JOSEPH SHERIDAN LE FANU (1814 - 1873)
(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 desires. In these and others works of the supernatural, Le Fanu rarely depended on the stock devices of Gothic literature—such as isolated castles, forlorn landscapes, and maniacal villains—to further his eerie plots. Rather than relying on these clichéd tropes of prior fiction, he generally opted for subtlety and mystery, and routinely left incidents in his stories unexplained for the purpose of heightening suspense. Additionally, unlike much earlier horror fiction, there are no actual ghosts in Le Fanu's supernatural works; instead his characters are frequently haunted by phantasms that are solely the creations of their imaginations. Lastly, his stories generally feature a first person mode of narration designed to convey an individual's progressively developing experience of terror. This narrative technique, coupled with Le Fanu's realistic settings, skillfully imbued with a sense of menace, are thought to lend credibility to his supernatural stories and contribute to their dramatic impact.
Of Le Fanu's fourteen novels, The House by the Churchyard, Wylder's Hand, Uncle Silas and Guy Deverell are generally considered his finest. These works are characterized by the taut construction and psychological insight that inform the stories of In a Glass Darkly. While not a work of supernatural or even classically Gothic fiction, The House by the Churchyard is pervaded with a sense of chilling gloom, and is thought to represent an intermediate stage between Le Fanu's earlier historical novels and his later tales of mystery. The work also marks his first attempt at psychological analysis of character. Wylder's Hand is regarded as the most uncomplicated of Le Fanu's mysteries, and is sometimes referred to as his masterpiece. Featuring fewer characters than his previous novels, the work concentrates on establishing a fully realized psychological portrait of Wylder. The title figure of Uncle Silas, perhaps Le Fanu's best-known work, is an ominous figure who subtly calls upon the tradition of the murderous Gothic villain. Praised for its clear narrative and lucid structure, this novel is often regarded as the first psychological thriller. In it, Le Fanu deftly manipulates levels of suspense, gradually elevating the reader's anticipation and sense of horror as the brutal Silas intimidates his increasingly frightened niece and ward, Maud. Guy Deverell, the last of Le Fanu's critically acclaimed novels, is likewise noted for its mysterious atmosphere and finely delineated, realistic characterizations.
During his lifetime, Le Fanu's works were moderately successful, although they received scant 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. Following Le Fanu's death, his reputation suffered a gradual decline as readers and critics lost interest in his realistic and psychological mode of Gothic narrative. In the 1920s, however, the prominent ghost-story writer M. R. James (see Further Reading) drew attention to Le Fanu by writing introductions to several reissued volumes of his out-of-print works. V. S. Pritchett (see Further Reading) and Elizabeth Bowen (see Further Reading) later wrote essays championing Le Fanu as one of Gothic literature's foremost figures. After the reassessments of Le Fanu made by these and other late twentieth-century scholars, interest in Le Fanu grew, with commentators identifying him as a significant transitional figure in the Gothic tradition whose use of psychological horror is considered a key contribution to the genre. Additionally, several of Le Fanu's major works, including the novel Uncle Silas and the short story "Carmilla," have also been singled out for reappraisal. While he is not generally well-known today as a novelist, Le Fanu continues to be noted as an innovative and masterful writer of psychological horror stories and as a pivotal figure in the history of supernatural fiction.