How to Cure Vampirism: Lucy vs. Victorian Medicine

Content warning (how do I keep getting myself in these situations?): genital mutilation, bad doctors

Dracula wants and expects us to trust the experts. In a scene from Seward’s diary, Van Helsing explains that Lucy is “Un-Dead” and that the only way to save her is to put a stake through her heart while she sleeps (with some garlic for good measure).  Keep in mind that this “Un-Dead” paradigm, and, in fact, most paradigms about the Vampires are information Van Helsing has supplied. Seward is initially upset: “It made me shudder to think of so mutilating the body of the woman whom I had loved. And yet the feeling was not so strong as I had expected. I was, in fact, beginning to shudder at the presence of this being, this Un-Dead, as Van Helsing called it, and to loathe it. Is it possible that all love is subjective, or all objective?” (Stoker 214, emphasis mine). He admits that he has accepted Van Helsing’s theories. It is a gradual process, but eventually Seward says he would kill the vampire Lucy “with savage delight” (225).

Stoker’s handling of Lucy’s treatment is in some ways analogous to those of hysteria. Take this account from 1844: a young, middle-class Frenchwoman is thwarted in a love-match by her parents and noticed symptoms that her doctor diagnosed as hysteria. They included irregular menstrual periods and convulsive attacks which led to a “lethargic coma.” The doctor treated her with topical oils and “vaginal douches of anti-spasmodic drugs.” She awoke later with only a vague memory of what had happened, and her senses restored (Hellerstein 111). Treatments for hysteria also included genital stimulation and leeches to the vulva (112). These doctors have levied a diagnosis and used it to perform invasive and violating experiments and procedures to cure their patient. In this way, these proceedings would have been somewhat familiar to a Victorian audience.

Other feminine diseases were more peculiar to the anxieties of the day, and their treatments more horrific (and not in a fun way). William Acton, expert on VDs in the fin de siecle, mentions in a footnote that a rival expert’s cure for nymphomania is to cut off the clitoris (Hellerstein 177). As we see with this and the leech treatment, too much sexual arousal in a woman calls not only for violation but mutilation. Lucy’s staking is a violating procedure if I ever saw one. Arthur’s lack of reticence shows how wholeheartedly he endorses Van Helsing’s recent explanation that doing this will save Lucy’s soul. Staking Lucy and destroying the clitoris of a nymphomaniac, for example, do the same thing: they brutalize a woman to save her from the horrors of a big appetite, whether that be for blood or sex.

Lucy’s symptoms are not completely analogous to either of these “conditions,” and I think diagnosing her is beside the point. Dracula asks us questions of what trusting a diagnosis and treatment path can lead people to do, and how and why people are diagnosed with illnesses in the first place. Apart from the mentally disturbed, Acton says that women feel little to no sexual desire, and little sensation in the clitoris. The only sexual pleasure, and it is slight, is felt in the vagina. Also, “loose women” are faking their sexual appetites (Hellerstein 177-8). This is the scientific truth to Acton and women who do not follow this are unnatural and probably ill. It sounds like lunacy to the modern reader, but in his day, he was highly respected. Though he was an “expert” and a “scientist,” he is obviously a product of his time. The hysteric, the nympho, and the vampire were all born of Victorian anxieties, as we explored Christopher Craft’s claims about Dracula as an anxious text.

Below are my sources. The book is called Victorian Women: A Documentary Account of Women’s Lives in 19th Century England, France, and the United States, edited by Erna Olafson Hellerstein, Leslie Parker Hume and Karen Offen.

Hellerstein Documents Victorian Women Part I

Hellerstein Documents Part Two

3 thoughts on “How to Cure Vampirism: Lucy vs. Victorian Medicine”

  1. I really liked the research you did relating to the hysteria: I feel like Dracula already really leans into the Victorian tropes of romantic illness, since the paleness and weakness somewhat resembles consumption, and we already discussed syphilis in class, but the female hysteria angle does fit very well applied to both Lucy and Mina’s vampiric transformations. On a surface level, Dracula only (directly) feeds off of women; no men are transformed by his influence, which fits perfectly off of the sexist assumptions the whole diagnosis of hysteria rests on. Thinking about the events of the book through this lens is incredibly frustrating, because it completely destroys the objectivity of any of the narrators! Obviously, we don’t trust the reports of female hysteria coming from doctors of the time, and this interpretation further muddies the waters of a highly ambiguous firsthand account novel. For instance, in Van Helsing’s account of how relieved he was when Mina turned away from the weird sisters when they appeared in the snow, it’s hard to analyze how to feel about the doctor. All of the narrators in the book trust him of course, but questioning the omniscience of the good doctor, all that is left is him being relieved that Mina sided with him and that the vampire women are still strange enough to frighten her. And Van Helsing simply interprets his side as objectively right. Being trusted as a doctor gives Van Helsing the power to make those judgements with no correlating evidence, and to describe Mina’s reaction and the “too far gone” patients however he sees fit. Not to mention his own wife who he describes as “dead to him” in reference to her going mad, which sheds even more doubt about his credibility and sensitivity as a doctor!

  2. Thank you for shedding light on this topic. And I agree, it does not matter Lucy’s diagnosis, vampire or not, she was not treated right (yes, most women weren’t either for the time, but it is still important to acknowledge.) If you were to further your analysis (which you totally should) it would be interesting to compare Lucy’s treatment to that of Renfield–both vampires but obviously different genders, therefore treated differently–Renfield is institutionalized, while Lucy gets a steak through the heart.

  3. This post made me think about the negative history when it comes to female health and anatomy history. Even going as far back to Marion Sims, who experimented on enslaved black women without anesthesia in order to perfect his surgical techniques. There is a long history of mutilation and abuse against woman tied with the lack of education about female anatomy. This all can be used as a lens to look at Dracula because of how Lucy is treated. The focus of her innocence and purity which is immediately ignored when she becomes a vampire showcases the sexism that has been present in various literatures in the past.

Comments are closed.