“Left Munich at 8.35 pm on 1st May, arriving at Vienna early next morning; should have arrived at 6.46, but train was an hour late.”
Bram Stoker’s Dracula, 1897
That’s the first line of a book that, strange as it may sound, changed my life. Why strange? Because I didn’t read the book until I was forty-three years old. The line, as some readers will have recognized, is the first sentence of the novel Dracula, written by a prolific Irishman named Bram Stoker in 1897. It was a book that, by reason, I should have read a long time before I reached middle age. Why? There are several reasons.
Another reason that might seem obvious to some is that I am by profession an historian. One would think that a Romanian-born historian would have had if not the interest then certainly the curiosity to read Dracula at some point in the first four decades of his life. One would be wrong.
From my first days as a serious student, the study of history was an all-consuming passion, just as later the teaching and writing of history would be-come. To interrupt that passion by taking the time to read a Gothic horror story, even a well-written one based in the land of my birth, would have been out of character for me. And, to be honest about it, to be in fact a bit of an elitist, I considered involvement in the fictional world of horror literature to be beneath the dignity of a true historian.
Yet there I was in 1968, changing the focus of my Fulbright study to determine if there was a real person, a Romanian prince, upon whose name Bram Stoker based his infamous Count Dracula. And while I was traveling all across Europe, Raymond T. McNally, my Boston College History Department colleague, would be studying the lore and legends of any and all countries and peoples that may have influenced or contributed to Stoker’s iconic creation.
Truth be told, this tandem effort was not my idea. I had let myself be talked into it by Professor McNally, as irrepressible an Irish storyteller as Bram Stoker a century before him. I now find it both fascinating and ironic that in addition to writing his many books, Stoker was deeply involved in the theater (as the per-sonal assistant of the actor Henry Irving, and the business manager of the Lyceum Theatre in London, which Irving owned). What makes it ironic, I think, is that to our great surprise (and delight), our joint venture turned into a book that became a bestseller, followed by several years of lucrative lecturing, films, and TV appearances.
I shall never forget the summer of 1939, having just completed my first full year of Romanian High School, I was rewarded by spending the summer in the family’s beautiful Bavarian style chalet just constructed in the new resort of Poiana Brasov.
This represented a pioneering venture at the time when the Bucharest establishment, together with the royal family, spent their summer vacations in the Carpathian resort of Sinaia where the King had built a palace reminding him of his ancestral home in the Black Forest of Germany. Today Poiana has grown a popular ski and summer resort full of hotels and guest houses, with countless tourists daily visiting what was developed into one of the most beautiful and popular Carpathian resorts. In my days I could see only snowy mountain peaks, sunsets and sun rises highlighting the mountains covered with pines and spruces, surrounding a plateau empty of houses and full of shepherds milking their sheep and goats. In my days, Poiana was isolated from the city of Brasov by way of treacherous roads that needed caterpillars specially-adapted to clear the way during the winter months or sturdy ponies to reach this beautiful plateau. I occasionally visited the city of Brasov about 1,000 feet below, where many of my ancestors sought shelter from cruel despots and neighboring Turkish invaders who had occupied the whole Balkan Peninsula. On one occasion one of my tutors, knowing my name was Florescu, took me to the National Ar-chives of Brasov and showed me a sixteenth century document in very poor shape which revealed the remains of a flower surrounded by stars – this he told me was the family crest of the Florescu family in the fifteenth century. Though I was a thirteen-year-old boy, it made quite an impression, one that I shall never forget.
On a certain August day came a telegram from my father, a diplomat who had just been appointed to serve as a counselor at the Romanian Legation in London in 1938, prior to the visit of King Carol II, who was seeking allies facing the threat of Hitlerite Germany. The telegram read: “Take the first Orient Express train from Bucharest to Paris. World War II is about to begin.”
Within days I found myself at Red Roof Inn in Bournemouth, England, listening to King George VI officially declaring war on Germany. We were all issued gas masks and sang “God Save the King.” In my innermost heart I had the feeling that I would not see my country for some time – nor the famous flower in the Brasov archives that had made such an impression on me. In fact, it took almost twenty-five years to return to Romania when I obtained my first Fulbright to be precise, which made this book possible.
But I get ahead of my story, which is how I came to discover and appreciate the historical significance of a family, my family, which can trace its ancestors back centuries, even before Dracula’s time.
As a result of my life’s work, I can scroll backwards through a panorama of the past that includes fields and forests and flowers, kingdoms and castles, and more princes than paupers, a lineage that would have failed several times had it not been for the strength of its women. And I hardly need to scroll very far back at all to immerse myself in the memory of the two most influential periods of my own life: my preparation to become a historian at Oxford during World War II and the acquaintance of my uncle George during the Communist subjugation of my beloved Romania.