Illustration of Shakespeare’s ‘Othello’ – ACT V sc ii


E. Buchel’s atmospheric ‘Othello’ engraving captures the suspenseful ending of William Shakespeare’s romantic tragedy. The artist’s use of chiaroscuro powerfully illustrates Act V Sc ii’s symbolic language, “put out the light, and then put out the light”. Whilst the luxurious mass of drapery envelopes and shrouds Desdemona in darkness, she herself remains a glowing figure, whose skin is ‘whiter’ than ‘snow and ‘smooth as monumental alabaster’. The composition illustrates the couple’s contrasted power roles, as Othello dominantly leans his knee on the padded foot-stall, tightly gripping his dagger, whereas Desdemona lay peaceful, reclining onto the bed with her arms about her waist. Sleeping, she is fully unaware of the suspense rising in front of her. Othello stares straight at his wife full of fake jealousy and betrayal – if you look close enough, you can see the vein bursting on his temple. The artist has captured an expression on Othello’s face which depicts the famous line: “Yet she must die, else she’ll betray more men”. When you look at the shapes and lines in the illustration, you see that all the drapery and clothing is restricted in torsion, the fabric is crumpled and distorted, which portrays the tensions and suspense of the characters. Behind the drapes is a window which reveals the moonlight shining through the clouds. This night sky image further emphasises the disconcerting tone of the final scene, and further illustrates key dialogue in the play:

“it is the very error of the moon;

she comes near the earth than she was wont

and makes men mad”

Othello blames the full moon and its closeness to the earth for the murders that take place, giving it a bad omen. There is a hint of irony in Othello’s dialogue: Shakespeare parallels Desdemona and the moon for both coming to ‘close’ to men and seducing them with their beautiful whiteness.

I love this Victorian illustration for the way the detail depicts a foreboding atmosphere. I think the 19th century artistic mind has casted its Gothic shadow over the Renaissance tragedy whilst illuminating the memorable jewels of Shakespeare’s language.

‘I intreat you, write!’: The Epistolary form of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein


Johannes Vermeer, Girl reading a letter at an open window, 1667

Peter Brooks states that ‘most viable works of literature tell us something about how they are to be read, guide us toward the conditions of their interpretation’.[1] Narrative viewpoint, form and structure are not elements to be ignored or forgotten when reading a novel. James Keech stresses that ‘to evoke the sense of fear, an appropriate atmosphere must be created’.[2] Narrative viewpoint and structure contribute towards this ‘fear’ and therefore successfully build the atmosphere of the Gothic genre. Mary Shelley’s 1831 edition of Frankenstein ‘refuses to be solely Victor Frankenstein’s story’.[3] Shelley uses epistolary frames within the text, creating the voices of Walton, Alphonse and Elizabeth. Janet Altman’s book, Epistolarity: Approaches to a Form, argues that ‘the epistolary narrative is unique among first person forms in its aptitude for portraying the experience of reading’.[4] Epistolary narratives create a disconcerting atmosphere that provokes uncertainty and the unknown, particular in Walton’s letters. On the other hand, Alphonse Frankenstein’s letter creates a dark sense of foreboding, as he creates chilling suspense for Victor and the reader. Shelley deliberately structures Elizabeth’s letters in accordance to significant, horrific, scenes regarding the creature. Shelley uses letters in Frankenstein to create suspense in the reader, ‘to curdle the blood and quicken the beatings of the heart’.[5] The framed narrative of many Gothic texts unlocks the dark and thrilling process of ‘peeling back one story to discover another’.[6] This process of ‘peeling back’ written documents, to discover yet another narrative viewpoint, contributes to the reader’s terror and curiosity, which is built up between each page. Shelley advocated for correspondence of letters and private journals, and by framing the text of Frankenstein, and integrating these letters within, Shelley conveys the power and necessity of written documents: to intimate instead of distantiate.

The British Critic’s 1818 review of Frankenstein seems to ignore the significance of Robert Walton’s narrative viewpoint and therefore refuses to comment on Shelley’s epistolary form. The reviewer writes how ‘in a sort of introduction, which precedes the main story of the novel, and has nothing else to do with it, we are introduced to a Mr.Walton’.[7] This critic has immediately disregarded the novel’s outer narrator, denying him the narrative space that Walton occupies. If Walton’s letters are a ‘sort of introduction’, readers can see how this critic undervalues the epistolary form as a framing device altogether. Walton relates the entire novel, to his sister Margaret, inside these letters. Jeanne Britton discusses how Frankenstein ‘shifts from epistolary immediacy to monologic narrative, from eighteenth-century novels of letters to nineteenth-century first person narratives’.[8] Britton’s quote sheds light on The British Critic’s review, as perhaps the epistolary form in the 19th century is no longer valued. However, Mary Shelley’s wide experience with letters surely inspired her to frame the main story of Victor’s narrative in this way. Betty T. Bennett states that ‘the epistolary works that most influenced Shelley were those by her parents’.[9] When Mary was a young girl, her father, William Godwin, departed on a six week tour and sent ‘direct and affectionate messages to his two daughters’.[10] Shelley’s understanding of the power of the letter is displayed in the opening chapters of Frankenstein. Being a great distance from his sister in England, Walton stresses the importance of communication by writing, ‘my first task is to assure my dear sister of my welfare’.[11] Whilst his letters are to inform his sister of his safety, the very form of the letter itself portrays his great distance from her, the inability to communicate in person, in a private place. Altman argues ‘the letters power to suggest both presence and absence, to decrease and increase distance’.[12] The letters convey various kinds of distance in narrative: geographical distance between sender and receiver; chronological distance between events happening and the actual time of recording; and emotional distance, or the inability to record our feelings accurately.

In terms of Gothic meaning, this dual notion of both ‘presence and absence’, particularly of the creature’s whereabouts, is a dreadful and terrifying mystery throughout the novel.  Walton’s letters portray uncertainty of his return and fear of permanent separation with Margaret, ‘if I succeed, many, many months, perhaps years, will pass before you and I may meet. If I fail, you will see me again soon, or never’.[13] This statement contains both the possibility and impossibility of a reunion, or as Altman’s suggests, ‘presence and absence’. Walton sets a tone of foreboding in this sentence, as he heightens the geographical distance between him and his sister. The tone of this sentence is by no means comforting to the reader, Walton instead conveys unease in the reader and creates a sense of trepidation. This effectively heightens the reader’s curiosity and sets the atmosphere of distance, fear, and isolation. Walton admits that a letter is ‘a poor medium for the communication of feeling’, which portrays the emotional distance apparent in the epistolary form.[14] However, the letter may be considered as a ‘poor medium’ due to the chronological distance between the events and time of recording. The content therefore has an air of unreliability, which ultimately distantiates his sister and the reader from the truth. The fact that Walton doesn’t receive letters, and therefore the reader never discovers Mrs Saville’s narrative viewpoint, Walton is the ultimate narrator and the outer layer of the framed and embedded narrative. When the novel returns to Walton’s narrative viewpoint, he writes to his sister, ‘it is highly probable that these papers may never reach you’.[15] If this is true, then the entire manuscript of Frankenstein would indeed be ‘lost in darkness and distance’.[16]  As these are the final words of the novel, followed by ‘THE END’, Shelley refuses to close the novel in the typical fashion of a letter.[17] Walton does not leave his signature in the usual manner, ‘your affectionate brother’.[18] Altman suggests that ‘the closing lines can be a privileged moment for emphasis, summary, retrospective illumination, or simply a playful punchline’.[19] These factors all contribute to the ‘epistolary closure’. [20] The ending of Frankenstein possesses the effect of a cliff-hanger, which can be viewed as ‘playful’, since it teases the reader with mystery of the unknown. If ‘all epistolary narrative ultimately drops off into silence’ then this emphasises the distance between the writer and the reader.[21] The reader is metaphorically ‘lost in darkness and distance’ when Walton fails to find epistolary closure. Shelley deliberately leaves this open to her readers to prolong the sense of mystery and the unknown. As readers, we are left to imagine the fate of the creature and of Walton himself.  The letter form therefore enhances these central themes surrounding uncertainty by creating an underlying tone of trepidation and fear.

Shelley returns to the epistolary form in Victor’s narrative, to maintain the Gothic atmosphere of suspense and foreboding. Favret argues that ‘the function of the letter, if not its form, remains essential to the function of the novel’.[22] Chapter seven of the novel opens with the letter from Alphonse Frankenstein, which, from the beginning, creates terrifying suspense for Victor and the reader. The start of Alphonse’s letter conveys the difficulty in bearing horrific news through a written document, and effectively becomes a commentary on the epistolary form itself.

‘My Dear Victor,
You have probably waited impatiently for a letter to fix the date of your return to us; and I was at first tempted to write only a few lines […] But that would be a cruel kindness, and I dare not do it. […] And how, Victor, can I relate our misfortune? Absence cannot have rendered you callous to our joys and griefs; and how shall I inflict pain on my long-absent son? I wish to prepare you for the woeful news, but I know it is impossible; even now your eye skims over the page, to seek the words which are to convey to you the horrible tidings.
William is dead!’ [23]

Shelley uses the letter form to create unbearable suspense in Victor and the reader. Altman refers to this as ‘the weight of the reader’.[24] Once the letter is received and opened, the language is exchanged and the burden is essentially passed over. In this instance of the novel, ‘the letter writer simultaneously seeks to affect his reader’ with the use of rhetorical questions.[25] ‘How, Victor, can I relate our misfortune?’, ‘how shall I inflict pain on my long-absent son?’, these questions are pointless, since Victor is in no position to give direct answers. Alphonse’s narrative power in this letter sparks an element of cruelty, as it teases and torments Victor in suspense. Shelley ‘quickens the beatings of the heart’ as she creates terror in the wider reader. The letter’s power to control and influence the reader is apparent, as Alphonse teases, ‘even now your eye skims over the page’. Alphonse’s language seems to become a critical commentary on the function of the letter, as he realises the reader’s desire to absorb the information quickly. Alphonse’s language also alludes to the various types of distance as he points out the chronological distance, ‘you have probably waited impatiently […] my long-absent son’, which conveys the delay in receiving this letter. By writing these words, the letter essentially gains more power in terms of the key information it stores. Alphonse’s letter marks a refusal to intimate with his son, as he writes ‘I will not attempt to console you’, he is therefore emotionally distancing himself from victor, due to his own grief for William.[26] However, this is because there is little that the writer can do to console Victor, through a letter, as it is ‘a poor medium for the communication of feeling’. Alphonse abruptly writes that ‘William is dead!’, illustrating how he eventually gives in to the unavoidable directness of the letter. Coming at the start of a new paragraph, this sentence is structured to enhance Alphonse’s blunt tone. The use of an exclamatory mark emphasises the abruptness and effectively shocks the reader with horror. Shelley’s letters begin to become associated with the transferal of bad news; they appear as omens containing unexpected and disastrous information. In terms of the letter forms effect, they give an exciting and thrilling reading experience for Shelley’s readers.

Alphonse now occupies a greater role in the novel, his 1st person letter acts as a story telling of the night of William’s disappearance ‘Last Thursday (May 7th)’.[27]  Here we can see how letters ‘frame and authenticate the novel’, as finally, we are shown another character’s perspective of the horrific events.[28] Alphonse’s letter builds an eerie atmosphere to enhance the horror of the William’s murder and to heighten the devastation as he describes, ‘it was already dusk before we thought of returning’.[29] In order to build suspense, certain images are repeated, ‘he did not return’, ‘he was not there’.[30] The letter adopts a flat, monosyllabic tone to enhance the fright and fear that they experienced that night. The imagery is grotesque and harrowing as he states ‘the print of the murderer’s finger was on his neck’.[31] Ultimately, the letter contains dramatic irony, as Victor and the reader instantly suspect the creature as William’s murder. A significant part of the plot is contained within this letter, which gives it a great deal of importance. Structurally, the letter marks a turning point for the novel, as the reader suspects that this shall be the first of many devastating events concerning the creature and murders.

Shelley structures Elizabeth’s letters in accordance to significant moments concerning the creature. Chapter five describes the moment of the creature’s birth and Victor’s terrifying nightmare of Elizabeth in a ‘hue of death’.[32] Chapter six immediately begins with Elizabeth’s letter, the first of two which remain unanswered during the novel.

‘My dearest cousin,

You’ve have been ill, very ill, and even the constant letters of dear kind henry are not sufficient to reassure me on your account. You are forbidden to write – to hold a pen; yet one word from you, dear Victor, is necessary to calm our apprehensions […] Write, dearest Victor – one line – one word will be a blessing to us […] I intreat you, write!’ [33]

Elizabeth expresses the importance and urgency for communication through a recipient’s response, as she emphasises the notion of exchange between sender and receiver. Shelley uses the letter form to enhance the theme of distance and separation in the novel. The letter’s tone of panic and desperation repels Victor, as the notion of replying to his family ‘greatly fatigued’ Frankenstein.[34] Following Frankenstein’s nightmare regarding Elizabeth, his cousin’s letter comes as a shock to both him and the reader. The letter form works here as a dreadful reminder of those ‘wildest dreams’.[35]  Shelley creates the first letter to force the reader to look back upon creature’s birth, whilst Elizabeth’s second and final letter becomes a device for foreshadowing her own wretched murder. The epistolary form is therefore reintroduced between scenes of horror and terror, as Shelley associates and enhances the theme of fear with the letters. Elizabeth writes, ‘do not let this letter disturb you; do not answer tomorrow, or the next day, or even until you come, if it will give you pain.[36] The language is ironic in terms of how Elizabeth is the one to be ‘disturbed’ and experience ‘pain’.  The letter is unique in terms of how the writer doesn’t require a response, which essentially cuts off any desire for maintaining correspondence. Again, Victor neglects answering his cousin because ‘this letter revived in [his] memory what [he] had before forgotten, the threat of the fiend – ‘I will be with you on your wedding night’.[37] In the same way that Victor ignores Elizabeth, he also disregards that the threat was intended for her as opposed to him. Victor’s lack of concern for Elizabeth results in her murder, and the letter appears before the reader as a penultimate farewell to her character. Shelley uses the epistolary form to enhance the theme of Elizabeth’s abandonment, which reaches its extent moments before her death. The letter serves to emphasise Elizabeth’s character as powerless, forgotten, ignored and essentially, unanswered.

Due to Shelley’s thoughtful structure of the letters in Frankenstein, they signify danger, fear, uncertainty and destruction and awaken the horrors of the Victor’s creature. The reading experience of these letters is one of terror and suspense that consistently grasps our attention throughout the course of the novel. Shelley utilises the letter form within Frankenstein to give a critical commentary on the epistolary’s function, to convey its strength in story-telling and limitations in communicating feeling. The reader relishes in the emergence of an aged and worn letter, when we stumble upon letters and diaries, we can’t help but feel we have discovered a fragile piece of treasure, but there will always be something intriguing and frightening about reading them. With each and every frame the reader transcends, we submit ourselves to become enclosed within the next, but eventually we find that there is no breaking free of the Gothic genre’s vice-like grip on our hands, our hearts, and our dreams.


[1] Peter Brooks, ‘Preface’, in Reading for The Plot: Design and Intention in Narrative (New York: Knopf, 1984), p. xii.

[2] James M. Keech, ‘The survival of the gothic response’, Studies in The Novel, 6 (1974), 130-144 (p.134).

[3] Mary A. Favret, ‘The Letters of Frankenstein’, in Romantic Correspondence: Women, Politics and the Fiction of Letters (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993),pp. 176-197 (p.178).

[4] Janet Altman, Epistolarity: Approaches to a Form (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1982), p.88.

[5] Mary Shelley, ‘Authors Introduction to the Standard Novels Edition (1831)’, in Frankenstein, Or the Modern Prometheus, ed. by Maurice Hindle (London: Penguin, 2003), p.8.

[6] Beth Newman, ‘Narratives of Seduction and the Seductions of Narrative: The Frame Structure of Frankenstein’, ELH, 43 (1986), 141-163 (p. 144).

[7] The British Critic n.s., 9 (April 1818): 432-38.

[8] Jeanne M. Britton ‘Novelistic Sympathy in Mary Shelley’s ‘Frankenstein’’, Studies in Romanticism, 48 (2009), 3-22 (p.6).

[9] Bennett, Betty T., ‘Mary Shelley’s letters: the public/private self’ in, The Cambridge Companion to Mary Shelley, ed. by Esther Schor (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), pp. 211-225 (p. 216).

[10] Ibid., p. 212

[11] Shelley, Frankenstein, p.15.

[12] Altman, Epistolarity, p.15.

[13] Shelley, Frankenstein, p.18.

[14] Ibid., p.19.

[15] Ibid., p.216

[16] Ibid., p.225.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Ibid., p.22.

[19] Altman, Epistolarity, p.145.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Ibid., p.149.

[22] Favret, Romantic Correspondence, p.179.

[23] Shelley, Frankenstein, p.73.

[24] Altman, Epistolarity, p. 88.

[25] Ibid., p.88

[26] Shelley, Frankenstein, p.73.

[27] Ibid., p. 73.

[28] Britton, ‘Novelistic Sympathy’,  p.11.

[29] Shelley, Frankenstein, p.73.

[30] Ibid., p.74

[31] Ibid.

[32] Ibid., p. 59.

[33]  Ibid., pp. 65-68.

[34] Ibid., p.68.

[35] Ibid., p. 59.

[36] Ibid., p.192.

[37] Ibid.

Sex,Surgery & Syphilis: The Contagious Diseases Act and Bram Stoker’s ‘Dracula’


‘This comely maiden, once buoyant in life,
by the dread hand of disease expires,
is now subject to the dissectors knife,
to carve and mutilate as he desires.’ [1]

Late 19th century fiction displays an emergence of scientific and medicinal essence. These practises are closely entwined with the Gothic genre due to the fear and horror that they generated in Victorian women, and this is due to the fact that ‘women were being used as subjects for medical research’.[2] Bram Stoker’s careful interest in science and medicine influenced the majority of Dracula (1897). In this novel, several scientists and doctors whom insist upon medical experimentation on the character of Lucy.  The above poem by Victorian anatomist and writer, John Wilkes Brodnax, tragically portrays how scientists and doctors were of a controversial professional career in the Victorian era.  In Dracula, female ‘gender intensifies the private mode of medicine’.[3] When the female body appears in scientific discourses, the stereotype of the passive and submissive woman is emphasised.

The Contagious Diseases Act, originally, issued in 1864, enforced strict regulations that any woman suspected of infection would undergo a violating and painful medical examination, which was a horrific invasion of the female body. The government’s attempt to control the spread of venereal disease resulted in widespread genital inspection. In Dracula, medical examination dangerously hovers on the moral boundary of women being ‘undressed scientifically’ versus that of an erotic and perverted manner.[4] Ludmilla Jordanova explores how women’s privacy of the body is invaded under a so-called justified act of science. Stoker’s erotic doctor-and-patient relationship portrays ‘the medical lust of handling and dominating women’ in the 19th century.[5] Stoker’s language surrounding the blood transfusions from man to woman awakens the horror of venereal disease, such as syphilis. On the other hand, the penetration of phallic medical objects, followed by the mixing of bodily fluids, is symbolic of Lucy’s consummative, sexual intercourse with multiple men. Furthermore, Stoker alludes to the unspeakable Victorian topic of menstruation, which was also deemed as a female disease. Like the ‘dissector’ in Brodnax’s poem, Stoker reinvents the male, scientific figure as someone to be carrying around deadly instruments of violence and torture, ready ‘to carve and mutilate as he desires’.

Jordanova states that ‘medicine in general is allied with privacy’.[6] In Dracula, medical invasion of privacy of the female body is alluded to through Dr. Seward’s attitude towards intimate examination. In the investigation of Lucy’s symptoms, Seward is governed by his romantic feelings for her, and therefore he feels an obligation to maintain a moral position in being her doctor. Seward writes in his diary, ‘I reminded her that a doctor’s confidence was sacred’, suggesting a high level of trust and confidentiality between doctor and patient.[7] The form of diary entries in the novel emphasise the sense of the private sphere, whilst letters of correspondence open up this barrier where inner thoughts can be shared. The Oxford English Dictionary defines ‘confidence’ as ‘the confiding of private or secret matters to another; the relation of intimacy or trust between persons so confiding; confidential intimacy’.[8] The latter part of this definition is an oxymoron when applied to medical practise. A doctor’s examination should not cross the boundaries into the sexually intimate. Seward’s awareness of this danger is conveyed: writing to Lucy’s fiancé, Arthur Holmwood, Seward admits, ‘I did not have full opportunity of examination such as I should wish, our very friendship makes a little difficulty which not even medical science or custom can bridge over’.[9] Seward is referring to how he couldn’t make such an intimate examination of Lucy’s body, arguably her genitalia, because this would be a violation of privacy. Furthermore, the fact that ‘gynaecology was one of the most controversial fields in medicine in the late nineteenth century’, it is easier to understand why doctors might be reluctant to pursue this specialised area of medicine.[10]

As Jordanova writes, ‘the secrecy associated with female bodies is sexual and linked to the multiple associations between women and privacy’.[11] Jordanova specifies that this ‘privacy’ is a vital necessity for the female body, for ‘women’s bodies […] cannot be treated as fully public, something dangerous might happen, secrets be let out, if they were open to view’.[12] These ‘secrets’ refer to a woman’s sexual activities, details about menstruation, and of course, it reveals any ‘dangerous’ disease that she may be carrying. A woman’s body, therefore, protects a lot of personal information that rises to the surface through ‘sexual assault by materialist medical men’.[13] This arises the common Victorian question: ‘was it decent for a male doctor to introduce an instrument into the body of an unmarried woman?’[14]

During the decades of The Contagious Diseases Act (1864-1886), women were forced to undergo painful examination to test for venereal disease. Like 19th century medical professionals, Stoker’s doctors ‘usually have all the latest gadgets and inventions’.[15]  Van Helsing refers to his instruments as ‘ghastly paraphernalia’, which suggests how medical equipment embodies violent and cruel shapes, and in particular, phallic instruments.[16]  Walkowitz lends a vivid image of ‘male medical evil, imagining the doctor as a trader in lunacy and as a sexually dangerous man’.[17] One woman gave her account of the violent and horrific examination that she suffered, published in an 1870 pamphlet, doctor’s used:

monstrous instruments,- often they use several. They seem to tear the passage open with their hands, and examine us, and then they thrust in instruments, and they pull them out and push them in, and they turn and twist them about [18]

This examination of the female body is explained in violent and ‘vivid sexual terms’, which creates a powerful sense of sexual assault. [19] The author of this account, published as ‘The Violated Woman’ highlights the sensitive similarity between sexual intercourse and the violent intrusion of a phallic, medical, instrument penetrating the vagina. This supports Elston’s statement that ‘the metaphor of medical science, and medical practise on women, as rape, became a dominant theme’ in late Victorian literature. [20]  Christopher Craft’s assertion that ‘the medical profession licenses the power to penetrate’ highlights the immorality and corrupt nature of health professionals.[21] This notion is prevalent in Dracula, where the repetitive operation of blood transfusions illustrate Lucy’s ‘infinitely penetrable body’. [22] First, before the blood transfusion takes place, Lucy is given a ‘hypodermic injection of morphia’.[23] Craft draws significance upon the phallic symbolism of medical drugs, as he comments on the ‘morphine injection that immobilises the woman’.[24] Essentially, the morphine paralyses the female before she is further penetrated by phallic objects. We should bear in mind Seward’s reluctance to make drastic medical decisions, “why mutilate her poor body without need? […] Nothing to gain by it – no good to her, to us, to science, to human knowledge – why do it”? [25] Seward highlights the immorality of mutilation and recognises the lack of scientific gain. He is therefore portrayed as a fairer scientist, one who is not seduced by the unconscious female body nor sexually curious about her internal system.

Lucy’s secret fantasy for polygamy is symbolically fulfilled in the multiple blood transfusions. Writing to Mina she ponders ‘why can’t they let a girl marry three men, or as many as want her, and save all this trouble’? [26] Lucy’s character resembles the ideas surrounding the New Woman, who sought after sexual liberation and expression. However, her sexual freedom is restricted and controlled by the decisions of medical men. Van Helsing says he must “transfer from full veins of one to empty veins which pine for him”.[27] The use of the word ‘pines’ contains an obvious sexual suggestion, implying that Lucy’s body possesses an erotic desire to receive male fluid. Critics have stated that ‘in the unconscious mind, blood is commonly an equivalent for semen’.[28] Sperm has also been deemed as the ‘life blood’ of men, which further combines medical and erotic imagery together. [29] In essence, the amalgamation of blood and semen represents the tight relationship between sex and medicine in the novel. Since Arthur is “her fiancé”, greater significance is attached to the very first blood transfusion.[30] Believing that ‘the transfusion of his blood to her veins made him truly his bride’, the medical procedure is labelled as the consummation of their love.[31] However, the other men, Seward, Van Helsing, and Quincey have all engaged in blood transfusions with her and therefore have experienced the same physical and intimate transferal. Seward writes ‘none of us said a word of the other operations and none of us ever shall’.[32] This secrecy in the blood transfusions reflects Jordanova’s view that the female body harbours ‘secrets’ that could be ‘dangerous’. Theoretically, Lucy’s body hides evidence of polygamous intercourse. Her body is gradually filled with the blood of four men, to which Quincey remarks “man alive, her whole body couldn’t hold it”.[33] The language metaphorically suggests how men are dominating Lucy from the inside, as they pass through her veins and around her body. Inevitably, Lucy’s fluid-filled body comes to a literal and metaphorical climactic end, when Arthur Holmwood stabs Lucy’s heart and decapitates her head.

The thing in the coffin writhed; and a hideous, blood curdling screech came from the opened red lips. The body shook and quivered and twisted in wild contortions; the sharp white teeth champed together till the lips were cut […] his untrembling arm rose and fell, driving deeper and deeper the mercy-bearing stake, whilst the blood from the pierced heart welled and spurted up around it. [34]

Lucy’s physical reaction hints towards orgasm as she ‘shook and quivered in wild contortions’, whilst her fiancé, Art, is ‘driving deeper and deeper’ his stake. Alternatively, Lucy’s reaction connotes both symptoms of pleasure and pain. The graphic and grotesque imagery of her blood which ‘welled and spurted’ is symbolic of ejaculation. Craft comments on the ‘murderous phallicism’ of the decapitation.[35] The ‘mixture of morbid and erotic ideas’ has a powerful impact on the reader, which Stoker undoubtedly intended for the exit of Lucy’s character.[36] The men’s horrific treatment of one single female body portrays the extent of medical power and domination over women.

Throughout the centuries, ‘the treatment of venereal disease had been left entirely to the doctors, hospitals, chemists’.[37] Stoker’s blood transfusions illustrate the method of blood testing for venereal disease, an exercise which became more prominent in the 20th century. Van Helsing’s repeated metaphor in the novel, we “will have to pass through the bitter water before we reach the sweet”, conjures the image of blood and blood flow in the human body.[38] Whilst Helsing’s is primarily a metaphor for persevering the evil of Dracula until peace is achieved, we can also view this language as a metaphor for treating venereal disease. A similar water metaphor is used in an 1873 pamphlet, called ‘A new contagious diseases act, or, a few suggestions for controlling men as well as women’, which states that, for some prostitutes, their ‘blood is more or less poisoned by a secret hidden spring of foul pollution’.[39] Language such as ‘poisoned’ and ‘foul pollution’ would have invoked fear into Victorian readers about sexual intercourse and venereal disease. Stoker is effectively implying that doctor’s must ‘remedy this evil’ by detecting syphilis in the blood, which is dirty and diseased, and to expel it from the body until the veins run clean and healthy.[40] Mina repeatedly asserts that she is “unclean! Unclean”, after Dracula taints her forehead with a stain.[41] As Carol Senf comments, this assertion ‘may refer to the horrors of venereal disease’.[42] On the other hand, her exclamatory dialogue reflects a popular Victorian opinion of menstruation. John Eliotson published in 1840 that ‘to regard women during menstruation as unclean is certainly very useful’.[43] Seward ponders on Lucy’s blood loss, and concludes that ‘the whole bed would have been drenched to a scarlet with the blood’, which alludes to menstruation.[44] The symbol of blood in Dracula has several connotations that all contribute to the significance of the female body: intercourse, disease and menstruation. Mr. Renfield’s memorable chant, “the blood is the life! The blood is the life!” is certainly a current, a linguistic vein that pulses throughout the novel.[45] This biblical quote is taken from Leviticus 17:11 , ‘for the life of the flesh is in the blood’.[46] And in Acts 15:20, The Bible advises to ‘abstain from things polluted by idols, and from sexual immorality […] and from blood’.[47] The fact that the terms ‘polluted’, ‘sexual immorality’ and ‘blood’ are used in the same sentence suggests how sex, disease and immorality were inseparable themes and social struggles in the Victorian era.

The frightening unity of the erotic and the medicinal is a stimulating mixture of pleasure and pain which contributes to both novel’s intensely Gothic flavour. The female body was clearly a subject of fascination for Victorian scientists in terms of how women’s bodies possessed information about sexual intercourse, venereal disease and the unspeakable topic of menstruation. The notion of medical professionals abusing their role and using female patients to satisfy their sexual urges is a nightmare to torture every reader. Finally, it seems that a doctor’s confidence was arguably non-existent throughout the mid-late Victorian era; as the 1870 pamphlet worryingly advises, ‘you must ask the women about this if you want the truth, you must not ask the doctors’.[48]


Featured Image: Thomas Eakins, ‘The Agnew Clinic’, 1889.


[1] John Wilkes Brodnax, ‘The Anatomist’, in X-ray Vol 13 (Virginia: Medical College of Virginia, 1926), p. 144.

[2] Coral Lansbury, ‘Horrible and Indecent Exposure’, in The Old Brown Dog Women Workers and Vivisection in Edwardian England (Wisconsin: The University of Wisconsin Press, 1985), pp. 83-96 (p.90).

[3] Ludmilla J. Jordanova, ‘Medical Images of The Female Body’, in Sexual Visions: Images of Gender in Science and Medicine Between the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries (Wisconsin: The University of Wisconsin Press, 1993), pp.134-159 (p.140).

[4] Jordanova, Sexual Visions, p.99.

[5] J.J. Garth Wilkinson. ‘The forcible introspection of the woman for the army and navy by the oligarchy considered physically’, (London, F. Pitman 1870), p.15.

[6] Jordanova, Sexual Visions, p.136 .

[7] Stoker, Dracula, p. 130.

[8] confidence n6, in OED Online, <>  [accessed 20 April 2015]

[9] Stoker, Dracula, p.129.

[10] Elston,’Women and Anti-vivisection’, p.278.

[11] Jordanova, Sexual Visions, p.93.

[12] Jordanova, Sexual Visions, p.92.

[13] Elston, ‘Women and Anti-vivisection’, p.279.

[14] Ibid., p. 138.

[15] Glennis Byron, ‘Bram Stoker’s Gothic and The Resources of Science’, Critical Survey, 19 (2007), 48-62 (p.48).

[16] Stoker, Dracula, p.140.

[17] Walkowitz, City of Dreadful Delight, p.172.

[18] Wilkinson, ‘The Forcible Introspection’, p. 23.

[19] Marjorie Howes ‘The Mediation of The Feminine: Bisexuality, Homoerotic Desire, and Self-Expression in Bram Stoker’s Dracula’, Texas Studies in Literature and Language, 30 (1988), 104-119 (p.109.)

[20] Elston, ‘Women and Anti-vivisection’, p.279.

[21] Christopher Craft, “Kiss me with those Red Lips”: Gender and Inversion in Bram Stoker’s Dracula’, Representations, 8 (1984), 107-133 (p.126).

[22] Ibid., p.121.

[23] Stoker, Dracula, p.149.

[24] Craft, “Kiss Me”, p.126.

[25] Stoker, Dracula, pp.189-190.

[26] Ibid., p.73.

[27] Stoker, Dracula, p.142.

[28] Ernest Jones, On the nightmare (London, Hogarth Press, 1931), p.119.

[29] G.J. Barker Benfield, The Horrors of The Half Known Life (London: Routledge, 2000), p. 188.

[30] Stoker, Dracula, p.149.

[31] Ibid., p.201.

[32] Ibid. p.199.

[33] Ibid. p.175.

[34] Stoker, Dracula, p.245.

[35] Craft, “Kiss Me”, p.122.

[36] Jordanova, Sexual Visions, p.98.

[37] E.M. Sigsworth and T.J. Wyke, ‘A Study of Prostitution and Venereal Disease’, in Suffer and Be Still: Women in the Victorian Age, pp. 77-100 (p.91).

[38] Stoker, Dracula, p.196.

[39] ‘A New Contagious Diseases Act, or, a few Suggestions for Controlling Men as well as Woman’ (London: John Moore, 1873), p.4.

[40] Ibid., p.8.

[41] Stoker, Dracula, p. 321.

[42] Carol A. Senf, “Dracula’: Stoker’s response to the New Woman’, Victorian Studies, 26 (1982), 33-49 (p.45).

[43] John Eliotson, Human Physiology (London, 1840), quoted in Elaine Showalter, ‘Victorian Women and Menstruation’, in Suffer and Be Still: Women in the Victorian Age, pp. 38-44, (p.39).

[44] Stoker, Dracula, p. 144.

[45] Ibid., p.163.

[46] Leviticus 17:11, The Holy Bible (English Standard Version), pub. by Peter and Bernard Zondervan, BibleGateway Online <>

[47] Acts 15:20, BibleGateway Online

[48] Wilkinson, ‘The Forcible Introspection’, p.6.

Welcome to The Nineteenth Century Revisited!

I shall introduce myself as Freya, and this blog is inspired by the literature, fine art and cultural topics that I thrived on at The University of Leicester. I studied English and also dabbled in The History of Art. I’ve got some favourites, which will become evident through the extensive posts about Thomas Hardy, Gothic Literature and the art of JMW Turner. But it doesn’t end there… and who says it has to end at 23:59 on December 31st 1899 ?! Victorian culture is still incredibly relevant to now and can help us to revive some of the audacious opinions during the era, for example, did you know that in the latter half of the 19th century there was a Dress Reform Movement in which women campaigned to have the bone squeezing, spine altering, organ suffocating CORSET banned? Whereas now, corset training is a trend that is growing almost as fast as that booty is in proportion to a shrinking waistline. Of course, it’s brilliant that a lot of women on this earth now have all the freedom that Victorian women could only have wished for, but my God! those poor ladies just wanted to rip off that basque and relax!!!!!

 *pause and breathe* 

See – it’s kind of relevant right?..