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Rethinking Victorian Russophobia: Dracula as Bram Stoker's Irish Vampire Tale

Updated on August 10, 2012

This excerpt is adapted from a longer article. Contents copyright Brittany Muscarella 2011.

“Yet, be it noticed, if you are a stranger, you will not readily get ghost and fairy legends, even in a western village. You must go adroitly to work, and make friends with the children, and the old men, with those who have not felt the pressure of mere daylight existence, and those with whom it is growing less, and will have altogether taken itself off one of these days.”

—William Butler Yeats, from Fairy and Folk Tales of the Irish Peasantry

May 26, 1897: the first edition of DRACULA is published.
May 26, 1897: the first edition of DRACULA is published. | Source

Many critics of Dracula postulate Stoker’s derivation of knowledge about vampire legend and Eastern Europe in general through second-hand travelogues, including that of his brother George Stoker, about the region, its people, and their traditions. But these critics’ hypotheses are just that: educated guesses about the origins of Stoker’s idea and research for the novel. Each of these hypotheses is, of course, plausible, since Stoker did have personal contacts traveling in or writing about Eastern Europe and Russia from whom he could have gleaned his facts and myths; yet no concrete evidence suggests the exact sources Stoker consulted in his research. Therefore, it is equally plausible to assume that Stoker, an avid reader with an Irish mother and a proclivity for horror, magic, and the occult, could have garnered some of his material from a source with which he would have been intimately familiar: Celtic, and specifically Irish, fairytales and folklore. Few critics, even contemporary Irish critics, of Dracula have taken into account the rich tradition of the vampire in Celtic—and, particularly, Irish—mythology and folklore, choosing instead to focus on the novel’s appropriation and use of supposedly Eastern myths and traditions as a projection of Victorian fears, imperial anxieties, and the author’s own social positions and biases.

This project, however, argues that Bram Stoker’s Dracula did not originate as a product of either the Russophobia that permeated Victorian society around the Crimean War; the British Empire’s fear of reverse colonialism by Russia and her Eastern allies; or Stoker’s own prejudices, born of national and familial relationships, against the East. Of course these phenomena could have influenced the author’s idea for his work; but this project assumes that the novel’s obvious, though inaccurate, references to Eastern Europe are the result of Stoker’s desire to set his novel in unfamiliar territory. It instead repositions the possible origin of Stoker’s novel and its infamous title character in Ireland and Irish folklore, where vampires have a strong legacy in beliefs not only about death, ancestors, and the afterlife, but also about Nature, magic, and the nature of human existence. Stoker employs local Irish mythology in his novel in part as a response to the objectification of human beings by the science and technology of Empire; his use of Irish legends, which emphasize the glamour of Nature and suffuse the visible world with magic, reveals the ultimate failure of scientific and linguistic inquiry in the colonial enterprise. So Stoker’s blending of his Irish source material with two literary genres, the travelogue and the Gothic, does not just allow his Victorian audience to travel the world and have adventures—in a word, to experience the geography of the British Empire—without leaving their homes. It also maps onto the Victorian imagination the magic of a spiritual realm that was increasingly forgotten as social decadence and material concern came to the fore, in a time and place that yearned for the romance of chivalry and the wonders of a fairytale.

Gothic literature, like fantasy, takes the familiar and makes it strange. In fact, according to Rosemary Jackson, fantastic literature does not create “another non-human world,” but rather “invert[s]” and “recombin[es]” the “constitutive features” and “elements of this world” in a new way “to produce something strange, unfamiliar and apparently ‘ new’” (8). Dracula does not create an entirely new world but instead presents the author’s worldview, his reality, in a new, often horrific, way. Fantasy, horror, and the occult were familiar aspects of Stoker’s cultural and literary life. Not only was Stoker born in 1847 during the Great Hunger, itself a time of real pestilence and affliction, but his Irish mother also infused his childhood with various “Irish myths” and “ghoulish tales” from Irish history (Cain 8). Stoker was also an avid reader of authors like Goethe, Coleridge, Keats, and Whitman, each of whom wrote works of horror and death and, in most cases, vampirism. Stoker lived out some of the “romantic fantasies and gothic horrors” that he encountered in literature and folklore through his practice of occult magic (Cain 8). Thus, Stoker did not have to go far to find material for his novel: the author’s own “inclination toward romantic and gothic themes and images” (9), combined with the reality of horror and fantasy in his daily life, allowed him not only to rework familiar cultural and literary elements into something strange, but also helped him bring to life a spiritual realm in a world of increased rationalism and spiritual stagnation.

Stoker uses familiar cultural and literary elements to design the location of his novel. He paints an inaccurate depiction of Transylvania and its inhabitants, although he was aware of and interested in the East European and Balkan political environment (Gibson 69). Since Stoker himself had never traveled to the region, he relied upon necessarily biased accounts of the landscape, its geography, people, and traditions in travelogues by those, including his brother George Stoker, who had gone East (69). Some critics read Stoker’s Transylvania as a “masked Ireland” (69), his way of showing his audience their own world in an unfamiliar light. Despite the politics surrounding the 1878 Treaty of Berlin and the “anti-Russian sentiments” that permeated Victorian society as Stoker finished Dracula (Cain 119), most Victorians would have seen any East European region, whether Transylvania or Russia, as “one of the wildest and least known parts of Europe” (Stoker 6). Thus, this wild unknown provides the ideal scenery for a novel steeped in gothic imagery and the magic of a spiritual world while easily pointing to Ireland itself, where historically the land and the peasants, especially during the Irish Land War, were viewed as wild psychotic criminals—“‘midway between the lunatic and the savage’” (qtd. in Stewart 250).

Yet Stoker’s Transylvania is not as unfamiliar and exotic as most critics would make it. On his trip to Transylvania, Jonathan Harker wonders at the “groups of people” and “peasants” he sees—not because they are so foreign or fancifully dressed, but rather because “some of them were just like the peasants at home” or the ones he saw “coming through France and Germany” (7). The women are “pretty” and, although some are dressed in “clumsy” or unfamiliar attire, each of them still wears “petticoats” under her clothes—“of course” (7). The “Slovaks” are the “strangest” people Harker encounters, “more barbarian than the rest” (and, according to Harker’s description, more the image of an American “cowboy” than an “Oriental”) (7). Stoker’s use of “barbarian” in this passage recalls the Roman and Roman-Briton perception of the Insular Celts (as well as Celtic tribes in Gaul, Spain, Anatolia, and other regions) and further links Ireland to his Transylvania.

Jonathan Harker’s geographical references further emphasize the uncanny similarity between Ireland and Stoker’s Transylvania. When he arrives in Transylvania, Harker laments the lack of “any map or work” he could use to locate Dracula’s Castle (6). For him, the known world has already been mapped by the Ordnance Survey, which produces maps of Great Britain; the wilds of Ireland fell under the Ordnance Survey until 1922, and had to be tamed by British geography. In fact, the Ordnance Survey “renamed the placenames of an entire nation [Ireland] in a different language” and in doing so made Ireland a civilized location (Clougherty 146). Transylvania, too, has “no maps…as yet to compare” with Britain’s “own Ordnance Survey maps” (6)—but Harker indicates the possibility of a future in which Transylvania is mapped like Ireland.

Dracula reflects the map’s civilizing mission even as it denies that mission, giving its audience freedom to explore new and uncharted territory. The novel does not contribute to an imaginary mapping of Eastern Europe by Britain, as indicated by Harker’s “as yet”; but it does suffuse the visible world of Transylvania with the invisible magic of Irish mythology and folklore, in part as a testament to the power of the spiritual realm in an age of scientific and rational inquiry. And the revenant tales he uses to build this textual world model the vampire story—and archetype—he establishes and perpetuates in Dracula.

Matthew Gibson’s notion that “the vampire, as literary phenomenon, has its origins in Near Eastern traditions” (6) is incorrect for two reasons. The first is obvious: the vampire as a folkloric, cultural phenomenon certainly has roots in the “Near East” (an entity that Gibson restricts, for the sake of the vampire, to Eastern Europe and the Balkans), in Russia, and Greece, but it is also a figure familiar to Sumerian, Latin, Egyptian, Indian, Finno-Tartar, Chinese, Norwegian, Korean, African, English, French, and, most importantly for this study, Celtic traditions, from antiquity to the present. None of these traditions was written down until at least the eighteenth century, and in the case of the Slavic tales, after the Austrian Empire took Wallachia and Serbia from the Ottoman Empire in 1730—though even this timeframe is uncertain, since William of Newburgh records many medieval revenant tales, including vampire tales, in his Historia de rebus anglicis ; the Icelandic Sagas also record multiple stories of draugr, a revenant, most often vampiric, creature.

The second reason that Gibson’s claim should be contested is that it fails to distinguish between the “vampire” and the “undead” figure that these traditions represent—the undead, even those of Slavic legends, are not the stereotype that Stoker’s novel perpetuates. The vampire as a literary phenomenon has its origins in the West, probably in John Polidori’s The Vampyre , a nineteenth-century novella that established the archetypical figure of the vampire in Western tradition. It is important to note that Celtic mythology, more than any other tradition, provides the model for both Polidori’s and Stoker’s blood-sucking aristocrats: the character of Count Dracula and his dependence upon soil echoes not just the Irish Land War, a connection that occupies many critics of the novel, but also the legend of Abhartach, a Celtic chieftain of the “Glenullin area” during the “fifth and sixth centuries” (Curran 12). Evil Abhartach terrorizes his people and the nobility, who want to destroy him but fear doing so because they fear him so (12). They ask another chieftain to kill him; he does and buries Abhartach standing up in the earth. Abhartach returns, demands blood to “sustain his vile corpse” (12). The chieftain tries again, killing and burying Abhartach until he is told that Abhartach is one of the “neamh-mhairbh ” and the “dearg-diúlaí ”—the bloodsucking undead—who cannot be killed, only “‘restrained’” if pierced with a yew-wood sword and “buried upside down in the earth” (12). Only an earthen tomb covered by a rock “leacht” (13; sepulchre) can contain Abhartach; the Count is contained by his “earth-boxes” (Stoker 344), his “vast ruined castle” in Transylvania (20), and the “ancient structure, built of heavy stones,” surrounded by gates of “old oak and iron” that he keeps in England (31).

Revenant tales like the legend of Abhartach both draw an important connection between aristocracy and vampirism and stress the importance of the spiritual realm in Irish history, mythology, and cosmology. Bob Curran suggests that although many cultures “have vampire stories,” revenant tales “have a particular resonance in Ireland,” where the “interest in and veneration of” the spirit world and dead ancestors (even those who might come back from the grave) is not a primitive practice but rather a lasting belief system that shapes Irish attitudes, worldviews, and practices; even in contemporary times “few local people will approach the grave” of Abhartach (13). Furthermore, the horrors Ireland experienced during the Great Hunger only “added to the lore” of the Irish vampire: people “supplemented a meagre diet” with animal blood; the names of places that particularly felt the Hunger “reflect communal blood-letting sites” (13). This lore impacted Stoker as well—the similarities between the Abhartach legend and Dracula are not coincidental. Stoker is believed to have read two books in particular—Patrick Weston Joyce’s A History of Ireland in 1880 and, around the same time, Geoffrey Keating’s seventeenth-century The History of Ireland , whose tenth chapter on the undead, on loan from Trinity College Library, was on display at the National Museum in Dublin—that contain this legend among other Irish vampire tales (Curran 15).

The magic of the Irish spiritual world transposed onto Stoker’s Transylvania opens up a world of exploration for a late Victorian audience. Jonathan Harker’s observation—“the further East you go the more unpunctual are the trains” (Stoker 7)—recalls some lines from fragments in Goethe’s Paralipomena : “The further northward one may go,/ the plentier soot and witches grow.” While Harker’s remark indicates that the move eastward into Transylvania will be for him a move from industry and “civilization” to wilderness and nature, Goethe’s poem suggests the same for a traveler heading north. So even to move northward, beyond Transylvania—to Ireland, perhaps—would place Harker in a world in which trains come slowly and witches are afoot in the soot and shadow of industry. According to Jimmie E. Cain, “tourism replaces adventure” in a British Empire where “superpower politics” delimit and determine the boundaries of imperial expansion and exploration (7). Dracula ’s close association with the forces of Nature brings adventure to late Victorians who did not actively participate in the colonial enterprise, helping them chart new territory in a region outside of Britain’s imperial hold. Jonathan Harker’s description of the landscape on his trip to Castle Dracula brings the Romanian countryside to life:

"Beyond the green swelling hills of the Mittel Land rose mighty slopes of forest up to the lofty steeps of the Carpathians themselves. Right and left of us they towered, with the afternoon sun falling full upon them and bringing out all the glorious colours of this beautiful range, deep blue and purples in the shadows of the peaks, green and brown where grass and rock mingled, and an endless perspective of jagged rock and pointed crags, till these were themselves lost in the distance, where the snowy peaks rose grandly. Here and there seemed mighty rifts in the mountains, through which, as the sun began to sink, we saw now and again the white gleam of falling water." (12)

Harker’s description of Transylvania bears a resemblance to Mina’s journal entry about Whitby—a “lovely place,” “beautifully green” where the rock and sand give way to grass, set on “high land” overlooking a harbor and “deep valley” (77)—and furthers the accessibility of Transylvania for the reader.

The entire novel, composed of journal entries, newspaper articles, and other first-hand accounts of events and landscapes, resembles an English travelogue and puts readers into the minds of its English travelers. Yet the images of nature look less beautiful and inviting to Harker and the band of British travelers the deeper they become enmeshed in the fabric of the spiritual realm that Dracula and his world represent; in this way, the novel both serves as a cautionary tale to late Victorians who fantasize about having adventures outside the confines of the British Empire, where ghosts, witches, and undead reign, as well as provides a vicarious means for them to live out those fantasies. Harker’s fantasy journey to see the Count becomes a “grim adventure” the farther he travels into the Transylvanian landscape (Stoker 21). But the British are not just subjected to the horrors of the gothic environment the Count inhabits; they, too, subject the Count to their sporting and hunting discourses in a way that imagines him both as the hunter and the hunted. When Dracula associates with “wolves” (17) he embodies and exudes “the feelings of the hunter” (25), stalking and terrorizing the travelers from his castle in the wilderness. He becomes a figure of “imperious command” (19) for the “dwellers in the city” (25) when they leave the comforts of industry and Empire and venture into unknown regions. At the same time, the Count wants to be incorporated into the boundaries of the British Empire, a place of “magazines and newspapers,” “history, geography, politics, political economy, botany, geology, law” (27). He expresses a longing to leave the wilderness of the Carpathians and “to go through the crowded streets” of “mighty London” where he can exist “in the midst of the whirl and rush of humanity” (27). Here the Count also expresses a desire to trade his position as the hunter for one as the hunted, to leave the wilds where the wolves rule for the city where their prey dwells. For the rest of the novel, he becomes the prey (but sly prey, like a fox) of the “vampire hunters.”

Even though the Count becomes the prey of the vampire hunters, the link he maintains with nature emphasizes the failure of science and industry to use, limit, and contain nature within empire. Dr. Van Helsing’s science and medicine fail to save Lucy. His appeals to the “flowers” and “air” and “garlic” (Stoker 158) that he fashions into a primitive occult ritual designed to protect and deliver Lucy come too late: eventually Arthur must take “the stake and the hammer” and destroy her (256). Science begins to draw the spiritual and material worlds together when Mina and Dracula share the vampire virus, but the band’s denial of the spiritual realm destroys that scientific and psycho-spiritual link, too, which the consumption and exchange of each other’s blood had forged between them. “And you, their best beloved one,” Dracula tells Mina, “are now to me,” not only “flesh of my flesh; blood of my blood”; but also “kin of my kin … my companion and my helper” (339). This blood exchange results from Mina’s attempt to “play [her] brains against [his]” and “help [the] men to hunt [him] and frustrate [him]” (339), a sentiment that echoes the plight of nature under colonial and industrial enterprise: Mina, the colonial representative, fails to bring Nature under the control of Empire despite the blood each sheds for the other. Mina’s psychic connection to the Count only becomes apparent when Van Helsing uses hypnosis, an occult art coming into vogue in the nineteenth century, on her; the spiritual realm can only be accessed through this special magic, but the group’s plea for a “spiritual guidance” that they deny throughout the novel, comes too late (305).

The vampire hunters’ destruction of Dracula mimics the scene at Whitby where “some of the graves have been destroyed” (Stoker 77). Whitby’s spiritual associations—with the story of “‘Marmion,’” or the legend of the “white lady”—give it a “beautiful and romantic” quality, but the beauty and romance of the place are just another “noble ruin” in a world of “red-roofed” houses “piled up one over the other” (77). “They have a legend here” but it only lives in “the talk of three old men” (78). But even the old man who tells Mina of the legend of the lost ship has become “a funny old man,” “awfully old,” with a “face gnarled and twisted like the bark of a tree”—yet a “skeptical” one who wouldn’t “‘fash mashel’” about legends and myths (78). Just so: for Mina he is only “a good person to learn interesting things from” (79), not an interesting person to learn good things from. Yet old man has existed in “old days” (79), in times and places other than daylight; he understands the magic of the moon and the night, and still has the strength to walk the “delicate curve” of the innumerable stairs that twist through the ruins of the place.

But Mina does not set herself to the difficult task of mining myth and legend from one whose familiarity with daylight grows less, since her own skepticism overrides her connection to a spiritual world. Although the band of hunters destroys its prey in the end, still Dracula leaves his indelible mark upon even the unbitten: the vampire hunters have slaughtered this vestige of a realm of nature, spirit, and magic, the kind of place that their world needs but rejects, the kind of place that Whitby once was though now it falls to ruin; so that Mina and Jonathan’s child, born of pain, madness, and mortality, becomes a symbol of death in new life.

Works Cited

Cain, Jr., Jimmie E. Bram Stoker and Russophobia. Jefferson: McFarland & Co., 2006. Print.

Clougherty, Jr., R. J. “Voiceless Outsiders: Count Dracula as Bram Stoker.” New Hibernia

Review/Iris Éireannach Nua 4.1 (Spring 2000): 138-151. Print.

Curran, Bob. “Was Dracula an Irishman?” History Ireland 8.2 (Summer 2000): 12-15. Print.

Gibson, Matthew. “Bram Stoker’s Dracula and the Treaty of Berlin (1878).” Dracula and

the Eastern Question: British and French Vampire Narratives of the Nineteenth-

century Near East. Britain: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006. 69-95. Print.

Jackson, Rosemary. Fantasy: The Literature of Subversion. London: Routledge, 1981. Print.

Stewart, Bruce. “Bram Stoker’s Dracula: Possessed by the Spirit of the Nation?” Irish

University Review 29.2 (Autumn-Winter 1999): 238-255. Print.

Stoker, Bram. Dracula. New York: Barnes & Noble Classics, 2003. Print.

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