Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu 1814-1873
(Also wrote under the pseudonym Charles de (Cresserons.) Irish novelist, short story writer, poet, journalist, and editor.
For additional information on Le Fanu's life and career, see NCLC, Volume 9.
Although Le Fanu is regarded as a minor Victorian novelist, he is considered a significant writer of Gothic literature. Critics consistently praise his short stories and novels for their typically Gothic characteristics, including evocative descriptions of physical settings, foreboding atmosphere, and supernatural elements. Yet these works also represent a departure from the Gothic tradition because of their finely drawn characters and emphasis on psychological themes. By exploring the subconscious motivations of his main characters, Le Fanu created works distinguished by an approach previously unknown in Gothic works, ushering in a new period of mystery writing.
Born in Dublin to a professional and upper class family, Le Fanu was a precocious child, and at an early age began to entertain his family with readings from his verse. He was privately educated by his father, Dean of the Irish Episcopal Church, until entering Trinity College, Dublin, in the early 1830s. There, Le Fanu studied classics and then law, although he never practiced; instead, he concentrated on his career in journalism and literature. In 1838 he published his short story "The Ghost and the Bonesetter" in the Dublin University Magazine. This began an association with the magazine which would continue throughout his entire life. In 1839 he bought the first of three Dublin periodicals; he eventually combined these to form a daily paper called the Evening Mail, in which many of his early pieces appeared. He also contributed regularly to the Dublin University Magazine. During this period he published two historical novels, The Cock and Anchor, Being a Chronicle of Old Dublin City (1845) and The Fortunes of Colonel Torlogh O'Brien (1847), as well as his first collection of short stories, Ghost Stories and Tales of Mystery (1851). These early works enjoyed some popular appeal but were not taken seriously by critics. Le Fanu married Susanna Bennett in the mid-1840s, and together they became prominent in Dublin social and cultural circles. Le Fanu was considered a brilliant conversationalist and was a popular member of society until his wife's death in 1858. His subsequent anguish caused him to withdraw from his companions, and he was referred to as "The Invisible Prince." The period of mourning and seclusion proved fruitful artistically, however, for during this time Le Fanu produced the four novels for which he is best known: The House by the Church-Yard (1863), Wylder's Hand (1864), Uncle Silas: A Tale of Bartram-Haugh (1864), and Guy Deverell (1865). In addition, he became the editor of the Dublin University Magazine in 1859, and in 1861 assumed its proprietorship as well. Le Fanu continued managing and editing the publication until a few months before his death in 1873.
Although Le Fanu is widely considered a Gothic writer, he rarely depended on the stock devices of Gothic literature to further his eerie plots; rather than relying on such elements as sliding doors and descending ceilings, for example, he left many incidents in his stories unexplained. This technique, many critics believe, made his stories more suspenseful. Unlike earlier horror fiction, there are no ghosts in Le Fanu's works; instead, his characters are haunted by phantasms that are solely the creations of their imaginations. Also central to the effectiveness of Le Fanu's writing is his narrative method: he often employed first-person narration to convey an individual's experience of terror and developed complex plots to progressively build suspense. Critics also consistently note that Le Fanu's realistic settings, skillfully imbued with a sense of menace, lend credibility to his stories and contribute to their dramatic impact. The development of this narrative technique can be seen in Le Fanu's short stories. In his early works, collected in Ghost Stories and Tales of Mystery and The Purcell Papers (1880), Le Fanu relied heavily on supernatural incidents. The five longer stories in the collection entitled In a Glass Darkly (1872), however, rely less on the supernatural and instead depict human wickedness as the primary source of evil. He also portrayed the subtle subconscious conflicts of both the victim and the villain through first-person narration. Le Fanu here refined his use of the recurrent character; Dr. Hesselius, a therapist specializing in mental disorders, is introduced in each of the stories to provide the reader with a prefatory "case history" of each victim. This technique allowed Le Fanu to successfully link the stories and to explore the psychology of the characters. The taut construction and psychological insight informing these stories was expanded to a more daring psychological analysis in his later novel The House by the ChurchYard. This novel was also a transitional work from the earlier historical novels to the mystery novels which followed. In these, Le Fanu deftly manipulated the level of suspense, gradually elevating the reader's anticipation and sense of horror. Guy Deverell, his last critically acclaimed novel, is noted for its mysterious atmosphere.
During his lifetime, Le Fanu's works were consistently popular successes, although they received little critical attention. With the appearance of Uncle Silas, however, some reviewers complained that Le Fanu had exceeded the boundaries of Gothic mystery writing and charged him with sensationalism, a contention still discussed today. In 1864, in a postscript to the last serial installment of Uncle Silas, Le Fanu defended himself against this claim by comparing his work to the celebrated romances of Sir Walter Scott. Following Le Fanu's death, his reputation suffered a gradual decline as readers and critics lost interest in Gothic fiction. In the 1920s, however, the prominent horror-story writer M. R. James drew attention to Le Fanu by writing introductions to several newly-issued volumes of his out-of-print works. Of Le Fanu's fourteen novels, critics agree that his finest are The House by the Church-Yard, Wylder's Hand, Uncle Silas, and Guy Deverell. Critics also widely accept Le Fanu as a major influence on the genre of mystery writing. In 1978, Jack Sullivan summarized the opinion of modern critics in his assessment of Le Fanu's influence on horror literature: "Beginning with Le Fanu, one of the distinctive features of modern ghostly fiction is . . . [the] synthesis of psychology and supernaturalism." Many modern critics recognize him as a forerunner of Edgar Allan Poe, and consider him an innovative and masterful writer of psychological horror fiction.