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20 April 2012updated 27 Sep 2015 4:00am

Voluptuous vampires

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

By Eleanor Hirst

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.

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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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