Bram Stoker revisited, review of the Dublin Years: the Lost Journal of Bram Stoker

This article originally appeared on the Huffington Post, September 18 2012

The year 2012 marks the centenary of Bram Stoker’s death. Until now, his seminal novel Dracula remains the dominant focus of interest in him both as a writer and as an individual. However, with the release of a long-lost journal containing 310 individual entries of varying lengths, written across an 11 year period (1871-1882), it is likely scholars and fans alike will now take broader stock of the man. Indeed, his jottings and musings from this period provide a tantalising insight into Stoker himself; his social life in London and Dublin, his sensitivity, his moral outlook, his Irish influences, and, most significantly, his Gothic sensibility.

Having languished in obscurity for several decades, Stoker’s great-grandson, Noel Dobbs discovered the journal about ten years ago. While it was previously accessed by the writer Paul Murray, who used elements of it in his biography of Stoker (From the Shadows of Dracula: A Life of Bram Stoker, 2004), it is only now that the full content of the journal has been made publicly available.

Stoker’s great-grandnephew, Dacre Stoker (who co-authored the bizarre ‘official’ sequel to Dracula: Dracula the Un-dead in 2009), and the founder of the Canadian chapter of the Transylvanian Society of Dracula, Elizabeth Miller, together edited the journal. A job few would envy having seen some of Stoker’s ineligible handwriting reproduced in the volume. In terms of methodology, they decided to present the journal entries thematically. Each chapter also includes introductory commentary, biographical information, as well as forensically extensive footnotes.

The first section deals with Stoker’s jottings as an ‘Aspiring Writer’. The opening entry is the earliest known example of his writing, a heavily descriptive and flowery prose entitled ‘Night-Fishing’. The editors describe it as a ‘word-painting’, where a young blossoming Stoker allows his imagination to wonder freely. The passage reveals Stoker’s personal connection to the sea, and his deep respect for the men who are at her mercy. Such an interest in the ocean would re-emerge in the author’s later work, including: The Watter’s Mou’ (1984), Dracula (1897), The Mystery of the Sea (1902), and Greater Love (1914).

Other jottings in this section also take form in his later published work. For example, he notes down a reminder for a story where ‘a man builds up a shadow on a wall bit by bit adding to substance. Suddenly the shadow becomes alive’. This idea was later used in his short story ‘The Shadow Builder’, in his collection Under the Sunset (1881). Moreover, many of his notes in the journal appear in The Snake’s Pass (1890), and in one entry Stoker actually constructs the basic skeleton structure of the novel.

Perhaps more interesting for fans of Stoker are the entries that contain ideas for short stories and novellas that never bore fruition. It would seem he planned to write a series of stories based around the modern myths of Venus, Mars and Vulcan. And at one point he planned to write a story that sounds not dissimilar to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818), where a man is ‘brought to life in a dissecting room by the application of a new power unexpected’.

There are also a series of interesting images that one expects from the early jottings of an inspiring novelist: ‘rug of cat skins’, ‘Blackguard’s pegging mud at a hearse’, the ‘Man who sought perfection in every way but could never find it’, and a ‘web-legged girl with legs like flippers of a seal’. The latter is influenced by the Irish legends of Selkies, where a girl drowns while at sea with her brother, and appears the next morning washed upon the shore in the embrace of a dead white seal. This is one of the many Irish influences that come through in the collection. One editor even acknowledged the reason for the journal’s release was to cement Stoker as an Irish writer. And with his many musings of Dublin life presented with typical Irish flourish, arguably this has been achieved.

Stoker’s poetry during these years should be considered a work in progress. While at times his prose is interesting enough, much of it is simply imitative. ‘Dreamland’, for example, is written in a trochaic octameter; a similar variation used both by Lord Tennyson in ‘Locksley Hall’, and Edgar Allen Poe in ‘The Raven’. Unsurprisingly, the result is fairly hollow.

The final dated entry in the journal was made eight years before Stoker began work for Dracula, and it is only the editors who mention the novel, essentially jumping on any slight possible reference, desperately wishing the journal to be viewed ‘as one of the breeding grounds for his most famous book’. For example, they claim the man who reflects everybody’s self upon meeting him, ‘is an early allusion to a central motif in Dracula, that the non-human vampire casts no reflection’. This is a fairly weak and tedious link, and is only surpassed by the following bizarre passage:  ‘The man on the ship in Dublin is carrying a bowie knife… Of course, readers of Dracula will recall that the Count is killed with two knives, one of which is a Bowie, wielded by Quincey P. Morris’.

Despite such tedious allegorizing by the editors, it is possible Stoker’s mention of a boy imprisoning flies in a bottle marginally foreshadows Reinfield’s habit of collecting flies in Dracula. Furthermore, the author’s language concerning mental illness in Dracula is similar to the journal. He uses the terms ‘centrifugal’ and ‘centripetal’ – two terms which are later used by Dr Seward opaquely in reference to Reinfield. It is also significant when looking at this elegant collection that Stoker was a man fixated on leaving himself reminders, titled ‘Mem’ – a similar notation used by Jonathan Harker throughout Dracula. Which raises the interesting question: to what extent does Stoker’s work, in particular Dracula, reflect the life and essence of its author?

What is interesting to fans of the Gothic genre is that Stoker’s gothic sensibility is evident throughout. Edgar Allen Poe is alluded to several times and at one point he makes a note about dramatizing Poe’s ‘The Fall of the House of Usher’. Interestingly, it is thought Stoker changed the original ending of Dracula, because it was too similar to Poe’s short story. There is also mention of Dion Boucicault and his play The Vampire: A Phantom Related in Three Dramas (1852), which the editors suggest ‘may have planted an early seed’ in Stoker’s imagination.

Clearly Stoker was a sensitive young man, keenly aware of his loneliness: ‘I feel an infinite pity for myself. Poor little lonely child… will men ever believe that a strong man can have a woman’s heart and the wishes of a lonely child?’ He later recalls seeing a street-beggar in Dublin who he gave a shilling to: ‘She gave a low cry as it fall into her hand – a low quick startled cry that almost wrung my heart, it contained such a woeful story…That low cry was the sweetest and most plaintive music I ever heard in my life’.

In his lifetime, Stoker was most well known as the personal assistant to the actor Henry Irving, and as the business manager of the Lyceum Theatre. The first reference in the journal to Irving is in relation to his performance of Hamlet, a play that is mentioned as well as quoted numerous times in Dracula. At one stage, it seems the editors even draw a comparison between Count Dracula and Henry Irving: both ‘are actors, practitioners of grand deceptions, both are shape-shifters who enter another role with ease, who blur the boundaries between illusion and reality. The grand sweep of Dracula’s gestures mimics Irving in his finest roles’. They argue Stoker’s entries regarding the theatre are very significant, because ‘without the theatre…the novel Dracula as we know it would never have been written’.

Essentially, the journal provides us with a sense of Stoker’s incongruity and keen eye for detail. Through covering a whole myriad of subjects and themes, the editors provide an insight into Stoker as a young man, as a developing novelist, and, most significantly, as a Gothic inspired Irishman who would go on to change the course of Gothic literature, creating one of the most legendary, influential and adapted novels of all time.

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