This blog is about two records on temporary display at The National Archives as part of Stories Unboxed. You can see them for yourself by visiting the first floor of our building in Kew during opening hours.
What connects Bram Stoker’s tale of vampires with Thomas Hardy’s west country heroine, Tess of the d’Urbervilles? It might sound like some kind of fan fiction mashup, but the answer is actually hidden in The National Archives’ collection of copyright registration forms.
During the Victorian period, improved transport systems had opened up theatre attendance to a wider audience (see footnote 1), and demand for new plays was often fed by the adaptation of popular novels. Some novelists adapted their own work for the stage, but sometimes other people would write a play based on a novel without the permission of the author.
Sir Thomas Henry Hall Caine was a celebrated author through the latter Victorian era and into the twentieth century. His work was appropriated by ‘dramatic pirates’ (see footnote 2) spurring him on to begin writing his own plays and adaptations. Charles Dickens was similarly a victim of intellectual property theft when his popular works were staged without his consent (see footnote 3).
It was in this environment that Bram Stoker and Thomas Hardy put on ‘copyright performances’ of their novels within two months of each other in 1897. A copyright performance wasn’t aimed at a paying audience, but was simply a means of establishing the rights to ‘the sole liberty of representation or performance of a dramatic piece or musical composition’ (see footnote 4).
Tess of the d’Urbervilles was initially serialised in ‘The Graphic’ illustrated newspaper in 1891 before being published as a book in 1892. Hardy wrote a stage version in 1894 but theatre managers at the time found his adaptation ‘essentially unstageable’ (see footnote 5), and it took another thirty years before it was performed.
In 1897 an American actor, Mrs Minnie Maddern Fiske, commissioned playwright Lorimer Stoddard to write an adaptation of Tess specifically for her (with Hardy’s permission; see footnote 6). Stoddard’s version opened on Broadway on Tuesday 2 March 1897 (see footnote 7) and on the same day Hardy arranged a copyright performance at the St James’ Theatre, King Street in London. He completed the copyright registration form four days later on Saturday 6th, with both Stoddard and Hardy himself listed as the authors.
Bram Stoker’s novel Dracula was published on 16 May 1897, and the copyright performance was staged just two days later at the Lyceum Theatre in London, where he was the manager. Stoker then completed the copyright registration form the following day.
Although he had taken this action before the advent of film, Stoker’s efforts to protect his rights to ‘the sole liberty of representation or performance of a dramatic piece’ actually enabled a piece of cinematic history.
In 1922, German film director Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau produced his silent film ‘Nosferatu’. In the opening credits, a title card acknowledged that the film was based on the Dracula story.
Stoker had died in 1912, but his widow, Florence, successfully sued Murnau for copyright infringement and the German courts ordered that all copies of the film should be destroyed. However, by that time multiple prints of the film had been distributed worldwide, so Murnau’s creation survived and is now considered a classic.
The copyright registration forms completed by Hardy and Stoker are part of a vast collection of documents in record series COPY 1 at The National Archives. These include forms registering copyright ownership of photographs, artwork and advertising among other things, and together they cover a period of 70 years from 1842 to 1912.
But to return to my opening question: what connects Dracula and Tess of the d’Urbervilles? I’ve explained that my answer is ‘copyright’, but I confess that I began to imagine how it might work if somebody decided to write a story where they met… I mean, those Twilight books sold pretty well, didn’t they?
Just for fun I decided to ask ChatGPT ‘What would happen if Dracula met Tess of the d’Urbervilles?’, and I thought I’d share the response:
‘It’s difficult to predict exactly what would happen if Dracula met Tess of the d’Urbervilles, as they come from very different literary works and genres. However, we can imagine a few possible scenarios:
1. Dracula is intrigued by Tess’s purity and innocence and decides to prey on her. As a vampire, Dracula is attracted to young, beautiful women and may see Tess as a prime target. Tess, on the other hand, may be frightened or repulsed by Dracula’s supernatural nature and try to defend herself.
2. Tess, being a strong and independent woman, may resist Dracula’s advances and even try to defeat him. She may use her wits and resourcefulness to outsmart the vampire, much like the protagonist in Bram Stoker’s novel, Van Helsing.
3. Alternatively, the two characters may form an unlikely alliance or friendship. They may bond over their shared sense of loneliness and alienation from society, as both are seen as outsiders in their respective stories. Dracula may even see Tess as a kindred spirit and offer to turn her into a vampire, which Tess may consider as a means of escaping her tragic fate in her own story.
In any case, the encounter between Dracula and Tess would be a fascinating and intriguing one, full of dramatic tension and unexpected twists.’ChatGPT
Right – I’m off to start writing it before somebody else does.
- ‘History of Late Nineteenth Century Drama’ by John Ramsay Allardyce Nicoll, Cambridge University Press, 1949. Referred to in Wikipedia article ‘Theatre in the Victorian Era’. Accessed 25 April 2023.
- ‘My Story’, Thomas Henry Hall Caine. Nabu Press 2010. Referred to by Kristan Tetens in an abstract to her paper ‘“The Real Romantic Drama”: Hall Caine’s Novels on the Late-Victorian Stage’. Accessed through Warwick University Theatre and Performance Studies One Day Colloqium 2015.
- Jacky Bratton in an abstract to her paper ‘WT Moncrieff – master or monster of nineteenth-century adaptation?’ Accessed through Warwick University Theatre and Performance Studies One Day Colloqium 2015.
- Wording used on the declaration at the top of the copyright registration form.
- Thomas Hardy and the Stage by Keith Wilson. The Thomas Hardy Journal Vol 23 2007 pp35. Accessed 24 April 2023.
- ‘Tess in the Theatre. Two dramatizations of Tess of the d’Urbervilles’ edited by Marguerite Roberts. University of Toronto Press. Accessed through Muse.jhu.edu https://muse.jhu.edu/article/551907/pdf
- Broadway world. Accessed 24 April 2023.