De Dracula

De Dracula1

So, thanks to hurricane whatever-the-fuck-we’re-calling-this-one, I’m stuck inside trying to write this post without my trusty pipe. On the other hand, this weather allows to me say honestly, if not well-writtenly, that it was a dark and stormy night. In any case, trying to write this post pipeless, as it were, may be somewhat fitting. After all, did Professor Van Helsing smoke a pipe? Did Jonathan Harker? Or Dr. Seward? Or any of the other characters who kept a journal in Bram Stoker’s vampirepic?2

But let me take a step back. What the hell am I on about anyway? If the title of this piece is any indication, I mean to talk about Dracula. But which Dracula? Stoker’s book, yes. And also the Lugosi picture. OK, actually, just those two. And really mostly the former.

Another step back. Years ago, when I was but a boy, I read some sort of abridged version of Dracula, meant for children.3 It scared the hell out of me. Didn’t sleep for days. Or rather nights, as, not being a vampire, I generally didn’t sleep days.4 The point is, I didn’t exactly take to horror-fiction as a young’n. And I didn’t much go in for horror films as I got older.

That all changed, however, when last fall, while in a used book shop in Philadelphia, I picked up a copy of Jules Verne’s Le Château des Carpathes.5 Now, mind you, it wasn’t properly horror or gothic; nothing supernatural. It’s JV, after all. There’s a scientific reason for everything. However, it was dark. And it took place in the mountains of Transylvania. And I was hooked.

All of a sudden, I wanted more “darkness,” whatever that meant. So next I grabbed a copy of Gaston Leroux’s Le Fantôme de l’Opéra. After that, Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein. While in Santa Fe last month, I picked up an H.P. Lovecraft paperback, though I haven’t started it yet. Because, at the moment, I’m working through Bram Stoker’s Dracula.6

Funny thing about Dracula though, I can put it down.7 By that I mean, the prose is just stilted enough, just 19th century enough, just affected enough, that it can be a bit tiring at times. And yet this very thing that so often makes the book feel like a chore – the language – is that which I found most interesting about it.

You see, the English that Stoker uses is hanging out in a really interesting place-time. It straddles the border of Victorian and modern. You can see our language in transition here, and it’s downright fascinating. I’ve been noticing this all along, but somewhere around chapter 19, it occurred to me that I might want to knock this post together, and so I started taking notes. Now, obviously, the bulk of my notes are going to come from chapter 19 and onwards. But I hope there’s enough meat there to make my points.

I’m going to pass over the “old,” that is to say, the Victorian. There’s no point in putting any of that down. If you’ve read Dickens or, gods help you, Austen, there will be no surprises there. What I want to focus on for the moment is the “new” English; the English that’s ready to break out into the 20th century.

For example, I’ve run across a number of idioms that would be nearly familiar to anybody reading today. And yet, they’re not quite the same. A few examples:

  • “Dog’s-eared” (of a book; opp. “dog-eared”; ch.19)
  • “Of the first water” (of magnitude; opp. “of the first order”; ch.20)
  • “Keep touch of” (to stay current with; opp. “keep a hold of”; ch.20)
  • “These times” (of current affairs; opp. “these days”; ch.20)
  • “At all events” (resumptive; opp. “in any event”; ch.21)

Now to be fair, Stoker is an Irishman writing (for these phrases, at least) English characters. Still, to see these idioms developing is quite interesting.

Then there are the “Americanisms.” I found two turns of phrase which the author, through his various narrators, identifies as being uniquely American. Yet, these two phrases are well known to us all today. I think we should expect to find them in any part of the English speaking world:

  • To “take no chances” (ch.19 & earlier)
  • “A story”, as in a news story (ch.20)

The former is interesting to me in that it is so commonplace nowadays, that needing to mark it out as American caught me off guard. The need to do so would seem to indicate that in 1897, the year of publication, the phrase was hardly known in England. As for the latter, well, the same is mostly true. Except, I remember using the term “story” to describe a news piece with a non-native speaker and being surprised when the word caught her by surprise. Though she was able to understand it from context easily enough, she’d never heard it before. And so perhaps on some level, even now, that word could fairly be marked out for extra explanation.

So much for idiom. But Stoker also plays with dialect. There are four dialects in particular which I think warrant at least a look-see. One is of course Van Helsing’s speech; but this I shall leave to the last. Then there is the working-class cockney; the mariner’s lingo; and the (I think bucolic?) dialect of the zookeeper.

The latter three are fascinating insofar as I take them to be fairly faithful renderings of the actual speech of real people (or a real class of people, at any rate) with which Stoker must have had at least some first-hand experience.

Tackling the most difficult of these first, the old mariner’s dialect was barely decipherable. To give but one example, what the hell can this possibly mean?

“I must gang ageenwards home now, miss. My granddaughter doesn’t like to be kept waitin’ when the tea is ready, for it takes me time to crammle aboon the grees, for there be a many of ‘em; an’, miss, I lack belly-timbers sairly by the clock.” (ch.6)

Well, the first sentence isn’t too bad. “Gang” is obviously some version of “go” and “ageenwards” seems to be an adverbial use of ‘again’; though ‘again’ is itself an adverb. Obviously, the granddaughter has made tea and doesn’t like to be kept waiting; clear enough. But “crammle aboon the grees?” No idea. Presumably this refers to physical obstacles he must pass on his way home. I take “crammle” to be some sort of verb of moving; “aboon” as a variant of “upon” and “the grees” as perhaps “the grass” or “the green.” And yet, noting that “there be many of ‘em” throws some shadow of doubt over those conclusions. “Belly-timbers” I take to mean strength, whether physical or spiritual. “Sairly” I wager is adverbial both by the ‘-ly’ ending and its placement in the sentence. “By the clock” must also be adverbial, though I can only guess at its meaning. Taking them together (and with context), I gather that at this late hour, he is weakened by drunkenness, and so expects his journey home to be arduous due in part to the landscape.

I may have got that mostly right or mostly wrong. In the grand scheme of reading the book, it doesn’t really matter. But that’s the amount of thought I needed to put in to try and make sense of just those two sentences. My other choice would have been to simply disregard it. So now, perhaps, you can see what I mean when I say it can be, at times, a tiring text. And yet fascinating.

But the fascination works on two levels here. The first is simply to a reader who is interested in language. Working though that in the way that I have outlined above is, for me, fun; no matter how tiring. But it is also meta-fascinating. By which I mean, it is fascinating outside of the context of the story. It is fascinating as a representation of the way in which a certain group of people at a certain time actually spoke; and, I suspect, no longer speak. What a window into a world that was!8

Likewise for the speech of the Zookeeper, which occurs in the context of a newspaper “story” in chapter 11. Here now, the language is much easier to follow. But I excerpt a more challenging passage:

“My opinion is this: that ‘ere wolf is a-‘idin’ of, somewheres. The gard’ner wot didn’t remember said he was a-gallpoin’ northward faster than a horse could go; but I don’t believe him, for, yer see, sir, wolves don’t gallop, no more nor dogs does; they not bein’ built that way. Wolves is fine things in a story-book, and I dessay when they gets in packs and does be chivyin’ somethin’ that’s more afeared than they is they can make a devil of a noise and chop it up, whatever it is.”

So as I said, this bit is much easier to understand. And yet there’s all sorts of neat things going on here which are meant to represent a certain style of speech. Some of it is accent, as with the elision of initial “h” (e.g. ‘idin’) or the contraction of “dare say” into “dessay.” Some of it is grammatical construction, as with “no more nor dogs does” for “no more than dogs do.” As a guide for all this, I took an example of “rustic” British English from Monty Python; the Flying Sheep sketch. I don’t know if this is a good, or even remotely close, guide, but it served well enough. In any case, the point is, it is one more representation of a certain style of speech. And though it can be tiring to read it at length, it is nevertheless highly interesting on its own merits.

Next we come to the working-class cockney of late 19th century London. Now, I don’t pretend to be an expert on cockney, not by any stretch. But I’m familiar enough with it to at least be able to read it with far less difficulty than the two foregoing dialects. An example, from chapter 20:

“Well, guv’nor, I forgits the nubmer, but it was only a few doors from a big white church or somethink of the kind, not long built. It was a dusty old ‘ouse, too, though nothin’ to the dustiness of the ‘ouse we tooked the bloomin’ boxes from.”

As I said, easy enough. One can easily read through the misconjugated “forgits” or “tooked,” just as easily as one can read through the mispronounced “’ouse” and “somethink.” What really caught my attention here is, for all the effort Stoker puts into capturing the ‘sound’ of these dialects, is how “th” does not become “f.” What I mean is, in modern cockney, we would expect words like “somethink” and “nothin’” to be pronounced as “somefin’” and “nofin’”. Do Stoker’s spellings mean that the “th” to “f” transition hadn’t happened as of 1897? If so, what an unexpected look into the street-talk of a bygone era!9

Having thus dealt with the mariner, the zookeeper and Mr. Cockney, I have only to treat with the speech of the revered Dr. Van Helsing. But as his speech is, I find, of a different order, and as I have now exhausted the e-cigarette, which I purchased as a substitute for my much-beloved pipe, I think I must here pause and take up again when I have the means to write further…

…And now I have the means. It’s a bit colder out than I’d have liked, but at least the storm has passed and I can work outside again with my pipe (and some main10 fine tobacco wot I purchased not long ago in Colorado). And so, whither Van Helsing?

Stoker has Van Helsing speak in a sort of broken “non-native” English for lack of a better word. This seems to manifest itself almost entirely by means of odd grammatical constructions and wrong idioms, but never by accent. In reading this, I did not take it as an accurate representation of the way an actual Dutchman might speak the language but simply as a way to mark his speech out as “other.” My suspicion is that as opposed to cockney, for example, Stoker perhaps didn’t have an actual Dutchman to model the speech on. That said, his rendering is not without linguistic intelligence.

For example, he often has VH assign male gender to inanimate objects; something that we do not regularly do in English. I don’t know much about Dutch, other than that it is Germanic and fairly close to today’s High German. But if you’ve ever spoken to speakers of gendered languages whose English is far from perfect, you will probably have noticed this phenomenon. So in that regard, I think it was a clever device on Stoker’s part. And yet perhaps not clever enough. For he only ever has VH assign the masculine gender, at least as far as I noticed. And so one example which stood out to me was when VH refers to blood as ‘he.’ I noticed this in particular,11 because in Greek as well as German, blood is neutral, not masculine.12

I’ll move on from this bit rather quickly. I don’t think there’s much to be gained here from putting down examples of his odd turns of phrase or grammatical mistakes other than to say that they are constant. And while interesting on some level, and even fun at times, it is also tiring at length. And as Van Helsing has quite a bit of dialogue, it is tiring often.

One last thought on VH’s speech. All of his dialogue is recorded in the journal entries of other characters, save for his memoranda in the last chapter or two. And here, I think it is an interesting conceit to suggest that the other characters went to the trouble of putting down VH’s language exactly as they heard it, rather than paraphrasing it into their own English; and that furthermore each character – Seward and both Harkers – interpreted his speech identically. But, that is, apparently, what they did.

A couple of other things regarding the language were of interest to me. One is the use of foreign language in set phrases. This is done primarily (if not exclusively) by VH, who throws around the odd bit of French and Latin, and even one (really rather wrong) Greek quote of Archimedes.13 But I thought this was kind of cool, as it shows the breadth of Stoker’s learning. He even shows he knows a bit of German in the first couple of chapters.

Another point of interest was hyphenation. It is fairly common in English that when new compound words are introduced, they often start out hyphenated, before the hyphen is eventually lost. And so, here, in 1897 we see “To-morrow” as the preferred spelling. And yet, in chapter 20, he refers to “chopsticks.” I was first of all surprised to see this word in so comparatively old a text (though that may simply speak to my ignorance); but doubly so to see it compounded without hyphen.

Next, there were some old words and phrases which were not unfamiliar per se, but which, by their usage seemed strange to me. In chapter 19, I came across the phrases, “in an indexy sort of way” and “helping his fads.” From context I could glean the sense of them, but these were usages which I had not seen before, and which, presumably have since died out.

Another example was the apparent use of “earnest” as a noun. I give here a portion of the sentence: “…when I had promised to pay for his information and given him an earnest.”14 I considered whether this was perhaps a typographical error15 and should have read “in earnest,” which of course is a common collocation. But reading it over two or three times, I took it as it was16 and interpreted it as something like “a substantial enough offering to demonstrate one’s sincerity.”

Finally, there was the note written by the barely literate laborer. This was cool, as it showcased in microcosm Stoker’s attention to phonetics. The little note simply read: “Sam Bloxam, Korkrans, 4, Poters Cort, Bartel Street, Walworth. Arsk for the depite.”17 I didn’t feel too bad when I read down the page and saw that good Jonathan Harker had as much trouble with this as I did. It should have read: “Sam Bloxam, Corcoran’s [a lodging-house (another hyphenation!)], 4 Potter’s Court, Bartel Street, Walworth. Ask for the deputy.”

So much for the language. Two other observations and I shall wrap this up. It occurred to me that Stoker’s Renfield and Tolkien’s Gollum are of a type. Both are misshapen creatures – Renfield mentally, Gollum physically and mentally. Both ostensibly serve higher masters. Renfield with Dracula, Gollum with the Ring. Both have a taste for live animals – Renfield for flies and spiders, Gollum for fish. Both spend most of the story as ostensible bad guys, but both end up serving the heroes in the end (though in fairness, Renfield less integrally than Gollum). And both, for all their misdeeds, ultimately show themselves to have a shred of decency in them that makes them worth saving; or at least, worth trying to save. For both end up dead in the end. Not being an English Lit major, I was left wondering if these two are mere manifestations of a larger trope in our collective literary history. But the parallels were striking to me. And as a “so great fan of Tolkien,” as Van Helsing might say, it was an interesting way to read the character.

The last point of interest I will mention in this post concerns class. I found a striking similarity in the way Stoker writes the London working class and the way Orwell writes the Proles in 1984. Both seem to be below the radar of respectability, so to speak. Neither class seems worth writing about as “real people,” if I can say that. They both seem to operate outside the vision or understanding of the main characters, in whose worldview we the readers exist. Their entire function seems to be to drink when they are not working and to pay next to no attention to the dangers of the “real world,” whether that be the political machine of Orwell’s book or the threats of the Transylvanian Count in Stoker’s. And, for that matter, the world in which they inhabit seems as foreign a land to Harker and his band, as the inner city of the Proles seems to Winston, however much he might be intrigued by it. I may be off base with this, but I’ve always felt that a bit strange and un-American, if I can say. As if it is in someway a reflection of the striated class society that we as Americans rejected in the 18th century.18 That’s how they both read to me, in any case.

Well, it’s nearly 3:30 and I am cold. So I think I shall end here. All this to say, in the end, that I found Dracula to be a fun read, though not an easy one. Yet, it is the difficulties that made the text far more interesting to me than it otherwise might have been. You can find many flaws with this book, if you’re so inclined. But one if its virtues, to me at least, is as a window into the English language of 1897.

Oh, but I did mention in the beginning of this post that I would say something about the famous movie too, didn’t I? Well, I guess I lost track of that. But I’ll close with this. The absolute best line of the movie comes when Renfield19 first meets Dracula in his castle. There is an awkward silence as both men hear the howling of wolves outside. And then Lugosi/Dracula says, in the most badass way imaginable, and with that killer accent, “Listen to them. Children of the Night. What music they make.” And, you guys, it’s in the book! That actual amazing kick-ass line is in the freakin’ book! And when I read that, I nearly jumped out of my chair and did finger-pistols in the air.

But the second most badass line in the movie? Well. To be honest, I might screw it up. A while back, I was trying to locate a free streaming version of the film online. But the only one I could find was a German overdub. But, needing to practice my German, and figuring that this movie could only be more evil and badass in that language, that’s what I watched. And re-watched. And watched again. Anyway, in the caste, Dracula offers Renfield some wine. And Renfield is all, “aren’t you gonna have any?” To which the Count replies, “Ich trinke keinen Tropf…Wein.”20 Oh man, so fucking evil! Gives you chills, I swear. But alas. That one’s not in the book.

  1. “De” takes the ablative, so you know the last “a” is long. #Latin Dracula, btw, means “little dragon” in Latin.  Also, this is as good a place as any to note that, to the handful of people that actually read this blog, you will probably find this post quite boring. #fairwarning []
  2. That portmanteau seemed cooler in my head. []
  3. Or, more likely, “young adults.” Because I’m pretty sure children should not be reading about vampires. I mean, even German fairy tales don’t deal with vampires. And there you can find a happy ending wherein the wicked stepmother is executed by being sealed into a barrel of boiling oil…which also has poisonous vipers in it. I’m not even kidding. (And if you prefer an English rendering, you can find one here). []
  4. Naps notwithstanding. []
  5. The Carpathian Castle []
  6. At the moment at which I started this post, anyway. I actually finished the book this afternoon. []
  7. Yup, you read that right. []
  8. And if it be, in any way, a window into a world that still exists, how much more fascinating!? []
  9. Pity my children, if I ever have them, that they might one day have to endure reading books with me in this way… []
  10. In several of the cockney passages, I noticed the use of the word “main” to mean “very” or “rather” (ch.20). []
  11. Though before I started taking notes, and so I cannot cite an example. []
  12. αἷμα in Greek (haima, whence hemoglobin, for example) and Blut in German. []
  13. And yet, there is some further indication that Stoker was at least peripherally familiar with Greek. In chapter 20, he uses the word aërial, spelled thusly with the umlaut. This is indeed reflective of the word’s Greek origin (ἀήρ aer, whence our air). The umlaut shows that in Greek the ae were not blended into a diphthong but that the letters were distinct vowels. We probably wouldn’t spell the word this way today, and indeed my spellchecker here tried to remove the umlaut.  This conclusion is also furthered by his invention (which Seward claims as his own, at any rate) of the adjective “zoöphageous” to describe the “life devouring” Renfield; the umlaut again signifying the difference (lost in English) between the Greek omega and omicron. []
  14. Ch.20 []
  15. It is here worth noting that all references and quotations are taken from the 2007 Sigent Classics edition. []
  16. We should always prefer the lectio difficilior. #nerdspeak []
  17. Ch.20 []
  18. And indeed, Lord Godalming frequently uses his rank and privilege to get away with things that “regular” folks could never do. In contrast, I kinda love how the one American in the book – Quincey Morris – routinely refers to His Lordship not just by his first name, but even by a nickname: simply “Art.” Because Americans think titles are bullshit. []
  19. Though in the book it is Harker. []
  20. I don’t drink…wine. []

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