The year is 1897 and Bram Stoker is a bored businessmen who boosts his income by writing pulpy novels. The most famous of these, simply titled Dracula, was not an immediate hit, but would turn out to define Stoker’s legacy. This isn’t entirely undeserved, but outside of its snug historical pocket the novel doesn’t come across all that well.
The story is well-known to nearly everyone, and I was quite surprised at how closely, at first, it follows the 1993 movie. And yet this film, as well as other films before and after it, have chosen to add details or leave them out, and that is no wonder because the original novel is drearily Victorian, full of swooning ladies and brave men, all of whom have the character depth of a french fry. The Count himself, meanwhile, does not fare much better. He is a villain without motivation, animalistic in the sense that he can make animals do his bidding, but unnatural at the same time, defying death and the will of God. He does not have the backstory or motivation that most adaptations provide him with; he simply is. He is evil and not much else. At one point he even operates under the alias of Mr. De Ville.
Literary theorists certainly don’t seem to be able to make much of Dracula; various theories have the novel as a manifesto for Catholic proselytisation, a treatise on the evils of the fluidity of gender roles, or a parable designed to promote capitalism. I’m hardly a scholar but my personal pet theory is that Stoker was a hack who rode the fringe waves of the neogothic revival; really, who knows that he was thinking?
There is some value, I think, in the theory that the novel is a criticism on (then) newfangled ideas of gender. The women are either childlike innocents, as in the case of Lucy, or maternal innocents, like Mina. Though Mina’s pragmatism is, at times, admirable, and she is granted some insights and revelations of her own, she is first and foremost a devoted wife who is grateful for all these strong men who protect her, and so is Lucy. The men, meanwhile, are all brave and valiant and very upper-crusty (though there is a slew of faceless lower-class drudges with thick accents written out phonetically to dole out quaint working class wisdoms and convenient plot points). There is a lot of tearful blinking, hand-wringing and pretty sleeping (no Victorian woman has ever drooled or snored, apparently) on the one side, and a lot of emotive rabblerousing and paternal posturing on the other. Van Helsing, meanwhile, purportedly a man of science, finds most of his solutions in ancient folklore and Catholic tradition. You’d think that Seward, a doctor, would not be quite so keen to follow him there, yet here we are.
To say that these criticisms are invalid because hey, this is just how the Victorians rolled, is selling a lot of authors short. Wilkie Collins and Charles Dickens wrote fantastic female characters (and, yes, some bleary-eyed wailers too), and even Thackeray, whose Vanity Fair is not exactly a feminist treatise, thought women were capable of more than elegant fainting and pouting. Even within the boundaries of Victorian-era gender, character depth can be found. Not so in Dracula.
Moreover, the pacing of the novel is widely and wildly uneven. Van Helsing holds long soliloquies when time is, evidently, pressing. He also travels between the London suburbs and Amsterdam several times per day in a time when that crossing would have taken up the better part of that day. His command of the English language is superb, with a vocabulary to match the well-educated natives, yet basic verb conjugation seems to elude him.
It is not entirely without merit. Jonathan’s captivity in the count’s castle is genuinely chilling, and though to our current standards the book is quite tame, there are some flashes of cruelty that I did not expect, such as three of Dracula’s vampire-slaves devouring a baby or the scene in which vampire Lucy is killed. The only character with some depth is Renfield, Jonathan’s predecessor, who spends his time in an asylum, trying to gruesomely manipulate the food chain. Yet this storyline, too, goes nowhere.
Dracula is regarded as a classic, and it is, in the sense that it is the original from which all others derive; and I’ll freely admit that in general, literature from this era is wasted on me, but I found this book to be dreary and long-winded. I think I prefer Coppola’s 1993 movie after all. At least that one had the Kama Sutra in it.