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Sheridan Le Fanu

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English Literature

Described by M. R. James as one of the best storytellers’ of the supernatural genre (M. R. James, 1923), Sheridan Le Fanu is perhaps best remembered for ‘In A Glass Darkly(1872), a collection of ghost stories, and his novels The House by the Churchyard (1863) and The Wyvern Mystery (1869).

Sheridan le Fanu: Timeline

1814Sheridan le Fanu is born in Dublin, Ireland
1833Le Fanu is educated at Trinity College, Dublin
1844Le Fanu marries Susanna Bennett
1858Susanna dies, and Le Fanu withdraws from society
1861Le Fanu becomes the owner of Dublin University Magazine
1863The House by the Churchyard is published
1864Uncle Silas is published
1869The Wyvern Mystery is published
1872In A Glass Darkly is published
1873Willing to Die is published
1873Le Fanu dies in Dublin

Joseph Sheridan le Fanu biography

There was the customary novel of Mr. Le Fanu, for the bedside; the ideal reading in a country house for the hours after midnight.

(Henry James, The Liar, 1888)

Sheridan le Fanu was a journalist, essayist, mystery novelist, and writer of supernatural stories.

Influences

Le Fanu was educated at home by his father, who was the Dean of the Irish Episcopal Church. He studied law at Trinity College but never practised it, preferring to write instead.

Le Fanu greatly admired the works of Walter Scott and tried to follow in his steps. His earliest published works included two historical novels, The Cock and Anchor (1845) and The Fortunes of Colonel Torlogh O’Brien (1847). These did not attract much attention, as it is possible that his ambition to be the Irish Walter Scott was not yet matched by his skill at that time. While well-researched and containing excellent descriptions, critics noted the following weaknesses:

  • exaggeration of characters,
  • characters lack depth,
  • scenes of excessive cruelty.

The last point applies especially to Torlogh O’Brien, which even Le Fanu’s strongest defender M. R. James described as unreadable.

Le Fanu also respected mystery novelist Wilkie Collins, and it has been suggested that he followed Collins in style and design. Both novelists share skills in creating atmosphere and suspense, but it has been debated whether Le Fanu thought of Collins as his master.

On one thing many critics and supporters agree: Le Fanu’s characters in his early work tend to lack credibility. But while le Fanu’s early works may lack the vitality of Colllins in characterisation, they make up for it in atmosphere. Le Fanu uses a wide range of devices, including:

  • Arrivals and departures ‘at dead of night’/in secret.
  • Storms and tempests (usually at night).
  • Haunted houses.
  • Lighting: dark corridors lit by one candle alone.

Le Fanu was descended from Huguenots. An early ancestor was Charles Le Fanu de Cresserons, and Sheridan also wrote under the pen name ‘Charles de Cresserons’.

Reception

Critics praised both Le Fanus supernatural atmosphere and his accurate descriptions of everyday life.

He was considered a ‘sensation’ novelist, something he denied in his preface to Uncle Silas, in which he asks for:

a few words of remonstrance against the promiscuous application of the term sensation … No one it is assumed would describe Sir Walter Scott’s romances as sensation novels, yet in that marvellous series there is not a single tale in which death, crime and, in some form, mystery have not a place.

(Sheridan le Fanu, Uncle Silas, Preface, 1864)

In later works, Le Fanu also tried to depict the thoughts and psychology of his characters, which set him apart from his contemporaries.

Sheridan le Fanu's novels and tales

He is a close observer of Nature, and reproduces her wilder effects of storm and gloom with singular vividness; while he is equally at home in his description of still life, some of which remind us of the faithfully minute detail of old Dutch pictures.

(Alfred Perceval Graves, Essay, 1877)

In 1858, Le Fanu’s wife Susanna died, and Le Fanu withdrew from society, earning himself the nickname ‘The Invisible Prince’. At the same time, this new period saw his creative writing take off and his most important work written.

In 1863, his first novel in over ten years, The House by the Churchyard, was published, followed by Uncle Silas in 1864. Both of these are mystery novels.

The House by the Churchyard combines mystery and detection when a battered skull is accidentally dug up in a graveyard. The novel is then told as a flashback, as the events leading up to the mystery are reconstructed. Uncle Silas is a mystery novel in the gothic tradition, which features a large creepy mansion, a wicked uncle and his oafish son, a child heiress, a terrifying governess, and plenty of intrigue.

He [Sheridan le Fanu] produces page per page a far higher percentage of terror than the more widely read Edgar Allan Poe

(E. F. Benson, Sheridan le Fanu essay, 1931)

Uncle Silas is also interesting for the similarities it shares with Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White (1859). In Uncle Silas, the heroine is tricked into believing she has travelled from her uncle’s house to another city when in fact, under the influence of a drug, she is brought back to the house.

In The Woman in White, a similar ploy is used: Laura, one of the heroines, is persuaded to travel to London after being told her sister Marian is already there. She and her housekeeper check her sister’s room to find it empty, and so Laura leaves. Her housekeeper later discovers Marian has been transferred to another wing of the house while unconscious.

Both Collins and Le Fanu are masters of suspense Collins is more dramatic and realistic (this is understandable as he also wrote for the stage), while Le Fanu is more subtle, idealistic and

often surprises us by scenes of so much greater tragic intensity that we cannot but lament that he did not, as Mr Collins has done, attempt the drama.

(Alfred Perceval Graves, Essay, 1877)

In 1872, his novels were followed by a collection of short stories called ‘In A Glass Darkly’, which is considered his best work. The stories are told as ‘cases’, collected by a fictional psychiatrist Dr Hesselius and are titled as follows:

  • Green Tea.
  • The Familiar.
  • Mr Justice Harbottle.
  • The Room in the Dragon Volant.
  • Carmilla.

After the death of his wife Susanna, Le Fanu sought comfort in the writings of Swedenborg (17491771), who refers to death as a ‘change’ or transition, a continuation of life in an altered way. However, less comfortingly perhaps, Swedenborg also refers to ‘an inner eye’ that everyone possesses. Once opened, it can allow us entrance to the world of spirits.

It is this ‘inner eye’ that Le Fanu uses as a framework for his stories, in particular the first three (Green Tea, The Familiar, Mr Justice Harbottle).

In Green Tea, a clergyman is pursued by a phantom monkey; in The Familiar, an army captain is haunted by a guilty past; and in Mr Justice Harbottle, a cruel judge endures nightmarish visions of his own cruelty.

In all of these, Dr Hesselius suggests his ‘patients’ have been suffering from some form of hallucination. The perspective shifts with the last two stories: the ‘other realm’ is accessed but in a more physical, direct way. In Dragon Volant, Beckett, the central character, is buried alive (and then rescued), and in Carmilla, there is a real vampire, the undead Mircalla, Countess Karnstein, who stalks the living 150 years after her burial.

Sheridan le Fanu's Carmilla

Carmilla is set in Styria, yet Laura, the narrator, claims to be English, although her mother was descended from the Karnsteins, whose ruined castle lies in the area. Laura and her father live isolated in another castle with an abandoned village. The villagers, fearing vampires, have left the village. They receive news from a family friend, a general, who is to visit them with his niece, who has suddenly died under mysterious circumstances, which their friend will explain on his arrival.

Meanwhile, a carriage accident occurs outside the castle. Its passengers are a young girl called Carmilla and her mother. Carmilla is injured and is left in the care of Laura and her father, while Carmilla’s mother continues on her urgent journey.

The mysterious Carmilla reveals nothing about herself and has a tendency to sleep all day and sleepwalk at night. Laura falls ill, and the doctor observes two puncture marks on her neck and warns her father. They meet up with the General, who explains his niece had been the victim of a vampire. His description matches Carmilla, and they find the tomb of Carmilla (who is Mircalla, Countess Karnstein) and destroy the body after driving a stake through her heart and beheading her.

Much of Carmilla contains the tropes later used by fellow Dubliner Bram Stoker in his novel Dracula (1897): the isolated castle, the beautiful female turned vampire, the stake, the beheading. Stoker originally intended to open his story with ‘Dracula’s Guest’, which contains a reference to another Countess in le Fanu’s ‘Styria’. However, his publisher thought it announced the Count too prematurely. ‘Dracula’s Guest appeared in a collection of stories instead (Bram Stoker, Draculas Guest and Other Weird Stories, 1914).

Robert Tracy suggests Carmilla conceals a backstory of political anxiety. Le Fanu, as an Anglo-Irish, was apprehensive of the rising power of the Catholic Irish nationalists. In his story, according to Robert Tracy, Laura and her father represent the diminishing Anglo-Irish landowners, whose abandoned village

suggests Ireland after the Great Famine 18459. The people have been removed by what Laura’s father calls the ‘infection’ of superstition, their fear of vampires a recollection of the fever that accompanied the Famine. Many have chosen exile.

(Robert Tracy, Introduction, In A Glass Darkly, 1999)

Any more ghost stories?

Le Fanu continued to run, and act as editor of, the Dublin University Magazine and, when not writing, was an avid collector of ghost stories.

Dublin booksellers … became accustomed to see him just before nightfall when he would emerge like an apparition from the shadows and ask with his pleasant voice and smile Any more ghost stories for me?

(Nelson Browne, Sheridan Le Fanu, 1951)

Le Fanu would write at night by the light of two candles, doze off, wake up at 2.00 am, make himself some strong tea, and write again for a couple of hours.

A year after In A Glass Darkly, his final novel, Willing to Die, was published. This is perhaps his most ambitious work and is more melancholic than his previous novels. Although it contains elements of mystery (including shipwreck, lost and found fortunes, villains, and romance), the heroine, Ethel, lives through extremes of poverty and despair to the point of suicide and finishes with a fortune that she is too broken in spirit to enjoy.

Whether owing to his writing/sleeping habits, Le Fanu seems to have suffered from a recurring nightmare about an old mansion crumbling in upon him. When he died in 1873, his doctor is supposed to have said, ‘I feared this that house fell at last!’ Yet, according to a note his daughter sent to his cousin, Le Fanu passed away peacefully:

He had almost got over a bad attack of Bronchitis but his strength gave way & he sank very quickly & died in his sleep. His face looks so happy with a beautiful smile on it.

(Emmie L. Le Fanu, Note to Lord Dufferin, 1873)

Sheridan Le Fanu - Key takeaways

  • 1814: Sheridan le Fanu is born in Dublin, Ireland.
  • 1858 Le Fanu’s wife Susanna dies, and Le Fanu withdraws from society.
  • 1863: The House by the Churchyard is published.
  • 1864: Uncle Silas is published.
  • 1872: In A Glass Darkly is published.
  • 1873: Le Fanu dies in Dublin.

Sheridan Le Fanu

Sheridan Le Fanu was Anglo-Irish and of French descent.

Carmilla was written by Sheridan Le Fanu.

Sheridan le Fanu was a journalist, essayist, mystery novelist, and writer of supernatural stories.

In A Glass Darkly is a collection of ghost tales written by Sheridan Le Fanu.

Carmilla, by Sheridan Le Fanu, is a vampire novel written in 1871.

Final Sheridan Le Fanu Quiz

Question

What nationality was Sheridan Le Fanu?

Show answer

Answer

Sheridan Le Fanu was Anglo-Irish (of French descent).

Show question

Question

Who was Carmilla written by?

Show answer

Answer

Carmilla was written by Sheridan Le Fanu.

Show question

Question

Who was Sheridan Le Fanu?

Show answer

Answer

Sheridan le Fanu was a journalist, essayist, mystery novelist and writer of supernatural stories. 

Show question

Question

Why was Le Fanu called 'the Invisible Prince'?

Show answer

Answer

Because he withdrew from society after his wife died.

Show question

Question

Choose: In A Glass Darkly is influenced by

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Answer

Darwin.

Show question

Question

In Green Tea, a clergyman is pursued by a 

Show answer

Answer

phantom monkey.

Show question

Question

Dr Hesselius suggests his ‘...’ have been suffering from some form of ….

Show answer

Answer

Dr Hesselius suggests his ‘patients’ have been suffering from some form of hallucination.

Show question

Question

True or False: In 1863 his first novel in over ten years, Uncle Silas, was published.

Show answer

Answer

False: In 1863 his first novel in over ten years, The House by the Churchyard, was published.

Show question

Question

Complete: Much of Carmilla contains the … later used by fellow Dubliner Bram Stoker in his novel Dracula: the isolated …, the beautiful female turned vampire, the …, the beheading. 

Show answer

Answer

Much of Carmilla contains the tropes later used by fellow Dubliner Bram Stoker in his novel Dracula: the isolated castle, the beautiful female turned vampire, the stake, the beheading. 

Show question

Question

Complete; Le Fanu would write at night by the light of …candles, doze off, wake up at …., make himself some strong …, and write again for a couple of hours.

Show answer

Answer

Le Fanu would write at night by the light of two candles, doze off, wake up at 2.00 a.m., make himself some strong tea, and write again for a couple of hours.

Show question

Question

True or False? Le Fanu was an avid collector of ghost stories.


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Answer

True.

Show question

Question

Choose: Le Fanu was

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Answer

Irish.

Show question

Question

Choose: Carmilla is set in 

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Answer

Italy.

Show question

Question

In A Glass Darkly contains 5 stories including

Show answer

Answer

Green Tea

Show question

Question

Choose:  In The Familiar an army captain is haunted by 


Show answer

Answer

a phantom monkey

Show question

Question

When was In A Glass Darkly published?

Show answer

Answer

In A Glass Darkly was published in 1872.

Show question

Question

What is In a Glass Darkly?

Show answer

Answer

A collection of five short stories, or ‘cases’ of Dr Hesselius.

Show question

Question

Who is Dr Hesselius?

Show answer

Answer

Dr Hesselius is a psychiatrist who is interested in the ‘inner eye’.

Show question

Question

Choose: In Green Tea, a clergyman is pursued by a 

Show answer

Answer

phantom monkey.

Show question

Question

Complete: In The Familiar, Captain Barton is followed by the sound of … and receives letters signed by the ….

Show answer

Answer

In The Familiar, Captain Barton is followed by the sound of footsteps and receives letters signed by the Watcher.

Show question

Question

True or False? Sheridan le Fanu was self-taught.

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Answer

False: Sheridan le Fanu was home educated (by his father the dean).

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Question

True or false? Dr Hesselius stays at an inn called the Dragon Volant.

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Answer

False: Richard Beckett stays at an inn called the Dragon Volant.

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Question

Where does Carmilla take place?

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Answer

At an old castle in Styria.

Show question

Question

Choose: In The Room in the Dragon Volant, Beckett is drugged with 

Show answer

Answer

tea

Show question

Question

In Carmilla, the villagers have left because of

Show answer

Answer

werewolves.

Show question

Question

Complete: In Mr Justice Harbottle, the judge is found … from the … at the top of the great …, and quite dead.

Show answer

Answer

In Mr Justice Harbottle, the judge is found hanging from the banister at the top of the great staircase, and quite dead.

Show question

Question

In Carmilla, they destroy the body after driving a … through her … and …her.

Show answer

Answer

In Carmilla, they destroy the body after driving a stake through her heart and beheading her.

Show question

Question

Complete: The gang plans a sham ... to dispose of Beckett; they place him in the ... and have just screwed the lid down when the ... arrive and Beckett is rescued.

Show answer

Answer

The gang plans a sham funeral to dispose of Beckett; they place him in the coffin and have just screwed the lid down when the gendarmes arrive and Beckett is rescued.

Show question

Question

The Familiar is about James Barton, who is 

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Answer

a military officer

Show question

Question

Complete: ‘He had proceeded thus some way, when he, on a sudden, ... other ..., pattering at a measured pace, and, as it seemed, about two score ... behind him.’


Show answer

Answer

‘He had proceeded thus some way, when he, on a sudden, heard other footfalls, pattering at a measured pace, and, as it seemed, about two score steps behind him.’

Show question

Question

When was In A Glass Darkly published?


Show answer

Answer

In A Glass Darkly was published in 1872. 

Show question

Question

What is In a Glass Darkly?

Show answer

Answer

A collection of five short stories, or  ‘cases’ of Dr Hesselius.

Show question

Question

Who is Dr Hesselius?

Show answer

Answer

Dr Hesselius is a psychiatrist who is interested in the ‘inner eye’.

Show question

Question

Choose: In Green Tea, a clergyman is pursued by a 


Show answer

Answer

phantom monkey


Show question

Question

True or false? Sheridan le Fanu borrowed a quotation from St Peter for the title of his book: ‘For now we see through a glass, darkly.’

Show answer

Answer

5A) False: Sheridan le Fanu borrowed a quotation from St Paul for the title of his book:‘For now we see through a glass, darkly.’

Show question

Question

In 1858 Le Fanu’s wife Susanna died and Le Fanu withdrew from society, becoming 


Show answer

Answer

‘The Invincible Prince’.

Show question

Question

True or false? It is Swedenborg’s concept of the ‘inner eye’ that Le Fanu uses as a framework for In A Glass Darkly.

Show answer

Answer

True.

Show question

Question

Who might Hesselius be based on?

Show answer

Answer

Swedenborg.

Show question

Question

Complete: Some critics have suggested le Fanu was using pre-Freudian … in his ...


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Answer

Some critics have suggested le Fanu was using pre-Freudian psychology in his imagery.

Show question

Question

Choose: In A Glass Darkly is a collection of five ‘cases’ collected by the ... Dr Hesselius.

Show answer

Answer

servant of

Show question

Question

Complete: In Mr Justice Harbottle a cruel … endures nightmarish … of his own …. 

Show answer

Answer

In Mr Justice Harbottle a cruel judge endures nightmarish visions of his own cruelty. 

Show question

Question

Choose: Swedenborg was a scientist, inventor, philosopher and mystic, who wrote on a wide range of topics including

Show answer

Answer

astrology

Show question

Question

Complete: Dr Hesselius: “The seat of interior vision is the nervous tissue and brain, immediately about and above the …. You remember how effectually I dissipated your … by the simple application of iced …. 

Show answer

Answer

Dr Hesselius: “The seat of interior vision is the nervous tissue and brain, immediately about and above the eyebrow. You remember how effectually I dissipated your pictures by the simple application of iced eau-de-cologne. 

Show question

Question

True or false? Sheridan Le Fanu wrote The Wyvern Mystery after In A Glass Darkly.

Show answer

Answer

False: Sheridan Le Fanu wrote The Wyvern Mystery before In A Glass Darkly.

Show question

Question

Complete: Dr Hesselius defines three groups of patients: 

  • Those who suffer from … 

  • Others are haunted by … 

  • The third group have a … condition.

Show answer

Answer

Dr Hesselius defines three groups of patients: 

  • Those who suffer from hallucinations 

  • Others are haunted by ghosts 

  • The third group have a mixed condition.

Show question

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