Dracula’s Straw Hat

 

The scene is set for the chase across Europe that forms the dramatic climax of one of literature’s most famous Gothic novels.  Count Dracula, vampire extraordinaire, is being pursued by a noble and courageous band of brothers.  Our heroes are firmly set on their purpose. They have tracked Dracula down, discovering that he has boarded a ship set for the Russian port of Varna.  They also discover an extraordinary detail concerning Dracula’s clothing: when he is spotted boarding the ship he is dressed all in black, apart from a straw hat.

Was Count Dracula really wearing a straw hat?  Dracula?  The embodiment of evil, the shape-shifting, terrifying vampire and the stuff of nightmares, who has invaded London and create havoc with the lives and souls of two innocent young women?  This seems strange to say the least, but there are a number of ways you can read this extraordinary sartorial faux pas.

The first is to embrace its utter absurdity and to admit that as a genre, the Gothic is so extreme that it is frequently funny.  Stoker’s novel is a Gothic classic but it is also fair to say that it is rather patchy in quality.  Many of the passages in Dracula are truly terrifying in their intensity, but at other times it is all just a bit Scooby Doo.  Reading the novel, one sometimes has the sense that having created his vampiric Gothic masterpiece and brought him to London, Stoker wasn’t quite sure what to do with him.  Dracula’s shadowy presence for much of the novel’s English passages, as mist and fog, as a booming storm and specs of dust, gives him an aura of claustrophobic evil.  He is all the more frightening when he is a disembodied and elusive presence.  But as the novel’s heroes close in on him, he becomes less and less frightening.  Prior to the fashion faux pas of the straw hat, there is a piece of pure pantomime, as the ‘Crew of Light’ (Christopher Craft’s wonderful phrase for the novel’s heroes) confronts Dracula.  The powerful, sensual superhuman figure is shown as little more than a common thief, hoarding ‘a bundle of bank-notes and a stream of gold’ in his coat, desperately grasping at a handful of money in a hurried and messy escape.  The encounter culminates in pure bathos as Dracula ‘tumbled into the flagged area below’, and the reader even hears the ‘ting’ of the gold sovereigns scattering on the flagstones around him.  In the Transylvania passages that opened the novel, this was the superhuman and diabolical Gothic monster who could scale the walls of his castle as nimbly as a lizard.  Sprawled on the floor, frantically gathering up his money, Dracula suddenly seems absurdly and diminishingly human.

The encounter between Dracula and the ‘Crew of Light’ has all the features of the melodrama, a sensationalist dramatic genre which was extremely popular in Victorian times, and which featured the stock character of the scheming villain.  There is perhaps no coincidence here: Stoker was the personal assistant to the actor Henry Irving, a famous and successful melodramatic as well as Shakespearean actor.  A sense of theatricality is frequently present in Dracula, where the reader often feels as if they are being given stage directions.  Chains rattle, doors creak, and clanking bolts are drawn slowly back.  Dracula’s dialogue during his encounter with the ‘Crew of Light’ is tailor-made for the melodrama: ‘My revenge is just begun!…Your girls that you love are mine already.’  One can almost hear the melodramatic piano chords in the background, and if Dracula had a moustache he would certainly be twirling it at this point.  If we return to the image of the evil villain in the black suit and the straw hat, we can see this as another piece of melodramatic stagecraft translated into the novel form.  Stoker is dressing his villain in a particular way: he is making him ridiculous, and thus giving  the audience a clear signal that his power is weakening.   The absurdity is there for a reason.

The context of the book’s production gives Dracula’s straw hat further significances.   One particularly frightening way to read Dracula’s entry into England is as the threat of a creature from the East invading the West.  As critic Greg Buzwell has commented: ‘Dracula’s forays into London… and his ability to move unnoticed through the crowded streets while carrying the potential to afflict all in his path with the stain of vampirism, play upon late-Victorian fears of untrammelled immigration.’    Immigration, it was feared, would lead to increased crime, and only eight years after Dracula’s publication, in 1905, The Aliens Act was introduced largely to stem immigration from Eastern Europe.  It all seems chillingly familiar to the modern reader.

Symbolically, Dracula’s invasion of England can be seen as mirroring the anxieties felt by Victorian England about foreigners crossing the country’s borders.  He is a threat to racial purity.  Dracula’s intentions are to fit in, at least on the surface.  In the opening passages of the novel, he seems to want to suck Harker dry of information, if you pardon the vampire pun. He listens to the young English man’s speech patterns, ‘so that by our talking I may learn the English intonation’.    Dracula seeks to be more English than the English, changing his speech so that he can become indistinguishable from the English man born-and-bred.  This can be seen as a form of cultural assimilation, where one culture seeks to become indistinguishable from another by the adoption of its language, customs and clothing.   So the straw hat is an indication that Dracula has tried – and failed – to assimilate English customs of dress.  It is as if he has learnt that the English gentleman may like to wear a straw hat, but has failed to recognise the appropriate occasion for the garb.  He is boarding a ship bound for Russia, not a punt in Oxford or Cambridge.   The actual quote describing Dracula is pertinent here: he is described as ‘all in black, except that he have a hat of straw which suit not him or the time.’ The English hat looks strange on the head of a foreigner, and the fact that it also does not suit ‘the time’ shows that Dracula is breaking an unspoken, acquired sartorial code.  He has failed to fit in.  It is also worthy of note that the words used to describe Dracula come from Van Helsing, Dracula’s nemesis: their clunky syntax shows that here is another foreigner who has not quite mastered the idioms of the English language.

The overarching message of the ridiculous straw hat is that England is just too strong.   Dracula may have had some success in his invasion, but by the time he boards the ship he is on the back foot, his plans in tatters.   Why does he fail?  Perhaps he fails because, for all its radical and transgressive subject matter, Stoker’s novel is in fact very conservative indeed.   Dracula is shot through with the societal anxieties of fin de siecle England, but ultimately, Stoker protects the English imperialist values that seemed so under threat by Dracula’s invasion.  Dracula has been successfully draining blood for centuries, but the might of the English imperialist and civilised centre is simply too much for him and he is destroyed.  His absurd straw hat gives us an indication that he is up against a force which is simply too powerful: the novel’s conservatism.

 

Further reading

Christopher Craft, ‘”Kiss Me with those Red Lips”: Gender and Inversion in Bram Stoker’s Dracula

Greg Buzwell,  ‘Dracula: vampires, perversity and Victorian anxieties’

http://www.bl.uk/romantics-and-victorians/articles/dracula

Welcome to Dystrumpia

 

Teaching Nineteen Eighty-Four in 2017

Back in the mists of time, I planned a unit on Dystopian Fiction for my year 9 students.  Armed with a brief to stretch and challenge a sparky top set, I decided to teach them George Orwell’s classic Nineteen Eighty-Four.  I had no idea quite what a can of worms I was about to unleash.   It is pretty well impossible to read Orwell’s words in 2017 without staring, open-mouthed, at the events which are unfolding across the pond.  There have been times where I have been tempted to change the title of my scheme of work from ‘Dystopia’ to ‘Dystrumpia’.

Orwell’s may be a communist and not a capitalist nightmare, but the parallels between Oceania and the USA are so chilling and so sharp that my Year 9 scheme of work is in a constant state of mutability.  Last week, I showed my students the now-iconic photographs juxtaposing crowds at Trump’s inauguration with those at Obama’s.   I followed it with an achingly factual news report which let the pictures speak for themselves, blandly and neutrally reporting the Trump administration’s claims that reports of poor attendance came from the ‘dishonest media’.   We then turned to Nineteen Eighty-Four, finding Orwell’s words “The Party told you to reject all evidence of your eyes and ears. It was their final, most essential command.”  It was almost too much of a gift.  Of course I am not the first to note these parallels.   It comes as no surprise that Nineteen Eighty-Four is enjoying a sudden resurgence in popularity, and is currently at the top of the Amazon bestseller list.

We are living in a world of ‘post-truth’ and ‘alternate truth’, but we are also living in a world of free speech, so the classroom needs to be an environment where all reasonable opinions are aired and discussed.  Perhaps the Trump inauguration picture was photo-shopped, some of my more savvy students opined from the left field.  Certainly, they decided, Big Brother would have loved that particular technological device. The day after my Trump inauguration lesson, one of my students told me that a simple ‘what did you learn at school today?’ conversation at home had turned into a heated family political debate.  We live in a world where opinions can be expressed, in the classroom and in the home, and it is something that is be cherished.

A couple of years ago, students had to analyse the spoken language of Barack Obama for their English Language GCSE.  It was a privilege to luxuriate in such linguistic elegance and control.  How far we have come.  A vocabulary that is diminished, a loose, rambling and unfocused style of speech utterly devoid of poetry, integrity, and frequently syntax.  But you know what, it works.  I’m going to tell you this, it works.  The people have spoken.  They know it works.  A student wanting to write as well as Obama is aiming high, but it is easy to imitate Trump.  The question we have to keep asking, of ourselves and to our students, is why has it worked?  And I think in despair of poor Winston Smith toiling in his cubicle at the Ministry of Truth, doctoring news articles with a version of the beautiful English language that is being systematically cut down to the bone.  Orwell’s ‘Newspeak’, is quite simply ‘the destruction of words’, a calculated move to narrow one’s ability to think.

Nobody knows how this will all end.  In the meantime, I will continue to link the unfolding drama in the USA to the brilliant and eerily prophetic prose of George Orwell.  It is my small way of helping the next generation to realise the importance of freedom of speech and freedom of thought – and the importance of truth. Whatever the truth is.