So here it is, just as I explained to and warned you of in my last missive. You agreed to be not only the owner of, but also a conduit for, the information I am about to impart. What happens to it after my demise I’ll leave in your capable hands. It’s not earth-shattering and it is as it was, for better or worse. I fear now I’ve entered my seventies that, well, let’s just say the London winters are not getting any kinder.
I have been thankful to have you by my side through the legal ordeals of these last fraught years. Without you I would have died a pauper – and how dear Bram concerned himself with my future security as he approached his own departure. All through that fearful business over ‘Nosferatu’ with the Germans, then the American studio who thought they could make a movie of his most famous book without any thought to the rights of its writer or descendant. As you are aware, there’s only Noel, but we fought hard for his inhertance. Frightful, just frightful. You stood by me as adviser and friend. In you Anna, although you came along belatedly in my life, I saw the daughter I never had. In truth I didn’t give myself the chance of having one, as you will read. I know I can confide in you with all surety that it’s confidential. In part, thanks to you, my husband’s legacy is secure due to the funds your organisation has secured for me. From their dealings with the film companies, who wanted to use his work as the basis for their projects, I am able to spend what years that remain to me in relative comfort. And now, dearest friend, to my unburdening.
Yes, that a Prime Minister would once say that I was the most beautiful woman in London went straight to my head. He was an old dear, but I took his words to heart and I hasten to add, he was not the only prominent figure to take that view and express it publicly. I became prideful, dare I say it, wholly vain. And Anna, I wish now I could change the person all those compliments made me back then. Maybe, just maybe, Bram would still be alive to share in our successes – for I treated him most abominably. But we can’t go back. Then I placed retaining my youthful, porcelain (as many described them) looks above all else – even my marriage, or at least that part of it that people cannot see. To outward appearances nothing was amiss. I made certain of that. But behind closed doors all was not as it seemed, dearest Anna. He had much to put up with in me. Instead of making his home his safe harbour, I made it something he wished to escape from for as much as propriety would allow. That caused him to garner yet more secrets to the ones he already held. In the end, perhaps my denial of what should have been rightly his for the taking served me well. And we will come to that, but we should start where it all began – with Oscar of course. It is known how I moved on from Mr Wilde to Bram Stoker, what is not known is exactly why. The truth of the matter – it was largely about the teeth, darling.
They were bad from the start and frankly, off putting. He knew, poor fellow. He spent so much time and money trying to fix them, but as the years passed they only became worse. At the time we were together, it wasn’t so dire, but still, the smell! Oscar tried to cover it up with potions or pastes, but nothing seemed to work. I think they only served to hasten their destruction. Back then dentistry wasn’t what it is today. It meant endless, excruciating pain for the poor man – and heavens, it is tedious and taxing enough today in my experience. As well there were all sorts of charlatans around and when it came to his deteriorating teeth, Oscar would believe anyone. He would always try and hide his mouth with his hands when speaking and rarely smiled. Why, the poor man found laughing tortuous, least it exposed the state of what his mouth enclosed. It was a nightmare – the pounds he spent before finally submitting to having them removed and dentures inserted. How he hated them too. Of course, that was well after he had moved on from me. We were courting for only two years. Mostly he was at Oxford with myself either at home in County Down or in Dublin. So the opportunities to be together were fairly rare. Honestly, I think he liked the thought of me more than the actuality and we were never intimate, just kisses and embraces, when I could bear them. So it came as a surprise to me that Christmas when he presented me with that beautiful little cross on a thin chain. You know, in our day, that usually indicated that an engagement was imminent. But his visits across the Irish Sea came less and less as his life more revolved around the university – and rumours were already circulating. He was certainly great fun when he was around, but, to tell the truth, the thought of getting up close and amorous with him frightened me. The smells, despite his scents and pomades, just repulsed me. Knowing what we know about Oscar now, what he was getting up to at Oxford and on his jaunts to London, I suspect, would have made a marriage to him a great mistake. Still, I know that when I announced my betrothal to Bram, it came as a great shock to him. Bram was a friend of his so he felt betrayed by both of us. We continued to remain on harmonious terms, Oscar and I, to keep up appearances, but Bram never felt he could trust him to be in my company without his presence. I suppose that is only as it should be.
Bram was far more solid and reliable. He didn’t shine like Oscar, but he held his own in society and found some degree of fame as well. To start with, my husband’s teeth weren’t an issue, but as time went on they started to go the same way as Oscar’s. But that wasn’t our major issue as it turned out. No, what happened within our marriage, I bought on myself. Some of it occurred when I discovered I wasn’t the love of his life. Possibly I wasn’t even in second place – for there was always Oscar, whether Bram trusted him or not. And then, once we moved to London, there was Henry.
Little Noel was born in ‘79, the year of our move. There were to be, as you are aware, no more children. There couldn’t be Anna. What you didn’t know, nor did anybody else as Bram put such a brave face on it, was that I ceased all close proximities to the poor man, if you know what I mean. He was a dear fellow. Everybody said so, unfailingly polite and courteous to me as to everyone else who crossed his path. We made our marriage work for I had deep affection for him and he for me, despite my silliness – and it was silliness. His health was always delicate, but I cared for him when he was afflicted as I cared for him at the end. It was the least I could do. I was happy to be his nursemaid and house keeper, as well as raising our child. But, as for that other role of a wife, I couldn’t bring myself to do it. I don’t know if Bram cared so much in the end, in any case. Maybe I’m deluding myself, but his constitution wasn’t strong enough for exertion – and when he felt it was, well, he sought relief outside the home. I pretended I didn’t know – but we both tacitly reached an understanding that I wouldn’t hold it against him. As well, he had Henry. Henry Irving – the foremost actor of his day. Bram, once he had that job in the great man’s theatre, well, he was simply became infatuated. He couldn’t stop talking about him, although the man treated him as a mere lackey and refused to pay him anything like the amount Bram could get elsewhere. But husband wouldn’t hear of it. He was in thrall of the man. If there was anything else involved, I don’t know. I always had my suspicions, as I had of the days when Bram knew Oscar before I wooed him away. I am at a loss over all that. It’s not in the natural way of things, in my view, but then again, could I blame Bram for finding succour in any way he could after the way I treated him? When, on the few occasions I did broach the subject, Bram shrugged it away. He was hiding something, I was certain – and the proof, I believe, finally came in the way he left me. I believe, though, I was very, very blessed to have had Bram for a husband. It’s excruciating to think about what may have occurred had it been Oscar. Friends have imparted that Oscar never forgave Bram for snatching me away from him. It may have been the case that the reverse applied too – that I snatched Bram away from him. I’m told that charming little cross, that I returned to Oscar, remained on his person till the day the Lord took him. I also worried that Bram was frightened that Oscar would attempt vengeance one day by seeking my affections again. But he was never open with me over this, so I couldn’t allay his fears. There was no chance of it. But if he had of asked, could I have mentioned the teeth, darling Anna?
I did wonder if the perfect teeth of Dracula, including those designed for enabling blood-sucking, could have been Bram’s way of getting back at Oscar. I don’t know, but in his later years my poor husband’s were not very attractive either. I wasn’t giving him much attention at all by this stage. No wonder he wandered out to seek comfort and release from the ladies of the night – or, at least, I assumed they were ladies. In truth, I could not blame him and it was convenient for me. And maybe that killed him, as so many of our social set were afflicted with the dreaded syphilis. The doctors would never say as much, despite my pointed questions, but I suspected. So maybe my restraint saved me from that fate as well. Even so, the lack of love, in the true way, that I failed to show this kind and loyal man does weigh on me heavily now that he’s gone.
My beauty didn’t last, of course. It never does. All those years I spent protecting my complexion and making sure I was the most alluring in the room in all our public engagements have come to nought now he is deceased. They all dried up, just like my porcelain skin.
As you are well aware, my dear, these last years have been devoted to Bram’s legacy. ‘Dracula’ has surpassed all our expectations – and to think that odious Irving once shattered our beloved author by telling him he didn’t possess an ounce of literary talent. I wonder who’ll be remembered better as the years roll on – my Bram or that man? But nothing could break his hold. At least Bram outlived his hero and had some freedom from his constant barbs in his last years.
So darling lady, my confession of imperfection is before you. I feel a little more peace in my life now. Is that unfair of me? I have often been touted as the one who won the heart of Oscar when she was a girl and Bram’s when I was a woman, but in truth, despite my limitations as a wife, my heart will always belong to Bram. More so now than ever. I hope history will treat him kindly as it has not for Oscar. They are both brilliant men and I fear, with my vanity and foibles, I served neither well. With your assistance I have tried to make it up to my husband – so thank you dear Anna for your friendship, wise judgement and future discretion
Part of the above is my imagining with a new book on Wilde on the retail shelves and a coming series on ‘Dracula’ destined for our small screens. Her marriage to Bram Stoker allowed the former Irish beauty Florence Balcombe to meet Presidents of the USA and a Prime Minister, Gladstone, became a friend, regaling her as the greatest beauty of the day. The Patti Boyd, perhaps, of her times, her association with two literary icons, as well as her own prominence as a jewel of the London social set, ensures for her a small place in history. In later life she fought tooth and nail (you punster) to protect the inheritance of Stoker. His vampiric tale has generated millions. We have moved on from the primitive dentistry of Victorian times, but with Drac it’s all about the teeth, darling.
More on Florence – http://womensmuseumofireland.ie/articles/florence-balcombe