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.