Life and Work
oseph Sheridan Le Fanu was born in Dublin in 1814 and died in the same city in 1873. He trained as a lawyer, but is only known today as an influential writer of Gothic and Sensational fiction. His forebears were of Huguenot extraction and were part of the Anglican Ascendancy, the Protestant elite that ruled Ireland. The family’s status was considerable, although its only important connections were literary: Le Fanu’s grandmother, Alicia Sheridan Le Fanu, was a playwright, and his great-uncle, Richard Brinsley Sheridan, was the celebrated eighteenth century author of theatrical comedies such as The Rivals and The School for Scandal. The family’s literary talents were also projected by Le Fanu’s English niece, Rhoda Broughton, whose Sensational novels made her into a household name.
Le Fanu’s early years as a man of letters were turbulent and insecure. Constantly oppressed by the need for economic security and success, and troubled by the mental illness of his wife Susanna, whom he married in 1844, he made a living as a journalist, publisher and writer of fiction. In the period from the mid-thirties until the end of the 1850s he wrote a series of short stories and historical novels, among them The Cock and Anchor (1845) and The Fortunes of Colonel Torlogh O'Brien (1847); none was especially successful, and Susanna’s death in 1858 added another layer of difficulty, leaving him with four children and uncertain prospects.
Susanna’s death had a catastrophic affect on Le Fanu’s health, but he worked himself out of his economic travails by developing his experience as a publisher. In the 1840s he had briefly co-owned the Dublin Evening Mail, The Warden, the Protestant Guardian and the Evening Packet, and in 1861 he purchased the Dublin University Magazine, becoming both proprietor and editor. This acquisition gave him the opportunity to publish his own brand of unsettling tales; during this period he wrote his best work, enabling him to reach a wide Anglo-Irish readership.
However, Le Fanu’s primary focus was the British audience, which he believed he had to embrace in order to achieve greater success. During the sixties he adapted his writing to appeal to those served by the publishing industry based in London and was taken up by several of the capital’s leading names, notably Richard Bentley and William Tinsley.
Casting around for a popular idiom, he set out to exploit the new literary craze of Sensationalism; adopting the conventions established by Wilkie Collins, Charles Reade and M.E. Braddon, he wrote several lurid fictions in which he explored the now-popular territories of madness, criminality, property, sexuality and the uncertain bounds of gender. The most successful was Uncle Silas (1864), a bizarre tale of a young heiress menaced by her preternatural relative in echo of Collins’s tracing of female power and submissiveness in The Woman in White (1860). Wylder’s Hand (1864), Checkmate (1871) and The Wyvern Mystery (1869) were in the same idiom and were read in conjunction with the work of the better-known Sensationalists. Ever cautious and solicitous of his readers, Le Fanu went out of his way to become part of an English rather than an Irish tradition; he even changed his novels’ settings, breaking any explicit linkage with Ireland – which many publishers regarded as having a negative political association – by placing them in North Wales, the Midlands and Derbyshire.
At the same time, he developed a strand of Irish Gothic which resisted Anglicization and represents the author’s inimitable voice. In 1869 he published ‘Green Tea’ in Dickens’s All the Year Round and in 1871–2 he issued ‘Carmilla’ in The Dark Blue. These weird and unsettling texts exemplify Le Fanu’s Gothic writing and were combined with several others to form the volume of short stories, In a Glass Darkly (1872). These works were accompanied by reprints of numerous supernatural tales which he had published in the previous decades.
Le Fanu and Gothic
e Fanu is one of the outstanding writers of the Victorian ghost and horror story. Although he relied on his Sensational fiction for economic reasons, his Gothic tales were highly regarded at the time of publication, and continued to be resonate in the twentieth century. His vampire tale, ‘Carmilla’ (1872), is one of the sources of Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897), and he had a parallel influence on M. R. James, who regarded him as a master of the genre, and imitated some of his techniques. Le Fanu’s unsettling vision can also be traced in the development of the British horror film, notably in the form of Hammer movies of the late 1950s and 60s.
Modern criticism has explored the complexities of his work in considerable detail; always ambiguous, it continues to resist any easy formulations. It is possible, nevertheless, to identify a few characteristic features.
Foremost among these is his representation of the liminal space between psychological conditions and the supernatural, making it is difficult to judge the origins of what often appear to be otherworldly visions. In ‘Green Tea’, for example, the apparition of the monkey is explained as the product of a mental or perhaps only a physical ailment, brought on by drinking too much of Jennings’s favourite beverage. But Le Fanu never discounts other possibilities: the incubus could be the symbol of a guilty conscience, it could be a coded expression of the iniquity of colonialism, it could be a demon from hell or it might be a sign, strictly within the context of its time, of repressed homosexual desire. Critics have speculated at length at the monkey’s multiple possibilities, and its very ambiguity is the source of the main character’s (and the reader’s) fearfulness. In this story, typically, the author maps the diffuse outlines of the half-perceived, charting a world ‘in a glass darkly’, where nothing is fixed and nothing is necessarily what it appears to be.
Indeed, one of his main strengths is his capacity to infuse the ‘normal’ with a sense of menace, infecting the ordinary with anxiety as characters of uncertain significance engage with the guileless. ‘Schalcken the Painter’ (1839) typifies this approach, postulating a money-driven marriage in which a young girl, Rose, is married to a dead man and financial gain is equated with the grave. This approach dislocates domestic reality, as such, as Le Fanu offers many other stories in which strange manipulations take place. In ‘The Familiar’, for instance, a character is threatened by an adversary who appears in two forms – one in his normal size, and one miniaturized; and in ‘The Room in the Dragon Volant’ a place of hospitality becomes the site of nightmare and murder. ‘The Child that went with the Fairies’ likewise discovers threat in a familiar myth, and in ‘Carmilla’ an ageless companion turns out to be a vampire, one of the malevolent undead. Le Fanu is a master, in short, of the uncanny, producing fictions which can be read in Freudian terms as a play on the interaction between the ‘heimlich’ and ‘unheimlich’; as Nicholas Allen remarks, ‘Le Fanu’s stories haunt because home becomes unhomely’ (The Ghost Story 115).
His capacity to create these uncanny situations infused the genre with great psychological intensity, providing a template that was later imitated by writers such as Algernon Blackwood and James, as well as providing exemplars for fellow Gothicists such as M. E. Braddon (who wrote some outstanding supernatural tales), Charlotte Riddell, Amelia Edwards and his niece, Rhoda Broughton. He also promoted other elements which have become a trademark of Gothic writing. His writing of female sexuality in ‘Carmilla’ was a significant influence on Stoker’s eroticism in Dracula, and his intermingling of sex and fear has become one of the most well-established tropes of the genre.
These interests can be summarized as a fascination with the limits of perception in an uncertain, volatile and unstable world. At the same time, Le Fanu was influential in his capacity to use Gothic tropes as a symbolic language, a type of fearful allegory which he uses to explore key aspects of contemporary culture. This approach was not unique: Dickens had already deployed the ghost story as a means to critique the cruelties of the ‘Hungry Forties’ in A Christmas Carol (1843), and I have elsewhere argued (Cooke 213–221) that Le Fanu’s ‘Green Tea’ was in part a development of the themes introduced in ‘The Signalman’ (1866). However, Le Fanu’s supernatural writing is a flexible idiom, enabling him to articulate a coded analysis of colonialism, class, the relationship between England and Ireland, the limitations of science, the iniquities of the laws of inheritance, marriage, sexuality and the workings of politics and history. He is especially interesting as a commentator on Catholic Ireland; though a Protestant and distanced from the grotesque sufferings of the Irish majority, his works draw heavily on Celtic mythology and contain many instances of a half-disguised sympathy. These interests have been explored at length by modern critics, and Le Fanu’s reputation, as a troubled and unsettling presence whose texts have an unusual resonance, continues to grow.
Le Fanu and Modern Criticism
he foremost champion of modern criticism of Le Fanu was the scholar and small-press publisher, Gary Crawford (1953–2020). Crawford published a ‘bio-bibliography’ in 1995 and issued a concise edition, in collaboration with Brian Showers, in 2011. These lists were completed by an on-line bibliography, which was kept up to date as new material was published. Crawford also made a significant contribution to the development of original scholarship. From 2006 to 2016 he published the on-line journal, Le Fanu Studies, which offered a range of essays; three of these, by Simon Cooke, have been republished on the Victorian Web, and other contributors’ work has appeared elsewhere. Reflections in Glass Darkly (2011), co-edited by Crawford, was another strand in his work of advocacy, uniting essays by some of the leading scholars in the field.
Note: Full details of Le Fanu’s work can be found in Crawford’s bibliographies.
Primary Works, arranged chronologically, published during and directly after Le Fanu’s death.
The Cock and Anchor. 3 Vols. Dublin: W. Curry, 1845.
The Fortunes of Colonel Torlogh O'Brien. Dublin: James McGlashan, 1847.
Ghost Stories and Tales of Mystery. Dublin: James McGlashan .
The House by the Churchyard. 3 Vols. London: Tinsley, 1863.
Wylder's Hand. 3 Vols. London: Bentley, 1864.
Uncle Silas. 3 Vols. London: Bentley, 1864.
Guy Deverell. 3 Vols. London: Bentley, 1865.
All in the Dark. 2 Vols. Dublin: Bentley 1866.
The Tenants of Malory. 3 Vols. London: Tinsley 1867.
A Lost Name. 3 Vols. London: Bentley 1868.
The Wyvern Mystery. 3 Vols. London: Tinsley 1869.
The Chronicles of Golden Friars. 3 Vols. London: Bentley 1871.
Checkmate. 3 Vols. London: Hurst & Blackett 1871.
The Rose and the Key. 3 Vols. London: Chapman & Hall 1871.
In a Glass Darkly. 3 Vols. London: Bentley 1872.
Willing to Die. 3 Vols. London: Hurst & Blackett 1873.
Allen, Nicholas. ‘Sheridan Le Fanu and the Spectral Empire.’ The Ghost Story from the Middle Ages to the Twentieth Century. Eds. Helen Conrad O’Briain and Julie Anne Stevens. Dublin: Four Courts Press, 2010. 112–123.
Cooke, Simon. ‘“A Regular Contributor”: Le Fanu’s Short Stories, All the Year Round and the Influence of Dickens.’ Reflections in a Glass Darkly: Essays on J. Sheridan Le Fanu. Eds. Gary William Crawford, Jim Rockhill and Brian J. Showers. New York: Hippocampus Press, 2011. 206–222.
Created 6 January 2021