Joseph Thomas Sheridan Le Fanu was born in Dublin on August 28, 1814; his father was of Huguenot descent and his mother was a niece of Richard Brinsley Sheridan. Le Fanu spent most of his childhood in Chapelizod, a village west of Dublin near Phoenix Park, where his father was chaplain of the Hibernian Military School. In 1826, the elder Le Fanu elected to move to Abingdon near Limerick in the west of Ireland. As a minister of the established Church of Ireland, he was naturally resented by the predominantly Catholic peasantry who were supposed to pay tithes for his support; after a time, during the Tithe Wars, the tithes simply ceased to be paid.
The young Le Fanu was largely educated at home until he entered Trinity College in Dublin. He trained as a barrister but never practiced, his interests having shifted to journalism and fiction. From time to time, he was involved in the operation of various newspapers and of the Dublin University Magazine, in which much of his fiction first appeared. In December, 1844, he married Susanna Bennett, the daughter of a barrister; they had four children before her death in 1858. During her last illness, she was plagued by religious doubts, which Le Fanu apparently shared. In his uncertainty, he turned to Swedenborgianism, whose elaborate mythology of the spiritual world might have encouraged his interest in the supernatural. After his wife’s death, he became increasingly reclusive and died on February 7, 1873.
Descended from an upper-class Irish Protestant family on his father’s side and a vitally artistic one on his mother’s (his forebears included the playwright Richard Brinsley Sheridan and the actor Thomas Sheridan), Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu was well equipped by inheritance and upbringing for a successful writing career. Although he studied law at Trinity College, Dublin, and was admitted to the Irish bar, he never practiced law, going immediately into literature and journalism after graduation. When his first historical novels were dismissed by the critics in the 1840’s, he turned almost exclusively to journalism and editing for fifteen years. Le Fanu’s journalistic commitments culminated in 1861 in his purchasing the leading Irish intellectual organ of the day, the Dublin University Magazine. He continued to own and edit this journal, in which most of his work had been and continued to have its initial publication, until 1869, some four years before his death. It was in this period of public engagement and cultural commitment that Le Fanu’s major fiction was produced. In 1844, he married Susan Bennett, daughter of a prominent Dublin attorney; they had four children. This idyllic marriage ended prematurely, however, with her death in 1858. Le Fanu thereupon became a recluse, and it was during these last solitary years that he produced the bulk of his most memorable fiction.
Joseph Thomas Sheridan Le Fanu was descended from a Huguenot family that had left France for Ireland in the seventeenth century. Both his grandfather, Joseph, and great uncle, Henry, had married sisters of the famous playwright, Richard Brinsley Sheridan. His father, Philip Le Fanu, was a noted scholar and clergyman who served as rector at the Royal Hibernian School, where Le Fanu was born, and later as dean of Emly. His mother was from all accounts a most charming and gentle person, an essayist on philanthropic subjects and a leader in the movement for humane treatment of animals. With loving and indulgent parents and the excitement of life at the school, where military reviews were frequent, Le Fanu’s childhood was a happy one.
In 1826, the family moved to Abington in county Limerick. Le Fanu and his brother, William, were not sent to a formal school but were tutored by their father with the help of an elderly clergyman, who gladly excused the boys from their lessons so he could pursue the passion of his life: fishing. Walking tours through the wild Irish countryside, conversations with friendly peasants, who...
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