Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu Le Fanu, Joseph Sheridan - Essay


(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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.

*Principal Works

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

"Phaudrig Crohoore" (ballad) 1837; published in journal Dublin University Magazine

The Cock and the Anchor, Being a Chronicle of Old Dublin City [as Charles de Cresserons] (novel) 1845; revised version published as Morley Court 1873

The Fortunes of Colonel Torlogh O'Brien (novel) 1847 **"Shamus O'Brien" (ballad) 1850; published in journal Dublin University Magazine

Ghost Stories and Tales of Mystery (short stories) 1851

The House by the Church-Yard (novel) 1863

Uncle Silas: A Tale of Bartram-Haugh (novel) 1864

Wylder's Hand [as Charles de Cresserons] (novel) 1864

Guy Deverell (novel) 1865

All in the Dark (novel) 1866

The Tenants of Malory; a Novel (novel) 1867

A Lost Name (novel) 1868

Haunted Lives: a Novel (novel) 1868

The Wyvern Mystery; a Novel (novel) 1869

Checkmate (novel) 1871

The Rose and the Key (novel) 1871

Chronicles of Golden Friars (novel) 1871

In a Glass Darkly (short stories) 1872

Willing to Die (novel) 1873

***The Purcell Papers; with a Memoir by Alfred Perceval Graves (short stories) 1880

The Watcher and Other Weird Stories (short stories) 1894

The Poems of Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu (poetry) 1896

The Collected Works of Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu. 52 vols. (novels, short stories, and poetry) 1977

*Many of Le Fanu's works were originally published serially in periodicals.

**This work was written in 1837.

***The short stories in this work were written in the years 1838 to 1840

The Saturday Review, London (review date 1872)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of In a Glass Darkly, in The Saturday Review, London, August 17, 1872, pp. 222-23.

[In the following excerpt, the anonymous critic unfavorably reviews Le Fanu's In a Glass Darkly.]

Mr. Le Fanu, having written some four or five foolish and vulgar ghost stories, presents them to the world as belonging to "metaphysical speculation," or "religious metaphysics," or "metaphysical medicine." He informs us that he has the stories from "the immense collection of papers" left by Dr. Martin Hesselius, a man whose "knowledge was immense, his grasp of a case was an intuition." Happily for the non-scientific world, the Doctor "writes in two distinct...

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Edna Kenton (essay date 1929)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "A Forgotten Creator of Ghosts," in The Bookman, New York, Vol. LXIX, No. 5, July, 1929, pp. 528-34.

[In the excerpt that follows, Kenton presents Le Fanu as an important supernatural fiction writer and suggests a renewed interest in Le Fanu based on connections between his and the Brontës' writings.]

He foresaw that the proprietors of Stayes would do him very well. In his bedroom at a country house he always looked first at the books on the shelf and the prints on the walls; he considered that these things gave a sort of measure of the culture and even of the character of his hosts. Though he had but little time to devote to them on this...

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V. S. Pritchett (essay date 1947)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: An introduction to In a Glass Darkly by Sheridan Le Fanu, John Lehmann, 1947, pp. 7-11.

[In the following excerpt, Pritchett praises Le Fanu's supernatural stories, particularly "Green Tea."]

The leaves fly down, the rain spits against the window which stares like the eye of an old man, flawed by age and memory, at the world outside. The autumnal clouds are drudging by and we hear the wind mewing in the window cracks as the daylight seeps away: the House of Ussher is falling and, between now and Hogmanay we shall start in our chairs when a slate slides down, or a door creaks or the mice patter in the wainscot. For the ghosts, the wronged suitors of our lives,...

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Arthur H. Nethercot (essay date 1949)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Coleridge's Cristabel and Le Fanu's Carmilla," in Modern Philology, Vol. XL VII, No. 1, August, 1949, pp. 32-8.

[In the excerpt below, Nethercot points out parallels between Le Fanu's story "Carmilla" and Coleridge's poem "Christabel. "]

Several years ago in a study of Coleridge's poem "Christabel"1 I advanced the then novel theory that the unfinished tale is essentially a vampire story, one of the first and by far the subtlest of the many such stories in the English language. The theory was received with considerable interest and general approval, though there were, of course, some partial or complete skeptics. I now wish to suggest...

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Patrick Diskin (essay date 1966)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Poe, Le Fanu and the Sealed Room Mystery," in Notes and Queries, Vol. 13, No. 9, September, 1966, pp. 337-39.

[In the following excerpt, Diskin suggests that Edgar Allan Poe's "The Murders in the Rue Morgue" was influenced by Le Fanu's earlier story "Passage in the Secret History of an Irish Countess. "]

Edgar Allan Poe's "The Murders in the Rue Morgue", which first appeared in Graham's Magazine in May 1841, is commonly regarded as the first example of the detective story properly so called. It has, however, I believe, escaped attention that the devisai of the actual mystery to be found in the story, that of a murder committed in a room to which access...

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Ken Scott (essay date 1968)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Le Fanu's 'The Room in the Dragon Volant,'" in The Lock Haven Review, No. 10, 1968, pp. 25-32.

[In the following excerpt, Scott praises the short story "The Room in The Dragon Volant" and Le Fanu's blending of terror and love themes.]

Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu's "The Room in the Dragon Volant," the fourth of five tales collected as In a Glass Darkly (1872),1 tells of a naive young Englishman who, while traveling in post-Napoleonic Europe, is duped and almost murdered by a beautiful woman who he thinks loves him. Richard Beckett—his name suggests both the Crusades hero and the medieval martyr—spends his time adopting a romantic...

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Michael H. Begnal (essay date 1971)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "LeFanu the Novelist," in Joseph Sheridan LeFanu, Bucknell University Press, 1971, pp. 46-83.

[In the following excerpt, Begnal praises Le Fanu's contributions to Irish literature, particularly the four novels Le Fanu wrote between 1863 and 1865.]

Emerging from the early years of LeFanu's seclusion were the four most powerful and consistent novels which he was to write: The House by the Churchyard (1863), Wylder's Hand and Uncle Silas (both published in book form in 1864), and Guy Deverell (1865). Though different in their intents, they display LeFanu the novelist at the high point of his career in the...

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Kevin Sullivan (essay date 1972)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The House by the Churchyard: James Joyce and Sheridan Le Fanu," in Modern Irish Literature: Essays in Honor of William York Tindall, edited by Raymond J. Porter and James D. Brophy, Twayne Publishers, Inc., 1972, pp. 315-34.

[In the following excerpt, Sullivan compares Le Fanu's novel The House by the Churchyard to Joyce's Finnegan's Wake, discussing the two writers' shared ideas and sympathies.]

While his last work was in progress failing eyesight prevented James Joyce from re-reading one of his favorite Victorian novels—The House by the Churchyard by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu. But being a resourceful man, and perhaps...

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W. J. McCormack (essay date 1980)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Uncle Silas: A Habitation of Symbols," in Sheridan Le Fanu and Victorian Ireland, second edition, Lilliput Press, 1991, pp. 148-94.

[In the following essay, originally published in 1980, McCormack offers a symbolic interpretation of Le Fanu's novel Uncle Silas.]

In Chronicles of Golden Friars Le Fanu tried to create a fictional context in which nature and society, surrounding a Great House, take on more active roles than those we have observed in The House by the Churchyard. In the three tales collected under this title, and in one or two more using the same setting, he introduced the village of Golden Friars which, as even the name...

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Marjorie Howes (essay date 1992)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Misalliance and Anglo-Irish Tradition in Le Fanu's Uncle Silas, in Nineteenth-Century Literature, Vol. 47, No. 2, September, 1992, pp. 164-86.

[In the essay below, Howes discusses Le Fanu's novel Uncle Silas in the context of nineteenth-century Anglo-Irish politics and history.]

Terms like heritage and tradition have often functioned as problems, absences, or crippling legacies in discussions of Anglo-Irish culture.1 In Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu's 1864 Gothic novel, Uncle Silas, our heroine, the beautiful heiress Maud Ruthyn, promises her exacting and aristocratic father, Austin, that she is willing to "make some...

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Further Reading

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)


Crawford, Gary William. J. Sheridan Le Fanu: A Bio-Bibliography. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1995, 155 p.

A primary bibliography arranged chronologically by publication category, along with a secondary bibliography arranged alphabetically by author. Both are annotated, and a biography and research overview are included.


Cox, Michael. Introduction to The Illustrated J.S. Le Fanu, pp. 7-21. Wellingborough, England: Thorsons Publishing Group, 1988.

Biographical sketch of Le Fanu's life, and background information for some...

(The entire section is 690 words.)