16 May 2023

Sorry, it’s not here! … it’s
just a story.’ Searching
for Dracula in Whitby

Saint Mary’s Church, Whitby, and the surrounding churchyard inspired Bram Stoker when he was writing ‘Dracula’ (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Patrick Comerford

Our visit to Whitby last week was short and sweet. We took the bus from York, and over the course of a few hours in the seaside town in North Yorkshire we heard again how the ruins of Whitby Abbey and the graves in Saint Mary’s churchyard inspired Bram Stoker as he was writing his Gothic classic novel Dracula.

Abraham ‘Bram’ Stoker (1847-1912), who was born in Dublin, was the personal assistant of the leading actor of the day, Sir Henry Irving, and the business manager of the Lyceum Theatre in the West End when he came to Whitby on a holiday in August 1890 with his wife Florence and their son Noel.

In the late 19th century, Whitby was a fashionable seaside resort as well as a vibrant fishing port, and Irving this picturesque town as a holiday location to Stoker.

The Stoker family stayed at Mrs Veazey’s guesthouse at 6 Royal Crescent on Whitby’s West Cliff. Bram Stoker found a place to relax and to write, with walks along the windswept headland, climbing the 199 steps to Saint Mary’s Church, surrounded by swooping bats and a churchyard with empty graves, and strolling through the dramatic ruins of Whitby Abbey. He found time too to discover Whitby’s long links with jet, a semi-precious stone used in mourning jewellery.

At the end of the Victorian era, Gothic literature was set in foreign lands filled with eerie castles, convents and caves. But Whitby provided Stoker with a location nearer home for such horror stories.

Whitby’s rugged cliffs coastline, with its rich folklore and its fishing heritage, provided a dramatic setting for Stoker’s vampire to make his landing, and Whitby’s East and West Cliffs provided him with a natural theatrical backdrop.

Stoker heard about a Russian schooner, the Dmitry from Narva, that was shipwrecked in a storm in on Tate Hill Sands, below East Cliff, Saint Mary’s Churchyard and Whitby Abbey about five years earlier, in October 1885. The Dmitry ran aground carrying a cargo of silver sand. With a slightly rearranged name, this became the Demeter from Varna that carries Dracula to Whitby with a cargo of silver sand and boxes of earth that include Dracula and his coffins of Transylvanian soil.

The novel is written in the form of letters, diaries, newspaper cuttings and entries in the ship’s log of the Demeter. The log charts the gradual disappearance of the entire crew of the Demeter during the journey to Whitby, until only the captain is left, tied to the wheel.

As the ship sails close to the coast at Whitby, the vampire summons a storm. The ship runs aground below East Cliff and only one survivor lands safely – a large black dog, another manifestation of Dracula who has the power of transformation. The dog bounds from the wreck and runs up the 199 steps to the church, and from that moment things begin to go horribly wrong.

The name of the ship offers a link to the underworld: in Greek mythology, Demeter is the mother of Persephone who is forced to spend part of the year in the underworld after she is abducted by Hades, the god of the dead and king of the underworld.

Looking across Whitby Bay and towards the Crescent from Saint Mary’s churchyard (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023; click on image for full-screen view)

The novel’s main female characters, Mina Murray and Lucy Westenra, are on holiday, like Stoker, at the Crescent in Whitby. They spend much of their time in Saint Mary’s churchyard, just as Stoker did. There, in conversation with an old local fisherman named Swales, they learn about the town’s fishing and folklore and Swales tells them how many of the graves are empty, with headstones as memorials to fishermen and sailors lost at sea. These empty graves become ideal resting places for a vampire who must sleep during the day.

Swales also tells Mina and Lucy about the ghost of Saint Hilda who reputedly can be seen in the window of Whitby Abbey as a white figure. Saint Hilda was said to have banished snakes into the sea and, as they fell over Whitby’s cliffs, they turned into ammonites.

Later, Mina wakes up in her room at the Crescent, and realises that Lucy, who is prone to sleepwalking, is missing. Mina grabs a cloak and rushes from the Crescent on the West Cliff and spots Lucy on their favourite seat in Saint Mary’s churchyard on the East Cliff.

Mina rushes through the town and climbs the 199 steps to the churchyard. Clouds passing over the moon obscure her view, only to part theatrically to reveal a white-robed Lucy. Looming above her is a figure Mina cannot quite identify. Is it a man, or is it a beast?

Lucy has two tiny marks or incisions on her neck where – unknown to either woman – the vampire has taken her blood. Dracula has acquired his first British victim in Whitby, with his bite initiates Lucy into vampirism and the underworld.

Mina and Lucy are told about the ghost of Saint Hilda who reputedly can be seen in a window in Whitby Abbey (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Whitby also provides the name of the vampire. During his holiday, Stoker spent time in the town library where read The Principalities of Wallachia and Moldavia, a book by a former British consul in Bucharest, William Wilkinson, recalling his experiences not in Transylvania but in the principalities of Wallachia and Moldavia, now in Romania.

There Stoker read about Dracula and his association with the Hungarian wars with Turkey in the 15th century. Wilkinson mentions Vlad Tepes, a 15th-century prince said to have impaled his enemies on wooden stakes. According to Wilkinson, Dracula means the ‘son of the dragon.’ Wilkinson adds in a footnote: ‘Dracula in the Wallachian language means Devil. The Wallachians at that time … used to give this as a surname to any person who rendered himself conspicuous either by courage, cruel actions, or cunning.’

Stoker spent six more years working on his novel before it was published in 1897, researching the landscapes and customs of Transylvania and the name of his villain. Dracula’s character may also have been modelled on Irving’s aristocratic bearing and histrionic acting style.

But some of the novel’s most dramatic scenes were inspired by Stoker’s holiday in Whitby. The innocent tourists, the picturesque harbour, the abbey ruins, the windswept churchyard and the salty tales he heard from Whitby seafarers – all became ingredients in the novel.

Today’s tourists find there are several Dracula-related activities in Whitby that are popular with the Goth community, including a Whitby Goth Weekend twice a year.

Dracula and Bram Stoker memorabilia on sale in Cholmley House (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

At Saint Mary’s Church, it seems Dracula has attracted the wrong sort of questions from visitors. A sign inside the porch reads:

‘Sorry, it’s not here!

‘Where is Dracula’s grave? Do you know, we are asked this question more than any other by visitors to this church. We are sorry to disappoint you but it’s not here.

‘In fact, it’s not anywhere, because Dracula is fiction.

‘It’s just a story, and anyway, even in the story Dracula finally turned to dust, with a stake through his heart, not here but in Transylvania. So even if there are bats in our belfry, no vampire is going to come and suck your blood.

‘But, really and truly, you’re standing on hallowed ground. This is where Hilda walked and talked, taught and worshipped. The memory of her is still green today. This church, and the Abbey buildings next door, have been here for well over a thousand years because of Hilda. Today we try to worship God here, and express the love of Jesus Christ for all people.

‘Before you go, try spending a moment of quiet up by the altar of the church. Join with those who have prayed here throughout the many centuries.

‘We hope you enjoy Whitby.’

And, in case the message is not received, a second sign in plainer, larger letters is pinned to the door and is more direct:

‘Please do not ask staff where Dracula's grave is as there isn’t one.

‘Thank you.’

Count the cost … cost the count … Dracula miniatures on sale in Cholmley House, beside Whitby Abbey (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

No comments: