Neckbytes – Dracula, Computers and Law

April 30, 2003

This magazine is full of news about interesting products and applications. As “Backbytes” readers may recall, the one that captured my interest and cash this year was the HP Jornarda Pocket PC, inspired by Neil Cameron’s account of reading “Bleak House” on a train. I duly installed Microsoft Reader software and indulged in some of the e-books that are available free on the Web, mainly out-of-copyright 19th century novels. E-books are ideal for reading during train journeys, tedious meetings and other moments of solitary contemplation.

One of those I managed to download was Bram Stoker’s Dracula. The novel has exercised huge influence in popular culture yet it is rarely read in its original form. Its literary merit is in many ways questionable but no-one who embarks on its sprawling epistolary structure will deny that it is strangely compelling. Comment has been extensive and wide-ranging: the hunt for the vampire provides scope for Marxist, feminist, gay and many other interpretations. However, little attention has, been paid to the pivotal and symbolic role of technology and the legal profession in the book.

The format involves a collection of contemporaneous documents. Whilst we are in the England of the last years of the 19th century, the protagonists use the most up-to-date technology to create those records. Stenography, dictation and photography are all used and are all as slap-bang up to date as e-mail, client extranets and XML. Britain at the time was the most advanced nation the world had known. Its people were proud and technologically advanced and its lawyers were prepared to use state-of-the art methods to record, communicate and advance the interests of their clients. Small wonder then that in the forests of remote Transylvania a long undead spirit, keen to gorge on modernity, saw in this acme of civilisation the possibility of new victims and fresh sustenance and consequently plotted to use technology and lawyers to achieve his evil ends. His English, Dutch and American opponents were equally prepared to marshall their evidence using the advanced methods at their disposal (although the coup de grace was to be delivered by traditional means).

Peter Hawkins was a respected and wealthy solicitor in Exeter. One client, who saw him as a friend as well as a legal adviser, was a Central European aristocrat of refined manners and impeccable taste. The client sought Hawkins’ advice on what we would now call an “inward investment project”. Essentially, he wished to purchase an English estate, which had to be of reasonable antiquity and also to have facilities for storing a number of large and heavy boxes. Mr Hawkins and his trainee solicitor, Jonathan Harker carried out their client’s instructions. Harker eventually found a property which fitted the bill perfectly: Carfax, near Purfleet. Just as Harker had finished his articles, the client asked his firm to attend upon him at his Transylvanian castle to discuss legal issues arising from the purchase. Since Harker had taken some relevant photographs with his recently acquired Kodak camera, Hawkins thought he was the most appropriate representative to send. Clearly this was something more than a mere “by hand” or overseas completion trip and the young solicitor seized on the opportunity to visit a little known part of Europe. Very few newly qualified solicitors have the experiences that subsequently befell Jonathan Harker

The Count is a notably sophisticated commercial client. He does not retain one firm for all his legal affairs but is prepared to make appointments based on track records and suitability for the job. These days, of course, his instructions might form the basis for an invitation to tender and subsequent beauty parade. In the 1890s, he relies on his personal contact with Hawkins. The reason for using an Exeter lawyer to find and purchase an establishment in East London is not made clear by Stoker.

As well as property investment, the client requires shipping law services. He intends to transport his domestic effects, his sources of home comfort in a foreign country, to Carfax via Whitby in the Russian vessel “Demeter” sailing from Varna on the Black Sea. To quote from Harker’s journal:

“First, he asked if a man in England might have two solicitors or more. I told him he might have a dozen if he wished, but that it would not be wise to have more than one solicitor engaged in one transaction, as only one could act at a time, and that to change would be certain to militate against his interest. He seemed thoroughly to understand, and went on to ask if there would be any practical difficulty in having one man to attend, say, to banking, and another to look after shipping…

I answered that certainly it would be most easy, but that we solicitors had a system of agency one for the other, so that local work could be done locally on instruction from any solicitor, so that the client, simply placing himself in the hands of one man, could have his wishes carried out by him without further trouble.

During Harker’s visit, the Count addresses a letter to Messrs. Samuel F. Billington & Son, of 7 The Crescent Whitby asking them to take delivery of the 50 boxes of good Transyvlanian earth and consign them to London. Following the dreadful voyage of the “Demeter” and its apocalyptic arrival at Whitby, the goods in question are collected on behalf of Billingtons. They are consigned to the carriers, Carter Paterson, with a classic Victorian solicitors’ letter, ending:

“Pray do not take us as exceeding the bounds of business courtesy in pressing you in all ways to use the utmost expedition.”

With the caskets safely transported to London, the narrative focuses on the search for them. Harker manages to obtain relevant documents from Billingtons to help him in his research: clearly Stoker was not fully informed of the professional obligations of client confidentiality which should have prevented the disclosure of this information but which would have had an inhibiting effect on the plot.

Harker is also able to use his legal experience to help Professor Van Helsing and his colleagues find their way around Carfax and in particular the chapel: after all, he had not pored over the conveyancing plans for nothing in the latter part of his articles. By this time, it seems Hawkins is dead and Harker has inherited his practice, performing his vampire hunting duties whilst senior partner of Hawkins & Harker. His clients back in Exeter might have been slightly concerned but Stoker does not go into this in any detail.

Interestingly, for his second property investment, namely No. 347 Piccadilly, the Count eschews legal advice and indulges in a bit of do-it-yourself conveyancing. As the estate agents inform Lord Godalming, the purchaser, a foreign nobleman “effected the purchase himself paying the purchase money in notes ‘over the counter,’ if your Lordship will pardon us using so vulgar an expression”. The law was not so hot on money-laundering in those days and the Count was clearly able to prepare and engross his own vesting document. The vendors would, of course, need to be careful if the travelling draft happened to be amended in red.

Stoker recounts the piecing together of various sources of evidence by the protagonists, including journals, letters and commercial documents. The process is akin to a factual investigation in a major litigation case, the intended defendant in this instance being an embodiment of evil such as most litigators rarely confront. Van Helsing, it should be noted, is legally as well as medically qualified and his alliance with Harker and Harker’s wife Mina, who fulfils all the paralegal virtues, is eventually too much for the Count. They eventually defeat him, out of the jurisdiction, by a rigorous analysis and exploitation of what laws of nature he can and cannot break. Were a modern case management system available to them, they would evidently have used it to good effect.

The other solicitor to feature in the book, Mr Marquand of Wholeman, Sons, Marquand and Lidderdale has a less than glamorous role to play. As solicitor to Lucy Westenra’s mother (Lucy’s untimely death having been hastened by the attentions of the Count and her mother having immediately predeceased her), Mr Marquand congratulates himself on the nature of his testamentary advice. This, although technically correct, was ignored by Mrs Westenra with the result that the estate has been made available to assist in the quest for the vampire. The narrator of this part of the action, Dr Seward, is subtly scathing:

“He was a good fellow, but his rejoicing at the one little part — in which he was officially interested — of so great a tragedy was an object-lesson in the limitations of sympathetic understanding.”

We are thus presented with a contrast between two types of solicitor. Gratifyingly, it is Harker who sets out once more for Transylvania and we can reasonably assure ourselves that the Count, whose plans were initially based on the fulfilment of legal transactions, was laid low by legal vision and the harnessing of technology as well as by courage and cold steel.

Richard Harrison is a partner in Laytons