The Lair of the White Worm and The Lady of the Shroud, by Bram Stoker, Wordsworth Editions, 448 pp, £2.99, ISBN: 978-1840226454
There’s more to Stoker’s penultimate novel, The Lady of the Shroud, than meets the eye. It is at one and the same time a rollicking adventure story, a vampire story without a vampire, an exercise in the science fiction of aerial warfare, an excursion into geopolitical utopianism and an oblique declaration of Stoker’s literary philosophy. First published in 1909, it was reissued by Wordsworth Editions a number of years ago together with his final novel, The Lair of the White Worm.
Rupert Sent Leger (or St Leger) is Scottish, the son of an Irish father and a Scottish mother. From an early age he travels the world, acquiring a great store of knowledge and contacts. He inherits a fabulous fortune from a relative, subject to the condition that he must live for a specific amount of time in a castle in a Balkan country called the “Land of the Blue Mountains” (Montenegro in the lightest of disguises).
After he has moved into the castle, he learns that the previous owner was the voivode (the country’s ruler). Rupert’s relative had purchased it to oblige the voivode, who urgently needed to raise resources to resist a threatened invasion by an aggressive regional power – the Ottoman (Turkish) empire. Sympathising with the cause, Rupert draws on his own financial resources and international contacts to help the country acquire modern armaments and military expertise.
Late one night he is visited in his castle by a young woman who is cold and wet and in need of assistance. He makes her comfortable and allows her to rest for a while before she continues on her way. A bond is established between them, even though she reveals nothing about herself – not even her name. They meet again a number of times – always in secret. All the signs are that she is a vampire but Rupert is smitten and they marry in a secret ceremony with occult trappings.
When the mystery woman is kidnapped by a Turkish raiding party, Rupert learns that she is the voivode’s daughter and that she is not a vampire. She had fallen ill and was presumed to be dead but later revived. The voivode’s officials – the voivode himself being on a diplomatic mission overseas – kept the news of her recovery secret because of a fear that it would cause public alarm by arousing suspicions of political trickery. A flood at her hiding place had forced her to seek help on the night of her first meeting with Rupert. He now leads a rescue party which succeeds in freeing her. Later, he rescues the voivode, who had been captured by another Turkish raiding party on his return to the country.
Rupert is now a national hero. A new constitution is adopted, making the country a constitutional monarchy. Rupert, on the nomination of his father-in-law, becomes the king. Policies are pursued which enable the country to become the mainstay of a Balkan federation capable of keeping the region independent of the Ottoman empire and other external powers.
The science fiction element of the work takes its point of departure from the conclusion drawn by a journalistic observer of these events: “Henceforth no nation with an eye for either defence or attack can hope for success without the mastery of the air.” The armaments Rupert supplies to his adoptive country include “compressible Kitson aeroplanes”. Air power plays a major part in the country’s defence strategy. The defence infrastructure put in place includes “a great tunnel” from the main harbour to the mountainous interior and the construction there of “depots” for “war aeroplanes”.
Stoker’s science fiction is notable not so much for its originality as for its prescience. Air travel was at the time in its infancy: the first cross-channel flight (by Blériot) occurred in the same year as the book’s publication, 1909. But the exploits of pioneers such as the Wright brothers and Count von Zeppelin (experimental flights in 1903 and 1907 respectively) had caught the public imagination. There was also a pre-existing tradition of science fiction involving aerial warfare, for example George Griffith-Jones’s The Outlaws of the Air (1894) and HG Wells’s The War in the Air (1908).
But the work’s prescience is demonstrated by subsequent events in the Balkans. Tito’s Yugoslavia, following its break with the Soviet Union in the early 1950s, relied heavily on air power to underpin its defence strategy. The centrepiece of its air defence system, the Zeljava air base, had more than a little in common with Rupert’s “depots” for “war aeroplanes”. The area in which it was located (until it was destroyed during the civil wars of the 1990s) is now in the western part of Bosnia-Herzegovina on the border with Croatia – close, too, to Montenegro, the model for Stoker’s fictional country. Constructed between 1957 and 1965 at an estimated cost of six billion dollars, it was an underground facility which housed two squadrons of MiG-21 fighter planes in a tunnel system extending over four kilometres. Further tunnel systems secured its supplies of water and fuel.
Stoker’s excursion into geopolitical utopianism was no less prescient. Tito, like Rupert, engaged in skilful diplomacy aimed at preserving the independence of the Balkans from external powers. For Rupert, the breakthrough moment was when he hosted “a secret and informal meeting” of regional leaders at his castle with a view to establishing a Balkan federation. Tito had successfully re-established the Yugoslav state after the dislocations of the 1939-45 war – it had been formed in the aftermath of the 1914-18 war – only to face the changed circumstances of the Cold War. For him, the breakthrough diplomatic moment was a 1956 meeting he hosted on Brioni Island in the Adriatic, at which he convinced Nasser and Nehru to join him in establishing the Non-Aligned Movement. In Rupert’s case, the moment when his plans came to fruition was marked by his hosting of a spectacular ceremony, with the participation of regional and world leaders, for the inaugural meeting of the Balkan federation. For Tito, the equivalent moment was in 1961, when he hosted the inaugural meeting of the Non-Aligned Movement in Belgrade.
The story of Rupert’s Balkan federation ends at the moment of its establishment – but the text invites the reader to imagine that all will go well. The Yugoslav story of course ends in the catastrophe of the 1990s. But there must have been a moment (say, in 1961) when it was possible to believe that a good outcome was possible. A shared Yugoslav identity was then emerging as historical antagonisms between the Serb, Croat and other constituent nationalities gradually subsided. The economy was performing well, generating well over a million additional jobs between 1952 and 1960. The Non-Aligned Movement offered Yugoslavia (and other countries – eventually one-third of the UN membership) the possibility of remaining independent of both superpowers. In retrospect, it’s clear that these were false hopes. Although non-alignment proved to be for Yugoslavia (if not for all countries) an effective mechanism for preserving its independence, progress on the domestic front soon stalled and later went into reverse. But there was a moment when it looked as though Yugoslavia could achieve something approximating to Stoker’s utopian vision.
However, there was evidently nothing utopian about Stoker’s view of the writing life. Rupert, in his moment of triumph, authorises the preparation and publication of his biography (his “personal history”). It is to be based on his extensive diaries, letters and other records. His Aunt Janet and his wife, Teuta, acting as his “editors”, will be responsible for compiling the work and arranging its publication. But there is an implicit acknowledgement that publishers’ editors will also be involved: Janet’s understanding is that while it will be possible to “leave [some of the] writing to others”, anything relating to “little Rupert” (the infant crown prince) must be written by Teuta or herself. Rupert’s instruction is that “everything” should be included “exactly as [he] wrote it”. But he frets – or, rather, Janet, presumably reflecting his concerns, frets on his behalf – that the material cannot be reproduced exactly as he wrote it because processes of selection and organisation are unavoidable. Thus, the writer’s work is ultimately at the mercy of editors and publishers.
The publication history of The Lady of the Shroud suggests that this was a realistic concern. The publisher’s introduction to the edition under review indicates that in some previous editions the final one hundred or so pages of the text (including, ironically, the passages about Rupert’s biography) were deleted and replaced by a brief concluding section. If this was typical of Stoker’s experience of the publication process, he was perhaps entitled to conclude that writers, if they wish to have their work published, must submit to the power of editors and publishers, by both anticipating their requirements and accepting their revisions. In other words, adapting slightly Marx’s aphorism about history: “Man makes literature but not in circumstances of his own choosing.”
Martin Greene is a former Irish ambassador to Hungary and Brazil. He holds a PhD in economics from the University of Bradford.