Monday, January 06, 2014

Classic Literature: The Lady of the Shroud

Bram Stoker’s The Lady of the Shroud was published in 1909 and like his great novel Dracula was an epistolary novel. Unlike Dracula, it was uneasy as a piece of literature but, from a TMtV point of view, the reason it is a piece of classic literature is for some of the insights it may offer to Stoker’s thoughts on vampirism.

The book prologues with an extract from “the Journal of Occultism” about a mysterious vision that occurred off the Balkan coast adjacent to the (fictional) “Land of the Blue Mountains”, in which the crew of an Italian ship spot a small vessel that turns out to be as follows:

…the boat, which had all along seemed to be a queer shape, was none other than a Coffin, and that the woman standing up in it was clothed in a shroud.

After the marvellous Gothic opening we found ourselves wading through the writings of Ernest Melton – a most dislikeable chap – and his thoughts surrounding the reading of the will of Roger Melton (and associated family histories). The book gets in to the meat proper, as it were, after we discover that Ernest’s cousin Rupert Sent Leger inherits the lion’s share of the estate (the size of which the Meltons are ignorant of). That inheritance has stipulations that suggest he must stay at the castle in the Blue Mountains.

Now, one issue with the book is that Stoker covers a massive range of styles. It is an adventure, a mystery (with a Gothic twist), a science-fiction (we get radium powered aircraft later), a dynastic novel and a discourse on the shape of Europe through fictional means. Here we are interested in the Gothic elements and, specifically, the vampirism. There is, however, no vampirism involved – just a belief in vampirism and acting like a vampire.

Rupert (a strapping seven foot tall Englishman with a heart of gold and a courageous line in adventuring) has moved to the castle with his Aunt Janet (his old governess and a Scottish lady with the Second Sight – that aspect of the supernatural is real). He is approached one night by a woman in a shroud knocking at his window.

She never gives her name and it is Rupert who supposes she is a vampire (not helped by Aunt Janet’s second sight who assumes that, because she wears a shroud, the woman she sees in her visions is the walking dead). He decides that the mysterious woman fulfils the rules of vampirism, which are set out as: 1) her coming at night – when vampires are free to roam, 2) wearing the shroud – a necessity of coming fresh from the grave (though it is maintained this is not occult in nature), 3) being helped into his room and thus fulfilling “vampire etiquette” – we could liken this to being invited in but Stoker’s notes for Dracula actually go further and have the vampire in need of assistance crossing a threshold. This would seem to resurrect that idea. 4) leaving with the cock-crow and 5) seeming preternaturally cold.

All things, however, are explainable later on and, despite suspecting that she is a vampire, Rupert is concerned that she doesn’t catch a chill and also falls in love with her. This leads to him being married to her (whilst still believing her to be a vampire and not knowing her name) in a wonderfully evocative midnight ceremony.

It later transpires that she is the voivodine Tueta, daughter of the Voivode Peter Vissarion, and her acting as a vampire was all part of a convoluted plan to distract the country’s enemies (Ottoman Turks) following her accidentally being buried alive when she went into a cataleptic trance.

From our point of view we get a view into Stoker’s thoughts about vampires (note that he makes them active at night, but this does not preclude daylight activity as he included in Dracula). The only aspect that hasn’t been covered does enlighten part of Dracula to us. When Stoker describes Dracula a part of the description was clearly inspired from the description of werewolves as researched by Stoker in Sabine Baring-Gould’s The Book of Were-Wolves, being an account of a terrible superstition (1865). In this novel Stoker categorically states, “The Wehr-Wolf is but a variant of the Vampire.” Whilst an author can have multiple variants of a given trope that needn’t inform one book to the other, this would seem to me to be telling of his general thoughts on the subject.

The book itself might prove disappointing to a reader wanting to read a supernatural mystery, given it is not and the faux-supernatural element makes up only a small part of the novel. It does, as I say, suffer from covering too many bases but it is still an interesting read.

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