20) The Lady of the Shroud, by Bram Stoker
The only time I have ever been to Israel was for a conference on European foreign policy, in Caesarea five years ago. The only other participant with Balkan expertise was a Serbian journalist based in Berlin (who I last saw in Strasbourg a few years later) who stunned me by describing a novel by Bram Stoker set not in the eastern Balkan environment of Dracula but in the western Balkans, in what was then the future Yugoslavia (and is now, of course, the former Yugoslavia). I spotted and bought the book, The Lady of the Shroud, just over a year ago in Hampshire, and read it last weekend.
At least, I thought I had read it; and then, as I was preparing to write it up here on Sunday night, checking out the on-line text on Project Gutenberg, I discovered that there was a whole chunk of the book missing – the Arrow edition of 1962, whose 1974 version (with cover shown to the right) was the one I had bought, had hacked off the last quarter of the text, without explanation! Extraordinary. I don’t mind buying an abridged version if it’s marked as such, but it was a shock to discover I had been cheated of such a substantial amount of the content. (Though since I only paid £1.60 I can’t complain too much.)
Anyway. The book is set in the present day (ie 1907). It is about a Rupert St Leger, an Irishman who has become a citizen of the world, who unexpectedly finds himself a major landowner in a fictional Adriatic territory, the Land of the Blue Mountains, which should not be confused with any country named after mountains of some other colour with which I might be familiar. He gets entangled with a mysterious and chilly lady who appears wearing only a shroud (the exciting cover – wonder who the artist was? – shows her standing up in a water-borne coffin, in what is in fact the book’s very first scene). The plot is complex and exciting, but is resolved with his rescuing her father from captivity using an aeroplane (which is pretty bloody advanced for 1907) and it turns out that the only element of the supernatural not otherwise explained away is Celtic rather than Balkan, in that Rupert’s aged Scottish aunt has the Second Sight.
At least, that’s where I thought the book ended. However, in the substantial section censored from the 1962/1974 edition, the story continues directly into the political rather than the supernatural (perhaps the reader of the 1960s was deemed by the publishers to be more interested in the horror elements than the politics). Rupert uses his vast fortune, and the mineral wealth of the Land of the Blue Mountains, to unite the entire Balkan peninsula under his moderate and constitutional rule, defended by a fleet of – get this – radium-powered aeroplanes.
Yes, the author of Dracula wrote a book with nuclear fuelled aircraft. Set in the Balkans. In 1907.
Digging around the internet a bit, I was thrilled to discover that there is a respectable school of thought suggesting that when Stoker wrote about the Balkans, he was really writing about,er, the Balkans, rather than whatever other undercurrents of sexuality, Irishness, etc may be attributed to him. (See especially essays on Dracula here, here and here, with the middle essay looking also at The Lady of the Shroud.) His younger brother George served in the Red Crescent in Bulgaria, and wrote a book about it (With “The Unspeakables”: or, Two Years’ Campaigning in European and Asiatic Turkey, published in 1878). There are several substantive monographs and essay collections on Stoker’s sources for Dracula. I may have to start reading some of them.
I must say I had not expected this book to be quite so intriguing. I certainly got more than my money’s worth anyway.