Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu

Start Your Free Trial

Download Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu Study Guide

Subscribe Now


(Gothic Literature)


(Also wrote under the pseudonyms Charles de Cresserons and Reverend Francis Purcell) Irish novelist, short story writer, poet, journalist, and editor.

Le Fanu is a major figure among Victorian-era authors of Gothic and supernatural fiction. Critics praise his short stories and novels for their suggestive and detailed descriptions of physical settings, powerful evocation of foreboding and dread, and convincing use of supernatural elements. In addition to Le Fanu's mastery of these Gothic conventions in his fiction, his works are also admired for their insightful characterizations and skilled use of narrative technique. Scholars have observed that Le Fanu's subtle examinations of the psychological life of his characters distinguish his works from those of earlier Gothic writers.


Born in Dublin, Le Fanu was the second of three children of a Protestant clergyman. He began writing poetry as a teenager and was privately educated by tutors until entering Trinity College, Dublin, in 1833. There Le Fanu studied law, although he never practiced; instead he launched a joint career in journalism and litera-ture. He contributed regularly to the Dublin University Magazine and gained recognition for his short stories and his ballads "Phaudrig Crohoore" and "Shamus O'Brien." Between 1838 and 1840 Le Fanu wrote short stories and poetry under the pseudonym Reverend Francis Purcell; these works were posthumously collected as The Purcell Papers (1880). In 1839 Le Fanu bought three Dublin periodicals and combined them to form the Evening Mail, a conservative publication in which many of his early works appeared. During this period he published two historical novels, The Cock and Anchor (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 were virtually ignored by both critics and the reading public. Le Fanu married Susanna Bennett in 1844, and they became a prominent couple 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 anguish caused him to withdraw from his companions, who labeled him the "Invisible Prince." During this time Le Fanu produced the four novels for which he is best known: The House by the Churchyard (1863), Wylder's Hand (1864), Uncle Silas (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.


In his earliest short stories, primarily those collected in Ghost Stories and Tales of Mystery and The Purcell Papers, Le Fanu only occasionally displayed the inventive use of the supernatural and psychological character studies that distinguish his most esteemed works. The five longer stories in the later collection In a Glass Darkly (1872) are widely acknowledged as his best work in the genre. In these stories Le Fanu combined many of the themes and techniques of traditional Gothic literature with those of modern psychological fiction. Le Fanu used the recurring character Dr. Martin Hesselius, a German physician specializing in mental disorders, to introduce each narrative as a case history illustrating both supernatural and psychological phenomena. This technique allowed Le Fanu to successfully link the stories and to explore the psychology of his characters. For example, in "Green Tea " Hesselius reports the case of Reverend Jennings, whose habit of drinking strong green tea causes him to see a small, black, talking monkey that torments him with its blasphemous chatter until he ultimately commits suicide. Critics have also expressed high praise for "Carmilla," in which Hesselius suggests a connection between the bloodlust of a female vampire and lesbian sexual...

(The entire section is 22,984 words.)