Saturday, 9 February 2013

Draculesque Inspirations


Bram Stoker had learned a valuable lesson from Dr John Polidori: the importance of tapping into popular opinion; of using his own associations in his favour, and suggesting links between his creations and certain controversial public figures of his acquaintance. There is nothing most people like more than prurient gossip about a celebrity.

The role model for Dracula is usually said to have been Stoker’s sometime employer, Sir Henry Irving, and it is certainly the case that Stoker derived certain of the Count’s physical characteristics and mannerisms from Irving. But this, I think, is all. The main inspiration lay elsewhere. On its initial publication, Dracula was dedicated to Stoker’s close friend, the Manx writer Hall Caine. This dedication is not simply an act of friendship, but the acknowledgement of a literary debt.

A best-selling novelist in his day, Caine is now best remembered as a friend and early biographer of one of the more outlandish and controversial figures of his age, the painter and poet Dante Gabriel Rossetti.

At heart a gentle, generous, outgoing man, Rossetti was transformed by neurosis, paranoia, and hypersensitivity to criticism, into an isolated, insomniac recluse, about whom increasingly bizarre and baroque rumours flourished. In earlier years, he had consciously encouraged such rumours, playing up to the role of eccentric artist, filling his home with exotic trinkets and artworks from all over the world and giving free reign to a menagerie of exotic animals, from armadillos to wombats, Brahma bulls to boxing kangaroos.

But in later years, Rossetti’s life really did begin to resemble the plot of a gothic horror novel. When his young wife, Elizabeth Siddal, died of a (possibly deliberate) drug overdose in 1862, he was so overwhelmed by grief and guilt that he buried the only existing manuscript of his as yet unpublished poems with her [in Highgate Cemetery].

Seven years later, fearing that his eyesight was failing, and he would no longer be able to paint, he was persuaded to have the poems exhumed from the coffin, so he could revise and publish them. The grisly facts of the exhumation were largely kept a secret during his lifetime, although dark rumours persisted, but Rossetti was haunted by what he had done, claiming that Siddal visited him every night for the rest of his life.
Hall Caine was the first person to make this story public. His Recollections of Rossetti, published only months after Rossetti’s death in 1882, contains a lurid account of the exhumation, including the somewhat improbable claim that:

“… the body was apparently quite perfect on coming to the light of the fire on the surface and … when the [manuscript] book was lifted, there came away some of the beautiful golden hair in which Rossetti had entwined it.”

An exhumation, a body untouched by death, a dead woman who is nevertheless seen every night by the man she loved. Stoker must surely have had this story in mind when creating the narrative of Lucy Westenra in Dracula.

More about Stoker and Polidori:  

More about Elizabeth Siddal:


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