“How good and thoughtful he is; the world seems full of good men – even if there are monsters in it.”
It’s fair to say, as a Victorian fiction fan, I’ve read Dracula quite a few times. And before you say that you’re not a vampire fiction fan (am I addressing fifty percent of you? Are you meaning vampire romance such as Twilight et cetera?), let me just say that Dracula‘s not quite like that. It was written in 1897, toward the end of the Victorian period, by Irishman Bram Stoker, at a time when monsters were still considered to be monsters and therefore not desirable in the house.
Jonathan Harker is often assumed to be the hero of the story, though I think his wife Mina (for reasons to be explained later) has more of a claim on that title. Thanks to the multitude of copies spawned over the years we probably all know the beginning of the story, in which Jonathan ( who’s consistently portrayed on film as a bit of a wet blanket from Nosferatu through to Keanu Reeves in Bram Stoker’s Dracula), journeys from London to Dracula’s Carpathian Castle. His quest: to offer real estate advice. After a terrifying stay, during which he witnesses Dracula climbing the walls like a lizard and is importuned by saucy vampiresses, Jonathan (like any respectable Victorian gentleman) succumbs to a brain fever and finds his way to the care of a monastery. The main drive of the story really begins at the point when Dracula arrives in England and begins to stalk the lovely Lucy Westenra. Unfortunately for the vampire, she has an unusual number of admirers (Dr Seward, Arthur Holmwood and Quincy Jones) and is bosom buddies with Mina Murray (soon to be Jonathan’s wife). When these admirers rally together, joined by Jonathan, Mina and Van Helsing (a useful friend of Dr Sewards), the hunt is on.
This is where Dracula is intriguing (aside from the regular moments of terror and heaving bosoms). The pursuit of the vampire is described with so much attention to the practicalities of the hunt. The learning of train schedules, bribery of locksmiths and humorous plying of tradesman with beer feature prominently. The planning for action and the comraderie of the men in pursuit is central. And yet the entire story is drawn together by Mina. It is Mina that unlocks many of Dracula’s secrets by pulling together the diaries of those touched by him; typing out Dr Seward’s phonograph recordings (in which he admits his morphine addiction), translating Jonathan’s shorthand and making the disparate accounts whole. The novel reads as one large collage of private diary entries, newspaper articles and even a ship’s log of events. In a sense, Mina is the imagined author of the story.
Mina has a certain intelligence and self-possession that can seem almost crafty at times, as when she rescues Lucy from one of her ‘sleepwalking’ episodes:
She (Lucy) stopped and wanted to insist upon my taking my shoes, but I would not. However, when we got to the pathway outside the churchyard, where there was a puddle of water, remaining from the storm, I daubed my feet with mud, using each foot in turn on the other, so that as we went home, no one, in case we should meet any one, should notice my bare feet.
This hardly seems significant until her cleverness shifts from being a source of help to the band of men, to a source of worry:
When the Professor (Van Helsing) came in, we talked over the state of things. I could see that he had something on his mind, which he wanted to say, but felt some hesitancy about broaching the subject. After beating about the bush a little, he said, “Friend John, there is something that you and I must talk of alone, just at the first at any rate. Later, we may have to take the others into our confidence.” Then he stopped, so I waited. He went on, “Madam Mina, our poor, dear Madam Mina is changing.” A cold shiver ran through me to find my worst fears thus endorsed.
– Dr Seward’s Diary, Dracula
I’m not the first to wonder, if Mina is meant to be the author of Dracula, is she a trustworthy narrator? Or should I say collator? One certainty remains, she is a fascinating character and dominates the novel more than any other. She is just one of many things to enjoy about the book and I hope you consider reading it, or rereading it. After all, it’s the father of such a persistent theme in our popular culture, although it seems strange that some of today’s vampire story heroines can’t compete with Mina in intelligence or self-awareness. Am I right?