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How One of the Victorian Era’s Most Famous Actors Became Bram Stoker’s Dracula

Bram Stoker (L) and Sir Henry Irving (R). Image Credits: Unidentified photographer, public domain; Lock and Whitfield, public domain

 
The role of Count Dracula was not one that Henry Irving wanted. More than a century ago, the actor refused the part in a staged reading of Bram Stoker’s exciting new novel, released in 1897. Yet Irving would never entirely shake the specter of the intense, sensual vampire—a character that scholars say he himself inspired.

Abraham “Bram” Stoker grew up in Ireland in the mid-1800s. A sickly child, he spent many days and nights in bed while his mother Charlotte filled his ears with tales of monsters and ghouls, disease and death. But Stoker grew healthier as he got older, and by the time he left home for university, he was a hale, red-haired giant. Bram had become a jock, but a well-read jock, exchanging doting and passionate letters with his idol Walt Whitman.

After college, Bram followed in his father’s footsteps and entered civil service. He might have stayed there, too, were it not for the lure of the theater. So eager was Stoker to immerse himself in Dublin’s dramatic scene that he began volunteering at night as a theater critic for the Dublin Evening Mail—despite the fact that the paper already had paid staff writing reviews.

It was in his capacity as a critic that Stoker first encountered Henry Irving in 1877. The actor was playing the lead role in Hamlet—a well-worn part by any measure, yet Stoker felt that Irving brought a depth and freshness to the performance that had never been seen before.

Henry Irving as Hamlet, from a painting by Sir Edwin Long. Image Credit: Public Domain

 
Stoker was instantly enchanted. He returned to see a second performance, and then a third, writing a new review each time. Intrigued by the attention, Irving invited an ecstatic Stoker to a dinner party.

An after-meal recitation by Irving cemented the night in Stoker’s mind forever. Even in a dining room the imposing actor commanded his audience with almost mesmeric power. “Outwardly I was as of stone …” Stoker wrote years later in his book Personal Reminiscences of Henry Irving. “The whole thing was new, re-created by a force of passion which was like a new power." When the poem concluded, Stoker “burst out into something like a fit of hysterics.”

That night, he wrote, “began the close friendship between us which only terminated with his life—if indeed friendship, like any other form of love, can ever terminate.”

Irving was flattered by the younger man’s avid attention and enjoyed his company. The two began spending more and more time together, sometimes talking until sunrise. Irving offered Stoker a job as his business manager. Stoker quit his office job (much to his parents’ chagrin) and gave himself over to a life in the theater.

It was a good fit: Stoker was a thoroughly educated man and a gifted manager with a head for figures. Irving’s theater, the Lyceum, blossomed under Stoker’s careful and devoted attention. Yet despite his talents and hard work, which kept him away from his wife and child for days, even months at a time (Bram married Florence Balcombe in 1878; the two welcomed their son Irving—ahem—one year later), Stoker never sought attention or acclaim.

Even if he had, he likely would not have had much luck. Someone once asked Irving if he had a college degree. "No,” he drawled, “but I have a secretary who has two." The “secretary” he spoke of so dismissively was Stoker.

This seemingly symbiotic relationship—Irving as vainglorious master, Stoker the humble servant—went on for decades. “Being anywhere with Irving was contentment for Stoker,” historian Barbara Belford wrote in her 1996 book Bram Stoker: A Biography of the Author of Dracula.

Irving in character. Image Credit: Public Domain

But trouble comes to us all, even the happiest pairs. Stoker had continued to write, scribbling on scraps of paper in the scarce moments he wasn’t working or spending with Irving. (The relationships between Stoker and his wife, and between Irving and his, had long since grown cold). In 1897, those scraps became a book.

Dracula told the story of a naïve young middle-class man held prisoner by a powerful, sensual count.

"His face was a strong—a very strong—aquiline,” protagonist Jonathan Harker wrote in his fictional journal, “with high bridge of the thin nose and peculiarly arched nostrils, with lofty domed forehead, and hair growing scantily round the temples but profusely elsewhere. His eyebrows were very massive, almost meeting over the nose, and with bushy hair that seemed to curl in its own profusion."

As Harker came to learn, the vampire Count Dracula would never see his own reflection. But Irving might have. "Somewhere in [Stoker's] creative process," Belford writes, "Dracula became a sinister caricature of Irving as mesmerist and depleter, an artist draining those about him to feed his ego. It was a stunning but avenging tribute."

Irving may have been the most obvious, immediate inspiration for Stoker's count, but he was not the only one. Many elements of Dracula's past were lifted wholesale from history and legends surrounding Vlad the Impaler. Some scholars argue the dramatic, articulate count represented a monstrous version of Stoker's sometimes-friend Oscar Wilde, whose public trial and shunning took place just one year before the novel was written. And there may have been a variety of other inspirations for Stoker's tale. Yet Belford, and other scholars, believe much of Dracula's looks and character were based on Irving [PDF].

In order to protect theatrical rights to his novel, Stoker quickly shaped it into a script and organized a staged reading at the Lyceum, offering the lead role to the theater’s leading man—by then one of the most famous actors in the Victorian era. Irving turned it down. Instead, he watched dolefully from the audience as someone else brought the vampire to life. The reading ended. Irving retreated.

A nervous Stoker found the actor in his dressing room. “How did you like it?” he asked.

“Dreadful,” Irving said.

Two years later, Irving sold the Lyceum out from under Stoker’s nose.

Six years after that, Irving died. But Stoker never forgot their fateful first meeting the night of the dinner party. “So great was the magnetism of his genius, so profound was the sense of his dominancy,” Stoker wrote, “that I sat spellbound.”

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12 Facts About Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness
George C. Beresford/Getty Images
George C. Beresford/Getty Images

Joseph Conrad’s 1899 novella about venturing into the moral depths of colonial Africa is among the most frequently analyzed literary works in college curricula.

1. ENGLISH WAS THE AUTHOR’S THIRD LANGUAGE.

It’s impressive enough that Conrad wrote a book that has stayed relevant for more than a century. This achievement seems all the more impressive when considering that he wrote it in English, his third language. Born Józef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski in 1857, Conrad was a native Polish speaker. French was his second language. He didn’t even know any English—the language of his literary composition—until age 21.

2. HEART OF DARKNESS BEGINS AND ENDS IN THE UK.

Though it recounts Marlow's voyage through Belgian Congo in search of Kurtz and is forever linked to the African continent, Conrad’s novella begins and ends in England. At the story’s conclusion, the “tranquil waterway” that “seemed to lead into the heart of an immense darkness” is none other than the River Thames.

3. THE PROTAGONIST MARLOW IS CONRAD.

The well-traveled Marlow—who appears in other Conrad works, such as Lord Jim—is based on his equally well-traveled creator. In 1890, 32-year-old Conrad sailed the Congo River while serving as second-in-command on a Belgian trading company steamboat. As a career seaman, Conrad explored not only the African continent but also ventured to places ranging from Australia to India to South America.

4. LIKE KURTZ AND MARLOW, CONRAD GOT SICK ON HIS VOYAGE.

Illness claimed Kurtz, an ivory trader who has gone mysteriously insane. It nearly claimed Marlow. And these two characters almost never existed, owing to their creator’s health troubles. Conrad came down with dysentery and malaria in Belgian Congo, and afterwards had to recuperate in the German Hospital, London, before heading to Geneva, Switzerland, to undergo hydrotherapy. Though he survived, Conrad suffered from poor health for many years afterward.

5. THERE HAVE BEEN MANY ALLEGED KURTZES IN REAL LIFE.

The identity of the person on whom Conrad based the story’s antagonist has aroused many a conjecture. Among those suggested as the real Kurtz include a French agent who died on board Conrad’s steamship, a Belgian colonial officer, and Welsh explorer Henry Morton Stanley.

6. COLONIZING WAS ALL THE RAGE WHEN HEART OF DARKNESS APPEARED.

Imperialism—now viewed as misguided, oppressive, and ruthless—was much in vogue when Conrad’s novella hit shelves. The "Scramble for Africa" had seen European powers stake their claims on the majority of the continent. Britain’s Queen Victoria was even portrayed as the colonies' "great white mother." And writing in The New Review in 1897, adventurer Charles de Thierry (who tried and failed to establish his own colony in New Zealand) echoed the imperialistic exuberance of many with his declaration: “Since the wise men saw the star in the East, Christianity has found no nobler expression.”

7. CHINUA ACHEBE WAS NOT A FAN OF THE BOOK.

Even though Conrad was no champion of colonialism, Chinua Achebe—the Nigerian author of Things Fall Apart and other novels—delivered a 1975 lecture called “An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness” that described Conrad as a “thoroughgoing racist” and his ubiquitous short classic as “an offensive and deplorable book.” However, even Achebe credited Conrad for having “condemned the evil of imperial exploitation.” And others have recognized Heart of Darkness as an indictment of the unfairness and barbarity of the colonial system.

8. THE BOOK WASN’T SUCH A BIG DEAL—AT FIRST.

In 1902, three years after its initial serialization in a magazine, Heart of Darkness appeared in a volume with two other Conrad stories. It received the least notice of the three. In fact, not even Conrad himself considered it a major work. And during his lifetime, the story “received no special attention either from readers or from Conrad himself,” writes Gene M. Moore in the introduction to Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness: A Casebook. But Heart of Darkness managed to ascend to immense prominence in the 1950s, after the planet had witnessed “the horror”—Kurtz's last words in the book—of WWII and the ramifications of influential men who so thoroughly indulged their basest instincts.

9. T.S. ELIOT BORROWED AN IMPORTANT LINE.

Though Heart of Darkness wasn’t an immediate sensation, it evidently was on the radar of some in the literary community. The famous line announcing the antagonist’s demise, “Mistah Kurtz—he dead,” serves as the epigraph to the 1925 T.S. Eliot poem “The Hollow Men.”

10. THE STORY INSPIRED APOCALYPSE NOW.

Eighty years after Conrad’s novella debuted, the Francis Ford Coppola film Apocalypse Now hit the big screen. Though heavily influenced by Heart of Darkness, the movie’s setting is not Belgian Congo, but the Vietnam War. And though the antagonist (played by Marlon Brando) is named Kurtz, this particular Kurtz is no ivory trader, but a U.S. military officer who has become mentally unhinged.

11. HEART OF DARKNESS HAS BEEN MADE INTO AN OPERA.

Tarik O'Regan’s Heart of Darkness, an opera in one act, opened in 2011. Premiering at London’s Royal Opera House, it was reportedly the first operatic adaptation of Conrad’s story and heavily inspired by Apocalypse Now.

12. THE BOOK ALSO SPARKED A VIDEO GAME.

In a development not even Conrad’s imagination could have produced, his classic inspired a video game, Spec Ops: The Line, which was released in 2012.

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Dan Bell
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Design
A Cartographer Is Mapping All of the UK’s National Parks, J.R.R. Tolkien-Style
Peak District National Park
Peak District National Park
Dan Bell

Cartographer Dan Bell makes national parks into fantasy lands. Bell, who lives near Lake District National Park in England, is currently on a mission to draw every national park in the UK in the style of the maps in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, Kottke.org reports.

The project began in September 2017, when Bell posted his own hand-drawn version of a Middle Earth map online. He received such a positive response that he decided to apply the fantasy style to real world locations. He has completed 11 out of the UK’s 15 parks so far. Once he finishes, he hopes to tackle the U.S. National Park system, too. (He already has Yellowstone National Park down.)

Bell has done various other maps in the same style, including ones for London and Game of Thrones’s Westeros, and he commissions, in case you have your own special locale that could use the Tolkien treatment. Check out a few of his park maps below.

A close-up of a map for Peak District National Park
Peak District National Park in central England
Dan Bell

A black-and-white illustration of Cairngorms National Park in the style of a 'Lord of the Rings' map.
Cairngorms National Park in Scotland
Dan Bell

A black-and-white illustration of Lake District National Park in the style of a 'Lord of the Rings' map.
Lake District National Park in England
Dan Bell

You can buy prints of the maps here.

[h/t Kottke.org]

All images by Dan Bell

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