Biography of Bram Stoker, Irish Author

Bram Stoker
Portrait of Bram Stoker, c. 1880.

Hulton-Deutsch Collection / Getty Images

Bram Stoker (November 8, 1847 – April 20, 1912) was an Irish writer. Notable for his gothic horror and suspenseful stories, Stoker found little commercial success as a writer during his lifetime. It was only after the proliferation of Dracula films that he became well known and regarded.

Fast Facts: Bram Stoker

  • Full Name: Abraham Stoker
  • Known For: Author of Dracula and other gothic novels investigating Victorian morals
  • Born: November 8, 1847 in Clontarf, Ireland
  • Parents: Charlotte and Abraham Stoker
  • Died:  April 20, 1912 in London, England
  • Education: Trinity College Dublin
  • Selected Works: Under the Sunset, Dracula
  • Spouse: Florence Balcombe Stoker
  • Child: Noel
  • Notable Quote: “How blessed are some people, whose lives have no fears, no dreads; to whom sleep is a blessing that comes nightly, and brings nothing but sweet dreams.”

Early Life and Education

Abraham (Bram) Stoker was born in Clontarf, Ireland, on November 8, 1847 to Charlotte and Abraham Stoker. Abraham Sr. worked as a civil servant to support the family. Born at the height of the Irish Potato Famine, little Abraham was a sick child who spent much of his youth in bed. Charlotte was a storyteller and writer herself, so she told the young Abraham many legends and fairytales to keep him occupied. 

In 1864, Bram went to Trinity College Dublin and flourished. He joined the prestigious debating team and history club. Overcoming his youthful physical ailments, Stoker became a well-regarded athlete and endurance walker at school. While there, he discovered the work of Walt Whitman and fell in love with the naturalist’s poetry. He mailed an ardent fan letter to Whitman, which started a fertile correspondence and friendship.

After graduating from Trinity in 1871 with a degree in science, Stoker began working as a literary and dramatic critic, in addition to taking up a post as Registrar of Petty Sessions Clerks in Dublin Castle. He worked and wrote reviews; despite this busy schedule, he also went back to Trinity for a master’s degree in math. While writing reviews, (often unpaid) Bram wrote sensationalized fiction. In 1875, three of his stories were printed in The Shamrock paper.

Bram Stoker
Former home of Dracula author Bram Stoker on 30 Kildare Street, Dublin city center. Derick Hudson / Getty Images

In 1876, Abraham Sr. died, prompting Stoker to officially shorten his first name to Bram. He continued to work and review shows, putting him in touch with dramatists and writers, including the young actress Florence Balcombe—known for her dalliance with Oscar Wilde—and the incredibly famous actor Henry Irving. Despite the concerns of his friends at Irving’s shaky prospects, Stoker left public service in 1878 to become Irving’s business manager at the Lyceum Theatre in London. Through Irving, Stoker met many of the London literary stars, including Oscar Wilde, Charles Dickens, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

Early Work and Under the Sunset (1879-1884)

  • The Duties of Clerks of Petty Sessions in Ireland (1879)
  • Under the Sunset (1881)

Stoker and Irving’s relationship would grow to dominate Stoker’s life, as Irving was a demanding client, yet Irving’s success and fame sustained the Stoker family financially. On December 4, 1878, Stoker and Balcombe were married in Dublin before following Irving to England to work. And Stoker’s time with the civil service was not for nothing; he wrote an instructional nonfiction guide, The Duties of Clerks of Petty Sessions in Ireland, which was published after he’d gone to England. At the end of 1879, Noel, the Stokers’ son, was born.

In 1881, to supplement his Lyceum income, Stoker published a collection of short tales for children, Under the Sunset. The first printing included 33 bookplate illustrations and the second printing in 1882 added 15 additional pictures. The religious fables were relatively popular in England, but did not achieve an international printing.

In 1884, after traveling to America with Irving’s touring show, Stoker was able to meet his idol Whitman in person, which brought him great joy.

Dracula and Later Work (1897-1906)

  • Dracula (1897)
  • The Man (1905)
  • Life of Henry Irving (1906)

Stoker spent the summer of 1890 in the seaside English town of Whitby. While writing Dracula, he learned facts about the crash of the Romanian ship Dmitri and historical information based on rare manuscripts held near the town. Stoker found references to the name “Dracula,” which meant “devil” in archaic Romanian. In the original manuscript for Dracula, the author’s preface declared it a work of nonfiction: “I am quite convinced that there is no doubt whatever that the events here described really took place.” 

'Dracula' by Bram Stoker
'Dracula' - Courtesy Penguin.

He kept working on Dracula long after that summer inspiration; Stoker could not let it go. He spent seven years writing the text before its publication in 1897. However, Stoker’s publisher, Otto Kyllmanc, rejected the preface and made drastic changes to the text, including removing the first hundred pages of exposition. Stoker dedicated Dracula to his friend and commercially successful novelist Hall Caine. The book aired to mixed reviews; despite its departure from true penny-dreadful sensationalism, many thought that the book was too modern in its preoccupation with Victorian technologies and quandaries, and would have been a better horror story if set a few centuries earlier. Yet Dracula sold well enough to earn an American printing in 1899 and a paperback run in 1901. 

In 1905, Stoker published his gender-ambiguous novel, The Man, about a girl raised as a boy named Stephen who proposes to and marries her adopted brother Harold. An odd novel, it nevertheless supported Stoker when he lost his salary upon Irving’s death in 1905. 

Stoker then published a widely popular two-part biography of the actor in 1906; their intimate relationship lent a “tell-all” nature to the books, yet the text generally flattered Irving. He was offered a job at a theater in San Francisco, but the great earthquake that subsequently leveled the city left his job prospects in the rubble. Also in 1906, he suffered his first serious stroke, which left his ability to even make it to California in question.

Literary Style and Themes

Stoker was undoubtedly a Gothic writer. His tales leveraged the supernatural to examine Victorian morality and mortality, while his heroines often fainted in dark crypts. While much of his work tended towards popular theatrics, (money and book sales were a consistent issue for Stoker) at his best, Stoker’s stories transcended the trappings of the Gothic genre to explore what underpinned pop culture’s fixation with and abhorrence of sensuality. 

Stoker was greatly influenced by his friends and contemporaries at home and abroad, including Whitman, Wilde, and Dickens. 

The Last Resting Place Of Irish Writer Bram Stoker
The last resting place of Irish writer Bram Stoker. Jim Dyson / Getty Images

Death

In 1910, Stoker suffered another stroke and could no longer work. Noel became an accountant and married in 1910, so the pair only needed to support themselves. Hall Caine and a grant from the Royal Literary Fund helped support them, but the Stokers still moved to a cheaper neighborhood in London. Stoker died at home on April 20, 1912, purportedly of exhaustion, but his death was overshadowed by the sinking of the Titanic.

Legacy

Despite contemporary critics’ predictions that Reminiscences of Irving would be the Stoker work to stand the test of time, Dracula remains his most popular work. Due in large part to Florence’s protection of Bram’s estate, Dracula grew in popularity after Bram’s death. In 1922, when the German Prana Studio created the silent film Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror based on Dracula, Florence sued the studio for copyright violations and won. Despite legal stipulations that copies of the film be destroyed, it is considered one of the greatest Dracula movie adaptations. 

Film and TV adaptations abound, with stars such as Bela Lugosi, John Carradine, Christopher Lee, George Hamilton, and Gary Oldman all trying their hands at the notorious Count.

Sources

  • Hindley, Meredith. “When Bram Met Walt.” National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), www.neh.gov/humanities/2012/novemberdecember/feature/when-bram-met-walt.
  • “Information about Bram Stoker.” Bram Stoker, www.bramstoker.org/info.html.
  • Joyce, Joe. April 23rd, 1912. The Irish Times, 23 Apr. 2012, www.irishtimes.com/opinion/april-23rd-1912-1.507094.
  • Mah, Ann. “Where Dracula Was Born, and It's Not Transylvania.” The New York Times, 8 Sept. 2015, www.nytimes.com/2015/09/13/travel/bram-stoker-dracula-yorkshire.html.
  • Otfinoski, Steven. Bram Stoker: the Man Who Wrote Dracula. Franklin Watts, 2005.
  • Skal, David J. Something in the Blood: the Untold Story of Bram Stoker, the Man Who Wrote Dracula. Liveright Publishing Corporation, 2017.
  • Stoker, Dacre, and J.D. Barker. “The Real History That Went Into Bram Stoker's Dracula.” Time, 25 Feb. 2019, time.com/5411826/bram-stoker-dracula-history/.
  • “Under the Sunset.” Under the Sunset, Bram Stoker, www.bramstoker.org/stories/01sunset.html.