A guest post by Jason McElligott
Let me begin with a confession that may not endear me to many friends of the Folger: I don’t enjoy Shakespeare. To be completely honest, I find him hard work. Now, I am not a complete ignoramus. I do understand the importance of his work, and as a teenager studying for school exams there was a brief period when I knew the entirety of Julius Caesar and King Lear off-by-heart. Try as I might, though, I cannot work up any enthusiasm for Will.
I was lucky enough to be awarded a research fellowship at the Folger for October and November 2018. Given my shocking confession about Shakespeare, what might have attracted me to 201 East Capitol Street?
The answer, unlikely as it may seem, is Bram Stoker.
Stoker (1847-1912) is remembered today as the author of the 1897 novel Dracula, but he was best known during his life as the business manager of the Lyceum Theatre in London and secretary to its owner, the great Shakespearean actor Henry Irving (1838-1905).
The Folger has a significant collection of manuscripts relating to Stoker, by dint of his association with the Lyceum and Henry Irving. There are many letters he wrote to friends in the three decades after 1880, including to the children’s author J.M. Barrie and the prominent American journalist William Winter. These paint a picture of a charming, intelligent, and cultured man. They support research I have undertaken in other archives which shows that wherever he travelled Stoker sought out the company of bibliophiles and enjoyed being able to access collections of rare books. These private collections of rare books, I will argue in a forthcoming book, shed new light on his corpus of novels and short stories.
As a British subject, Stoker was a loyal and patriotic supporter of the monarchy but greatly admired the United States of America for its freedom, openness, and rugged democracy. He knew the country well from the regular, lengthy tours of the United States and Canada undertaken by the Lyceum Theatre Company for thirty years from the early 1880s onwards.
The Folger holds detailed financial accounts prepared for the Lyceum by Stoker during these American tours (Folger W.a.83-84 and Y.d.21-22). They record the mechanics and practicalities of touring across America, the appetite for drama in towns both large and small, and the minutiae of life on the road. In one week in 1903, for example, of the 80 people on the payroll, the largest salary ($242) went to Stoker as business manager. Although the leading actress in the troupe was paid the smaller sum of $130 per week, this was the same amount earned by the leading actor; other actors and members of the support staff were paid smaller sums on a decreasing scale.
Stoker’s business folders contain a wealth of detail about cultural life in a variety of large and small US cities, as well as the vicious competition between theatres to attract Irving’s profitable touring company. Theatre managers were not above claiming that a rival establishment in town which was trying to “bag” Mr. Irving was nothing more than a flea-pit or “a cheap continuous performance house with no price in it higher than thirty cents.”
The money raised on these tours could be very significant. For example, in one week in January 1904 the New National Theatre in Washington, DC, took a grand total of $12,504 at the box office, and the total expenses for the Lyceum, including salaries, amounted to $5,082. Even allowing for the 15% of the take claimed by the house, this was a healthy business.
Stoker’s accounts shed light on the fashionable hotels he liked to frequent, the parties he attended, and his favourite restaurants. He seems to have particularly enjoyed the leading New York restaurant Delmonico’s,1 where he paid $82.30 for a dinner which included cocktails and caviar, at which Irving was present with several friends and colleagues (pictured below). These business accounts suggest that Stoker was a convivial, socially very-well connected man on first name terms with the great and the good of American society, including newspaper magnates, industrialists, mayors, governors, and at least two presidents.
The jewel of the Folger’s Stoker holdings is, however, a manuscript draft of his Personal Reminiscences of Henry Irving, which was published in a significantly-shortened version by Heinemann in London in 1906. This publication enjoyed considerable commercial success when Stoker published it soon after the maestro’s death but is little-known today.
The Folger manuscript is around 30% longer than the text which was published by Heinemann. The main task of my fellowship was to undertake a systematic study of the differences between the pre- and post-publication texts of Personal Reminiscences of Henry Irving. I wanted to establish exactly what was excised from the finished book.
It seemed to me that there were two possibilities: either the editor at Heinemann removed the dullest bits of the text written by someone well-known for flights of purple prose, or he removed the most exciting bits of the text written by someone well-known for flights of purple prose. I hoped for the latter but feared it might be the former.
Thankfully, my gut instinct paid off, and the editor, believing that readers would not pay good money to read about the great actor’s secretary and factotum, excised those passages where Stoker waxed too lyrical about his own life, opinions, and experiences.
As such, the manuscript provides significant new details on Stoker’s childhood in Dublin; his political and social activities as a young man in his native city; his interest in London politics after his move to the metropolis in 1878; his connections with the Prime Minister, Gladstone; and his suggested amendments to the Home Rule Bill of 1886. The manuscript is particularly informative about Stoker’s experiences during his extended periods in the United States, which the editor of the book obviously felt would be of little interest to readers. So, we find new material about his close friendship with Teddy Roosevelt when he was Police Commissioner in New York; his visits to the White House of President Cleveland; his trips to see plays in Chinatown in San Francisco, and a number of sexualised conversations and episodes.
Stoker was a strong supporter of the British Empire and the manifest destiny of the Anglo-Saxon people, but he was very sympathetic to the plight of the Jews in 1890s Russia and to those impoverished refugees who arrived in Britain. Yet, despite admitting to what he himself called an “almost idolatrous” worship of Abraham Lincoln, the expunged portions of the manuscript demonstrate that Stoker had very strong racist views about African-Americans. It is now clear that objectionable plotlines in a number of Stoker’s novels—and they were objectionable even by the standards of the time—represent his deeply held beliefs about race.
Personal Reminiscences of Henry Irving was written at speed from Stoker’s long-lost personal diary. Although we can never recreate the entirely of his missing journal, the unexpurgated manuscript gives both a striking sense of what must have been in this document and also why it might have been destroyed by Stoker’s family after his death.
The manuscript version of the Personal Reminiscences of Henry Irving enables us to shift our focus away from the traditional obsession with Stoker’s most famous novel. It enables us to re-imagine him as an important figure in late-Victorian London cultural life, and as a significant connection between British and American culture. It provides a myriad of new details about his cultural, intellectual, and political milieu. It also enables us, for the first time, to appreciate the darker side to Stoker’s thoughts on racial hierarchies. Such discoveries will be uncomfortable for fans of Stoker, but they create the conditions for a more nuanced and textured understanding of the man, his world view, and his literary output.
I had a fantastic time at the Folger during my fellowship. It was such a vibrant community of scholars and professional, engaged library staff. I hope to be back at some point in the future to work on other not-Shakespeare topics.
Jason McElligott is the Director of Marsh’s Library in Dublin, which was founded in 1707. Educated as an early-modernist at University College Dublin and St John’s College, Cambridge, he is interested in the political and literary afterlives of seventeenth-century print culture. Over the next 12 months he will publish articles on Bram Stoker’s reading of pamphlets from the 1680s; the birth of newspaper advertising in the 1650s; women’s book ownership in seventeenth-century Ireland; and the Cato Street Conspiracy of 1820 to assassinate the British cabinet. He has two book-length projects which are woefully overdue and is actively ignoring emails from his publishers.
- For the history of the restaurant, as well as a photo of the location at the corner of 5th Avenue and 44th Street, see this article.