Scandalous Book Review: DRACULA IN LOVE by Karen Essex
WARNING: I plan on gushing like a crazed fan girl about this book without hopefully giving away any spoilers. The book is narrated solely from Mina Murray Harker's POV, unlike the original book which included multiple POV in diary entries. The book is Mina's journey from the somewhat conventional Victorian woman in the beginning of the book to a woman who is a little more aware of herself and her power at the end of the book. Essex mentions in her Author's Note that Stoker's novel can be seen as a 'cautionary tale against the unbridling of female sexuality at the end of the 19th century.' When Stoker wrote the novel, women were finally beginning to acquire higher education and agitating for political rights. Essex turns this notion upside down and explores what is really going on behind men's fears of women. She also delves a bit deeper into the mythological background of Stoker's novel.
At first all Mina Murray wants is to create the family that she never really had with Jonathan, buying a little house in Pimlico and having two children, the Victorian dream. Mina has secrets however, the biggest being that she sleepwalks which gets her into a dicey situation at the beginning of the novel when she awakens outside away from the school where she teaches about to be raped by a stranger. She's rescued by another stranger, although one who is familiar to her. Her other secret is that as a child she could talk to animals, and hear people's thoughts, talents which appalled her parents who stuck in her in boarding school in England. Essex grounds Mina by having her come from Sligo in Ireland (the same part of Ireland that Stoker's mother hailed from).
The biggest change in the book is Lucy's story. I had several WTF moments while reading but as it progressed, I totally got what she was trying to say about ways in which Victorian women are punished for having what we would consider today normal sexual desires. Seward and Von Hesinger as he is called here are not heroes in DRACULA IN LOVE, far from it, which is another change that might spook readers who love the original novel. They are not necessarily villains either. There is no black and white in this book as much as there are shades of gray, particularly in Jonathan Harker.
Jonathan starts out as a traditional Victorian gentleman, although one with more modern sensibilities than the average Victorian man. He's willing to consider new ideas and new thoughts, but he's challenged throughout this book to live up to those expectations. Mina has to face some harsh realizations about her fiance as does he about Mina. It's how they deal with these revelations, and whether or not they can go forward that are some of the most intriguing things about DRACULA IN LOVE. Jonathan is not the innocent being preyed on by the women in Dracula's castle, the way he is portrayed in Stoker's book. Mina is no innocent either, she makes choices that might startle readers who are familiar with Stoker's tale. And what about the Count himself? Well he's definitely not the bad guy that he's portrayed in Stoker, nor is he a good guy. He's just a man in love with a woman that he's waited centuries for, who he will do anything to have. I found myself sympathizing with Dracula. Mina, the woman he has loved forever, has made choices throughout the centuries that have torn them apart. By the end of the book, I wasn't sure who I wanted Mina to be with. With Dracula, she would have an adventurous life, full of travel and danger what with people wanting to cut off his head or trying to stake him. With Jonathan, it would be a more placid life but no less valid.
The scenes that are the most horrific in this book take place at the asylum where Dr. Seward and Von Hesinger work. There is no Renfield eating insects, no mention of 'Children of the Night.' The asylum that Essex depicts has mainly female patients. Yes, female. Back in the Victorian era, a man was allowed to dump his wife there for no reason other than she was unruly, thought for herself, committed adultery and a host of other reasons. That's not to say that there weren't people who were seriously mentally ill in asylums but the cures were often worse than the illness. Essex gives us vivid descriptions of the so-called 'water cure' which is nothing really but torture. Seriously it sounds suspiciously like water boarding, a method of torture that has been in the news over the past few years.
Essex adds an interesting new character, Kate Reed, who is another friend of Mina's. While Mina is focused on creating the family that she never had with Jonathan, Kate is a prototype of George Bernard Shaw's 'New Woman," an investigative journalist making her way in a male dominated world. She senses in Mina that there is more to her than just the traditional Victorian female facade that she presents to the world. In a sense, Mina, Kate, and Lucy are three archetypes of Victorian womanhood, and all three end up being punished in a sense for stepping outside the proscribed boundaries of the 19th century.
Verdict: Hie thee to a bookstore in August and pick up a copy of DRACULA IN LOVE