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'Mrs Bram Stoker' emerges from her husband's shadow

Florence Stoker was subjected to every negative stereotype, yet it was her business acumen that preserved the legacy of Dracula, her husband Bram's most famous creation, writes Henrietta McKervey

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Radiant: Florence Stoker was a beauty who was sketched by Oscar Wilde and Edward Burne-Jones

Radiant: Florence Stoker was a beauty who was sketched by Oscar Wilde and Edward Burne-Jones

Chewing the scenery: Claes Bang as Dracula in the recent BBC series

Chewing the scenery: Claes Bang as Dracula in the recent BBC series

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Radiant: Florence Stoker was a beauty who was sketched by Oscar Wilde and Edward Burne-Jones

He is evil incarnate. The living dead. Our most secret fears made manifest. Whether you picture Christopher Lee, Robert Pattinson, Leslie Nielsen's vampire-for-laughs, or even Danish actor Claes Bang's full-tilt cape-and-castle version in Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat's recent BBC epic, there is no denying Count Dracula is a remarkable creation. But without Florence Stoker, it's quite possible you would never have heard of him. It is a cruel irony that the woman who did so much to protect her husband's legacy was not only overshadowed by him, but also by his former employer Sir Henry Irving, and - eventually - by Dracula himself.

When she died in 1937, the brief news piece about the death of 'Mrs Bram Stoker' made only passing reference to her, focusing instead on her late husband and Irving.

Thankfully, that is changing. In January, Florence Stoker was one of 66 "missing persons" entered in the Dictionary of Irish Biography. She is in excellent company: other new additions include Violet Gibson, Mussolini's would-be assassin; and Mary Elmes, who helped countless Jewish children escape from Nazi-occupied France.

Liz Evers, who compiled Stoker's entry commented: "Her canny management of her husband's literary estate is undeniably the reason why Dracula is still a household name today, which to me represents a huge contribution to literary and cinema history." That Florence is getting the recognition she deserves must also be thanks in part to Joseph O'Connor's exhilarating Shadowplay, winner of Eason Novel of the Year at last year's An Post Irish Book Awards. In his fictionalised story of the real relationship between Irving, actress Ellen Terry and Bram Stoker, Florence is depicted as an astute and charming woman.

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Chewing the scenery: Claes Bang as Dracula in the recent BBC series

Chewing the scenery: Claes Bang as Dracula in the recent BBC series

Chewing the scenery: Claes Bang as Dracula in the recent BBC series

Florence Ann Lemon Balcombe was born in 1858. Her paternal grandfather was a labourer who enlisted in the army, reaching the rank of sergeant. Her father joined as a private, retiring a lieutenant-colonel. In 1876, she began a relationship with Oscar Wilde, who told a friend: "She is just 17 with the most perfectly beautiful face I ever saw and not a sixpence of money." Two years later, she met Bram Stoker and broke up with Wilde. They married quickly so she could accompany Stoker to London, where he had been offered a job in Irving's Lyceum theatre.

Little is known about her early life or education, yet every reference mentions her extraordinary beauty. Both Wilde and pre-Raphaelite artist Edward Burne-Jones sketched her, and Walter Osborne, a friend of her brother-in-law, Thornley Stoker, painted her portrait. In Shadowplay, she is first referred to as the most radiant woman in Dublin: "Balcombe's skin is pale as Carrara church-marble, her auburn eyes large, when she speaks out of deep feeling she moves her hands, like an Italian." Her son Noel recalled how people would stand on seats to catch a glimpse of her at the theatre.

That the Stokers had only one child has been used to suggest theirs was a loveless marriage. Stoker's great-nephew Daniel Farson claimed Florence refused to have a sexual relationship with her husband following Noel's birth, though his supposed source denied it. Another once-popular but now generally discredited theory is that she gave her husband a wide berth because he had syphilis. It is hard to reconcile such conjecture with her dedication to Stoker during his years of ill-health. "It is harder on poor Florence (who has been an angel) than on me," Stoker wrote to Thornley, adding: "She had to do all the bookkeeping and find the money to live on - God only knows how she managed".

Liz Evers said: "Researching her was a fascinating case study in misogyny - I found that she was characterised, and often disparaged, in terms of her gender alone, with every negative stereotype being presented along the way: from the seductress to the frigid to the hysteric."

After Stoker's death in 1912, Florence's management of her late husband's legacy proves her to have been business-like and clear-minded, with the determination to see a battle through to the bitter end.

When Dracula was first published in 1897 it had only minor commercial success and was largely disregarded by critics. Not long after Stoker died, his former assistant at the Lyceum unearthed a manuscript believed to be a chapter cut from Dracula. (One possible reason for its omission is that had the novel run longer than 400 pages, the price would have gone up by sixpence.) Florence cannily published this chapter as Dracula's Guest and Other Weird Stories. Around this time, she auctioned off Stoker's literary and theatrical memorabilia, making £400. In 1922, German film-maker Prana released Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror. With minor changes - Count Dracula renamed Count Orlok; 'nosferatu' replacing 'vampire' - it was essentially a pirated version of Dracula. Florence pursued Prana for copyright infringement, insisting all prints of Nosferatu be destroyed. The three-year case established important principles of copyright, for which, as Joseph O'Connor has noted, "all authors owe her a debt of gratitude".

In 1924, she granted actor Hamilton Deane the rights to a London stage version, and in 1927 Bela Lugosi took Dracula to the New York stage. Again, the critics sniggered, but audiences couldn't get enough. In 1931, Tod Browning's classic movie earned Florence $40,000. With Lugosi in the title role, the horror genre had found its hero.

Almost a century later, what would Florence Stoker would make of Dracula? From Halloween costumes to Freudian dissertations, and multimillion-selling books to breakfast cereals, its lure, power and horror increases rather than diminishes. What too, would she would make of Nosferatu's fate? Prana declared bankruptcy as a result of her case. However, a few prints survived her court-ordered cull, and Nosferatu, like Dracula himself, is now regarded as a masterpiece.

Henrietta McKervey's forthcoming novel 'A Talented Man' (Hachette), the story of a forged sequel to Dracula, is out on April 2

Indo Review