How did a Yorkshire seaside town inspire one of Britain’s most famous novels?

Dr Catherine Wynne discusses how Whitby inspired Bram Stoker to create Dracula with presenter Anita Rani on Britain by Beach, 27 November at 8pm on Channel 4.

A Yorkshire Holiday

In August 1890 Bram Stoker came to holiday in Whitby with his wife Florence and son Noel.

In the late nineteenth century Whitby was a fashionable seaside resort for Britain’s wealthy classes, as well as a vibrant fishing port.

Stoker left London and his work as business manager of London’s leading theatre, the Lyceum, which was under the directorship of the Britain’s leading actor of the time, Sir Henry Irving.

Irving had visited Whitby and may well have suggested this picturesque location to his employee.

Whitby certainly provided Stoker with a place to relax and to write, and he also took the theatre with him both imaginatively and creatively.

Whitby as ‘theatre’

We know that Stoker’s vampire lands in Whitby to begin his assault on Britain.

Whitby’s coastline makes the ideal setting for such a landing and its rich folkloric and fishing heritage ‘feeds’ into Stoker’s vampire novel. The shape of Whitby’s coastline, its East and West Cliffs, form a natural amphitheatre.

Stoker was inspired by the shipwreck of a Russian schooner, the Dmitry, which was wrecked in a storm in October 1885 on the sands just below St Mary’s Churchyard and Whitby Abbey.

In Stoker’s imagination, the ship is renamed the Demeter and carries Dracula and his coffins of Transylvanian soil to Whitby. The vampire summons a storm to land the Demeter in Whitby.

It lands safely but there is only one survivor – an enormous black dog. The dog is Dracula – Stoker’s vampire has the power of transformation.

The name of the ship should give us a clue to its ‘underworld’ associations: Demeter was the mother of Persephone who, in Classical mythology, was forced to spend part of the year in the underworld after Hades (god of the dead and king of the underworld) abducts her.

Fishing and Folklore

Mina and Lucy, the novel’s female characters, spend much of their Whitby holiday sitting in the graveyard of St Mary’s Church (just as Stoker did) where in conversation an old local fisherman, Mr Swales, they learn much about the town’s fishing and folklore.

Swales tells them that many of the graves are empty, the headstones are memorials to those lost at sea as fishermen and sailors.

These empty graves become ideal resting places for a vampire who must sleep during the day.

Swales also tells them about the ghost of St Hilda who reputedly can be seen in the window of Whitby Abbey as a white figure. St Hilda allegedly banished snakes into the sea and, as they fell over Whitby’s cliffs, they turned into ammonites.

St Mary’s and the Abbey

In the novel Mina awakens from her bed and realises that Lucy is missing. Lucy has a tendency to sleepwalk. Grabbing a cloak Mina rushes out of their holiday accommodation at the Crescent on Whitby’s West Cliff, where Stoker also stayed with his family. When she spots her friend on their favourite seat in St Mary’s Churchyard on the East Cliff she rushes across town and climbs the 199 steps to the churchyard.

Clouds passing over the moon obscure her view (Stoker was thinking theatrically) and then part to reveal the white-robed Lucy. Standing over her is a figure which Mina cannot quite identify. Is it a “man” or a “beast”?

But Lucy has two pinprick marks on her neck where the vampire has, unknown at this point to either woman, taken her blood. Dracula thus acquires his first British victim in Whitby. It also recalls the story of Persephone as Dracula’s bite initiates Lucy into vampirism and the demonic underworld.

Finally, Whitby also provided the name of the vampire. Stoker visited the town’s library and read a book called the Principalities of Wallachia and Moldavia. Here he came upon the name of Dracula in association with the Hungarian wars with Turkey in the fifteenth century.

Dracula, as the book tells us just as it told Stoker in that summer of 1890, means devil in the Wallachian language. The rest is literary history.

Dr Catherine Wynne is Reader in Victorian and Early Twentieth Century Literary and Visual Culture at the University of Hull. She is author of Bram Stoker, Dracula and the Victorian Gothic Stage (Palgrave, 2013) and editor of Bram Stoker and the Stage: Reviews, Reminiscences, Essays and Fiction (Pickering & Chatto, 2012) and Bram Stoker and the Gothic: Formation to Transformations (2016). She has spoken about Stoker at the British Library, London and on national and international TV and radio.

Dr Wynne teaches Gothic fiction and film (including Dracula) on the undergraduate programme in English Literature and a module dedicated to Bram Stoker’s writings (‘Bram Stoker: Literature, Theatre and the Gothic’) on the MA in English and Creative Writing.

The University of Hull hosts the public Bram Stoker Birthday Lecture which falls in November. This year’s speaker was Professor Clive Bloom.


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