In honor of the day, I am re-posting an excerpt from my contribution to an edited collection, Birthing the Monster of Tomorrow. In the following, I provide a ‘syphilitic’ reading of Dracula, parsing some of the unusual history of degeneration and disease. I spoke to Sick City Project about this topic over the summer as well; feel free to check out the podcast!
“Children of the Night”: Dracula, Degeneration and Syphilitic Births at the fin de siècle
The haunting spectre of the vampire, not the folkloric legend lurking in far-off boneyards, but the ever-and-omni present shadow prowling the dingy streets of an industrial capital, continues to plague the modern imagination. Stoker’s Dracula ushered in a new kind of vampire, “energetic,” aristocratic and racially ambiguous—able to move in and between social circles with horrifying ease in a class-bound Victorian England. As a text, Dracula embodies “a seemingly boundless array of Victorian anxieties, nearly all of which revolve around the bourgeois subject’s obsession with the maintaining of clear and distinct boundaries”—not only those of society and state, but also of the body proper in an age of virulent epidemics (May 16). Arguably the worst of these was syphilis, a venereal disease caused by bacterium. For everything else that Dracula threatens[i] contemporary readers would have recognized the mark of pathology in the slow decline of vampiric victims.[ii]Anxieties over the decline of empire and the degeneration of masculinity in Victorian Britain resulted in dystopic narratives from Bram Stoker’s Dracula to Sarah Grand’s The Beth Book, narratives that re-state the crisis of disease, degeneration and perversity. But while the discontents of VD among adults was hotly debated by doctors and theorists, an equally contentious debate was raging about the effects of disease on reproduction. Given our present moment, with escalating cases of AIDS and HPV as well as a resurgent interest not only in the vampire but in vampire birth, I propose to re-evaluate the nexus of disease, culpability, parentage and perversity that undergirds Stoker’s narrative.
The sexuality of vampires has become a truism, a platform and stage upon which to determine or decipher competing narratives of sexual identity, practice and perversion. Far less attention has been given to the consequence of these unions—to the child, the literal “fruit” of such labors. Gothic narrative so often revolves around the child, the orphan and his or her search for origins and recognition. Is it not surprising that there are no traditional orphan-infants in Dracula? Of the one-hundred references to “child” or “children” in the novel, less than half (forty-three) refer to actual children—the rest concern the spawn of Satan, night-time creatures, or the adult characters (all of whom, with the exception of Quincy, bear that reference at least once). Placed as it is among an incredible number and variety of texts on congenital syphilis, hereditary degeneration, and the national threat of decline through malformed or miscarried births, the child in Dracula is made most conspicuous by its absence. Where children do appear is that much more significant. The suckling devoured by Dracula’s brides opens the novel, and Mina’s son Quincy Harker appears at its end—a narrative which, womb-like, gestates for twenty-seven chapters (plus a post-note) in order to give him birth. What happens between, from Van Helsing’s warning about vampiric contagion to Lucy’s predatory attacks on children, suggest that the signal terror of Stoker’s novel is vampiric fecundity in the face of Britain’s reproductive decline—but also that children may be strangely substituted in this world of immortal adulthood. In what follows, I explore the dark corners not only of Dracula but of the corresponding medical treatises, culling through the sexual detritus for two lingering strands: 1) the culpability of women and mothers in the transmission of disease and degeneration, and 2) the fantasy of impermeable innocence and guiltless paternity at the fin de siècle.
In the second half of Dracula, Professor Van Helsing warns that the vampire is not a single foe but a potential army: “[T]o fail here,” he tells the Harkers, “is not mere life or death. It is that we become as him,” (Stoker 243). The vampire’s ability not only to absorb but to transmit life, or rather, to transfer un-life, means that contagion and reproduction are intrinsically linked. The link between syphilis and birth had been discovered as early as the 16th century, but social debate and legal action focused for most of the century on the prostitute—the ostensibly “non-productive” sexual woman—as both source and disseminator of the disease. By the 1890s, British medical authorities suggested that there were specific signifiers and predispositions that “inscribed” women’s bodies with the “signs of degeneracy,” (Spongberg 1). By “pathologizing the prostitute, male responsibility” could be “overlooked”; more specifically, the infection of innocent wives and the birth of syphilitic children could be attributed to the prostitute (11). The problem of congenital syphilis remained, but in the years leading up to the problematic Contagious Disease Acts, the child—and its parents—are rendered largely invisible, hidden by the shadow of the prostitute and her “devouring sexuality” (3).
Then, in the 1860s, the Contagious Disease Acts sanctioned forced medical examination of prostitutes. Activist Josephine Butler successfully lead the charge to repeal the Acts in 1886 by representing the prostitute as the victim and the male client as the villain (Smith 97). Butler uses quotes from prostitutes that re-figure their role and responsibility: “To please a man I did wrong first, then I was flung about from man to man. Men police lay hands on us. But men we are examined, handled, doctored. In the hospital it is a man again who makes prayer and reads the Bible for us. We are had up before magistrates who are men, and we never get out of the hands of men till we die” (Butler, “The Garrison of Kent,” Sheild. 9 May 1870. Qtd. in Smith, 97). The medical treatment—mercury, usually, and sometimes iodine—was administered in various ways: by mouth, by unction (rubbed on the skin), by fumigation and by hypodermic syringe (Cooper 321-24). Butler, in recording the complaints of prostitutes, suggest that the medical cure was, itself, tantamount to a kind of rape “legitimiz[ing] a cruel and irrational sexual violation, one that inflicted pain and mutilation on women” (Bulter, letter to Joseph Edmonson 1872, Qtd. in Smith 98). Butler re-creates the prostitute as an innocent victim of male lust and perverse doctors—and echoes of this rhetoric are present also in the “cure” of Dracula’s vampire infection. After the repeal of the Acts—and in many ways because of the work of Butler and New Woman novelists—male sexuality was perceived as increasingly responsible for spreading syphilis to “innocent” women and children. More importantly, the focus shifted from the non-productive sexual encounters of prostitution to the re-productive space of the family.
In the full paper, I detail the complex relationships between contagion, maternity and the prostitute. Here let me simply summarize from Carol Senf, who claims that Stoker’s novel corroborates the New Woman concern over the impact of disease on women and children; yet, like the medical discourse, Stoker makes the “fallen” or vampiric woman principaly responsible for infecting the “innocent men” (44). Aligning Stoker with the rhetoric of the medical treatise and promotion of the Acts, such readings show Dracula as reinforcing both the “fine and fragile” line between the angelic and infernal woman (the wife and the prostitute), underscoring “Victorian male’s dread” (19). However, I suggest that reading Dracula’s women, and even more importantly, its children, through the lens of syphilitic contagion and congenital debate reveals the text to be more than ambivalent: it is a fantasy of impermeable innocence and guiltless paternity (on behalf of both men and women) in the face of epidemic and disease.
[i] Hostility toward the New Woman and female sexuality, deracianation, “technologies of monstrosity” or shifts in the concept of masculinity
[ii] This point is also made by Carol Senf in “Dracula: Stoker’s Response to the New Woman.”
Arata, Stephen D. The Occidental Tourist: “Dracula” and the Anxiety of Reverse Colonization Victorian Studies, 33. 4 (Summer, 1990), pp. 621-645
Brothers, Abram. Infantile Mortality During Child-Birth and its Prevention. Philidelphia: P Blakiston, Son and Co., 1896. Reprint.
Carrick, John Donald. The Laird of Logan; or, Wit of the West: being a collection of anecdotes, jests and comic tales. [First-second series], Volume 1 London, 1835, 120. Google eBooks. Accessed 6/12/2012.
Cooper, Alfred. Syphilis and Pseudo-Syphilis. London: JA Churchill, 1884. Reprint.
Diday, Charles Joseph Paul Edouard. A Treatise on Syphilis in New-Born Children and Infants at the Breast. Trans. G. Whitley, M.D. [London] New York,  1883. Reprint.
Halberstam, Judith “Technologies of Monstrosity: Bram Stoker’s Dracula.” Victorian Studies, 36:3. Victorian Sexualities (Spring, 1993), pp. 333-352.
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Smith, Andrew. Victorian Demons: Medicine, Masculinity and the Gothic at the Fin de Siècle. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2004.
Spongeberg, Mary. Feminizing Venereal Disease: The Body of the Prostitute in Nineteenth- Century Medical Discourse. Baskingstoke: MacMillian, 1997.
Stoker, Bram. Dracula. Ed. John Paul Riquelme. Boston: Bedford St. Martin Press, 2002.