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|J. Sheridan Le Fanu (1814-1873)|
Irish journalist, novelists, and short story writer, called the father of the modern ghost story. Although Le Fanu was one of the most popular writers of the Victorian era, he is not so widely read anymore. Le Fanu's best-known works include Uncle Silas (1864), a suspense story, and The House by the Churchyard (1863), a murder mystery. His vampire story 'Carmilla,' which influenced Bram Stoker's Dracula, has been filmed several times.
"Pen, ink, and paper are cold vehicles for the marvelous, and a "reader" decidedly a more critical animal than a "listener." (from 'An Account of Some Strange Disturbances in Aungier Street,' 1853)
Joseph Thomas Sheridan Le Fanu was born in Dublin into a wealthy family of Huguenot origins. Among his forebears was the playwright Richard Brinsley. His father, Thomas Philip Le Fanu, was a clergyman. Le Fanu started to write poems in his childhood. The life of the peasantry became familiar to him when his family moved to Abington, in County Limerick. In 1833 Le Fanu entered Trinity College, where he read law and graduated in 1837.
L Fanu's first story, 'The Ghost and the Bone-Setter', appeared in the Dublin University Magazine in 1838. It also published many of his other stories in the following years, which were later collected in The Purcell Papers (1880). As a novelist Le Fanu made his debut with The Cock and Anchor (1845). The chronicle of old Dublin showed the influence of Walter Scott, whom Le Fanu greatly admired. In 'A Preliminary Word' in Uncle Silas (1864) Le Fanu emphasized that death, crime, and in some form, mystery, are essential elements in Scott's novels.
In 1837 Le Fanu joined the staff of the Dublin University Magazine. Two years later he was called to the Irish Bar. However, he never practiced, but created his career in journalism. He owned or part-owned several papers, including The Warden, the Protestant Guardian, Evening Packet, and the Dublin Evening Mail. In 1861 he became owner and editor of Dublin University Magazine, in which several of his works appeared in serialized form. During this period he published only one book, Ghost Stories and Tales of Mystery (1851).
Le Fanu married in 1844 (in some sources 1843) Susanna Bennett; they had four children. The death of his wife in 1858 depressed deeply the author. He poured his pessimism into his horror stories. Nicknamed as 'The Invisible Prince' for his shyness and nocturnal lifestyle, Le Fanu lived a reclusive life. Usually, after visiting his newspaper office, Le Fanu returned to his home in Merrion Square to pen his stories from midnight to dawn. Le Fanu's son, Brinsley, told later, that his father wrote mostly in bed, using copybooks for his manuscripts. He always had two candels by his side of on a small table. During the last years he rarely went out into city. Le Fanu died on February 7, 1873. His work fell nearly into oblivion until 1923, when the scholar and ghost story writer M.R. James published a collection of Le Fanu's stories under the title Madam Crowl's Ghost and Other Tales of Mystery.
--"Well, a corpse is a natural thing; but this was the dreadfullest sight I ever saw. She had her fingers straight pointin' at me, and her back was crooked, round again wi' age. Says she:
In some of Le Fanu's stories the strange events can be interpreted in many ways - as a sign of the spiritual world, or as manifestations of psychic phenomena and unconscious, or in an allegorical level. 'The Green Tea', one of his most famous tales, depicts the horrors of Reverend Jennings, who is pursued by an evil spirit, a phantom monkey, without any apparent reason. It jumps onto his Bible as he preches, but nobody else sees the awful presence haunting him. Finally Jennings cuts his throat with his razor. Doctor Hesselius concludes that Jennings drank too much green tea, which unluckily opened his patient's inner eye. In this idea Dr. Hesselius is guided by Swedenborg's book Arcana Caelestia, in which the Swedish philosopher wrote: "When man's interior sight is opened, which is that of his spirit, then there appear the things of another life, which cannot possibly be made visible to the bodily sight...." Around the time of the publication of the story, green tea was blamed, when a community of Canadian nuns had problems with overexcited nerves. Le Fanu himself drank strong tea copiously and frequently.
As a journalist Le Fanu opposed all attempts to loosen the political union between Ireland and the rest of the UK, but in his 14 novels he avoided the politics of his day. The novels did not have supernatural elements, although their atmosphere could be foreboding or hint to unexplained phenomena. Le Fanu himself said to his publisher, George Bentley, that he was striving for 'the equilibrium between natural and the super-natural, the super-natural phenomena being explained on natural theories - and people left to choose which solution they please.'
Uncle Silas created effectively suspense without ghosts. The protagonist is a young girl, Maude, whose mother has died. After the death of her wealthy father, the sinister Uncle Silas becomes her guardian. Silas has his own plans about Maude and the fortune she will inherit. He tries to force her to marry his son Dudley, who already has a wife. Dudley kills the frightening French governess, Madame de la Rougierre. Maude is saved. Uncle Silas was developed from a short story entitled 'A Passage from the Secret History of an Irish Countess' - Le Fanu often refashioned his tales. Several of his novels are actually expanded versions of his earlier short stories. 'An Account of Some Strange Disturbances in Aungier Street' was the first form of 'Mr. Justice Harbottle.' Its protagonist has sent an innocent man to be hanged.
'Carmilla', a pathbreaking vampire story, was published in the collection In a Glass Darkly (1872). Its erotic, especially lesbian undertones have been noted by many film directors, among them Roger Vadim. In the story Laura, the narrator, meets Carmilla first time in her childhood, and then again at the age of 19. 'Her soft cheek was glowing against mine. "Darling, darling," she murmured, "I live in you; and you would die for me, I love you so."' Carmilla is a vampire, Countess Mircalla Karnstein, who has lived hundreds of years. However, first the narrator and her father do not believe in supernatural explanations. Eventually Carmilla is tracked to Karnstein castle where her grave is opened and she is killed with the ancient practice - a sharp stake is driven through her heart. Laura travels with her father to Italy, but she cannot forget Carmilla. "It was long before the terror of recent events subsided; and to this hour the image of Carmilla returns to memory with ambiguous alternations - sometimes the playful, languid, beautiful girl; sometimes the writhing fiend I saw in the ruined church; and often from a reverie I have started, fancying I heard the light step of Carmilla at the drawing-room door." Carl Dreyer's moody film adaptation of the story mixes surrealistic images with themes of death and redemption.
For further reading: Women's Sexual Liberation from Victorian Patriarchy in Sheridan Le Fanu's Carmilla by Ilona Gaul (2007); Horror, Ghost & Gothic Writers, ed. by David Pringle (1998); J. Sheridan Le Fanu: A Bio-Bibliography by Gary William Crawford (1995); Classic Horror Writers, ed. by Harold Bloom (1994); Sheridan Le Fanu by Ivan Melada (1987); Sheridan Le Fanu and Victorian England by W.J. McCormack (1980); Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu by Michael H. Begnal (1971); Sheridan Le Fanu by Nelson Browne (1951); Wilkie Collins, Le Fanu and Others by S.M. Ellis (1931)