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

 

Betjeman, Buchan, Wilde and The Yellow Book

This is an article released as part of The FrankenPod’s exploration of Oscar Wilde and his place in the gothic literary canon.

The poem “The Arrest of Oscar Wilde at the Cadogan Hotel” is a subtle yet insistent condemnation of the society that allowed for the prosecution of Wilde. In depicting the final moments before Wilde’s arrest Sir John Betjeman talks of The Yellow Book.

Sir_John_Betjeman_(1906-1984)
Sir John Betjeman

“So you’ve brought me the latest Yellow Book:

And Buchan has got in it now:

Approval of what is approved of

Is as false as a well-kept vow.

-Sir John Betjeman

To unpack this passage we need to know a little about the aforementioned Yellow book. The Yellow Book was a yellow clothbound publication that featured salacious and subversive stories, many of them French. Many note that a yellow book, similar to the future periodical was given to Dorian Gray by Lord Henry in The Picture of Dorian Gray written by Oscar Wilde in 1891.

Is it possible this could be part of the inspiration for the name of the periodical?

Well kind of. The phenomenon of the illicit French narrative was very much alive during the time Oscar Wilde was writing The Picture of Dorian Gray. But the yellow bound book is not an invention of Wilde’s but rather a common mode of publication for these transgressive tales. It follows that if Lord Henry was to procure such a corrupting, violent and heavily sexualized book it would more than likely have been presented in this yellow bound format. The periodical The Yellow Book is named after this publication presentation phenomenon that preceded The Picture of Dorian Gray.

It was also known as “The Yellow Nineties” due to its decade of publication.

The quarterly publication is cited as running from 1894 to 1897 and came under heat when Oscar Wilde was seen to be carrying a similar book, leading to outraged crowds throwing stones at the office of the publication. That gives you a bit of a clue as to the kind of societal outrage Oscar Wilde was facing. In this time of crisis in Wilde’s life, his arrest for gross indecency, surely seeing the publication whose name could have been inspired by his prose, give way to a style of writing so distanced from his own aesthetic style would be another blow to the great author.

The implications that this has for the poem is that these tales that challenge social mores are being supplanted by John Buchan’s more tame prose.

I am not entirely sure what Wilde’s opinion of Buchan’s writing really was but Wilde, as written by Betjeman, positions himself and aestheticism as the unconventional to Buchan’s conventionally appealing writing. By the Yellow Book publishing the work of Buchan, Betjeman is implying that challenging works such as Wilde’s that have achieved hard-earned success have been pushed aside to make way for less groundbreaking potboilers. This is a gross simplification of the two author’s works but that is not a reflection on the beauty of the poem.

The poem is the essence of the societal rejection of Wilde, his fall from favour and the sense that the world of literature will continue on without him.

John Buchan and his brand of thriller are the future and Wilde’s aestheticism is the past. Literature may have suffered greatly from the loss of Wilde’s unwritten work, but what is done is done. And in 1937 when Betjeman is writing this poem the literary scene had undergone a massive transformation, he seems nostalgic but resigned to the change that sweeps through everything eventually.

LILLIE_LANGTRY_-_Cadogan_Hotel_21_Pont_Street_Chelsea_London_SW1X_9SG
Cadogan Hotel By Spudgun67 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
As the poem “The Arrest of Oscar Wilde at the Cadogan Hotel” is the creative property of Betjeman  I will not be reproducing it in full but I am providing a link to the poem in full from Poetry By Heart who has permission to reproduce the poem.

So with that, we say goodbye to Wilde for now. The world of mystery and espionage that Buchan’s work forms part of could be in our future.

The passage from The Picture of Dorian Gray which introduces the nature of the yellow book:

“His eye fell on the yellow book that Lord Henry had sent him. What was it, he wondered. He went towards the little, pearl-coloured octagonal stand that had always looked to him like the work of some strange Egyptian bees that wrought in silver, and taking up the volume, flung himself into an arm-chair and began to turn over the leaves. After a few minutes he became absorbed. It was the strangest book that he had ever read. It seemed to him that in exquisite raiment, and to the delicate sound of flutes, the sins of the world were passing in dumb show before him. Things that he had dimly dreamed of were suddenly made real to him. Things of which he had never dreamed were gradually revealed.

It was a novel without a plot and with only one character, being, indeed, simply a psychological study of a certain young Parisian who spent his life trying to realize in the nineteenth century all the passions and modes of thought that belonged to every century except his own, and to sum up, as it were, in himself the various moods through which the world-spirit had ever passed, loving for their mere artificiality those renunciations that men have unwisely called virtue, as much as those natural rebellions that wise men still call sin. The style in which it was written was that curious jewelled style, vivid and obscure at once, full of argot and of archaisms, of technical expressions and of elaborate paraphrases, that characterizes the work of some of the finest artists of the French school of Symbolistes. There were in it metaphors as monstrous as orchids and as subtle in colour. The life of the senses was described in the terms of mystical philosophy. One hardly knew at times whether one was reading the spiritual ecstasies of some mediaeval saint or the morbid confessions of a modern sinner. It was a poisonous book. The heavy odour of incense seemed to cling about its pages and to trouble the brain. The mere cadence of the sentences, the subtle monotony of their music, so full as it was of complex refrains and movements elaborately repeated, produced in the mind of the lad, as he passed from chapter to chapter, a form of reverie, a malady of dreaming, that made him unconscious of the falling day and creeping shadows.”

Thanks for reading

Morgan

The Absurdity of The Canterville Ghost

The Canterville Ghost is a very silly Victorian Ghost story that Oscar Wilde released in two parts, in 1887. It was the prolific author’s first published story. It sets the tone for a huge swathe of horror comedies that feature a very ineffectual haunting. The humorous ghost story is a strange literary creature that subverts expectations and has become somewhat of a cliche. But in a time when the supernatural was given more mainstream credence this disarming use of humour would have had a very different effect on the reader.

Not only did Oscar Wilde release his first story during the final gasps of the romantic movement and at the birth of modernity, but he released the story during the rapid spread of the spiritualism movement. Ghostly spectres and powerful intangible phantoms were actively sought out by interested parties, and it was terribly fashionable to hold seances and be informed of the symbolism of the spiritual realm. It is a story that perfectly encapsulates the way in which Wilde’s work is transitional between the romantic and modern literary movements.

250px-Wallace_Goldsmith_-_Oscar_Wilde_-_Canterville_Ghost_-_He_met_with_a_severe_fall
“He met with a severe fall” – Illustration by Wallace Goldsmith of the effects of a butter slide set up by the twins as part of their campaign of practical jokes against the ghost.

Who is the Canterville Ghost?

The American Otis family are told upon buying Canterville Chase in England, that the estate is haunted. The ghost has terrified the Canterville family for decades and is often an omen that appears before the death of a member of the family. The Otis family refuse to believe that there is anything supernatural about their new home.

They are of course wrong.

Sir Simon, the former occupant of the house who killed his wife then disappeared makes his presence felt through a blood stain that will not fade and physical apparitions. He has a huge variety of haunting tools and visages at his disposal, such as representing himself as a headless spectre, he has also been previously known to physically injure his victims. Even scaring some to death.

But the new inhabitants of the chase, however, turn this terrifying phantom into a grumpy, exhausted and battered creature who no longer stalks the corridors, rather shuffles along in slippers and warm clothes to combat the chill from drafts.

I’m unsure as to whether Sir Simon is the first of his kind, in being a formerly formidable spectre who is rendered impotent by the materialism and pragmaticism of modernity.

What is different about the Otis family?

Through the oiling of noisy chains and the cleaning of ominous, reappearing “blood” stains, the Otis family undermines every artifice of haunting that the ghost has at his disposal. Even the hauntings that he manages to pull off are laughed at by the twins or entirely backfire due to the twin’s concerted efforts to torture the ghostly spectre of Sir Simon who has haunted generations of British nobility and their servants. It seems to be their dissociation from the realm of English folklore which grants them immunity from the ill effects of the spiritual realm.

Virginia is the only member of the family who comes even close to a classical gothic character of the human realm. She is vulnerable to the haunting similar to the British characters, however, her link to her modern American family seems to have kept her safe from the more horrific aspects of the haunting. Her strength of character and depth of understanding makes her the ultimate foil to Sir Simon’s legacy of terror. Sir Simon confides in the young girl, giving her the tools to stop the haunting and free the dead nobleman once and for all.

Perhaps the ghost realises that he is no longer relevant as he beholds the modern American family, which, let’s face it, Wilde portrays as grotesque in their own way. Is Wilde bemoaning the loss of gothic romanticism and folkloric tradition and the hands of the crude family? Or is he celebrating the modern thinking of the American people who are untethered to the restrictive tradition of the British Isles?

The_Canterville_Ghost_illustration

How on earth are you going to connect this one to Frankenstein?

I have had a bit of a think about this and maybe the strongest of the tangential threads that connect Frankenstein or the Modern Day Prometheus to the Canterville Ghost is the collision between the romanticism of the 19th-century horror story and the critical thinking and scientific reasoning that was emerging before Mary Shelley put pen to paper. Shelley’s narrative is still firmly entrenched in the lore of ages past, but her Doctor is a man of science and the spectre of her novel is a being of undead science. Conversely, Wilde’s spectre Sir Simon is still firmly placed in traditional gothic ideas of the ghost, but the narrative is a distinctly modern one.

In short, I’m going to go ahead and say that both narratives deal with the juxtaposition of the romantic gothic novel and an increasingly pragmatic and modern reality.

The Monstrosity of Orchids – Floral Arrangments in Dorian Gray

This is the last Dorian Gray post for a while for The FrankenPod I swear!

If you have read the 1891 book or even watched the first season of Penny Dreadful you will be asking… Hey Dorian what’s with all the weird flower sniffing?

In his gothic masterpiece The Picture of Dorian Gray, Oscar Wilde is pretty blatant in his symbolism, he basically hits us over the head with a laburnum branch (symbolic of forsaken, pensive beauty apparently). That doesn’t mean that the symbolism is worthless by virtue of its visibility. There is something charming in Wilde’s insistence that we acknowledge the collective symbolic weight of flowers. It is what makes Wilde easy for students to dissect for meaning and also what upsets those who like their literary motifs and themes more artfully hidden.

So what is with all the flowers?

The flowers can be read as a representation of sensory temptation as in this passage from the very first meeting between Dorian and Lord Henry:

“Lord Henry went out to the garden and found Dorian Gray burying his face in the great cool lilac-blossoms, feverishly drinking in their perfume as if it had been wine. He came close to him and put his hand upon his shoulder. “You are quite right to do that,” he murmured. “Nothing can cure the soul but the senses, just as nothing can cure the senses but the soul.”

Lord Henry is using Dorian’s little sensory indulgences as a gateway to more lascivious behaviour. Henry is the ultimate voyeur, his corruption of Dorian Gray is purely experimental, creating a spectacle to observe. Is it possible Lord Henry is a sociopath?

Henry also uses flowers to open the door to paranoia, fear of the passing of time and the advent of old age. Flowers are temporary and wilt and wither like youth. But flowers renew seasonally Dorian will not.

“The common hill-flowers wither, but they blossom again. The laburnum will be as yellow next June as it is now. In a month there will be purple stars on the clematis, and year after year the green night of its leaves will hold its purple stars. But we never get back our youth. The pulse of joy that beats in us at twenty, becomes sluggish. Our limbs fail, our senses rot. We degenerate into hideous puppets, haunted by the memory of the passions of which we were too much afraid, and the exquisite temptations that we had not the courage to yield to. Youth! Youth! There is absolutely nothing in the world but youth!”

This passage of Lord Henry’s evangelism is followed by an important visual representation of Dorian’s naivety surrounding the rapid loss of youth in which he drops “a spray of lilacs” (lilacs being symbolic of purity and innocence) discarding the first protective layer of his innocence. Then there is a weird bit of action with a bee and a flower that some read to be sexual, and it is a bit weird but I think it might have to do with pollination and the beginning of Lord Henry’s corruption of Dorian. But what do I know?

On the subject of Lord Henry’s manipulation here is a weird flower laden passage in which creepy Henry is creepy.

“Lord Henry watched him with a subtle sense of pleasure. How different he was now from the shy, frightened boy he had met in Basil Hallward’s studio! His nature had developed like a flower, had borne blossoms of scarlet flame.”

Basil, however, establishes the flower as Symbolic of the soul very early on in the novel as he describes his relationship with Dorian:

“Then I feel, Harry, that I have given away my whole soul to someone who treats it as if it were a flower to put in his coat, a bit of decoration to charm his vanity, an ornament for a summer’s day”

In the final confrontation between Dorian and Basil, Dorian crushes a flower which could signify Basil’s soul or Dorian’s innocence or both as he is about to murder his friend who was completely besotted with him from the outset. Later as Dorian has resolved to murder his friend he crushes the flower which could be a stand-in for Basil’s soul as alluded to previously. Or it could be Dorian crushing his last semblance of innocence or humanity:

“Years ago, when I was a boy,” said Dorian Gray, crushing the flower in his hand, “you met me, flattered me, and taught me to be vain of my good looks. One day you introduced me to a friend of yours, who explained to me the wonder of youth, and you finished the portrait of me that revealed to me the wonder of beauty. In a mad moment, that, even now, I don’t know whether I regret or not, I made a wish, perhaps you would call it a prayer….

Flowers as Symbolic of Innocence and Virginity

The flowers can also be interpreted as a symbol of innocence with the three key players, Basil, Dorian and Lord Henry practically engulfed by flowers as the story opens, perhaps signifying the innocence that would gradually disappear as we go deeper into Dorian’s downward spiral. 

There is also a great deal of floral imagery surrounding the innocent Sybil, with Sybil being explicitly likened to a flower;

A low moan broke from her, and she flung herself at his feet, and lay there like a trampled flower. “Dorian, Dorian, don’t leave me!” she whispered. “I am so sorry I didn’t act well. I was thinking of you all the time. But I will try—indeed, I will try.

Particular features of Sybil are also referred to in floral terms such as her lips being like petals. However late we find that not all flowers can be considered innocent and pure, there is one flower that is given monstrous connotations.

The Monstrosity of Orchids

Orchids are traditionally symbolic of beauty, luxury and love, they also have associations with sexuality, virility and lust depending on the colour. The potential of orchids to represent qualities of than innocence depending on their colour becomes apparent during the corruption of Dorian as he reads the Yellow Book that was given to him by Lord Henry:

There were in it metaphors as monstrous as orchids and as subtle in colour

The orchid as a monstrosity and the relevance of its colour is relevant when we consider this interchange between Dorian and Francis after the death of Basil:

“Yes,” said Dorian. “And I am afraid, Francis, that I have another errand for you. What is the name of the man at Richmond who supplies Selby with orchids?”

“Harden, sir.”

“Yes—Harden. You must go down to Richmond at once, see Harden personally, and tell him to send twice as many orchids as I ordered, and to have as few white ones as possible. In fact, I don’t want any white ones. It is a lovely day, Francis, and Richmond is a very pretty place, otherwise I wouldn’t bother you about it.”

The absence or removal of white orchids (traditionally symbolic of innocence)  is perhaps symbolic of the removal of the last of Dorian’s humanity, now he only wants what is seen as dark and monstrous.

Bye Bye Dorian, you selfish pain in the butt.

Go sniff flowers elsewhere!

Sincerely

Morgan

 

Strange Mechanical Grotesques, The Harlot’s House By Oscar Wilde

We caught the tread of dancing feet,
We loitered down the moonlit street,
And stopped beneath the harlot’s house.

Inside, above the din and fray,
We heard the loud musicians play
The ‘Treues Liebes Herz’ of Strauss.

Like strange mechanical grotesques,
Making fantastic arabesques,
The shadows raced across the blind.

We watched the ghostly dancers spin
To sound of horn and violin,
Like black leaves wheeling in the wind.

Like wire-pulled automatons,
Slim silhouetted skeletons
Went sidling through the slow quadrille,

Then took each other by the hand,
And danced a stately saraband;
Their laughter echoed thin and shrill.

Sometimes a clockwork puppet pressed
A phantom lover to her breast,
Sometimes they seemed to try to sing.

Sometimes a horrible marionette
Came out, and smoked its cigarette
Upon the steps like a live thing.

Then, turning to my love, I said,
‘The dead are dancing with the dead,
The dust is whirling with the dust.

But she–she heard the violin,
And left my side, and entered in:
Love passed into the house of lust.

Then suddenly the tune went false,
The dancers wearied of the waltz,
The shadows ceased to wheel and whirl.

And down the long and silent street,
The dawn, with silver-sandalled feet,
Crept like a frightened girl.

“The Harlot’s House” by Oscar Wilde, can be found in Selected Poems of Oscar Wilde, first published in 1911.

The_First_Quadrille_at_Almack's

I am aware that the above image is of an upper-class quadrille, but I figure that they led a charmed existence compared with the Victorian sex workers referred to in Wilde’s deathly quadrille, so I think they can take the hit on this one.

In this poem of Wilde’s, we get another dose of heady voyeurism, such as would delight Lord Henry himself. We have an unfortunately common example of Oscar Wilde fetishizing or othering the poor and underprivileged, potentially taking advantage of the terrible conditions force some of them into sex work, for the narrator’s own voyeuristic intentions. This poem seems to be moralizing in a way that, if you had read the preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray alone you would have thought he was entirely uninterested in.

The main reason to attribute morality to this poem is by way of the very clear link between the voyeurism of the couple beholding the spectacle of the brothel and the woman being tempted into joining the spectacle. The spectacle of the brothel is partially obscured to the casual observer who might find the scene tantalising and irresistible. But as soon as one passes over the threshold they find that there is nothing but corruption and death on offer in “The Harlot’s House”.

The sex workers, who are often interpreted as all female due to their shrill voices, and the description of one clutching “A phantom lover to her breast”, attempt to behave seductively and succeed on a surface level but they are simply going through the motions, they have become just another cog in the machinery of industrialised Victorian England. They attempt to play and dance like their heart is in it, but the implication (if we are to be generous to Wilde) is that they have become jaded. If we are less generous to Wilde then he is simply viewing the poor and underprivileged sex workers as mere objects that imitate human form. For all Wilde’s dress reform advocacy and beliefs about female independence, he is still a Victorian gentleman whose advocacy didn’t quite breach class divides.

I have a question, and I would love input so feel free to email me thefrankenpod@gmail.com :

Is the “tune” going “false” the corruption of the narrator’s partner or is it simply the discovery of the true nature of the brothel? It seems like the illusion is shattered, but also it seems like enough time has passed for the dawn to “with silver-sandalled feet, [creep] like a frightened girl.“. We are told it happens suddenly, but they appear to be there for quite some time, at least outside. So is it merely voyeurism and disappointment, or voyeurism and corruption?

Among other references, I used this as a springboard.

Thanks for reading!

Morgan of The FrankenPod

P.S. Obligatory Frankenstein and Gothic Literature links

I think we can agree that this macabre spectacle of the brothel and the part human automatons therein is inherently a gothic spectacle with imagery such as skeletons, phantoms and ghostly apparitions used to paint the picture of the decadent and ostensibly lively Victorian brothel. The othering of the sex workers as the undead and unnatural makes them of the Creature’s kin in Mary Shelley‘s novel Frankenstein or the Modern Day Prometheus.

Shakespeare’s BF – The Portrait of Mr W.H.

Hello! Here is another article that continues the themes and texts we are exploring in The FrankenPod.

This is an extra something-something to go with our exploration of Oscar Wilde and The Picture of Dorian Gray. It could be easy to dismiss Wilde’s contribution to the gothic literary canon as being somewhat of a one-hit-wonder situation. But there is this little story that as a Shakespeare conspiracy enthusiast (as a spectator, not necessarily as a subscriber to those theories) has a very dear place in my heart. There are a few features of The Portrait of Mr W.H. that will be familiar to readers of the exploits of Mr Gray.

Not many people consider it gothic, and that is fair, I can definitely see that argument. However, The Portrait of Mr W.H. features death, a potential curse, mystery and obsession; certainly traits we would ascribe to the gothic.

So what does this Victorian story have to do with Shakespeare?

Every.God.Damn.Thing.

SonnetsDedication
Dedication of Shakespeare’s Sonnets

There are two people believed to be explicitly addressed in Shakespeare’s Sonnets; “The Fair Youth” and “The Dark Lady”. There are many theories as to the identities of these two, and it is “The Fair Youth” who is the preoccupation of the characters and potentially the author of The Portrait of Mr W.H. The sonnets are dedicated to a Mr W.H. who many theorists believe is “The Fair Youth” of the sonnets

It is widely believed that Shakespeare was either in some kind of romantic relationship with ‘The Fair Youth”, or at the very least infatuated with him. So if you could discover the identity of Mr W.H. it follows that you would have discovered the identity of the elusive writer’s love interest. There are two main theories as to who he might be William Herbert, 3rd Earl of Pembroke, or Henry Wriothesley, Earl of Southampton. However, there are literary theorists who have posited more humble origins for Shakespeare’s muse. A young poor man would not necessarily have had the means to create lasting documentation, such as a grand portrait or written proof of his existence, and therein lies the issue,  you can’t possibly prove that this ignoble young man who might have been the object of the great bard’s affections exists, but you have no way to categorically prove he didn’t.  It seems this meant a great deal to Wilde, or at the very least Lord Alfred Douglas, the latter of whom explicitly stated that he believed the theory that is posited by Wilde in this story. The theory put forward by Wilde in the text, or rather put forward by Cyril Graham, was that Mr W.H. was, in fact, Willie Hughes, a player in Shakespeare’s company. Willie Hughes is thought to have played the young female parts in Shakespeare’s theatre company, or so the theory states.

But did Willie Hughes ever even exist?

The actor’s existence and the nature of belief are at the heart of The Portrait of Mr W.H.

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Henry Wriothesley, Earl of Southampton

Erskine relays the story, very close to his heart about a young man who he was particularly fond of, a young man who is described in similar terms to Dorian Gray. Wilde does love to include very handsome young men in his books, and these young men occasionally descend into madness and despair. Wilde constructs his young men in crisis in much the same way as the spectacle of the damsel in distress is constructed. They are something to behold, Dorian Gray when we first meet him is serving as an artist’s model and the enchanting Cyril Graham is an aspiring actor. They are men being subject to the male gaze in a way that is similar to the righteous Mathilda and virginal Isabella in The Castle of Otranto or Lucy Westenra of Dracula with her multiple suitors and just about every young woman in Lewis’s The Monk.

However, less like the examples from The Monk and Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto and more like Stoker’s Lucy Westenra, Dorian’s story takes a sinister turn when a destructive supernatural desire seizes him. Cyril Graham is a little different, he fashions himself as a Christ-like literary figure much like Walpole’s Mathilda.

When we are exploring the similarities between these two stories penned by Oscar Wilde there is also the use of a portrait as representative of a dangerous idea; for Dorian, it is eternal youth and beauty, for Cyril, it is the identity of Mr W.H. Suicide comes up a fair bit, as does the idea of the muse. As Dorian was Basil’s muse, so was Willie Hughes Shakespeare’s muse.

Let’s get into the story… It’s not a long tale and I would recommend reading it in its entirety. It is part of Lord Savile’s Crime and Other Stories.

But quick summary would be something like…

Continue reading Shakespeare’s BF – The Portrait of Mr W.H.