Although he was born and bred in Dublin, the writer Bram Stoker remains inextricably linked with London. That’s partly because of his two London-based novels, The Jewel of Seen Stars and Dracula, and partly because of the life and career he built for himself in the English capital.
Brompton Cemetery, where Emmeline Pankhurst is buried, made the perfect setting for this Antique Beat talk about the creator of the world’s most famous vampire; the weather, grey & gloomy, matched the mood – although our speaker, Roger Luckhurst, was anything but dull. I knew little of Bram Stoker’s life outside literature before today and Luckhurst himself described the author as “enigmatic”, admitting that there is still much we don’t know about Stoker.
What we do know, however, is fascinating and I loved learning about this charismatic personality whose books were successful, but derided by critics during his lifetime, but who was a well-connected society gentleman married to a society beauty.
Strange though it may seem now, Bram Stoker was once better known as a theatre manager than an author. And yet, neither career was an obvious choice: Stoker was born in Dublin, in 1847, in Merrion Square, one of the grandest parts of Dublin – the son of a senior civil servant. This was where the Protestant majority, or “ruling class”, lived – surrounded by a majority Catholic nation “barely considered human”. It was the decade of “engineered starvation”: millions fled Ireland to America, during the 1840s, to escape starvation.
However, the tight-knit Protestant community in which Stoker lived flourished. His neighbours included Sir William and Lady Jane Wilde. A prominent eye surgeon, Sir William was regularly taken to court for scandals including fathering illegitimate children, but this didn’t prevent the Wildes from holding a literary salon every week; their guests included George Bernard Shaw. Edward Carson also lived on the Square and was a school friend of the Wildes’ son, the playwright and poet Oscar – who he would later cross-examine in Wilde v. Queensberry.
Having followed in his father’s footsteps and become a civil servant, it was through a Dublin connection that Stoker got the job which would alter the course of his life, becoming a theatre reviewer for the Dublin Evening Mail. And it was a fawning review of a performance by Sir Henry Irving which brought Stoker to London: impressed by the review, Sir Henry invited Stoker out to dinner and subsequently asked Stoker to become his personal manager. Bram agreed and moved to London with his new wife, society beauty Florence Balcombe.
That lady was renowned in both Dublin and London for her looks and charm and had previously rejected an offer of marriage from Oscar Wilde (I told you Stoker’s Dublin community was close-knit).
Working for Sir Henry Irving must have been quite an experience. One of the most famous men in the world, he travelled the length and breadth of the globe and was hugely influential. On the flip side, he was hopeless at managing his own finances – and “frequently insufferable”. After his father’s death, Noel would claim that Irving had “worn Bram out”.
The relationship between Stoker and Irving has long fascinated critics and biographers, and Stoker’s sexuality has been much debated – partly because of his intense friendships with Walt Whitman, Sir Henry Irving and Hall Caine and partly because he and Florence seem to have lived separate lives once their only child, Noel, was born. One theory put forward is that Florence refused to have sex with Stoker after she discovered he had syphilis. This interesting theory would explain why Stoker’s final couple of novels were, in Luckhurst’s words, “bonkers” – but we have no way of knowing whether it is true and, it should be pointed out, Stoker’s immediate family distanced themselves from those claims, made by Stoker’s grandnephew, Daniel Farson, during the 1970s.
Separate lives they may have led, but the Stokers were a huge hit with London society, mixing with the famous and the influential. They lived in Chelsea, where neighbours included Stoker’s close friend Hall Caine; less well-known now, back then he was a writer with success to rival that of J.K. Rowling. Hall helped Stoker with elements of his writing, and Dracula is dedicated to him.
Chelsea was a mecca for wealthy bohemians. Tite Street, in particular, attracted artists: Whistler built his ‘White House’ there, John Singer Sargent was a resident and it’s where Oscar Wilde built his ‘House Beautiful’; heartbreakingly, its interior was pulled out and “sold for pennies” to pay his legal fees. Chelsea also offered a more tolerant view of the world; at a time when homosexuality was considered immoral, life partners Charles Ricketts and Charles Shannon were able to live together, as did Katharine Bradley and Edith Cooper.
Just up the road, on Oakley Street, resided Lady Jane Wilde, after she moved to London in 1879 to live with Oscar’s older brother, Willie, after Sir William died. An infamously bad poet, that poor lady nonetheless battled on with her much-mocked literary salon.
Florence Balcombe, on the other hand, ran a hugely successful literary salon which attracted the leading literary figures of the day: Ellen Terry, George du Maurier, W.S. Gilbert and John Barrymore among them. Not to be outdone, her husband – by now manager of the Lyceum Theatre – joined The Beefsteak Club, a group of friends who ate steak together after the Lyceum’s evening performances. Fellow members included Winston Churchill, Eveleen Tennant, Frederic Myers, William Gladstone – and Sir Richard Burton, the inspiration behind Dorian Gray and one of the most notorious men in London; he’d been blackballed from all of the city’s other clubs.
These are the facts which we know to be true about Bram Stoker. And yet, as Roger Luckhurst observed, there is much that we don’t know about Stoker as a man. When he died, in April 1912, very little notice was taken by the press, in part because his death happened the same week that the ‘Titanic’ sank. However, Dracula soon took on a life of its own, when the 1922 film ‘Nosferatu’ was made; Florence, who was Stoker’s literary executor, pursued the film’s makers through the courts but was ultimately unsuccessful in having have its negatives destroyed. Since then, Bram Stoker’s inner life has been “obscured” by the success of his Dracula character.
Whatever the truth behind their relationship, Florence (who never remarried) went on to publish Dracula’s Ghost and to keep the flame of the Stoker estate alive – as did their son, Noel.
Aren’t the Stokers a fascinating family? I wish Bram could have known what a legacy he was leaving behind – and how his creation would inspire writers and film makers for decades to come.