aunted suicides, who like Nickleby are plagued by phantoms of the self, appear with some regularity in Dickens, but they abound in the fiction of the Irish writer Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu. Dickens himself was fascinated by the work of Le Fanu and printed Le Fanu's "Green Tea" in his periodical, All the Year Round (1869). Dickens's correspondence regarding that publication is itself of interest. Convinced that Le Fanu was an expert on "spectral illusions" because of the writer's passages on Swedenborgianism, Dickens requested that Le Fanu send on to Madame de la Rue all possible information about such illusions. One of Dickens's friends, Madame de la Rue had suffered from spectres for thirty to forty years, and Dickens had already tried mesmerism as a cure. Le Farm's own haunted figures are, however, not women but male aristocrats like Varney. Tormented by grotesque hallucinations and personifications of evil in the form of various others — ghosts, spectral monkeys, or other preternatural beings — ultimately they are driven to their deaths. Here once again their phantoms seem to be aspects of the self displaced and imagined as things or people outside the self. Some seem palpable, witnessed by people other than those they haunt, while others only manifest themselves to the haunted. All are equally destructive.
In Le Fanu's "The Fortunes of Sir Robert Ardagh" (written 1838-40), [109/110] for example, Ardagh is plagued by a foreign valet named Jacque, known to Ardagh's servants as "Jack the devil":
This man's personal appearance was, to say the least of it, extremely odd; he was low in stature; and this defect was enhanced by a distortion of the spine, so considerable as almost to amount to a hunch; his features, too, had all that sharpness and sickliness of hue which generally accompany deformity; he wore his hair, which was black as soot, in heavy neglected ringlets about his shoulders, and always without powder — a peculiarity in those days. There was something unpleasant, too, in the circumstance that he never raised his eyes to meet those of another; this fact was often cited as a proof of his being something nor quite right, and said to result not from the timidity which is supposed in most cases to induce this habit, but from a consciousness that his eye possessed a power which, if exhibited, would betray a supernatural origin. 
Like Dickens's deformed Quilp, black Jacque delights in the distress of others. When Ardagh's son and heir is stillborn, the valet chuckles with merriment. Nevertheless, Ardagh is deeply attached to Jacque and treats him as a second self; "His commands are mine" (PP, 28), Ardagh tells another servant. Eventually, Jacque leaves the household, much to the relief of all but Sir Robert himself. From the day of his departure, Ardagh sinks into apathy, becoming more and more indifferent and abstracted. Bit by bit, he declines into death, or so goes the second version of Sir Robert's story, "authenticated by human testimony" (PP, 22).
"The Fortunes" is actually a twice-told tale. In the first version, Le Fanu recounts "tradition" (PP, 21) and credits Sir Robert with a much more violent end. This version views Ardagh himself as a "dark man . . . morose, reserved and ill-tempered" (PP, 15). As time wears on, Ardagh withdraws and is heard to argue with himself, becoming agitated and pacing about wildly. During these occurrences, he manifests what Le Fanu calls "paroxysms of apparent lunacy" (PP, 17). Finally, a foreign stranger comes to the house and Ardagh desperately protests his admittance. Sir Robert is heard wrestling with someone or something on the ledge of a precipice outside his door and is found dead at the foot of that precipice, "with hardly a vestige of a limb or feature left distinguishable" (PP, 21). In death he has lost the physically distinguishing marks of humanity,
The double telling of this tale and the mystery surrounding the circumstances of death cast doubt as to just what has happened to Ardagh. So does the careful distancing of the tale in the past. It is hard to get hold of facts here, but this seems to be Le Fanu's point. Apparent suicides are all mysteries, especially as to cause; in Le Fanu's words from [110/111] Willing to Die, suicide is both "the maddest and most mysterious of crimes." With all cases of felonia-de-se murderer and murdered are one, and both are always inaccessible. Thus with every suicide something unsettling occurs. Inquests hold no final answers, only conjectures. Explanations are wanted but can never be authoritative. Even suicide notes can be fictions, written by persons who may have been beside themselves. Le Fanu draws upon all this doubtfulness. In positing mysterious others who echo looks or behavior — doubles who may stand for the suicide both as victim and as self-murderer — he metaphorically separates murderers from murdered and feeds Victorian fears and uncertainties about death by suicide. Was Ardagh insane? Was he really a suicide? Was he a terrible sinner? Was he pursued and tormented by a dark stranger, or by himself? Did he conceal a dreadful secret of some sort? What indeed drives a man to his death? Le Fanu's readers are left with these awful questions but with no certain truths. Whether it is traditional or "authenticated," no narration will fully illuminate Le Fanu's dark world of suicide.
Le Fanu would re-emphasize this in his next tales of self-murder. In "A Chapter in the History of a Tyrone Family" (1839), his young heroine and primary narrator is wholly unable to decode the mystery of her husband's death. Found with his throat slit — a more obvious self-murdeter than Ardagh — Lord Glenfallen has taken his secrets with him to the grave. Possibly Glenfallen was a bigamist, as Charlotte Brontë's Rochester would be, but unlike Jane Eyre this story affords no surprise brother-in-law from Jamaica to recount the past and set the record straight. If guilt over helping to frame and incarcerate the woman who may have been the first Lady Glenfallen has driven Glenfallen to madness and suicide, no one will ever know. Even his current young wife is at a loss to say. "All, then, was over; I was never to learn the history of whose termination I had been so deeply and so tragically involved," she sadly confesses.
In line with his penchant to rework the mysteries that absorbed him, Le Fanu retells this young woman's story thirty years later as The Wyvern Mystery (1860). Similarly, he would recast "Some Account of the Latter Days of the Honorable Richard Marston of Dunoran" (1848) as three separate works of fiction: "Some Account," "The Evil Guest," (1851) and A Lost Name (1868). And he would later rewrite "The Watcher" (1847) as "The Familiar" (1872). Critics of Le Fanu have contended that fie revamped these stories because plotting came hard for him (Briggs, 51). Surely he was also deepening a connection between the mystery of suicide and the inscrutability of the haunted minds of its victims. As he himself had said of the relentless pursuit in "The Watcher," "however the truth [111/112] may be, as to the origin and motives of this mysterious persecution, there can be no doubt that, with respect to the agencies by which it was accomplished, absolute and impenetrable mystery is like to prevail until the day of doom" (Le Fanu, 1977; 60).
"The Watcher" is in several ways typical of Le Fanu's stories of suicide. Its protagonist, Captain Barton, prides himself on his rationalism, declaring that he is "an utter disbeliever in what are usually termed preternatural agencies" (GS, 13) but knows all the same that he is pursued by the hollow sound of footsteps. A friend also notices that he is trailed by art odd-looking foreigner with a menacing, "almost maniacal" mein (GS, 20). Barton fears yet shrugs off his pursuer, attributing his fear to overwork. But as time wears on, Barton wears down, though his watcher does not. Now subject to "blue devils" — defined in Le Fanu's day as despondency or hypochondriac melancholy — Barton finds that his mind has turned in upon itself. The pursuer becomes an "apparition" (GS, 29) to him. Deeply disturbed, Barton consults both a clergyman and a high-ranking army officer about his plight. While the cleric tells him that he is his "own tormenter" (GS, 35), the general good-naturedly offers to "collar the ghost" (GS, 40) and free his friend.
The man of the cloth unfortunately proves to have been right: Barton's only freedom will come with death, his ultimate release from self-torment. Like Ardagh and many suicides he loses hope and joie de vivre, becoming uncannily tranquil. He looks for a last encounter with his demon, is heard to scream out piercingly in agony, and is found dead. In a kind of a postscript or coda to his tale, we discover that eight years previously Barton had formed a guilty attachment to a girl whom he ill-treated and who subsequently died of a broken heart. Barton's blue devils, then, are avengers of that earlier death, and no rationalizing, no uninformed members of the establishment in the guise of doctors, preachers, or military men have the power to stop them. Barton ultimately falls victim to his own past.
Such is the fate of all of the murderers among Le Fanu's suicides. In Checkmate (1871), one-time murderer Yelland Mace goes so far as to have his face rebuilt to suit what he hopes will be a new life and new name, Walter Longcluse, But the spectre of Mace haunts Longcluse, who becomes weary of himself. In the fictional world of Le Fanu, whatever a man's visage or name, his past cannot be eluded or denied; it is encoded within him. Thus changes in aspect or prospect, as when he moves to England, are insufficient to save Mace/Longcluse, who eventually poisons himself in despair. Anxious somehow to be transformed but incapable of inner conversion, Mace/Longcluse resorts to the most desperate of all remedies. [112/113]
About this checkmated man, there is something pitiful and vulnerable. About Silas Ruthvyn in Uncle Silas (1864), there is little to pity. Silas is the dark alter ego of Austin Ruthvyn, a double to his own brother. When that brother dies and his daughter, Maud, is sent to live with Silas, Le Fanu unfolds a shocking mystery of character. Along with young Maud Ruthvyn, Le Fanu's narrator, we wonder: who is Silas, what is he? Slowly we find that he is anything but holy, fair, and wise, although at first he appears to be all three. Silas is himself the ghost of a man. Sealed off in a world of laudanum and Swedenborgian visions, he seems like a spectre to his niece:
Uncle Silas was always before me; the voice so silvery for an old man — so preternaturally soft; the manners so sweet, so gentle; the aspect, smiling, suffering, spectral. It was no longer a shadow; I had now seen him in the flesh. But after all, was he more than a shadow to me? When I closed my eyes I saw him before me still, in necromantic black, ashy with a pallour on which I looked with fear and pain, a face so dazzlingly pale, and those hollow, fiery, awful eyes! It sometimes seemed as if the curtain opened, and I had seen a ghost (Le Fanu, 193-194).
Silas is self-haunted, but he also is ruthless, as his name might imply. Having murdered once, lie is willing to murder again — this time his young niece. Saved by her wits, Maud lives to retell her story and to try to unravel the riddle of her own haunter, Silas, "Child of the Sphinx" (US, 116).
Yet even in the end, Silas eludes both Maud and her readers. He appears to die from an overdose of laudanum which his inquest determines to have been "accidentally administered by himself' (US, 423) But Silas is an expert in dosages and unlikely to have taken too much or too little. Had even Uncle Silas had enough of evil, enough of life? Here once again, suicide is unprovable. In discussing mystery novels, Patrick Brantlinger has observed that they are paradoxical because they "conclude in ways that liquidate mystery: they are not finally mysterious at all." (Brantlinger, 21) This could never be said of a novel like Uncle Silas, where we believe Silas's murder victim to have been a suicide until close to the novel's end; where the people of the novel have certified that same man self-murdered for years; and where the riddle of Silas Ruthvyn's own death remains.
In Le Fanu's suicides so far discussed, what is missing are the inner reflections of the victims. There are no suicide notes, no shared confidences. But in the Doctor Hesselius stories from In a Glass Darkly (1872), something quite different occurs. Hesselius's assistant, in "Mr. Justice Harbottle," has seen an important paper in the judge's own handwriting and has access to one of Harbottle's own "dreams," which [113/114] brings the reader much closer to the world of the haunted. The dream is fraught with both the ghostly presences of Harbottle's severely judged and hanged victims and a huge "dilated effigy" of the judge himself — Chief Justice Two-fold, "an image of Mr. Justice Harbottle, at least double his size, and with all his fierce colouring, and his ferocity of eye and visage enhanced awfully." (Le Fanu, 1977; p. 275) Harbottle's dream world has thus split his tormenters into two groups, a set of externalized others and an alter ego, larger than life; and Le Fanu's art has led us directly through the dark door of Harbottle's nightmare. This second, surrealistic judge condemns Harbottle to die for his crimes in a month's time and leaves him with four weeks of "blue devils" and desperate rationalizations before he is found hanging from the banister at the top of his own staircase and pronounced felo-de-se by his coroner's jury.
In the ghost stories of In A Glass Darkly, Le Fanu becomes far more cautious in attributing causes for suicide. There is no coda discussing Harbottle's guilt, no overhearing of melodramatic death throes. There is only mention of "medical evidence to show that in his atrabilious state it was quite in the cards that he might have made away with himself" (IGD, 298). Despite Harbottle's injustices and despite this medical jargon, here the motives and mystery of suicide have deepened, and this is even more true in the case of the Reverend Mr. Jennings in "Green Tea." Jennings is the only one of Le Fanu's suicides who is a good man with no apparent guilt or reason to kill himself. He is not indifferent to others, nor ruthless, lecherous, or full of arrogant rationalism. He seems to need no self-punishment. All the same he is the most relentlessly haunted of all the suicides, and his is also the most carefully documented of the stories of self-destruction. Hesselius is not only a recorder here but the tale's inner narrator and an actor in the drama as well; arid Jennings himself is also a painstaking and minute observer and reveader of his tormenter, his environs, and his own inner states.
Jennings's story is an odd one. A man of the cloth, he has few bad habits, though for a time he had been addicted to drinking strong green tea. Four years earlier he had begun working hard on a study of religious metaphysics of the ancients, all the while indulging heavily in the tea, but at the same time had never found existence so plesant. Soddenly, however, when sitting in an omnibus, he is astonished to catch sight of a small, black monkey with reddish glowing eyes. At first he believes it to be real, but when he pokes at it with his umbrella, the nub seems to pass right through the animal. Horror grows as Jennings's relationship with this apparition moves through what Hesselius documents in three stages. First Jennings considers the monkey as a manifestation of [114/115] disease. Next he believes it hellish. Finally he hears it "singing through" (80) his head, urging him to crime and self-destruction. By the time he consults Hesselius, Jennings verges on total despair. Hesselius nevertheless assures him of a cure, remarking that he has had a great success rate with similar citses. Jennings is simply to summon Hesselius the very instant that the apparition reappears. Inevitably the monkey does return, but when it does, Hesselius is sequestered, ironically, working on the Jennings case. And by the time Hesselius gets to Jennings, the minister has slit his own throat in desperation.
In its bare outline, this story is mysterious enough, but when one tries to fathom just why poor Jennings is the victim here, it becomes even more so. How to account for the appearance to such a decent man of a leering, malignant, black monkey with a red aura? Le Fanu gives a number of explanations, none very satisfactory. First and foremost, there is the Swedenborgian insight into the case. In an effort to understand his plight, Jennings has been reading Swedenborg's Arcana Celestia. According to Swedenborg, evil spirits from hell can inhabit the world of humankind for a time. When they do so, they are no longer in infernal torment but reside in the thoughts and affection of the person with whom they associate. In this situation they appear as "correspondences" to what they are in the eyes of their infernal associates, and take "the shape of the beast (fera) which represents [the] particular lust and life, in aspect dire and atrocious" (IGD, 31) of their human associates.
If the monkey is a representative of Jennings's lust and life — a Swedenborgian or pre-Freudian manifestation of his darker side, a kind of Dorian Gray portrait — there is little evidence in "Green Tea" that Jennings has merited such an incubus. His only vices seem to have been green tea and ancient metaphysics, and he has wholly given up the tea. The vision of the monkey is not drug-induced. It could, however, be guilt-induced, and Le Fanu's Swedenborg also says that the man in consort with spirits must be a man in good faith, "continually protected by the Lord" (IGD, 29). In retrospect Jennings admits that the pursuit of ancient metaphysics is "not good for the mind — Christian mind" (UGD, 46-7). Possibly he felt guilt over his delight in paganism; certainly the monkey begins its torments in church, Squatting on his open book so that Jennings cannot read to his congregation, and in the second phase constantly interrupting his prayers? But Jennings persists with prayers and clerical responsibilities; we never see him give over attempts at communication with a Christian God. If apostasy is Jennings's crime, Le Fanu is not eager to make this evident, although Victorian readers of "Green Tea" would surely have been prepared for a [115/116] link between religious doubts and suicide. Daily and weekly papers and the Annual Register were full of suicides attributed to "religious melancholy." Jennings, however, exhibits something more than the usual melancholic symptoms of doubt and depression. He lives in utter horror of his peculiar, red-ringed monkey.
Medical explanations for Jennings's condition and death are even less satisfying. There are three doctors involved in his case, and all three fail him. Before consulting Hesselius, Jennings has seen a Dr. Harley, whom he classifies as "a paralytic mind, an interest half dead . . . a mere materialist" (IGD, 36). Clearly the eminent Harley has little belief in the monkey. Hesselius, however, has Jennings's confidence because his medicine is of another order. Himself influenced by Swedenborg, Hesselius believes that there are sometimes human insights that move one from the material to the spiritual world. Through a rending of the veil, for a time "the mortal and immortal prematurely make acquaintance" (IGD, 89). In consulting Hesselius, whose writings he has read, Jennings comes self-diagnosed. He likes the Swedenborgian insight into his problem but nevertheless deliberately seeks out a medical practitioner rather than turning to Swedenborg's own solution of God's protection. Unfortunately, Hesselius proves less than in control of his healer's art. He is a careless empiricist, a derelict in duty, and a very materialistic spiritualist. He begins with a "theory" about Jennings even before he hears out the man's case; then he fails to be accessible at the very moment when his patient needs him. In the end his great disappointment comes not when he loses Jennings the man, but when he loses Jennings the case. Full of hubris and denial, he feels cheated because he has not had a chance to make Jennings his fifty-eighth success story in the business of sealing a patient's inner eye. All that was needed, he believes, was a treatment of the fluid in our bodies, which we hold in common with spirits. Since green tea opened Jennings's inner eye, something as simple as eau de cologne might have closed it. Ironically, these absurdly material assumptions become the most profound ones that the great Doctor Hesselius can offer. They are carefully prefaced and edited by yet another, younger doctor who is translating Hesselius's most striking case histories with reverential interest.
In his and Le Fanu's final paragrah, Hesselius totally divorces himself from Jennings. According to Hesselius, Jennings was not really one of his failures because he was never really one of his patients. Hesselius had not begun a cure, and just as well. For what Jennings finally succumbed to, decides Hesselius, was not after all the open inner eye but "hereditary suicidal mania," a grand Victorian catch-all, killer of FitzRoy of tire H.M.S. Beagle and numerous less eminent Victorians — [116/117] a kind of Victorian original sin. So while Hesselius and his editor wind up looking irresponsible and foolish, Le Fanu's readers continue puzzled over the eerie monkey and haunted clergyman. Which returns them again to the nagging questions: Why would a man, happily going about his business, quite suddenly be plagued by a spectral monkey? Is the beast a symbol of lust? of the mysterious jungle? of the more mysterious East? Or is it a primitive ancestor of humankind? And, more importantly, why would such a monkey drive a man to take his life? Like Hesselius's answers to it, the last question begins to seem more than a little absurd.
Certainly Le Fanu must have meant it to be. As Jack Sullivan says of "Green Tea," "the strange power of the tale lies in the irony that something intrinsically ridiculous can drive a man to destroy himself" (14). Here Le Fanu reveals the tenuousness of all human life, its susceptibility to sudden, unsuspected — and seemingly pointless — alterations, and the Victorians' and our own limitations in coping with such alterations. We linger over "Green Tea" because the story of Jennings is Le Fanu's most deeply troubling story and the spectre of the monkey is his most deeply disturbing spectre. As we hear his anxious recountings to Hesselius, we feel for this tormented man. Jennings is not a decadent aristocrat, not a xenophobe, or a murderer, or a representative of a heartless professional class like Harbottle or even Hesselius. Jennings seems an Everyman, even a superior man, whose intellect and decency are unable to save him from his bogey. Blue devils, green tea, hereditary insanity, religious melancholy — Le Fanu offers no satisfying explanation for Jennings's complaint. His disease reflects Victorian unease and feeds our own discomfort as we ponder what it really is that causes a person not to want to live. In an era drenched in Aberglaube (Arnold's "extra" beliefs "beyond what is certain and verifiable" (Arnold, 112) and bathed in a certain "Nachshein of Christianity" (Carlyle, 165) that withholds men like Teufelsdröckh and Carlyle from suicide, a lurid monkey may in fact have seemed a fitting symbol for an inexplicable will to die. And a ghost story — mysterious and equally inexplicable — must have seemed the perfect medium for conveying the ultimate mystery of suicide.
Le Fanu's mysteries are also Victorian fantasies, fulfilling Todorov's definition of the fantastic as "that hesitation experienced by a person who knows only the laws of nature confronting an apparently supernatural event." (Todorov, 25) They posit, but they hesitate to confirm, spiritual other selves. Like Dickens's pairings of sentimental and suicidal characters and deaths, they flirt with surrogation or doubling — in Jennings's case with a fictional version of autoscopic doubling. In autoscopy, an individual hallucinates a second self, whether through anxiety, fatigue, [117/118] drugs, or psychosis (Rogers, 14-15).
Last modified 12 May 2023