Joseph O’Connor

Harvill Secker, £14.99

Review by Rosemary Goring

It is 1888, and Jack the Ripper is stalking London, claiming one poor victim after another. The city is in terror. Women go home in groups, old acquaintances eye each other with suspicion, and an unspoken curfew falls after dark. Even the fearless Ellen Terry, the most popular actress in England, no longer rides herself home at night in her horse and trap, and instead takes a cab. Yet, for all the gruesomeness of the crimes, at the Lyceum Theatre in London, Henry Irving, one of the finest actors of his day, shocks his assistant, Bram Stoker. Irving says that in comparison with Shakespeare’s plays, which are filled with “poisonings, suicides, mothers eating their children”, this new murderer seems little more than “a naughty schoolboy peppering the vicar’s jam.”

Irving was given to such tasteless outbursts, as Stoker knew to his cost. For the purposes of this story, however, when Irving explains that “fear is money,” we are to believe his impressionable theatre manager stores this nugget for future use in his novel Dracula.

Stoker, an Irish clerk turned journalist, had been lured from his office desk to run the Lyceum Theatre after an encounter with Irving. The great actor all but mesmerises him, and when Stoker tells his fiancee Florence that he is leaving Dublin for London, she believes he has almost fallen in love. It is a suspicion that underlies much of the tension of the story O’Connor tells, as Stoker’s repressed feelings swirl and writhe, like fog on the Thames.

Moving to London, after hastily marrying Florence, Stoker feels immediately at home. So, it appears, is O’Connor, revelling like a scene-painter in sketches of the Victorian streets: “The beggars of Holborn seem so ardent, as though it is they who secretly rule, as though the gentry are unwitting extras in the show.” To one from Dublin, of course, poverty is nothing new. Stoker is, instead, hugely relieved to be away from a rural, backward country whose literature, suffused with fairy tales, myths and parochial deeds, offers “children’s drawings where a Caravaggio is needed”.

When Stoker turns up for work, his impression of his new employer is mixed: “Something impressive and yet absurd about him, like the tallest girl in the class, but the taut mouth unsmiling now, the eyes dead as whelks.” Intent on writing fiction in whatever spare time Irving allows, the Irishman, in O’Connor’s hands, stokes his imagination with everything that comes his way. Whether it is the Ripper’s reign, or Oscar Wilde’s trial and the seedy sexual underbelly of London in an age where homosexuality was a crime, or rumours of a ghost in the theatre (O’Connor obligingly gives the ghost her own voice, her thoughts delivered in the shape of a coffin), almost all scenes and vignettes serve to illuminate the source of Stoker’s horror story.

Shadowplay, O’Connor’s ninth novel – not counting short stories and numerous works for theatre and the stage – shows a writer in the full bloom of maturity. From the offset his storytelling is sure, delivered with panache. The bare bones of the tale – the relationship between Irving, Stoker and Ellen Terry – are true, but in place of plodding fact O’Connor offers a layered, intricately told historical drama, whose main purpose is to suggest the origins of Bram Stoker’s remarkable, evergreen, bloodthirsty Count. To that end he signposts vigorously: “I don’t bite”, concludes one chapter, while in another we see Irving “peeling a pomegranate with a dagger, feeding handfuls of its bloody beads to his dog.”

Today, Irving and Terry are mostly remembered by those interested in theatre and the arts. Stoker, however, remains a household name. He could almost be The Un-Dead himself, the title he originally gave to his novel which, in his lifetime, was miserably unsuccessful. It was only his wife Florence’s persistence in establishing Stoker’s copyright to the book, after his death, that made him famous. Had Dracula’s creator lived to see its success, you suspect he would have been even more thrilled at its popularity, and the vindication of years of work and pain, than the wealth it brought. O’Connor’s title, indeed, refers to the torment he, and many others, suffered from having to hide their real selves, for whatever reason. As Ellen Terry reflects, “Hard to stumble into happiness if you don’t leave your shadowland behind...Theatre people don’t, as a rule.”

In this imagining of the inner life of a man as angst-ridden as Stoker, Shadowplay draws on its first inception as a BBC radio play in the voices of Irving and Stoker. Unsurprisingly, then, the verbal duets throughout this book sing most loudly, a clamorous, often brash brass section to the rest of the orchestra. At times, the rodomontade is tiresome, as most actorly rhetoric usually is. Perhaps aware of this, O’Connor constructs his story through various devices, much as Dracula was composed. It unfolds through letters, memoir, newspaper cuttings and recordings, stretching across the years from Stoker leaving Ireland to 1912, when he dies. Skilful as all this is, however, it left me unmoved. Perhaps because of the gothic tone of its dramatic events, and the often overwrought setting, it feels contrived and artificial. The best word for it, I suppose, is theatrical.