Staking a claim to Bram Stoker’s birthplace

The page from the journal which lays the foundation for the character of Renfield in Dracula

Dracula author, Bram Stoker died in London in April 1912, but an undiscovered diary shows his early years in Ireland had a profound influence on his writing.

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He has been described as “one of the least known authors of one of the best known books ever written”. To mark the centenary of Bram Stoker’s death in April 1912, great grand-nephew Dacre Stoker will publish ‘The Lost Journal of Bram Stoker: The Dublin Years’, a hitherto forgotten diary of Stoker’s personal writings.

The journal reveals first-hand the real Bram Stoker – a man with a witty sense of humour, a great social awareness and a fledgling writer, who had leanings towards romantic prose – a genre not traditionally associated with the creator of arguably the most gruesome and ghastly literary character ever.

The opening entry in the journal is entitled ‘Night Fishing’ and it reveals some new aspects of the writer’s life as Dacre Stoker explains: “Here’s a first attempt by Bram at writing descriptive prose in a sea-side town called Greystones. We didn’t realise that he went there quite frequently and we could surmise that it was just to get away from the hustle and bustle of the city, for fresh air. He loved the ocean and we know that later on in his writings, he had a real sweet spot for fishermen and boats and he loved to swim.”

“The nets as they rise from the water are starred with phosphorescent lights. As the ends of the net come nearer and the lead line comes up upon the beach, the fishes are seen struggling in the net and show their white bellies.”
Greystones – 3 August, 1871.

The Lost Journal is grouped into themes – humour, Stoker’s friends and acquaintances, street life in Dublin, family background and what Dacre Stoker calls “en route to ‘Dracula’”. Another early entry, dated 27 October, 1872 lays the foundation for the character of Renfield in Dracula. In it, Stoker describes an encounter with a little boy “who put so many flies into a bottle that they had not room to die.” Although ‘Dracula’ was not published until 1897, remarkably this diary entry of 25 years earlier found its way into the novel, providing yet further evidence of Stoker’s lifelong obsession with prolific note-taking and research.

Dacre Stoker believes that Bram Stoker’s position as inspector of petty sessions in the civil service may have inspired the creation of Jonathan Harker’s character in ‘Dracula’. “Like the solicitor, Jonathan Harker, who is tasked with travelling to this faraway land to complete a real-estate transaction, Bram travelled to different towns, either by carriage or by train as an inspector.”

One undated diary entry refers to a trip to Collooney, Co. Sligo, which Stoker describes as the “most unbusy place in Ireland”. In the same town, he overhears some disparaging remarks made by a “peasant” about one of the political parties of the time. “They do go round an’ round an’ round an’ round, jist for all the world like a dog lookin’ for the head of his bed.” This, together with numerous other entries, reveals Stoker’s precision and keen ear for recreating the local dialect.

During his time at Trinity College, where he graduated in mathematics, Stoker was an active student, an enthusiastic contributor to the Philosophical Society and a talented athlete. He was also known for a wonderful sense of wit and the journal confirms this. He recounts one such humorous encounter with a fellow student:

“Well Thornhill, I hear you never do anything nowadays at all except work on the trapeze. He answered me quite gravely and seriously as one against whom an unfair imputation had been brought. ‘Oh no I assure you. You must have been misinformed. I do a great deal – a very great deal on the horizontal bar.’”
2 May, 1873

The journal also gives us a good appreciation for Stoker as a social commentator. Many of the entries record Dubliners going about their daily lives, such as the old woman who mistook a cabman’s shelter at the Rotunda for the tram terminus at Sackville Street (now O’Connell Street). Refusing to leave, she stayed for two hours, “taking the admonitions of the jarvie for chaff”.

On Dublin’s Castle Street, Stoker eavesdrops on a conversation between two women, recounting a neighbour’s tale of domestic violence, a relatively common social problem of Victorian Dublin. “This woman, she hardly had the good breakfast into her body till she gets a kick in the stummick that sent it all up again.” Perhaps Stoker’s sense of drama, stemming from his work as a theatre critic for the ‘Dublin Evening Mail’, led him to record these fascinating snippets of social history.

Co-annotated by world-renowned ‘Dracula’ scholar, Professor Elizabeth Miller, ‘The Lost Journal’ lay undiscovered in the attic of Stoker’s great grandson, Noel Dobbs on the Isle of Wight. It only recently came to light when Dacre Stoker was researching his 2009 novel ‘Dracula: The Un-Dead’, the only official sequel to ‘Dracula’.

It contains 160 pages and 310 individual diary entries in Stoker’s own handwriting, covering the period from 1871 to 1881. In fact, one of the biggest challenges of bringing the journal to life was the struggle to decipher Stoker’s handwriting. Dacre Stoker describes himself and Professor Miller as “forensic explorers” in their quest to piece together the hundreds of notations, which comprise the notebook.

“Elizabeth and I did that over the course of about 8 months. It’s really quite fun to do when you start comparing certain letters in his writing and you get a good feel for how he may have squiggled an E and squiggled an A and it gives us a little hint as to what a word might mean if you apply an E to it or an A to it. Then we also compare them to his handwriting to see if we can figure it out.”

Most commentators agree that Bram Stoker never quite achieved the same recognition or critical acclaim as other Irish literary greats such as Wilde or Joyce. Although he considers it a “loaded question”, Dacre Stoker agrees: “Let’s be honest. ‘Dracula’ and the horror genre weren’t looked at as classic literature, until about the mid to late 1970s when more academics in North America and Europe started using it for scholarly pursuit,” he says. “Dracula started to pass the litmus test for what makes a classic novel. I think the Irish looked at their more established classical writers in this light and Bram was an afterthought. So it has taken him a little while to earn his credit.”

In defence of Stoker’s comparatively low profile in Ireland, he adds: “Bram wrote ‘Dracula’ while he was in London and many people don’t even know that he was Irish. I really believe that the book Elizabeth and I have written, ‘The Lost Journal’, should bring Bram’s legacy home. I’m hoping that it’s going to give Bram back to Ireland and let people know that he was an Irishman with dry Irish wit and a great sensitivity to social issues.”

‘The Lost Journal of Bram Stoker: The Dublin Years’ is written by Dacre Stoker and Prof Elizabeth Miller and will be published by Robson Press on 8 March, 2012, priced at STG£18.99.

Bram Stoker’s Dublin

15, The Crescent, Clontarf – his birthplace on 8 November 1847
Trinity College, Dublin – entered the university in 1863 to study mathematics
Dublin Castle – Worked in the civil service as clerk of petty sessions and later inspector of clerks of petty sessions
30, Kildare Street – This was Stoker’s first independent address after moving from home.
7, St. Stephen’s Green – lived above the ground floor grocery and wine shop in 1877.
St Ann’s Church, Dawson Street – wedding of Bram Stoker and Florence Balcombe in 1878.

Appeared in the Weekend magazine of Irish Independent on 4th February 2012