KAREN ESSEX, TRAVELLING FOR DRACULA IN LOVE, OR HOW TO ADD NEW GEOGRAPHY TO AN OLD STORY AND RELOCATE A VAMPIRE
Readers often tell me that they take my novels on holiday as travel and history guides. I love giving readers an experience on the page, but I love it even more when they are inspired to leave their armchairs and experience the characters and the history firsthand. As an historical novelist, nothing informs my work like travel. I love to walk in my characters’ footsteps, breathing in the air that they breathed, literally sharing molecules with them.
“Well, I think it’s male, a great age, unpredictable, it’s diseased, it’s impatient, it’s energetic… that’s it.”
This is how one of my living literary heroes Peter Ackroyd describes London. I’ve just taken an hour-long walk under that city’s ominous gray skies, heavy with the answer to London’s daily mystery: will it rain? And like the cantankerous old man Ackroyd says London is, it would not give an answer.
Also known for not giving answers is Peter Ackroyd himself, who has written many books set in this city, as well as the massive and brilliant London, a Biography. Now he has taken on a three-part history of the city from its inception to the present.
I was moved by the monument of the Victorian boxer Thomas Sayers, who wanted his faithful dog, Tim, commemorated as well. Though boxing was illegal in the 19th century, Sayers was enormously popular, and his funeral was attended by 10,000 people—a larger funeral than the Duke of Wellington’s.
“The Victorians had very small weddings and very big funerals.”Thus said our cheery guide by way of explaining the elaborate monuments of Highgate Cemetery, where I and my friend Caroline Kellett-Fraysse, fellow writer and journalist and connoisseur of all things esoteric, recently spent a sunny Tuesday afternoon. We had wanted to inspect this final resting place of Karl Marx, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, and a host of other famous and infamous folks, and discovered that the older and more interesting part of the cemetery was only open by tour (unless one actually dies). Immaculately kept, it has a studied overgrown quality, the sort perfected by English gardeners over the centuries.
We specifically wanted to explore Highgate because it is the fictional resting place of Lucy Westenra, the vixen/victim of the vampire in Bram Stoker’s “Dracula,” though Stoker changed the name of the place to Kingstead. As we walked past the more ornate monuments like the Egyptian Hall, done in a style reminiscent of the Valley of the Kings, or the many-sided Circle of Lebanon, a many-vaulted tomb sitting dramatically beneath an ancient Cedar of Lebanon tree, I imagined poor Lucy buried within the vaults, only to be disentombed and subsequently slain and beheaded by the vampire hunters.
Two Historical Novelists Tackling our Deadlines (on the right, Katie Hickman)
Last summer Katie Hickman and I found ourselves doing a joint reading at the Margaret Mitchell House in Atlanta. We were both on book tour—Katie for The Aviary Gate, and me for Stealing Athena. We didn’t know each other, but I’d been wanting to meet her. Her best-selling book, Daughters of Britannia: the Lives and Times of Diplomatic Wives, contained a substantive chapter on Mary Nisbet, Countess of Elgin, who happened to be the heroine of Stealing Athena. E! Weekly had featured Stealing Athena and The Aviary Gate side by side as having virtually identical book covers (a bit snide, but publicity is publicity). Plus we are both known as inveterate travelers, Katie the more so. She’s actually listed in “Wayward Women, the Oxford Dictionary of Women Travellers.” No sooner had I’d thought, gosh, I’d love to meet Katie Hickman, than the gig at the MM House appeared on my book tour itinerary.
One of my challenges in writing the next book is to refrain from falling into stereotypical “Dickensian” images and ideas of the Victorian period. Because mine is a Gothic novel, the darker imagery of the period would suit so well. However, by 1890, the world looked much different than it had forty or fifty years prior. As someone who works hard to create as vivid and realistic an environment as possible in whatever era I’m writing in, I’ll have to be ultra-conscious as I go along.
Just returned from a walking tour of the dark side of Victorian London. I walked for so long during the tour and afterwards that when I returned to the flat, I could no longer bend my toes. True story. We’ve had two entire days of sunshine, and it’s just too painful to stay indoors. I suppose that my feet are in “Los Angeles” condition, where we spend untold money to pump iron with trainers, but take our cars 3 blocks to the supermarket .
The walking tour mainly encompassed Dickens’ London, whereas by the time my novel takes place late in the century, things started to look different and much more modern. I’m impressed with the Victorians when I compare conditions in Dickens’ time against the reforms that were instituted later in the century. For example, mid-century London had a system of apprenticeship for chimney sweeps whereby the skinniest orphan boys were drafted to shimmy up narrow chimneys that often were no more than nine inches in diameter. It was horrific work. The boys rarely made it to the age of ten, often dying from—yes, burning—but also lung and testicular cancers. This horrible practice was finally ended in 1875.