For me, Sheridan Le Fanu is best known for two things: for having written ghost stories that appear in nearly every anthology of 19th century English mystery, suspense, and Gothic fiction (The Oxford Book of English Ghost Stories is just one of many examples), and for being the writer about whom Harriet Vane was to pretend to do research as an excuse to be in College in Dorothy L. Sayers’ Gaudy Night. Being aware of his work, however, meant that at some point, I was going to have to settle in to read his best-known book, Uncle Silas. In all honesty, this is another book that I should have read a decade ago. Le Fanu, who was Irish, is still known for his tales of mystery and Gothic horror; his vampire tale, Carmilla, predates Bram Stoker’s Dracula by about a quarter century. Le Fanu published Uncle Silas in 1864, and it was extremely successful in the English market for which it was written. On its reprinting in 1966, a full century after its original publication, the Dover edition of Uncle Silas enthusiastically claims Le Fanu’s book to be “[o]ne of a half-dozen or so 19th-century novels still read for pleasure rather than as a school exercise.” Would that still be the case a full fifty years later still?
In all honesty, Uncle Silas is a mixed bag. It is, undoubtedly, mostly a masterpiece of sustained menace (as I write, I’m listening to Bartok’s Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celestra, which has much the same effect and is ideal music for the All-Hallows’s season). But there are deficiencies which may aggravate the 21st century reader who longs for a less hide-bound plot. The tale begins with Maud Ruthyn, only daughter of the widowed Austin Ruthyn, a solitary man of exceptional fortune, who live together in the great house at Knowl. Maud is eighteen, and has been raised by a series of governesses and her companion, Mary Quince, since the death of her mother, when she was only a child. The household is overseen by Mrs. Rusk, the housekeeper, and Branston, the deferential butler. Maud has no friends of her own age. However, it is the arrival a new governess, the sinister Madame de la Rougierre, which sets in motion the events of the story.
Maud has always been fascinated by a portrait which hangs of Knowl of her father’s brother, her Uncle Silas. Silas led a wild life in contrast to Austin’s more measured one, and although they correspond, Maud has never met her uncle. The sudden appearance of a cousin, the youthful but fifty-something Monica Knollys, gives Maud some insight into the family history, but Monica is strangely silent on certain key points. As it happens, she does not live further than six miles from Silas, but has not seen him in some twenty years. Through Cousin Monica, however, Maud meets the charming but impecunious Captain Oakley, for whom she begins to develop the barest hints of a passion, although Lady Knollys assures her that he is not her equal socially. In the meantime, Maud has grown suspicious — and afraid — of Madame de la Rougierre, who clearly consorts with equally sinister types and appears to have other motivations in taking the position as Maud’s governess. The governess appears to be known to Maud’s cousin, but other another name, and cousin Monica is strangely reticent about her past encounters with the Frenchwoman. Expeditions in the grounds of Knowl itself with “Madame” lead to frightening encounters. It is only when Maud discovers that Madame de la Rougierre has broken into her father’s safe (seeking what is never clearly demonstrated) that she is able to persuade that good man to dismiss the Frenchwoman from the house for good.
However, this is not the final chapter. Having established the ground in the first third or so of the book, suddenly and tragically Maud’s father dies, and it is revealed that Austin Ruthyn, in an attempt to ensure that the redemption that he believes he has seen in his brother Silas is recognised by the world, has made Maud his ward until the age of twenty-one, at which time she will come into her fortune. And so Maud is to be packed off to family she has never met, including her cousins, Millicent and Dudley, in the terrifying old ruin that is Bartram-Hough, deep in the desolate landscape of Derbyshire.
Maud finds her cousin Milly an unrefined and wild but teachable young lady, her male cousin Dudley a piggish, brutal bumpkin (who is yet strangely familiar), and her Uncle Silas himself a weak and dissipated old man prone to fits and self-medication with liberal doses of opium and laudanum. Although Maud initially believes that, particularly with the proximity of her cousin Monica and the gradually improving company of Milly that it may be possible to be happy in her new surroundings, events begin to conspire against her. As the menace grows, Maud is left to wonder: is her Uncle Silas dutiful guardian, or dangerous foe?
This landscape of the middle 19th century is richly detailed and full of touches which might require footnotes for the modern reader, such as the system of transportation on railways and in carriages, and the constraining and sometimes frankly ludicrous manners of the day. Like a good and atmospheric black-and-white film of suspense and mystery, everything in Uncle Silas is candlelit. Even the scenes out of doors are in winter, and convey a stark, slightly menacing quality. Within the houses, Knowl is described as being haunted by two distinct ghosts, which everyone appears to accept as part of the cost of living; Bartram-Hough is depicted as dilapidated, largely derelict, thinly furnished and, oh, by the way, a man called Mr. Charke was once murdered there. Sleep tight!
Maud as narrator, however, is a bit wet (to use the argot of a third, completely unreleated period). She is prone to fainting, hysterics, and sobbing, as seems to have been expected of literary females of the mid-19th century. Such lines as: “For my part, I really can’t see the advantage of being the weaker sex if we are always to be as strong as our masculine neighbours” (p. 301) are bound to rankle. Maud is also, it seems, so incredibly sheltered as to fail to recognise danger when it looks her in the face and gives her a knowing wink. She is also so hide-bound by custom, tradition, and the wishes of her male relatives that she does not assert herself beyond writing a note and entrusting it to a servant in the hopes that it will reach its destination. Uncle Silas is almost a story of a race that has grown attenuated through the relentless bonds of propriety and societal expectations.
In the end, it is simply the passing of time which makes Uncle Silas a less-than-perfect book. Attitudes have not held, and the difference between 150 years ago and now is palpable in the behaviour of many of the characters. This does not make it bad book, nor a book which is not still highly readable and even enjoyable. But if you’re planning to spend four hundred pages with Maud Ruthyn and Uncle Silas, be sure that you’re not in a quarrelsome mood with the state of the world: it will help.Four stars.
Reviewed 17 October 2016.