Victorian Vampires, Monsters, and Eugenic Degeneration:
Bram Stoker’s famous book Dracula was published in 1897. Dracula is the natural product of a generation preoccupied by its own decadence and mortality. Consider the archetypal vampire. A vampire’s morbid existence is the cause of their immortality. They cannot die, but in order to persist, they are condemned to wander the earth sucking the life out of the living. They are vacant souls doomed to witness eternity, with nothing to live for and coerced into being murderers by necessity. Forced to watch the vibrant world around them transform itself as they remain the same, desiring to tap into that pulse, unable to do more than merely endure every painful night as the days interrupt, like Cartaphilus, the “Undying Count” or “Wandering Jew from the East” of Medieval folklore, whom was a Jewish gatekeeper doomed to an earthly Purgatory by Jesus Christ.
More to the point, vampire literature is the embodiment of a dark age still helplessly anchored to antiquity yet pulled by modernity. These Victorians watched as their antiquated ways crumbled under the rattle of modernity; their art, their architecture, their music, their aristocratic ways, invaded by foreign elements and new technologies. The elegance of their cities subsumed under the waves of unwashed and uncultured immigrants from the surrounding fields or from afar. The primitive world, and the primitive people these imperialists ventured out to conquer, had returned with them to squat in their dominion. Vampires are of the East, an intentional juxtaposition to the New World in the West. Vampires, like their Victorian creators were limited by their condition, witnesses to the modern world conquering both day and night, witnesses to industry and technology usurping their realm. The concept of transformation is implicit in all vampire stories, and originally, the Victorian fear of the increasing pace of change expressed itself in the fear that this new industrial reality was dangerous to the health of humans; that it could actually act to make evolution work in reverse, and to cast humanity back from the antiquated and primitive state from which it emerged. Vampires were thus an expression of Victorian fears of evolutionary “retrogression,” as Charles Darwin put it, or “degeneration,” as Lombroso or Morel framed the phenomenon.
Glennis Byron discusses this link between vampires and the neurosis with “degeneration” and “decline” in his book Dracula: Bram Stoker. Byron points out how the “racial degeneracy” of the time was perceived as linked to “sexual degeneracy.” Byron cites Michel Foucault and the discussion in his book “Confession of the Flesh.” In “Confessions” Foucault explains how the concepts of “degeneracy” and “sexuality” are intertwined in a “perversion-hereditary-degenerescence” neurosis in the nineteenth century. Foucault points out that nineteenth century scientific claims about the dangers of undisciplined breeding and sexual habits were the basis for scientific racism, anti-Semitism, and eugenics. “Sexual degeneracy” is regarded as being “inherited” and therefore passed on through blood lines. These conceptions evolved into a “coherent form of a state-directed racism” obsessed with “blood lines,” “racial purity” and the sexuality of blacks, Jews, and other infiltrating cultures deemed to be more primitive, with a rabid sexual appetite, and therefore reproducing uncontrollably. Byron points out this link between vampires and nobility is what Foucault calls “the myth of blood.” The myth of blood alludes to the obsession with bloodlines, either cultural, religious, or aristocratic:
LE GAUFEY: Couldn’t one see a confirmation of what you are saying in the nineteenth century vogue for vampire novels, in which the aristocracy is always presented as the beast to be destroyed? The vampire is always the aristocrat and the savior a bourgeois . . . .
FOUCAULT: In the eighteenth century, rumors were already circulating that debauched aristocrats abducted little children to slaughter them and regenerate themselves by bathing in their blood. The rumors even led to riots.
LE GAUFEY: again emphasizes that this theme develops as a bourgeois myth of that class’s overthrow of the aristocracy.
FOUCAULT: Modern antisemitism began in that form.
Bram Stoker’s “Dracula” begins with the protagonist, Jonathan Harker, a Briton, journeying Eastward to Transylvania by train and carriage from England to Count Dracula’s crumbling, remote castle. The purpose of his mission is to provide legal support to the Count for a real estate transaction. At first enticed by the Count’s gracious manner, Harker soon discovers that he has become a prisoner in the castle. The protagonist falls under the spell of the Count’s vampire harem; again, a reference to a decadent form of sexuality harking back to a antiquity. The helpless Briton is saved at the last second by the Count. The Count wants to keep the Englishman alive just long enough to obtain knowledge about England and London. The Count’s ultimate plan was to travel Westward to the emerging metropolises and be among the “teeming millions.” The Briton barely escapes from the castle with his life. The story then turns to a narration based on the logs of the captain of a Russian ship. The ship had run aground on the shores of Whitby, England, with all of the crew missing and presumed dead. The ship’s cargo is described as silver sand and boxes of “mould,” or earth, from Transylvania. A being is seen leaving the ship. The decrepit state of decaying antiquity had followed the Englishman back to his modern world to feed upon the “teeming” masses.
Throughout the 1880s and 1890s, other English authors Rudyard Kipling and H. G. Wells wrote tales of invasion and infection landing upon the shores of their beloved British Empire. “Dracula’s” storyline of an invasion of England by Eastern European influences was by 1897 very familiar to the Victorian public. The emergence of this common storyline converged, and was likely a result of the discomfort many Britons felt with the influx of immigrants from the colonies around the globe, and namely Eastern European Jews escaping the Russian Pogroms. Foucault was perfectly correct in linking English preoccupation with hereditary blood lines and the invasive infection of external elements compromising and threatening the purity of their social body, as this preoccupation is prevalent throughout the scientific and medical works of the era.
Foucault clarifies that the scientific ideology of race was developed by the intellectual “Left,” and that this ideology is wrongly attributed to far “Right racism.” Foucault points out that Cesar Lombroso, the criminologist and physician which postulated the eugenic theories of “atavistic” criminals were throwbacks to earlier evolutionary forms, for example, “was a man of the Left.” Foucault was invoking Max Nordau and Benedict Morel, and their best-selling works on “degeneration.” Bram Stoker’s “Dracula,” specifically cites Nordau by name when the character Mina Harker cites the theory of “degeneration” to justify her view that the Count is a criminal and an individual with an imperfectly formed mind. Towards the end of “Dracula,” in the final pursuit of the vampire, a discussion of criminal types ensues between Van Helsing, Seward and Harker’s wife, Mina. Van Helsing defines the Count as a “criminal” with “a child-brain … predestinate to crime.” As the foreigner, Van Helsing struggles to articulate his ideas in his broken English, and he turns to Mina for help; Mina translates for him succinctly and she even adds sources for the theory Van Helsing has advanced: “The Count is a criminal and of criminal type. Nordau and Lombroso would so classify him, and qua criminal he is of imperfectly formed mind.” As Mina points out, Lombroso would attribute Dracula’s criminal disposition to “an imperfectly formed mind” or, in other words, to what Van Helsing calls a “child-brain.” Lombroso noted similarities between the physiognomies of “criminals, savages and apes” and concluded that degenerates were a biological throwback to primitive man, closer to apes than to white men, as postulated by Charles Darwin and other believers in the phenomenon of “degeneration” as “retrograde” evolution. Stoker’s use of Nordau is a testament to just how ingrained Nordau’s work was in the minds of that generation.
Bram Stoker was brought up as a Protestant, in the Church of Ireland. He was a strong supporter of the Liberal party, and believed in an emancipated “Home Rule” for Ireland through peaceful means. He was, however, an ardent monarchist that believed Ireland should remain within the British Empire. Stoker was a creature of British society. Like the British Liberals of his time, Stoker believed in scientific progress, and England was the pinnacle of modernity at the time. Stoker was intrigued in the occult especially Mesmerism, and this was probably the psychological byproduct of his progressive self-image. Of specific importance is that Stoker’s self-image as a man of enlightened modernity gave him the conviction that superstition should be replaced by more scientific ideas. Progressive science shielded Stoker’s modern sensibilities from the “otherness” of antiquity, of the foreign, of the decrepit, like his protagonist Jonathan Harker.
British society and government was structured around hereditary lines. The fear of British society being influenced by the primitive cultures they had colonized struck at the very foundation of British life. Charles Darwin was a proud Englishman, and equally obsessed with hereditary lines. The publication of Charles Darwin’s “The Origin of Species” in 1859 changed the way the elite viewed themselves. Darwin’s theories of hereditary lines and evolution stoked the flames of imagination. It created as much fear as it created hope, as Darwin explained that evolution could work progressively forward as well as “degenerating” and “atavistically” backwards. Darwin’s work fueled the British neurotic fears with impending infections on their prized heredity by the onslaught of immigrating masses. His explanation that evolution could work to reverse progress struck a nerve in a population obsessed with “progress.”
Stoker’s Dracula is not the only “Gothic” vision to emerge from this collective obsession. Fantasies of degeneration proliferated in British culture, as respectable Dr. Jekyll’s morphed into beastly Mr. Hyde, and “atavistic” foreigners like the Count threatened to pollute pure English blood. Fictions of evolutionary deterioration quickly adapted themselves to anxieties concerning imperial expansion. The racial other, the primitives the British Empire now deemed as its subjects, were arriving en masse on the shores of the British Isles threatening racial mixing and a “degeneration” of English blood. Revolution was in the air, and the many revolutions happening originated from a working class which could less and less be described as British. In Stoker’s “Dracula” vampires are precisely a race that weakens the English “breeding stock” by passing on degeneracy through its blood lust and perverse sexuality. The Count is the embodiment of a primitive parasite returning to England on one of its many merchant ships to feed upon English wealth and health. The storyline is the embodiment of the “master,” fearful of retribution from his “slaves,” a narrative that had been an increasing source of fear as a consequence of the American Civil War and the various slave revolts in the Caribbean islands. The worst retribution, the most horrifying of punishments, is the unthinkable: to be condemned to become transformed into the primitive creatures doomed to eternal submission; to lose their claim to biological elitism.
Foucault also points out that this “myth of blood” is also the origins of modern anti-Semitism and the scientific racism of the era. Glennis Byron adds that modern anti-Semitism is “Gothic” in it morphing together of the medical, the political, the scientific, and the psychological. The Count, the Eastern European infiltrator, is subliminally reminiscent of the typical Jewish stereotype. This anthropological juxtaposition, whether intentional or unintentional, is the archetype of the Gothic novels of the age. After all, the fear of “degeneracy” was a fear of degenerating back towards a more primitive state of evolution, and Eastern European Jews were charted as less evolved in Darwin’s evolutionary hierarchy. This was not the religious racism of the Spanish Inquisition, where a Jew could redeem himself by renouncing Judaism as a religion and adopting Christianity. This was a biological racism based on fears of intertwined with concepts of the “purity of blood” and hereditary traits. It was a fear of what the Jew’s physicality represented to 19th century progressives. Lesser evolved people were seen as imperfect, deformed, deficient, and therefore decadent and as a potentially “degenerating” element to the higher evolved British physiognomy. Gothic novels like “Dracula” utilize the stereotypical Count as a subliminally Jewish monster. The Count resembles the Jew of anti-Semitic discourse. The Count’s exotic appearance, his parasitism, and his wealth are anchors back to antiquity. The Count’s wealth are the riches plundered by British imperialists, brought back to be integrated into British life. The protagonist Jonathan Harker describes the Count as having a “very marked physiognomy.” This physical description is also a nineteenth century textbook definition of the “born criminal” as defined by the nineteenth century phrenology. Jonathan Harker notes a nose with “peculiarly arched nostrils,” massive eyebrows and “bushy hair,” a cruel mouth and “peculiarly sharp white teeth,” pale ears which were “extremely pointed at the top,” and a general aspect of “extraordinary pallor.” The character Mina describes the Count as “a tall thin man with a beaky nose and black moustache and pointed beard.” The Count’s physical characteristics are an expression of stereotypical Jewishness of “hooked noses and shifty eyes.”
This is precisely how religious-based anti-Judaism was replaced by a scientific racism and anti-Semitism. The Jewish body was categorized by the scientists of the age as deficient, and therefore predisposed to criminality, sexual perversion, and other predispositions associated with more primitive cultures. The very analysis of the nature of the Jewish body, in the broader culture or within the culture of medicine, has always been linked to establishing the dangerous difference of the stereotypical Jew. This scientific vision of parallel and unequal “races” is part of this belief in polygenesis in the eighteenth century.
Gill Davies, author of the article titled “London in Dracula; Dracula in London” written for the Literary London Society, parallels the views of “Dracula” as a narrative of Victorian fears of the consequences of imperialism, industrialization, and immigration:
Stephen Arata and others have shown how the geography of the novel echoes contemporary fears about global economic competition and builds on racial anxieties, particularly in its opposition of East and West. Dracula is a novel about crossing borders, encountering the alien and driving it back; it is also about dangerous, unrestrained movement and the need for confinement of the threatening “other.” In this article, I will concentrate on the way in which the detailed geography of London is deployed to highlight a number of imperial and national anxieties. These anxieties are mapped on to some of the key places in the fin de sieclé / modern metropolis. (G. Davis, “London in Dracula”)
Gill Davis point to the fact that throughout the novel are references to the four compass points, but especially to east and west. These are references to the socio-political reality of the city of London. The West End was the center of government, with its wealthy residences, while the East End was “unknown England,” “the nether world,” “outcast London,” “the abyss.” Gill Davis’s observation certainly coincides with the social fears of the era, as the East End of London was the location for the serial murders by Mary Ann Cotton and Jack the Ripper. It was also the location where all of the peculiarities and oddities that were brought over to London were on display. The East End, especially the Whitechapel district, was teeming with sideshow acts and curiosities during the winter, namely where one could walk in and see the likes of deformed “atavisms” like the Elephant Man, and where one had to be eternally vigilant in fear of being the victim of a crime. The docks and the railways terminals in the East End of London were the international stopping points, namely for the Jews fleeing the pogroms, and the endless waves of immigrants from the colonies.
In “Dracula,” Stoker reiterates this sense of London as both heart and image of the Empire, using its familiar locations to heighten fears of invasion, contamination and disease. Dracula is, of course, from the east, and regularly associated with it. He comes ashore on the east coast at Whitby and takes a house at Purfleet on the Thames at the eastern edge of London. As several critics have shown, Dracula’s association with the East End links him with foreigners, especially Jews from eastern Europe and “oriental” foreigners, as well as with an area associated in the public mind with crime and violence. – (G. Davis, “London in Dracula”)
In contrast to the Count’s foreign attributes, “Dracula” paints a picture of sturdy western Europeans along with the American, Quincy, combining forces in order to capture and oust the decrepit foreigner. Jonathan and Mina share a basic purity and moral superiority with Quincy, in juxtaposition to the Count’s criminal nature. Arthur’s family home is the Godalming estate at Ring, presumably south-west of the capital, and he stays in the West End at the Albemarle in Piccadilly when in London. Dracula’s chief antagonist, Van Helsing has to come from the continent, though from a neighboring and protestant country, since the “innocence” of England is critical to the dramatic exegesis: Van Helsing is a bulwark against Dracula because he has an understanding of the supernatural and vampire lore that is not possible for an Englishman. The extensive movement that we find in the novel (from the provinces, across Europe, from America) is all to and from London, the “world city.” London is the heart of the novel, but also of the empire and the nation. Dracula threatens to consume its blood and cut off the circulation of its capital. Although he is linked to the East End and the moral panics associated with it, Dracula is at his most dangerous in the West End:
The concentration on London is contextualized by the opening sections of the novel in which Jonathan Harker travels east across Europe. His account highlights the border between the civilized west and the dangerous orient. (Even his train is one hour late, as civilization is left behind.) Budapest is seen as the dividing point between east and west: he crosses the Danube into “the traditions of Turkish rule.” Castle Dracula is “in the extreme east of the country, just on the borders of three states” so that Dracula’s criminality is emphasized. In addition, Transylvania is uncharted and Jonathan cannot get “the exact locality of the Castle Dracula as there are no maps of this country as yet to compare with our own Ordnance Survey maps. (G. Davis, “London in Dracula”)
Soon after, Jonathan finds the Count in his coffin, recently fed, and comments that “This was the being I was helping to transfer to London, where, perhaps for centuries to come, he might, among its teeming millions, satiate his lust for blood, and create a new and ever widening circle of semi-demons to batten on the helpless.” Of course, this provokes fear for the empire and the race, but the key word here is “transfer”:
Through them I have come to know your great England; … I long to go through the crowded streets of your mighty London, to be in the midst of the whirl and rush of humanity, to share its life, its change, its death and all that make it what it is.
The other “atavistic degenerate” of the era, which coincidentally is also an icon of the Whitechapel neighborhood where Jack the Ripper stalked his victims, is the Elephant Man. Joseph Carey Merrick was an English man with severe deformities who was exhibited as a human curiosity. He became well known in London society after he went to live at the London Hospital. Orphaned early in his life, Merrick was relegated to the British workhouses, a system set up with the increasing amount of humanity in British city-centers. These British “poorhouses” and “workhouses” would be the source of many eugenic-minded doctors and scientists, as would also be the case in the United States and Germany.
Merrick concluded that his only escape from the workhouse might be through the world of human novelty exhibitions. On August 1884, Merrick departed the workhouse to start his new career, advertised as “Merrick the Elephant Man,” an atavistic cross-breed, “Half-a-Man and Half-an-Elephant” and performed in the back of an empty shop on Whitechapel Road. Merrick’s manager decorated the shop with posters that had been created by Hitchcock, depicting a monstrous half-man, half-elephant. The shop on Whitechapel Road was directly across the road from the London Hospital, and many medical students and doctors visited Merrick. One visitor was a young house surgeon named Reginald Tuckett and his colleague Frederick Treves. Treves examined Merrick. At this point, Treves assumed that the Elephant Man was an “imbecile,” a diagnosis that was consistent with the eugenic-minded field of the era, which equated physical attributes with mental and moral capacity. Yet, Merrick graciously entertained high society guests, crafted highly detailed model houses, and engaged in frequent correspondence. History has come to know Merrick through the movie made about him where he is depicted uttering the famous lines: “I am not an animal!” Reality is more tantalizing than fiction. Merrick did not in actuality proclaim that he was “not an animal,” but did end much of the correspondence he wrote with a few lines adapted from the original by poet Isaac Watts titled “False Greatness”:
‘Tis true my form is something odd,
But blaming me is blaming God;
Could I create myself anew
I would not fail in pleasing you.
If I could reach from pole to pole
Or grasp the ocean with a span,
I would be measured by the soul;
The mind’s the standard of the man.
Merrick touched the hearts of many of his visitors, whom became admirers for his courage and endurance despite having so much to bear. However, as much as Merrick’s actual personality provided proof of his inner worth, the image of his decaying and deformed body became the textbook image of “atavisms” and hereditary deformity. Merrick would be relegated to the status of oddity regardless of his humanity. Whitechapel would become famous for its side show and curiosities. To this day, the East End of London, where the Whitechapel neighborhood is located, is known for its dense mix of immigrants. Population shifts from rural areas to London from the 17th century to the mid-19th century resulted in great numbers of more or less destitute people taking up residence. The “Dictionary of Victorian London,” Vol. 2, has a description of Whitechapel’s sideshow atmosphere in the section by John Adcock titled “Sideshow London”:
The right time of year is in the winter. Throughout the summer living skeletons, midget families, and such like celebrities tour about in caravans and are to be viewed in tents at country fairs but winter drives them into London and the big provincial cities. — Here their showmen sometimes hire untenanted shops at low rentals till they are re-let, and run shows on their own account ; oftener they are glad to get engagements for successive weeks at regular show places, such as the two at Islington, those in Whitechapel in Kilburn, in Deptford, or in Canning Town. (Pgs. 281-285, “Sideshow London”)
The imagery used by Bram Stocker in his novel “Dracula” would have been prominent and vivid in the minds of turn-of-the-century Britons. By the time of its release in 1897, Britons recognized the East End, and especially the Whitechapel neighborhood, as the site of the Jack the Ripper and the Mary Ann Cotton serial killers. They side shows, of which the Elephant Man was the most publicized, were part of the daily life of the city. These icons were seen as anthropological proof of the decrepit “degeneracy,” as the resulting East End urban population contrasted drastically to the pristine and refined aristocracy of the West End. Fabian socialism, and its eugenic creed, literally grew out of the Whitechapel neighborhood, as it became a platform from which the Fabians and international socialist colleagues propagandized from. Its imagery served as the proof for the eugenic-minded reformers and revolutionaries intent on creating a sanitary eugenic utopia.
EXCERPT: This chapter did not make the final edit of “From a ‘Race of Masters’ to a ‘Master Race’: 1948-1848” and is presented here with all of its defects and imperfections.