In July 1890, Bram Stoker arrived at Mrs Veazey’s guesthouse at 6 Royal Crescent, Whitby.
Stoker was the business manager for famous actor, Henry Irving. Having once toured Whitby with a circus, Irving recommended Whitby for some recuperation for his business manager, who had just done a tiring stint in Scotland.
Stoker was working on a new story, set in Austria, with a central character called Count Wampyr.
Stoker had a week by himself before his wife and baby son joined him. The guest rooms were cleaned each morning and so Stoker would stroll down the hill into town – a great way to appreciate the romantic landscape beloved of so many artists and writers.
The books of Stoker’s time were often set in foreign lands full of eerie castles, convents and caves.
Whitby’s windswept headland, the dramatic abbey ruins, a church surrounded by swooping bats, and a long association with jet – a semi-precious black stone used in mourning jewellery – inspired much of Dracula.
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ABBEY AND CHURCH
High above Whitby, and dominating the whole town, stands Whitby Abbey, the ruin of a once-great Benedictine monastery, founded in the 11th century. The medieval abbey stands on the site of a much earlier monastery, founded in 657 by an Anglian princess, Hild, who became its first abbess. In Dracula, Stoker has Mina Murray – the young woman whose experiences form the thread of the novel – record in her diary:
Right over the town is the ruin of Whitby Abbey, which was sacked by the Danes … 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.from Bram Stoker’s “Dracula”
Below the abbey stands the ancient parish church of St Mary, perched on East Cliff, which is reached by a climb of 199 steps.
Stoker would have seen how eroded the churchyard was on the cliff edge. Some headstones stood over empty graves, marking seafaring occupants whose bodies had been lost at sea. He noted down inscriptions and names from the graveyard, including ‘Swales’, the name he used for Dracula’s first victim in Whitby.
AN ENCOUNTER WITH DRACULA
On 8 August 1890, Stoker visited the public library. He found a book published in 1820, about a British consul in Bucharest, William Wilkinson, who worked in Wallachia and Moldavia (now in Romania).
Wilkinson’s history mentioned a 15th-century prince called Vlad Tepes who was said to have impaled his enemies on wooden stakes. He was known as Dracula – the ‘son of the dragon’. The author had added 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.William Wilkinson Chronicles
Stoker made a note of this name, along with the date.
THE BIRTH OF A LEGEND
While staying in Whitby, Stoker would have heard tales of the shipwreck five years earlier of a Russian vessel called the Dmitry, from Narva. This ran aground on Tate Hill Sands below East Cliff, carrying silversand.
In his stories, this became the Demeter from Varna that carries Dracula to Whitby with a cargo of silver sand and boxes of earth
So, although Stoker was to spend six more years on his novel before it was published, researching the landscapes and customs of Transylvania, the name of his villain and some of the novel’s most dramatic scenes were inspired by his holiday in Whitby. The tourists, the picturesque harbour, the abbey ruins, the windswept churchyard and the tales from seafarers – all became part of the novel.
In 1897 Dracula was published. It had an unpromising start as a play but was redrafted as a novel 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 during the journey to Whitby, until only the captain is left, tied to the wheel, as the ship runs aground below East Cliff . A ‘large dog’ bounds from the wreck and runs up the steps to the church, and from this moment, things begin to go horribly wrong…
Stay in Whitby
Find out what captivated Bram Stoker by planning a stay in the seaside town: