Vampires and Other Foreigners

In September 2009 workers in a mass grave on the Venetian island of Lazzaretto Nuovo dug up a female skeleton with a brick lodged between her jaws. The person had died during the plague epidemic of 1576. In October 2018, archaeologists working at the ancient La Necropoli dei Bambini in Lugnano, Umbria, unearthed the remains of a fifth-century child with a rock stuffed into his/her mouth. The youngster had died of malaria. These discoveries supplied a clue to how the vampire myth was born and an opportunity to reconstruct its ritual exorcism. The epidemics that ravaged medieval Europe fostered a belief in vampires. The ‘un-dead’ spread pestilence in order to suck the remaining life from corpses until they are reanimated. 

The myth persisted because the decomposition of corpses was not understood. Gravediggers came across bodies bloated by gas, with hair still growing, and blood seeping from their mouths. The shrouds covering their faces were decayed and revealed the corpse’s teeth. Vampires became known as ‘shroud-eaters’. In order to kill the vampire the cloth had to be removed and replaced by a rock or brick. Such vampire burials are associated with Roman civilisation in particular (although a number of similar burials have been reported from Poland). It is therefore not entirely coincidental that the first fictional vampire to enter British literature was let loose by the son of an Italian immigrant.

Gaetano Polidori had moved from Pisa to London in 1790 where he worked as a teacher, translated Milton into Italian, wrote poetry and fiction, and set up his own private press. In early 1816, his son John William became travelling physician to Lord Byron, then departing on a tour of the Continent. In April 1819, JW published a story in Henry Colburn’s New Monthly Magazine entitled ‘The Vampyre’. 

Byron himself produced a fictional fragment on this subject, which forced Polidori to seek an injunction against Colburn for attributing his story to the poet. Despite its troubled genesis, the storyachieved spectacular success in Europe. Polidori’s tale launched a prototype of the modern vampire in literature. He opened a window for Dracula in the guise of a black bat to flit into house of fiction. The extraordinary impact of Stoker’s novel (1897) demands a context.

The masculinity of Victorian Britain was shaken by lurking anxieties – fear of the masses, socialists, and feminists; dread of miscegenation; unease about the loss of Empire, etc. These concerns overlap in eugenic theories which were (especially in Britain) current at the time. Immigration and racism were integral parts of genesiological thinking. Various revolutions in Europe had pushed waves of political refugees into Britain who profited from liberal asylum conditions. Up until the late nineteenth century immigration from Russia and Eastern Europe had been limited in scale. Those who settled in London and elsewhere were merchants, scientists, or artists. The number of religious or political refugees was low. All that changed dramatically in 1881 with the assassination of Tsar Alexander II. 

The murder became a catalyst for relentless pogroms which, together with the enforced conscription of young men into the Russian army, caused large numbers of Jews and activists to flee from home. London was confronted with an influx of Yiddish-speaking refugees. The sheer number of newcomers was a cause of concern for the wider Jewish population. Fearful that their own position within society would be negatively impacted upon, they undertook to ‘Anglicise’ new arrivals by imbuing British customs and language. From the early 1890s onwards, a network of Jewish schools and organisations was created to mediate between local and immigrant life styles.

By the turn of the century, a populist backlash turned against immigration. The Ripper crimes had created a storm of hysteria with the local Jewish community bearing the brunt of outbursts. The secretive nature of the Whitechapel ‘ghetto’ was cited as a reason why the murders were never solved. The British Brothers League (BBL) was formed in 1902 along paramilitary lines with support of the right-wing press and hard-line politicians. Its members took to the streets and in the clamour of anti-Jewish slogans the dictionary of medieval slurs was reopened and racial stereotyping introduced. The rhetoric suggested that Jewishness and Englishness were incompatible. The 1905 Aliens Act introduced strict immigration controls. While the Act was ostensibly designed to prevent paupers, criminals, and undesirable aliens from entering the country, its objective was to stem ‘rampant’ Jewish immigration from Eastern Europe.

Enter Abraham ‘Bram’ Stoker. Born in Dublin into a Protestant family, he initially worked as drama critic for the Dublin Evening Mail (co-owned by the author Sheridan Le Fanu who, in 1872, published his story ‘Camila’ in which Laura, a virtuous English girl, is left at the mercy of a predatory East European vampire). After his wedding in 1878, Stoker settled in London taking up the position of business manager at Henry Irving’s Lyceum Theatre, Wellington Street. He travelled extensively in his job, but never visited Eastern Europe. Images of Transylvania and a spooky castle in the remote Carpathian Mountains were products of a lively Irish imagination. Stoker was entirely responsible for our association of bats with vampires by exploiting the abundance of folkloristic tales concerning these nocturnal flying mammals. The bat was known asflittermouse (German: Fledermaus, Dutch: vleermuis, Swedish: fladdermus), until the moment that Johann Friedrich Blumenbach first recorded the species of ‘chiroptera’ in his Hanbuch der Naturgeschiche (1779), and Darwin supplied descriptive sketches of bat species in The Zoology of the H.M.S. Beagle (vol. 1, 1839). It is the bloodsucking ‘Vampire bat’ that stuck in the popular mind and handed Stoker with a powerful literary device.

Stoker introduced the vampire as a synopsis of fears that haunted the epoch. Medieval vampire-dread was driven by the omnipresence of death and disease. To kill vampires, or at least stop them from feeding or chewing, were preventative acts. The early modern vampire entered the socio-psychological domain of collective anxiety. Count Dracula is an immigrant from Transylvania who subverts society and imperils the perception of Englishness. His forays into London and his ability to move unnoticed through crowded streets, touched on late-Victorian apprehensions about immigration. Newcomers were held responsible for a perceived increase in crime and the emergence of ‘no-go’ communities. The novel responded to the prejudice that villainous migrants disturbed social coherence and disrupted the moral and religious status quo.

The novel is structured on binary principles that work on different levels. Every dark force has a contrasting power of purity. Good versus evil, folklore versus technology, superstition versus rationality – Count Dracula versus Professor Abraham van Helsing. The latter is of Dutch descent and a Catholic. Religion is essential in this context. Medieval theologians reasoned that vampires are demons that reanimate human corpses. As they have no souls and are pure evil, they must be destroyed. The Catholic Church developed an arsenal of weapons to fight the vampire and perform exorcisms. When the un-dead rise from their graves, you want a priest or at least a pious person to be on your side. Van Helsing has the distinction of being both a scientific researcher and a devout Catholic. In Stoker’s tale religion and science are overlapping domains. The Dutch vampire hunter provides the means and methods for defeating wickedness to members of the Church of England. He is both a man of the here and now, and represents a tradition in which the Catholic Church is the major power combatting supernatural evil. There is another binary process at work here: Van Helsing is also an immigrant. He personifies ‘old’ immigration, the newcomer (or the descendant thereof) who has settled in the country, adapted to its culture and social structures, and makes a valuable contribution. In a Protestant nation, even his ‘hostile’ religion is no longer a hindrance. Dracula represents the opposite. He is the ‘new’ migrant, alien in language and culture, corrupt, depraved, and religiously suspect.

The vampire myth can also be read as a sexual allegory in which female virtue is menaced by foreign predators. In Dracula all women are at risk, some more than others. The binary principle is applied in the contrast of fate between Lucy Westenra and Mina Harker. The latter is a virtuous woman who selflessly (and symbolically) spends her honeymoon nursing her sick husband. By contrast, beautiful Lucy is a spirited young woman and a feminist. Dracula attacked both of them, but Mina’s qualities of righteousness and marital loyalty repel his advances. The free-spirited Lucy is not so lucky. Stoker selected her foreign name with care. Merchant Warner Westenra had moved from the Netherlands to Dublin, made a fortune, and became an Irish subject in 1661. One descendant married into the Peerage becoming Baron Rossmore and others were prominent politicians. In the last (1799) Parliament that sat in Dublin, Henry Westenra represented County Monaghan. 

Lucy was of Dutch-Irish descent, a foreigner, and as such her moral outlook clashed with that of English women. In a male-dominated age, Lucy represents the New Woman, liberated, educated, socially engaged, and sexually forward. Towards the end of the century, immigrant women were becoming increasingly active in the (urban) labour market, not just as a cheap workers, but also as professionals in the care and creative spheres. They were not inhibited by British moral codes or value systems and eager to grasp new opportunities. The New Woman was ridiculed either as a mannish intellectual or as an immoral seductress (a favourite theme of fin de siècle artists). Lucy Westenra is a man-eater. Her moral ‘weakness’ and sexual appetite allow Dracula to prey repeatedly upon her during the night. As she joins the ranks of the ‘un-dead’ she herself becomes a vampire, leaving her tomb by night to feed upon defenceless children. For Stoker, the New (Migrant) Woman had murdered the concept of Victorian maternal femininity. 

Immigration spread the fear of ‘contamination’. Our country is gradually falling to the Irish and Jews, Sydney Webb wrote in a Fabian Tract (no. 131) of 1907, concluding mockingly that the ‘ultimate future of these islands may be to the Chinese’. The act of vampirism, with its notion of tainted blood, suggests the panic about sexually transmitted diseases and, more generally, the alarm of physical and moral decay that was believed by many commentators to be afflicting society. They spoke of race-decay and their key word was degeneration. The term itself was integrated into the discourse of psychiatry by Bénédict Morel in 1867, but it was Max Nordau who gave the word its explosive interpretation. His critics may have rejected the term as pseudo-scientific humbug without diagnostic value, but his book Entartung (1892) made an enormous impact. Dedicated to the Italian criminologist Cesare Lombroso, it was translated in 1895 as Degeneration (the same year that Dublin-born Oscar Wilde was prosecuted for homosexuality). Towards the end of Stoker’s novel, Mina observes that Count Dracula ‘is of criminal type, Nordau and Lombroso would so classify him’. Degeneration was an emotive abstraction. All this is part of the package Bram Stoker offered to his readers. Dracula is a novel with a reactionary message, an undertone of anti-Semitism, and an outspoken mistrust of migrants. 

There is, in conclusion, a touch of irony that the persona of Dracula is associated with the descendant of an Italian migrant family. The Carandini dynasty rose to prominence in Modena in the fifteenth century. Under Frederick Barbarossa the family was given the right to bear the coat of arms of the Holy Roman Empire and the title of Conte (Count) was obtained following the Battle of Lepanto (1571). Additional titles were granted later, including that of Marchese (Marquis) of Sarzano. Countess Estelle Marie Carandini di Sarzano was born in 1889. An Edwardian beauty, her image was painted and sculpted by a number of artists. In 1910, she married Geoffrey Trollope Lee of the King’s Royal Rifle Corps. Christopher Frank Carandini Lee was born on 27 May 1922 at no. 51 Lower Belgrave Street, Westminster – the year of his birth coincided with the first screen appearance of the vampire in Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau’s silent classic Nosferatu. With an acting career spanning nearly seven decades, Lee is remembered for his iconic role as Count Dracula in a sequence of Hammer Horror films.