s poetry and made no secret of the fact; and Wilde discovered that the university had a bright, fascinating and literary student on its campus—for him, a rival figure.

But Wilde suffered from a lack of discipline that was needed to excel in the difficult field of Greek classics where he was expected to pursue an academic career. In contrast, Wilde preferred to spend time to meeting with older professors. According to his biographer, fifteen years was Wilde’s preferred age difference with his male companions. Had Stoker been half a dozen years older, he might easily have been one of Wilde’s intellectual masters. Being the more accomplished, mature and respected student, Stoker instead became an antagonistic figure, especially a few years later when a young girl appeared on the horizon.

During one of his visits to Dublin in 1876, Wilde fell in love with Florence Anne Lemon Balcombe. She was rumored to be one of the three most beautiful Irish girls in the city—a Dubliner Helen who looked for attention, praise and competition. In a letter to a friend Wilde described her as “exquisitely pretty” who had “the most perfectly beautiful face I ever saw.” As Miller and Stoker describe it in one of their introductory chapters in the Journal, the two men’s relationship seems to have continued until December 1878, when Bram suddenly, unexpectedly and almost scandalously proposed to Florence. Oscar appears to have lost her because his interests led him to nature, books, and men. The editors describe how Wilde’s letters illustrate his “lack of attention to Florence, his wanderlust, as well as his general disregard for convention, any of which could have caused her to set her sights elsewhere.”

That elsewhere was a combination of Stoker’s physical beauty and his managerial position in London which could help Florence realize her dream of a career in acting. Having written numerous theatre reviews, Stoker enjoyed the praise of Henry Irving, the leading actor of the age, who asked him to be the business manager in the Lyceum Theatre. Stoker was happy to accept the offer, which allowed him to imagine Florence wandering London’s West End, an actress as she desired. Wilde, who was at the time an unknown young Dubliner with his own dreams of conquering London, admitted defeat and sent a letter to Balcombe where he bitterly spoke about the memory of “two sweet years—the sweetest of all the years of my youth” which they shared together. He didn’t fail to mention that “whatever happens I at least cannot be indifferent to your welfare; the currents of our lives flowed too long beside one another for that.”

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It is partly thanks to Eve Sedgwick’s 1985 “Between Men” that love triangles have become a subject of proper theorization. Sedgwick’s book single-handedly transformed the study of homosocial desire and her Foucauldian methods of reading desire come to the rescue when approaching a case as complicated as Stoker’s. According to Sedgwick, many Victorian texts feature various transferences of homosexual passion, in which numerous obstructions are built to postpone or sublimate the unutterable love. Thus ‘homosocial’ men both desire and fear each other, while devising ways with which they can sublimate their unrealized sexual attraction.

In her excellent Sedgwickian article, “A Wilde Desire Took Me: The Homoerotic History of Dracula”, Talia Schaffer applies this theoretical framework to Stoker and his texts. It was Schaffer who first informed me about the fascinating relationship between Wilde and Stoker and to the importance of reading their works with this perspective. Before Schaffer’s analysis saw the light of day in 1994, most Stokerians were reluctant to describe Stoker’s relationships with Irving and Wilde as anything more than friendships. The editors of the Journal make little acknowledgement of this queer reading. Nevertheless, they still refer to the friendship in some detail. According to this traditional analysis,

although friends, Bram and Oscar were not close and were cut from different cloth. Bram’s solid character and traditional values would have been in stark contrast to Oscar, who was working to perfect his image as a gadabout and a dandy. Bram was a gentleman with a permanent job and a steady income, and his association with the theatre and his developing relationship with Henry Irving had to be alluring to a young, aspiring actress. Finally, Florence knew Oscar well enough to realize a life with him would be filled with frustration and uncertainty.

Schaffer’s analysis produces a slightly different picture, where Stoker falls in love with the actor Irving at first sight and has an erotic, albeit distant, relationship with Wilde. According to letters which he later wrote, Stoker and Irving spent many nights together in London, where they intensely conversed about life and art. Although there is no evidence that “Stoker’s hand, so close to Irving’s performing body, could ever reach out to touch”, there was certainly something more in Stoker’s feelings towards Irving than an admirer’s praise. Indeed, as his Journal attests, Stoker was well-versed in strategies of detachment. He loved men from a distance; and his earlier correspondence with Whitman taught him the merits of concealing his desires. According to Schaffer, those concealed desires were directly transported into the sphere of fiction. More surprising is her claim that Wilde had served as an inspiration for the character of Count Dracula, about which the Journal is entirely silent.

Stoker began writing Dracula weeks after Wilde’s conviction of hard labor. His trials had resulted in hysterical fear of prosecution for homosexuals in all levels of British society, a situation which confirmed to Stoker the importance of his own discretion. According to Shaffer, Stoker identified with the anti-Wilde homophobia “partly to disguise his own vulnerability as a gay man” and partly because it justified his belief “in the value of the closet” and the horror “at the monstrous image of Wilde produced by the media, which would haunt men of ‘his kind.'”

It is easy to see how Wilde resembled the Count: Thanks to the rapid “Gothicization” of his personality throughout 1890s, Wilde came to represent numerous repressed values of the late-Victorian age. This was a period in which not only the British press but also various continental authors, like the Hungarian psychologist Max Nardau, portrayed Wilde’s sexuality as part of an increasingly deviant and degenerate European culture. The British public’s fascination with details of Wilde’s trials resulted in a broad condemnation of his character. Even in homosexual circles, Wilde was persona non grata for the rest of his life. He was perceived as a dangerous, appalling but also fascinating figure – like Dracula, interpreted at the time to represent all things that undermined British civilization: Irish republicanism, immigration from Eastern Europe and deviant, non-productive sexuality.

The vampire figure did not portray Oscar Wilde per se: Rather, it stood for all the fears and fascination Wilde inspired in British society. According to Schaffer, Stoker disseminates his homoerotic passions through the character of Jonathan Harker, who is locked up in Dracula’s castle and is forced to lead a passive life, taking refuge in the pages of a journal to describe the terror of captivity at the hands of a vampire. The key figure in this scheme of homoerotic desire is the female character. In Dracula both Jonathan and Count desire Mina, in whose character their craving for each other is sublimated. This triangular desire resembles Wilde’s relationship with Stoker, as well as Irving’s relationship with Oscar and Bram; both triangles working according to similar principles.

Among other things, two entries in the Journal reveal crucial insight into Stoker’s character, which I think is sufficient reason to get one’s hands on this mysterious book. The first entry is this idea for an untitled story:

Seaport. Two sailors love girl — one marries her, other swears revenge. Husbands goes out to sea soon after marriage & on return after some days sees in grey light of morning his young wife crucified on the great cross which stands at end of pier.

No single piece of writing could have better summarized Stoker as an author. One can imagine the sort of fascination Schaffer would feel coming across these examples of codified desire, which support her gripping theory.

Separating Stoker from Wilde is as difficult as separating Stoker’s fiction from his biography. After all, it was Wilde who argued for the imaginary and fictional nature of reality. He attempted to put an end to this division, which he believed was an arbitrary one. In “The Decay of Lying,” one of his Socratic dialogues, Wilde writes about the “prison-house of realist art” and argues that art is reality itself while life is only a mirror for it. For Wilde, reality is a vulgar, imperfect and oppressive thing to which art and artificiality provide alternate existences. Art is more real and truer than life and it is there that one can expect to realize his true self. Once liberated by art, one is free to act as he desires in real life. Four years before his imprisonment, Wilde wrote “The Soul of Man under Socialism” and proposed a brave new world where individuals could realize their best selves in a new form of society that privileged individualism and libertarianism.

“‘Know Thyself’ was written over the portal of the antique world. Over the portal of the new world, ‘Be Thyself’ shall be written,” he mused. Wilde’s trials were a shocking awakening from this dream, and not only for himself. This was the beginning of an intensely secretive period in Stoker’s life which affirmed his worst fears about realizing one’s fantasies. Schaffer traces the beginnings of Stoker’s secretive character to letters he sent to Whitman in his university years. In those letters he often wrote about discretion, decency and reticence, which “replace gay confessions, and can be read as standing in for the absent confession.” If Wilde’s life had been a long, artful and frank confession of men’s desire for other men, Stoker’s secrecy and reticence managed to do just the opposite. He concealed his desires with elaborate forms of literary production.

This is why I found this other “mem for story” in Stoker’s Journal so fascinating. “A man builds up a shadow on a wall bit by bit by adding to substance,” it reads. “Suddenly the shadow becomes alive.” Perhaps it is this vampirish, invisible shadow, so defensive against popular and academic interest, that we identify as Bram Stoker. It is something codified and concealed from the world—something thoroughly fabricated. A secretive shadow which suddenly becomes alive in the pages of this tragic Journal.

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