The reader of Dracula imagines he has a very clear impression of its author. He is a young, naive and startled Victorian clerk, hypnotised by a contemporary obsession with progress and careful record-keeping, who has stumbled across a brilliant metaphor for the nameless and terrible sense of malaise that brooded over his era. A slightly more accurate view of him as a fawning catalyst of his idol's career, dominated by an overbearing mother or an unlikely wife and impotently harbouring resentful ambition for Irish home rule, can still be no preparation for the Bram Stoker depicted by Paul Murray.
Murray's meticulous research presents a Stoker who enjoys the distinction of having (successfully) competed with Oscar Wilde for a wife and whose authorial accent was shaped by the many voices of his numerous literary acquaintances such as George Bernard Shaw and Walt Whitman. In the structure of Dracula , with its multiplicity of authorial perspectives like a barrister's brief, we see something of this confusion.
It is hard not to see Stoker the athlete in the virile Canadian Quincey Morris and just as hard to ignore Stoker the boring Civil Servant and punctilious lawyer in the impotent Jonathan Harker. We also catch glimpses of his remarkable social dexterity and intellectual fanaticism in other characters in the book such as Godalming and Seward, and the lunatic Renfield's quasi-religious paeans bring to mind Stoker's hysterical reaction to his first meeting with the theatrical manager and actor Henry Irving.
It is primarily with this, Stoker's most famous relationship, that Murray's biography deals. The bond between Stoker and Irving, his employer and idol, is a central concern of this exploration of Stoker's life. But readers seeking firm conclusions about the nature of their relationship will be disappointed. Murray is exasperatingly unwilling to commit himself to a view on the contentious details of Stoker's life, such as his putative homosexuality. On this subject, although Murray's use of the term "homosocial" adds an interesting dimension to the discussion in a book that claims to present Dracula "in the context of Stoker's life", it does not seem to illuminate much of what is often considered a central concern of the novel: Victorian attitudes to sexuality and the shifting balance of power between the genders and between the sheets.
Nevertheless, this book will prove a vital resource for those who wish to draw together the strands of Stoker's life and his writing. Murray demonstrates a compelling familiarity with the story he tells and the minutiae of Stoker's oeuvre. Stoker's enduring accomplishment is the way he managed to deny the world a chance to enjoy any long-lasting acknowledgement of his talents. Despite enjoying celebrity in his own time for exploits ranging from the prevention of an attempted suicide in the Thames to his personal accomplishments at Irving's Lyceum, not to mention the thunderous, albeit mixed, reception of Dracula , Stoker himself remains largely unknown.
While he seems to have been much more boisterous, capable and self-possessed than we may have imagined, one feels certain that he would have regarded Irving, not Dracula , as his most successful creation. By writing Irving's speeches and disguising his managerial weaknesses and lack of education, Stoker presented Victorian London with an Irving scarcely recognisable to those who knew him best, and wrote himself out of history.
Where Murray inclines to reject the notion that Irving could ever have been the model for Count Dracula, there remains an irresistible temptation to view Dracula as the model for Stoker's Irving. In this way we can reconcile the obsequious Irishman of our imagination with the confident and creative Stoker of Murray's thorough and illuminating biography, yet a man who lived less in the shadow of Dracula than in the shadow of Irving.
Jonathan Mitchell is assistant head of English, Oundle School.
The Shadow of Dracula: A Life of Bram Stoker
Author - Paul Murray
Publisher - Cape
Pages - 340
Price - £18.99
ISBN - 0 224 04462 1