Tuesday, 27 July 2004

Sheridan Le Fanu: Uncle Silas (1864)

Edition: Penguin, 2000
Review number: 1253

Sheridan Le Fanu's work has never really become an established part of the English literary scene's collection of classic novels. Although his reputation has gone up and down, and though he has boasted some quite famous fans (including Dorothy Sayers), he has always been an outsider. His Irish origins may have had something to do with this (though they didn't prevent his relation Richard Sheridan from becoming massively successful in the London theatre a couple of generations earlier), but it was perhaps more his style of writing and his subject matter. As early as the publication of Northanger Abbey in 1817, it must have been hard to write a Gothic novel intended to be taken seriously, but that was precisely what Le Fanu wanted to write, almost half a century later.

Uncle Silas was Le Fanu's first success in England, and was based on an earlier short story published in an Irish journal edited by the author. It has probably remained his best known novel ever since.

The plot of the novel is quite simple: Maud Knollyes is the daughter and heiress of a rich, eccentric recluse; when he dies, she is placed in the guardianship of her Uncle Silas. This is intended to be a public declaration of one man's confidence in his brother, for Silas was disgraced years earlier when a man to whom he owed money died in his house leaving his neighbours gossiping as to whether it was suicide or murder. Maud will be completely in her uncle's power until she reaches her majority, and if she happens to die during this time, then Silas would inherit the whole estate. Clearly, the only element missing from making this a Gothic tail is the supernatural, the source of a spine tingling chill in the reader - and this is where Le Fanu does something completely unexpected, and very modern.

For throughout the novel Le Fanu piles on the supernatural atmosphere - almost every metaphor and simile is about ghosts or magic - but the uncanny itself never appears. Most Gothic novels are full of "horrid apparitions", occult ceremonies, and so on, but nothing like that happens in Uncle Silas. Northanger Abbey does the same thing, of course, but for comic effect; Le Fanu is using the conventions of the Gothic novel to induce a similar atmosphere, without the absurdities. (This was, after all, the rational Victorian age.) While occasionally clumsy and sometimes lacking in subtlety, Uncle Silas is well written, atmospheric and tense - while the reader expects Maud to escape an uncle who then experiences his just deserts (good to the good, bad to the bad), the road to this ending is neither straight not following the most obvious route. It has funny moments too; Le Fanu may be taking the unlikely clich├ęs of the Gothic novel seriously, but that does not mean he is lacking in a sense of humour.

Of the writers contemporary with Le Fanu, the closest to him in style was problably Wilkie Collins, and their brand of fairly genteel chills fairly soon lost out to the more flamboyant influence of writers like Poe. Nobody would be likely to place either of them in the top rank of Victorian novelists, but Uncle Silas does not deserve to be forgotten either.

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