Carol A. Senf, Bram Stoker

Posted by Lauren Humphries-Brooks on June 16, 2011 in Blog, Reviews tagged with , , , ,

Carol A. Senf, Bram Stoker. University of Wales Press, 2010. ISBN: 978-0-7083-2306-9

Reviewed by Lauren Humphries-Brooks, University of Edinburgh

The next in the series of the University of Wales Gothic Authors: Critical Revisions is Carol A. Senf’s short but comprehensive work on Bram Stoker.  Stoker is one of the most influential Gothic writers of the late 19th Century, yet discussions of his work outside of Dracula are few and far between.  Senf provides an overview of all of Stoker’s works, focusing on how the Gothic tradition informs even his least Gothic novels and short stories.  She argues that Stoker incorporated elements of the Gothic into everything he wrote.  This continued dialogue thus earns Stoker his place in the pantheon of great authors of the Gothic.  That Senf seeks to base this analysis not solely upon Dracula is one of the great strengths of her project and she follows through on this issue convincingly.

The book is neatly organized into roughly chronological sections, beginning with Stoker’s early short story work and proceeding through his more generic novels, the height of his fame in Dracula, and finally his last published work The Lair of the White Worm.  The chapters are then divided into smaller sections covering each story or novel in turn.  Senf maintains a clean organization throughout, grouping the novels based upon time period and subject matter and drawing fairly clear genre distinctions.

The strength of Senf’s work lies in her coverage of novels and short stories that are seldom read, some of which are even rarely published.  Her investigation of novels such as The Lady of the Shroud and The Lair of the White Worm alongside lesser known works like The Man, Miss Betty and The Jewel of Seven Stars draws convincing lines between Stoker’s adventures and romances, and his better known tales of terror.  Senf attempts to address the presence of the Gothic in each novel.  She uses the opinions of other critics as a building block for her own contention that Stoker was always in communication with Gothic subtexts.  This argument is borne out by what Senf identifies as the Gothic elements of Stoker’s works: the primacy of nature, the return of the past, the villains, the heroines in distress, etc.  While some of the sections are more convincing in their analyses than others (the presence of the Gothic seems to be more realized in novels like The Snake’s Pass and The Jewel of the Seven Stars), Senf makes an admirable case for Stoker’s continued dialogue with the Gothic.  The difficulty of this book, however, lies in the lack of contextualisation of the thesis.

Given that the series is intended to be an introductory guide to Gothic authors, a brief explanation of what is meant by ‘the Gothic’ in the context of Stoker’s work would have been welcome.  While Senf mentions other Gothic works and authors in passing – Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto in particular – she never provides a cohesive explanation of what is meant by Gothic literature.  Placing Stoker within a broader historical context would also have been helpful.  Although she mentions his engagement with late 19th Century technology, the coming of the motor car and the airplane, she fails to place him within any specific historical context, either in the tradition of the Gothic or in literary tradition in general.

The greatest problem with Senf’s analysis of specific texts is the lack of plot summation she gives for the lesser known novels she covers.  While The Lair of the White Worm and The Lady of Shroud are known, at least in passing, Senf covers a number of works that she admits are not widely available.  Without plot summaries, or even a distinct idea of what the book is about (the main characters, the plot structure, etc.), Senf’s analysis must be taken at face value.  She seems to make the assumption that her reader is familiar with all of Stoker’s work and fails to provide even the most basic of plot synopses for most of the novels.

This oversight would not be nearly so problematic if Senf gave more depth to her analytical framework.  Unfortunately, she tends to make sweeping statements about the Gothic nature of the novels without giving specifics.  Stating that a character in an historical novel resembles a Gothic villain is all well and good, but without the necessary textual evidence to back that up, the reader is left with a blank statement of fact without evidence.  As so much of Senf’s thesis depends on proving that Stoker is in continual dialogue with the Gothic, her lack of analytical depth in many cases does damage to her initial claim.  As it is, I was left with the feeling that Senf failed to completely prove her thesis simply because she declined to do deeper analysis.  While she certainly attempts to cover a broad range of texts in a small space, a deeper examination of each text would have better supported her thesis.

Her rather perfunctory treatment of Dracula brings nothing new to the academic discourse.  Although it is interesting to see Stoker’s most famous book placed within the context of his greater body of work, Senf seems to draw little from it save that Stoker was an author of the Gothic, which most readers will already know.  While Senf could not very well have escaped a discussion of the Gothic without touching upon Dracula, she does so with such broad statements that there seems to be no reason for the discussion at all.  She quotes so often from other critics in this section that her own analysis consists merely of restating what has already been said, and in more depth.

It is an admirable undertaking to address so many texts that are often ignored. It is pleasant to see Stoker, usually treated as a one-trick pony, given ample space in a discussion of the Gothic.  Senf’s book is quite accessible and well-written as an introduction to Stoker; however, it may confuse those not already familiar with Stoker’s broader body of work.  The conclusion seems to be that Stoker does indeed belong in the pantheon of Gothic authors for reasons beyond his place as the writer of Dracula.  Senf, when her analysis holds up, makes a good case.  Unfortunately, the majority of the analyses failed to convince.  One hopes for a more detailed examination along the same lines of this thesis.

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