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This novel was written by two sisters, of whom the elder, Emily Gerard, was a Polish cavalry officer's wife and spent time living in the Transylvanian Romanian towns of Sibiu and Brașov where he was stationed. It's well known in Dracula circles that she used that time to research an article and book on Transylvania which were used in turn by Bram Stoker in the course of his research for Dracula:
  • 1885: 'Transylvanian Superstitions' in The Nineteenth Century 8: p. 128-144.
  • 1888: The Land Beyond the Forest: Facts, Figures, and Fancies from Transylvania, New York: Harper.
But her experiences also clearly informed this novel, which itself also relates closely to Dracula. The connection is flagged up explicitly in the one and only newspaper interview which Bram ever gave about his best-selling novel, conducted by one Jane Stoddard, which begins like this:
One of the most interesting and exciting of recent novels is Mr. Bram Stoker’s “Dracula.” It deals with the ancient mediaeval vampire legend, and in no English work of fiction has this legend been so brilliantly treated. The scene is laid partly in Transylvania and partly in England. The first fifty-four pages, which give the journal of Jonathan Harker after leaving Vienna until he makes up his mind to escape from Castle Dracula, are in their weird power altogether unrivalled in recent fiction. The only book which to my knowledge at all compares with them is “The Waters of Hercules,” by E.D. Gerard, which also treats of a wild and little known portion of Eastern Europe. Without revealing the plot of the story, I may say that Jonathan Harker, whose diary first introduces the vampire Count, is a young solicitor sent by his employer to Castle Dracula to arrange for the purchase of a house and estate in England.
It's important to notice here that Stoddard isn't saying that Bram's novel wholly resembles the Gerards' - only that theirs is the only other novel she can think of which, like the first 54 pages of his, is set in Eastern Europe. But, recognising the surname from the publications on Transylvania, that was enough to make me look out the novel, and see just what Stoddard meant about its resemblance to the opening chapters of Dracula. None of the libraries I have easy access to had a print copy, and it seems long ago to have gone out of print so that there wasn't a cheap second-hand paperback or Kindle copy available either, but it is on the Internet Archive, and after a bit of experimentation I discovered that downloading the pdf version to my tablet resulted in a readable text which I could take to bed with me. So away I went.

It's a Victorian novel written by women for women, so it isn't a great surprise that the main subject-matter of the book is the question of who our main character, Gretchen, will marry. There are multiple contenders in the field - the sensible, middle-aged, middle-income lawyer Dr. Komers, the wealthy, aristocratic and childishly selfish Baron Tolnay, and (very much lagging behind the field and utterly repulsive to Gretchen) the obsessive Dr. Kokovics. A lot of time is spent establishing their (and multiple other) characters, at first in Gretchen's German home-town and then in the valley of the Waters of Hercules, to which the action shifts from the 7th of the novel's 53 chapters. Gretchen herself is bright, perceptive, and (as we are repeatedly told) sensible, but she begins the novel rather obsessed with the idea of marrying into wealth. Needless to say, she will learn over the course of it that there are other things more important, and that the lawyer has hidden depths which weren't initially apparent on his sensible-to-the-point-of-dullness surface. The style was pleasantly easy to read. The Gerards like to play with our expectations, setting up a scene from one point of view and then switching to another which reveals something different. They are good at establishing settings and moods, and occasionally quite happy to devote a whole chapter to what might seem like a mere comic distraction (such as the various fishing methods espoused by different visitors to the Hercules Valley), but which of course reveals a great deal about character in the process.

The titular and main setting for the story is a very real valley and spa town in what is now part of western Romania, but belonged to Hungary at the time when the novel is set. It contains healing baths and a statue of Hercules, who is supposed to have stopped in the valley to bathe and rest. But much of the action and drama of the novel is in fact driven by another (as far as I can tell) fictional location in the mountains somewhere above the valley: Gaura Dracului, a yawning and apparently bottomless chasm with many a legend attached to it, which wanderers through the forest come upon almost before they have realised it is there, and sometimes stumble and fall into as a result. Obviously, the name of this geological feature is yet another of the likely pointers which nudged Bram Stoker towards settling on the name 'Dracula' for his aristocratic vampire, and indeed it may also lie somewhere behind references to 'deep caverns and fissures that reach none know whither' of which Van Helsing speaks in Dracula's Transylvania. In this novel, the name of the chasm has nothing to do with the Dracula family, and simply means ‘The Devil’s Hole’ - actually a very common name for deep caves and pools all over the world (see here for just a few largely English-language versions). But that is quite enough to underpin a number of Gothic horror tropes which run throughout the novel alongside its main romance story.

As the action shifts into the Hercules Valley, the Gerards work hard to establish the right kind of atmosphere of lingering paganism and local superstition for the legends of Gaura Dracului to work on their characters and within their plot - just, of course, as Stoker does on Jonathan Harker's journey into Transylvania. Indeed, Gretchen and her family's journey to the valley adheres to the same basic Gothic model of the journey into a strange and dangerous land as Harker's. Once they get to the valley, we hear a lot about how paganism has survived there, overseen by the statue of Hercules whom the locals treat as though he were still a literal god, and we are treated to some ripe stereotypes of the superstitious Romanian peasant that will be instantly recognisable to anyone who has read Dracula. Indeed, when Gretchen asks some local goatherds where she can find Gaura Dracului, they react with terror and cross themselves. Gradually, we learn that the god of the valley has sworn that the hole must have human blood once a century, which to me rang bells of Polidori's The Vampyre, in which Lord Ruthven must have it once a year. Indeed, a prologue set in the time of Trajan establishes that this has been happening since the Roman period. That was particularly interesting to me in light of the paper I gave on Dracula and Classical antiquity at the Brașov conference, because it means the Gerards were here doing one of the very same things I had argued Stoker was doing in Dracula - rooting his menace in the ancient, pagan past as a way of emphasising how long and deeply-established it is, and of capitalising on the blurry line between pagan gods and demons in the western Christian tradition. Meanwhile, we also hear that Gaura Dracului contains secret hidden hoards of Turkish, Russian and many other coins, just like the dusty corners of Dracula's castle, and all sorts of Gothic vocabulary is used to describe it. It is an open grave, haunted and full of ghosts; it has fanged jaws like a monster; Gretchen feels when lost in the forest around it as though the bats and moths flitting about her are phantoms; and a climactic fire-storm which rages through that same forest in the final chapters of the book contains descriptions of trees writhing in agony and an army of fire-demons rampaging through them.

So, yes, it definitely has more than a touch of the Gothic to it, and does resemble Dracula in more than the purely geographical matter of being set in Eastern Europe. I don't think we have any proof that Stoker read it, while since we do have proof that he read the article and book on Transylvania by Emily Gerard which I've mentioned above, it's quite possible that a lot of what appear to be connections between this novel and Dracula were actually ideas he took from those. But, having read it, I could definitely believe that he had done so too. I think one of my little projects for the next year might be to read up a bit more on the Gerards, including reading Emily's work on Transylvania and learning a bit more about their biography, so that I can understand their influence on Dracula more fully. It might well make a decent paper for another Dracula conference at some stage.

Meanwhile, there were other themes in the novel I found interesting in their own right, regardless of any connection to Dracula. One, inevitably, was its assumptions about and attitudes to gender. It's no surprise that Gretchen's main concern is marriage, or that this is couched primarily in terms of how she can best marry her way to a comfortable lifestyle, but I found it interesting that one of the plans she hatches over the course of the novel is to find the treasures supposedly hidden in Gaura Dracului, on the grounds that if she finds her own fortune she can marry whoever she likes. This is hardly a feminist parable, of course, since she still clearly doesn't have the option to lead a genuinely self-sufficient working life, but the very idea is still one of the ways in which Gretchen is cast as a radical, modern thinker, and she feels she needs to hide it like a guilty secret from her more traditionally-feminine Italian friend, Belita. I was also struck by two separate scenes in which Gretchen is cornered very horribly by entitled suitors, and which read very much like the sort of horror stories women have to relate all too often on Facebook and Twitter about their experiences with creepy men today. In one, she is trapped in a gorge with a sheer drop at the end of it by Dr. Kokovics as dusk is falling, and her terror as he approaches, coupled with his dismissal of her terror, together made it very clear (without ever spelling it out) that her basic fear was of being sexually assaulted. In the other, Baron Tolnay gets her alone in dark forest, demands her love on the basis that he has proved his to her by committing a terrible crime, and tells her that him doing so was all her fault for leading him on - which she internalises and believes. Between the two they very much demonstrated how much the novel acted in the Victorian period as a forum for women to share such experiences under the cloak of fiction.

Also striking was the carefully-ranked hierarchy of national stereotypes into which all of the characters are slotted, and which belong very much to the fundamentally racist thinking of the day. Strong east-west and north-south fault-lines are in evidence, so that the Romanians are swarthy, Oriental, lazy, stupid, natural liars and superstitious, the Hungarians are more competent but ultimately not to be trusted, and the Germans (our point-of-view characters) are blond, noble, intelligent and morally sound. Gretchen's Italian friend is warm and effusive but thinks of little other than fashion and status; the novel's one English character, Mr. Howard, is reserved and hidebound by social etiquette, but does warm up and come round to Gretchen and her family over the course of the story; and a reference to hook-nosed Jews pops up in the context of a discussion about debts. All of this, too, can be found in Stoker's Dracula, of course, though there's no need to believe he got it from here. It is the widely-accepted thinking of the day, occurring unsurprisingly in both novels. That's Victorian literature for you. If you can read round it, though, and like the sound of pagan superstitions, yawning chasms and a German girl's marriage prospects, I would on the whole very much recommend this one.


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