Sunday, 16 February 2014


I am reading Dracula at the moment. I wasn’t terribly impressed at first, though it is picking up (the action has just switched from Transylvania to England). The passage below, with its description of Whitby in North Yorkshire, took my fancy.

Right over the town is the ruin of Whitby Abbey, which was sacked by the Danes, and which is the scene of part of Marmion, where the girl was built up in the wall. It is a most noble ruin, of immense size, and full of beautiful and romantic bits. There is a legend that a white lady is seen in one of the windows. Between it and the town there is another church, the parish one, round which is a big graveyard, all full of tombstones. This is to my mind the nicest spot in Whitby, for it lies right over the town, and has a full view of the harbour and all up the bay to where the headland called Kettleness stretches out into the sea. It descends so steeply over the harbour that part of the bank has fallen away, and some of the graves have been destroyed.

Dracula was published in 1897, though Stoker visited in 1890 and drafted this scene at some point following his visit. Marmion, which I’ve not read, is an 1808 epic poem by Walter Scott about the Battle of Flodden Field.

There is quite a lot going on here – at least, if you interpret the passage in a certain way. Immediately of interest is the reference to Scott’s Marmion. It got me thinking – when can a fictional work directly reference a real-world work of literature without ‘breaking the fourth wall’? That is, without seeming to belong simultaneously to both the real world of literary authors (who have agents, and read other novelists, etc.) and the fictional world of the narrative? 

I intuitively feel that the reference to Marmion here does not cause an ‘alienation effect’ – just as there is no such effect when, e.g., Howard Jacobson’s characters refer to Hamlet. But I probably would feel something odd was happening if Stoker referred directly to a contemporary such as Robert Louis Stevenson, or if Jacobson referred directly to Julian Barnes’s Sense of an Ending.

I don’t feel there is an obvious explanation why the one type of reference is more disruptive, and maybe even unsettling, than the other – I will have a go at approaching the matter later. Suffice it to say for now that there is clearly some sort of distancing effect that distinguishes the two – the works of Walter Scott are sufficiently distanced (in time, say) that reference to them does not flag up in our minds the current writer’s similar status as a writer of literary texts in the real world.

Going back to the passage itself, what is interesting is that there is a direct reference to Scott, together with an indirect allusion to Wilkie Collins, who had died in 1889 shortly before Stoker started drafting Dracula – we know that Stoker was influenced by Collins (because it says so in the ODNB, here) so it is reasonable to wonder if the legend of the Whitby ‘white lady’ recalls Collins’s The Woman in White, a novel whose content and structure directly fed into Dracula (ODNB, again).

So this is maybe a direct example of the distancing effect I was talking about – Scott is directly referenced but Collins only alluded to because Collins belongs more closely to the literary context that produced Dracula. It would be veering into overly playful self-reference to directly refer to Collins. 

(Contrast, coincidentally, Collins’s Moonstone, in which narrating character Gabriel Betteredge evangelizes the benefits of living one’s life according to the wisdom of Robinson Crusoe. This is ‘meta-literary’ but only inasmuch as the 18th -century novel Robinson Crusoe is a part of the real world’s historical fabric, and as such an uncontroversial and unmarked part of fictional descriptions of that real world – it does not in any way impute, or bring illicitly into focus, the literary context that frames the Moonstone itself).

But still – there is, I think, a meta-literary aspect to this passage, if I can write those words without sounding like a PoMo-addled undergraduate. The different intertextual techniques used for both authors confirm Scott and his Gothic-Romantic style (the ‘beautiful and romantic bits’ Mina sees in the abbey) as belonging firmly to (in fact by means of this comparison, being relegated to) a bygone literary past, and Collins as belonging to the literary present that frames the narrative of Dracula itself. By confirming Collins as too close to home to be referenced directly, Stoker lays out his own programme – he has relegated older forms of Gothic to the past, and instead follows the more sexually and psychologically sophisticated fiction of Collins.

That all three authors share a (vaguely) Celtic background is also (vaguely) interesting.

If there is any validity in this interpretation, then I should probably take a step further and note how the topography of the scene is probably significant too. The idea of a literary fault-line, between the old and new Gothic genre, has a fairly clear metaphor in the shoreline on which the abbey stands – indeed, the ‘romantic’ edifice stands there facing a sea which will soon bring against to shore Dracula himself (and also Dracula).

I’ve written before about Vergil’s metaphorical use of shorelines to represent boundaries between metaphysical worlds – e.g. between life and death, between reality and representation (it’s here, in my very much unrevised thesis). I’m not sure how far I would want to take a similar interpretation regarding the Dracula passage – it would involve saying something like ‘the shoreline delineates a number of boundaries simultaneously – a physical one between land and sea, a meta-literary one between old and new styles of Gothic, and a metaphysical one between the notional fictional world in which Dracula takes place and the literary real world of Stoker, Collins, and Scott to which it simultaneously belongs. Like the shoreline itself, it is a border that is always risk of being encroached upon.’

I’ll return to paradoxical literary self-reference in my next post.

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