Something in the Blood – David J. Skal, James Patrick Cronin

I was glad to receive this audiobook from the publisher on CD, because using the CD player in my car makes what is for me a long commute that much easier. This book in particular wasn’t much of a boon, however; I pass on my audiobooks to my boss, whose commute is twice mine. This one went with the warning that, given the sometimes plodding writing and the near-monotone of the narrator, it might be a driving hazard. I don’t think the narrator will literally prove to be a soporific – but then again, this might be a good thing to pop in the CD player on those nights I suffer from insomnia. James Patrick Cronin was not by any means a terrible narrator – but… well. Oh dear.

Knowing next to nothing about Bram Stoker (apart from his appearance in the too-short-lived “Houdini and Doyle”), and despite the book description on LibraryThing, I was a little surprised by the prevalence of the author’s concentration on Stoker’s sexuality. Gay? Straight? Bisexual? It’s a little funny, really, because the answer to any or all of those questions could be yes. Or no. Or maybe. Or “Depends”. We don’t know. Without the man around to question, we have no way of knowing. Of course, even if we had the man here we might not get any answers without thumbscrews and constant repetition of the song “Easy Street”.

For a big chunk of the early part of the book Skal dwells on how children’s gender was blurred for a big chunk of the 19th century (and back to the Renaissance), how until the age of seven or eight boys and girls both wore skirts and long ringleted hair and whatnot, with “breeching” – putting boys into breeches, of course – happening around the same time a child would be moved out of the nursery. This obviously had an effect on Bram Stoker’s sexuality, along with the fact that he was immobilized for several of his earliest years by some mysterious illness.

And, see, here’s the thing. I don’t buy his take on all of this. Boys wore dresses up to a certain age; that was the way it was. For everyone, or at least everyone of a certain class and above. It would have been impactful to a boy’s psyche or whatever if they diverged from the custom, wouldn’t it? From anything I’ve seen, it wasn’t so much that boys were looked at as girls when they were small; boys and girls were simply dressed the same. And after all, no one in the children’s spheres would have been looking at them as something unusual because they were small boys wearing dresses, since this was the universally accepted custom. I think I can safely say that millions of boys who wore dresses when little grew up to be psychologically well-adjusted and certain of their sexual preferences.

This book is every bit as much the story of Oscar Wilde as it is of Bram Stoker. I have in the space of listening to it gone from absolutely no association between the two men to hardly being able to think of one without the other. And, too, in its latter half the concentration is almost as much on Henry Irving, who was Stoker’s employer and object of worship for decades, as on Stoker himself.

Skal also dwells on some of Stoker’s poetry, in which viewpoint is ambiguous. Is he writing from a woman’s POV? Is he writing as a gay man? Is it significant? I grew a little annoyed with this part, because – in part – to me it means that the author has never listened to much Irish music. I have listened to a lot of Irish music – and I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard male singers performing songs that tell a woman’s story in the first person, and vice versa. It’s not quite the same thing as writing something, but growing up on (if you will) androgynous music might well make it something that a young man might try out.

Also … I mean, I’m seriously considering writing a book about Benedict Arnold, and who knows – I might want to couch it in the first person. That doesn’t make me a male 18th century Loyalist, or even remotely similar to one.

Or he might have been a deeply closeted gay man writing to a poet who showed every sign of being homosexual. There’s no way to know.

I smiled when I heard the following:

And he could hardly be the only literary man in London taken aback when The Picture of Dorian Gray was hauled into court and used against the author. Never before or since has a work of fiction – supernatural or not – been presented as evidence in a nonliterary criminal proceeding. There was a ghostly surreality to the notion that imaginary characters, having no substance beyond the words and ink with which they were constructed, might be called to testify about events in the real world. The idea itself was the stuff of a weird tale.

Because in so many ways this sort of “evidence” is heavily relied upon throughout this book. (It also made me think of how Shakespeare’s writing is “called to testify” about who really wrote the plays and poems.) It’s not a court of law or a criminal proceeding, but Dracula and all the other brainchildren of both Stoker and Wilde are held up to the light and examined minutely, but only with the lens of looking for hints of their authors’ sexual orientation. Flailing about for a way to put it into words, I finally remembered the parable about the blind men and the elephant. Skal, groping within the pages, puts his hand in something wet and sticky and thinks something other than blood: aha, he says, I know what an elephant is now.

It’s not that the subject is the concentrated focus of the book; there is no concentrated focus of the book. It’s extremely scattershot. Ellen Terry, and Henry Irving’s wife, and Oscar Wilde’s mother, and the entire history of the Lyceum Theatre, the transcriptionist for Stoker’s work, and a good many other people and places and things in Stoker’s periphery each get a great deal of attention. It seemed like each CD I slid into the player was half Stoker, half … everything else.

There is a bit about the origins of Dracula, and whether inspiration really was taken from Vlad Tepes or not, and so forth. (Answer, unsurprisingly: maybe.) And – Spoiler Alert: there is no final conclusion reached in the book as to Stoker’s orientation, as is to be expected given the entire sparsity of evidence. However, as the narration went on my irritation grew. What passes for evidence for Stoker’s homosexuality was … specious. To wit:

– He was dressed as a girl for much of his boyhood, and this marked his outlook.
My complaint: See above.

– He loved Walt Whitman’s poetry and wrote the poet a passionate fan letter, including some thought-provoking phrasing.
My complaint: When he first read the poetry and wrote to Whitman he was in his early to mid-twenties. It’s not inconceivable that he was experiencing a turbulent period of questioning who and what attracted him – but to my mind it’s also not inconceivable that he was just extremely passionate, as people of that age are prone to be. Lord knows I wrote some passionate stuff around then. And it’s possible to love Whitman without being a gay man, isn’t it? I mean, I’m pretty fond of Uncle Walt, and, as Uhura once said, “sorry – neither”.

– After the birth of his son, he and his wife seem to have had a sexless marriage.
My complaint: Well, that’s really not so unusual for the period. Florence Balcombe Stoker was a difficult woman, who never quite forgave the universe for letting her marry the mildly famous Stoker instead of the wildly famous (albeit all but openly gay) Oscar Wilde. She was never warm and cuddly at the best of times, with anyone, and physicality apparently troubled her; the whole business of pregnancy was disgusting to her. In a vacuum, it’s just as plausible that avoidance of further pregnancies was the reason for avoiding sex as anything else; in fact, on the whole she’s more likely the one who nixed sex than Bram. In fact, how do we even know for certain they didn’t have sex, all the time? It’s not like they blogged about it, after all; this was a time when “private life” lived up to the label.

– He apparently died of syphilis.
My complaint: This is the worst of all. First, there’s no concrete evidence that he had syphilis. One of the most common symptoms of syphilis is that syphilis has no common symptoms – it can manifest in all sorts and kinds of ways, which is one of the reasons it comes up so often in historical forensic explorations. Over a hundred years after his death, we have absolutely no way in the world to know for certain without time travel whether he did or did not have it. (And if I were able to travel in time, this question would not be high on my list of Things To Find Out.)

And anyway, say he did have the disease. Apparently a horrifying percentage of the British population had it, male and female. It was, after all, a time when the prevailing attitude was that the wife was for running the household and providing an heir. Sex was to be found elsewhere. And those who weren’t wealthy enough (or ballsy enough, so to speak) to keep a mistress went to prostitutes. And the very definition of prostitute means someone who has sex with many people. Any one of those people might infect a prostitute, who would in turn then infect – oh, my search history can get colorful, remind me to clear my browser history – 30-60% of those she (or he) had sex with, and so on. So he could have gotten it from, literally, anyone who had slept with anyone else: male friend; female prostitute; male prostitute; heck, if we want to think creatively he could have gotten it from his wife. Anyone.

It’s intensely frustrating that this book says, at the same time, both “this is so” and “we can’t possibly know”. What with the Victorian tendency to edit their correspondence (i.e., burn anything that might be remotely intriguing to future historians), the Victorian oddness about actually keeping private things private, and the other Victorian tendency toward bowdlerization and euphemism, “we can’t possibly know for sure” is true for just about everything. In the end, I don’t really feel I “know” Bram Stoker any better than I did when I began this.

What kept popping into my mind as the author pulled this bit or that out of Dracula and Stoker’s other writing – and Wilde’s, and so many others – was, simply, “sometimes a cigar is just a cigar”. (Quote, correlating Dracula and Oscar Wilde: “Both depended on the bodies of the young and the vital to procure the fluids that satisfied their unconventional appetites.”) There doesn’t always have to be an underlying meaning, intentional or not. Another quote, this time from Tolkien: “I cordially dislike allegory in all its manifestations, and always have done so since I grew old and wary enough to detect its presence.”

Why can’t Dracula just be about a bunch of people trying to kill a vampire?

I received this audiobook from the publisher via LibraryThing for review.

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