September 09, 1996 12:00 PM

by Barbara Belford

Bram Stoker’s “reticence was monumental,” the author admits in the introduction to this life of Dracula’s creator. Not a promising quality for biographers, but luckily Stoker was surrounded by a monumentally talky—and fascinating—cast of late-19th-century characters.

As the business manager of popular actor Henry Irving and his Lyceum Theatre in London, Stoker frequently crossed paths with Oscar Wilde and George Bernard Shaw, and often entrusted his wife to escort William S. Gilbert (sans Sullivan). On theatrical tours of America, Stoker made a point of visiting his idol, the poet Walt Whitman. But mostly the tall, athletic Irishman hurried after Irving, writing his speeches, juggling his schedule and balancing his books.

Oh, and Stoker wrote a bit of fiction on the side. His adventure tales and lurid stories of the occult didn’t attract much attention during his lifetime and wouldn’t be remembered today if not for Hollywood and Bela Lugosi. Author Belford struggles mightily to make a case for Dracula’s literary significance and to tie the story to Stoker’s life (“Dracula is all about Irving as the vampire and [British actress Ellen] Terry as the unattainable good woman”), but there’s slender evidence for either argument. Bram Stoker is best as a gossipy glance behind the curtains during an important era of English theater. When Belford strays into psychological and literary analysis, Stoker’s reticence becomes a biographical stake in the heart. (Knopf, $30)

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