When Sheridan Le Fanu’s Uncle Silas appeared in 1864, its author was best known as the proprietor of the Dublin University Magazine (DUM) and a writer of Irish historical novels. Yet, as advised by his publisher, Richard Bentley, Le Fanu had produced a work of fiction situated not in the Irish past but the English present. Uncle Silas, then, offers a strange mix of Irish concerns—not least a past that will not go away—with English people and places. But what do the novel’s Derbyshire locations and English characters have to do with the Ireland in which Le Fanu lived and worked?
Among Le Fanu’s earliest writing is “Passages in the Secret History of an Irish Countess”, one of a series of linked stories published in the DUM between 1838 and 1840. It contains the outline of Uncle Silas’s plot—a brother suspected of murder, a curious will, a niece in peril, an evil Frenchwoman—but it is set in Ireland, with houses located in Cork and Galway.
The DUM, where that earlier story appeared, brings into view the particular Irish context from which Uncle Silas emerged. The magazine occupied a curious cultural space in pre-Famine Ireland. Its overall tone was gloomy and pessimistic, expressive of failed Tory hopes in the face of Whig reforms. Yet even as it decried moves towards weakening of the Union and reform of the Church of Ireland, the DUM published original Irish fiction and poetry by authors with diverse political opinions. Writers including William Carleton, James Clarence Mangan, and Le Fanu himself could move between the DUM and the culturally nationalist Young Ireland publication, the Nation. Ireland’s Great Famine (1845–1852) and the efforts at revolution that swept Europe in 1848—including a Young Ireland rebellion—caused divisions to harden. A moment of potential cultural innovation closed down, not to reopen until the decades after Le Fanu’s death with the Literary Revival spearheaded by W.B. Yeats and Lady Gregory in in the 1880s and 1890s.
Long before the appearance of Uncle Silas in 1864, Ireland had begun to exhaust British audiences, as suggested in 1848 when Henry Colburn wrote to Anthony Trollope to advise him that “readers do not like novels on Irish subjects as well as on others.” Famine fatigue, it would seem, had literary repercussions. Harriet Martineau spelled it out in 1853 when she observed that “The world is weary of the subject of Ireland; and, above all the rest, the English reading world is weary of it. The mere name brings up images of men in long coats and women in long cloaks; of mud cabins and potatoes; the conacre, the middlemen and the priest; the faction fight, and the funeral howl.” Martineau did not doubt the suffering experienced during the Famine but expressed a kind of painful indifference: “The sadness of the subject has in late years increased the weariness.” Irish difficulties, she said, were “too real and practical to be an intellectual exercise or a pastime—to serve as knowledge or excitement. Something ought to be done for Ireland; and, to readers by the fireside, it is too bewildering to say what.”
“Elizabeth Bowen, living in London at the height of the Blitz… did not hesitate to describe it as ‘an Irish story transposed to an English setting.’”
So, when Le Fanu got Uncle Silas into the hands of his fireside readers, they found no references to the Ireland of the day. And yet when Elizabeth Bowen, living in London at the height of the Blitz, wrote an introduction to the novel in 1947 she did not hesitate to describe it as “an Irish story transposed to an English setting.” She found her evidence in a social milieu redolent of the author’s Anglo-Irish background: “the hermetic solitude and the autocracy of the great country house, the demonic power of the family myth, fatalism, feudalism and the ‘ascendency’ outlook”, all “accepted facts of life for the race of hybrids from which Le Fanu sprang.” “For the psychological background of Uncle Silas”, she wrote, “it was necessary for him to invent nothing.”
But it is not only psychology that can unlock the Irish resonances of Uncle Silas. A more materially grounded understanding of the lines of connection between Uncle Silas and the politics of Le Fanu’s day can be found in a sub-plot concerning the cutting of the trees on the estate of the endangered heiress, Maud. Her wicked uncle Silas has been “cutting down and selling the timber, and the oak-bark, and burning the willows, and other trees that are turned into charcoal.” The environmental consequences and legal wrongs of extraction are explained: “It is all waste.” Le Fanu draws on a resonant arboreal language that stretches back to seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Irish-language poetry. The eighteenth-century elegy Cill Cais asks “Cad a dhéanfaimid feasta gan adhmad? / Tá deireadh na gcoillte ar lár … What shall we do for timber? / The last of the woods are down”. Later, in Maria Edgeworth’s The Absentee (1812), the Anglo-Irish Lord Colambre pinpoints the link between political and environmental responsibility when he informs his mother of the costs of her London lifestyle: “For a single season … at the expense of a great part of your timber, the growth of a century – swallowed in the entertainments of one winter in London! Our hills to be bare for another half century to come!”
With a reputation for having influenced both Charlotte Bronte and James Joyce, Le Fanu’s writing can be seen to encompass cultures, times, and places. Charlotte Bronte read his “Chapter in a History of a Tyrone Family” (in which an estranged and incarcerated wife lives on the upper floors of a Gothic mansion) in the October 1839 issue of the Dublin University Magazine and may have had it in mind when she gave us her own version of the “spouse in the house” plot in Jane Eyre (1847). Meanwhile references to Le Fanu’s Dublin novel, The House by the Churchyard (1863), resonate throughout Joyce’s Finnegans Wake (1939). In the postmodernist masterpiece, a description of the graveyard of a “creepered” Church of Ireland building makes play with Le Fanu’s name in the description of “the ghastcold tombshape of the quick foregone on the loftleaved elm Lefanunian abovemansioned”. A reference to “Unkel Silanse” elsewhere in the Wake expresses an essential secrecy that remains central to any reading of this enigmatic novel.
Featured image by Yan Ming via Unsplash (public domain)
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