An Irish-born, British theatrical business manager and agent, Bram Stoker wasn’t exactly destined for the limelight. It would be hard for those of the Victorian era to think Stoker could ever eclipse his client, Sir Henry Irving. One of the most famous and beloved actors of his day, Irving became the first actor in British history to receive a knighthood for his work and was buried at Westminster for his contributions to British theatre. And yet, a novel set in and around Stoker’s holiday home to help supplement his family income - which made little money and garnered him little fame - would eventually make Stoker one of the most well known authors of his time.
Stoker published 12 novels, four non-fiction works, and two short story collections during his lifetime with an additional novel and short story collection published after his death. He also wrote various other uncollected stories throughout his lifetime. Yet nothing would ever eclipse the fame that Dracula brought him. The book would continue to define his life and legacy well after his death, becoming immortal like the title character himself. In fact, Dracula would take on a life of its own amid legal battles, film depictions, and a continuing fascination with vampires in literature.
Abraham Stoker was born Nov. 8, 1847 at the house at 15 Marino Crescent in the Clontarf neighborhood of northern Dublin to Dublin-born Abraham Stoker Sr. and his wife Charlotte Mathilda Blake Thornley, who had been born in County Sligo. The third of the couple’s seven children, he would be nicknamed Bram to distinguish him from his father, a civil servant. Stoker’s parents would be involved in the Church of Ireland - the Anglican church’s arm in the country - and his eldest brother would become a baron for his contributions to medicine.
The Georgian townhouse here Stoker was born and its neighboring townhomes would feature prominently in his early life. The entire Crescent area where the homes stood was nicknamed spite Row because of the fight it's developer, Charlie Ffolliott, had with the Earl of Charlemont who felt the new housing development would spoil his view of the sea. Years after Stoker lived in the home it would make news yet again as the hiding place of the Russian crown jewels following the revolution of 1917. Stoker would go on to marry a girl who lived in another one of the houses on the Crescent. And it would be at No. 15 that Stoker would spend most of the first seven years of his life.
A sickly child, Stoker was bedridden for long periods during those first seven years and doctors had frequently informed his parents that Stoker would most likely not reach adulthood. The specific illness he had has never been fully determined, and his recovery from it seemed miraculous to many of those around him. Stoker credited his long time bedridden as a child as contributing to his active imagination. His mother, a charity worker and writer herself, often told him stories at his bedside, and it was her gory tales that would stick with her son the most throughout his life. She sometimes told her son about how the 1832 cholera epidemic and the Irish famine had hit her native Sligo or about her family ancestors, including a sheriff who hung his own son. She may have also sparked his interest in Irish folklore and the occult.
Once he was well enough to attend school, Stoker was educated in a private academy run by Rev. William Woods. By the time Stoker entered Dublin’s Trinity College in 1864, there was little trace of the sickly boy who doctors felt wouldn’t live. Stoker would win the University Athletic Championship at the college for the many sports he participated in. He was also president of the school’s Philosophical Society and served as the auditor for the College Historical Society.
He graduated with a bachelor’s degree in mathematics with honors in 1870. Stoker’s father then got him a job as a civil servant while Stoker also pursued a master’s degree at Trinity, which he would obtain in 1875. In addition to his civil service job, Stoker had begun to publish some short stories in newspapers and literary magazines. It was during this time Stoker also had his first big brush with the theatre world. Between 1871 and 1876, Stoker began working as an unpaid theatre critic for one of the Dublin newspapers.
Stoker’s love of theater had been ignited while at Trinity by a professor and his reviews for Dublin’s Evening Mail were greatly followed. His hobby of being a theatre critic would change his life forever when Stoker gave a great review of a stage production of Hamlet starring Henry Irving at Dublin’s Theatre Royal. Irving was quickly becoming the most popular actor in Great Britain and was about to enter the peak years of his career. He was flattered by Stoker’s review and asked to meet the critic, a rare thing in a time when theatre critics were largely reviled. The two would have dinner at Dublin's famed Shelbourne Hotel where he was staying.
The meeting would strike up not only a business partnership but also a lifelong friendship. it was during this time Irving asked Stoker if he would like to leave his job as a civil servant and become a stage manager. Irving would also later be said to have been one of the people who inspired Dracula. While Stoker was devoted to Irving to the point some contemporaries remarked that Stoker thought Irving could "do no wrong," Irving himself was a model diva actor. He enjoyed pitting his friends, co-workers, and underlings against each other for his own amusement, thriving on the little rivalries he created. Others described Irving as self-absorbed and manipulative. Many critics felt that Dracula is a representation of Stoker's own internalized fear and frustration with his lifelong friend and employer.
In 1878, Stoker married neighbor Florence Balcombe, the daughter of Lt. Col. James Balcombe and a celebrated Dubin Beauty. The Balcombers lived at No. 1 Marino Crescent, roughly a minutes walk from the Stoker home at No. 15. There had been a bit of a love triangle between Stoker, Balcombe and one of Stoker’s fellow Trinity students - a flamboyant young man named Oscar Wilde. Stoker and Wilde had been friends at school with Stoker even supporting Wilde’s membership in the school’s Philosophical Club during the time Stoker was present. Both men had pursued Florence, but it would be Stoker who won her heart. Wilde was upset with her decision, but later, after his fall from grace, Stoker and Balcombe would visit him in France and offer him kindness despite his ruined reputation.
London and the Lyceum
Not long after their marriage, Stoker and his new bride moved from Dublin to London where Henry Irving had just acquired a new theatre, the Lyceum. Irving had worked for the theatre for a while and had brought it back from the brink. After purchasing it with actress Ellen Terry, he hired Stoker to both manage the theatre and help manage his career. Irving’s career and the theatre itself would see much success due to its staging of the works of Shakespeare as well as adaptations by modern modern writers like Tennyson, Goldsmith, and Sir Walter Scott. The original Lyceum had been constructed in 1765 and had been the first place Madame Tussaud’s works had been shown in London.
After a fire in 1834, the building was replaced with the incarnation that Stoker knew. Much of the theatre today dates from a Rococo revival renovation done in 1904, but the facade and portico are the same ones Stoker would have known. Stoker would work at the theatre until 1898 and it would stage the first theatrical production of Dracula, though not with Irving in the lead role as Stoker had hoped.
The new life in London would begin auspiciously for the Stokers. In December 1879, their son and only child Irving Noel Thornley Stoker - known as Noel - was born, and their connection to Irving had foisted the Stokers into London’s high society. Stoker would meet James Abbott McNeill Whistler, who would paint him, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, both a fellow writer and a distant cousin of Stoker’s. Stoker would also meet British novelist, dramatist, writer, and critic Hall Caine who would become a close enough friend that Stoker dedicated Dracula to him.
Traveling abroad with Irving also helped Stoker hobnob among the elite. Irving was a popular actor in America and knew both William McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt. While touring in American with Irving, Stoker would meet one of his literary heroes, Walt Whitman. Later, Stoker would set two novels in the U.S. and would use American characters in several of his works. Despite Irving's popularity and the success of the theatre, Stoker still needed a bit of money to help supplement his income. He took to writing, publishing a book of short stories and a novel before a fateful holiday would redefine his career.
Whitby and the Vampire
The seeds of the novel that would become Dracula probably came when Stoker met Hungarian writer Armin Vambery who inspired him with legends from the Carpathian mountains and prompted his interest in Eastern European folklore, particularly those stories related to vampires. Despite traveling extensively with Irving and his touring companies, Stoker never once set foot near Eastern Europe himself. In fact, it would be an English seaside town that would serve as the main inspiration for Dracula and would be largely where the novel took place. Located near Scarborough in North Yorkshire, Stoker would visit the town for the first time in 1890, not long after publishing his novel The Snakes Pass. Stoker was working on a new novel when he came to Whitby; this one was about a vampire.
He allegedly came across the name “Dracula” in a book in the Whitby library, possibly one about the historical Romanian monarch Vlad III, better known as Vlad the Impaler or Vlad Dracul. While the deeds of the historical king might be enough to inspire vampire legend in some, he is actually regarded in Romania as something akin to a George Washington figure for liberating the state of Wallachia from its overlords, the Ottoman Empire. The story of the beaching of a Russian ship, the Dmitri, near Whitby and other local Yorkshire legends may have influenced his tales as well. Stoker wouldn’t be the first or last writer to draw inspiration from the seaside town with the likes of Charles Dickens, Wilkie Collins, Mary Linskill, James Russell Lowell, Elizabeth Gaskell, Lewis Carroll, and several others visiting or living in the area.
Outside of Whitby, Stoker may have also drawn inspiration from his Irish childhood. In addition to the myths and legends told to him at his sickbed by his mother, many have noticed similarities between Dracula’s fabled castle and Slains Castle in Aberdeenshire. Built around 1600 and rebuilt not long after Stoker’s birth, it is known Stoker visited the site in 1895 while he was working on Dracula. By then, there were already legends claiming that the castle and Cruden Bay below it were haunted. Another Irish inspiration for the story may have been the crypts of St. Michan’s Church in Dublin. Possibly built on the site of an earlier Norse church. St. Michan’s vaults are still known for their mummified remains because of the unique combination of limestone and air. The church is located near Dublin’s theatre district and between Trinity College and Stoker’s boyhood home.
Dracula was published in 1897, part of a trend of adventure stories featuring fantastical creatures that threatened the British empire. These so-called “invasion novels” were popularized by the likes of Rudyard Kipling, H.G. Wells, Robert Louis Stevenson, and Stoker’s friend Arthur Conan Doyle. Despite the fact that its subject matter would have been rather familiar to Victorian era readers, the novel didn’t sell particularly well at first, despite earning rave reviews from critics. Stoker made little money from the story in his lifetime, despite the fact that he had spent seven years researching and writing it.
In fact, the best-selling work Stoker in his lifetime would ever produce was a biography of his friend and employer Henry Irving published the year after Irving’s death. After Dracula, Stoker would publish two more novels that were also modestly success. His main source of income never came from his literary writing. Instead, he spent the final years of his career writing for the London Telegraph and as as stage manager at the Prince of Wales Theatre in London after Irving’s death.
Later Life and Legacy
Struggling to make ends meet toward the end of his life, Stoker would even commission the British government for a pension. After a series of strokes, Stoker died at his London home on April 20, 1912. His exact cause of death is unknown. Some believe it was another stroke, others overwork, and some believe that he had died of tertiary syphilis. While Stoker’s marriage was largely sexless after the birth of his son, there are many who theorize Stoker was a repressed homosexual, citing his friendships with well known gay men like Wilde and Whitman as well as the homosexual overtones found throughout Dracula and his other works. It would have been possible for Stoker to pick up the disease from an extramarital affair and for the disease to manifest for years afterwards. Neither his wife nor his son ever developed signs of the disease.
Whatever the cause of death, was cremated and put on display at the Golders Green Crematorium. Years later, his son Noel would be cremated at the same place and his ashes added to his fathers, the two men buried together in 1961. Initially, the plan had been for Florence’s ashes to be mixed in with her husbands, but they had been scattered instead. Florence would go on to live 25 years after the death of her husband, and her struggles to guard his legacy would bring greater attention to his writing career.
In her widowhood, Florence attempted to earn some more money by publishing some of the works her husband had left behind as well as auctioning off some of his mementos, like his original manuscript and research on Dracula. It was a legal battle in 1922 over F.W. Murnau’s silent film Nosferatu that would bring Dracula to the best-sellers list. The film was an unauthorized and very thinly veiled version of the Dracula story, and Florence Stoker sued the filmmaker after receiving an anonymous letter about the film being shown in Berlin. Struggling financially and realizing that someone else was making money off her husband’s hard work, she sued for copyright infringement, demanding both all of the money from the film as well as the negatives and prints.
After three years and the film company declaring bankruptcy in order to avoid the suit, Florence Stoker won the battle. Despite her best efforts to secure the film herself, however, pirated copies began surfacing with screenings taking place in 1929 in New York City and Detroit. The legal battle had put Dracula onto the bestseller’s list with people wanting to know what all the fuss the lawsuit was about. This renewed interest in a play based on the novel, which Florence Stoker gave to former neighbor Hamilton Deane in 1924. The American film rights were purchased from her in 1927 and a version of the play also began running in the U.S.
When the play premiered in New York City, it started a little known Hungarian-American actor named Bela Lugosi in the title role, Edward Van Sloan as Van Helsing, and Herbert Bunston and Dr. Seward. All three would reprise their roles in the 1931 film version of the novel, and Lugosi’s portrayal as the suave, tuxedoed vampire would become the iconic image of Stoker’s creature rather than the ugly, half-dead Nosferatu-type creature Stoker had actually written about. The film was so successful that Lugosi continued to reprise his role in horror films throughout the 1930s and 1940s. To date, Dracula is second only to Sherlock Holmes in the number of films a single character has appeared in with Dracula having a role in some 217 feature films. There is no doubt that Stoker could have never imagined how his creation would go on to inspire pop culture more than a hundred years after his own death with his vampire inspiring everything from romance novels to cereal mascots.