In a fascinating review of a new Bram Stoker biography for the London Review of Books (print only), Terry Eagleton notes that “Ireland has less of a tradition of literary realism than England,” but he eschews what he characterizes as the “normative” presentation of realism as “a ‘mature art form, one which has evolved out of crude stereotypes and gross improbabilities.”
Under the view that prioritizes realism, he says:
the Irish never quite made it from myth to realism, just as they never quite climbed out of savagery into civility. While England had Middlemarch, they had Melmoth the Wanderer.
Eagleton argues that the Irish resistance to realism had its own “snobbish tinge.” (For Yeats, for example, “realism was for grocers and English vulgarians.”) And he ties Stoker’s most famous novel, Dracula, to an Irish “home-grown alternative to F.R. Leavis’s Great Tradition,” Protestant Gothic:
There is a fertile lineage of Gothic fiction in Ireland, from Charles Maturin’s Melmoth the Wanderer and Sheridan Le Fanu’s Uncle Silas to Bram Stoker’s Dracula and Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray. Even the Irish Protestant Iris Murdoch‘s darkly fantastic fiction makes more sense when read against this background. . . .
Protestant Gothic — a world of decay, madness and murderous loathing, in which the burden of a bloodstained past weighs like a nightmare on the living — can be seen as the political unconscious of a chronically insecure ruling class. Irish Gothic flourished by and large at the time Catholic nationalism was emerging; and nationalist leaders such as Daniel O’Connell were occasionally portrayed as Gothic monsters. There is even a notion that Dracula is none other than Parnell, though he is also thought to have been modelled on the Victorian Orientalist Richard Burton, the actor Henry Irving (whose habits were noctornal) and Stoker himself, not to speak of Vlad the Impaler.
Violent, priest-ridden, full of mouldering ruins and religious fanaticism, Ireland was ripe for Gothic treatment. Nothing lent itself more readily to the genre than the decaying gentry in their crumbling houses, isolated and besieged, haunted by memories of ancient crimes which refused to be decently buried. Roy Foster has persuasively argued that the Irish Protestant fascination with magic and secret societies reflects a sense of social displacement, but also provided a substitute for Catholic ritual and solidarity. Bothic is the most paranoid of literary forms; but whereas in England the persecuted figure was often a woman, in Ireland it was, ironically, the governors themselves, divided as they were from the mass of the popularion by ethnic, religious and political differences. Irish Gothic figures like Melmoth and Dracula are both vistim and exploiter, outcast and aristocrat, rather as the Irish Ascendancy felt itself to be a cast-off ruling class shabbily treated by the British government. Today, that ambivalence has descended to the Northern Unionists. . . .
Stoker’s Dracula is that most Irish of villains, an absentee landlord, who leaves his Transylvanian castle to buy up property in London. Like the Protestant Irish, he combines weirdness with a dash of hard-headed realism. Dracula is a material ghoul, much preoccupied with leases and title deeds. When he is slashed with a knife banknotes, not blood, spill from his breast. Like many Ascendancy gentlemen he is a devout Anglophile who plans, a touch bathetically, to settle in Purfleet. A good many Irish Protestants also washed up in England, when the fled Ireland after political independence. By the end of Stoker’s novel, Dracula is running out of soil. Furnished only with the crates of Transylvanian earth he needs to bed down for the night, his material base is rapidly dwindling. Not long after Dracula appeared, legislation allowed tenant farmers to purchase the landed estates of the Irish Ascendancy, a terminus rather less traumatic than a stake through the heart.