In considering Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu as a writer in the mystery and detective tradition, one might be tempted to call his novels mysteries without a detective. In nearly every one of his novels (and in a high proportion of his shorter fiction), there is some mysterious situation that confuses the main characters and usually threatens their lives and fortunes. There may be two mysteries, one from the past impinging on the present and one developing in the course of the action; they may be causally connected and involve the same agents. The revelation may occasionally be the result of amateur or official detective work, though the detective is never the main character, but usually it is the result of chance. The supernatural is often present; sometimes it proves to have a natural explanation, but sometimes it has to be accepted as real. Julian Symons, in Bloody Murder: From the Detective Story to the Crime Novel (1972), speaks of an interregnum between the first appearance of the detective stories of Edgar Allan Poe and Wilkie Collins and the publication of Arthur Conan Doyle’s A Study in Scarlet (1887). Written during this period, Le Fanu’s novels should not be regarded as flawed detective stories but as sharing certain features of a genre that had yet to be firmly defined.
Other Literary Forms
Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu is most famous for such horror and mystery novels as Uncle Silas (1864) and Wylder’s Hand (1864), but he also wrote historical novels (The Cock and Anchor, 1845; The House by the Churchyard, 1863) which depict the social, political, and religious conflicts that were surfacing in the Ireland of his day. Although not a prolific or generally important poet, his verse does contain two popular and memorable “Irish Ballads,” “Shamus O’Brien” and “Phaudhrig Crochoore.” Since, in the course of his literary career, he owned and edited a number of Irish periodicals, Le Fanu wrote numerous articles and essays which have not, as yet, been republished. Late in the nineteenth century his novel Uncle Silas was successfully adapted to the stage, and in 1971 his most famous short story, “Carmilla,” was filmed as The Vampire Lovers.
Like many Anglo-Irish writers, Le Fanu’s achievements are of two kinds. On the one hand, because he possessed the advantages of education, culture, and leisure, he was equipped to participate in, and contribute to, contemporary developments in fiction. In this regard, his role in the evolution of the English gothic novel has been widely noted. The modulation from merely sensationalist effects to psychological verisimilitude in Le Fanu’s works is an example of a more general development in nineteenth century fiction.
In an Irish context, however, this modulation has a particular resonance. Its emphasis on withdrawal and duress, with failed fortunes and alienated circumstances, may be regarded as an unnervingly accurate representation of the declining importance of the Anglo-Irish as a culture-creating, and value-bearing, class. Le Fanu’s artistic interests also led him toward the adaptation of Irish folklore material, a development which also presages, like much of his career, important shifts of emphasis in the cultural history of modern Ireland.
Other literary forms
Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu (LEHF-uhn-yew) is better known today as a short-story writer than as a novelist. His many tales first appeared in periodicals, later to be combined into collections. In addition to having genuine intrinsic merit, the stories are important to an understanding of Le Fanu the novelist, for in them he perfected the techniques of mood, characterization, and plot construction that make his later novels so obviously superior to his early efforts. Indeed, Le Fanu seems to have recognized little distinctive difference between the novel and the tale; his novels are often expansions of earlier stories, and stories reissued in collections might be loosely linked by a frame created to give them some of the unity of a novel. The major collections, Ghost Stories...
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