Book Review:

Bram Stoker and the Late Victorian World, edited by Matthew Gibson and Sabine Lenore Müller

Reviewed by Jeanette Laredo

Review of Bram Stoker and the Late Victorian World, edited by Matthew Gibson and Sabine Lenore Müller, Clemson UP, 2018. Hardcover. 280 pp. ISBN: 978-1942954644.

Bram Stoker and his writings have been examined through every possible lens, including gender, sexuality, postcolonialism, psychoanalysis, and imperialism. As a scholar of Gothic literature who is most interested in Stoker’s vampire fiction, I expected Gibson and Müller’s Bram Stoker and the Late Victorian World to retread these familiar lines of critical inquiry and offer a few new observations on established scholarship. I was pleasantly surprised when the collection challenged those expectations by eschewing the monolithic idea of Bram Stoker the Father of Vampire Fiction and embracing the plurality of his experiences as a barrister, artist, manager, friend, and admirer of the American frontier. To do so, the collection expands its corpus to include Stoker’s novels of the American west (The Shoulder of Shasta, 1895), New Woman mummies (The Jewel of Seven Stars, 1903) and horror in the English countryside (The Lair of the White Worm, 1911).

Ultimately, Gibson and Müller bring a fresh perspective to the well-trod field of Stoker studies by examining the author in the context of the Late Victorian world he was writing. At the beginning of the Victorian era, immense social, political, and technological progress led to seemingly boundless optimism. Moving into the Edwardian period, this optimism faded when people realized that these once-celebrated advances of imperialism, political alliances, evolutionary theory, and evolving gender roles could also destroy the status quo. To explore how Stoker captured this Late Victorian dread of societal destruction in his fiction and non-fiction works, Gibson and Mueller have divided the collection into three sections: Professions; Science, Technology, and Ideas; and Politics and Society. Each section widens the scope of the previous one, moving from the professional to the technological and then to the global, forming concentric circles of analysis that create a more complete picture of Stoker in his time.

The first set of essays examines how Bram Stoker’s training as a barrister and his work as a reviewer and theater manager informed his writing. Stoker became a barrister at forty-three after twenty-three years of studying law. He brought his considerable knowledge of legal matters to his work as a theater manager, negotiating leases, contracts, and travel for the touring Lyceum company. Terry Hale argues that “Dracula is not only a novel written by a barrister but a novel only a barrister could have written” (11). Stoker’s writing incorporated contemporary case law, like the case of R. v. Dudley and Stephens (1884), concerning the survivors of a sinking ship who killed and ate their cabin boy while lost at sea. The defendants argued a defense of necessity because, much like Dracula, they were forced to kill in order to survive. In this way, Stoker uses English common law to anchor the supernatural work of Dracula in a “legally, consistent, world” that we can recognize in the present (31).

The second section moves away from Stoker’s professional life to explore how the scientific and technological developments of the Late Victorian era shaped his fiction. Those who are interested in trauma, fragmented bodies, and narratives will find Rebecca’s May’s essay on Dracula as a failed coroner’s report a hidden gem in this collection. May uses coroner’s reports from the University of Pittsburgh Archives from 1885-1905 to illustrate the Late Victorian need for order over unruly corpses and the unknown events that created them. Much like these reports, Bram Stoker’s novel attempts to create order through testimonies, newspaper clippings, and journal entries, but the dead body of the vampire continues to fragment and frustrate such a cohesive narrative. May’s Essay about unruly bodies pairs nicely with Anne DeLong’s essay on communication technologies that also defy easy categorization in Dracula. DeLong looks at tabloid journalism, telegraph, short-hand, and the phonograph in Dracula to show how these attendants of utopian progress are in fact “inherently vampiric” (101). For example, the telegram was the latest in fast communication, but when a delayed telegram from Van Helsing to Seward results in the death of Lucy’s mother, it reveals the dire consequences of depending on such a technology. The same is true of tabloid journalism, a “writing technology” that “distort[s] reality” when it attempts to report on supernatural events (114).

The third section tackles the relationships between Stoker’s fiction and the wider world, and transatlantic scholars will be particularly interested in Carol Senf’s chapter on Stoker’s ambivalence towards the American frontiersman. Senf examines the character of Grizzly Dick in The Shoulder of Shasta (1895), an American frontiersman with “long hair, buckskin clothing, and high black boots” who represents the raw energy and untamed majesty of the wild frontier (200). Nonetheless, Grizzly Dick is unable to compete in the modern world: he feels out of place in a modern social gathering and ends up plunging his knife into the table when he feels slighted, soon realizing his brash actions are “more appropriate on the frontier” than at a dinner table (201). Senf expands her analysis to include Dracula and Quincey Morris as versions of frontiersmen who have transgressed into a modern world. But while Grizzly Dick is able to recognize that he does not belong in a civilized world and retreats back to the frontier, Dracula and Quincey cannot overcome the technological advancement of the present and pay with their lives.

The editors also include an unpublished letter from Bram Stoker to writer, theater critic, and friend Laurence Hutton. An ordinary response to a dinner invitation at Hutton’s home, the letter shows that Stoker was well versed in the plays of Shakespeare and various humorists. While the letter does not contain any bombshell revelations to redefine Stoker scholarship, its inclusion fits neatly into a collection that aims to show a different, more intimate side of Bram Stoker as a friend and fellow artist who though pressed to attend “a banquet with certain politic worms,” will “carve” them with his caustic wit (216).

It’s appropriate that the editors began this study with the image of “the almost spectral image of the unsmiling Stoker, staring from the few old photographs which remain of him” (1). This ghostly image of Stoker represents how incomplete and inscrutable our impressions of him can be. This collection of essays successfully fills in a picture of the man and his fiction, and I recommend it to anyone wanting to expand their understanding of Bram Stoker, his world, and his literary legacy.

-19 March 2020