Andrew Maunder, Bram Stoker [Writers and Their Work Series] (Tavistock: Northcote House, 2006) xii, 164pp. ISBN: 0746309686
Andrew Maunder’s Bram Stoker is one of the most recent additions to the re-emergent Writers and Their Work series published by Northcote House in association with the British Council. The series, edited by Isobel Armstrong, has always had a strong profile, and Maunder’s intelligent and wide-ranging account of the work of Stoker adds substantially to that.
Maunder begins from the most common critical position on Stoker’s writing: that the focus on Dracula has, to some extent, disguised the facts of Stoker’s more varied literary output, as well as the view of his literary talents held by his contemporaries. In an effort to continue to redress the balance of Stoker’s career, Maunder’s aim is to offer readings of a greater selection of his fiction, to compare the better with the lesser known works, and to place Stoker within the literary and cultural practices of the late Victorian and Edwardian periods.
It is in the first and shortest of four chapters, ‘Stoker and his Critics’, that Maunder sets out his project to ‘find Stoker’s work interesting for its variety, its contradictions, and its attempts to participate in the literary trends of the period and its clear appeal to Victorian and Edwardian readers’ (28). Consistently under scrutiny will be Stoker’s participation in the literary marketplace, his forays into different literary genres (including romance, gothic and the temperance novel), and the inherent instabilities in his writing that make more complex the claim that Stoker writes entirely and always as a conservative, Anglo-Irish patriarch championing the most reactionary of Victorian opinions.
The second chapter (but the first of substantial length) on Stoker’s fictional output, ‘London in View’, considers three novels: The Primrose Path (1875), Dracula (1897) and The Jewel of the Seven Stars (1903). The focus here is on the urban, and specifically upon London as imagined within the novels. Stoker’s vision of London is ‘double-edged’ (29); it is both the mighty centre of civilisation and a place of danger for the vulnerable individual. That vulnerability might be to the dangers of alcohol in The Primrose Path, to the vampiric imperialist in Dracula, or the return of the repressed past in the shape of the Egyptian mummy in The Jewel of the Seven Stars. Stoker’s response to such dangers is to find, Maunder argues, a form of modern masculinity that rises to the challenge of contemporary metropolitan life, shores up Britain’s vulnerable subjects and repels the dangerous influences hidden within the teeming city.
The third chapter, ‘Men and Monsters’, continues the theme of masculinity. Drawing once again on three novels, The Snake’s Pass (1890), The Lady of the Shroud (1909), and The Lair of the White Worm (1911), Maunder traces Stoker representations of various masculinities within a broader reading of his novels as examples of the imperial or quest romance. Stoker’s adventure fiction, it appears, offers both a reactionary Victorian colonialist ideology and, at the same time, a revolutionary exposure of the fissures and contradictions that always undermined the colonial/imperial project. Here, again, we find different versions of Bram Stoker; both politically conservative and liberally controversial.
Gender remains the focus in the fourth and final chapter, ‘Writing Women’. Three lesser-known novels are considered here: Miss Betty (1898), The Man (1905) and The Fate of Fenella (1891-2), as well as a selection of short stories from Dracula’s Guest (1914). As has been the case in the previous chapters, each of these fictions is placed firmly within its own historical moment, and Maunder draws on the social and cultural politics of the late Victorian and Edwardian periods both to contextualise and illuminate Stoker’s writing on women. In doing this, Maunder is remaining sympathetic to the original receptions of Stoker’s work, which clearly saw his fiction as engaging with that most demanding of interrogations, The Woman Question. The chapter grapples with this issue most convincingly in its attempts to understand how the über-masculine and trenchantly Victorian Stoker might possibly have something interesting to say about the position of women at the fin de siècle. Yet Maunder persuasively argues that ‘it is difficult to read Stoker’s work without noticing that he is clearly interested in the underside of domesticity, in the darker workings within the family, and in female lives lived in a male-dominated society, and the indoctrination and victimization which this may involve.’ (104-5)
As should be clear, Bram Stoker is predominantly concerned with the work of gender across a wide range of Stoker’s literary output. It is almost inevitable, therefore, that other profitable areas of inquiry receive less attention than they might have done. Nevertheless, Andrew Maunder situates issues of gender within a reasonable array of other social, cultural, and material practices which, though lightly touched upon, do give some flavour of the different critical interests in Stoker’s work that persist today. Furthermore, while Bram Stoker is ostensibly written for the undergraduate market (and Maunder is always conscious of this audience) it still attempts – admirably in my view – to construct an fresh vision of Stoker’s writing that contributes to the growing criticism on an increasingly important writer.
Martin Willis (University of Glamorgan)
For more details, see the Northcote House: Writers and their Work website