Seamus Deane, ‘Landlord And Soil: Dracula’ [chap. sect. of ‘National Character and the Character of Nations’, in Strange Country, 1997, pp.89-94]

Gothic fiction is devoted to the question of ownership, wills, testaments, hauntings of places formerly owned, and, in its most commercially successful manifestation, Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897), to the story of an absentee landlord who is dependent in his London residence on the maintenance of a supply of soil in which he might coffin himself before the dawn comes. With him, too, there is a crucial distinction between land, which he buys in England, and his soil, which he brings with him in what is a literal version of [89] the coffin-ship - that resonant image from Famine times - that is wrecked on the Yorkshire coast, at Whitby. This peculiar version of the native soil is an inversion or perversion of the nationalist version propagated by Lalor. For, in this instance, it is the native material that is imported into the ‘foreign’ legal system of English property relations. In addition, it is a contaminated cargo; Dracula’s soil is also his filth, his contaminant. Attached to the soil by day, ‘racy o the soil’ in a perverse rendering of the epigraph of the Nation, newspaper, he moves, like an O’Grady version of the Celtic hero. between dusk and dawn. But, landlord that he is, with all his enslaved victims, his Celtic twilight is endangered by the approach of a nationalist dawn, a Home Rule sun rising behind the old Irish Parliament. Dracula’s dwindling soil and his vampiric appetites consort well enough with the image of the Irish landlord current in the nineteenth century. Running out of soil, this peculiar version of the absentee landlord in London will flee the light of day and be consigned to the only territory left to him, that of legend. Like O’Grady’s and Yeats’s Anglo-Irish, he will be expelled from history to enter the never-never land of myth, demonized more effectively but also more clandestinely than by a Lalor, Mitchel, or Davitt. O’Grady’s later sponsorship of a policy of internal immigration, from Dublin to the Midlands, from sedentary trades to the physical labour of the soil, is an extension of his lament for the loss of landlordism and an attempt to replace it with a mystical version of nationalist pastoral that has itself a history stretching from AE (George Russell) through Darrell Figgis to de Valera.

However, the political-sexual implications of the Dracula story have been thoroughly investigated in recent years. It is scarcely necessary to note that, in this novel, even more than in the works of Sheridan Le Fanu or in the poetry, plays, fiction, and essays of Yeats, the dominant condition of the protagonists is that of sleeping, dreaming, stupefaction, exhaustion, enervation all the varieties of supine vulnerability that both produce and are produced by the monstrous images that attend upon such seduced and seductive victims. Such languor, especially dangerous with the Count in the vicinity, has to be contested by an answering energy, supplied with an alarmingly boyish enthusiasm, by the Anglo-American cohort of men. The novel’s oppositions are multiple and glaring: West against [90] East, technology against superstition, good money against bad money, men against women, traditional woman against New Woman, madness against sanity, blood against spirit, lasciviousness against chastity, mobility against immobility, health against degeneration, the Living against the Undead. It also has a series of obsessive nightmare images the claustrophobia of bedrooms, cells, houses, vaults, coffins, all of them locked or otherwise barred to keep danger in or to keep it out; sinister, protean animals such as bats, rats, and wolves; spectral legions of the damned invading the bodies of the city crowd; historical chronology, and time itself, dissolved into legendary timelessness, the physical body dematerializing into a contagion. In short, the full apparatus of Gothic fiction is imported to create the impression of a rich, Western-Christian civilization under threat from a demonic force which is foreign and Eastern, yet also deeply embedded within, banished but not extinguished by the bright light of technological modernity.

Yet it is in the representation of speech that the novel creates effects akin to those that are to be found in Castle Rackrent, The Collegians, and a whole series of Irish nineteenth-century novels. Dracula is a mosaic of reports, a complicated timetable of recorded conversations in journals, diaries, letters, newspaper clippings, shipping logs, memoranda, telegrams - even a phonographic diary. It is entirely fitting that such a painstaking assemblage should be offered as evidence of the truth and yet, in the final ‘Note’ by Jonathan Harker, dismissed. This is a true story, yet an incredible one; Dracula existed and yet it is difficult even for the tellers of the story to believe he did so, a mere seven years later:

It was almost impossible to believe that the things which we had seen with our own eyes and heard with our own ears were living truths. Every trace of all that had been was blotted out . . . I took the papers from the safe where they had been ever since our return so long ago. We were struck with the fact, that in all the mass of material of which the record is composed, there is hardly one authentic document, nothing but a mass of typewriting, except the later note-books of Mina and Seward and myself, and Van Helsing’s memorandum. We could hardly ask anyone, even did we wish to, to accept these proofs of so wild a story.’ [91]

Of course, the final Note itself is part of the typewritten mass which is the novel. But even the implicit distinction here, between the typewritten and the handwritten, the inauthentic and the authentic, repeats the novel’s incessant, anxious defence of the various borders that demarcate its multiple and versatile oppositions and that, for all their apparent fixity, are nevertheless constantly invaded, violated, and dissolved. The text’s final distinction between kinds of writing and the truths they carry is dissolved by the very fact that it is produced as print, a mode in which handwritten material is reduced to the inauthenticity of type forms. Nor can the obvious fact that the characters in the novel are all ‘types’ be ignored either. All of the specific individuals belong to a ‘type’, even Dracula himself. For type is infinitely reproducible; and the battle in this novel is a battle for reproduction of the Undead against the living. The Undead are reproduced by a form of illicit and orgasmic sex; the living are reproduced by marriage. It is, once more, the family against the mob; traditional piety against a revolutionary threat that produces, by perversion of the ‘normal’ - even to the contamination of blood - the ghastly, miasmic crowd.

Just as writing has its hierarchy, so too has speech. We learn as early as chapter II that Dracula is anxious to master the English language so that his strangeness of speech will not call attention to him when he is in London; the madman Renfield switches from foul-mouthed berating to silence, from asocial meanderings to the formal ‘gentlemanly’ speech of his plea to Godalming, Quincy Morris, Van Helsing, and Seward in chapter XVIII; there is a whole cast of minor characters from the back streets of London whose demotic speech is laboriously rendered, as is the Whitby speech and accent of old Mr Swales; Quincy Morris’s speech is stereotypically Texan and laconic; dominating all of these non-standard versions of English is, of course, Van Helsing’s eccentric speech and accent, made the more unfamiliar by his abstruse learning and vocabulary. It is, at one level, the jargon of the expert; at another, it is an anachronistic speech because it is expert in the lore of the past, the marginal, which is also, simultaneously, the lore of the present, since it is immemorial. But it is in the speech of the central women, Mina Harker and Lucy Westenra, that the novel’s ideology is most [92] blatantly exposed. Both are in command of standard English, but Lucy’s English is differentiated from Mina’s from the outset by virtue of its initially implicit sexual content, evident in her eager anticipation of her forthcoming marriage, and ultimately explicit in her enslavement to Dracula and her frank sexual invitation to Arthur to kiss her as she is dying (chapter XII). It is only after her orgasmic second death by Arthur’s hand that he is permitted by Van Helsing to kiss her. Mina, on the other hand, speaks the language of love and chastity, not of sex and promiscuity. She is the one whom Van Helsing constantly praises as the true heroine:

She is one of God’s women, fashioned by His own hand to show us men and other women that there is a heaven where we can enter, and that its light can be here on earth. So sweet, so true, so noble, so little an egoist - and that, let me tell you, is much in this age, so sceptical and selfish.

In the end, Godalming, Seward, Jonathan are happily married; Mina is the mother of Quincy, the child named after the heroic American who must, nevertheless, be banished from this Victorian British ending. It is the speech of Mina, of marriage, that prevails; Van Helsing’s final words - no longer disfigured by foreignness, but specifically a literary English, - canonize her. This is the Gothic equivalent of the national marriage of the early century. Deformation of speech has been righted, the land has been cleansed of its demonic landlord, sexual degeneration has been prevented by chaste heroics, the family has asserted its values against those of the mob. Politically, the family is - as it had been for so long since the French Revolution - the embodiment of the nation and the national values, and it speaks the nation without flaw. Mina and Jonathan are national types, and it is in type, the type of Mina the typist, that deformation is overcome.

Ultimately, the question of the land and its relation to the soil lost its political force as landlordism faded and tenant proprietorship became common. But it left a cultural deficit that had to be met. The territory of Ireland, with all its Gothic and all its nationalist graves, with all its estates and farms, its Land Acts and its history of confiscations, was in need of redefinition by the early years of the nineteenth century. Land, soil, and speech remained imbricated with [93] one another in a sequence of relationships that was not in itself obscure but that needed to make a fetish of obscurity for its articulation. Hence Gothic and Celtic twilights, hence the blurring of history into legend, hence the introduction of folklore and occultism, hence the reintroduction of the Irish language and of its ancient literature as a repository of a native eloquence that had almost been lost in the mists of time but still survived in the emaciated economic circumstances of peasant life - all of these were necessary in order to identify the relationship between land, soil, and speech as radically mysterious. The identification of the mysterious, unreal, or phantasmal element in the Irish situation was itself the product of an analysis of that situation. It was a way of specifying colonial otherness, a nationalist attempt to claim for Ireland an exceptional status and, at the same time, to assert that this exceptionalism lay precisely in Ireland’s retention of traditional, even immemorial, feeling, no matter how deformed it might appear to be or to have become in the prevailing conditions of a fundamentally British commercial and technological modernity.

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