No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

2012/37: Dracula -- Bram Stoker

... he is not free. Nay, he is even more prisoner than the slave of the galley, than the madman in his cell. He cannot go where he lists, he who is not of nature has yet to obey some of nature’s laws ... [Chapter 18]
Read for the Coursera Fantasy and SF course (week 3).

I'm not sure I'd ever read Dracula from start to finish: I was surprised that the pacing was so slow (except in the final chapter where it's frenetic), and the revelations so gradual.

There's a lot to think about in this novel: Van Helsing's attempts at the scientific method (he doesn't share his thought processes with his colleagues); the culture of bribery which prevails in Eastern Europe, and why this is different to the profligacy with which Harker et al distribute beer money to the British working class; railway timetables, and whether the trains in England were really so very much more reliable than those abroad; how Mina internalises the cultural consensus on the inferiority of women, even though she's clearly smarter than most (if not all) of the men in the novel; sources of income for the middle-class Harkers (primarily the legacy from Hawkins, one presumes, and the largesse of Lord Godalming); why Lucy is so very irresistible to men.

My Coursera essay (below) started life as a discussion of the Count's attraction to Lucy. (Perhaps she reminded him of Vampire Bride #1, who is also described as blonde and blue-eyed: on the other hand, apparently death alters the colour of Lucy's hair, as the figure they 'recognise' as Lucy in the Hampstead graveyard is dark-haired.) But then I came up with a hypothesis that seemed to answer a frequently-asked question on the course forum ("Why did Dracula go to Whitby in particular?"), and was surprised not to find any discussion of it online.

The plot of Dracula is driven by Count Dracula's decision to leave Transylvania and establish himself in England. "I long to go through the crowded streets of your mighty London," he tells Jonathan Harker. Yet, although Dracula has purchased a house in Purfleet, east of London, his first landfall in England is hundreds of miles away at Whitby. The correspondence of Dracula's solicitors, the highlighting of Whitby in Dracula's atlas, and the log of the Demeter, all indicate that Whitby was always his intended port of arrival.

Dracula's presence in Whitby is essential to the novel's plot. It is there that he meets Lucy Westenra, and drinks her blood. Lucy's ensuing 'illness' causes Dr Seward to seek the help of Van Helsing, whose knowledge of vampires enables him to deduce Dracula's nature. Yet no reason for Dracula's arrival in Whitby is ever stated. It could be an attempt to draw attention away from his London estate. Another possibility is that Whitby, though not a major port, seems a good destination for the crates of earth that the Count ships from Transylvania.

However, it is probable that Dracula has read about Whitby churchyard, where "part of the bank has fallen away, and some of the graves have been destroyed". Of the remaining graves, "in nigh half of them there bean’t no bodies at all". Dracula's research materials include newspapers, so he may also have read an account of the suicide and burial of George Canon. Van Helsing's description of Dracula's "earth-home... the place unhallowed, as we saw when he went to the grave of the suicide at Whitby" clarifies the significance of the latter: a suicide's grave is not holy ground. Dracula chooses Whitby because he is confident of finding refuge near the port, whether in an empty or an unhallowed grave.


  1. Oh yes, interesting. You may have a point here. Of course, Stoker's reason for having Dracula arrive in Whitby is that he knew and liked the place. There's no reason why he has to meet Lucy there - in fact such a meeting could easily have happened in London, and relocating it to Whitby adds an extra layer of implausible co-incidence (the woman who is best friends with the wife of the man Dracula has left behind to be killed in Transylvania, and also happens to be the object of affection of the man who owns the house next to Dracula's London property, just happens to turn up in Whitby).

    Maud Ellman talks (in the intro to the older, now superseded Oxford paperback edition) of Dracula being an invasion narrative, just as War of the Worlds is. I considered taking that approach, and asking 'why Whitby?', since more modern sf invasion narratives concentrate on the south-east of England. I do, however, have a suspicion that some of the other invasion literature of the nineteenth century has invasions landing in the north, and indeed, the expectation of a German invasion would be that it would land on the North Sea coast rather than the Channel (and it was that coast that was the target of the first German naval raids of 1914).

  2. Also the interesting Van Helsing who is very different from movie!Van Helsing.