Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu Long Fiction Analysis
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, 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 Garret—remains a constant, and the agony of a torn Ireland is the common background against which Edmund O’Connor and Torlogh O’Brien act out their parts. The social cancer that blighted the love of Mary and Edmund is, however, allowed a possible cure in Torlogh O’Brien. As the deaths of the lovers in the first novel showed Ireland as a sterile wasteland, so the union of the Willoughbys and O’Briens in the second promises restoring rain, but when after the long hiatus Le Fanu returned to novel writing, he chose to let the promise go unfulfilled.
The House by the Churchyard
Held by many critics to be Le Fanu’s finest work, The House by the Churchyard, the first novel of his later period, appeared in the Dublin University Magazine in 1861; two years later, it was published in London as a book.
The story is set in late eighteenth century Chapelizod, a suburb of Dublin. As in the earlier historical romances, there are villains, lovers, and dispossessed heirs. A major plot concerns the righting of an old wrong. Eighteen years after the death of Lord Dunoran, executed for a murder he did not commit, his son, using the name Mr. Mervyn, returns to the confiscated family lands hoping to establish his father’s innocence. The real murderer, Charles Archer, has also returned to Chapelizod under the alias of Paul Dangerfield. He is soon recognized by a former accomplice, Zekiel Irons, and a witness, Dr. Barnaby Sturk. Sturk attempts blackmail, only to have Archer beat him severely. His victim in a coma, Archer plays benefactor and arranges for a surgeon he knows to be incompetent to perform a brain operation, supposedly to restore Sturk to health. To Archer’s surprise, the operation gives Sturk a period of consciousness before the expected death. Irons joins Sturk in revealing Archer as the murderer, Lord Dunoran’s lands and title are restored to Mervyn, and the family name is cleared at last.
This, however, is only one of several interrelated plots that make The House by the Churchyard a marvel of Victorian complexity. To label the Archer mystery as the major story line would be to mislead the reader who has yet to discover the book. More accurately, the novel is about Chapelizod itself. The discovery of a murderer stands out in the plot as, to be sure, it would in any small community, but Le Fanu is reminding his readers that what immediately affects any individual—for example, Mervyn’s need to clear his father’s name—no matter how urgently, is of limited interest to other individuals, who are in turn preoccupied with their own concerns. Mrs. Nutter has her own problem with protecting her inheritance from wicked Mary Matchwell. Captain Devereux and Lilias Walsingham have their doomed romance to concern them, as, on a more humorous note, Captain Cuffe is preoccupied with his love for Rebecca Chattesworth, who is finally joined with Lieutenant Puddock, the former suitor of Gertrude...
(The entire section is 2880 words.)