The Birth of Dracula :
Viewing Stoker’s notes at the Rosenbach

[The following is a slightly modified version of an account that first appeared in the July 1, 1998 issue of the APA Butterbur’s Woodshed.]


In the summer of 1998 I flew out east for a week to visit my friend Carl F. Hostetter in Crofton, MD. Traditionally, such visits used to include a trip to Philadelphia to lighten our wallets at the Wm. H. Allen bookstore, and that year our Philly pilgrimage included an added bonus: a visit to the Rosenbach Museum & Library to view Bram Stoker’s manuscript notes for Dracula.

I’d gotten permission and set up an appointment via e-mail with the Rosenbach’s Librarian Elizabeth E. Fuller, and Carl and I showed up on the morning of May 26th with about two and a half hours set aside to scope out the Stoker goodies. The Rosenbach is an 1860s townhouse of red brick, once the residence of the two Rosenbach brothers, whose collection of manuscripts, books, and art forms the core of the museum’s collection. Inside, the museum still retains much of the charm of an elegant private home. We were met by a pleasant young man named Jason who explained the rules, which included (very sensibly) a mandatory trip to the bathroom to wash our hands before being ushered upstairs to the reading room.

The reading room itself was a scholar’s delight, a cozy little study hemmed in on all sides by glassed-in bookcases stuffed with fascinating old tomes, and a huge table in the center bedecked with banker’s lamps. In short order Jason produced the Stoker notes, and left us to our own devices.

There on the table before us sat a modest box of grey cardboard, hardly larger than a typical coffee-table book, that contained the genesis of a modern legend. I was awestruck. Inside the box were four folders of the same grey cardboard containing the notes themselves, protected by individual acetate sleeves. Stoker wrote on pretty much anything that came to hand: odd-sized slips, envelopes, stationery, you-name-it. The notes, mostly in ink, are very well preserved. Stoker was supposedly something of an overgrown schoolboy, and this aspect of his personality showed in his handwriting, which had a charming juvenile look to it. With haste his script could degenerate into hieroglyphics, but generally the notes weren’t too hard for us to decipher.

It quickly became apparent that given the amount of time available to us, attempting select transcriptions would only prove to be an exercise in frustration. So for the next two hours Carl and I set aside our pencils and simply enjoyed the experience of going through Stoker’s notes page by page and reading them.

The manuscript notes include jottings of early plot ideas, often terse to the point of obscurity; more expansive and polished outlines of the entire book; timetables (Stoker was as obsessed as Tolkien with getting the dates right); sketches of the harbor at Whitby, where Dracula first reached England aboard the ghost ship Demeter; and lists of vampire characteristics. There were also typescript pages of notes from various reference books on Transylvania, and even a yellowed clipping from an 1896 American newspaper on “Vampires in New England”.

One of the highlights of the collection for me was an early list of characters labeled “Historiae Personae”, which included several minor characters (e.g. Mina’s friend Kate Reed and painter Francis Ayntown) who never made it into the finished novel. Most interesting of all, when this list was first written the vampire’s name was the rather obvious Count Wampyr. The name Wampyr was later struck out and Dracula written in. Stoker then wrote Dracula twice at the top of the page, and Count Dracula, firmly underlined, in the upper left-hand corner. This page, then, apparently showed the very point at which Stoker first decided to use the name Dracula for his undead Count — an amazing moment to witness, considering how famous the name was to become.

Also particularly fascinating were the lists of vampire characteristics. Stoker checked off the traits on these lists as he used them in the novel. Some of the ones he didn’t use are pretty odd, such as a vampire’s inability to be photographed — either the photo came out black, or the subject looked like a corpse.

Elizabeth Fuller and the Rosenbach staff were incredibly accommodating. On the spur of the moment Carl and I made an additional request to view some letters by George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, and in short order the letters were on the table before us. With so many treasures to view — the Rosenbach also houses James Joyce’s handwritten manuscript for Ulysses, original drawings and books of William Blake, over 600 letters by Lewis Carroll, and manuscripts by Charles Dickens, Joseph Conrad, and Dylan Thomas, to name but a few — our time at the Rosenbach came to an end all too quickly. Further visits are definitely in order.

An excellent detailed account of the Stoker notes appears in Christopher Frayling’s Vampyres: Lord Byron to Count Dracula (London: Faber and Faber, 1991). Frayling’s account is also reprinted in the new Norton Critical Edition of Dracula, edited by Nina Auerbach and David J. Skal (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1997). Elizabeth Fuller also told us that there are plans for Transylvania Press, publishers of Dracula: The Rare Text of 1901 (now out of print, unfortunately), to also publish an edition of the Stoker notes (as of this writing, this edition has not yet been published). Also highly recommended is Bram Stoker’s Dracula: A Centennial Exhibition at the Rosenbach Museum & Library, the catalog for last year’s exhibit of the notes. This has numerous (and quite legible) photos of many of the choicer manuscripts, some brief essays, and a Maurice Sendak cover. You can still order it for $20 (+ $5 shipping) from the Museum Store on the Rosenbach’s web site.

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