herald

Saturday 16 February 2019

He was the Dubliner who created Dracula, so why is there no statue of Bram Stoker?

The creator of Dracula sadly seems to be forgotten in his native city . . .

WANDERING through Dublin can feel like wandering through a literary mausoleum, with pubs displaying obligatory sketches of great Dublin writers.

Often the sketches are so poorly drawn that our official literary icons (Behan, Yeats, Beckett, Joyce, O'Casey and Wilde) resemble police photofits of men the authorities might like to question in relation to nefarious sexual practices - which sums up how some of them were actually regarded in Dublin, with their books banned.

This month sees the centenary of the death of the Dublin writer who outsold them all, whose most famous character still fascinates readers, film-makers, and psychotherapists and yet whose face is rarely among the sketches in Dublin pubs.

I refer to Bram Stoker, born at No 15 Marino Crescent in Clontarf in 1847, while famine raged in Ireland. It would be nice to say that he died in luxury on April 20, 1912 in London, suitably honoured for having created one of the great characters of 19th century literature and 20th century film.

But only when Dracula was adapted for film in 1929 did his widow, Florence, enjoy the true benefits of his fame. She used part of the $40,000 film rights to install in her London home the rarest of rare luxuries - a downstairs lavatory, which in gratitude she christened "Room Dracula".

Parents confronted by sobbing children terrified of vampires, gargoyles or trolls should remember this anecdote so they can explain that horror stories are invented by writers in smoke-filled rooms so their partners may one day live in homes possessing two toilets.

Cholera

Although Stoker's descendants are offering to pay for a statue of him to be erected in Dublin, there is little public celebrating of his centenary here -- possibility because horror is not seen as a "literary genre" or possibly because Dracula's main location, Transylvania, seems a long way from Ireland.

But while Stoker was born into a comfortable middle-class Protestant family, the horror of famine was not far away. His formidable, fiercely ambitious mother, Charlotte, had stories to rival anything in his later books.

She grew up in Correction Street in Sligo, beside the lunatic asylum adjoining the county jail. She witnessed famine and outbreaks of cholera as a child, with local Catholic priests stalking the fever house with a horsewhip, to prevent patients being buried before they were dead.

They were not always successful, with families scrambling to rescue living relatives from open pit graves.

Bram's eldest brother, Thornley, was the successful sibling, becoming President of the Royal College of Surgeons and reluctantly accepted a knighthood, after holding out for a baronetcy.

Bram, in contrast, abandoned a promising Civil Service career in Dublin to become Business Manager for the famous English actor, Henry Irving. He ran Irving's Lyceum theatre, which toured productions, starring Irving, worldwide.

Some biographers see Irving as a true Dracula, sucking the blood from his star-struck Irish manager who slavishly served him for three decades. But Stoker lived a financially comfortable life during his years with Irving.

He had a publicist's nose for business and hard-edged organisational skills. But none of his contemporaries expected him to produce a book like Dracula: a minor literary sensation which even impressed his mother, who suspected it would make money.

Dublin has a long tradition of (mainly Protestant) Gothic writers: but most looked the part -- like the addicted, reclusive Sheridan Le Fanu. Stoker was a practical, outgoing Victorian businessman. This made Dracula's publication all the more shocking.

The Free Press of Detroit summed up the contradiction: "Think of him ... a great shambling, good-natured overgrown boy ... why, it is hard to imagine Bram Stoker a businessman, to say nothing of him possessing an imagination capable of projecting Dracula."

Stoker's mother was right: the book made money, but not for him. With Irving's death in 1905, Stoker became unemployed. Theatres had little use of his old-fashioned business skills. His reputation, health and finances went in steady decline and his obituaries focused on his friendship with Irving.

His wife Florence -- a strong Dublin woman, who wisely rejected the dashing matrimonial advances of Oscar Wilde for a seemingly dull civil servant, enjoyed the legacy from her husband's work, which improved her finances and, of course, her plumbing.

She would not have enjoyed the vast array of academics who speculate on whether she was prone to heavy menstrual bleeding, that may have inspired her husband, or whether her alleged frigidity after the birth of their only child propelled him into the arms of prostitutes, resulting in the syphilis that may have caused his death.

The dark waters of Dracula lend themselves to theory and speculation, with modern commentators extracting from the text every manner of sexual taboo - from incest, group sex and sex during menstruation to bestiality, paedophilia and voyeurism. Every "ism" has been raked over by Dracula experts, with the possible exception of rheumatism.

But it remains a fascinatingly good read: a book set far from the comfort of Marino Crescent.

The Dubliner who outsold them all may not have a statue in his native city and it may be too much to ask Dubliners to switch from Guinness to Bloody Marys on April 20.

But they should still raise a glass to a son of the capital who deliberately veered into the realms of the unrealistic, with his imagination formed by his mother's stories of the real Gothic horrors she witnessed in her Sligo childhood.

Dermot Bolger's play, Tea Chests And Dreams, runs in Axis Ballymun till Saturday and in the Civic, Tallaght, on April 20 and 21.

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