Getting in on the Act: Bram Stoker and Henry Irving

posted by

To mark the anniversary of Bram Stoker’s death today (he died on 20th April 1912) and continuing her series on the Library’s Victorian membership, Helen O’Neill, our Archive, Heritage & Development brings a few hidden gems out into the light…

The London Library membership records of Henry Irving (1838-1905) and Bram Stoker (1847-1912) both date from 1890.  Irving is Britain’s most acclaimed Victorian actor theatre manager who, against considerable odds, made it to the top of his profession and changed the perception and status of that profession in the process.  Five years after joining the Library he became the first actor to be knighted for services to the stage.  Irving’s wingman, Bram Stoker joined the Library in the year he began work on Dracula.  Within seven years he published his most famous literary work which has never since been out of print, and which made the most breath-taking transition onto the global stage with the advent of film. Dracula without a doubt is one of the 19th century’s most iconic and enduring works.

Stoker’s handwriting is a good example of the challenges involved in deciphering Victorian manuscript records. His occupation, if you are struggling with the handwriting reads “Acting Manager Lyceum Theatre” where he was Irving’s right-hand-man for 27 years.   It is no coincidence perhaps that someone working at close quarters with an actor of Irving’s magnetism, would create a character that would enthrall in a visual medium. Stoker dedicated Dracula to the novelist that introduced him to the Library, Hall Caine and in the year Dracula was published Hall Caine became the first novelist in Britain to sell a million copies with his novel The Christian.

It is hard to imagine looking at these documents that either Irving or Stoker could have imagined when they wrote them, that over a century later they would have the power to arrest and captivate in quite the way they do.  Look at Irving’s description of his occupation: verve, wit, humility and pride all wrapped up in that playful, telling word “Comedian”.

Irving’s status as a national treasure is captured in an evocative piece in The Times on October 20 1905, the day before his funeral.  The piece describes the traffic being stopped locally, at the junction of Stratton Street and Piccadilly as a large number of “humble admirers” assembled to pay their respects as the hearse carrying Irving’s flower covered coffin made its way, at walking pace, to Westminster Abbey.   In the Library’s Special Collections there is a copy of Tennyson’s play Becket.  Irving died in a hotel lobby after performing in the title role of this play.  His praise for the play appears on the title page, which is signed and dated by Bram Stoker. The play, annotated throughout, was donated to the Library in 1937 by Bram Stoker’s son, Noel Thornley Stoker.  It is an eloquent example of how the Library’s collections have been shaped and enriched by past members and it demonstrates how a connection to the library, once made, can spread across generations within the same family.  Viewed in conjunction with the Irving and Stoker’s joining forms to the Library it reflects the relationship between the membership and the Library’s book collection, and also between the Library and the cultural life of 19th century literary London.

© Helen O’Neill

Archive, Heritage & Development Librarian

Bram Stoker joined the Library in 1890, the year he started his began his research for Dracula.

Bram Stoker joined the Library in 1890, the year he started his began his research for Dracula.

Henry Irving joined the Library in 1890, the year he sold his own personal library to replace his theatre sets lost in a warehouse fire.

Henry Irving joined the Library in 1890, the year he sold his own personal library to replace his theatre sets lost in a warehouse fire.

The novelist Hall Caine joined the Library in 1886. He nominated Bram Stoker to membership in 1890.

The novelist Hall Caine joined the Library in 1886. He nominated Bram Stoker to membership in 1890.

This copy of Tennyson's play Becket from the Library's special collections, was annotated by Irving and inscribed by both Irving and Stoker.

This copy of Tennyson’s play Becket from the Library’s special collections, was annotated by Irving and inscribed by both Irving and Stoker.