Mina Murray, the True Heroine in Stoker’s Dracula
The Media that Once Saved Britain
Forgive my long delay in writing, but I have been simply overwhelmed with work. The life of an assistant schoolmistress is sometimes trying. I am longing to be with you, and by the sea, where we can talk together freely and build our castles in the air. I have been working very hard lately, because I want to keep up with Jonathan’s studies, and I have been practicing shorthand very assiduously. When we are married I shall be able to be useful to Jonathan, and if I can stenograph well enough I can take down what he wants to say in this way and write it out for him on the typewriter, at which also I am practicing very hard …. I shall try to do what I see lady journalists do, interviewing and writing descriptions and trying to remember conversations. I am told that, with a little practice, one can remember all that goes on or that one hears said during a day. — Bram Stoker, Dracula, 1897
London 1888. Five (or six) London prostitutes were killed and mutilated in the East End by an unknown murderer who became known as Jack the Ripper. Public panic spread far beyond the East End, and the police failed to arrest him. After four months of media frenzy, the attacks stopped. The reason for this is not known, but the theories about it, and the culprit’s identity, are legion, writes Heather Creaton (2003) from the Institute of Historical Research, and continues, “the Ripper has been outdone many times since 1888, yet the case has taken on a mythic quality, to be reinterpreted again and again by succeeding generations.”
Indeed, murderous violence was rampant in Victorian London, and it seems that there were not only suffering victims but also an audience who enjoyed the salacious and sensationalist horror stories of the London underworld. Rosalind Crone, Senior Lecturer in History, The Open University, writes in THE CONVERSATION,
There is another story about Victorian entertainment that lies behind these jolly posters and harmless pantomimes, one which I would argue is as important for understanding modern British culture: that of the seemingly insatiable appetite for representations of violence among ordinary Victorians. From the opening of Queen Victoria’s reign until the last decades of the 19th century, men, women and even children were amused by images and descriptions of murder and mutilation which would today be regarded as shocking and unfit for public consumption.
Not surprising then that with crime providing entertainment as well as horror, a kind of journalism as we know today already had its heyday in Victorian England where it found its new form. Under the meme of “New or Yellow Journalism” W. T. Stead, editor of the Pall Mall Gazette (1883–1889), introduced a new writing style based on “sensationalism, emphasizing dramatic stories, large headlines, and emotional writing”. (Wikipedia, 2019).
Against this backdrop no wonder that Bram Stoker would find the right incarnation of the evils of the times in the character of Dracula. Stoker wrote his Gothic horror novel in the new journalism style, applying journalistic techniques as if the main protagonist Mina Murray wrote Dracula. This technique induces a certain estrangement or alienation effect, a performing arts concept coined by the German playwright Bertolt Brecht (1898–1956). The reader becomes a “voyeur” of sensational and frightening news without becoming emotionally too deeply involved and still being able to critically reflect on what is seen and heard.
Dracula allows many interpretations. We find countless books and articles that have cluttered the bookshelves over the years. Often the focus is on the story itself, or, after Sigmund Freud advent, on the psychological aspects, in particular, the sexuality of the vampire trope, not to forget the multiple incarnations of the Dracula myth in film. One of the first movies was Nosferatu by the German filmmaker Murnau, using the Eastern European name “Nosferatu” instead of “Dracula” because of copyright issues.
Not many scholars have looked at the protagonist Minna Murray. Without her and her newly acquired data collecting and presentation skills, the team around Van Helsing could not have tracked down and destroyed Dracula.
Looking at two different angles of the representation of Mina in Stoker’s Dracula, the question comes to mind whether we can see Mina’s role as a protagonist in this horror story as evidence for the emancipation of women in the late Victorian age. This angle has been researched in much depth in an excellent English Honors Thesis by Kathrin Boyd, Trinity University.
The other angle is how the German media scholar, Friedrich Kittler took on this issue. His major tenet was that “media determine our situation”. Therefore he claimed in his text, “Dracula’s Legacy”, that it was primarily media technologies, that enabled women like Mina to escape the confines of a married housewife by acquiring new technical skills and thus becoming financially and socially independent.
From these perspectives, however, I would argue that both fail to escape the “modernist” viewpoint that sees history and “progress” as a linear phenomenon. Instead, I argue that a postmodern approach that proposes multiple “histories” within specific localised contexts provides a more productive alternative insight into the cultural phenomenon of horror, “then” and “now”.
Friedrich Kittler, whom I have mentioned before, was always primarily interested in the materiality of media. Keen on driving the ghost (den Geist), out of the humanities his reading of Dracula focuses strongly on Mina, the new woman, who cautiously but with determination acquires the skills of the new media world in Victorian England that I have mentioned above.
The thirst of the public for sensations offered a new opportunity for young women to find work and become independent. Required were technical skills; today it would be computer skills. At that time a successful journalist would know how to use shorthand, a typewriter and possibly a phonograph for recording voice that later can be transcribed. The ability to think critically, to be able to source information from various resources, compiling and checking their accuracy, was the new foundational journalistic skills that have been cultivated in late Victorian England and seem to have become lost again today.
For Kittler, at the end of the nineteenth century, a new era started for the role of women in society, and he explains why,
The hand-written diary, [Jonathan Harker’s diary, Mina Murray’s fiancé] as soon as it is hooked up to phonographs and typewriters, autopsies and newspaper reports, will kill the Lord of the East and the Night, leaving him only the miserable immortality granted the hero of a novel. 1897, while the mystery of the interpretation of dreams is becoming clear to Doctor Freud, Bram Stoker’s Dracula appears in print. And even if the guest of the Count did not visit Freud on his journey, at least poetic justice has spread the rumor that the novelist of the Count had been initiated into the new system of knowledge.
This new system of knowledge is not only useful for journalistic purposes but also for gathering intelligence, which is Mina’s and her team’s main objective. As Kittler says, “ The writing of novels is a continuation of espionage with other means. “
Dracula’s project, … is shattered by women of a sort never before seen in the history of Western discourse formation. “Western Democracy”(whatever that may he) would fall helplessly into the hands of a discourse of the master, if there were not young women in Exeter who could ultimately destroy this discourse with the technology of democracy. For it is not the Count who controls the modern media with which he would corrupt the Empire … but, on the contrary, Harker’s fiancée, a certain assistant school mistress by the name of Mina Murray, who, with the weapons of a new age, undermines the very possibility of a discourse of the master. By profession Mina Murray is an assistant school mistress, but, not satisfied with this preliminary movement toward women’s emancipation, she practices her typing and stenography arduously, in order to do one day “what the lady journalists do.”
Kittler lets us know what journalists do; they defer, re-work, augment speeches and texts, in whatever form they encounter their material and create mountains of paper. So does Mina, and future secretaries in the corporate and administrative twentieth century. “Without the armies of women steno-typists (as women have been called for 90 years, who like Mina, are proficient in both stenography and typing), Houses of Commons and Bundestage would fall apart.”
To what extent the countless corporate secretaries have become only alienated mechanical Turks transcribing their bosses’ meaningless dictations remains an open question. It didn’t remove the glass ceiling of the corporate world, keeping women out of the board room.
But leaving this aside. We may be able to see the redemptive qualities of the “new woman”, embodied in Mina, symbolising the rational and circumspect “new media” as carriers and disseminators of the culture of the Empire.
There is a direct antagonist to Mina, and it is not the Count, it is Lucy, who succumbed to the will of Dracula and thus becomes herself a vampire. It is the old story of good and evil, but with a twist. Stoker calls them/her [vampires/Lucy] the Un-dead. The French post-structuralist philosopher Jacques Derrida would call this situation an Aporia, an impasse, to “indicate a point of undecidability, which locates the site at which the text most obviously undermines its rhetorical structure, dismantles, or deconstructs itself” (Wikipedia). As Van Helsing said,
Before we do anything, let me tell you this. It is out of the lore and experience of the ancients and of all those who have studied the powers of the Un-Dead. When they become such, there comes with the change the curse of immortality. They cannot die, but must go on age after age adding new victims and multiplying the evils of the world. For all that die from the preying of the Un-dead become themselves Un-dead, and prey on their kind. And so the circle goes on ever widening, like as the ripples from a stone thrown in the water.
Lucy preyed on children; her bite eventually would turn them into vampires as well. Lucy personifies the “wicked” mother. We inherit not only the good. In Friedrich Kittler’s major work Discourse networks 1800/1900 he elaborates how around 1800 the mother became the primary instructor of children’s “inculturation”.
Maternal instruction, in its positivity, was the input component of elementary acculturation techniques. Around 1800 a new type of book began to appear, one that delegated to mothers first the physical and mental education of their children, then their alphabetization.
We find in our favourite stories negativity, even in our sacred books, containing as much evil as they hold the good. Thus, Lucy’s bite and poison comes to us, softened, via storybooks that pretend to only teach the Alphabet.
Van Helsing with his gang of conspirators rectifies the “undecidable” and re-establishes the order of scientific and male logic. You cannot be both, alive and dead at the same time, that would be irrational. If you can’t be alive anymore then at least be dead, completely, and he lets the stake be driven into Lucy’s chest and cuts her head off. No more vampire, no more scarred children. Male rationality (the good) triumphs again.
Meanwhile, Mina organises the resistance. They communicate using the Victorian “Internet”, the telephone and the telegraph. Mina, so we hear, prepares diligently the tools of her new trade needed for tracking down the source of the “evil”, not knowing yet what she is getting herself into. She is looking for the “traces” of Dracula, in letters, documents, phonographic records, train schedules. Meticulously, like a good journalist, she copies everything with her typewriter, “but always, using a “manifold,” “three copies”,! They didn’t have hard drives yet, but they were fully aware of the need to back up as we later find out in the book when Dracula destroys the typescript. So Kittler,
In this way the typewriter, as only it can, drives all of the remaining hysteria out of the scientific discourse. When it comes to liquidating the very conditions that make discourses of the master possible, men and women can have no more secrets from each other. Stoker’s Dracula is no vampire novel, but rather the written account of our bureaucratization. Anyone is free to call this a horror novel as well … In other words, Stoker’s novel itself, which is identical with Mina Harker’s archive.
Here Kittler is fully aware of the side effects of a “perfectly” registered world, foreseeing shared information, “big data”, “deep learning”, surveillance and total control rendering the concept of privacy a quaint episode in modern history.
Does the question remain why Stoker elevates Mina to such heights, virtually (forgive the pun) turning her into the author of Dracula? Does it have something to do with his readership, attracting more women? Or does he share the emancipatory efforts of the new women’s movements of that time?
Kathryn Boyd sees the latter, the depiction of Mina as a manifestation of Victorian progress and female emancipation. She writes:
If the New Woman was autonomous, with personal, social, and economic control over her own life, she was also something to be feared. The New Woman was uninterested in “propriety” and the expectations to marry young and submit to her husband’s will, and this position in particular took on enormous social significance. Women failing to marry had the potential to radically alter social institutions and the cultural balance of Victorian England as there were really no established alternate social roles for large groups of single, powerful women.
For Boyd, the tension between Lucy and Mina signifies the birth of the “new woman”,
Mina has a professional job, writes in shorthand, and is responsible for collating the recovered texts that materially form the novel. Lucy, by contrast, has no job, and her writings are primarily occupied with discussions of the suitability of her proposed suitors. While both girls are at some point infected with vampire blood, Lucy’s lack of autonomy leads her to succumb to the vampiric curse of the male Count Dracula. Completely reliant on the men in her life, Lucy is, ironically, ultimately killed by the very same group of men who proposed to her. Mina, much more self-reliant than Lucy, is instead able to turn her infection into the biggest advantage our characters have in fighting Dracula.
For Boyd, as well as Kittler, history moves in one direction, towards progress and liberation, “ Lucy ultimately dies because there is no place for such a woman in the new modern world. Her overreliance on men is incompatible with a world where the working woman’s professional skills (like Mina’s) are required to successfully combat evil.” The world saved by female journalists that have mastered technology and joined the workforce? History can also go backwards and in circles. Victorian journalistic ethics are readily disappearing today ’s fragmented world of “fake” and “not so fake” news that does not discern anymore between fact and opinion.
Boyd speaks of Mina as the harbinger of a new enlightened generation. From a postmodern perspective, there are grave doubts. Since Jean-Francois Lyotard’s work, “The Postmodern Condition” we have become suspicious of the Enlightenment's meta-narratives, the big stories, the big stories of Victorian progress, humanity’s progress, the “end of history” in liberal democracy and free-market capitalism as Fukuyama once said in his book “The End of History and the Last Man” (1992).
Colonialism, hot and cold wars, and the uninhibited industrialisation of the world have left us a nasty legacy, and it wasn’t Mina’s, it was Dracula’s.
Boyd, K. (2014). Making sense of Mina: Stoker’s vampirization of the Victorian woman in Dracula. English Honors Theses. 20. Retrieved from http://digitalcommons.trinity.edu/eng_honors/20
Creaton, H. (2003, April). Recent scholarship on Jack the Ripper and the Victorian media. Reviews in History. Retrieved from https://www.history.ac.uk/reviews/review/333
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Crone, R. (2016, October 14). Think entertainment is violent today? The Victorians were much, much worse. THE CONVERSATION. Retrieved from https://theconversation.com/think-entertainment-is-violent-today-the-victorians-were-much-much-worse-66714
Fukuyama, F. (2006). The end of history and the last man: With a new afterword. New York, NY: Free Press.
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Kittler, F.A., (Davis, W. S. Trans.).(1989). Dracula’s Legacy. Stanford Humanities Review, 1, 143–73.
kooky216Films.(2016, January 31). Nosferatu | 1922, silent, full film, high quality [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oAX2WBzCh5Y
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