The Best of Brit Lit

The editor of the TLS, Peter Stothard, picks his favorite British reads. This week: the history of vampires, the morally squalid milieu of Edward St Aubyn's novels, and prefaces to Shakespeare.

05.15.11 12:57 PM ET

The Birth of the Vampire

Have fears of vampires lived forever deep in our psyches? Probably not. They are a very specific creation of a certain period, the early 1730s, when the Habsburgs of Vienna first heard stories of fresh blood and claws from their new realms to the East. As Toby Lichtig writes this week in the TLS, "Austrian administrators who had to control territory south of the Carpathians encountered panic-stricken locals full of tales of the rapacious undead, of mysterious infirmities ravaging the peasants and suspicious coffins containing cadavers with fresh blood on their lips."

Roger Luckhurst, in his introduction to the new Oxford World's Classics edition of Bram Stoker's Dracula, notes the notorious case of Peter Plogojowitz, in 1725, who "had been dead and buried for 10 weeks" but was nonetheless blamed by villagers for a spate of sudden deaths, apparent strangulations. When the imperial provisor finally agreed to open the grave, lest the peasants "be obliged to forsake the village," his delegation observed, along with "other wild signs," a bloodied mouth, long fingernails, and evidence of healthy skin on the corpse. The body was promptly staked through the heart and incinerated.

While Luckhurst elucidates the sociological background to this event, noting that vampirism may flare "at times of political tyranny and in plague seasons," it is Michael Sims, in Dracula's Guest, who provides the rather more straightforward explanation for the gruesome apparition. Fingernails do not grow after death but the skin does shrink, "making the nails look abnormally long and clawlike." Meanwhile, skin may appear flushed once the top layer is "sloughed off" and blood can pool around the facial cavities, especially if the body is placed face down. As for the unmentionable "other wild signs," "the genitals often inflate during decomposition."

Joseph Pitton de Tournefort's Voyage to the Levant (posthumously published in 1717) had already alerted the French to the case of the Greek vampire, or "vroucolaca," who was killed by his fellow citizens in a similar manner. Fifteen years later, the London Journal reported on some inquiries into "vampyres" at Madreyga in Hungary and thus, according to Luckhurst, was recorded the first use of the word in English, although the OED dates its provenance to 1734 in Travels of Three English Gentlemen.

At Last By Edward St. Aubyn 224 pages. Picador. £16.99.

A Morally Squalid Upper-Class Milieu

Edward St Aubyn's Melrose novels now deserve to be thought of as an important roman-fleuve, writes Henry Hitchings in the TLS, books whose rewards are cumulative, socially percipient, distinctive, intermittently cartoonish yet always eloquent. At Last is the fifth novel about Patrick Melrose, St Aubyn's unhappy and self-absorbed antihero. Like the previous four, it is also about the materially bloated, morally squalid milieu Patrick inhabits—where the only thing worse than being at some nasty party is not being there (or perhaps it is the other way round). But, as Hitchings writes, " At Last is really St Aubyn's seventh Melrose novel, for Patrick is present even in the two of St Aubyn's books that are ostensibly concerned with other characters; he casts a Stygian shadow over On the Edge (1998) and makes several appearances in A Clue to the Exit (2000)."

Those two novels and their connection to the Melrose pentalogy are crucial in illuminating St Aubyn's preoccupations. Hitchings writes, In A Clue to the Exit, the dying narrator, Charlie Fairburn, pictures the "narrowing funnel of time" and the one alternative to it, an "incandescent decrepitude." Charlie sounds very much like Patrick. So we are not surprised when it turns out that Charlie is writing a novel in which a character called Patrick, suffering from cirrhosis of the liver, argues in an articulate and disenchanted fashion about the problems of consciousness. This is obviously Patrick Melrose; he lives at the same address, has the same neuroses and exhibits the same ardently desperate sexuality.

On board a coach, this Patrick meets "a man called McGinn" and concludes as a result of their recondite conversation that the mysteries of consciousness are "insoluble." We are, I think, safe to conclude that this is meant to be the philosopher Colin McGinn; the fact that they meet on a coach may be a little joke about McGinn's novel The Space Trap (1992). Following his talk with McGinn, Patrick is somewhat cheered to find that there is no cogent explanation of life's "tireless and fugitive mental display."

Prefaces to Shakespeare By Tony Tanner 48 pages. Belknap Press of Harvard University Press. $39.95.

Shakespeare by Preface

Laurie Maguire, professor of English at the University of Oxford and author, most recently, of Helen of Troy: From Homer to Hollywood, considers the Shakespeare "Preface," a genre in its own right, as she says, practiced by major critics such as Samuel Johnson, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Harley Granville-Barker. She is reviewing a posthumous book by Tony Tanner, a reprint of the prefaces he wrote for The Everyman Shakespeare in the 1990s. "One of the questions this book inadvertently raises is whether this prefatory genre changes when 36 'prefaces' are gathered in one volume."

As a critic Tanner is both brilliant and familiar. "He is brilliant at rounding up and condensing the received wisdom on plays and subjects, and anchoring it in his own lexical observations. As a result there are few new ideas but plenty of new verbal details to support them. The 'Preface' to Shakespeare is rightly not the place for riding hobby horses."

More questionably, it seems not to be the place for addressing textual issues. "Repeated comments about Shakespeare's ownership of Florio's/ Montaigne's Essays (1603) move toward uncritical acceptance of one of the British Library's copies as being his: Shakespeare's Montaigne is "almost certainly even now in the British Library." It is (alas) almost certainly not, and a brief look at the wording in the British Library catalogue will encourage any close reader to note the difference between copy C.28 m.8 "with the autograph of Ben Jonson" and copy C.21 e.17, whose "flyleaf bears the signature William Shakespeare." Tanner reads plays; he does not read rare books. Consequently, an important aspect of Shakespeare, even Prefatory Shakespeare, is missing.

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Peter Stothard's latest book is On the Spartacus Road: A Spectacular Journey Through Ancient Italy . He is also the author of Thirty Days , a Downing Street diary of his time with British Prime Minister Tony Blair during the Iraq war.