As the lead story in history.com’s “Today in History” page points out, today is the anniversary of the publication of Dracula. Simone Berni’s Dracula By Bram Stoker: The Mystery of the Early Editions notes that “There are several sources (mainly letters and memoirs) that report contradictory information regarding the first day Stoker’s novel was available to the public. The most likely dates, besides 26 May, are: 24 May, 30 May, 2 June, and 24 June, although 26 May is now generally accepted as the publication date.”
Dracula was published in 1897 and while a 199th anniversary may not be a nice round number, I figured if it was good enough to be the history.com headline, it’s good enough for me. It’s also a testament to the staying power that this book, and the vampiric character it created, have in our history and popular culture.
In addition to Stoker’s working notes for the novel, the Rosenbach has two copies of the first edition, one inscribed to Lord Tennyson, son of the famous poet, and another which retains its original dustjacket, the sole known surviving example.
Whenever I give a tour about Dracula, I’m asked how it was received when it first came out, so I’d thought I’d reprint a few contemporary reviews in this blog post. It got generally good reviews as a horror story, although some reviewers thought it was deficient in some literary aspects and I suspect all of them would be surprised to learn that it is still in print over a century later.
One of the things that also fascinates me with the reviews is that many reviews latch on to one of the key aspects of the novel–that it brings a character inspired by folklore/superstition into an overtly modern setting–but they disagree on whether this is a good thing or a bad one. (You can find more reviews at Vampire Over London)
The Daily Mail (July 1, 1897)
It is said of Mrs. Radcliffe that when writing her now almost forgotten romances she shut herself up in absolute seclusion, and fed upon raw beef, in order to give her work the desired atmosphere of gloom, tragedy and terror. If one had no assurance to the contrary one might well suppose that a similar method and regimen had been adopted by Mr. Bram Stoker while writing his new novel “Dracula.” In seeking for a parallel to this weird, powerful, and horrorful story our mind reverts to such tales as “The Mysteries of Udolpho,” “Frankenstein,” “Wuthering Heights,” “The Fall of the House of Usher,” and “Marjery of Quether.” But “Dracula” is even more appalling in its gloomy fascination than any one of these.
We started reading it early in the evening, and followed Jonathan Harker on his mission to the Carpathians with no definite conjecture as to what waited us in the castle of Dracula. When we came to the night journey over the mountain road and were chased by the wolves, which the driver, with apparently miraculous power, repelled by a mere gesture, we began to scent mystery, but we were not perturbed. The first thrill of horrible sensation came with the discovery that the driver and the Count Dracula were one and the same person, that the count was the only human inhabitant of the castle, and that the rats, the bats, the ghosts, and the howling wolves were his familiars.
By ten o’clock the story had so fastened itself upon our attention that we could not pause even to light our pipe. At midnight the narrative had fairly got upon our nerves; a creepy terror had seized upon us, and when at length, in the early hours of the morning, we went upstairs to bed it was with the anticipation of nightmare. We listened anxiously for the sound of bats’ wings against the window; we even felt at our throat in dread least an actual vampire should have left there the two ghastly punctures which in Mr Stoker’s book attested to the hellish operations of Dracula.
The recollections of this weird and ghostly tale will doubtless haunt us for some time to come. It would be unfair to the author to divulge the plot. We therefore restrict ourselves to the statement that the eerie chapters are written and strung together with very considerable art and cunning, and also with unmistakable literary power. Tribute must also be paid to the rich imagination of which Mr. Bram Stoker here gives liberal evidence. Persons of small courage and weak nerves should confine their reading of these gruesome pages strictly to the hours between dawn and sunset.
The Spectator (July 31, 1897)
Mr Bram Stoker gives us the impression — we may be doing him an injustice —of having deliberately laid himself out in Dracula to eclipse all previous efforts in the domain of the horrible — to ‘go one better’ than Wilkie Collins (whose method of narration he has closely followed), Sheridan Le Fanu, and all the other professors of the flesh-creeping school.
Count Dracula, who gives his name to the book, is a Transylvanian noble who purchases an estate in England, and in connection with the transfer of the property Jonathan Harker, a young solicitor, visits him in his ancestral castle. Jonathan Harker has a terrible time of it, for the Count — who is a vampire of immense age, cunning and experience — keeps him as a prisoner for several weeks, and when the poor young man escapes from the gruesome charnel-house of his host, he nearly dies of brain-fever in a hospital at Budapest.
The scene then shifts to England, where the Count arrives by sea in the shape of a dog-fiend, after destroying the entire crew, and resumes operations in various uncanny manifestations, selecting as his chief victim Miss Lucy Westenra, the fiancée of the Honourable Artur Holmwood, heir presumptive to Lord Godalming. The story then resolves itself into the history of the battle between Lucy’s protectors, including two rejected suitors — an American and a ‘mad’ doctor —and a wonderfully clever specialist from Amsterdam, against her unearthly persecutor. The clue is furnished by Jonathan Harker, whose betrothed, Mina Murray, is a bosom friend of Lucy’s, and the fight is long and protracted.
Lucy succumbs, and, worse still, is temporarily converted into a vampire. How she is released from this unpleasant position and restored to a peaceful post-mortem existence, how Mina is next assailed by the Count, how he is driven from England, and finally exterminated by the efforts of the league — for all these and a great many more thrilling details, we must refer our readers to the pages of Mr Stoker’s clever but cadaverous romance. Its strength lies in the invention of incident, for the sentimental element is decidedly mawkish. Mr Stoker has shown considerable ability in the use that he has made of all the available traditions of vampirology, but we think his story would have been all the more effective if he had chosen an earlier period. The up-to-dateness of the book — the phonograph diaries, typewriters and
so on — hardly fits in with the mediaeval methods which ultimately secure the victory for Count Dracula’s foes.
The Athenaeum (June 26, 1897)
Stories and novels appear just now in plenty stamped with a more or less genuine air of belief in the visibility of supernatural agency. The strengthening of a bygone faith in the fantastic and magical view of things in lieu of the purely material is a feature of the hour, a reaction – artificial, perhaps, rather than natural – against late tendencies in thought. Mr. Stoker is a purveyor of so many strange wares that ‘Dracula’ reads like a determined effort to go, as it were, “one better” than others in the same field. How far the author is himself a believer in the phenomena described is not for the reviewer to say. He can but attempt to gauge how far the general faith in witches, warlocks and vampires – supposing it to exist in any general and appreciable measure – is likely to be stimulated by this story. The vampire idea is very ancient indeed, and there are in nature, no doubt, mysterious powers to account for the vague belief in such things. Mr. Stoker’s way of presenting the matter, and still more the matter itself, are of too direct and uncompromising a kind. They lack the essential note of awful remoteness and at the same time subtle affinity that separates while it links our humanity with the unknown beings and possibilities hovering on the confines of the known world. ‘Dracula’ is highly sensational, but it is wanting in the constructive art as well as in the higher literary sense. It reads at times like a mere series of grotesquely incredible events; but there are better moments that show more power, though even these are never productive of the tremor such subjects evoke under the hand of a master. An immense amount of energy, a certain degree of imaginative faculty, and many ingenious and gruesome details are there. At times Mr. Stoker almost succeeds in creating the sense of possibility in impossibility; at others he merely commands an array of crude statements of incredible actions. The early part goes best, for it promises to unfold the roots of mystery and fear lying deep in human nature; but the want of skill and fancy grows more and more conspicuous. The people who band themselves together to run the vampire to earth have no real individuality or being. The German man of science is particularly poor, and indulges, like a German, in much weak sentiment. Still, Mr. Stoker has got together a number of “horrid details,” and his object, assuming it to be ghastliness, is fairly well fulfilled. Isolated scenes and touches are probably quite uncanny enough to please those for whom they are designed.
Hampshire Advertiser (June 5, 1897)
DRACULA, by Bram Stoker, and published by Constable and Co., 2, Whitehall-gardens, is a series of extremely interesting papers and diaries, arranged in sequence by the author. One of the most curious and striking of recent productions is a revival of a mediaeval superstition, the old legend of the “were-wolf,” as illustrated and modernised by Mr. Bram Stoker, in the book which he entitles “Dracula.”
There are two things which are remarkable in the novel – the first is the confident reliance on superstition as furnishing the groundwork of a modern story; and the second, more significant still, is the bold adaptation of the legend to such ordinary spheres of latter-day existance as the harbour of Whitby and Hampstead-heath. “Dracula,” at all events, is one of the most weird and spirit-quelling romances which have appeared for years. It begins in masterly fashion in the wilds of Transylvania, and introduces to us an ordinary solicitor’s clerk, engaged on a mission to a Count who lives in its most remote fastness.
It is also interesting to look at Stoker’s obituaries. Both the New York Times and the Times of London focus on his relationship with the famous actor Henry Irving, whose theater company Stoker managed, and then address his writings at the end. Neither one thought that Dracula would be his most important or long-lasting work.
The New York Times ( April 23, 1912 excerpt)
His best-known publication is “Personal Reminiscences of Henry Irving,” issued in 1908. Among his other works, mostly fantastic fiction, are “Under the Sunset,” “The Snake’s Pass,” “The Watter’s Mou,” “The Shoulder of Shasta,” “Dracula,” “The Mystery of the Sea,” “The Jewel of the Seven Stars,” and “The Lady of the Shroud.”
The Times (April 22, 1912, excerpt)
A fluent and flamboyant writer, with a manner and mannerisms which faithfully reflected the mind which moved the pen, Stoker managed to find time, amid much arduous and distracting work, to write a good deal. He was the master of a particularly lurid and creepy kind of fiction, represented by “Dracula” and other novels; he had also essayed musical comedy, and had of late years resumed his old connection with journalism.But his chief literary memorial will be his Reminiscences of Henry Irving, a book which with all its extravagances and shortcomings–Mr. Stoker was no very acute critic of his chief as an actor–cannot but remain a valuable record of the workings of genius as they appeared to his devoted associate and admirer.