Few people realize that Bram Stoker wrote a total of thirteen novels. Dracula (1897) has eclipsed all the others in popular culture, although The Jewel of the Seven Stars (1907) and The Lair of the White Worm (1911) have both had film versions and both return to the supernatural themes that made Dracula such a success. In The Lady of the Shroud (1909), Stoker again used supernatural themes, but this time, the supernatural is not real but simply a figment of the main character’s imagination. These seemingly supernatural moments in the novel are uncanny and enticing, but ultimately unconvincing, and the reader finds it far-fetched that anything supernatural is happening long before the main character realizes it. Consequently, the novel falls short as intriguing fiction or even coming close to the power of Dracula.
The Lady of the Shroud is built around an entrancing idea: a mysterious woman wearing a shroud appears only at night in an Eastern European land that makes the main character extremely curious about her. And, of course, attracted to her. The concept is attractive, but Stoker cannot maintain the interest once it is revealed that she is not a ghost or vampire but a mere mortal woman. Furthermore, Stoker fails to create a plot with enough action to maintain the pace or interest of the book. A short summary of the plot reveals there really is little plot at all.
The novel is written as a series of documents, a style hearkening back to Dracula, which itself was inspired by the style of Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White. It opens with the death of Roger Melton and several letters and journal entries, primarily of his great-nephew Ernest Melton, who expects to inherit since his father is the head of the family and he will succeed him. Ernest is obnoxious and insulting in his remarks about all other members of the family whom he thinks himself better than, especially his cousin Rupert Saint Leger. Unfortunately, Ernest is the most interesting character in the novel, completely oblivious to what a prick he is. When Rupert inherits the estate, Ernest is not happy.
We then follow Rupert for the remainder of the novel. Rupert’s inheritance of more than a million pounds is conditional upon his living for a year in his uncle’s castle in the Land of the Blue Mountains on the Dalmatian coast. This is a completely fictional and oddly named country. It is a small country striving to maintain independence against the Turks and basically recalls Romania or Transylvania in Dracula. Soon, Rupert befriends the locals and helps them acquire weapons to fight the Turks.
The title character of the novel now enters the story. On a dark, wet night, she seeks shelter in Rupert’s room, mysteriously appearing there, and asking for permission to warm herself by the fire. He agrees, and although she is dressed in a white shroud, he does not ask questions of her. She flees in the morning, but expresses her gratitude to him and promises to return. Her repeated visits only at night and her wearing of the shroud eventually make him consider she may be a vampire. The suspense about her identity continues because he never asks her questions. She here recalls images of Lucy Westenra after she has become a vampire in Dracula and also the “woman in white” in Collins’ novel. Regardless, Rupert falls in love with her. Then he visits the local church and finds her lying in a glass-topped coffin in the crypt, a sign she is dead, or rather, the undead. However, that she visits him but never seeks to seduce or bite him makes the reader quickly realize she can hardly be a vampire.
Before we know it, without learning his female visitor’s identity, Rupert has promised to marry her, no matter what that marriage will mean—even apparently losing his soul. This decision very much recalls the dark marriage that occurs in Charles Maturin’s Melmoth the Wanderer (1820) between the accursed Melmoth and the innocent Immalee, except for the gender reversal of who is innocent here. Even after the nighttime marriage, which turns out to be an Eastern Orthodox ceremony conducted in the church, and not some sort of Black Mass, she tells him while she loves him, she must continue to live in the crypt.
The truth about Rupert’s new wife is revealed when she is kidnapped from the church by Turks. The locals then tell Rupert she is not dead but alive, named Teuta, and daughter of the local Voivode, who has been traveling in America. She had fallen into a trance and been declared dead, but when she woke, the local clergy and political leaders spread a story that she was a vampire. She chose to live up to this story, apparently to protect herself and trick the Turks, by lying in the crypt, but when it had flooded, she had sought the warmth of Rupert’s castle. Of course, once kidnapped, the Turks realize she is not dead.
Rupert now leads a rescue party. However, he has barely saved Teuta before it’s learned that her father has returned and also been kidnapped by the Turks. What follows is the most dramatic moment in the book when Rupert uses his airplane to save the Voivode. He does so by lowering Teuta down from the airplane to where the Voivode is imprisoned in the castle, and then he raises the two back up. At this point we are told Rupert is a giant man and incredibly strong since he can pull up two people into his airplane. Prior to this, no mention is made of Rupert’s great size and strength so the moment is a surprise to the reader. Soon after the Turks are defeated and then the happy ending is prolonged for about two hours’ worth of dull reading.
There is no real plot after this. The Voivode is happy to have Rupert as a son-in-law. The people want to proclaim the Voivode their king but he says he is old and that Rupert should be king. Rupert feels Teuta should instead rule since she is the Voivode’s rightful heir, but she declares she is not like modern women “in an age when self-seeking women of other nations seek to forget their womanhood in the struggle to vie in equality with men!” In other words, men, not women, should rule. Stoker’s sexism is obvious here. Worse is Teuta’s statement, “I speak for our women when I say that we hold of greatest price the glory of our men. To be their companions is our happiness; to be their wives is the completion of our lives; to be the mother of their children is our share of the glory that is theirs.” (Oh, Teuta, I liked you far better when I thought you were a vampire and not a submissive women ready to surrender your identity and crown to your husband. Unfortunately, your creator was a product of his time.) Following Rupert’s coronation is a visit by the obnoxious cousin Ernest, who is soon made to leave the country for how rude he is, and then comes the birth of Rupert and Teuta’s child. The novel drags on and on during these scenes before finally ending.
With The Lady of the Shroud, Stoker has made a novel out of a simple concept that would have made a nice short story. The atmosphere is powerful in the middle of the novel, but once the truth about the lady is revealed, it falls into a male fantasy adventure in which an Englishman becomes king over the inferior locals and saves the day. Here we have Western supremacy over the East much like in Dracula where the count, being from the East, is ultimately a degenerate and may represent the Eastern European immigrants who were coming into England at the time. One also has to wonder whether Stoker, in creating Rupert, had Lord Byron in mind with his efforts to liberate the Greeks.
Ultimately, The Lady of the Shroud has little story and provides little interest. Even returning to the Eastern European setting of Dracula fails to rekindle the count’s magic. The Lady of the Shroud is only interesting to Stoker scholars and fans as a curiosity. It’s as if the leftover pieces of Dracula were sewn together to create something that resembles a complete novel.
Tyler Tichelaar, PhD, is the author of King Arthur’s Children: A Study in Fiction and Tradition, The Gothic Wanderer: From Transgression to Redemption, The Children of Arthur novel series, and Haunted Marquette: Ghost Stories from the Queen City. Visit Tyler at www.ChildrenofArthur.com and www.GothicWanderer.com.