Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu Biography


(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

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.


(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

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.


(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

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 told of fairies and pookhas and banshees, shaped very early the imagination of the boy who would become the creator of so many tales of the mysterious and supernatural. The Tithe Wars of 1831 and the resulting animosity of the peasants to the Le Fanus, who were seen as representative of the Anglo-Irish establishment, forced the young Le Fanu to examine his own Irishness. On one hand, he was intellectually supportive of the union and convinced that British rule was in the best interests of the Irish people; on the...

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(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu (LEHF-uhn-yew or luh FAHN-yew) was the son of the dean of the Irish Episcopal Church and a relative of the famous Sheridans of Ireland. His grandmother was Alice Sheridan Le Fanu, a witty poet and playwright who was the sister of Richard Brinsley Sheridan, author of The Rivals (pr., pb. 1775) and The School for Scandal (pr. 1777). As a student at Trinity College, Dublin, Le Fanu contributed stories to the Dublin University Magazine, which he ultimately edited and used as an outlet for most of his twelve novels. Though he passed his bar examination in 1839, he eschewed the practice of law in order to follow a literary career. Le Fanu became famous overnight with two stirring ballads, “Shamus O’Brien” and “Phaudhrig Crohoore.” Drawn to the occult, the uncanny, and the ominous, he undertook to write a series of horror stories, some of which are considered to rank with the work of Wilkie Collins. The early historical novels, such as The Cock and Anchor and Torlogh O’Brien, seem to modern taste too exaggerated to be effective. By contrast, The House by the Churchyard, his masterpiece, and Uncle Silas, his best-known work, are distinguished by their ingenious plots and tightly knit construction.

A play, Beatrice, his one attempt to emulate his granduncle, was a failure and has not survived, but his stories of terror and suspense were enormously popular and still pack a punch. One of his early works, “A Chapter in the History of the Tyrone Family” (1839), reprinted in The Watcher, and Other Weird Stories, has powerfully lurid and violent scenes that have been suggested as a source for Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights (1847). Le Fanu is frequently dismissed by literary historians as a “mere incident of the mid-century,” but if the genre of the mystery story is considered a significant branch of literature, Le Fanu must be ranked as one of the important novelists of nineteenth century Ireland.