Dracula and Modern Life

Dr Emilie Taylor-Brown, Dr Hosanna Krienke, and Dr Sarah Green recently led a post-performance panel discussion for Creation Theatre’s production of Dracula, which was staged at Blackwell’s Bookshop, using only two actors and innovative audiovisual effects. Here they each offer their thoughts on the performance, the panel discussion and the role of the vampire in channeling fears about modernity.

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Entering Blackwell’s bookshop after hours and descending into a basement surrounded by rows and rows of books, felt like the perfect start to Creation Theatre’s adaptation of Dracula. We were greeted with soft lighting and the sounds of Postmodern Jukebox—a band who reimagine popular songs as jazz covers, a clever nod to the rich sociocultural interlude that would connect the original 1897 text to its new 1950s setting.

The Vampire, Science, and Technology – Dr Emilie Taylor-Brown

As I watched the play unfold, I was struck by the clever use of technology, not only because it made it possible to tell such a complex story with a cast of just two, but also because it felt true to the original text in which technology takes centre stage. The phonograph, telegraph, and railway are important structures of communication in Bram Stoker’s Dracula, coupled as they are with letters, diary entries, interviews, and newspaper articles that together form the story. This is called an epistolary narrative, a form that while seeming to build a tale through physical evidence, actually relies on a large amount of subjectivity, calling into question the authenticity of its multiple narrators. In this play, silhouettes, hand-held projectors, flashing lights, and disembodied audio, allow the audience to really feel Dracula’s presence without ever setting eyes on him, and in the process highlight the blurring between evidence and memory in very interesting and visual ways.

Both versions of Dracula embody anxieties about truth and superstition—what is real? What can be proved? At the end of Stoker’s novel Jonathan Harker writes:

‘It was almost impossible to believe that the things that we had seen with our own eyes and heard with our own ears were living truths […] we were struck by the fact that in all the mass of material of which the record is composed, there is hardly one authentic document.’

Such a preoccupation with authenticity speaks to the novel’s historical moment in which medical science was branching into multiple specialisms, empiricism and experiment were thriving scientific methods, and psychiatry was a nascent, but visible field of study. From the mid-nineteenth century, practitioners were attempting to pin down the dynamics of disease causation: were diseases internal or external? How were they transmitted? The microscope was steadily revealing the role of parasites and bacteria in the aetiologies of human illnesses and the vampire became a prime metaphor for the contagiousness, not just of illness, but also of transgressive ideas and behaviours. This certainly comes to the fore in Creation’s adaption, which is set, perhaps significantly, in a decade in which Francis Crick and James Watson discovered the double-helix structure of DNA. Such a discovery gave new credence to the power of scientific knowledge to explain the world, especially following the global destabilisation of two world wars and their legacies for many of PTSD.

But what happens when scientific knowledge fails? In the post-show discussion, the audience were keen to discuss what is and is not knowable. The vampire, they decided, continues to hold power in the popular imagination because of its intrinsically metaphoric nature, able to represent both the real and the imagined.

Vampirism as Madness – Dr Hosanna Krienke

Renfield is a crucial character for understanding Dracula, particularly in this adaptation, which distills the story down to a few key players. While story seems to be set up as a clear clash between regular humans vs. supernatural vampires, Renfield is an uncanny double for both sides. On the one hand, his seeming insanity is based on his attempts to consume the life force of lesser beings (spiders and, in one memorable scene, a sparrow) in order to become immortal. So in a sense he acts exactly like a vampire, albeit an infinitely unsexy one. But on the other hand, Renfield’s diagnosis does not clearly separate him from the other human characters. Seward declares that Renfield is a “Zoophagous”—a fancy medical term that only means he eats animals. He is carnivorous, like a lot of other humans.

So if Renfield is a weird doppelgänger of both humans and vampires, why is he in this story at all? Renfield’s presence emphasizes a pattern across the play: the experience of encountering a vampire is constantly portrayed as a kind of madness. Lucy, Harker, and even Mina start to distrust their own motivations and memories. In this production, the audience too gets to experience a kind of fractured existence as scenes bleed into each other and the actors transform into multiple characters. Ultimately, like Mina and Harker, the audience also cannot always string together everything we’ve witnessed into a tidy, rational narrative.

Today, we are quite used to the idea of the sexy, attractive vampire who is relatively little threat to humans. But this production retains some of the danger of the vampire through its portrayal of Renfield. Though Christopher York portrays Renfield for most of the play, [spoiler!] in a climactic moment Sophie Greenham (who until now has played the resolutely rational Mina and the scientist Seward) slips on Renfield’s distinctive skull cap and assumes his persona. The implication is clear: no one is left free from the taint of the vampire’s touch. So while Harker and Mina think that they are liberated at the end of the play, the actors’ shared portrayal of Renfield hints at a possible future in which they do not become superhuman vampires, but instead are institutionalized as lunatics.

The Vampire and Sexuality – Dr Sarah Green

Dracula has always offered rich pickings to historians of sexuality. This adaptation was no exception. Unlike the novel it centred mainly on Jonathan and Mina, and particularly on the non-consummation of their marriage after Jonathan’s traumatic encounters with female vampires at Castle Dracula. But what was really interesting was the change of time period – from the late 1890s to the 1950s – and what that did to the sexualities in question.

More than anything, the change allowed the introduction of a major figure who was writing in the 1890s, but only started to influence mainstream British culture in the 1920s: Sigmund Freud. The majority of Victorian readers would have shared the belief that excessive sex could be dangerous to the health, though they may have disagreed widely on how much exactly was too much. Dracula can be (and often is) read as a novel about sexual self-control, and the forces of destruction that can so easily be unleashed if that control is relinquished. The characters of this 1950s Dracula, however, have surely been influenced by Freud’s contention that it was precisely controlled or ‘repressed’ sexuality that was the damaging force. Their decision to embrace their vampire natures in an orgiastic embrace concluded a narrative that was more about finding a way to express sexuality than to control it.

But can the vampire ever represent a purely positive sexuality? In the discussion after the show, audience members asked what part horror played in this, and why it is only recent years that have seen the advent of the self-controlled and self-hating vampire (see Twilight and True Blood), who strives to control his or her violent nature. If this is the vampire of our time, what does it tell us about how sexual anxieties have changed since the 1950s?

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Now What? Surviving Serious Illness in the Nineteenth-Century

Krienke Bio Pic

Hosanna Krienke joined the project in December 2017. She researches convalescence and narrative in nineteenth-century Britain.

Writing in 1991, sociologist Arthur W. Frank declared that Western scientific medicine had created what he called “the remission society,” a growing number of patients whose lives were saved by medical treatment but who could not be considered cured. This remission society includes people who are cancer survivors, manage heart disease, or live with autoimmune disorders. Such conditions, which would have been fatal only a century ago, now can be managed successfully across many years. Yet such longevity also produces a new challenge for medical professionals and patients. While much of twentieth-century medicine single-mindedly pursued the ideal of full cures (for example, the misguided attempt to find a single cure for all cancers), Frank suggested that medicine of the twenty-first century would need to come to terms with a different kind of caregiving in which patients and physicians both learn to cope with open-ended treatment regimens and uncertainty about patients’ prognosis.

Girl and Dog

‘A young girl convalescing in an armchair is visited by her dog. Etching by H. Formstecher after H. Bacon.’ by Henry Bacon. Credit: Wellcome CollectionCC BY

While Frank imagined that the remission society is unique to today, my work reveals that this emerging medical culture has much to learn from nineteenth-century survivors of illness. I examine Victorian ideas of convalescence, a condition of ongoing recovery and extended uncertainty that followed serious illness. Frank posited that people in the remission society remain “neither ill nor completely well.”[1] Similarly, Victorian convalescents were, according to one physician, “in an intermediate state—neither ill, nor yet quite well.”[2] As I discover, Victorian physicians, philanthropists, writers, and domestic caregivers crafted a sustained ideology to deal with the stress of surviving acute illness. Convalescents faced a prolonged process of rehabilitation as they waited to see whether they would gradually improve, malinger, or relapse. The Victorians worked to alleviate the angst of convalescence both through personalized caregiving practices and unique interpretive strategies designed to make meaning within persistent uncertainty.

Weak but not ill, convalescents could no longer benefit from medical treatment. Nevertheless, Victorian writers, philanthropists, and caregivers concocted a whole range of ways to support the recuperating medical patient’s physical, mental and social well-being. Convalescent patients needed relaxation, fresh air, and hearty meals. They also needed healthful distractions, such as social visits, travel, and novels. “Even the outside of a new and interesting book,” one caregiving manual insisted, “which must not be read until permission is given, will have its beneficial effect.”[3] While nineteenth-century scientific medicine increasingly focused on disease processes within the body, convalescent ideology focused on improving the patient’s larger environment. Such changes, it was believed, could profoundly affect the course of patients’ recovery, potentially forestalling relapses, helping chronic conditions, and hastening full recovery.

Alongside practical benefits like leisure and nutrition, convalescent patients needed strategies for coping with the extended boredom, sudden relapses, and small gains of prolonged rehabilitation. Writing about his own recovery from a surgical amputation, the poet W.E. Henley bitterly complained, “Altogether convalescence is a trying period both for nurses and patients […] it is an uninteresting, unsympathetic, and uncomfortable probation.”[4] An entire genre of convalescent self-help manuals and religious devotionals sought to offer strategies to counteract the stress and uncertainty of convalescence. Most importantly, these texts advised against any attempt to predict the outcome of one’s convalescent care. One devotional manual counselled, “[R]esist fore-casting, and undue dwelling on results or consequences.”[5] Even positive conjectures could be hazardous “lest the dangerous hopes which convalescence brings with it should meet with disappointment.”[6] Instead of looking to the future for meaning, convalescents and their caregivers were supposed to track and analyse the complex social, physical, and mental factors at work on the patient’s ongoing recovery.

Convalescent Being Read to

‘A girl reads to a convalescent while a nurse brings in the patient’s medicine. Watercolour by R.H. Giles.’ by R.H. Giles. Credit: Wellcome CollectionCC BY

As a literary scholar, I examine the history of nineteenth-century convalescent care in order to identify how patients and caregivers narrated the experience of uncertainty. Ultimately, I use these historical narrative forms to better understand how readers can engage with the prolonged uncertainty of reading Victorian novels. My central question is this: if Victorian convalescents were meant to interpret their ongoing recovery without predicting potential outcomes, what would it mean for readers of Victorian novels (particularly novels that feature illness) to interpret an unfolding plot without reference to its ending?

If you have read many Victorian novels, you are already familiar with the timescale of convalescence. Readers are often asked to invest hours of reading-time in tracking the prolonged recuperations of say, Esther Summerson in Charles Dickens’s Bleak House or Lucy Snowe in Charlotte Brontë’s Villette. Many critics read such illness episodes as symbolic of the psychological obstacles these characters face. By contrast, my work reveals that Victorians valued the unique opportunities for reflection provided by the slow time of convalescence. Thus I want to apply the interpretive techniques of convalescent care to Victorian novels in order to recover the ethical value and interpretive meaning Victorian readers would have been trained to find within narratives of digression, boredom, and waiting.

But more than offering new readings of nineteenth-century texts, the history of Victorian convalescent culture can help guide current physicians and patients who are part of our modern remission society. Victorian convalescents spoke with great eloquence and insight about the frustrations—and opportunities—of living within prognostic uncertainty. Thus while Victorian convalescent practices have never before been described within scholarship on the history of medicine, I hope to demonstrate how the distinctive interpretive postures of the nineteenth-century convalescence movement are increasingly relevant to our historical moment as more and more people live with the uncertainty of a medical prognosis.

[1] Arthur W. Frank, At the Will of the Body: Reflections on Illness. Boston: Houghton Mifflin: 1991. 154.

[2] William Strange, MD, The Restoration of Health: Or, the application of the Laws of Hygiene to the Recovery of Health. London: Longmans, Green, 1865. 224.

[3] Edmund S. and Ellen J. Delamere, Wholesome Fare; or, The Doctor and the Cook. London: Lockwood & Co, 1868. 736-7. Original emphasis.

[4] W.E. Henley, “Convalescence.” Saturday Review. October 6, 1877. 418.

[5] Mary Ethel Granger, Life Renewed: A Manual for Convalescents Arranged for Daily Reading. London: Longmans, 1891. 70.

[6] George Black, Sick-Nursing: A Handbook for All Who Have to Do with Cases of Disease and Convalescence. London: n.p., 1888. 37.