Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu Analysis


(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

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

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

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.


(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

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

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

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 and Tales of Mystery (1851), Chronicles of Golden Friars (1871), In a Glass Darkly (1872), and The Purcell Papers (1880), reveal an artist who ranks with Edgar Allan Poe, Ambrose Bierce, M. R. James, and Algernon Blackwood as one of the masters of supernatural fiction in the English language. One story from In A Glass Darkly, “Carmilla,” is reprinted in almost every anthology of horror stories and has inspired numerous film versions, the most famous being Carl Theodore Dreyer’s Vampyr (1932).

Le Fanu wrote verse throughout his literary career. While unknown as a poet to modern audiences, in his own day at least one of his compositions achieved great popularity in both Ireland and the United States. “Shamus O’Brien” (1850) is a fine ballad that relates the adventures of the title character in the uprising of 1798.


(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

In the preface to his most famous novel, Uncle Silas, Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu rejects the claim of critics that he is a mere writer of “sensational novels.” Pointing out that the great novels of Sir Walter Scott have sensational elements of violence and horror, he denies that his own work, any more than Scott’s, should be characterized by the presence of such elements; like Scott, Le Fanu, too, has “moral aims.”

To see the truth in this self-appraisal requires familiarity with more than one of Le Fanu’s novels. Singly, each of the major works overwhelms the reader with the cleverness of its plot, the depravity of its villain, the suspense evoked by its carefully controlled tone. Several novels together, however, recollected in tranquillity, reveal a unity of theme. Moreover, each novel can then be seen as not merely a variation on the theme but also as a deliberate next logical step toward a more comprehensive and definitive statement. The intricacies of plot, the kinds of evil represented by the villains, the pervasive gothic gloom are to Le Fanu more than story elements; they are themselves his quite serious comment on the nature of human existence, driven by natural and social forces that leave little room for the effective assertion of free will toward any beneficial end.

In Le Fanu’s short stories, more often than in his novels, those forces are embodied in tangible supernatural agents. “Carmilla,” for example, is the tale of a real female vampire’s attack on a young woman, but seen in the context of the larger theme, it is more than a bit of occult fiction calculated to give its readers a scare. With her intense sexuality and lesbian tendencies, the vampire is depicted as nothing less than the embodiment of a basic human drive out of control, and that drive—like the others that move society: self-preservation, physical comfort—can quite unpredictably move toward destruction. Le Fanu’s most significant achievement as a novelist was to show how the horror genre could be used for serious purposes—to show that monsters are not as horrible as minds that beget monsters, and that ghosts are not as interesting as people who are haunted.


(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

Begnal, Michael H. Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu. Lewisburg, Pa.: Bucknell University Press, 1971. An essay-length discussion of Le Fanu’s works, which is valuable in providing general commentary about Le Fanu’s intellectual and artistic interests, especially his sensitive understanding of women.

Browne, Nelson. Sheridan Le Fanu. London: Arthur Barker, 1951. This short critical exposition places emphasis on Le Fanu’s “essentially Gothick quality.” The author believes Le Fanu to be at his beat in his short fiction, advancing familiar objections to his novels’ prolixity. Old-fashioned in tone and attitude, but a pioneering study.

Crawford, Gary William. J. Sheridan Le Fanu: A Bio-Bibliography. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1995. Part 1 discusses Le Fanu’s biography; part 2 is a primary, annotated bibliography of magazines, books, anthologies, and manuscripts; part 3 is an annotated secondary bibliography. Includes an appendix on films and plays based on Le Fanu’s work. Also contains two useful indexes.

McCormack, W. J. Dissolute Characters: Irish Literary History Through Balzac, Sheridan Le Fanu, Yeats, and Bowen. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1993. The section on Le Fanu discusses his relationship to the English novel, the development of his fiction, his treatment of characters, and his drawing on history. Includes notes but no bibliography.

McCormack, W. J. Sheridan Le Fanu and Victorian Ireland. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1980. The standard work on Le Fanu. The author’s approach is twofold. First, this study is a detailed biography of Le Fanu. Second, it locates, with much intellectual sophistication, Le Fanu’s life in his times, giving to what might remain mere biographical data the stamp of historical significance. A second, enlarged edition of this important work was issued in 1991.


(The entire section is 830 words.)