The ingredients are all there:
A high headland; a venerable church overlooking a picturesque town; an 11th century Benedictine Abbey which stands lofty and indomitable even as a ruin; and, most of all, St. Mary’s expansive graveyard, its crooked gravestones telling of multiple tragedies at sea and on land.
Who wouldn’t want to set a Gothic novel in Whitby?
There is nothing arbitrary in Bram Stoker’s choice of this Yorkshire coastal town. If Dracula were published today it would likely earn the title ‘placed-based fiction.’ In some respects the story reads like a travelogue. Whitby, London, and of course a wild adventure eastwards to the Carpathian mountains come to the reader in a vivid richness of detail.
This was what many late Victorians wanted. For his readers, Stoker captured the sights, sounds and tastes of places near and far. Setting the tone, Jonathan Harker writes a memorandum in his journal: get recipe for Mina (his fiancee). He has just eaten a chicken dish with red pepper in a hotel Klausenburgh (present-day Cluj) and notes that while delicious, the food has made him very thirsty. Like any good ‘travel writer,’ Stoker wanted to provide a full sensory experience.
For Stoker and his contemporaries, the age of the train and the steam ship had opened up travel both at home and abroad. Once the preserve of the aristocrat’s “grand tour,” exploration had come, courtesy of the industrial age, to the well-to-do middle class.
Stoker, both a traveler and a meticulous researcher, enjoyed whetting this new appetite. By the time he had begun Dracula, Stoker was a successful man by most standards but he was not an aristocrat. As a middle-class Irishman in London, however, he could aspire, like Shaw and Wilde, to prominence in the British capital’s literary scene; as actor-manager Henry Irving’s business partner, he did indeed rub shoulders with many of the luminaries of the age.
Even if Stoker had stuck to a safe profession like his civil servant father — remaining as he once planned, either a civil servant himself or a practicing lawyer — he would likely have taken advantage of the new opportunities to voyage beyond his shores. As it was, Stoker traveled extensively on business for Henry Irving both in America and mainland Europe. Curiously, he did not go as far east as Jonathan Harker, the solicitor who makes his fateful journey to Dracula’s castle. Stoker’s Transylvania springs from his extensive reading and from the accounts of his brother George who had served as a military doctor in the area.
It might have piqued Stoker to know he had given the reader only a secondhand view of Dracula’s home. As though aware of the shortcoming, Stoker peppered his story, both in Transylvania and England, with an overwhelming amount of local detail. In his journal, Jonathan Harker records details of the lands he travels though — the ethnicity of the various people he sees, their dress (in great detail), their customs, and even their physical ailments, noting the prevalence of enlarged thyroid glands or “goitres” among the “Cszeks and Slovaks.”
Mina simultaneously records in her journal all the impressions of Whitby, including its topography, the viaduct, the history of the abbey, the folklore and beliefs. She also details the pleasures of the town and surrounding areas such as the “sweet little, old fashioned inn” in Robin Hood’s Bay. Stoker slyly draws attention to his knowledge of foreign cities when Mina compares Whitby to “the pictures we see of Nuremburg.” Stoker himself had visited the German city with Irving in preparation for a production of Faust at the Lyceum theatre.
If Stoker’s Transylvania is a secondhand account, albeit a thoroughly-researched one, his Whitby springs from direct experience. In late July and early August 1990 he stayed for the first time on The Royal Crescent, the location he would later give for the lodgings taken by Lucy Westenra and her mother. In Dracula, Mina stays with them as a guest.
Mina’s description of the locals — blushingly patronizing by today’s standards — springs partly from Stoker’s keen observation, partly from research. An old sea dog Mina befriends tells her he must “crammle upon the grees.” According to the notes in the Wordsworth Classics edition, this vernacular means “hobble down the stairs,” and comes from A Glossary of Words Used in the Neighbourhood of Whitby published by F.K. Robinson in 1876. It’s easy to imagine the many hours the bibliophile Stoker would have spent gathering and selecting from such sources.
The stairs referred to, of course, are the famous 199 steps leading up from the narrow winding streets of the town to the the church, St. Mary’s, and the ruined abbey.
It’s not surprising that a brief holiday in Whitby, at Irving’s recommendation, should swiftly have become research for the workaholic Stoker. He had moonlighted as a theatre reviewer while working in the Irish civil service in the 1870s and had published four novels since signing on with Henry Irving for whom he worked tirelessly. On his Whitby “holiday” he was soon recording notes for an embryonic novel which he had already decided would be about a vampire.
Among the publications he found in Whitby’s public library was a British diplomat’s experiences in Bucharest. Stoker read, for the first time it is thought, about Vlad Tepes, a fearsome fifteenth century prince known for impaling his enemies on spikes.
A secondary name for Vlad Tepes, one given to those who inspired fear, translated into English as ‘Son of the Dragon.’
The name in question was Dracula.
Although he continued to tinker with prospective titles over the years until publication in 1897, Stoker had found his count in Whitby.
In further parts to the ‘Whitby and Dracula‘ series, we’ll talk more about Bram Stoker’s love of details and coded messages, Whitby’s presence in film adaptations, and we’ll also see how Whitby celebrates its Gothic connections in the 21st century.
Paul Butler is the author of The Widow’s Fire (Inanna) and the forthcoming Mina’s Child (Inanna, slated for 2020).