Friday 24 October 2014

Dracula ... the perfect Halloween read ...

With Halloween just around the corner I've got the perfect late night spooky read for you:

It's one of my favourite Gothic horror stories. I recognise that it has many flaws, but the magnetic pull of the Vampire Count and Stoker's masterful handling of suspense are more than enough to make up for its shortcomings.

It's a novel that I think would be heavily edited if it were brought to the market through a commercial publisher today. They'd surely do something with Van Helsing's awful clunky speech. Stoker was (I think) trying to convey something of his Dutch-ness, but the words he put in his mouth often detract, making him sound much less dynamic and compelling than he ought to. These days I'd also like to think that Stoker would be told to draw his women with a bit more edge. Both Lucy and Mina, the principal female characters, are a bit too conventionally Victorian and two-dimensional for my taste.

Having said all of that it's still a great read. It was first published way back in 1897, and is now well out of copyright. If you'd like to read it you can download a free copy by clicking on the link: Kindle edition of Dracula.

Many people have wondered what could have inspired a nice middle-class Anglican from Dublin to write the greatest Vampire story of them all. A number of sources suggest Stoker was influenced by Highgate Cemetery, and, although I understand there is no firm evidence that he actually visited, it seems very probable that he would have done given how most of fashionable London were bending their footsteps in that direction at the time.

It has been suggested that his notion of a Vampire, surviving death, and, in particular, the listless Lucy Westenra, who grew more beautiful in death than she had been in life may have been inspired by the story of Elizabeth Siddal.

Elizabeth had been the muse of the Pre-Raphaelite painters. She'd caught pneumonia, posing in a cold bath for Sir John Everett Millais, when he painted her as the dead Ophelia. Luckily she survived, but her angry father insisted on sending all the doctor's bills to Everett Millais, whom he held responsible.

Elizabeth as Everett Millais' Ophelia

 In time she caught the eye of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, who fell hopelessly and completely in love with her. He grew possessive of her, and would not allow her to pose for any of the other painters. They married in 1860 and, for a time, were blissfully happy together, but then Rossetti started to dally with other women, which caused her huge amounts of grief. Her health went downhill, and she started taking Laudanum. Soon she was addicted.

Rossetti's wedding portrait of Elizabeth
She overdosed on the drug in 1862, and was found by her husband in an unconscious stupor. He called the doctor and when the doctor said there was nothing that could be done for her, the desperate Rossetti called another three doctors to see if they could do any better. They pumped her stomach and tried to revive her, but all in vain. The beautiful lady passed away. There was some talk of a suicide note, but they were careful to suppress that lest she be denied a Christian burial in consecrated ground.

At her funeral Rossetti was prostrate with grief. In her coffin he placed a copy of the Bible and a little volume of his unpublished poetry, which was said to contain the only copies of a number of the poems within. Accounts tell of how he laid the little book gently on her pillow so that it was partly hidden by the tresses of her magnificent auburn hair. And so she was laid to rest in the West Cemetery at Highgate.

But her repose was not to be of the eternal variety. Some seven and a half years later in 1869 a struggling Rossetti was in need of funds. His career as an artist had hit the buffers as a result of his failing eyesight, and his addictions to drugs and alcohol. He was convinced that he was going blind. He had written some further poems, but obsessed about the old ones that lay buried and forgotten with his wife. His agent, Charles Augustus Howell, petitioned the Home Secretary for leave to exhume Elizabeths' body and retrieve the volume of poetry.

Remarkably permission was granted, and in the black of a cold winter night, they lit a bonfire by the graveside and dug the coffin up. Rossetti, who felt squeamish about the project, had stayed away, doubtless drowning his sorrows in strong liquor. But Howell was present, and, by the firelight, he caught sight of the dead woman as they prised open the lid of her coffin. Her magnificent copper hair filled the casket, and it appeared as though her body had not decayed. He reported back to Rossetti that her delicate beauty was still intact, and she looked as though she were merely sleeping.

Rossetti's portrait of Elizabeth painted a year after her death

Rumours of what had taken place began to circulate, and the Victorian popular imagination, which was macabre at the best of times, was excited by news of a body that did not decay. No doubt, a man like Stoker, who was at the centre of the city's cultural life would have known about the affair. And who knows, maybe a little bit of Elizabeth Siddal went into his fashioning of Lucy Westenra.

Happy reading and all the best,

Bonny x


  1. I just love Dracula, and I admit with no shame that I like almost all vampires stories. ;)
    I really enjoyed your post, Bonny, I've learned something new today. Thanks for sharing. :)

    1. Thank you, Kia. It's a great book - especially for this time of the year. All the best and thanks for stopping by, Bonny