This month marks the hundred-year centenary of the death of the pioneer of gothic horror, Bram Stoker. Spawning countless adaptations for both television and film including recent ratings-hits Twilight, True Blood and The Vampire Diaries, Stoker’s Count has proved an enduring image in our cultural consciousness. But what has made this misogynistic and largely xenophobic novel such a hit? Has anything changed in the underlying themes of today’s vampire reincarnations?
Stoker’s novel is largely centered around the perceived ‘cultural invasion’ of Western Europe and fear of rising 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 in his 1989 essay ‘Faces of Degeneration’, ‘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’. Moreover, these fears manifested themselves in anxiety over perceived predatory women and their threat to the degeneration of British society.
Stoker’s vampire-women; beautiful, seductive and dangerous are misogynistic representations of a crucial fin de siècle fear: ‘New Woman’. She is described in Stoker’s central female protagonist, Mina Harker’s journal: ‘… ‘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 extract suggests, new attitudes of independence were seen as a threat to the very make-up of British society. This perceived threat is given body in the characterisation of Mina’s friend and counterpoint, Lucy Wenestra.Mina, meek, domesticated and submissive remains the idealized Victorian archetype of female passivity. In contrast, Lucy Wenestra’s monstrous, vampiric form, takes on the attributes of the New Woman; rejecting traditional female roles, destroying marriage and motherhood: ‘Lucy Wenestra, but yet how changed. 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 on with 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 the men’s abusiveness, happily dressed up as ‘protection’ rather than obsessive stalking, have unsurprisingly provoked a strong feminist backlash. Yet, perhaps is most baffling is that, while Stoker’s misogynist representations of women were creating by a man, a man in the pre-suffrage years in a period of creeping hysteria over syphillis and crumbling patriarchy, Twilight was written by a woman. The exact type of woman Stoker’s Mina disparages in Dracula.