To celebrate the spookiest of holidays, we’re publishing a selection of excerpts from David J. Skal’s Something in the Blood, a biography of Bram Stoker, published this month by Liveright. Today: a love triangle between Stoker, Oscar Wilde, and Florence Balcombe.
On one of his visits or summer vacations in Ireland, Oscar Wilde made an acquaintance of an “exquisitely pretty girl” of seventeen, he wrote to a classmate. Though unnamed in the letter, she has generally been identified as Florence Anne Lemon Balcombe. Wilde described her as having “the most perfectly beautiful face I ever saw and not a sixpence of money.” He escorted her to an afternoon service, presumably at the ancient Christ Church Cathedral in central Dublin, which had only very recently been restored to a fashionable semblance of its medieval glory. It may have been there that he made her a Christmas gift of a small gold cross engraved with his name.
At five foot eight, the willowy Florence was a good match for the six foot two Oscar, at least for the purpose of Sunday promenades, and Merrion Square was a favorite outdoor location for regular romantic parading. The gated gardens, then accessible by key only to the adjacent residences, was a haven from the unpleasant sights and persons of Dublin’s city core.
Although Wilde would have made nothing of the fact, had he even known it, the Balcombe family lived on the same town-house block in Clontarf where Bram Stoker had been born, but not until years after the Stokers departed the neighborhood. Wilde had no reason to imagine that Stoker, a Trinity alumnus and drama critic who was a friend of his brother’s and a regular at his mother’s salons and soirees might ever have anything to do with his relationship with Florence—much less be centrally involved in its eventual dissolution.
It cannot be precisely determined when in 1878 Oscar Wilde learned of Florence Balcombe’s engagement to Bram Stoker, but most chroniclers have placed the betrothal in late spring or early summer, shortly after Wilde had sent her a note from Bournemouth, saying he was sorry that he was not in Dublin and reminding her of the Easter card he had received from her “over so many miles of land and sea” while traveling in Greece the previous year. Evidently, he hadn’t received anything this time around. The unresolved nature of their relationship was underscored by a puzzling sentence: “The weather is delightful and if I had not a good memory of the past I would be very happy.” If Florence responded at all, she said nothing about the engagement.
The circumstances of the first meeting between Bram and Florence are even more unclear than her first introduction to Wilde. Since it is impossible that Oscar didn’t show her off at one of his mother’s salons—Lady Wilde was an inescapable fact of the Dublin social whirl—it’s completely conceivable Oscar made the introduction himself. Bram, after all, dined regularly at Merrion Square and had become one of Lady Wilde’s favorites. When Oscar matriculated at Oxford and couldn’t return for Christmas, Stoker was a houseguest of the Wildes, figuratively standing in for their absent son.
But one of the most glaring gaps in the surviving papers of the Stokers and the Balcombes is the absence of a single journal notation or any correspondence pertaining to the courtship or engagement. This is especially peculiar given that Florence saved her letters from Wilde. Dubliners, in the days before the telephone, depended on written communications delivered overnight, and even the same day, by a notably efficient postal service as well as foot messengers and cabbies. The premarriage correspondence of the Stokers must have been considerable and, since Bram was a writer, quite expressive. On the other hand, Victorians were notorious for editing their lives through the selective destruction of letters. This might also explain the nonsurvival of all but one of Stoker’s Dublin diaries.