The Dracula Connection Part 2 – Florence Balcombe

Born: 6th of August, 1876

Died: 25th of May, 1937, aged 78

Possibly named after Florence Nightingale as her father Lieutenant-Colonel James Balcombe was involved in the Crimean War. Florence is talked about frequently as being just gorgeous but it is pretty clear that there is much more to Florence than the flowery and elaborate praise of her appearance. she was said to be tall at 5 foot 8, which is a perfectly reasonable height these days but apparently tall for the Victorian Era

There was widespread admiration of Florence’s intellect and wit and it came to pass that she would cross paths with another person who was renowned for his intellect and wit; Oscar Wilde. In fact, they two dated for two years, Oscar even gave her a gold cross which could be interpreted as a sort of promissory gesture. Once Wilde left for England, they began a long distance relationship that didn’t really work out.

Florence ended up crossing paths with another witty and intelligent young man with theatrical aspirations, Bram Stoker. Oscar Wilde was devastated when he learned of their engagement. Florence and Oscar eventually got to the point where they were able to maintain a friendship.

But life isn’t that simple and Bram still felt the danger of Oscar’s perceived threat to his marriage or reputation or morality or some combination of the three and that threat was exacerbated when Wilde was arrested for gross indecency. That this was the time at which Bram sat down to pen a story about a pervasive threat to the morality of good Christian people has been a subject of much discussion. Many see the depiction of Jonathan at the Castle Dracula as a subconscious expression of his own homosexuality. There is an excellent article  “A Wilde Desire Took Me: The Homoerotic History of Dracula” by Talia Schaffer that I alluded to in my blog post about Oscar and Bram, which paints the picture of a man who was at once, very happy in his life with Florence and had very intense, almost entirely repressed, feelings for the actor Henry Irving who he worked closely with during his time as the Director of the Lyceum Theatre. There is also a much more complex and distant impassioned relationship with Wilde which abruptly ended when Bram proposed to Florence.

One of the articles I read for this included a segment from Bram Stoker’s relatively recently unearthed “Journal”. They assert that it seems to be an idea for an unwritten work:

Seaport. Two sailors love girl — one marries her, other swears revenge. Husbands goes out to sea soon after marriage & on return after some days sees in grey light of morning his young wife crucified on the great cross which stands at end of pier.

Bram certainly never quite got over his distrust of Wilde. The same article that I grabbed that quote from which was from the New Inquiry by Kaya Genc draws distinct parallels between Bram’s version of his courtship with Florence and his friendship with Oscar and the narrative of Dracula. The forces of corruption represented by Dracula attempt to seize Jonathan and then Mina, but they are defeated by Mina’s common sense and good judgement and Jonathan’s eventual courage and the help of some dudes. It’s not a perfect analogy but considering the timing of his writing, it seems to be a little more than coincidental.

Bram and Florence seemed to have had a pretty equal marriage by Victorian standards and they enjoyed a happy and successful partnership. Bram struggled with illness but felt bad for Florence who ran the household and looked after him in his infirmity. Which is quite sweet because you really didn’t see a lot of that level of awareness in the men of the time. Florence was quite a gifted businesswoman, a trait that would serve her well through Bram’s illness, (which I’ve read was syphilis, which opens a whole new avenue for questioning, how did that happen?) and would continue to assist her after his passing.

After Bram died Florence’s main income stream was through Dracula and she was determined to wrestle control of the Dracula narrative back from the film studios in Germany and America, where Dracula was very popular but the Stoker family received no remuneration for use of Bram’s intellectual property.  She fought against the production of Nosferatu which borrowed ideas whole cloth from Dracula. Florence with the help of the Society of Authors sued the makers of the unauthorized film and won £5,000 and an order went out that every copy of Nosferatu would have to be destroyed. Obviously, that did not quite happen…

Sha also fought the Universal Studios production of Dracula starring Bela Lugosi (previously mentioned on this podcast). They didn’t ask for permission, so they had to deal with the full force of Florence Stoker.

 

Bibliography

  • “A Wilde Desire Took Me”: The Homoerotic History of Dracula by Talia Schaffer

http://www.jstor.org.simsrad.net.ocs.mq.edu.au/stable/2873274

  • Coming Out of the Coffin by Kaya Genc

https://thenewinquiry.com/coming-out-of-the-coffin/

  • Profile of Florence Balcombe by Eleanor Fitzsimons writer ofWilde’s Women”

http://womensmuseumofireland.ie/articles/florence-balcombe

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The Dracula Connection – Wilde and Stoker

Oscar Wilde was imprisoned gross indecency in May of 1895, and one month later Bram Stoker began to write his novel Dracula, a novel filled with transgressive sexual and a text which has been of great interest when applying queer theory to the Gothic English literary canon. Whilst correlation is not causation, this timing may not be entirely without meaning.
The Wildes and the Stokers were friends when Oscar and Bram were young. But that implies the families were part of a confined social group, this is not quite true. Oscar’s mother Jane threw lavish parties and had a wide circle of friends, it was probably at one of these parties that the two met. Oscar’s parents were incredibly fond of the young Bram, and this may have sparked competition between them. There is no doubt there was a tense relationship between the two, with Stoker outstripping Wilde academically in their youth. Then they both fell for the same woman Florence Balcombe who deserves her own article and will get one so I’m just going to skip ahead a little. Suffice to say it was Stoker and Balcombe who married
We don’t know much about Stoker’s life (due to his own Charlotte Brontë style curation), but an overwhelming number of scholars assert his role as a “gay observer” (Schaffer, 1994). This is has something to do with close textual interpretations and some of the more blatant homoeroticism in his most acclaimed work, Dracula, and with writings that have been discovered as part of a recently recovered “Journal”

Homoeroticism in Dracula

The Count is similar to the caricature of Oscar Wilde that developed during his trials and some of the other narrative similarities I will save for the Florence Balcombe article. Suffice to say that Dracula and vampirism are a direct threat to the moral fibre of 19th century Christian British moral fibre, in much the same way as many saw Wilde and “transgressive” sexuality. This idea that you can catch homosexuality has never quite gone away sadly.
Many read Jonathan Harker’s time in the Castle Dracula as a homoerotic experience of temptation. In the end, Jonathan has reconciled this time of imprisonment with his life with Mina, which seems almost sexless. He is able to exist in London with his male friends and his family life existing in harmony, without the looming presence of The Count. This duality of domestic sphere of the heteronormative family and homosocial/homosexual social spheres This might sound familiar from our exploration of Dorian Gray. This duality was very much of its time, and the 1890s proved to be a period of transition between this dualism and devastating persecution that accompanied public awareness of queer communities and individuals.

Revisionist History

Reading Dracula as a reactionary work to the trials of Oscar Wilde is an interesting and fruitful exercise. The view is that perhaps Stoker felt extremely vulnerable and embarrassed by his friend’s public shaming during his trial, and feeling his own sexuality called into question by association he panicked and began the erasure of their association.
Stoker systematically removed Wilde, or any allusions to Wilde in his works and documentation, replacing them with angry condemnations of degeneracy, thinly veiled references to Wilde’s arrest and other similar moral “transgressions”.
For more on the link between Wilde, Stoker and Homoeroticism in Dracula read:
Schaffer, T. (1994). “A Wilde Desire Took Me”: The Homoerotic History of Dracula. ELH, 61(2), 381-425. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org.simsrad.net.ocs.mq.edu.au/stable/2873274

 

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