17.2.13

Sheridan Le Fanu's Uncle Silas

Sheridan Le Fanu’s Victorian thriller, Uncle Silas, is perfect reading for a blustery mid-winter night. The novel is a forerunner to the modern psychological thriller and is generally regarded as his best work. Le Fanu is also remembered for The House by the Churchyard, Wylder’s Hand and a collection of ghost stories called In a Glass Darkly. Symons claims that Le Fanu “was a writer of remarkable power in creating suspense, at his best a master of plot, and the creator of some of the most satisfying villains in Victorian literature” (1992, 58-59).

An Irish writer who studied classics at Trinity College, Dublin, and was called to the bar in 1839, Le Fanu never practised law. Instead he turned to journalism and writing fiction, specializing in ghost stories and sinister novels of suspense. In 1861, Le Fanu acquired and became editor of the Dublin University Magazine. He also bought and edited The Warden and the Protestant Guardian. Many of his short stories were included and his novels serialized in the Dublin University Magazine before appearing in book form. Uncle Silas made its debut as Maud Ruthyn (1864) in this journal.

Wilkie Collins’s successful Woman in White inspired Uncle Silas and other Gothic-like novels set in contemporary English settings (Rzepka 2005, 100). Uncle Silas is the story of a 17-year old heiress sent to live with her uncle in his decaying manor house after the death of her father. She has heard rumors that her uncle once murdered a man and worries about his sinister designs. A sense of lurking menace and impending peril envelop the narrative. The novel is one of the earliest examples of a locked-room mystery, a story in which a killer appears to have no way of escaping from the crime scene.

Two manor houses dominate the novel: Knowl in the first half and Bartram-High in the second. These Gothic mansions evoke fear and forebode danger in the best tradition of haunted houses and ghost stories. “Le Fanu’s unique accomplishment in Uncle Silas,” points out Peterson, “is the creation of genuine terror” (1984, 143-44).

Le Fanu’s books, observes Symons, “are full of old houses and castles falling into ruin, his heroines are often at the mercy of implacable and horrifying villains; he took great pleasure in ghost stories, and was fascinated by hints of the supernatural” (1992, 58). The ominous, claustrophobic atmosphere of this menacing psychological thriller haunts the narrative. Le Fanu, like John Dickson Carr, makes effective use of supernatural suggestion, blurring the distinction between reality and fantasy.

The enigmatic villain of the novel, Uncle Silas, is a tour de force of characterization, comparable to Wilkie Collins’s Count Fosco (see my blog on The Woman in White). Le Fanu does not introduce Silas until half way through the novel, heightening the mystery and suspense surrounding him. Malada writes,
The spiritual terror that Silas conjures up for Maud emanates from the aura of death and the supernatural that envelops him. He inspires mixed feelings of awe and dread because he represents the enigmatic, the inexplicable, and the unknown of existence. (1987, 55)
We must wait until the last section of the novel to find out if Silas is indeed a murderer.

The novel is told in the first person by 17-year-old Maud Ruthyn. We see all other characters through her eyes and are never sure how much we can trust her naïve perceptions. Such a narrative technique draws us into the mystery of the novel by forcing us to weigh and judge the evidence. Appearances constantly belie reality, so we must be on our guard as readers.

Uncle Silas is organized around two houses, two father figures, and two villains. The first half of the novel anticipates the second in this neatly symmetrical narrative. Maud learns to cope with the danger and intrigue at Bartram-High by learning from earlier parallel experiences at Knowl. The two halves of the novel, observes Peterson,
divide at the point of Maud’s entrance into Bartram. Le Fanu makes superb use of mirrorlike effect, as the events at Bartram appear like distorted images of Maud’s former life at Knowl. This is especially true of the ominous reappearance of characters who seemed at first only trivial. (1984, 17-18)
Fans of psychological thrillers, Gothic settings, and Victorian mystery novels will find Uncle Silas a superbly crafted and highly readable story.

Le Fanu, Sheridan. Uncle Silas. 1864. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1981.

Malada, Ivan. Sheridan Le Fanu. Boston, Twayne, 1987.

Peterson, Audrey. Victorian Masters of Mystery: From Wilkie Collins to Conan Doyle. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1984.

Rzepka, Charles J. Detective Fiction. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 2005.

Symons, Julian. Bloody Murder: From the Detective Story to the Crime Novel. New York: Mysterious Press, 1992.