Unknown countries (7): Uncle Silas

Posted by Ken Edwards on Tuesday, February 9, 2010 Under: writing

This is an investigation of eight novels incorporating the fantastic, with a view to drawing some conclusions about the place of speculation in fiction.

Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu is principally known these days as a writer of ghost stories. In particular, the classic “Green Tea” has been anthologised countless times. 

No doubt this has coloured public perception today of his novels, but it is the case that they are not supernatural fantasies. In her 1946 introduction to the novel in question, Elizabeth Bowen (herself a literary novelist in the vein of Henry James with a minor sideline in ghost stories) calls Uncle Silas (1864) a “romance of terror”. She goes on to suggest: “Uncle Silas was in advance of, not behind, its time: it is not the last, belated Gothic romance but the first (or among the first) of the psychological thrillers.”

Not that the Gothic trappings are not there. The protagonist, Maud Ruthyn, is a veritable damsel in distress. The only scion of the Ruthyns of Knowl, “of a very ancient lineage”, she lives alone with her father (apart from a panoply of servants, of course) in a gloomy mansion next to a gloomy wood and family mausoleum. Her father, whose health is poor, is attended by a mysterious Mr Brierley, later referred to as Dr Brierley, “a tall, lean man, all in ungainly black”, said to be “a great conjuror among the Swedenborg sect”, according to one of the servants. There are hints of ghosts, and much is made of a locked oak chest in which her father keeps secrets.

But many of these foreboding details turn out to be either red herrings or not at all what they appear. Brooding somewhere offstage is the enigmatic personage of Uncle Silas, to whose care her father has entrusted Maud in the event of his death. Silas Ruthyn, whom she has never met, has a bad reputation; many years previously, he was acquitted of a murder, though held by many to have been guilty in fact, and has lived in seclusion ever since. Her father’s motive in entrusting his daughter to his brother is to salvage the family name by making public that trust. Maud is warned against Uncle Silas by her cousin, the irrepressible Lady Knollys, but, out of devotion to her father, pays little heed. 

Uncle Silas doesn’t actually make an appearance until halfway through the novel that bears his name. But before that, we are introduced to possibly the most unpleasant and certainly the most memorable character in the book, Maud’s French governess Madame de la Rougierre. Dislike is mutual between the governess and her charge. Maud’s complaints about this sinister woman, whose motives for her strange behaviour are unclear, are rebuffed by her father – but eventually he is persuaded to dismiss her after a particularly egregious transgression. We have, however, not seen the last of her.

Then Maud’s father dies, and she is shipped off to live with her Uncle Silas. Her cousin Monica Knollys desperately tries to persuade her not to go, but she is resolutely loyal to her father’s wishes. Here, as later in the novel, Le Fanu’s skill is subtly deployed. The book is narrated in the first person by Maud, whose character is a complex blend of occasional shrewdness, steadfast honesty and utter naivety. Thus, we see events unfold through her eyes and yet Le Fanu hints at possibilities Maud herself is scarcely aware of. Lady Knollys appears to be in cahoots with the Swedenborgian Dr Brierley, which raises suspicion about their motives in dissuading Maud from going along with her late father’s wishes; and yet at the same time, as readers, we are made to tear our hair in frustration at Maud’s rashness in entrusting her own future to the unknown Uncle Silas, who has possibly committed murder in the past, and who has a financial stake in her demise.

Le Fanu cunningly subverts readers’ expectations constantly. We might expect from the build-up that Bartram-Haugh, Silas’ residence, will turn out to be a forbidding Gothic pile, a Bluebeard-style castle in which Maud will meet her fate. Well, there is horror to come, but at first it is almost idyllic. Silas’ young daughter, Maud’s cousin Milly, turns out to be her perfect playmate: a solitary child like Maud herself (although she has an evil older brother, who will play a part in the drama to come), but as exuberant as Maud is reserved; half-educated and yet full of wit and natural charm. 

Silas himself is something else. Psychologically tormented, terminally ill, almost ghostly in appearance, he keeps to his room, and, like Marlon Brando in certain scenes of The Godfather, is scarcely ever depicted except in cloistered half-light. Elizabeth Bowen asserts, correctly I think, that Le Fanu doesn’t quite manage to make Silas big enough to justify his build-up; and in the event, as a villain he is, according to her, “most nearly played off the stage by Madame de la Rougierre” – whose re-entry into the plot is one of Le Fanu’s most brilliant and terrifying pieces of writing.

Once again, supernatural events are hinted at – the death for which Silas once stood accused took place in a room in this house – but as ever, the horror turns out to be entirely driven by human perversion. Yes, this is “horror” in its modern sense, not traditional Gothic. We are in the territory, not of Mrs Radcliffe, but of Alfred Hitchcock. 

This investigation purports to examine the use of the fantastic in fiction, and also as a by-product the ways in which such use pushes the fiction into genre. From this point of view, Uncle Silas interests me greatly. It is quite clear that Le Fanu’s ghost-story credentials have heavily influenced the way his novels, which constantly hint at the fantastic without actually delivering fantastic events in the way expected, have been marketed over the years. This doesn’t just affect the choice of cover image on modern paperback editions or which shelves they are slotted into in bookstores. It was a contemporary issue for Le Fanu himself, whose preface complains about his practice being labelled as “sensational fiction”. He wishes his novels to be compared to those of Sir Walter Scott, in which bloodshed and suspense are integral, but which in his day were allotted the allegedly superior status of literary fiction.

Having said that, it seems to me that, while Scott’s tales of derring-do are not quite so highly regarded these days as they once were, Le Fanu speaks to our time more clearly. Paranoia is one of the great themes of our day, and it is there in abundance in Uncle Silas. Who exactly is on whose side, and why? What exactly is going on? The author keeps the uncertainty going almost to the end, and even then some questions are not resolved. While slipshod execution may account for some of the latter – for example, the way it is never made clear how long Madame de la Rougierre and Uncle Silas have collaborated and for what reason, or the perfunctory way Milly is disposed of into a “happy ever after” marriage at the end – some of that unresolvability is a presage of modern sensibilities. 

The sometimes dark humour is another such presage. In the prologue to his book Le Fanu’s Ghost (2006), the poet Gavin Selerie speculates that macabre and grotesque humour seem characteristic of Anglo-Irish literature: “it runs in a line from Swift through Jonah Barrington to Samuel Beckett”. I would concur with this insight. There’s a thread connecting Uncle Silas not only to Psycho but to The Unnameable.

Next episode – China Miéville: Perdido Street Station

In : writing 

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Ken Edwards This blog is written by Ken Edwards, co-founder and editor/publisher of Reality Street, and it's mainly about the press. Ken's personal blog can now be found at http://www.kenedwardsonline.co.uk