An Ascendancy and its vampires

Published in 18th–19th - Century History, Features, Issue 3 (May/June 2012), Volume 20

Count Dracula (Bela Lugosi) in the 1931 film version. Dracula has come to symbolise the predator in everyone. Today he would be a banker. (Universal Pictures)

Count Dracula (Bela Lugosi) in the 1931 film version. Dracula has come to symbolise the predator in everyone. Today he would be a banker. (Universal Pictures)

During the eighteenth century and much of the nineteenth, England ruled Ireland through a class of landlords distinguished from their Catholic fellow countrymen not only by economic position but also by religion. As capitalist development threatened the first, they came to broaden the second by appealing to all Protestants regardless of their views, recruiting first from the bourgeois Anglicans and then, particularly in Ulster, from dissenting Protestants of all classes. In this process they developed an ideology summarised in the term ‘Protestant Ascendancy’. Its after-effects can be seen today in partition, some fine classical buildings and—mainly from individuals outside the male landed interest that led it—a body of imaginative literature disproportionate to the numbers of the group from which it sprang.

Ascendancy Gothic narratives more authentic

Of these publications, a large number were written in the manner of the extreme, Gothic, wing of the Romantic Movement. Indeed, in this, Irish Protestant writers preceded those of England, initially probably out of frustration with British colonial power and its landed oligarchs. Irish Gothic literature is not generally impressive but it includes two of the world’s most enduring horror stories, containing the most famous (or notorious) of literary vampires, Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu’s ‘Carmilla’ and Bram Stoker’s Dracula. In these, the authors were influenced by many forces, both religious and personal—notably early rigorous Protestant upbringing and, it seems, unsatisfactory married lives. Nonetheless, their common Ascendancy background, and their reactions to it, are reflected in their choice and treatment of the subjects of their most celebrated works. They concerned vampires, monsters whose conception may precede recorded history; they appear in ancient Egypt. Probably arising from early recognition that animal life requires blood, the vampire may represent the most malevolent expression of the increasing role of the bloodiest civilised caste, the military, in extracting the means of life, particularly from the peasantry. For centuries, peasants maintained the vampire as a folk myth ignored by the educated urban classes.Then in 1746 Don Augustin Calmet published The phantom world, giving examples of alleged vampirism. It fitted well into the new Romantic Movement. Goethe and Dumas père were merely the most prominent authors of vampire stories. Neither these nor the leading English interpretations of the subject, Polidori’s Vampyre and Prest’s Varney the Vampire, had the lasting celebrity of the creations of Le Fanu and Stoker. The difference would appear to arise from the vampire’s ethnic position; it is of the humans yet not human, an alien existing amongst its victims and, after sunset, able to appear as one of them. In Ireland, members of the Ascendancy appeared similarly. The very different reactions to this of Le Fanu and Stoker gave their narratives an authenticity that the other tales could not share.

Mina (Winona Ryder) shares a tender moment with the count (Gary Oldman) in Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992). But director Francis Ford Coppola obscures the author’s reversion from his Ascendancy past by caricaturing it as a love story. (Columbia Pictures)

Mina (Winona Ryder) shares a tender moment with the count (Gary Oldman) in Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992). But director Francis Ford Coppola obscures the author’s reversion from his Ascendancy past by caricaturing it as a love story. (Columbia Pictures)

‘Carmilla’

Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu’s best work was published before 1864, when his publisher insisted that he set his books in England, which he would not visit to gain local colour and which reduced their quality accordingly. The previous year he had published In a glass darkly, the short story collection that includes ‘Carmilla’. As a whole, it is all too typical of his last period. Two of the five stories rehash earlier, more effective ones. A third, the longest, ‘The Room at the Dragon Volant’, is a sluggish sub-Wilkie Collins tale. The collection’s reputation is made by ‘Carmilla’. Although a Gothic story, it has classic simplicity. In Austria, an eighteen-year-old woman (Laura) entertains as a house guest another young woman (Carmilla), who is in reality a Lesbian vampire with designs upon her hostess. After, literally, living off the local peasant women, Carmilla is exposed as the undead Mircalla, Countess Karnstein, and is dispatched accordingly. By the time the presenter gets the story, at least eight years after she told it, Laura has died in a manner unexplained.This might have been just another vampire conceit were it not fuelled by the author’s concerns. They overcome the fact that the work is set in a country farther afield than any of the other settings in the collection. Of these concerns this article focuses on the political allegory. Laura’s mother was Austrian but her father is English ‘and I bear an English name, although I never saw England’, a clear identification with the Anglo-Irish Protestant Ascendancy in general and its clerical establishment in particular. Carmilla’s (or Mircalla’s) family, the Karnsteins, are extinct but described as ‘a bad family [with] bloodstained annals’, which reflects the typical colon ideological claim that occupying a foreign country is liberating its people from their native rulers. (In Le Fanu’s case, this could have been reinforced by his observing the conduct of Catholic buyers of Protestant estates.) Mircalla had died—or, rather, become undead—in 1698, during the passing of the Penal Laws; her final appearance occurred 150 years later, the time of the Young Ireland revolt, and is described eight to ten years later by Laura, who dies, the reader may suspect, about the time of Anglican disestablishment. Laura’s account ends with her starting ‘often from a reverie . . . fancying I heard the light step of Carmilla at the drawing-room door’; Catholic Ireland was reviving again.Whether Laura represents the Protestant Ascendancy as a whole or just its church is unclear, probably because Le Fanu did not distinguish between the two. The strength of ‘Carmilla’ springs, however, from its being a threnody to the religious organisation central to Protestant rule. As such, it would be overshadowed and reversed by a more massive work produced by a member of a new Protestant generation, Bram Stoker.

Dracula

Stoker’s masterpiece, Dracula, gets much of its vitality from its author’s reversion from his Ascendancy past. This has been obscured by the film versions concentrating on its romantic side; in Coppola’s case, Bram Stoker’s Dracula is caricatured as the count’s love story. Besides Gothic horror, however, the book is also at once a political saga, a pseudo-forensic investigation and a ‘ripping yarn’. It tells how the count launches an attempt to conquer Britain and populate it with his kind as ‘the beginning of the end’ for humanity. He makes two mistakes: leaving alive the solicitor, Jonathan Harker, who was negotiating the purchase of his intended headquarters, and replenishing his vitality with the lifeblood of Lucy Westenra, a young woman with formidable and influential friends and admirers. Led by the polymath Abraham Van Helsing, they join Harker and his wife, Mina, to drive Dracula from Britain before he can build his forces, and track him to his Transylvanian castle, where they destroy him. Dracula is an invader who plans the genocide of a native population. The parallel with the history of Stoker’s politico-religious community is clear. Yet this may not be all the count’s significance. The author’s fictional characters are generally forgettable, but Dracula continues to catch the imagination of successive generations. No doubt his creation was influenced by such foreigners as Vlad (‘the Impaler’) of Wallachia, that prince’s nemesis, Mathias Corvinus, king of Hungary and prince of Transylvania, and the self-made vampire Elizabeth Bathory of Transylvania—none of whom, it is worth remembering, were Szekelys, from the Hunnish community of which Dracula boasted membership. He may owe his inspiration, too, to Stoker’s boss, Irving, and the explorer Richard Burton. It is unlikely, however, that these could have provided material for more than just another mediocre vampire tale. Motivating the birth of the count was a concern that went beyond fear of the political results of the opposition to Home Rule. Stoker saw in this a formidable social menace. This existed no longer in the disestablished Anglican church, nor even in the core of the Ascendancy, the landlords, who were beginning to abandon their estates in exchange for money payments that left them with less than their former economic power. The strength of these groups contrasted with that of the colonial state machine. Stoker had rejected this when he abandoned his prospects of a dominant position within it. Unlike younger emigrants of the Irish Ascendancy, like Wilde and Shaw, Stoker’s support for Gladstone went beyond Home Rule. He agreed with the Liberal leader on the dangers of state intervention (‘Constructivism’ to Gladstone), which they saw spreading at home and abroad. The face of the leading vampire-hunter, Van Helsing—‘clean shaven . . . a hard square chin, a large resolute mobile mouth, a good-sized nose, rather straight, but with big sensitive nostrils . . . big, bushy eyebrows’—could be modelled on Gladstone’s, though, like Van Helsing’s first name, the hair colour (‘reddish’) is Stoker’s. What is certain is that the ex-prime minister received and claimed to enjoy a complimentary copy of Stoker’s novel. As for the count, his ‘long moustache’ (shown only in one Dracula film) gives him a resemblance to the constructivist Irish chief secretary Arthur Balfour, and, in the early chapters (before he had renewed his youth with English blood), to the arch-constructivist German chancellor Otto von Bismarck. As for Stoker’s vision of Castle Dracula, it is not necessary to travel to Romania to choose between the various piles claiming the position (of which few are in Dracula’s Transylvanian homeland, anyway). Rather, it is at the west end of Dublin’s Dame Street, in the city’s own castle that Stoker rejected and feared.

Vlad III (‘the Impaler’) of Wallachia—no doubt Stoker’s creation was influenced by such foreigners, along with that prince’s nemesis, Mathias Corvinus, king of Hungary and prince of Transylvania, and the self-made vampire Elizabeth Bathory of Transylvania (see ‘The historical Dracula: monster or Machiavellian prince?’ by John Akeroyd, HI 17.2, March/April 2009, pp 21–4). (Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna)

Vlad III (‘the Impaler’) of Wallachia—no doubt Stoker’s creation was influenced by such foreigners, along with that prince’s nemesis, Mathias Corvinus, king of Hungary and prince of Transylvania, and the self-made vampire Elizabeth Bathory of Transylvania (see ‘The historical Dracula: monster or Machiavellian prince?’ by John Akeroyd, HI 17.2, March/April 2009, pp 21–4). (Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna)

The objection to this centres on the name of the count’s most famous victim. Lucy Westenra bears the surname of a prominent County Monaghan landlord family. This has inspired the claim that Dracula represents the Irish peasantry in agitation. The trouble is that this makes Dracula a unionist work, and Stoker was very much opposed to unionism. He would have known of the Westenras (the head of the family, the earl of Rossmore, was on unionism’s extreme wing), but he does not seem to have known them personally. He had unionist friends, but the only active politician amongst them seems to have been the maverick Tory Lord Randolph Churchill. Apart from him, all Stoker’s politician associates seem to have been for Home Rule. Significantly, they included William O’Brien, organiser of the eventually abortive tenant agitation, the Plan of Campaign. Insofar as the Westenra name has any significance in this book, it may be that it is a hint to that family and to other landlord interests to abandon the ultimately fatal alliance with Dublin Castle and join with the free people of Ireland. On the other hand, it may be simply that Stoker thought that Lucy Westenra was a good name for the vampire’s terminal victim. Imaginative literature tends to draw on the writer’s imagination, so that, save where that person’s didactive purpose is too strong to be diverted (which can weaken the artistic value of the work), it will draw on other concerns.Like Le Fanu’s Anglican dreams, Stoker’s hopes for Home Rule would be dashed. The Irish bourgeoisie proved as dependent on the bureaucracy as the British had been, but, though the count’s essence survived, the story of his symbol’s destruction remains potent. Dracula has come to symbolise the predator in everyone. Today the count would be a banker.  HI
D.R. O’Connor Lysaght’s edition of Matt Merrigan’s Irish socialist memories will be published later this year.

Further reading:

W.J. McCormack, Sheridan Le Fanu and Victorian Ireland (Stroud, 1997).P. Murray, From the shadow of Dracula: a life of Bram Stoker (London, 2005).

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