Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu

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Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu Long Fiction Analysis

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

After writing two novels that failed to impress the critics, Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu left that genre for approximately fifteen years. In his reclusive later life, he returned to long fiction to produce the fine work for which he is remembered. Le Fanu’s career as a novelist reveals a marked change in his perception of humanity and the very nature of the universe itself. The development of the author’s major theme can be illustrated by a survey of the major novels in his quite extensive canon.

The Cock and Anchor

The early works, The Cock and Anchor and Torlogh O’Brien, are both historical novels dealing with the Ireland of the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, the turbulent time of the Williamite Wars (1689-1691). The Cock and Anchor presents a slice of Irish life that cuts across events and persons of real historical significance and the personal misfortunes of one fictional couple, Mary Ashewoode and Edmund O’Connor. The story of these ill-fated lovers has nothing special to recommend it. Mary is kept from Edmund first by her father, Sir Richard, who would marry her for a fortune to Lord Aspenly, a conventional fop, and then by her brother, Henry, who would see her wed to one Nicholas Blarden, a conventional villain. Mary escapes these nefarious designs and flees to the protection of Oliver French, the conventional benevolent uncle. There is, however, no happy ending: Mary dies before Edmund can reach her. The designing Sir Richard suffers a fatal stroke; brother Henry finally finds the destiny for which he was born, the hangman’s noose; and even Edmund’s unlucky life ends on the battlefield of Denain in 1712.

More interesting to the modern reader are the historical characters. The haughty Lord Warton, Viceroy of Dublin, personifies power and Machiavellian self-interest. Joseph Addison and young Jonathan Swift are also here in well-drawn portraits that demonstrate considerable historical research. Still, the novel is at best uneven, the work of an author with promise who has more to learn about his craft.

The technical obstructions, however, cannot hide Le Fanu’s message: The problems of Ireland are profound and rooted deep in a history of conflict. The Anglo-Irish establishment, represented by the Ashewoode family, has lost sight of the values needed to end the strife and move the society toward peace and prosperity, values such as personal responsibility, compassion, and even love within the family. Le Fanu was unwilling to risk clouding his theme by allowing the happy marriage of Mary and Edmund, the conventional ending to which the conventional plot could be expected to lead. They die to prove the point. The Ashewoodes’s decay is really Ireland’s decay, and the wage is death.

Torlogh O’Brien

Torlogh O’Brien, Le Fanu’s second novel and the last he was to write for sixteen years, is set a few years before The Cock and Anchor, during the Williamite War. Again, most critics have found little to admire in the work. The historical scenes and characters show that once more Le Fanu thoroughly researched his subject, but the fictional characters reveal little improvement in their creator’s art. The plot, except for some unusually violent scenes, would hold no surprises for a reader of romances. The villainous Miles Garret, a traitor to the Protestant cause, wishes to take Glindarragh Castle from Sir Hugh Willoughby, a supporter of William of Orange. Arrested on false charges created by Garret, Sir Hugh and his daughter, Grace, are taken to Dublin for trial. Their escort is Torlogh O’Brien, a soldier in the army of King James II, whose family originally held the estate. O’Brien and Sir Hugh, both honorable men, rise above their political differences to gain mutual respect. Finally, it is O’Brien who intervenes to save the Willoughbys from the designs of Garret, and of course his bravery is rewarded by the love of Grace.

From the first novel to the second, villainy—Nicholas Blarden or Miles...

(The entire section is 2,880 words.)