Running out of Soil

Terry Eagleton

  • From the Shadow of Dracula: A Life of Bram Stoker by Paul Murray
    Cape, 356 pp, £18.99, July 2004, ISBN 0 224 04462 1

Ireland has less of a tradition of literary realism than England, though for an English critic to say so may require a degree of diplomacy. It may sound like saying that Ireland is deficient in realism in the same way that a nation might be deficient in hospitality or human rights. This is because realism is one of those terms which can be both normative and descriptive, like ‘nature’ or ‘culture’. It can mean, neutrally, the kind of art which aims for verisimilitude, or it can mean one which succeeds in penetrating to the truth of how things are. Realism can refer to the representational mode of an art form, or to its cognitive effect. Paul Murray quotes me in this book as claiming that the Irish literary tradition is one of ‘largely non-realistic works’, whereas what I actually wrote was ‘non-realist’. ‘Realistic’ is a value term, whereas ‘realist’ is not, or not necessarily.

One has to be careful, then, not to imply that Irish literature is non-realist in the sense of being sunk in regressive fantasy, not least because history has given the Irish good reason to suspect the English of cultural supremacism. Realism is often presented as a ‘mature’ art form, one which has evolved out of crude stereotypes and gross improbabilities; and it is not hard to map this literary graph onto the march of imperial progress. On this view, the Irish never quite made it from myth to realism, just as they never quite climbed out of savagery into civility. While England had Middlemarch, they had Melmoth the Wanderer.

In general, Ireland’s freedom from English realism was a gain rather than a loss, as was its eventual freedom from British rule. When James Joyce wrote to a friend that ‘it is my revolt against the English conventions, literary and otherwise, that is the main source of my talent,’ he spoke for many more Irish writers than himself.

Yet to be free of a convention is not to ignore it. Wilde was hardly ignorant of how to flatter a duchess or please a West End audience, but it was never easy to decide whether this was deference or parody, or whether imitation might not be the sincerest form of mockery. Like many colonial writers, Wilde was perverse in far more than a sexual sense. This colonial mimic man deploys the conventions of English stage comedy so flawlessly that it is hard not to feel that he is sending them up, rather as Gulliver’s Travels is a spoof of English travel writing, and Ulysses is a monstrous parody of English naturalistic fiction. Nobody needs conventions more than those who are out to subvert them.

It was not that the Irish did not know about English realism but, rather, that they could not understand what all the fuss was about. What was so marvellous about a scrupulous description of a steam engine when you could write about talking horses, ageing portraits or sinking your teeth into young women’s necks? Faced with a dreary surfeit of reality in everyday life, along with a Celtic heritage of extravagant fantasy and exuberant wordplay, the Irish could see no particular virtue in photographic accuracy. Joyce could learn nothing from Thackeray or George Eliot. The point of literature was to transfigure reality, not to reflect it – which is why, from the heretical medieval philosopher John Scottus Eriugena to Bishop Berkeley and W.B. Yeats, there is such a robust Irish faith in the imagination’s power to summon new worlds into existence. Philosophically, this suspicion of realism went hand in hand with a rejection of rationalism and materialism. If there is such an entity as the Irish mind, it is of a strongly idealist bent. Realism was in any case never far enough from atheism for a deeply religious nation. Indeed, the term ‘naturalism’ has a relevance to both creeds.

The Irish resistance to realism had its snobbish tinge as well. For the pseudo-patrician Yeats, realism was for grocers and English vulgarians. The Celtic Revival was a high-minded matter of poetry and drama, rather than of a menial form like the novel. The Irish felt crushed by the British, but they also felt spiritually superior to them, despising their prosaic, petty-bourgeois, dismally industrialised spirit. Bram Stoker disliked literature which dealt with the ‘grim realities of life’. When dissident writers such as Joyce and George Moore wished to enrage their compatriots, it was to the scandalously naturalistic Ibsen and Zola that they turned.

It was Laurence Sterne, born in Tipperary, who first unmasked English literary realism as an impossible enterprise. No sooner had the novel made its appearance in 18th-century England than Sterne responded with Tristram Shandy, a great anti-novel which showed how a text which tried to represent everything with painstaking meticulousness would simply buckle and implode. Modern Ireland was equally a source of anti-novels, such as Ulysses, Finnegans Wake and Flann O’Brien’s At Swim-Two-Birds, as well as a purveyor of anti-drama in the work of Samuel Beckett.

If the Irish supplied England with much of their stage comedy, from Goldsmith and Sheridan to Shaw and Wilde, it was partly because comedy turns on a conflict between the way conventions feel natural when you are inside them, and arbitrary when you step beyond their limits. The Irish were peculiarly well placed to dramatise this discrepancy. The two nations, to adopt a Shavian witticism, were divided by the same language; and the fact that the Irish wrote in a tongue which was only ambiguously their own meant that they used it with the sort of self-consciousness which lends itself to Modernism. Because they were less hidebound than the English by the cultural pieties which the language sedimented, they were freer to take liberties with it. Colonial writers usually have more than one tradition to write in, and so have richer resources than their metropolitan counterparts. Anyway, because they lack a natural-bred authority, they need to be more innovative.

Some Irish critics, anxious for a home-grown alternative to F.R. Leavis’s Great Tradition, have found it in what is known as Protestant Gothic. There is a fertile lineage of Gothic fiction in Ireland, from Charles Maturin’s Melmoth the Wanderer and Sheridan Le Fanu’s Uncle Silas to Bram Stoker’s Dracula and Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray. Even the Irish Protestant Iris Murdoch’s darkly fantastic fiction makes more sense when read against this background. In fact, from the late 18th century onwards, there is a rich seam of Irish Gothic writing by women, from Regina Maria Roche and Sydney Owenson (Lady Morgan) to Jane Elgee (Lady Wilde) and Elizabeth Bowen.

If they were solidly reputable bourgeois, Irish Protestants also preserved a secret pact with the vagrant, the deviant, the unspeakable terror lurking in the attic. Exuberant, gregarious and loquacious, they could also be violent, profligate, fearfully superstitious, recklessly self-destructive and eccentric to the point of incipient insanity. Charles Maturin, the clerical author of Melmoth the Wanderer, had to be forbidden by his bishop from ceaseless frenetic dancing. Sheridan Le Fanu, perhaps the finest Irish Gothicist, locked himself reclusively away, while Wilde’s Trinity tutor, John Pentland Mahaffy, once crawled into a roomful of clergymen dressed in a tigerskin rug. Richard Whately, Archbishop of Dublin, could occasionally be seen swinging on chains in front of his palace, smoking a pipe. Even the modern-minded Charles Stewart Parnell was hag-ridden with superstition, while Yeats regularly conversed with spirits. Bram Stoker dabbled in Orientalism, the occult and notions of racial degeneration in a way which was almost de rigueur for a Fin-de-Siècle Irish Protestant intellectual.

Protestant Gothic – a world of decay, madness and murderous loathing, in which the burden of a bloodstained past weighs like a nightmare on the living – can be seen as the political unconscious of a chronically insecure ruling class. Irish Gothic flourished by and large at the time Catholic nationalism was emerging; and nationalist leaders such as Daniel O’Connell were occasionally portrayed as Gothic monsters. There is even a notion that Dracula is none other than Parnell, though he is also thought to have been modelled on the Victorian Orientalist Richard Burton, the actor Henry Irving (whose habits were nocturnal) and Stoker himself, not to speak of Vlad the Impaler.

Violent, priest-ridden, full of mouldering ruins and religious fanaticism, Ireland was ripe for Gothic treatment. Nothing lent itself more readily to the genre than the decaying gentry in their crumbling houses, isolated and besieged, haunted by memories of ancient crimes which refused to be decently buried. Roy Foster has persuasively argued that the Irish Protestant fascination with magic and secret societies reflects a sense of social displacement, but also provided a substitute for Catholic ritual and solidarity. Gothic is the most paranoid of literary forms; but whereas in England the persecuted figure was often a woman, in Ireland it was, ironically, the governors themselves, divided as they were from the mass of the population by ethnic, religious and political differences. Irish Gothic figures like Melmoth and Dracula are both victim and exploiter, outcast and aristocrat, rather as the Irish Ascendancy felt itself to be a cast-off ruling class shabbily treated by the British government. Today, that ambivalence has descended to the Northern Unionists.

It is this heritage, not the Carpathian mountains, which gave birth to Dracula. Not that the two are all that far apart: the association between the Irish and ‘Orientals’ was a commonplace one, and Lady Wilde was greatly interested in Transylvania. It has even been suggested that the name ‘Dracula’ is reminiscent of an Irish phrase meaning ‘bad blood’, though its more obvious derivation is from the 15th-century Wallachian ruler Vlad Tepes, who is said to have forced mothers to eat their own babies, and who as the son of Dracul was known as Dracula. Yet Vlad, bad as he was, was never thought to be a vampire.

Stoker’s Dracula is that most Irish of villains, an absentee landlord, who leaves his Transylvanian castle to buy up property in London. Like the Protestant Irish, he combines weirdness with a dash of hard-headed realism. Dracula is a material ghoul, much preoccupied with leases and title deeds. When he is slashed with a knife banknotes, not blood, spill from his breast. Like many Ascendancy gentlemen he is a devout Anglophile who plans, a touch bathetically, to settle in Purfleet. A good many Irish Protestants also washed up in England, when they fled Ireland after political independence. By the end of Stoker’s novel, Dracula is running out of soil. Furnished only with the crates of Transylvanian earth he needs to bed down for the night, his material base is rapidly dwindling. Not long after Dracula appeared, legislation allowed tenant farmers to purchase the landed estates of the Irish Ascendancy, a terminus rather less traumatic than a stake through the heart.

Paul Murray’s new biography of Stoker begins, ominously enough, by striking a bluff, plain-minded, enough-of-these-fancy-ideas note. It is certainly true that Dracula has suffered from an excess of theoretical inquiry, but this is because it is a sitting duck for such an approach. Murray himself observes that the work has been seen as full of ‘deviant and taboo forms of sexuality, including rape, incest, adultery, oral sex, group sex, sex during menstruation, bestiality, paedophilia, venereal disease and voyeurism’. The novel also lends itself wonderfully well to post-structuralism, since like a lot of Irish writing it is fascinated by writing. It has been argued that the typewriter is one of its leading characters, and the book is stuffed with documents, telegrams, title deeds and state-of-the-art reproductive technology like the phonograph and photography. In a Modernist blending of the atavistic and the avant-garde, the hero of the novel, Jonathan Harker, regrets not having brought his Kodak with him to the count’s Transylvanian castle.

Murray is not wholly dismissive of Marxist and Freudian readings of the novel. He even writes of the ‘middle-class, meritocratic values which underlie it’, a dangerously Marxist statement. But as a practical man of the world (he is the Irish ambassador to the Republic of Korea), he prefers that set of sophisticated hypotheses known as common sense. Scarcely has he declared his preference for it, however, than he is telling us that to a large extent Count Dracula is Bram Stoker, which may be true but is hardly commonsensical. It also sounds suspiciously like an example of the ‘one-dimensional, catch-all and generally simplistic explanation’ which he has just been rather sniffy about. The source of Dracula, he claims, is ‘the mind of its author’, as though the source of Hamlet lies not in the historically particular beliefs, sentiments, ideas and opinions of Shakespeare (which are open to theoretical inquiry) but in something quite distinct from these known as his mind (which is not).

These regulation prejudices aside, Murray delivers a thorough, informative, remarkably well-researched account, even if his prose style could do with a spot of Gothic colour. Like most literary biographies, the book is full of supremely useless details, such as the fact that its brawny subject threw a cricket ball 105 yards while a student. Stoker (Bram is short for Abraham) was born in Dublin in 1847 into an evangelical religious family. He graduated from Trinity College Dublin, where he was a notable athlete, an Irish patriot and a mild supporter of British imperialism, the latter two being entirely compatible for members of his caste. He was later to support Gladstone and Home Rule, though he shared his class’s reach-me-down hatred of Fenianism. After a brief, boring spell as a petty sessions clerk in the civil service, during which he published the unsensationally titled Duties of Clerks of Petty Sessions, he became a Dublin theatre reviewer, newspaper editor and fervent fan of Walt Whitman.

Stoker’s road-to-Damascus moment arrived with his first encounter with Henry Irving, to whom he was manager, roadie, minder, valet, secretary, press officer, confidant, chief groupie and general dogsbody for a quarter of a century. He ran the business side of Irving’s Lyceum theatre in London, as a practical Protestant mind among the late Victorian luvvies, and is said to have written over half a million letters for his boss. Tradition has it that he died of exhaustion.

Even the diplomatic Murray detects a homoerotic relationship between the two men, and there is other evidence – not least suggestions of marital non-consummation – that Stoker was a closet homosexual. He married the young Dublin beauty Florence Balcombe, who had previously been pursued by Oscar Wilde, and who might therefore be thought to have leapt from the frying pan to the fire. Besides their love for Florence, Stoker and Wilde shared a cause of death: syphilis – at least Wilde may well have died of it, and Stoker almost certainly did. He probably picked it up from prostitutes, assumed by his biographers to be female. In 1929 Florence received $40,000 for the film rights of Dracula, though she lost most of this windfall, 1929 being an inauspicious year for investing money, and only had enough left over to install a downstairs lavatory.

Stoker was a literary man about town in Dublin, where all the intellectual families lived in each other’s pockets, and then became a familiar figure on the London literary scene until his death in 1912. He knew Tennyson, Shaw and Gladstone, and in his role as Irving’s fixer even had dealings with the royal family. He met the 13-year-old Winston Churchill, and predicted that a boy with such a firm handshake would go far. Perhaps it helped that he easily fitted the stereotype of the genial Irishman: over six foot, red-haired, physically powerful, and possessed of what the English seem to have heard as a sweet but not too obtrusive brogue.

Almost all of his other novels are poor stuff, and Dracula itself is far from perfect. As Maud Ellmann pointed out in her Oxford edition of the book, characters change hair colour inexplicably, turn up at the wrong hotels, lapse in and out of silly accents, conduct operations without anaesthetic and blood transfusions without regard to blood-type. In an excruciating pun, all the worse for being intended, one character demands: ‘Is there not more at stake for us’ than for Dracula?

In one sense, it is surprising that a novel which contains the sentence ‘Mina came into the room with an easy gracefulness which would at once command the respect of any lunatic’ should have become one of the most celebrated literary works of all time. In another sense, since few works speak so subtly to some of our deepest fears and anxieties, it is not surprising at all.