Sheridan Le Fanu: 200 years of literary blood and terrorism

On the bicentenary of the Irish writer’s birth, Bill McCormack weighs his preoccupation with family, guilt, dualism and the disappeared

August 28, 2014

Source: Kobal

Unveiled: screen adaptations of Le Fanu’s work include The Vampire Lovers (above), Schalken the Painter and The Dark Angel

Joseph Thomas Sheridan Le Fanu, a pioneer among writers of horror fiction, is celebrated for stories such as Schalken the Painter (1839) and Carmilla (1872). The bicentenary of his birth on 28 August provides a good opportunity to reconsider the continuing appeal of his work, its adaptation for cinema and television, and his insight into issues of Anglo-Irish relations persisting to this day. In the eyes of some excited readers and filmgoers, the Irish-Huguenot novelist was a master of terror comparable to the nameless creators of “the disappeared”. And, like the Irish Republican Army, we might say that Le Fanu and his stories “haven’t gone away”. Although the comparison is a trifle Gothic, overlaps of substance can be established.

Le Fanu’s reputation does not lie solely with sensational fiction. As owner and editor of the Dublin University Magazine from 1861, he directed an influential organ of Irish conservative opinion for a decade. However, after the Great Famine (at its height in 1845-47), he looked sympathetically on the nationalism of John Mitchel and William Smith O’Brien. But when radicalism moved towards open rebellion, Le Fanu hastily withdrew, investigating the dire spiritual effects of a precipitous lurch into alien loyalties in Some Account of the Latter Days of the Hon. Richard Marston of Dunoran (1848).

Today, Le Fanu is neither cult author nor forgotten classic. His very name poses problems – how to pronounce it, and where to locate it. On his father’s side, the family were Huguenots, French Calvinist exiles from the Ancien Régime, long settled in Ireland. His paternal grandmother, however, was a sister of Richard Brinsley Sheridan, a great comic dramatist and a thoroughly radical Whig. A union of opposites, especially if we throw in the Sheridans’ Gaelic and Catholic antecedents. Preoccupations with family and inheritance run through his fiction, countered by a profound sense of guilt, of offences committed in the past and destined to re-emerge.

Although Le Fanu wrote little between 1848 and 1861, the tension between romantic nationalism and prudent support for the Union supplied much of the energy for the fiction of his last decade – he died on 7 February 1873. His longest Irish novel, The House by the Churchyard (1863), is set in the mid-18th century, although subtle framing narratives implicate more recent social disturbances. Thereafter, his publishers insisted on English settings in contemporary times.

Hard up, like many of his class, Le Fanu obliged: the result was a higher tension, buried deeper in the fiction, especially in the case of Uncle Silas (1864). This deployed Swedenborgian doctrine as a remote but reflective backcloth to sensational plots. Through the Swedish mystic-engineer’s system of correspondences, the novelist devised ways of presenting society as a code involving both opposites and identity, with the female narrator’s pious father morphing into her wicked uncle. Officially the setting is Derbyshire but, as Elizabeth Bowen shrewdly noted, the pathology is Anglo-Irish. There is nothing organic about society in Le Fanu. It’s a matter of arbitrary codes, iron consequences and ironic sombre exceptions.

Influential admirers of his style included Henry James, M. R. James, V. S. Pritchett and Bowen herself – all practitioners of the short story. After Uncle Silas came nine other novels, but the late work is best found in “ghostly” tales, collected in Chronicles of Golden Friars (1871) and In a Glass Darkly (1872). Carmilla, the blood-gem among these, has been frequently adapted to the big screen – first in Carl Theodor Dreyer’s 1932 film Vampyr and, more rompingly, as The Vampire Lovers (with Ingrid Pitt and Kate O’Mara, 1970). Other adaptations – French (by Roger Vadim, 1960), Polish and Spanish – are readily available. Its teaming of vampires with lesbianism and its setting in remote Styria make it a classic of exoticism.

Le Fanu’s subversive enquiries into sexual differences and identities have won him more latter-day readers than his interest in Swedenborgianism ever did. Film, rather than text, may now be his genre. In some cases, the advance into visuality involves loss of depth. Uncle Silas, generally taken as Le Fanu’s masterpiece, has been filmed twice – in 1947, with Jean Simmons as the heroine, and 40 years later, with Peter O’Toole playing the uncle-villain in a BBC television adaptation, The Dark Angel. One striking detail of O’Toole’s performance is the girlish giggle with which he greets his niece, even as he lusts after her. Here, a fine actor’s insight becomes a larger interpretation of the novelist’s concerns.

Drawing of Sheridan Le Fanu

Yet, despite the merits of those two adaptations, neither pays serious attention to the religious unease, the covert Irish dimension or the allusive literary debts. In many ways, Le Fanu remained a Huguenot, a persecuted European. His subliminal references to Goethe, Balzac, René de Chateaubriand and (repeatedly) to Dutch painting are lost in the absolute foregrounding that is the hallmark of commercial cinema and television.

The unfairly neglected 1864 novel Wylder’s Hand employs an anxious history by exploring “inextricable intermarriages” among three families. Mark Wylder, although recently committed to marry his cousin Dorcas Brandon, disappears. Letters, apparently in his handwriting, explain his prolonged absence abroad, and release his fiancée from her pledge. Acrimony persists among the kin, aided by a lawyer. Eventually, close to home, a corpse is exposed by rain and its protruding arm frightens cousin Stanley Lake’s horse. Lake dies as a result of his fall, and Wylder’s signet ring, bearing the Latin word resurgam (I will rise again), confirms the body’s identify. Lake had killed Wylder, forged letters perpetuating an apparent continued existence, and sought to marry his rival’s chosen bride. The men’s motives are drably material, the women’s less so; property is the great object and, to secure it, an end to family conflict. If only.

Lake sees murder as the means to reconciliation, as have generations of statesmen blood-stained and well-laundered alike. He “was a terrorist”, we are told, and “acted instinctively on the theory that any good that was to be got from human beings was to be extracted from their fears”. Although the word “terror” peppers Uncle Silas throughout, in keeping with the pop psychology of sensational fiction, in Wylder’s Hand, Lake is three times characterised precisely as a terrorist. Wylder had been “a disappeared”, whose return to the visible world mocks any faith in bodily resurrection, here or hereafter. Moreover, Lake is a captain of dragoons, and military images line the dark approach to the Brandon Hall library, “old Dutch tapestries, representing the battles and sieges of men in periwigs, pikemen, dragoons in buff coats”.

Irish readers may treat these pikemen as mirrored insurgents of 1798 whose favoured weapons were (by necessity) homemade pikes. Some may even recall that General Gerard Lake was a particularly ruthless (and lawless) suppressor of presumed malcontents and likely insurgents through a practice known as “the dragooning of Ulster”. Le Fanu’s fiction exposed cousins in domestic war; historians engage in a wider critique to valuable effect. “The ‘Ireland’ which joined Great Britain in the political union of 1801 was in fact a society emerging from a decade of revolutions and counter-revolutions,” as Hugh Kearney observes in The British Isles: A History of Four Nations (1989).

In editing the Dublin University Magazine, Le Fanu upheld the Union; as householder he displayed little concern when his footman joined Fenian insurgents in 1867. When, through the Irish Metropolitan Conservative Society, he countenanced the Union’s repeal, he had recently published Schalken the Painter. This early demon-lover tale has its worldly counter-plot of mercenary marriage. Did he briefly consider the Union of 1801 a similar compact, and then regret his guilt?

On Le Fanu’s 200th birthday, these internal opposites deserve commemoration, the transgressive texts and the conservative ones, too. Perhaps today’s resurgent conservative positions – theological absolutism, the stout defence of emotion as property and closed systems of tit-for-tat politics – are the transgressive ones. For those who wish to, Le Fanu still makes people think.

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