Voluptuous vampires

What's changed in the hundred years since Bram Stoker's death?

This month marks the centenary of the death of the pioneer of gothic horror and author of Dracula Bram Stoker. Spawning countless adaptations for both television and film, including recent ratings-hits Twilight, True Blood and The Vampire Diaries, Stoker’s creation, Count Dracula, is deeply lodged in our cultural consciousness (and indeed in the collective unconscious). But what has made this misogynistic and xenophobic novel such an enduring hit?

Stoker’s novel is centered on a perceived "cultural invasion" of western Europe and the fear of women’s independence. Indeed, the Britain of the late 19th century (Dracula was published in 1897) was marked by fear and social anxiety caused by an influx of immigrants from Italy and eastern Europe, falling birth rates and fear of the decline of the British Empire. As Daniel Pick asserts, "The family and the nation, it seemed to many, were beleaguered by syphilitics, alcoholics, cretins, the insane, the feeble-minded, prostitutes and a perceived 'alien invasion”'of Jews from the East who, in the view of many alarmists, were feeding off and 'poisoning' the blood of a Londoner".

Stoker’s vampire-women - beautiful, seductive and dangerous - are misogynistic representations of a decidedly fin de siècle fear: the "New Woman". She is described in the character Mina Harker’s journal thus: "‘New Women’ [writers] will some day start an idea that men and women should be allowed to see each other asleep before proposing or accepting. But I suppose the New Woman won’t condescend in future to accept; she will do the proposing herself." As this suggests, new attitudes of independence were seen as a threat to the very survival of British society. This threat is embodied in the novel by the character of Lucy Wenestra.

Indeed, Stoker’s portrayal of the two central female characters, Mina and Lucy, presents a crucial contrast: Mina, meek, domesticated and submissive, remains the idealised Victorian archetype of female passivity. In contrast, Lucy,  monstrous and, vampiric, takes on the attributes of the New Woman, rejecting traditional female roles, destroying marriage and motherhood: "The sweetness was turned to adamantine, heartless cruelty, and the purity to voluptuous wantonness."

Though today’s vampire series are largely aimed at and written by women, the same underlying images of submissive, fey femininity linger. Rather than disseminating the misogynist elements of Dracula, Twilight author Stephanie Meyer merely dresses Stoker’s Mina in a pair of Converse. Just like Mina, meek, passive, and under the complete command of her boyfriend, Bella mopes around while the men get all the action. The vampire women, though slightly more animated than the mortal Bella, are also largely lumped in the “cold and sexy” camp, contributing very little to the development of the narrative.  A dynamic, Angela Carter-esque re-writing it is not.

Indeed, the fetishisation of female victimhood and the unabashed justification of men’s abusiveness, happily dressed up as "protection" rather than obsessive stalking, have unsurprisingly provoked a strong feminist backlash.  Yet, perhaps most baffling is the fact that, while Stoker’s misogynist representations of women were created by a man in the pre-suffrage years and during a period of mounting hysteria, Twilight was written by a woman - exactly the type of woman Stoker’s Mina disparages in Dracula.

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The Day That Went Missing: a memoir that breaks all the rules

Richard Beard's book is brimful of anger and guilt, fails to deliver an uplifting ending and opens with a death.

The Day That Went Missing: a Family’s Story, by Richard Beard

Harvill Secker, 278pp, £14.99

This memoir breaks all the rules. It’s brimful of anger and guilt, fails to deliver an uplifting ending and opens with a death. In the sea off the Cornish coast, the author, aged 11, is jumping the waves along with his brother Nicky, aged nine. It is August 1978. They are trying to outdo each other, joshing in the water; but then a rip current catches Nicky, pulling him out and sucking the sand from beneath his feet. A last image is burned in Beard’s brain: Nicky paddling madly and whining, “his head back, ligaments straining in his neck, his mouth in a tight line to keep out the seawater”. The next moment, responding to a deep instinct to save himself, Beard turns his back on his brother in a frenzied break for the shore.

All his life, Beard writes, he has “made a habit of looking away”. With this book – born of a midlife wobble, a dissatisfaction with being “insufficient in feeling” – he is determined to face down the dreadful events of that day and bulldoze the walls of denial that his family began erecting immediately after Nicky’s funeral, when they returned to the same house (and beach) in Cornwall to finish their holiday as if nothing had happened.

But now there’s so little of Nicky left: a gravestone that gives no date of death, a memorial at the boys’ Berkshire boarding school, a chapel dedication. Beard’s father, who with his determined silence imposed a moratorium on discussing Nicky, is now dead, too, and his living brothers’ recollections are as hazy as his own. At his mother’s house, a suitcase in the attic stows Nicky’s scant belongings, out of sight and mind, and there is a bunch of condolence letters whose well-intentioned inanities Beard quotes to good effect throughout the book, ­showing up the poverty of our language in acknowledging grief. “Death in these letters is character-forming, like a traditional English education,” he remarks at one point.

Beard revisits the holiday house, where difficult memories surface of his boyhood self, pretending to cope while falling apart. He cries uncontrollably as he walks along the cliffs to the beach where Nicky died. “My eyes are leaking,” he writes, another reminder of how he has been drilled not to feel (his boarding school, co-conspirator in denial, does not come off well here).

Beard’s mother hides behind revisionism. She tells him that Nicky was “hopeless at games, and not very brainy”. By believing this, he writes, she can believe that he didn’t have the strength or cleverness to outwit the sea. Another distancing mechanism: his mother points out that Nicky bore little physical resemblance to his three brothers. Beard drily notes how this helps account for Nicky’s erasure: “He wasn’t genuinely one of us – a reason for forgetting him that would make sense, in a novel.”

Making sense of life in novels is what Beard does for a living: in 2011’s Lazarus Is Dead, he even gave his central character a brother who drowns. And his novelist self protects him still, here. While reading (and finding flaws with) the condolence letters, he relies on his inner literary critic to “fend away the risk of genuine empathy”; stumbling on precious references to Nicky’s personality in school reports, he expresses a wariness of short cuts to character. Yet even the denial that serves him professionally breaks down when he comes across stories he published in his school magazine when he was 12 and 13 – one about a diver crippled by fear of water, another about a consummate actor who can’t keep up a performance: he keeps fluffing his lines.

Scraping away this final layer of self-protection creates a certain freedom. It allows Beard to be crazy angry at his father, who had cancer in 1978 and a lousy prognosis with it, and therefore had nothing to lose by jumping into the waves to save his son. And yet he didn’t do it.

Beard is angry at Nicky, too – “stubborn little bastard”. His brother, it turns out, was far from hopeless at sport. School reports indicate that he excelled at it, that he was ­indefatigable, competitive, ambitious. Beard hated him for that, for showing him up, for being the more talented sibling. Once, he punched Nicky in the face but there was no running away to tell on him in response. Nicky bore the punch, showing his brother who was the bigger of them. “I didn’t like him,” writes Beard, and so he goaded Nicky into the sea. “I was older and it was my idea. I left him out of his depth and drowning and I didn’t try to save him, not really. I was busy saving myself.” This is the stuff of true grieving and remorse, the acid peel of genuine soul-searching, whose sting few of us are capable of bearing. And it sings.

Beard has written an enriching rather than uplifting book. It deals in difficult truths. It insists that we can hate those we love; that forgetting is hard work and more damaging than remembering; and that grief will hound us to the end. It also tells us that brothers are more important than we might ever credit. 

Marina Benjamin’s “The Middlepause” (Scribe) is now available in paperback

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

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