Bram Stoker: a Dub off the old block

 

THE CITY:IS BRAM STOKER really a Dublin writer? Absolutely, says Jarlath Killeen of the English department of Trinity College Dublin, who is organising the Bram Stoker Centenary Conference on July 5th and 6th this year.

“Stoker lived at 13 or 14 Dublin addresses that we know of,” he says. “He was born in Clontarf, obviously – but the family moved out after a few months. He lived in Rathmines, he lived in Rathgar, he lived in three or four places around Trinity. So he covered a huge amount of the city. But he was a great walker as well, so he would have known the city intimately. He did live here for 31 years.”

Stoker spent a lot of time in and around 1 Merrion Square, where he was a regular attendee at the weekend salons hosted by Oscar Wilde’s mother, and he worked at Dublin Castle. Arguably, then, he’s more of a Dub than other luminaries of the city’s literary heritage scene, such as Wilde and George Bernard Shaw.

His job also took him out of Dublin and into the countryside. “He wrote one ‘Irish’ novel, The Snake’s Pass,” says Killeen. “It’s set in the west of Ireland, which he would have known through his work in the courts of petty sessions. He travelled round the country and would have listened to all kinds of court cases, from dog licences to property cases – so he was meeting ordinary people outside his own class, outside his own religious and ethnic background.”

The author of Dracula was a sporty type who won prizes for, among other things, long-distance walking. “He was an all-round athlete. A prize gymnast, a prize weightlifter, swimmer, rugby player – any kind of sport you can imagine, he was involved in.”

It’s a dramatic transformation from the sickly child who couldn’t walk unaided until the age of seven. “I suspect that his obsession with muscularity and masculinity came partly out of trying to make up for his physical frailty in his early years – almost like a psychological reaction,” says Killeen.

Strong men also turn up with extraordinary regularity in his novels. “There’s a guy in The Mystery of the Sea who’s forever jumping into the water – which necessitates him removing his shirt, causing all the women to nearly faint.” In a letter to the American poet Walt Whitman, Stoker describes himself as “six foot two inches naked, with a 42-inch chest”. All this muscly stuff has helped fuel a spate of speculation about the writer’s sexuality; it also reads, from our perspective, as slightly creepy in a pseudo-fascist way. But as Killeen explains, it wasn’t particularly remarkable at the time.

“There was a kind of cult of the muscular male body in late Victorian culture – so although Stoker takes it to extremes, he’s not all that unusual. There was a movement called Muscular Christianity in the mid 19th-century. It’s where we get the emphasis on rugby in the public schools, and the YMCA movement as well.” It’s rare to hear Stoker say anything about himself, let alone anything that strips him – so to speak – naked. “He wrote something like 500,000 letters – but they’re all business letters. Apart from the letters to Whitman, we know very little about his private feelings. Even about that childhood illness. Stoker mentions in his biography of Henry Irving that he didn’t walk for seven years – but he never says why.”

Maybe that’s why we’re so fascinated. And we’ll be able to explore Stoker’s life and work further in July; the programme for the TCD conference is crammed with fascinating sessions, including talks by the biographer Paul Murray, the historian Roy Foster and the film historian Christopher Frayling.

You can get more information from tcd.ie/English/news-events