Considered "the father of the English ghost story," Irish author Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu (1814-1873) is recognized for combining Gothic literary conventions with realistic technique to create tales of psychological insight and supernatural terror. Among his most highly regarded works is In a Glass Darkly (1872), a collection of horror stories that includes the earliest example of a vampire story in English literature.
Of French Huguenot descent, Le Fanu was born in Dublin on August 28, 1814, the first son of Emma Lucretia Dobbin and Thomas Philip Le Fanu. His father, a clergyman in the Church of Ireland and nephew of the playwright Richard Brinsley Sheridan, served as the chaplain of the Royal Hibernian Military School in Phoenix Park during Le Fanu's early childhood. In 1826 the family moved to Abington in county Limerick, where Thomas Le Fanu had been appointed rector and dean of Emly. Le Fanu, who enjoyed the resources of his father's large library, was privately educated until his acceptance at Trinity College, Dublin, in 1833.
His university career was a success. He won academic honors and was active in debate and the historical society. After completing studies in classics he pursued legal studies at King's Inns in London but never took up the practice of law. His interests already lay in literary pursuits. As early as 1837 he had begun contributing to the Dublin University Magazine, and in 1839 he took ownership of the Irish Protestant newspaper The Warder. From this time on journalism constituted Le Fanu's foremost professional undertaking. He assumed a financial interest in several newspapers over the course of his career, including the Statesman, the Dublin Evening Mail, and Dublin University Magazine, and used these publications to promote his conservative political views.
In December 1843 Le Fanu married Susanna Bennett, the daughter of a barrister, and they had four children. Their years together were plagued by financial difficulties and ill health, and when she died in April 1858 at the age of thirty-four, it came as a life-shattering blow to Le Fanu, who blamed himself for her suffering. He wrote at the time, as quoted by Kathryn West in the Dictionary of Literary Biography, "The greatest misfortune of my life has overtaken me. My darling wife is gone… . She was the light of my life." His grief was inconsolable, and from this point on he retired from public life.
One obituary notice, quoted by Roy B. Stokes in the Dictionary of Literary Biography, later remarked: "He vanished so entirely that Dublin, always ready with a nickname, dubbed him 'The Invisible Prince;' and indeed he was for long almost invisible, except to his family and most familiar friends, unless at odd hours of the evening, when he might occasionally be seen, stealing, like the ghost of his former self, between his newspaper office and his home in Merrion Square; sometimes, too, he was to be encountered in an old out-of-the-way bookshop poring over some rare black letter Astrology or Demonology." However, it is during the period of his seclusion that he produced his most enduring works of fiction.
Le Fanu sold the Dublin University Magazine, which had become the main outlet of his short fiction, in 1869. He died in 1873. Of the effect of the seclusion of his final years on his literary work, biographer Michael H. Begnal commented, "Instead of limiting his artistic vision, it would seem that the seclusion of Sheridan LeFanu was a blessing in disguise, for it preserved him from the pitfalls of immersion in immediate social concern. Yet at the same time it induced him to concentrate upon the larger issues which were the true shapers of his time."
Le Fanu's first published works of fiction were short stories printed in the Dublin University Magazine beginning in 1838. The earliest of these, "The Ghost and the Bone-Setter," draws on the Irish folk belief that the most recently deceased corpse in a cemetery must carry water to the thirsty souls already in purgatory. Though the story offers a comic explanation for the appearance of a ghost, the work is notable for introducing the character of Father Francis Purcell, a Catholic priest from Drumcoolagh in county Limerick, who serves as a connection for a number of stories later collected in The Purcell Papers (1880). Similarly, "The Fortunes of Robert Ardagh" employs a dual structure to tell the story of a mysterious murder, explained alternately as a manifestation of Satanic power and a rational series of unfortunate events.
The most famous of the Purcell stories is "Strange Event in the Life of Schalken the Painter," published in May 1839. In the story, Purcell relates a tale told to him by the owner of "a remarkable picture" painted by an artist named Godfrey Schalken—a portrait of a young woman named Rose whom he had once loved. Betrothed to a wealthy stranger whose ghoulish appearance is an omen of his diabolical nature, Rose returns home in an anguished state some months after her marriage, begging not to be left alone and crying, "The dead and the living cannot be one—God has forbidden it!" She mysteriously disappears from her room, and no trace of her is ever recovered. Sometime later Schalken experiences a vision of Rose beckoning him to follow her. He cannot resist, and she leads him to a richly outfitted bedchamber where she reveals—with "an arch smile, such as pretty women wear when engaged in successfully practising some roguish trick"—her demonic husband waiting for her in a black-curtained bed. The painter faints at the sight but paints a faithful representation of what he has seen.
A somewhat later tale, "The Watcher," was included in Ghost Stories and Tales of Mystery (1851) and revised as "The Familiar" for In a Glass Darkly. The story relates events leading up to the death of Captain James Barton, who is haunted by a strange figure who may or may not be a ghost, but whose relentless appearance causes Barton to lose his senses and eventually his life. In the Dictionary of Literary Biography Gary William Crawford called the story "remarkably sophisticated for its day," noting that "the lingering uncertainty about what happens … invokes a genuine frisson." A story first published in 1853, "An Account of Some Strange Disturbances in Aungier Street," again depicts the persecution of the living by the dead when two students rent a house in Dublin that had once belonged to a judge who had sentenced many convicts to hang. Only in the midst of their terror do they learn that he had ultimately hanged himself in the house in his despair and madness. The story was later revised as "Mr. Justice Harbottle" and included in In a Glass Darkly.
Le Fanu published no fiction works during the period 1853 to 1861, an unsettled time in his family life, but his later period proved to be the most productive. When Le Fanu resumed his literary output he published The House by the Churchyard (1863), a many-faceted novel that combines comedy, mystery, history, and horror, and Wylder's Hand (1864), a successful tale of rivalry and murder. His next work, Uncle Silas (1864), is set in Derbyshire, England, and is Le Fanu's best-known Gothic mystery. In the story Maud Ruthyn is the niece of a man suspected though never proven to have committed a murder years before. A wealthy heiress, she comes under his care when her father dies and once in his household becomes herself the intended victim of a murder plot calculated by her uncle, her cousin, and an evil governess in hopes of gaining Maud's fortune. She escapes when the governess is mistakenly killed in her place, and the uncle's true character is revealed. The fourth of his sensational novels published during this period, Guy Deverell (1865), centers on the Marlowe estate, illegitimately acquired by Sir Jekyl Marlowe, and the efforts of Monsieur Varbarriere to reinstate the rightful heir.
Le Fanu also produced several additional novels over the next few years, including the romances All in the Dark (1866) and Haunted Lives (1868), and the mysteries The Tenants of Malory (1867), A Lost Name (1867-1868), and The Wyvern Mystery (1869).
Le Fanu's short story collection In a Glass Darkly contains a group of his most chilling horror tales, "Green Tea," "The Familiar," "Mr. Justice Harbottle," "The Room in the Dragon Volant," and "Carmilla," all purportedly taken from the files of Dr. Martin Hesselius, a German doctor with an interest in psychic phenomena. "Green Tea" is among the best known of Le Fanu's works of supernatural terror, and in 1947 V. S. Pritchett named it "one of the best half-dozen ghost stories in the English language." It concerns Reverend Robert Jennings, a clergyman suffering from a nervous condition. Engaged in a study of ancient religions, Jennings reports that he has been haunted by a little black monkey and suggests that perhaps it is a hallucination brought on by drinking large amounts of green tea. The presence of the monkey begins to interfere with Jennings's duties and with his research, and the creature begins to urge evil actions on the increasingly distressed clergyman. Ultimately, Jennings commits suicide.
The final tale in the collection, "Carmilla" is also the most important from a literary standpoint for it introduces the vampire legend into English literature. Set in an isolated castle occupied by an innocent young girl and her father, the story draws on conventions of the Gothic to heighten terror. Carmilla is a young woman who is brought into the castle to recuperate after a carriage accident. She gives no information about her past, but resembles a dead woman whose portrait hangs in the castle. The heroine of the tale suffers visions of a nocturnal visitor and is slowly drawn into intimate association with Carmilla, whose possessiveness and passion overpower the innocent girl. When Carmilla's true nature as a vampire is discovered, she is killed.
Le Fanu, though not as well known as Edgar Allan Poe, Bram Stoker, or Mary Shelley, remains a seminal figure in the advancement of horror writing, and his works continue to find new audiences through reprint editions. His works expanded the vocabulary of Victorian Gothic to include the deeper effects of psychological terror that characterize modern supernatural horror. In describing what set Le Fanu's stories apart, Pritchett wrote: "LeFanu's ghosts are the most disquieting of all ghosts… . The secret doubt, the private shame, the unholy love, scratch away with malignant patience in the guarded mind. It is we who are the ghosts. Let illness, late nights and green tea weaken the catch we normally keep clamped so firmly down, and out slink one by one all the hags and animals of moral or Freudian symbolism."
Le Fanu died on February 10, 1873, in Dublin, Ireland.
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