The Brilliance of Joseph Valente’s Dracula’s Crypt: Bram Stoker, Irishness, and the Question of Blood
There is a core idea at the heart of this brilliant book. It is not declared but clearly signaled. That Bram Stoker deserves to be esteemed in the company of James Joyce. That consequently Dracula is no mere schlock popular novel but an exegesis of colonialism itself and the blood racism at its heart. That both Joyce and Stoker foresee a future in which society is at peace with multiple identities, hybridity, and alterity.
Joyce found his medium in the quotidian, a day in the life of Dublin city. Stoker found his medium in the Gothic horror genre. Both refracted their Irish identity through their fiction which offered a humane and liberalizing proposition for a better society. Joyce saw the future beyond the constraints, imperatives and narrowness of Ireland. Stoker, more cryptically and covertly, presented his prescription for imperial societies at large and Britain in particular.
Joyce departed Dublin for the intellectually conducive and liberating environs of Europe. Stoker departed Dublin and entered the belly of the racist beast in London, the metropolitan imperium. He became a very effective manager of the Lyceum Theatre, apparently in thrall to the magnetic personality of leading actor Henry Irving.
In one way, Stoker’s message is the more powerfully relevant for today. Valente holds that Dracula deconstructs the obsessions of blood purity, the notion that British cultural superiority and political dominance, as he puts it, were grounded in Anglo-Saxon blood purity. Victorian England was profoundly anxious that that purity was at risk of degeneration by invasions of the ‘Other.’
The ‘Other’ primarily of course being the Irish, introduced into the heart of the metropolitan centre by the Act of Union of 1800. First a wave of Anglo-Irish decanted from their Irish parliament to Westminster and then a flood of enfranchised and poverty stricken Catholic Irish immigrants.
For Valente, these are the metro-colonials, of which Stoker was a prime example, those from the colony but now of the metropolitan center, or at least in it, and hardly accepted by it.
Valente argues that Dracula the character is not merely an avatar for an invading species, a reverse colonization from the East that would ruin Anglo-Saxon blood purity through contagion and threaten its global predominance. Nor is Dracula merely a metaphor for the Anglo-Irish aristocracy that sucked the life blood of their Catholic Irish tenantry. Dracula is not even a Fenian in count’s clothing, though Stoker himself made such an annotation in one of his drafts.
Rather Dracula is the doppelganger of the racialist blood-obsessed English themselves. The group hunting Dracula, dubbed by Valente the Little Englanders, must embrace hybridity, alterity and even Irish Catholic iconography, in effect ceasing their obsessive racist eugenics. Only then can Dracula be killed. Or more accurately, as the novel describes it, fade into dust, no more than a phantom now dispelled by their conversion.
Meanwhile, it is Wilhelmina Murray Harker who emerges as the true hero, the dominant hybrid herself (deconstruct her name, as Valente does) that even in her destruction by and of Dracula pleads for pity for him. That is a moment of ethical transcendence that in her capacious forgiving embrace supersedes even Christianity itself.
Valente sees Dracula the novel as a meditation on racism rendered by a metro-colonial writer uniquely placed at the intersection of multiple identities and crisscrossing loyalties. Stoker is Anglo-Irish in Ireland, Irish in England and Anglo-Celt in his heart. Rather than confer on Stoker multiple acceptances in Dublin and London, his hybridity merely confers multiple exclusions and derisions. Stalwart in the face of these social and physic assaults, as only a true Victorian gentlemen could and should be, Stoker poured his insights and secular ecumenical conclusions into his Gothic horror novel. Valente superbly if at times densely excavates this. Though published some years ago, his insights remain vital and thrilling.
Valente’s presentation of Stoker’s vision in which racism is as definitively excised as is Dracula at the book’s conclusion, remains disturbingly relevant to this day. Stoker’s imagined future is sadly prophetic rather than realized. If anything, we have stepped backwards in recent years. The battle against the blood obsessions set out in Stoker’s brilliant if cryptic thesis in Dracula continues today against renewed atavistic and populist forces. White nationalism, with its anxieties fed by cynical political, financial and autocratic propagandists, has in turn promoted Brexit, Trumpism and Russian adventurism in Ukraine, to name but three current frontiers.
If and when you finish reading Dracula’s Crypt, reread at least the introduction again. It will reveal the depth and richness of Valente’s insights and analysis. I’m off now to reread Dracula just in time for Halloween.
Ottawa, 20 October 2022
PS Maybe if Stoker had moved to Canada instead of London he would have been less conflicted but then we might not have had Dracula!