Shadowplay: An enthralling Dracula backstory from Joseph O’Connor

Book review: A brilliant novel exploring the tensions between Bram Stoker and his contemporaries

What comes across most is Bram Stoker’s isolation and loneliness. Photograph: Hulton-Deutsch Collection/Corbis via Getty Images

What comes across most is Bram Stoker’s isolation and loneliness. Photograph: Hulton-Deutsch Collection/Corbis via Getty Images

Joseph O’Connor’s enthralling latest novel, Shadowplay, brings to teeming life the London of the late Victorian and Edwardian eras. But at its centre is its displaced protagonist, one Abraham (‘Bram’) Stoker, who has moved from Dublin to London at the behest of Sir Henry Irving, the most acclaimed actor-manager of the day.

When Irving played Hamlet in Dublin in 1878, the 30-year-old civil servant who wrote theatre reviews by night was summoned to the Shelbourne Hotel; there, Irving invites him to come to London and manage his theatre, the Lyceum. The scene of their first encounter is brilliantly stage managed by O’Connor.

Stoker accepts the offer; but adds that he hopes one day to write a play of his own. Irving’s response to this writerly aspiration could hardly be described as encouraging: ‘I have seen nothing in your writing that led me to believe you are an artist, Stoker. Your criticism has sensitivity but you are not a creator.’

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