- Teaching Dracula in the Netherlands
Having read Dracula many times before I taught it to students at the University of Amsterdam last spring, I was familiar with the eccentric form of English spoken by the Dutch character, Abraham Van Helsing. Yet the experience of reading it aloud with my students—the majority of whom are Dutch and speak English with near-native fluency—was, by turns, embarrassing, puzzling, and humorous. I taught the novel in a second-year Victorian literature survey, which also included Wuthering Heights and Great Expectations, as well as poetry, drama, and short fiction. Van Helsing’s nationality and what Franco Moretti calls his “approximate and mangled English” have received relatively little critical attention, in contrast to Count Dracula’s, and even Quincey Morris’s, racial and national identities (97). My students, however, immediately focused on Van Helsing’s language and were puzzled as to why Stoker would give this intelligent character such garbled English.
In an attempt to encourage my students to engage with critical responses to Dracula, I introduced them to Christine Ferguson’s reading of nonstandard language in the novel; she argues that Van Helsing’s odd form of English might in fact be read as a useful attribute. Ferguson suggests, in an attempt to challenge “anxiety theory” readings of Dracula, that it is those characters who are willing to “transform English to meet their own needs” who survive and even excel in the world of fin-de-siècle England (144).1 Van Helsing’s creative speech, then, just like that of the native speakers, allows him to embody “the disruptive and evasive mechanisms of language that the vampire can never master” (145). Ferguson’s reading offers a compelling way to account for Van Helsing’s stilted language but surprising success in destroying Dracula. That is, Van Helsing’s speech, rather than hinder his ability to defeat Dracula, actually evinces his own creative strategies and reveals how distinct he is from Dracula, with his studied, overregulated speech. Her argument works well alongside Patricia McKee’s assertion that Van Helsing’s open-mindedness is “a useful perspective for the modernist interpreter and the venture capitalist” (48). McKee identifies Van Helsing’s deployment of phrases such as “There are so many things which may happen.… None of us can tell what, or when, or how, the end may be” (285) as gesturing to the way in which his open-mindedness and self-consciousness allow him to believe in Dracula’s existence [End Page 12] and later destroy him (47). Having presented Van Helsing in a positive light via these critical responses, I then asked my students to respond. While the students felt that these critical readings were persuasive, many still felt that despite Van Helsing’s success and his heroic status in the novel, his mangled English nonetheless makes him something of a European caricature. They wondered if Stoker had ever been to the Netherlands or if he had ever really had a conversation with a Dutch person—questions that led us to ask not just whether Van Helsing figured as a kind of stock “friendly European” figure but also just how important his nationality in fact was. Such observations led to exclamations of “And he’s not even speaking Dutch! He’s speaking German!”
Indeed, many native English speakers might miss the fact that when Van Helsing lapses into his own language, it is not Dutch but is in fact closer to German. And while Stoker might not have concerned himself with the distinction between the two Germanic languages, it is not surprising that my students were unimpressed with this apparent carelessness. To push this point a bit further, in the second class on the novel, I pointed them to a contemporary review of Dracula in the Athenaeum, included in the Norton edition, which suggests, “The people who band themselves together to run the earth have no real individuality or being. The German man of science is particularly poor, and indulges, like a German, in much weak sentiment” (365). This assertion provoked laughter, as I suspected it would, both because Van Helsing is wrongly identified as German and because of the...