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The Life of Bram Stoker

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Portrait by Aidin Hickey

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by Walter Osborne

Bram Stoker, A Family Perspective

Abraham (Bram) Stoker was born on November 8th, 1847, in Clontarf, then a popular holiday resort on the outskirts of Dublin, Ireland. He was the third of Abraham Stoker, Sr. and Charlotte Thornley Stoker’s seven children. His brother William Thornley was two years older; sister Matilda one year older; brother Thomas two years younger; brother Richard Nugent four years younger; sister Margaret six years younger, and brother George seven years younger. As a child Bram was so sickly as to be confined to his bed for much of his first seven years, subject to bloodletting and probably not expected to live. He spent much of this time watching the lives of family and neighbors from his bedroom window and listening to his mother’s stories of Irish history and legend. Both with the melancholic mood of the times, plagued as they were by disease and famine, and the darkly wry, slightly fantastical nature of Irish narrative, many of these tales were somewhat gothic in character—supernatural mixed with the real and believable, bound up in dark mood and lyrical language. It is easy to envision how young Bram’s storytelling instincts may have been cultivated.

At the time of his enrollment at Trinity College (1864), Bram had not only survived his still-undiagnosed childhood illness, but had bounced back in a big way. He grew into a tall, strong, sociable character and would become a model ‘liberal arts man,’excelling in oratory, debate, and athletics. He received a Bachelor of Arts degree in 1870 and a Master of Arts five years later, and as a student had the rare distinction of serving in the highest office of the College Historical Society and the University Philosophical Society, Trinity’s pre-eminent student scholarly organizations (the former was oriented toward debate; the latter toward critical reading and discussion). Bram was an outstanding university athlete, collecting prizes in shot put, weightlifting, high and long jumping, gymnastics, and race walking. He counted his recognition as “Dublin University Athletic Sports Champion” (1867) among his proudest collegiate achievements.

It seems he chafed against the regimented academic program that governed Trinity in his time—in one address to the Historical Society he lamented the curriculum’s neglect of history, oratory, and literature. Given what we know of him, perhaps this is understandable. The lasting impression one gets of Bram’s life as a student and young adult in Dublin is that of a ‘big man on campus’ (his charging ballroom dance was once likened to a fixed-bayonet attack) whose prominent figure only grew after graduation. His modest achievements in grade point academics and his extended tenure as a student may also have had to do with his beginning employment with the Civil Service—following in his father’s footsteps—in his second year at Trinity.

The Civil Service would become another major part of Bram’s young-adult life. Tales of riotous social functions attest to his bon vivant presence, while he earned further athletic renown organizing and competing in the Civil Service’s popular annual sports competition. Moreover he was integrally involved in the substantial increase in size and influence of his office, the Petty Sessions Clerks. In short order, Bram rose to the head of his small cohort of eight junior clerks. It was soon recommended that the office be expanded and Bram be appointed to a newly created position of senior authority and independent operation, the Clerk of Inspection, responsible for auditing the offices of other districts. In 1895, only seventeen years after Bram left for the Lyceum, the office had grown to include four hundred and six clerks, and with over six hundred sets of books from various districts falling under the Inspector’s jurisdiction. Clearly, the big man left big shoes to fill.

Ironically, Bram’s first book, The Duties of Clerks of Petty Sessions in Ireland—a manual that formalized the office’s functions and in many ways enabled its rapid expansion—marked the end of his Civil Service career; it was published in 1879, shortly after he resigned to accept Sir Henry Irving’s offer to manage the Lyceum Theatre in London. That is not to say Duties of Clerks was Bram’s first writing foray. During his university and Civil Service years he also penned the first of many short stories, as well as theatre reviews written gratis for the Dublin Evening Mail—which, perhaps not coincidentally, was edited and co-owned by Sheridan Le Fanu, whose 1872 vampire novel Carmilla is counted among Dracula’s  likely influences. This was also the period in which Bram compiled the journal of observations, verse, and witty musings that is now published as The Lost Journal of Bram Stoker: The Dublin Years (2012).

In a reflection of the serendipity that, in hindsight, often characterizes Bram’s life, his theatre reviews for the Dublin Evening Mail also led him to meet the English actor Sir Henry Irving, who would become one of his closest friends. Irving was impressed by his insightful and evenhanded review of his performance of Hamlet, and the two became fast friends. In 1878, Bram accepted Irving’s invitation to join him in London as business manager of his new Lyceum Theatre. Bespeaking Irving’s prominence as an actor—and the increasing prestige and prominence of the theatre—Irving would receive a knighthood in 1895, the first actor ever to be so honored. Prior to departing for London, Bram married Florence Anne Lemon Balcombe, known as one of the most beautiful women in Dublin, with whom he would have one son, Irving Noel Thornley Stoker (born Dec. 1879).

Managing London’s Lyceum Theatre (1878-1904) would be the primary occupation of Bram’s adult life. His official duties involved coordinating the theatre’s local seasons and international tours, accounting its financial records, and acting as secretary for its owner, his friend, Sir Henry Irving. Anyone who has worked in theatre can tell you, however, that one’s official duties and one’s actual activities form rather an interesting Venn diagram. Bram acted as everything from publicist to part-time stage crew—one story in Paul Murray’s excellent biography, From the Shadow of Dracula, recalls a play having a gondola cross the stage, and when the sheet disguising the boat’s interior was brushed aside, “the audience gasped at the figure of Stoker in evening dress…working the machinery that propelled the gondola!”

Bram’s public-facing position—he also served as a de facto social host for the Lyceum’s high-profile guests—led to his acquaintance with many of the leading figures of his day, including Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Alfred Lord Tennyson, Lord and Lady Randolph Churchill, William Gladstone, and from the American tours Mark Twain, Walt Whitman, Theodore Roosevelt, and Buffalo Bill Cody, among others. His correspondence shows him sharing ideas and input on manuscripts and parliamentary debates with authors and politicians alike, and his record of promoting others’ work both in the Lyceum and in review meant that his own work, where merited, was generally made available to wide and often favorable reception. Contrary to popular misconception, this was true also of Dracula, which received quite a positive pattern of critical opinion, as scholar John Edgar Browning has demonstrated. Browning found eighty-seven newspaper and journal reviews of Dracula dating from 1897 to 1913: seventy rated positive, three rated negative, and fourteen were mixed.

Although Dracula was well received in his time, Bram never could have imagined the lasting, international impact it would have. Popular theatrical adaptations in the years following Bram’s death (1912), and particularly Universal Studios’ 1931 blockbuster movie starring Bela Lugosi, led Dracula to become one of the best-known novels in the world. Since its publication, it has never gone out of print, it has been translated into every major language, and it has inspired hundreds of novels, short stories, and movies. From Halloween costumes to children’s cereal, Count Dracula has permeated just about every aspect of our culture.

Bram began working on the story that would become Dracula in 1890 (his original title was ‘The Un-Dead,’ and his Count, hailing from Austria, was called ‘Wampyr,’ until Bram came across the name ‘Dracula’ in the Whitby library while on vacation), and from an 1897 interview with Jane Stoddard of the British Weekly, we know he gave the actual writing period to be about three years. That the novel took a total of seven years to complete should not be surprising in light of Bram’s ‘day job’ at the Lyceum, and that he completed several other books and stories during this time (including The Snake’s Pass, "Seven Golden Buttons," The Watter’s Mou, The Shoulder of Shasta). More information on the novel Dracula may be found here, as well as in the invaluable Bram Stoker’s Notes for Dracula, transcribed and annotated by Elizabeth Miller and Robert Eighteen-Bisang.

Bram Stoker passed away on April 20th, 1912, in London. His remains rest at London’s Golders Green Crematorium.

W. PARKER STOKER 2018