Bram Stoker was an Irish author best known today for his 1897 Gothic horror novel Dracula.
Born in Dublin, he became a theatre critic for the Dublin Evening Mail whilst also working for the Irish Civil Service. In December 1876 Stoker gave a favourable review of a performance of Shakespeare’s Hamlet by Henry Irving, one of the greatest actors of the age. Irving invited Stoker for dinner and they became friends. Stoker subsequently moved to London to become Irving’s personal assistant and business manager at the Lyceum Theatre which Irving owned, a role that continued until Irving’s death 27 years later.
Stoker and Irving visited Bristol numerous times when Irving performed at The Prince’s Theatre in Park Row. Opened in 1867 and originally called ‘The New Theatre Royal’, it was Bristol’s top touring theatre until destroyed in a wartime air raid in 1940. Today there are two apartment blocks on the site, one named Irving House.
Stoker and Irving regularly stayed at The Clifton Down Hotel, a byword for Victorian luxury on Sion Place (now Bridge House apartments). They also often visited Irving’s widowed father and aunts who lived at 9 Ashley Road, Stoke’s Croft.
Stoker began researching and writing notes for Dracula in 1890 and his close and intense male friendships and the homoerotic aspects of the novel has led to the widely held belief that Stoker was a self-repressed homosexual who used his writing as an outlet for his sexual frustration. It is said that he began to write Dracula in a state of self-loathing only weeks after Oscar Wilde’s trial and conviction for gross indecency in 1895, possibly inspired by the terrible press coverage. Stoker’s marriage in 1898 to celebrated Irish beauty Florence Balcombe was more or less sexless and produced an only son.
It is believed Irving was Stoker’s real life inspiration for the eponymous vampire Count. Dracula’s mannerisms and sweeping gestures are similar to Irving who was over six foot tall, slim with a long face and sardonic presence which fascinated and intimidated those around him. There are also several physical similarities between Irving and Dracula: an aquiline face, hollow cheeks, thin lips, pallor and vitality. Many believe that Irving was in fact the love of Stoker’s life, but sadly his devotion was unrequited. When Stoker gave Irving a stage version of Dracula to read, hoping he would play the title role, Irving’s response on reading it was one word: “dreadful”.
Much has been written about the homoerotic and sexual aspects of the novel. When the hero, Jonathan Harker, is surrounded by predatory vampire brides who are keen to sink their teeth into him as much as satisfy their sexual lust, Dracula dismisses them with the command “This man belongs to me!”. In his first outline of the book in March 1890 Stoker had written “This man belongs to me, I want him!”. Dr Van Helsing says to Arthur Holmwood “I have grown to love you – yes, my dear boy, to love you”.
At the age of 24 Bram Stoker had written a letter of admiration and adoration to his literary idol, American poet Walt Whitman who was then 55. Stoker had fallen under Whitman’s spell after reading his 1855 collection of poems Leaves of Grass which had been described as obscene for its overt sexuality.
What Stoker wrote to Whitman had “all the breathless intensity of a love letter” but he did not send it. Four years later, on Valentine’s Day 1876 he wrote a second letter which he did post enclosing his original letter. He began the 1872 letter:
“If you are the man I take you to be, you will like to get this letter…. How sweet a thing it is for a strong, healthy man with a woman’s eye and a child’s wishes to feel he can speak to a man who can be, if he wishes, father and brother and wife to his soul.”
He ends with the words “I thank you for all the love and sympathy you have given me in common with my kind.” It is not hard to wonder what Stoker meant by “my kind”.
The rich homoerotic overtones of Leaves of Grass are similar to Dracula which reverberates with echoes of similar themes. Three weeks later (which means immediately by transatlantic mail standards of the time) Whitman replied “My dear young man….you did so well to write to me so unconventionally, so fresh, so manly and affectionately too.” The two were eventually to meet when Stoker and Irving were on a theatrical tour of America in 1884.
Stoker and Irving’s last visit to Bristol was in June 1904 for a grand luncheon party held in honour of Irving at the Royal Hotel, College Green. Bram Stoker also accompanied Irving in February 1905 when Irving unveiled a memorial plaque to 18th century actor James Quin at 4 Pierrepont Street, Bath, followed by a luncheon at The Guildhall.
Sir Henry Irving died in 1905. His last words to Stoker were “Take care of yourself old chap. Good night. God bless you”. Despite their long association Irving left Stoker nothing in his will.
Stoker published a memoir of his years with Irving in 1906 and outlived him by seven years, dying in 1912. Friend and novelist Hall Caine wrote of the relationship between Stoker and Irving that, on Stoker’s part at least, it was “the strongest love that man may feel for man”.
This is an edited version of an article by Jonathan Rowe, 2021