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In Victorian times the diagnosis of death was not a certain one, with many accounts, no doubt some true, of people having revived after apparent death, and even after they had already been buried. This was particularly likely to happen in cases of mass dying and burial such as with a cholera epidemic when there was a wish to get rid of bodies quickly. Klinger has drawn attention to a thesis on premature burial by anatomist Jacques-Bénigne Winslow (1669–1760), a forebear of the Dr Lyttleton Forbes Winslow mentioned elsewhere.
In most Victorian fiction, the vivisector is characterised as an evil doctor or physiologist, whereas in Dracula the asylum physician Dr John Seward is on the side of righteousness, even if his actions and thoughts are described with a little teasing amusement.
In the novel Dracula by Bram Stoker, published in 1897, two of the main characters are medical practitioners specialising in the mind: Dr John Seward and Professor Abraham Van Helsing. As often in fiction this allows two doctors to disagree with each other, but less usually, both here collaborate on the side of ‘good’, determined to exterminate the vampire Count Dracula, and by physical methods.
Dr Seward regards his patient Renfield as an interesting case, worthy of study, in order partly to distract him from the unhappiness of his disappointment in love, but also potentially to advance his career. The phrase ‘pet lunatic’ (D, p. 217), which is how Seward refers to Renfield at one point, reminds me of the term ‘special patient’ used sometimes as a warning that if professionals get over-involved with a specific patient and react in a non-standard way their judgements and the care for the patient may be impaired.1
A novel reader need only have a general idea of what the director of a lunatic asylum might have been like, and as Dublin and London had slightly different systems, both of which were in flux in the nineteenth century, Bram Stoker’s approximation is just that. He did however have access to specialist contacts and took a different approach from many other authors.
While Count Dracula is discussed sometimes as a representation of disease, the question here is what disease or disorder, psychological, physical or both, he might have had himself – an issue discussed both in the book, and by commentators, for whom this seems to be an endlessly attractive topic. In the novel, Dracula’s psychopathology is earnestly discussed by Mina and Van Helsing, who decide that, following Lombroso, he has a criminal ‘Child-mind’. Others have drawn attention to his strange fears and obsessions.
From the time of Hippocrates, the location of reason and madness was thought to be situated in the brain and therefore within the skull. It was not however, until the work of Gall and Spurzheim that the doctrine that the mind was the function of the brain was clearly expressed, and a rationale for operating on the brain developed.
Practising medicine has often run in families, and many of Bram Stoker’s relatives were doctors: two of his three medical brothers are especially likely to have provided material for Dracula, and his brother-in-law William Thomson was an eminent surgeon also. But first, something about Bram’s own early life and illness, then on to the brothers.
Dracula’s teeth are so famous that the term is even used to describe a form of sweet. Yet the vampires of old European folklore were not recognised by their teeth.1 This, to our minds essential, feature seems to have arrived with fiction, probably enhanced by visual representation such as illustrations, cartoons and later, films.
In Dracula, references to animals, usually sinister nocturnal creatures, are frequent, and the vampires have animal-like properties; indeed, the Count himself is capable of full shape-shifting into a wolf or a bat as well as having command over the ‘creatures of the night’. Parallel to this, in the second half of the nineteenth century humankind’s connection with the animal kingdom was of great interest when Darwin’s theory of evolution took hold in simplified form, together with the fear that a reverse process might also occur and humans once more become beast-like (the theory of ‘Degeneration’).
‘Gothic’ was originally a derogatory term for medieval culture which was developed in the Enlightenment period, but it soon became an accepted description, especially when in the eighteenth century an appreciation of rather whimsical ‘gothic’ follies and building style developed in Britain. Subsequently in the nineteenth century the architectural gothic style became mainstream (the alternative style being ‘classical’), but the literary genre maintained its more teasing difference.
These days it may seem unnecessary to draw attention to the connection of eroticism with vampirism, and it is very evident in many of the previous tales touched upon. Nevertheless perhaps this type of interpretation has been overdone, as Miller has said, almost as if Psychoanalysis validates Dracula and vice versa (ignoring the fact that both were products of the same cultural era).
Just why are two doctors fighting Dracula unless he is a disease? Medical commentators have interpreted the story of Dracula as referring consciously or unconsciously to specific infections, especially rabies, cholera, tuberculosis and syphilis. Other commentators also note that a ‘disease model’ is being used, in terms of spread by contact, death or damage, and that this can also be seen as a metaphor for other social fears of the time, such as immigration and ‘degeneration’, especially arising from the East.
The asylums of the nineteenth century in Britain changed from being mainly fairly small, and often private, to becoming huge and mainly public, with dissent and dispute about their functioning throughout the period. The state of the asylums was of especial interest to the members of the Medico-Psychological Association – understandably given the Society’s origin as the ‘Association of Medical Officers of Asylums and Hospitals for the Insane’.
Mesmerism and hypnosis were popular themes in the fiction of the nineteenth century, so only some of the more relevant examples will be discussed, and then some issues centring especially on the eyes. But first something of the historical background, in which Stoker himself was interested.
The importance of blood to human life is evident, perhaps especially on the battlefield, where surgeons gained their training experience in the past. In mythology, after the hero Perseus cut off the head of the snaky-haired monster Medusa he collected the blood; this comprised two properties, the good healing, and the bad poisonous. He passed these on to Athena, the goddess of wisdom and healing, and thence it came to Asclepius, the medical demi-god.