Dracula in Love
by Karen Essex
Mina Murray is a teacher at Miss Hadley’s School for Young Ladies of Accomplishment, where she has been ever since she was a young girl, when her parents sent her away because of her strange, unnatural behavior. She is a proper Victorian woman, soon to be wed to the equally proper Jonathan Harker. But at night she has vivid, sensual dreams, and on one occasion Mina awoke to find herself wandering London in her nightgown, barely escaping rape. When she goes to visit her friend Lucy, Mina is also swept up in Lucy’s tangled romances, but the dreams and night wanderings persist. Indeed, the mysterious man in her dreams is beginning to appear in ‘real’ life, too. When Lucy dies after being committed to an insane asylum for nymphomania Mina decides to visit the place herself, seeking answers to the meaning of her dreams and the suspicious circumstances of Lucy’s death.
Karen Essex likes to write about strong women. In her previous book, Stealing Athena, Essex wrote about Lady Elgin and Aspasia, two women who faced opposition from the male-dominated societies they lived in. Now she’s taking on the puritanical Victorians in this revision of Bram Stoker’s classic Dracula. Mina begins her story as a vision of the ideal Victorian woman: prim, proper, well-spoken and well-mannered. But Mina’s sexual awakening through her erotic dreams and encounters with the Count also awaken her to the power she possesses as a woman, enabling her to step outside of the restrictions of 19th century England.
While the characters and events bear passing resemblance to the story of Dracula, the two stories are night and day. Just as the female characters were fairly flat in Stoker's novel, the male characters have been reduced to two-dimensional stereotypes. They are all contemptuous of women, treating Mina and Lucy quite poorly. It is here that Essex's research really shines through. Her detailed descriptions of life in the insane asylums, where many women were sent for 'unnatural lusts' that would be considered quite normal today, and the 'cures' the inmates endure are chilling and horrific. But even outside the walls of the asylum, the male characters are patronizing and cruel. It gets depressing after a while; is there no decent man left in England?
The biggest disappointment for me was the lack of Dracula in the book. Even though his name is in the title, the Count doesn't really enter the narrative until 250+ pages in. Before that, he's appeared in some hazy dream sequences, but that's about it. Even after he arrives and begins telling Mina about his long life, he remains distant. I never really got a sense of his passion. Even as Dracula reveals the source of his supernatural powers – traditional vampire lore is largely replaced by Irish faeries here – and we learn that he and Mina have been lovers many times over, through reincarnated lives, I just didn't feel the weight of such an epic romance.
The first half of the book unfolds at a very leisurely pace. Essex does an amazing job building a moody, Gothic atmosphere to suit the this tale of madness and desire. But since Dracula appears so late in the narrative, many of the explanations about the supernatural world he lives in are made hastily. Adding the climatic last stand against Dracula from Stoker's novel triggered a lot of action in a very short time, so the ending felt pretty rushed and a little trapped by the necessity of following Stoker's story.
Dracula in Love turned out to be a very different book from what I had expected. There was a lot more feminist spin and a lot less vampire.
3 out of 5 stars