My inner middle schooler and I had a mind-blowing experience earlier this year. We held the first edition of Dracula, a copy Bram Stoker held and inscribed a month after publication.
For those who don’t know me, Dracula was the book that ignited my reading life. Spotting it in a Scholastic catalog in Mr. Fruits’s classroom literally changed my life.
Research at the Beinecke
Back in April, I was doing archival research for a course project at Yale’s Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library. My project did not involve Dracula or Bram Stoker but the course was the History of the Book and this is an important book in history. And, when in Rome….
While my late-middle-aged self tried to look professionally enthusiastic and scholarly on the outside, my inner kid was jumping with excitement as I waited for the archivist to deliver the novel to my work table.
I was busy studying other materials when the archivist approached and apologized that they would not be able to let me access Dracula. There were concerns it could be deadly.
Okay, I might be overdramatizing a bit.
It’s not easy being yellow, either
There was concern about the book due to the fact that some green and yellow dyes used in the 19th century contained arsenic. The archivists consulted about this book behind the scenes. Long story short, a dedicated archivist dropped what they were doing and tested the material.
They deemed the book safe and I got to spend quality time with it after all.
Dracula was published on May 26, 1897, and Stoker signed this copy in June 1897. Although the Beinecke has several first editions of Dracula, I requested this one because it was inscribed by Stoker, meaning he actually held it.
People are usually surprised when they first see the cover of Dracula. I think we expect something darker, perhaps with images of bats or a dragon or at least some scrollwork. Instead, it is bound in bright yellow with red print and a simple red line. It no doubt stood out in bookshops. Yellow also signified “racy and controversial content” for Victorian readers.
Don’t forget, Bela Lugosi’s iconic 1931 Count Dracula was 34 years away in 1897.
Closeup of the spine. If you’re of a certain age, you might remember a librarian telling you not to pull a book off the shelf by hooking your finger behind the top of the spine and tilting it toward you. It’s because the above eventually happens. The material weakens with age and the repeated stress on a concentrated area causes tears which lead to more destruction. (Here’s a brief and helpful tutorial about how to get a book off the shelf. It’s only 38 seconds, well worth your time.)
The inscription reads: “To Major Ricarde-Seaver from his old friend Bram Stoker June 1897.”
The note taped at the bottom is what archivists call provenance, documentation about the life of an item that verifies claims about it. The note reads: “By direction of the Administrators of F.J. Ricarde-Seaver, deceased. Removed from Frognal Mansions, Hampstead, N.W.”
I searched and discovered that Stoker’s friend’s name is actually F. I., not F. J. It stands for Francisco Ignacio. I then made the assumption that the “s” at the end of Frognal Mansions was another typo, but I was wrong.
Frognal Mansions still stand! Frognal Mansions is an estate containing two Georgian mansions and a coach house. The property went on the market this June for the first time since 1931. The asking price is a cool £22 million.
What a treat to hold a first edition of this beloved novel, a copy that the author held. I love archives!
The back cover
And there was a surprise at the end. I have seen first editions of Dracula on display at book fairs or in antiquarian shops but only ever saw the front of the book. It surprised me that the back is the same as the front.
It would be interesting to track down how Major Ricarde-Seaver and Stoker became friends. I have more questions popping up about this edition and am jotting them down. This personal curiosity might just turn into a project of its own.
What are you curious about?
If you love literary history or history in general, find out if there’s an archive, special collections, or historical society near you. Scan their holdings and see what interests you, then make a research appointment. Most archivists want people to come and look at their holdings.