Tag Archives: Dracula

Sarah Bernhardt & Damala the undead

One of the absolute stars of Wilde’s Women is French actress Sarah Bernhardt, a truly remarkable woman.

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In 1882, Sarah, who had no shortage of lovers, proposed to and married Aristides Damala, an aristocratic Greek army officer and playboy twelve years her junior. She should have listened to her son Maurice, who despised him and thought him an absolute scoundrel but she was besotted with him.

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Sarah Bernhardt with her son Maurice

The preening Damala had ambitions to act and, since no company would hire him, Sarah took over the Théâtre de l’Ambigu made him her leading man. The whole enterprise was a disaster. Damala, who had taken to calling himself Jacques by then, developed a voracious addiction to morphine and embarked on a very public affair with his leading lady. Sarah lost a fortune.

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Jane Hading and Aristides Damala, circa 1883 

Damala was a constant source of distress to his wife. On one occasion, one of his spurned lovers left her baby daughter, who she claimed he had fathered, in a basket on Sarah’s doorstep. In 1889, Sarah threw Damala out, but she took him back in order to nurse him as he lay on his deathbed at the age of thirty-four. He died in a hotel room in Paris on 18 August 1889, and you can read his death notice from the New York Times here.

Sarah, a very talented sculptor, created this marble funerary portrait of her husband in death:

It is well worth seeking out further information on their very turbulent marriage. For me, the most interesting legacy Damala left is his possible influence on Dracula. On one occasion, when Bram Stoker dined with Damala backstage at the Lyceum, he noted:

I sat next to him at supper, and the idea that he was dead was strong on me. I think he had taken some mighty dose of opium, for he moved and spoke like a man in a dream. His eyes, staring out of his white, waxen face, seemed hardly the eyes of the living’.*

Certainly, Stoker was influenced by friends in shaping his most celebrated story. It was Jane Wilde who suggested Transylvania to him.

* Stoker, Personal Reminiscences of Henry Irving, pp.345-6

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Did Jane Wilde Inform Bram Stoker’s Dracula?

May 26 is World Dracula Day, so named to mark to anniversary of the publication of Bram Stoker’s magnificent Gothic novel. One of my favourite holiday experiences of all time was when I sat reading Dracula in the window seat of a house in Grape Lane, Whitby (the Yorkshire seaside town where much of Dracula is set). I could just about see the harbour where Stoker’s mysterious ship comes in under full sail and his demonic black dog disembarks before running up the 199 steps towards Whitby Abbey.

Of course, there are many connections between Stoker and the Wilde family, which you can read about in Wilde’s Women. He was particularly friendly with Lady Jane Wilde; ‘I suppose you dine with Lady Wilde as usual,’ his father asked in one letter between them.

I like to imagine Bram reading Ancient Legends, Mystic Charms & Superstitions of Ireland by his great friend Jane Wilde (who would almost certainly have given him a copy) and thinking ‘hmmmm’.

In Ancient Legends, Mystic Charms & Superstitions of Ireland, published in 1887, ten years before Dracula, Jane explained that:

In the Transylvanian legends and superstitions, of which Madame Gerard (‘Transylvanian Superstitions’ in The Nineteenth Century Vol.18, 1885, pp.128-144) has given an interesting record, many will be found identical with the Irish’.

Particularly significant, she argued, was the shared belief that:

‘the dead are only in a trance; they can hear everything but can make no sign’.

Jane’s descriptions of horned witches who drew blood from victims as they slept might well have informed Bram’s ‘weird sisters’, three female vampires who fed on the blood of men.

While she told tales of men who assumed the shape of wolves and monstrous, soul-devouring hounds, his best loved book reverberates with the howling of wolves, and his Dracula assumes the shape of ‘an immense dog’.

I include details of their friendship in Wilde’s Women:

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Bram Stoker & The Sinking Of RMS Titanic

News of Bram Stoker’s death, on 20 April 1912, was overshadowed somewhat by reports of the sinking of the RMS Titanic five days earlier. This tragedy resonated particularly with Bram’s wife, Florence, who rushed into her husband’s bedroom where he lay dying to tell him of the incident. It must have filled her with dread and evoked painful memories.

RMS Titanic

At 4 a.m. on 13 April 1887, while Florence and her son Noel, aged seven at the time, were sailing from the port of Newhaven in East Sussex to Dieppe on the steamship Victoria, a thick fog had descended, causing the Victoria to hit some jagged rocks. Her bow was ripped open and she sank within two hours. Nineteen passengers lost their lives. As the Victoria went down, there was a scramble to reach the four flimsy lifeboats she carried. Florence and Noel made it on to the third boat and spent twelve hours marooned at sea before they were up picked up by a steam tug and brought ashore at Fécamp in Normandy. The wreck report for the Victoria can be read here and there is a fascinating eyewitness report from the Evening Star newspaper here.

Florence Stoker and her son Noel

Florence was very grateful to have survived the tragedy and the Stoker family made an annual pilgrimage to Fécamp to commemorate the rescue. The incident blighted her life somewhat. When Bram toured America with Henry Irving and his company, he complained of the loneliness of being away from his wife and he always invited her along. Florence, who loved adventure, did join him once, but she never lost her fear of sea travel and the week-long voyage terrified her.

The inquiry into the sinking of the Titanic opened on the day Bram Stoker died, aged sixty-four. It is interesting that his most celebrated work, Dracula, contains an account of the shipwreck of a mysterious Russian ship, albeit under very different circumstances.

Read my profile of Florence here.

For more on Bram, Florence and their relationship read my book Wilde’s Women.

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