Uncle Silas is more than a sentimental, nineteenth century story of the designing uncle and the lovely heir driven nearly insane by terror. It is a well-constructed novel, rambling in the Victorian fashion but highly effective in the mechanics of atmosphere and of suspense. In fact, Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu protested against his novels being labeled as examples of the sensational school of fiction popularized by Wilkie Collins and Charles Reade. In his view, his fiction was a continuation of the type of tragic romance exemplified in The Bride of Lammermoor (1819) and other novels by Sir Walter Scott. The fact remains that readers have never deserted Le Fanu, and this novel represents his fiction at its best. Most notable is his handling of character and scene as they are sometimes seen in old Dutch paintings, with certain figures prominently in the foreground, others in the middle distance, and still others in the background. All are clearly visualized, however, and busy with whatever happens to be at hand. Uncle Silas and Madame de la Rougierre are creatures of terror in the foreground, but equally relevant are Dudley Ruthyn, Dr. Bryerly, Lady Monica, Milly, and Meg Hawkes, figures successively removed from the center of the action but no less necessary for the atmosphere and plot.
Uncle Silas may well represent the supreme achievement in the development of the gothic novel of terror. In the leisurely pace of its early chapters, the careful, thorough delineation of the setting and the atmosphere, the ornate, sensuous prose style, the use of traditional gothic devices, and the creation of a sinister larger-than-life villain, Uncle Silas resembles the earlier masterpieces of “Monk” Lewis, Ann Radcliffe, and Charles Maturin. Nevertheless, the directness and the simplicity of the action; the sharpness, the subtlety, and the psychological accuracy of the characterizations; and the carefully controlled first-person point of view all point to the sophisticated, economical modern suspense or crime novel.
The heroine of the book, Maud Ruthyn, is not particularly sympathetic; she is intellectually unimpressive, emotionally erratic, frequently snobbish, and occasionally haughty. She is, however, an excellent narrator. The reader sees everything through her eyes, and her fears become the reader’s fears, but since her judgments are frequently inaccurate or incorrect, readers often see her danger and understand her mistakes long before she does. Like many gothic heroines, Maud realizes her precarious situation only after she misses the opportunity to escape from it. It is primarily through her growing sense of desperation and panic, accompanied by a gradual, belated understanding of her plight, that Le Fanu develops the reader’s own sense of impending doom.
As is often the case with gothic novels, the bad characters are more impressive than the good ones. The conspirators complement one another’s particular villainies. Even the minor scoundrels, Dudley Ruthyn and “Pegtop” Hawkes, are sharply defined individually, whereas the major villains, Madame de la Rougierre and Uncle Silas, are two of the most memorable characters in the entire genre.
From the start, the governess is a dominating, grotesque, and foreboding presence. While Silas remains in the background, Madame de la Rougierre hovers over Maud, “gobbling and cackling shrilly” with her exaggerated French manners, her crude physical gestures, her effusive expressions of concern, all performed in such an overwrought and clearly hypocritical fashion that even Maud detects the conspiracy behind her actions. Her sudden reappearance in the secret room at Bartram-Haugh is one of the novel’s greatest shocks.
It is, however, Silas Ruthyn who remains the novel’s most vivid image. Even before Silas appears in person, Le Fanu arouses curiosity about him through sinister hints,...
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Austin Ruthyn’s mysterious references, and Lady Monica’s revelations. When Silas becomes an active character, he appears frightening and puzzling. He is associated, above all, with death. His health is precarious, and the atmosphere he projects, the objects with which he surrounds himself, the habits in which he indulges, all give off suggestions of mortality and impending doom. In him, the lines between reality and illusion and between life and death are blurred.
The conspirators, however, are not simply evil incarnate. While they have all the trappings of typical gothic villains, they are pathetic and even comic when their villainy is seen to be more the result of frustration and desperation than of outright evil. Dudley is a wastrel; he possesses good looks but neither the intellectual capacity nor the emotional stability necessary to make anything of himself. Madame de la Rougierre, despite her sinister behavior and grotesque looks, is revealed, in the end, to be weak and pitiable. She is, as Lady Monica suggests early in the book, nothing more than a crude, petty thief, mixed up in a conspiracy she only half understands and suffering from a weakness for alcohol that finally costs her her life.
Even Silas is almost as much to be pitied as condemned. A man of obvious talent and intellect, he becomes dissipated and perverted by weakness of character. All of his life he makes the wrong decisions, bets on the wrong horses, and sees his efforts turn out badly. To a man as firmly committed to the idea of hereditary aristocracy as Silas, the spectacle of his son Dudley is the final disillusionment. Pressed by creditors, weakened by drug addiction, unsatisfied by his religious speculations, and painfully aware of his own worthlessness, Silas persecutes Maud as a last desperate attempt to salvage something out of his wasted life.