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Unlike many of Stoker's other novels, this one is not primarily
supernatural, although at first it seems as if it will be. It is more a romance and semi-historical story, based in the fictional Balkan country or territory
of The Land of the Blue Mountains on the Dalmatian coast, which isn't fictional, and is an historical region of Croatia.
Apparently Stoker had a fascination for the Balkan/Slavic countries, because his greatest novel,
Dracula, was partially based in two of them (Romania and Bulgaria). And, like Dracula, this
one is written in epistolary form. Incidentally, Victorian England did have a fear of Russia, and this book also represents that fear. In 2006, a
book was published called Bram Stoker and Russophobia: Evidence of the British Fear of Russia in Dracula and The Lady of
the Shroud, by Jimmie E. Cain. It is obvious that Stoker is attempting to create a vision of peaceful existence. Knowing that helps readers to understand
the significance of the last section of the novel.
It begins with a short chapter in which a number of people on board the Italian vessel Victorine spot what appears to be a woman in a white shroud floating in a coffin off the coast of the Blue Mountains. This takes place on January 9, 1907.
Stoker had a bizarre sense of humor, which is probably overlooked by many, but the beginning of the story is a satire of British gentry (and I am wondering if he didn't have a bone to pick with someone in particular when he wrote this!). Providing a genealogy of the Meltons (who were distantly related to John Milton but changed their name so as not to be associated with that radical English poet), it is at first narrated by Ernest Roger Halbard Melton heir-apparent to the estate of his father Ernest Halbard Melton, eldest son of Ernest Melton. The next few chapters concern the will left by Roger Melton, brother of Ernest Melton. Along with Ernest Halbard and Roger, there was only one surviving sibling, a much-younger daughter named Patience.
Now keep in mind that this part of the story is being recorded from the viewpoint of the young and snobbish Ernest Roger Halbard Melton, and it doesn't take us long to figure out the inaccuracy of his opinion. He goes on to say that his Great-Aunt Patience married an Irishman named Sellenger, later restored to its original St. Leger, or Sent Leger. Though he was Captain of Lancers and won a Victoria Cross, the Meltons considered him a reckless daredevil. "But I fear he lacked the seriousness and steadfast strenuous purpose which my father always says marks the character of our own family." What he really means is that this family put valor ahead of hoarding wealth. Humph. . . . He and Patience had one son, Rupert. Captain Sent Leger died at an early age and Patience did not remarry. However, her sister-in-law had an unmarried sister, Janet MacKelpie, who came to live with Patience to help raise Rupert, whom Ernest R. H. Melton describes as "a wastrel and a rolling stone, always in scrapes at school, and always wanting to do ridiculous things." We shall see. . .
By the time Rupert was twelve, his mother died, and he dared to approach Ernest R. H. Melton's father in order to allow his inheritance from his mother's death to be given to his beloved "Aunt" Janet. He is treated with disdain in the Melton household. However, we are beginning to see a much different portrait of the Sent Legers emerging than the one recorded by the extremely arrogant Meltons. A number of other things occur which lead us to believe even more that Rupert is anything but a wastrel. He leaves home after his mother's passing and begins a series of adventures in which he gains a great deal of international respect for his great courage and exceptional strength of character.
Now, in the present, Roger has passed and it is time for the reading of the will. Since Ernest R. H. Melton and his father assume that Roger's vast wealth will naturally be left to them, they are annoyed that they must await Rupert's return. Present during the reading then are Ernest R. H. Melton; his father; Rupert Sent Leger; and Rupert's godfather, Major-General Sir Colin Alexander MacKelpie, who is Janet's uncle and one of the trustees of Rupert's mother's will. Included also are Roger's attorney, Edward Bingham Trent, along with the clerk and witness. Needless to say, Roger, who knew the exemplary character of his nephew, Rupert, left almost the entire bulk of his wealth to him, along with a great sum to Mr. Trent, his faithful attorney, and a mere pittance to Ernest Halbard and his son. We really hear little of them for the remainder of he story.
Now we get into the truthful and accurate picture of just what Rupert is about, because, along with the bulk of the estate comes a condition, and Rupert is not allowed to know what it is until he accepts the will as is. He does, of course, and finds that the condition suits him just fine.
During Roger's life, he had spent a great deal of time in the Land of the Blue Mountains, supporting, financially and otherwise, the efforts of the tiny country to remain independent of Turkey, and that country's constant attempts to overthrow them and claim the Blue Mountains as their own. During that period, the Voivode, (ruler of the Land) Peter Vissarion was in desperate financial need to finance the war of freedom against the Turks. Roger agreed to buy his vast estate, which Vissarion would have the rights to repurchase as he was able. He had not been able, so Roger, in his will, reverted the estate back to this great friend and leader. As for the conditions of the will, Rupert was to go and live in the Vissarion castle, and see to it that the estate was (in secrecy, of course), put back into Peter Vissarion's ownership. Rupert and his dear Aunt Janet move to the castle.
It is on the night of April 2, 1907, a wet and miserable night, too, that Rupert hears sees what appears to be a white figure flitting in the gardens outside his bedroom. He goes to bed, and is awakened by a tapping on his window. Outside, stands a pale woman in a white shroud, barefoot and dripping wet. He thinks it is an apparition, yet is able to touch her to help her through the door. There is no wood in the fireplace, but he offers her a warm robe. She goes behind a dressing screen to change, then, freezing, only asks to be kept warm. She wraps up in blankets and falls asleep, then Rupert falls asleep also. The crowing of a rooster awakens her, and she panics, changing back into her wet shroud and leaving quickly.
Rupert is stunned, not knowing what to think, but believing that the Lady is a vampire, or some type of walking dead. Matters aren't made better when Aunt Janet, who is a bit of a psychic, begins to have visions. But the Lady is not what she appears to be, and the whole tale gradually unravels. The last section of the book becomes almost a utopian vision for the Balkan peoples. The book was written right before the Balkan Wars, which led to the Balkan Crisis of 1914, followed by WWI, neither of which Stoker lived to experience. It was published in 1909. Stoker died three years later.
This is not a great novel, but I really did enjoy reading it. There are times when I prefer pure entertainment to depth! And despite attempts to make it creepy, it really is not. It is more an adventure/romance and really quite sentimental.
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