World Literature

Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu

 

BORN: 1814, Dublin, Ireland

DIED: 1873, Dublin, Ireland

NATIONALITY: Irish

GENRE: Fiction, poetry

MAJOR WORKS:

The House by the Churchyard (1863)

Wylder’s Hand (1864)

Uncle Silas: A Tale of Bartram-Haugh (1864)

Guy Deverell (1865)

In a Glass Darkly (1871)

 

 

Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu. Le Fanu, Joseph Sheridan, photograph.

 

Overview

Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu is a major figure among Victorian-era authors of gothic and supernatural fiction. Critics praise his short stories and novels for their evocative descriptions of physical settings, convincing use of supernatural elements, and insightful characterization. Scholars also observe that Le Fanu's subtle examinations of the psychological life of his characters distinguish his works from those of earlier gothic writers.

 

Works in Biographical and Historical Context

Childhood in Phoenix Park: Duels, Military Pageantry, and Upper-Class Life. The son of Thomas Philip and Emma Dobbin Le Fanu, Joseph Thomas Sheridan Le Fanu was born in Dublin on August 28, 1814. His family belonged to the professional and upper classes and was related to several of the leading families in Dublin, including the Sheridans (Le Fanu’s paternal grandmother was a sister of Richard Brinsley Sheridan). Le Fanu’s father, a Church of Ireland clergyman, was appointed chaplain for the Royal Hibernian Military School in 1815; Joseph, along with his older sister Catherine Frances and his younger brother William, spent his early childhood in Phoenix Park, a large public park just northwest of Dublin that contained the school and the residences of British administrators. In 1815 the park, which still looks much the same today, was the site of duels, military pageantry, and upper-class life. On its edges were several villages, including Chapelizod, the setting for The House by the Churchyard (1863). The family stayed in residence at the school for eleven years.

Financial Disaster in Rural Ireland. In 1823 the Reverend Le Fanu became rector of Abingdon in County Limerick, a post he held in absentia until 1826, when he received the deanery of Emly and brought his family to Abingdon to take up residence. The family now found itself in rural Ireland, in a tiny village in the heart of Irish poverty and political ferment. The Reverend Le Fanu had alienated the resident Catholic priest by his three-year absenteeism, and the priest turned the countryside against him. As a result the move, which was promising at first, became financially disastrous. Tithe income dropped to half what it should have been in the first year, and, when in 1831 the Tithe Wars began, the situation became even worse: Catholics refused to pay the required tithes (10 percent of various agricultural produce) to the established Protestant Anglican Church of Ireland, and the family went deeply into debt.

Near-Death Experiences. The political situation was, at times, dangerous. As a young man, Le Fanu’s younger brother, William, was nearly killed at least once, and Joseph absorbed what his biographer W. J. McCormack calls the ‘‘atmosphere of automatic, casual, and yet strangely intimate violence [that] pervaded rural Ireland’’ along with the acceptance of the supernatural, which was also widespread among Irish peasantry.

The Dublin Evening Mail. In 1832 Le Fanu entered Trinity College, University of Dublin, then the only college at the only university in Ireland. After studying classics he graduated with honors in 1837 and began legal training in the Dublin Inns of Court. The publication of his short story ‘‘The Ghost and the Bonesetter’’ in the January 1838 issue of the Dublin University Magazine began his longterm interest in the periodical. By 1840 he had bought interest in two Dublin newspapers, the Statesman and the Warder. He married Susanna Bennett in 1843, and they had four children. The Statesman folded in 1846, but Le Fanu continued his association with the Warder until 1870.

Withdrawal from the Public Eye. Both Le Fanu and his wife suffered from ill health, and Susanna died in 1858. After his wife’s death, Le Fanu gradually became more and more reclusive, earning over the years the title ‘‘The Invisible Prince.’’ In 1861 he became part owner and coeditor of the Dublin Evening Mail, which he edited it until he sold it in 1869. Most of his fiction appeared first in serial form in this magazine. From 1863 to his death in 1873 he wrote prolifically, mainly novels including The House by the Churchyard and Wylder's Hand. The last year of his life was extremely solitary; he refused to see even old friends. He died of a heart condition on February 7, 1873. His imposing home in Dublin, in which he lived for twenty years, was leased from his wife’s kinsman John Bennett, to whom he was deeply in debt. At Le Fanu’s death his children were forced to leave.

Legendary Death. Many writers about Le Fanu have mentioned a legend about his death, which is probably the embellishment of a minor incident. He complained, it is said, of frequent nightmares about an old house that was about to topple in on him. When Le Fanu died, his doctor looked into the terror-stricken eyes of the dead man and said, ‘‘I feared this. That house fell at last.’’ While this story has no known basis in fact, it creates an image of Le Fanu as a ‘‘ghost-story writer.’’

 

LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES

Le Fanu's famous contemporaries include:

Mark Twain (1835-1910): Born Samuel Clemens, Twain has been called the ''father of American literature" by no less a figure than William Faulkner. His The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn remains a perennial candidate for the greatest American novel ever written.

Paul Verlaine (1844-1896): A French Symbolist poet, Verlaine led the prototypical lifestyle of the dissipated artiste, most notably (and scandalously) abandoning his wife and son to run off with poet Arthur Rimbaud, with whom he had a tempestuous relationship, and eventually sinking into drug and alcohol addiction by the end of his life.

Benito Juarez (1806-1872): Five-term president of Mexico, Juarez (a Zapotec Indian) resisted French attempts to install a puppet emperor and led efforts to modernize the country, earning a place as perhaps the best-loved political figure in Mexican history.

Charlotte Bronte (1816-1855): The eldest of a trio of literary sisters, this British author wrote four novels in her lifetime, including the classic Jane Eyre.

 

Works in Literary Context

Le Fanu was born in the late-Romantic period, and its interest in the dark and macabre, which found expression in the gothic novel, was the main stimulus to his literary imagination. Like many writers of the era, he was also influenced by Sir Walter Scott, Charles Dickens, and Wilkie Collins. All of Le Fanu’s novels depend on mystery, often murder. Only one of his novels does not contain a crime.

Irish Life and History. The elements of Le Fanu’s life play significant roles in his fiction. In his early work Irish life and history are major themes. The violence and often the treachery that he saw around him in his adolescence are reflected in many of his characters and plots; and his own financial difficulties gave him sympathy with all those characters in his stories who are in debt. His legal experience taught him not only what constituted evidence but also about lawyers and legal procedures. His experience with his neurotic wife undoubtedly contributed to his understanding of, and interest in, abnormal psychology.

Vampires, Ghosts, and the Essence of Gothic. “Carmilla” is a vampire story, arguably the best in the English language. It is considered less drawn out than many others, and it does not concern itself overmuch with the outward appearances of vampirism—the sharp fangs, the blood. The terror of the tale is in its restraint, its ordinariness, yet it retains all the traditional familiar elements: The lonely castle in Styria, the innocent girl as victim, the nightmares, and the eventual destruction of the evil.

The Gothic Novel. It is common to speak of Le Fanu as writing within the tradition of the gothic novel. Understandable as this comment is, it creates difficulties because gothic is not a term that can be adequately defined. Le Fanu certainly has common ground with the better exponents of the ‘‘gothic art’’ in his skill in the creation of atmosphere: landscape and buildings are endowed with an air of menace and of mystery. Yet within this apparatus of suspense there is very little reliance on the mechanics with which he creates his illusions. He rarely—and never in his best work—joins with the lesser luminaries of the art who depended heavily upon sliding panels, descending ceilings, and all the machinery that could occasionally dominate the story. M. R. James, one of the finest writers of ghost stories in the twentieth century and one who greeted Le Fanu as ‘‘the master of us all,’’ wrote that an important element in a successful ghost story is that it should not explain itself. The sense of mystery must remain at the end—not be explained away by any logical process. Le Fanu demonstrates this ideally. The footsteps which pursue Captain Barton in ‘‘The Watcher’’ are not in any sense explained, although they can be understood in the context of the apparition of Barton’s shipmate. The ‘‘small black monkey, pushing its face forward in mimicry to meet mine’’ which sat on the open Bible from which the Reverend Mr. Jennings was endeavoring to preach in ‘‘Green Tea’’ can only be explained as the embodiment of evil. To see here a connection between this personal apparition and The Origin of Species, as has been suggested, is to deny an important element in Le Fanu’s work: Evil is a reality in his writings, and has as much power to affect human lives as goodness. It is never clear precisely what is the origin of that evil, but there is no doubt that it exists and is an influence that cannot be ignored.

Mystery Stories. Le Fanu’s purpose was different from Wilkie Collins’s or Arthur Conan Doyle’s. As Michael H. Begnal explains, both of these men wished to maintain ‘‘a distance... between the reader and the event,’’ and ‘‘we view crime and sin in a detached, deductive way as a puzzle which Sherlock Holmes may solve as an intellectual exercise but not as something which affects him or us very much. It is this very detachment which Le Fanu tries to avoid in his work.’’ Le Fanu wants his readers involved with his morally and psychologically ambivalent antagonists, who are studies of the individual who commits one crime and then has to live with the consequences. Such characters include Sir Jekyl Marlowe of Guy Deverell (1865), Mr. Dingwell of The Tenants of Malory (1867), and Walter Longcluse of Checkmate, all of whom are psychologically haunted. The operation of fate, through the confluence of coincidences that are completely rational except for their timing, is probably the greatest affirmation of the supernatural in Le Fanu’s work—ironically enough for a man better known for his tales of the supernatural than for his mysteries. In a Le Fanu mystery the operation of an invisible providence forces the criminal into a position or place in which he betrays himself. Thus, Wylder’s hand reappears at the precise time when Lake rides by; Silas leaves the door open when he should have shut it. In his interest in the criminal’s psyche and in the awareness of a providence that insists ‘‘murder will out,’’ Le Fanu has more in common with Fyodor Dostoyevsky than with Conan Doyle.

 

COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE

Sheridan Le Fanu was the first modern writer of tales of vampires and ghosts, but was by no means the last. Other works that feature such creatures include:

Dracula (1897), a novel by Bram Stoker. A bridge between gothic novels and modern horror literature, the tale, told through diary entries, has inspired countless adaptations, imitations, and continuations in both literature and film.

''The Wendigo'' (1910), a short story by Algernon Blackwood. Blackwood was considered by many of his contemporaries to be one of the greatest horror writers of all time; this short story, a tale of a Canadian hunting trip gone horribly wrong, is often cited as his best.

Interview with the Vampire, a novel by Anne Rice (1976). A somber, existential take on the vampire myth, this book is written as a confession given by a two-hundred- year-old vampire.

 

Works in Critical Context

During his lifetime, Le Fanu’s works were moderately successful, although they received scant critical attention. Le Fanu’s novels contain elements of suspense in addition to engaging emotional and desciptive passages. Critics such as Elizabeth Bowen, Julian Symons, and W. J. McCormack agree that Uncle Silas: A Tale of Bartram-Haugh (1864) is Le Fanu’s finest novel. In his introduction to Uncle Silas, Frederick B. Shroyer called it ‘‘one of the most effective, gripping novels of terror... ever written.’’ In addition, The House by the Churchyard (1863) and Wylder’s Hand (1864) have also received acclaim.

Modern Criticism. During the twentieth century the prominent ghost-story writer M. R. James drew attention to Le Fanu by writing introductions to several reissued volumes of his out-of-print works. V. S. Pritchett and Elizabeth Bowen also wrote essays championing Le Fanu as one of Gothic literature’s foremost figures. In 1978, Jack Sullivan summarized the opinion of modern critics in his assessment of Le Fanu’s achievement: ‘‘Beginning with Le Fanu, one of the distinctive features of modern ghostly fiction is ... [the] synthesis of psychology and supernaturalism.’’ While he is not well-known today as a novelist, Le Fanu is noted by horror writers and aficionados as an innovative and masterful writer of psychological horror stories and as a pivotal figure in the history of supernatural fiction.

 

Responses to Literature

1. Discuss Le Fanu’s innovations in the ghost story genre. What were the common features of ghost stories prior to Le Fanu? What elements of his work were copied by authors who came after him?

2. In what ways do Le Fanu’s stories reflect his Irish upbringing, both from a religious and cultural standpoint? Provide examples from his work.

3. Le Fanu was a master of indirect horror, usually derived from a supernatural element that remains ambiguous or not fully seen. In modern books and film, horror is often more direct: Killers and monsters are often described in full physical and emotional detail. Why do you think modern tales focus more on direct horror than indirect horror? Which do you think is more effective, and why?

4. Compare Le Fanu’s vampire Carmilla to Stoker’s Dracula. How do the two authors present vampires? What is the significance of Le Fanu using a female for his vampire as opposed to Stoker’s male?

 

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Books

Begnal, Michael H. Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu. Lewisburg, Pa.: Bucknell University Press, 1971.

Benstock, Bernard and Thomas F. Staley, eds. Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 70: British Mystery Writers, 1860-1919. A Bruccoli Clark Layman Book. Detroit: Gale, 1988.

Briggs, Julia, Night Visitors: The Rise and Fall of the English Ghost Story. London: Faber & Faber, 1977.

Greenfield, John R., ed. Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 159: British Short-Fiction Writers, 1800-1880. A Bruccoli Clark Layman Book. Detroit: Gale, 1996.

Harris-Fain, Darren, ed. Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 178: British Fantasy and Science-Fiction Writers Before World War I. A Bruccoli Clark Layman Book. Detroit: Gale, 1997.

McCormack, W. J. Sheridan Le Fanu and Victorian Ireland. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1980.

Nadel, Ira B. and William E. Fredeman, eds. Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 21: Victorian Novelists Before 1885. A Bruccoli Clark Layman Book. Detroit: Gale, 1983.

Petersen, Audrey. Victorian Masters of Mystery. New York: Frederick Ungar Publishing, 1984.

Periodicals

Armchair Detective (1976): 191-197.

Canadian Journal of Irish Studies (1982): 5-15.

________ (1984): 63-69.

Ireland: A Journal of Irish Studies, No. 4 (1985): 65-88. Modern Philology (August 1949): 32-38.