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This book is at once excellent and infuriating.

Excellent because it is very well-researched and bang up to date on all the latest Stoker-related discoveries (e.g. Makt Myrkranna, though news of Mörkrets Makter came post-publication). For me it was particularly valuable as a research resource for my Classical references in Dracula paper. I knew for example that Stoker's education must have included plenty of Greek and Latin literature, but Skal supplied the full details, including lists of what he would have had to cover for the Trinity College entrance exam, and then what he would have studied (however perfunctorily!) once there. Various further snippets illuminating Stoker's knowledge of and exposure to ancient literature and mythology continued to pop up periodically throughout the book, while of course the wider tide of influences which flowed into the novel permeate the narrative at every stage. I wanted to know more about the latter anyway, as it will certainly further enrich my paper by allowing me to situate the Classical stuff effectively into its bigger context.

But also infuriating because of two related flaws: one, a tendency towards serious over-speculation, especially where Stoker's sexuality was concerned, and two, an apparent obsession with Oscar Wilde. On sexuality specifically, a quick Google tells me that Skal is gay, and I completely get the importance of queer icons for those of us in that bracket. It's also probably true that if Stoker had been born a century later, he might well have emerged as being some flavour of queer - his gushingly enthusiastic letters to Walt Whitman alone pretty much guarantee that. I am with Skal up to that point. But it's all the unsupported speculation which follows from there which I couldn't stomach. Here's an example of what I mean, set at the opening night of Lady Windermere's Fan, when Wilde famously shocked everyone by giving out green carnations to his friends which clearly signified something scandalous:
We don't know what words Wilde exchanged with the Stokers that night, but we can assume he always thought of Stoker as something of a prig – the priggishness covering a submerged self Wilde could imagine all too well. It would have been so very easy, at the interval, while complimenting Florence on what a newspaper described as her 'marvelous evening wrap of striped brocade,' to discreetly slip a carnation into Bram's pocket to be discovered later. When he undressed.
Literally the only detail in that paragraph which is supported by any evidence is that Florence Stoker wore a striped brocade evening wrap. I do appreciate that Skal doesn't try to hide this, signalling clearly that he is speculating, but the historian in me is just yelling 'why write this at all?' Especially when it is so obviously geared towards trying to build up some picture of sexual frisson between Stoker and Wilde which we just don't have any evidence for.

Here's another one, this time relating to Stoker's long-term and very close literary friend Hall Caine, to whom (under his Manx nick-name 'Hommy Beg') he had dedicated Dracula, and specifically Caine's contact with Stoker's widow after his funeral:
Florence Stoker never heard from Hall Caine again. Perhaps, after a time, she finally had a candid conversation with Mary Caine, who had left her husband to live in London after decades of marriage, because he simply preferred the company of men. And perhaps Florence finally read the voluminous personal correspondence that must have existed between her husband and Caine during their intimate, decades-long friendship, the kind of letters that can only be written between two mutually trusting confidants looking for fathers and brothers and wives to their souls. And then, perhaps, she burned them.
Again - whyyyyyy???? If I had been Skal's editor, I would have crossed out everything after the first sentence with my red pen, and written 'unsubstantiated' in the margin. Argue that Stoker probably felt same-sex attraction, absolutely. There's a good case to be made for that. But don't build up fantastical scenarios about specific people on the basis of it which we just don't have any evidence for - at least not in what is supposed to be a research-based biography. Write it as fiction and label it as fiction if you want to go there.

I've just included two examples here, but there were passages like this throughout the book, and as it is 652 pages long in total by the end of it all I was getting really Quite Irritated each time yet another one appeared, and closer to throwing the book across the room than I can remember having got for a long time. And that feeling was just exacerbated by the sheer proportion of the book which wasn't actually about Stoker at all, but given over to those he over-lapped with, and especially Oscar Wilde. Now, don't get me wrong - Oscar Wilde is fun to read about. Indeed, I vividly remember spending every lunch-break and free period I could spare in the school library reading Richard Ellmann's biography of him when I was fifteen. But that's just the point. I've already read a biography of Wilde. I don't want to spend pages and pages re-treading the same material when I've bought a book specifically purporting to be a biography of Bram Stoker.

Sure, I know they knew each other and can see that there were significant parallels between their life paths. But again I think Skal is over-fixated on that idea, to the extent that it distorts his arguments about Stoker and his work in some places. In particular, writing about the Wilde scandal and the way Dorian Gray was used as evidence against him in court, Skal argues that as a direct response to this Stoker must have removed from Dracula a subplot about a painter who is unable to capture Dracula's image, which his notes (LJ / DW) show he had planned early on and which Skal has imagined as Dorian Gray-ish in tone. Specifically, he claims that in the climate created by the court case, "for Dracula to be saved as a publishable tale, it had to be shrunken, collapsed, and dwindled down into a bedtime story of childhood abandonment and rescue".

I just can't agree. I've just read those notes, really carefully, and the painter character in particular appears only on the very earliest character-lists, written when Stoker first started kicking ideas around in 1890. By 1892, the full plot was pretty well sketched out, and indeed bar some extra material at the beginning which was eventually excised and (in part) resurfaced as 'Dracula's Guest' it is not that different from the novel as eventually published. No references to painters or painting are anywhere to be seen. Meanwhile, the Wilde trial was in the spring of 1895, long after this, and there's no sign in the notes of it prompting Stoker to undertake a major re-thinking, still less toning-down, of Dracula. Quite the opposite, in fact - notes from late 1895 and early 1896 show that he is still fleshing out the fine details of the final chapters, still much in line with the earlier plot outline, but with the scope and scale growing rather than shrinking. Skal's idea of some earlier, racier version which had to be hurriedly edited down is clearly sheer fantasy - but this time not even signalled as such.

In the end, I should probably have chosen a different biography of Bram to read. Ironically, I met and had a very nice chat with Paul Murray, the author of another one at the Dracula Congress I attended in Dublin, during which he railed about flights of over-imagination in yet a third and said that he preferred to stick to directly-attested facts. This sounded like very much the approach that I favour, and I was very impressed by the paper he gave at the conference for similar reasons. Later I let myself be seduced by Skal because his book was brand new, and although reading it certainly wasn't entirely wasted time I will probably still need to go back and read Murray's some time anyway. Oh well. I do at least feel considerably better for having had a good rant about it here!


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