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Well Done Please

Many readers over the years of Bram Stoker’s famous work have been surprised, if not astonished, by Count Dracula’s feeding habits. Scholars have pored over the records of European and Irish folklore searching for clues, but to no great effect.

It may be that they have been looking in the wrong places and perhaps asking the wrong questions. While a full understanding of Stoker’s sources may elude us for decades, if not indefinitely, the recent publication of his commonplace book reveals material which points in a promising direction.

When the dullish ‑ some would say very dull ‑ solicitor Jonathan Harker arrives at Castle Dracula he immediately sticks his nose into his books. Given the Count’s plans, he would have been better off getting the measure of the man and the place.

Dracula himself is amused: “It was the better part of an hour when the Count returned. ‘Aha!’ he said, ‘still at your books?’ Clearly, he did not feel the earnest Victorian posed much of a threat: “‘Come; I am informed that your supper is ready.’ He took my arm, and we went into the next room, where I found an excellent supper ready on the table.”

This passage is interesting. The Count was undoubtedly aware that the predictable Harker would bow before the convention which separates the actions of eating and working. Dracula, of course, transcends this polite Victorian dogma to the degree that eating is his work. Turning to the hapless Harker he excuses himself and, with characteristic Transylvanian understatement, adds the information that he has “dined out”. No point in explaining too much to the visiting imbecile!

The dramatic juxtaposition of wild Carpathian freedoms and Victorian sensual atrophy is Stoker’s genius. But the question remains: where on earth did Stoker, a former civil servant from Dublin, find the inspiration. The answer may well be far removed from either Irish or Romanian folk beliefs; indeed it may lurk instead deep in the interior of the Dublin civil service and in particular in some practices associated with overtime.

A recent essay published in Béaloideas, the journal of Irish folklore, discusses Stoker’s notebooks, which were written during his time in the Dublin civil service and which were recently published for the first time. From these we can infer that the horror of the civil service canteen was quite unknown to Stoker and his colleagues and that there was no artificial division between the place of work and the eating place.

Not only did Stoker and his colleagues eat in their workplace; they ate with passion and utter disregard for the type of decorum Harker depended on for very life. Judge for yourselves:

Most of Bram’s career was passed in the Department of the Registrar of Petty Session Clerks, where he proved to be an able and energetic official, being promoted to the rank of Inspector of Petty Sessions in 1876. (…) It seems to have been a common practice that, whenever there was extra work dinner was prepared in the office, under the supervision of one of the senior clerks, who himself did most of the cooking.

Stoker records how:

One day there was a big dinner. The table was covered with a cloth made of sheets of blotting paper gummed together. Eight sat down. The dinner consisted of hare soup, a roast of turkey with forcemeat (this was carved in a wash hand basin) two teal, several snipe, potatoes, carrots, turnips, salad, fried plum puddinvg, sherry, beer, champagne, moselle, port, claret, curacon, a cup of coffee, punch.

So what we have is a glorious feast in the workplace with scant regard for bourgeois niceties. Perhaps it is not all that surprising that a man from this background could imagine the character Renfield, who feeds on spiders, birds and other small creatures, and the delightful Lucy, whose mouth is stuffed with garlic prior to being beheaded. A short step remains to having the Count feed on Miss Murray’s blood and with aristocratic panache offering her some of his own.

Brian Earls’s essay “‘The mother in hoors and robbers’: Bram Stoker as Urban Folklorist” was published in the 2012 issue of Béaloideas: The Journal of the Folklore of Ireland Society.

Brian Earls's essay on Stoker in the Dublin Review of Books is here.