Irish Gothic: Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu - Mid-Victorian Horrors - Volume 1: From Gilgamesh to the End of the Nineteenth Century

Unutterable Horror - A History of Supernatural Fiction - S. T. Joshi 2014

Irish Gothic: Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu
Mid-Victorian Horrors
Volume 1: From Gilgamesh to the End of the Nineteenth Century

For the past three-quarters of a century there has been a kind of languid renaissance of the work of Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu (1814—1873). In the fifty years following his death, his work had largely fallen out of print, and he seemed to be on the brink of lapsing into oblivion. But when M. R. James compiled Madam Crowl’s Ghost and Other Stories (1923), and Dorothy L. Sayers included “Green Tea” in her pioneering anthology Great Short Stories of Detection, Mystery, and Horror (1928), things eventually turned for the better. In the 1960s E. F. Bleiler assembled Le Fanu’s Best Short Stories (1964) and arranged for a reprint (1966) of Le Fanu’s most celebrated novel, Uncle Silas; in the next decade Bleiler issued another collection of Le Fanu’s short fiction, Ghost Stories and Mysteries (1975). W. J. McCormack wrote what is without doubt the most sophisticated critical study, Sheridan Le Fanu and Victorian Ireland (1980), and in recent years a three-volume edition of his short fiction has been published by Ash-Tree Press (2002—05), Uncle Silas has appeared (2001) in Penguin Classics (although I have been told it has sold very poorly), and the story collection In a Glass Darkly has been issued (1993) in the Oxford World’s Classics series. A bibliography by Gary William Crawford appeared in 1995, and two further critical studies were issued in 1987 and 2007.

So it would appear that Le Fanu is back on the map. Is it, then, the case that he is a sadly neglected master of supernatural and mystery fiction who has now regained the canonical status he deserves? After an exhaustive rereading of his work, I regret to report that I must answer emphatically in the negative, and I will go on to say that Le Fanu’s tales have been vastly—even grotesquely—overpraised by his partisans. The brute fact is that Le Fanu’s work in the realm of supernatural or non-supernatural horror is staggeringly verbose, largely unimaginative, and unillumined by anything that can be termed distinctive prose, vivid characterisation, or compelling plot development. Le Fanu failed to advance supernatural literature beyond the tired Gothic modes he favoured, as the rapid demise of his work after his death and its corresponding lack of influence upon the subsequent supernatural tradition painfully attest.

There is little need to dwell on Le Fanu’s life. A scion of the Protestant aristocracy of Ireland, he spent the majority of his life in or around Dublin. He published his first short story in 1838, the year after graduating from Trinity College. Shortly thereafter he plunged into journalism, purchasing and editing several magazines—a career that culminated in 1861, when he became proprietor and editor of the Dublin University Magazine, a periodical that, both before and after that date, published the bulk of his short fiction. He also wrote more than a dozen novels. Le Fanu married Susanna Bennett in 1843, and her death fifteen years later reputedly shattered him with grief and turned him into a recluse—a fitting role for a writer of the supernatural. This legend of Le Fanu’s hermitry is a bit exaggerated, as he received many visitors in his Dublin home, including such prominent figures as the novelist Charles Lever. It appears that Le Fanu, following the death of his wife, simply plunged into literary labours, and a substantial proportion of his work appeared in the final decade and a half of his life, including the novels The House by the Churchyard (1863) and Uncle Silas (1864) and the story collections Chronciles of Golden Friars (1871) and In a Glass Darkly (1872).

Of Le Fanu’s early work little can—and, out of charity, should—be said. A number of stories are narrated by a country priest, Francis Purcell, who has purportedly collected legends of the Irish peasantry. Several of these contain affecting depictions of the Irish countryside and of the rural denizens inhabiting it, even if on occasion (as in “The Ghost and the Bone-Setter” [Dublin University Magazine, January 1838]) Le Fanu’s rendering of Irish dialect is so extreme as to render the story nearly unreadable. Oddly enough, Le Fanu himself made no attempt to collect the Purcell stories—although a few appeared in his first story collection, Ghost Stories and Tales of Mystery (1851)—and they had to be assembled posthumously in The Purcell Papers (1880). Very few of the supernatural tales amount to much. One of the most curious is “The Fortunes of Sir Robert Ardagh” (Dublin University Magazine, March 1838), which is really two stories in one. By reputation, Sir Robert, who was fond of horse racing, had uncanny luck at choosing winners at the races, and it was suspected that he had received the assistance of the Devil in his bets. But the third-person narrator (presumably Purcell) now tells an entirely different story, one that he claims is derived from first-hand evidence and chiefly relating to the sinister presence of a mysterious valet of Sir Robert’s who may or may not have been involved in the latter’s death. The extreme disjunction between even the basic thread of the two accounts renders the story incoherent.

A substantial proportion of Le Fanu’s tales, early and late, are relatively conventional stories of ghosts and apparitions—such things as “The Drunkard’s Dream” (Dublin University Magazine, August 1838), “Ghost Stories of Chapelizod” (Dublin University Magazine, January 1851), “An Account of Some Strange Disturbances in Aungier Street” (Dublin University Magazine, December 1853), and “Authentic Narrative of a Haunted House” (Dublin University Magazine, October 1862), a purportedly “true” narrative—and do nothing but reveal the degree to which such accounts had already become hackneyed and routine. In only a few stories does some originality of motif or treatment present itself. Consider “Schalken the Painter” (Dublin University Magazine, May 1839). Here a Dutchwoman, Rose Douw, is forced by her father to marry a strange man, Wilken Vanderhausen. His appearance is foreboding:

… but the face!—all the flesh of the face was coloured with the bluish leaden hue, which is sometimes produced by metallic medicines, administered in excessive quantities; the eyes showed an undue proportion of muddy white, and had a certain indefinable character of insanity; the hue of the lips bearing the usual relation to that of the face, was, consequently, nearly black; and the entire character of the face was sensual, malignant, and even satanic. (B 38)

Is he, indeed, one of the undead? Rose implies as much when, fleeing him, she cries, “The dead and the living can never be one” (B 42). The compactness and intensity of this tale render it one of Le Fanu’s rare early successes.

Intensity is certainly a term one can use for “The Mysterious Lodger” (Dublin University Magazine, January 1850), one of the more curious specimens in Le Fanu’s body of short fiction. The basic thrust of this tale is religious doubt—and it is an impressive achievement on Le Fanu’s part that he can endow this largely philosophical conception with a powerful element of terror. Le Fanu’s own wife was reportedly beset with such doubts, and it is likely that he had first-hand knowledge of their ravaging effects upon individual psychology and domestic felicity. “The Mysterious Lodger” is, however, not a success from a purely aesthetic point of view: its random supernatural manifestations fail to cohere, and a concluding attempt to explain the phenomena by appealing to the possible haunting of the house in which they occur weakens the overall message.

Another tale that ingeniously combines religion and terror is “Wicked Captain Walshawe, of Wauling” (Dublin University Magazine, April 1864), in which a man’s soul has, by a curse, been enclosed in a holy candle; when it is burned, the revenant lives his entire life in a few minutes:

His feet and legs seemed indistinctly to swell, and swathings showed themselves round them, and they grew into something enormous, and the upper figure swayed and shaped itself into corresponding proportions, a great mass of corpulence, with a cadaverous and malignant face, and the furrows of a great old age, and colourless glassy eyes; and with these changes, which came indefinitely but rapidly as those of a sunset cloud, the fine regimentals faded away, and a loose, gray, woollen drapery, somehow, was there in its stead; and all seemed to be stained and rotten, for swarms of worms seemed creeping in and out, while the figure grew paler and paler … (G 114—15)

“Borrhomeo the Astrologer” (Dublin University Magazine, January 1862) is also worth discussing in this context. The astrologer, as an old man, is given the elixir of life and is promised that he will live a thousand years. He is, however, caught in an act of impiety and sentenced to die horribly (successively by being hanged, impaled, and buried alive)—and, of course, he will live through it all and experience the exquisite pains of a thousand years of torment.

There is, however, little that can be said for other of Le Fanu’s short stories and novellas—with two exceptions. Many are seriously marred by prolixity: Le Fanu simply does not have a sufficiently distinctive prose style to carry the reader through the longueurs of the very slow-moving scenarios he generally establishes. In principle, the employment of the novelette or novella for supernatural horror can be highly efficacious: the expansion of compass can engender a powerful sense of cumulative horror while maintaining the concision and unity that distinguish the short story. But Le Fanu is rarely successful in the form: his novellas spin themselves out far beyond the needs of the plot, as if he is hoping to be paid by the word; and his prose, lacking the manic intensity of Poe or the brooding symbolism of Hawthorne, merely spins itself out in harmless verbosity.

“Squire Toby’s Will” (Temple Bar, January 1868) is such a specimen. Not only is the story conventional in basic plot—a younger son, Charles Marston, obtains a family estate illegally and is then hounded by the ghosts of his father and elder brother, so that he commits suicide—but the tale is disappointingly long-winded and unfocused. Much the same can be said of “The Familiar” (In a Glass Darkly; a revision of “The Watcher,” in Ghost Stories and Tales of Mystery), a story that might otherwise have been of some minimal interest in its exploration of religious doubt and retribution, but is dissipated by unconscionable slowness of development.

Le Fanu’s prolixity reaches its height in two staggeringly lengthy narratives, one supernatural, the other non-supernatural. “The Haunted Baronet” (Chronicles of Golden Friars)—an unwise rewriting of “The Fortunes of Sir Robert Ardagh”—is merely a windy supernatural revenge tale full of inessential incidents and a glacial narrative pace. “The Room in the Dragon Volant” (In a Glass Darkly) tells the 40,000-word story of an Englishman at Versailles who is the victim of an elaborate attempt to rob him of his money. Even the concluding prospect that he might be interred alive fails to redeem this interminable narrative.

The two stories by Le Fanu that genuinely amount of something, although both are flawed in various ways, are “Green Tea” (All the Year Round, 23 October—13 November 1869) and “Carmilla” (Dark Blue, December 1871—February 1872). The former by itself comes close to redeeming nearly the whole of Le Fanu’s other work: it is the one tale of his that unequivocally deserves to survive. It does so, however, not on the basis of its narrator, Dr. Martin Hesselius, a “medical philosopher” (B 186) who is featured in all the tales in In a Glass Darkly. Whether Le Fanu created this figure from the influence of Wilkie Collins’s detective work is unknown; whatever the case, Hesselius already reveals the limitations of the know-it-all detective; and, as we shall see, he comes close to ruining an otherwise haunting and powerful narrative.

“Green Tea” is the well-known story of a clergyman, Jennings, who finds himself plagued by a monkey after, apparently, imbibing large quantities of green tea. Continual glimpses of this creature finally drive Jennings to suicide. This skeletonic outline cannot come close to capturing the extraordinary skill Le Fanu exhibits in the gradual manifestation of this hideous apparition, which only Jennings sees. Some of the touches—as when Jennings sees the monkey on a bus and attempts to touch it (“I poked my umbrella softly towards it. It remained immovable—up to it—through it. For through it, and back and forward it passed, without the slighest resistance” [B 194])—are wondrously effective. There is, of course, no resolution as to whether the monkey actually existed or was merely an hallucination inspired by overwork, the tea, or some other factor.

The overriding issues are: (1) What does the monkey symbolise? and (2) Did Jennings do anything to deserve the fate of being plagued by such a creature, whether real or imaginary? There is a certain amount of evidence that—in a story written only ten years after the publication of Darwin’s Origin of Species—the monkey represents, from a Christian perspective, the rejection (or at least the potential for the rejection) of God and the entire Christian worldview. From this perspective, it is of interest that Jennings has undertaken a study of pagan religion. Although Hesselius, when Jennings consults with him, notes that this is “a very wide and interesting field,” Jennings immediately responds: “’Yes, but not good for the mind—the Christian mind, I mean. Paganism is all bound together in essential unity, and, with evil sympathy, their religion involves their art, and both their manners, and the subject is a degrading fascination and the Nemesis sure. God forgive me!’” (B 192). The term “degrading”—especially when one thinks of Christian criticisms of Darwin (then as now) that any relation to the primates would “degrade” human dignity—is of note. Jennings goes on to say that the monkey was “drawing me more interiorly into hell” (B 198) and even that “It won’t let me pray, it interrupts me with terrible blasphemies” (B 200). And yet, I agree with Jack Sullivan who, although to my mind unjustly downplaying the Christian substratum of the tale, declares that Jennings has done little to deserve his fate. His exploration of pagan religion does not seem sufficient to bring on the horrible fate he endures. Sullivan goes on to state:

Like Joseph K., Jennings is ceaselessly pursued and tormented for no discernible reason. A persistent experience in modern fiction is a situation in which the main character wakes up one morning on a tightrope and does not know how he got there. This is precisely the predicament Jennings finds himself in. Although S. M. Ellis calls Le Fanu a “tragic” writer, “Green Tea” is closer to modern tragi-comedy. Jennings never experiences even a flash of tragic recognition; on the contrary, he never knows why this horrible thing is happening. There is no insight, no justice and therefore no tragedy. There is only absurd cruelty, a grim world view which endures in the reader’s mind long after the hairs have settled on the back of the neck. (Elegant Nightmares 18)

But I think Sullivan, as with many other commentators, is guilty of overlooking some key passages in the text. Why, for example, in chapter 3 does Hesselius examine the works of Emanuel Swedenborg and quote them copiously? We need not be reminded by W. J. McCormack that Le Fanu himself converted to Swedenborgianism late in life; a number of later tales evoke the Swedish mystic and philosopher. There is no need to engage in a detailed examination of Swedenborg’s thought, especially when Le Fanu (at least for literary purposes) may not have conveyed it accurately in “Green Tea” and elsewhere. Suffice it to say that Swedenborg, although convinced that his own thinking was an elaboration of Christian thought, peopled the world with all manner of angels, demons, and other entities who are directly involved in human life. Le Fanu (or, rather, Hesselius) cites such passages (I have no idea whether they are real or fabricated) from Swedenborg as: “There are with every man at least two evil spirits… . The delight of hell is to do evil to man, and to hasten his eternal ruin” (B 186). My belief is that we are to interpet these statements (in the context of the story) quite literally: the monkey is one of the demons from hell whose purpose is to destroy Jennings’s hope of heaven; and it does exactly that by inducing him to kill himself. In this sense, Jennings is not morally culpable because he is the victim of an evil outside himself. As such, in contrast to both Sullivan (Jennings is manifestly not “pursued and tormented for no discernible reason”—the reason is the demon’s thirst to send Jennings to hell) and Ivan Melada, who interprets the story purely psychologically (“Jennings, the gentle bachelor and otherworldly student of the religious metaphysics of the ancients, is overcome by a private demon, an unacknowledged lust that breaks through the surface of a cultivated and civilized existence” [96—97]), it can be seen that “Green Tea” is constructed along the lines of a Christian/Swedenborgian morality tale.

And yet, Le Fanu comes close to ruining the story by tacking on a ridiculous “explanation” of the events by Hesselius. It would seem that he is mortified by the failure of his attempt to cure Jennings of his obsession, and so he devises a preposterous theory about fluid in the brain that somehow allows some people to have visions of the spirits that cluster all around us. Hesselius then compounds his folly by an obvious cop-out:

Poor Mr. Jennings made away with himself. But that catastrophe was the result of a totally different malady, which, as it were, projected itself upon the disease which was established. His case was in the distinctive manner a complication, and the complaint under which he really succumbed, was hereditary suicidal mania. Poor Mr. Jennings I cannot call a patient of mine, for I had not even begun to treat his case, and he had not yet given me, I am convinced, his full and unreserved confidence. If the patient do not array himself on the side of the disease, his cure is certain. (207)

This is how the tale ends. I am not quite as confident as Sullivan that “We can reasonably conclude that Le Fanu did not mean us to take this epilogue on the same level of seriousness as Hesselius assumes we do” (28). Sullivan goes on to say, in reference to this final section, “Unless seen as ironic, the ’Word for Those Who Suffer’ becomes an aesthetic blunder” (28); but Le Fanu has committed many aesthetic blunders elsewhere, and the fact that “Green Tea” is, relatively speaking, largely free of them is no reason to think that he may not have blundered here. It may nor may not be noteworthy that Le Fanu never featured Hesselius in so active a role, either as narrator or as physician, in any other tale.

As for “Carmilla,” it has become celebrated as a classic vampire tale and an important precursor to Dracula; and after these things have been noted—along with the fact that the female vampire has marked lesbian tendencies—one has said pretty much all that needs saying. The tale is not notably successful from a purely aesthetic perspective, being dogged by the same prolixity that mars almost all of Le Fanu’s other work. I daresay it will come as no surprise to even the most uninitiated reader that the young women successively introduced to us under the names Carmilla, Millarca, and Mircalla Karnstein are all one and the same person—a woman who has lived for well over a century and is now a vampire, specifically feeding on women. But the many commentators who have casually discussed this story do not seem to have paid much attention to why Carmilla is endowed with this lesbian tendency. It is certainly no answer to point to Le Fanu’s odd discussion of the origin of vampires: “A suicide, under certain circumstances, becomes a vampire” (B 338). What circumstances may these be? And why don’t all suicides become vampires? Earlier we read:

The amphibious existence of the vampire is sustained by daily renewed slumber in the grave. Its horrible lust for living blood supplies the vigour of its waking existence. The vampire is prone to be fascinated with an engrossing vehemence, resembling the passion of love, by particular persons. In pursuit of these it will exercise inexhaustible patience and stratagem, for access to a particular object may be obstructed in a hundred ways. But it will, in these cases, husband and protract its murderous enjoyment with the refinement of an epicure, and heighten it by the gradual approaches of an artful courtship. In these cases it seems to yearn for something like sympathy and consent. (B 337)

This is not very helpful either. If we are to believe this passage—the apparent paraphrase of the account of a (fictitious) authority on vampires, Baron Vordenburg—then there is no intrinsic reason why Carmilla would not have directed her vampiric tendencies toward a man. The fact that both she and her chosen victim, the nineteen-year-old Laura, had visions of encountering the other in dreams might suggest that they were meant to be attracted to each other; and we do not hear much about any other of Carmilla’s victims, so that it is not possible to know whether she is exclusively lesbian or not. In any case, the likelihood that Le Fanu was inspired in this direction by Coleridge’s Christabel strikes me as fairly strong and even obvious.

There is, strictly speaking, no need to discuss any of Le Fanu’s novels, because none of them are supernatural in essence. Several are historical novels or novels about Irish domestic life; others are mystery or suspense tales. All—even the best of them, Uncle Silas (1864)—are crippled by verbosity. The House by the Churchyard (1863) is a nearly unreadable murder tale with a seemingly incalculable number of subplots poorly harmonised with the central narrative; one segment recounting a series of unremarkable ghost stories has been reprinted as “Ghost Stories of the Tiled House” (see B 397—407). Even Uncle Silas, in spite of the nominal unity provided by its first-person narrator, Maud Ruthyn, drags. On the surface we are here concerned with a reprisal of the typical Radcliffian heroine-victim (although none of Radcliffe’s novels are told in the first person—they probably would have been minimally improved had they been), who endures a succession of supposed terrors from an evil governess (Madame de la Rougierre) and, especially, her uncle Silas, who once led a dissolute life and has been accused of murder. Silas, however, is not the customary Byronic villain; he has been crippled by illness and spends most of the novel in his bed.

But the plain fact is that Uncle Silas is not in any sense a post-Gothic novel (even though Radcliffe and The Romance of the Forest are cited by name [358]); it is, fundamentally, a domestic melodrama with fleeting interludes of suspense. Le Fanu, of course, attempts to invest an artificial sense of drama and even terror into the proceedings, as in passages like this:

Blessed be heaven for that deliverance! An evil spirit had been cast out, and the house looked lighter and happier. It was not until I sat down in the quiet of my room that the scenes and images of that agitating day began to move before my memory in orderly procession, and for the first time I appreciated, with a stunning sense of horror and a perfect rapture of thanksgiving, the value of my escape and the immensity of the danger which had threatened me. (342)

What has inspired this hyperventilated response? Maud has, through the terms of her father’s will, been compelled to stay at Bartram-Haugh, her uncle Silas’s estate, and he is clearly pressuring her to marry his uncouth and wastrel son, Dudley; but Maud has just learned that, having been scorned by her, Dudley has married some other woman. So she is free! This is not exactly the stuff of compelling non-supernatural terror. Even if the novel gains some momentum at the end—Silas, foiled in his attempt to gain Maud’s monetary assets through the marriage with Dudley, now forces Dudley to make an attempt on her life, although Dudley unfortunately manages to kill the redoubtable Madame de la Rougierre instead—the work overall fails to sustain interest.

As I have mentioned, the work of Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu did almost nothing to advance the field of supernatural literature. The themes and motifs he utilised were the stock elements of a now attenuated Gothicism, and his use of vampirism in “Carmilla” is made notable only by virtue of its influence on a more prestigious (but itself severely flawed) successor. “Green Tea” is the one story by which Le Fanu deserves to live; it would, indeed, have been a mercy had he written nothing else. The frequent comparisons made to Poe—he is sometimes referred to as the “Irish Poe”—redound entirely to Le Fanu’s disadvantage. Not only—aside from the solitary exception of “Green Tea”—do we find no meaningful or searching analysis of the psychology of his characters, but there is in general simply an absence of depth or interest in his work overall. His stories are nothing but stories, for the most part badly told; it is difficult to find any overarching symbolism or worldview expressed in his work. The effect of religious doubt upon his characters is perhaps the most interesting feature of his tales, and virtually the only one. The fact that he was afflicted with a plodding, verbose, loosely knit prose style—the very opposite of Poe’s concision and intensity—renders his longer works all but unreadable, and even his shorter tales seem plagued by verbosity. For all the enthusiasm of his past and current supporters, Le Fanu seems largely an emperor without clothes.

Le Fanu’s niece by marriage, Rhoda Broughton (1840—1920), wrote a dozen or so weird tales over the course of her long literary career, but I fear that not one of them amounts to anything. Some were gathered in Twilight Tales (1879), but others remained uncollected until they were assembled by a diligent Broughton scholar, Marilyn Wood, in 1995. Broughton appears to take pride in recounting what she maintains are “true” accounts of supernaturalism, but this only goes to prove how tiresome and pointless such accounts usually are. For example, “Behold It Was a Dream” (Temple Bar, November 1872) tells of a woman who, while visiting some friends, dreams that her hosts are killed by an Irish labourer; eventually they are. It is one of several stories that seek to demonstrate the precognitive power of dreams, most notably and tediously in “Betty’s Visions” (1886). That story was published together with another long narrative, “Mrs. Smith of Longmains,” which tells very much the same kind of story as “Behold It Was a Dream.” The upshot of Broughton’s work reveals painfully the playing out of standard supernatural tropes by the latter third of the century—something that only the most exceptional writers on either side of the Atlantic were able to overcome.