Author On the Bookcase: Karen Essex, author of Dracula In Love

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Author on the Bookcase
Karen Essex

Karen EssexVampires Fly On the Bookcase! I'm so excited to welcome Karen Essex, author of Dracula In Love. Karen's novel reveals Mina, the muse behind Stoker's Dracula, and brings her to life. Mina Murray Harker recounts the intimate details of what really transpired between her and the Count -— the joys and terrors of a passionate affair. Mina's tale is a visceral journey into Victorian England's dimly lit bedrooms, mist-filled cemeteries, and asylum chambers. Karen has turned the classic Dracula inside out!

Karen chats about her research of the asylums of Victorian England and the symptoms and behaviors deemed a patient insane.

Take us back, Karen, when "it was not a good time to be a woman."

When the Only Safe Sex was with Vampires
When doing book club chats for Dracula in Love, I am inevitably asked about the sequences in the novel that readers find the most chilling and frightening—the scenes in the Victorian insane asylum.  Surely those shocking scenarios, like the fantasy scenes of vampirism, are products of the author’s perverse imagination? Ironically, the answer is no; the asylum sequences are based on painstaking research. Truth, as it turns out, is always is stranger than fiction.

Dracula in Love, which I describe as a romantic Gothic thriller, retells Bram Stoker’s original story from the perspective of the vampire’s muse, Mina Harker, and in the process, turns the story on its ear, freeing Mina from her role as “victim,” and putting her at the center of her own story.  A good deal of Stoker’s book takes place in an asylum.  I wanted to use the Gothic setting, but I also wanted to paint the asylum as it actually would have been at the time—full of women incarcerated for having what we today would consider normal sexual and other desires.

In the course of my research, I quickly discovered that women in the 1890s had a lot more to fear from their own culture than from vampires. I read the psychiatric journals of the period, which prescribed bizarre treatments for ladies who were “hysterical,” which turns out to mean that they were “excitable in the presence of men.” In many instances, the desire to read all day or engage in intellectual studies, were also regarded as symptoms of mental illness. Young women were committed to asylums for doing cartwheels in mixed company, or for staring seductively at a man. Any behavior that showed spunk, spirit, or sexual needs, was pathologized.

All sorts of harrowing and torturous cures were developed to “settle” these women—restraints, forced housework (to help them remember their true natures), repeated plunges in ice water, and force-feeding, to name a few.  As mental illness in females was thought to originate in the womb, doctors also were obsessed with menstrual cycles, figuring that if a patient’s cycle could be made precise, the “illness” of wanting to have sex or read books all day, would disappear. Not coincidentally, an irregular cycle was considered a sign of mental illness and required treatment.

Curious as to whether these practices were actually carried out, I went into the archives of Victorian mental asylums and read physicians’ reports, often in the doctors’ own handwriting. The following short excerpt is taken from these cases. Here, Mina is on a tour of the institution with its director, Dr. John Seward:

Drucula In LoveSeward led me further down the hall to a mezzanine area, where we turned a corner. With a key, he opened a door, and we entered a room. Light streamed in through the single source of a small arched window. The room smelled of chemicals. He must have heard my little sniff. “It’s the ammonia used to clean the leathers. We sterilize them after every use. We are very modern here.”

Leather cuffs and straps of many sizes hung in bundles on hooks on the wall. He opened a closet, taking out a heavy linen garment with long sleeves that ended in mitts and a complex system of tie strings that dangled chaotically.

“Whatever is that used for?” I asked.

“We use the jackets in the more difficult cases to prevent the patients from harming themselves and others. In less severe cases, we use them to pacify.”

I cocked my head. “Pacify?”

“With male patients, we use them to control violent behavior. But with female patients, we have found that confinement of the arms and hands soothes the nerves. So many things cause ladies to become overexcited. You are such sensitive creatures. Prayer, which settles the male conscience and soothes his soul, has the opposite effect on ladies. We do not know why this is. Reading novels can have the same effect. We call these jackets camisoles because they calm a lady’s nerves in the same way that a putting on a lovely garment might.”

Think about that next time you slip into a bustier! The more harrowing excerpts are rife with spoilers, so I will let the reader discover them in the pages of the book. Though the Victorian era had its charms and pleasures—and I do explore those as well—it was not a good time to be a woman.  If I were living in those times, I would surely have been committed. And I’m guessing that if you are reading this, you might have been my cellmate.

Thanks so much, Karen, for sharing some of the background on Dracula in Love. "Truth is always stranger than fiction!" Reading groups can cetainly sink their teeth in the research and themes of Dracula in Love -- Victorian women's lives and identity, feminism, history, sexuality, folklore, mental illness treatment.

"Like The French Lieutenant's Woman, the novel explores and exposes the stifling confines of Victorian society, especially upon women. But the means of deliverance is altogether different."—Margaret George, bestselling author of The Memoirs of Cleopatra

"If you read only one more vampire novel, let it be this one."—C.W. Gortner, author of The Last Queen and The Confessions of Catherine de Medici

Karen Essex is the author of Kleopatra, Pharaoh, and the international bestseller Leonardo's Swans, which won Italy's prestigious 2007 Premio Roma for foreign fiction. An award-winning journalist and a screenwriter, she lives in Los Angeles, California.

Please learn more about Karen.

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