From Friend to Lover

Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, in her introduction to Between Men: English literature and Male Homosocial Desire, argues that the relationship between male homosexuality and homosociality is “radically discontinuous,” while female homosexuality represents more of a continuum with female homosociality. (Sedgwick 5) While her argument is an effective one, and her conclusion holds true in many cases, nineteenth-century poems like John Addington Symonds’ “From Friend to Friend” represent an intriguing effort to smooth over the discontinuity between homosociality and homosexuality – not in the relationships themselves, but in public perception of them.

Symonds’ poem is full of passionate language to his friend: they spend “aching nights” (Symonds 1) together, they look for “unspeakable delights,” (Symonds 4), they are caught in “the tide of turbulent appetites.” (Symonds 8) Indeed, any reader looking for textual evidence of this erotically charged language may as well cite the whole poem! But though Symonds’ language is blatantly romantic, even sexual, his choice of title and beginning of the poem (“Dear Friend…”) are not. This presentation of the idea of friendship before the reader has read a full line of the poem is odd, considering that the rest of the poem is not exactly in the key of “just friends.” Is this a serious attempt to characterize the depicted relationship as a merely friendly one, or is it simply providing plausible deniability if Symonds’ writings were ever used to make a case against him – like Wilde’s later were?

It is hard to answer this question without any knowledge of how the average late-Victorian reader would read the poem. To a modern eye, accustomed not only to openness about homosexuality but also to the sexualization of nearly everything, the poem is obviously not about “just friends.” Also obviously, Symonds’ friends, and those who moved in the same circles, would have known what he was writing about. But would the average reader of the time think so?

The other complicating factor in the attempt to work out what the poem is about, is its lack of any names or pronouns. We assume the poem is about a relationship between men because that is what we have been reading about (and certainly looking at Symonds’ own life and relationships, that is its likely subject). But the text itself offers no such interpretation. The speaker may be a man or a woman; the addressee may be a man or a woman. While we can say the two are plainly more than friends, we cannot say whether their relationship is straight, gay, or lesbian. Thus our immediate characterization of the poem as one about love between men must be examined.

Both of these techniques – the cover of friendship, and the lack of definite genders in the poem – would have been effective defense mechanisms should anyone start asking questions about Symonds’ personal life. In fact, he had many love affairs with other men, though he was also married with four daughters. But the necessity of providing a “safe” interpretation of his work certainly affected the construction of this particular poem.

How Essential is Character to Genre?

“‘We can have in life but one great experience at best, and the secret of life is to reproduce that experience as often as possible.’

‘Even when one has been wounded by it, Harry?’ asked the duchess after a pause.

‘Especially when one has been wounded by it,’ answered Lord Henry.”


The characters from The Picture of Dorian Gray in the scene quoted above are talking about romantic experience, but their dialogue is ambiguous enough that it set me thinking about experience in general. How would their endorsement of experience – any experience, and at any cost – apply to the characters in the other novels we’ve read, particularly The Island of Doctor Moreau and Dracula? The characters of the other novels are entirely focused on trying to end or escape their awful experiences, not savor them or milk them for future memories, and they have certainly been wounded by what has happened to them. Much of what renders their experiences so horrible is that they themselves are ordinary people, totally unprepared and unwilling to be thrust into the grotesque worlds of their stories. That is how the horror genre works: it emphasizes its outlandish events by setting against them people you could meet any day. The type of character has become an essential element of the genre.

The characters in The Picture of Dorian Gray, on the other hand, pride themselves on not being ordinary; at being superior to the vast masses of common, boring, good people. Thus they are able to enthuse about the value of experience without needing to qualify that it must be good or worthwhile. Is it possible to imagine them in the worlds of Dracula or Doctor Moreau, or would that genre fall apart if the characters placed in them are scarcely less appalling than the horrors that befall them? I think it would. I think that the ordinary people who populate horror stories are vital to the structure of the genre, since it achieves its effect by allowing the reader to inhabit the minds and fears of the characters – a difficult job if the characters are as bizarre and artificial as those in Dorian Gray.

What about the reverse – if the ordinary men and women of Dracula were placed in the setting of Dorian Gray? There the story’s structure would fall apart as well, because someone like Mina Harker could not work within its artificiality – either she would be treated as a laughingstock by someone like Lord Henry, or she would simply leave Wilde’s world of exquisite drawing rooms. Both in Dorian Gray and in Dracula and Doctor Moreau, genre is dependent on character, and each genre has evolved its own kind of staple character to carry the novel’s story and atmosphere. The ordinary person who stumbles into something awful is undeniably well known in horror, and a quick look at Oscar Wilde’s other works – or at mannered comedy in general – bears out the similarity, and artificiality, of the typical characters. I suspect Oscar Wilde would hate to be told that he had anything in common with Dracula, but the otherwise different genres share reliance on a particular type of character.

A Comfortable Distance – Narrative in Dracula and The Moonstone

The narrative style of Dracula is generally a pleasant surprise to modern-day readers who may be expecting another fervent Victorian melodrama. Dracula’s narrative skips back and forth between several narrators, in the form of diary entries, medical notes, newspaper articles, telegrams, letters, and so on, enabling the author to depict events happening at the same time in different places, and the reader to see the characters and actions from different points of view. The epistolary novel was a common form of the period, but the extraordinary nature of the events in Dracula gives the collected narrative the air of an official case study (consciously heightened by the preface informing readers that the documents have been placed in order). When considering this case-study aspect of the book, it is interesting to compare Dracula to another groundbreaking Victorian novel: The Moonstone. Published some thirty years before Dracula, The Moonstone is generally considered the first detective novel in the English language; like Dracula, it deals with violent aberrations in the settled life of ordinary English people; and like Dracula, it is told in a collection of narratives, from the rich Verinders’ lifelong servant, to their insufferable cousin, to the opium-addicted doctor who solves the mystery. Like Dracula, The Moonstone uses its changing narrative to establish an “official” narrative and, by jumping from narrator to narrator, effectively keeps the reader from becoming too wedded to any one version of events, or too attached to any single character.

Why is the case study technique so important in these particular books? I suggested earlier that the extraordinary story of Dracula gives the narrative an official power; in fact, both Dracula and The Moonstone use the distancing technique of multiple narrators to keep horrible events at arm’s length, suggesting that the way Victorian authors – and readers – could best deal with occurrences so far beyond the pale of ordinary life was to experience them through the prism of a reassuringly orderly study. The documents in both novels were written after the fact by the characters; therefore we know that they survived whatever horrible experience they are describing, because they are able to write about it. Both novels deal with threats to England – Dracula’s in the person of the Transylvanian count, The Moonstone’s in the titular jewel, which is Indian, and the “exotic” opium that is revealed to have been a vital element of the crime – but we know that England survived, because some reassuringly English hand has ordered the narratives for us.

The similarities in narrative between Dracula and The Moonstone – both unusual at publication, both regarded as seminal genre works today – are striking. I am too cautious (and too ignorant) to expand this argument into one about Victorian society as a whole, but I will leave it as an open question: what does this distancing of reader from story, in this particular genre of shocking stories, tell us about the Victorian psyche? Why did potentially disruptive stories like Dracula and The Moonstone need to be “officialized” for an audience? And finally, what kinds of stories do we in the 21st century treat in this way, and what does it say about us?

“The Whirlpool of European Races”: Eugenic Ambivalence in Dracula

The term “eugenics” was invented in 1883 to define the growing Victorian interest in a kind of bastardized evolution, what Ledger & Luckhurst describe as “control over the breeding habits of a new mass population, an artificial intervention into a natural evolution ‘gone wrong’ in its proliferation of the ‘weakest.’” (Ledger & Luckhurst xv) This preoccupation with the so-called strength of the race emerges in Dracula, but in an ambivalent form. Dracula’s own ideas about race, and the inherent qualities of different races, complicate the eugenicist’s conception of race, such that Stoker’s own feelings on eugenics remain unclear.

Prominent in Jonathan Harker’s memories of his stay at Dracula’s castle are his long talks with the Count, which frequently turn to Transylvanian history. In one of these conversations the Count rhapsodizes on his own family’s past in explicitly racial terms: “We Szekelys have a right to be proud, for in our veins flows the blood of many brave races who fought as the lion fights, for lordship. Here, in the whirlpool of European races, the Ugric tribe bore down from Iceland the fighting spirit…till the peoples thought that the were-wolves themselves had come. Here, too, when they came, they found the Huns, whose warlike fury had swept the earth like a living flame, till the dying peoples held that in their veins ran the blood of those old witches…What devil or what witch was ever so great as Attila, whose blood is in these veins? Is it a wonder that we were a conquering race?” (Stoker 52)

The fascinating aspect of this tirade is that it contradicts the popular idea of the eugenicist as obsessed with the purity of his race. On the contrary, Dracula, though exalting the strength of his people and bloodline, in fact ascribes that strength to the mixture of strong races that has resulted in the Szekelys, rather than to any “pure-blooded” ancestors – a blatant contradiction of common European worries about the “degeneration” of race resulting from mixed blood. At the same time, however, Dracula’s description of his family’s emergence from the struggling “whirlpool” or races is perfectly in line with “the power of the evolutionary analogy in the late Victorian era.” (Ledge & Luckhurst xv) In other words, in Dracula, “survival of the fittest” holds true – but perhaps not in the way a pure-blooded Englishman might wish.

What does this treatment of eugenics say about Stoker the Irishman, who, whether he supported English policy in Ireland or not, would certainly have seen English society and preoccupations as an outsider? Is it a dig at Victorian conceptions of “pure” British identity? It is impossible to determine, of course, whether Stoker’s views were at all similar to Dracula’s, especially since this peculiar conception of eugenics is put in the mouth of a figure of utter evil. Nevertheless, that the theme of eugenics made its way into even such a piece of popular literature as Dracula, even in this ambiguous form, testifies to its power and prevalence at the close of the nineteenth century.

“I too must have undergone strange changes” – Sanity in The Island of Dr. Moreau

To a modern reader Dr. Moreau is the quintessential mad scientist – he has a hidden laboratory, he has sinister henchmen, and his experiments are evil and grotesque. But to simply dismiss Moreau as a madman would be to ignore the manner in which the doctor both adheres to his own vision of sanity, and manipulates the other characters (especially Prendick, as the end of the novel illustrates) so that they too – whether willingly or unwillingly – are reshaped by Moreau’s warped ideal. He uses the traditional enforcers of Victorian culture – sanity or normality, the willingness to adhere to a dictated social code – to enforce not only his rule on the island but his own moral compass. The Beast-Men worship him, Montgomery obeys him, and even Prendick becomes accustomed to life on the island. Moreau’s power to reshape the idea of sanity is just as chilling as his torturous reshaping of the animals’ bodies.

Moreau’s first description of his own experiments are that they are “nothing very dreadful, really, to a sane man…” (Chapter VII) Throughout the novel he reinforces his own standards of sanity. When at last describing his experiment to the horrified Prendick, he explains his reasons for embarking upon it in the same language: “Then I am a religious man, Prendick, as every sane man must be.” (Chapter XIV) He co-opts the twin standards of Victorian behavior – religion and normality – to defend his indefensible experiments, and does it in such a way that Prendick has no choice but to go along with it. Indeed, Prendick’s own experience on the island erodes his certainty that Moreau’s practices are evil: “I lost faith in the sanity of the world when I saw it suffering the painful disorder of this island.” (Chapter XVI) Eventually he adjusts to life on the island, such that he barely notices the gradual disintegration of Moreau’s creatures. Moreau’s twisted world becomes Prendick’s normality.

By the time Prendick is able to leave the island, Moreau’s warped kind of sanity is still dogging his steps. Prendick says that his “discoverers thought [him] a madman,” and that he “had to act with the utmost circumspection to save [himself] from the suspicion of insanity.” (Chapter XXII) In the end, Prendick, no longer “a reasonable creature, but only an animal tormented with some strange disorder in its brain,” (Chapter XXII) is so changed by Moreau’s world that he cannot live in his own – not because they are too different, but because they are too similar. Moreau’s last achievement is this redefinition of sanity: bringing the ordinary world closer and closer to his island, so that the one seems just as insane as the other.

[Apologies for the citations – I am using the Project Gutenberg text, which has no page numbers.]