Bram’s BuddyOn February 26, 2020 by Elyse
Inspired by a recent weekend in Dublin, I’m digging deeper into the story of Bram Stoker. Get ready for vampires! Epic battles between good and evil! And copious amounts of garlic!
Whoops, wrong book.
Today, he’s renowned around the world as the author of the novel that spawned a thousand teenybopper vampire romances, but in his day, Stoker was best known as manager of London’s Lyceum Theatre and sidekick to celebrity actor Henry Irving. Their decades-long friendship is the subject of Stoker’s gargantuan, two-volume Personal Reminiscences of Henry Irving, published in 1906, the year after his friend’s death.
Instead of vampires or garlic, the memoir features horses and old shoes. Still, there are epic battles—if you consider railroad companies to be the embodiment of evil. (And some people certainly did.)
Stoker worked as Irving’s private secretary, but their relationship was far more of a bromance. As Stoker wrote in the preface to his hagiography, “For nearly thirty years I was an intimate friend of Irving; in certain ways the most intimate friend of his life. I knew him as well as it is given to any man to know another.”
It wasn’t enough for Stoker to wax poetic about Irving’s virtues over hundreds of pages: He also named his only son after him and modeled his most famous character, Count Dracula, on his old friend. Alas, we’ll never know if Irving took the latter as a compliment.
Interspersed between accounts of Irving’s many achievements, Personal Reminiscences sheds light on Stoker and Irving’s trials and tribulations while running a major theater together. However, it wasn’t all drama.
According to Stoker, while preparing for a performance in 1878, the theater company’s property manager, a man named Arnott, needed to transport a life-sized model horse from London to Bristol. (Don’t ask.) This horse “was formed of the skin of a moderately sized pony; and being embellished with picturesque attachments in the shape of mane and tail was a really creditable object.”
I applaud the artistic achievement, but that realism was a liability when it came to transportation:
It was expensive to carry as it took up much space. . . When [Arnott and two of his employees] got to Paddington [in London] he found that the authorities refused to carry the goods by weight on account of its bulk, and asked him something like £4 for the journey.
He expressed his feelings freely, as men occasionally do under irritating circumstances, and said he would go somewhere else. . . He was a clever man who did not like to be beaten, and railways were his natural enemies.
Who hasn’t felt that way when the airline charges you an extra $50 because your suitcase is one lousy pound overweight? Not that I’m speaking from personal experience, mind you.
[Arnott] thought the matter over. Having looked over the timetable and found that the cost of a horse-box [to transport real horses via train] to Bristol was only £1 13 shillings, he went to the department in charge of such matters and ordered one, paying for it at once and arranging that it should go on the next fast train. By some manoeuvring he so managed that he and his men took [the model] horse into the box and closed the doors.
When the train arrived at Bristol there had to be some shunting to and fro so as to place the horse-box in the siding arranged for such matters. The officials in charge threw open the door for the horse to walk out. But he would yield to no blandishment, nor even to the violence of chastisement usual at such times.
A little time passed and the officials got anxious, for the siding was required for other purposes. The station at Bristol is not roomy and more than one line has to use it. The official in charge told him to take out his damned horse!
“Not me!” said [Arnott], for he was now seeing his way to “get back” at the railway company, “I’ve paid for the carriage of the horse and I want him delivered out of your premises. The rate I paid includes the services of the necessary officials.”
Cue the maniacal, evil genius laughter.
The porters tried again, but the horse would not stir. Now it is a dangerous matter to go into a horse-box in case the horse should prove restive. One after another the porters declined, till at last one plucky lad volunteered to go in by the little window close to the horse’s head. Those on the platform waited in apprehension, ’till he suddenly ran out from the box laughing and crying out:
“Why you blamed fools. He ain’t a ‘orse at all. He’s a stuffed ’un!”– Bram Stoker, Personal Reminiscences of Henry Irving, Volume I, 1906
Arnott’s knack for practical jokes puts him in good company.
The incident would not be the last of Arnott’s horse problems. Many years later, the theater company was performing a one-act play version of Don Quixote, and quite naturally, one of the principle characters was to be Rocinante the horse. Stoker reported that:
Irving told the Property Master, Arnott, to get a [real] horse as thin and ragged-looking as he could.
“I think I know the very one, sir,” said Arnott. “It belongs to a baker who comes down Exeter Street every day. I shall look out for him to-morrow and get him to bring the horse for you to see!”
In due course he saw the baker, and arranged that he should on the next day bring the horse. The morrow came; but neither the baker nor the horse.
Inquiries having been made, it turned out that on the morning arranged, as the baker was leading the horse down Bow Street to bring it to the Lyceum, an officer of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals saw them, and being dissatisfied with the appearance of the animal, “ran in” both man and beast.
The sitting magistrate went out to the police yard and made inspection for himself. When he came back to court where the prisoner was waiting in the dock, he said that the case was one of the worst within his experience and gave his decision: He fined the owner of the horse ten pounds; sent the man who had been arrested whilst in charge of it to prison for a week without option of a fine; and ordered the horse to be killed!– Bram Stoker, Personal Reminiscences of Henry Irving, Volume I, 1906
Although Stoker called this story as “an incident which was not without its humorous aspect,” PETA might disagree.
Stoker was not shy about name dropping in Personal Reminiscences; British King Edward VII and U.S. Presidents Chester Arthur, Grover Cleveland, William McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt all make cameos. However, not every celebrity behaved with the dignity and solemnity we might expect. Stoker gleefully recounted:
Irving. . . had heard a story that not long before [poet Alfred] Tennyson had been lunching with friends of his in his own neighbourhood not far from Haslemere. His hostess, who was a most gracious and charming woman whom later I had the honour to know, said to him as they went into the dining-room:
“I have made a dish specially for you myself; I hope you will try it and tell me exactly what you think of it.”
“Of course I shall,” he answered.
After lunch she asked him what he thought of it and he answered at once:
“If you really wish to know, I thought it was like an old shoe!”
When they met Irving asked [Tennyson] if the story were true.
“No!” he answered at once, “I didn’t say that. I said something; but it wasn’t that it was like an old shoe!”
“What did you say?”
“I said it was like an old boot!”– Bram Stoker, Personal Reminiscences of Henry Irving, Volume I, 1906
He may have been an eloquent poet, but Tennyson was not a man of great tact.
One final anecdote is not included in Personal Reminisces but nevertheless sheds light on the pitfalls of 19th-century fame—and the value in surrounding yourself with good friends.
Sir Henry Irving. . . received a letter from a man in Paris who told of his marked likeness to the great actor. At first, the stranger wrote, it was a pleasure to be taken for so distinguished a man, but in time the novelty wore off and he had been both annoyed and embarrassed by the continual necessity of explaining that he was he, and not Sir Henry.
The letter concluded by mentioning that $25 or $50 would be of considerable service to him. Would Sir Henry remit by return of post and thus in a measure atone for the annoyance to which the likeness had subjected him?
Many of us might consider writing back and telling the doppelganger exactly what he could do with that likeness, but not Irving.
Irving happened to read the letter to Bram Stoker, and then said that he thought he must send the man something, not $50, perhaps, but—
“If ye’ll let me, I’ll answer the letter for you,” said Mr. Stoker, who has an Irish accent to match his Irish wit.
A few days later Irving said:
“You answered that letter, Mr. Stoker?”
“I did, then, and wrote him advice of a friendly nature, besides the money I sent to him.”
“You sent him money, ha! I hope it was enough—”
“’Twas, then,” murmured Stoker, beaming, “and the letter to boot. Shall I tell you what was in it? Well, then, it was a half a crown I sent to him” (half a crown is about 60 cents), “and I just wrote him that since it was his likeness to you was vexin’ him, well, then, to take the half crown and go and have his hair cut.”– The Washburn Times, September 12, 1900
Personal Reminisces may not appear on any literary cannon these days, but Dracula’s influence on popular culture—then and now—has assured Stoker’s place in history. If inspiring a Google Doodle isn’t success, what is?
Still, Irving has a Wikipedia page to preserve his memory, and the only thing frightening about vampires these days is their problematic relationships with teenage girls. You know what never goes out of style? Breakfast.
Stoker’s greatest and most underappreciated legacy is the tiny but exquisite cafe named for him in Dublin. If you ever find yourself north of the River Liffey, I heartily recommend the eggs.
Disclaimer: The modern era is far from the first to grapple with rampant “fake news.” As I am neither a historian nor journalist, I make no claims about the accuracy or lack thereof of the above sources. I assert only that they make for a good story.
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