Dracula is revealed! Stoker is explained

April 14, 1996|By Michael Shelden | Michael Shelden,Special to the sun

"Bram Stoker: A Biography of the Author of Dracula," by Barbara Belford, Knopf, 384 pages, $30 For nearly 100 years, the world has assumed that Bram Stoker's "Dracula" is merely an escapist work of supernatural lust and violence, but Barbara Belford's biography of Stoker completely alters our understanding of the classic tale. Her extensive research in archives on both sides of the Atlantic has opened up a fascinating autobiographical dimension to the book, one that helps to explain not only the powerful appeal of the nocturnal Count but also the strange character of his creator.

As an extremely impressionable young bureaucrat in Victorian Britain, Stoker developed a secret fantasy life devoted to hero worship, and therein lies the key to understanding him. The first great object of his passion was Walt Whitman, whose residence in distant New Jersey did not prevent Stoker from unburdening his heart to the poet in long letters. Although they had never met, Stoker was convinced that he and Whitman were spiritual cousins, and he yearned to make the poet's cause his own. Indeed, he was willing to give his soul entirely to Whitman. "How sweet a thing it is," he told his hero, "for a strong healthy man with a woman's eyes and a child's wishes to feel that he can speak so to a man who can be if he wishes father, brother and wife to his soul."

In kindly fashion, Whitman responded with encouragement to these declarations from the young stranger, and after several years they did manage to meet, but Stoker was never able to establish the close connection he desired.

Instead he found another hero closer to home in the person of the celebrated English actor Henry Irving. After watching Irving dazzle an audience in the role of Prince Hamlet, Stoker fell under his sway and gave up everything to serve him, becoming his manager and all-purpose slave. Belford calls the arrangement "a Faustian pact: Stoker to be sycophant and friend, Irving to be genius and autocrat."

Stoker's mother, who knew that he had the talent to be much more than a mere disciple, asked bitterly: "Manager to a strolling player?"

The relationship lasted more than 25 years, right up to Irving's death in 1905, but Stoker's devotion was never appreciated. Irving always treated him like an inferior, expecting him to attend to even the most petty needs. He left behind a mountain of notes with instructions for Stoker to fetch this or fix that, but his will makes no mention of the faithful manager.

In time, Stoker came to feel that his hero was feeding on his energy and talent as a vampire might feed on a helpless victim. After watching the actor play Hamlet again and again, the performance not only lost its original magic for Stoker, but also took on a special significance when Irving bellowed the lines: "Now could I drink hot blood,/ And do such bitter business as the day would quake to look on."

In 1896-1897, Stoker poured all his frustrations into his one major act of independence - the writing of "Dracula" - and by that act he achieved the immortality denied to the supposedly superior Irving, whose career is now largely forgotten.

Thanks to Barbara Belford's superb biography, the drama of Dracula can be seen as a kind of morality play on the dangers of hero worship.

In his famous story, Stoker captured the full horror of his disillusion with Irving, the dark master who might have said of him what Count Dracula says of the young visitor Jonathan Harker: "This man belongs to me!"

Michael Shelden is the author of "Orwell: The Authorized Biography," "Friends of Promise: Cyril Connolly and the World of Horizon," and "Graham Greene: The Enemy Within." He also writes for the Daily Telegraph in London, the Times of London, the Washington Post and the New Yorker.

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