As we approach Hallowe’en, our minds are turning to the more spooky research that goes on here in the Department of English Literature. In this short article, one of our PhD students, Verity Burke, explores the connections between one of the nineteenth century’s most celebrated Gothic novels, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, and the murders committed by the infamous criminal, Jack the Ripper. As well as giving us food for thought this Hallowe’en, Verity’s article shows how research in our Department shines new light on well-known literary texts. By comparing Dracula with contemporary texts about crime and medicine, Verity demonstrates the connections between imaginative fiction and other kinds of writing that are not conventionally thought of as ‘literary’.
The Influence of Jack the Ripper on Bram Stoker’s Dracula
Jack the Ripper and Dracula may not be two names that are immediately paired, but it’s surprising that the similarities between the two haven’t been more closely observed. Bram Stoker’s announcement that Dracula’s crimes, which ‘seemed to originate from the same source and cause as much revulsion as the infamous murders of Jack the Ripper’ certainly suggests that although Stoker may not have deliberately sought out the figure of the Ripper in the research and planning of his novel, the shadow of Jack’s crimes permeated his consciousness.
Newspaper coverage of the Ripper’s crimes also suggests a relationship between the gothic villain and the serial killer. Articles in the press proclaimed that:
London lies to-day under the spell of a great terror. A nameless reprobate – half beast, half man – is at large … The ghoul-like creature who stalks through the streets of London … is simply drunk with blood, and he will have more.
The rhetoric of the press conveys the character of the Ripper through the language of Gothic cliché, setting a precedent for Dracula, and constructing a creature later echoed in the literal Gothicising of the Count himself. As well as the mutilation and sexualised attacks on the female body, the figure of Dracula invokes many of the contemporary preconceptions and legends that surrounded the Ripper: that he was a foreigner, a degenerate, a sexual maniac, or an aristocrat.
In order fully to understand the connections between Dracula and the Ripper murders, though, we need to remember that in the nineteenth century not everyone thought that Jack the Ripper’s crimes were an unutterable evil. Jack the Ripper’s killing was often seen as a ‘moral urge to purify the East End of … plague-bearing harpies’ – that is, diseased prostitutes – and Jack himself as a ‘crusader against the inherent vice assumed to be encapsulated in prostitutes rather than their clients.’ While Dracula represents the degenerately sexual nature of the murders, Dracula’s enemy, the benevolent Van Helsing, represents the more ‘moralistic’ aspects of the Ripper’s character. The concept of a respectable doctor who goes out at night to exterminate sinful prostitution becomes distorted in Van Helsing — a doctor who attempts to cure his patients of their vampiric sexuality through beheading them or stabbing them with a stake. As the Ripper murders revealed the fin-de-siècle fear of the predatory female, and the power evoked in controlling her body through violence, Dracula elicits and alters the figure of the Ripper through both of its protagonists to create a binary representation of the Ripper as both sexual monster, and moralistic doctor.
My PhD research focuses on the representation of the body across different media in the nineteenth century. I read scientific and medical texts alongside reportage from the popular press, to reveal how fiction influenced and was influenced by different kinds of literature. In particular I examine the way science and medicine were used to understand the body – forensics, surgery, anatomy and laboratory experiments.