‘I am very, very pleased,’ murmured Queen Victoria in 1895, when she dubbed Henry Irving, Britain’s first theatrical knight. He and Ellen Terry, who so often played opposite him, were international celebrities.
Bram Stoker was their intimate friend and associate. He managed Irving’s Lyceum Theater for 27 years and spent much of his career in their shadow. More than 100 years after his death, however, Stoker’s name is almost certainly more widely known than theirs, solely because of his most famous creation, Dracula (who is believed to have been partly modeled on his employer).
In Shadowplay, Joseph O’Connor focuses on the three-cornered relationship between Stoker and the two actors. In terms of structure, the novel purports to be a collection of diary entries, notes, transcripts and fictionalized fragments put together by Stoker near the end of his life.
At its heart is the rambling, leaking world of the Lyceum, both sordid and glamorous. Stoker creates a hiding place for himself in the attic, where he writes the stories that bring him little contemporary success; known as Mina’s Lair, the attic also houses something undead in a box filled with earth. In another of the many nods to Dracula, he recruits an enigmatic assistant called Jonathan Harker.
Irving, who despises Stoker’s literary ambitions, is by turns tyrannical, temperamental and overwhelmingly charming. Both men are more than half in love with Ellen Terry. Stoker, charged with nervous energy, seems constantly on the brink of disaster. He prowls the streets of London by night, and he has lustful thoughts about young men. Suffragettes, Oscar Wilde and Jack the Ripper all have their parts to play, but the novel returns again and again to the emotionally confused ménage à trois at its heart.
Shadowplay does not set out to be historically accurate. O’Connor takes liberties with everything from the language to the biographical facts. At one point, for instance, Queen Victoria picnics in Green Park, surrounded by a ‘squadron of Beefeaters in scarlet and black livery, bayonets drawn’, and watched by a crowd of her cheering, flag-waving subjects.
This is a novel you have to take on its own terms — and the rewards for doing so are considerable. Much of it is beautifully written. O’Connor creates a vivid and vigorous world of his own. He makes us believe in his own versions of Henry Irving, Ellen Terry and Bram Stoker, and he makes us care what happens to them. Who needs facts when fiction like this is on offer?
This article was originally published in The Spectator magazine.