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Sheridan Le Fanu: 200 years of literary blood and terrorism

On the bicentenary of the Irish writer’s birth, Bill McCormack weighs his preoccupation with family, guilt, dualism and the disappeared

Peter Cushing in The Vampire Lovers (1970)

Source: Kobal

Unveiled: screen adaptations of Le Fanu’s work include The Vampire Lovers (above), Schalken the Painter and The Dark Angel

Joseph Thomas Sheridan Le Fanu, a pioneer among writers of horror fiction, is celebrated for stories such as Schalken the Painter (1839) and Carmilla (1872). The bicentenary of his birth on 28 August provides a good opportunity to reconsider the continuing appeal of his work, its adaptation for cinema and television, and his insight into issues of Anglo-Irish relations persisting to this day. In the eyes of some excited readers and filmgoers, the Irish-Huguenot novelist was a master of terror comparable to the nameless creators of “the disappeared”. And, like the Irish Republican Army, we might say that Le Fanu and his stories “haven’t gone away”. Although the comparison is a trifle Gothic, overlaps of substance can be established.

Le Fanu’s reputation does not lie solely with sensational fiction. As owner and editor of the Dublin University Magazine from 1861, he directed an influential organ of Irish conservative opinion for a decade. However, after the Great Famine (at its height in 1845-47), he looked sympathetically on the nationalism of John Mitchel and William Smith O’Brien. But when radicalism moved towards open rebellion, Le Fanu hastily withdrew, investigating the dire spiritual effects of a precipitous lurch into alien loyalties in Some Account of the Latter Days of the Hon. Richard Marston of Dunoran (1848).

Today, Le Fanu is neither cult author nor forgotten classic. His very name poses problems – how to pronounce it, and where to locate it. On his father’s side, the family were Huguenots, French Calvinist exiles from the Ancien Régime, long settled in Ireland. His paternal grandmother, however, was a sister of Richard Brinsley Sheridan, a great comic dramatist and a thoroughly radical Whig. A union of opposites, especially if we throw in the Sheridans’ Gaelic and Catholic antecedents. Preoccupations with family and inheritance run through his fiction, countered by a profound sense of guilt, of offences committed in the past and destined to re-emerge.

Although Le Fanu wrote little between 1848 and 1861, the tension between romantic nationalism and prudent support for the Union supplied much of the energy for the fiction of his last decade – he died on 7 February 1873. His longest Irish novel, The House by the Churchyard (1863), is set in the mid-18th century, although subtle framing narratives implicate more recent social disturbances. Thereafter, his publishers insisted on English settings in contemporary times.

Hard up, like many of his class, Le Fanu obliged: the result was a higher tension, buried deeper in the fiction, especially in the case of Uncle Silas (1864). This deployed Swedenborgian doctrine as a remote but reflective backcloth to sensational plots. Through the Swedish mystic-engineer’s system of correspondences, the novelist devised ways of presenting society as a code involving both opposites and identity, with the female narrator’s pious father morphing into her wicked uncle. Officially the setting is Derbyshire but, as Elizabeth Bowen shrewdly noted, the pathology is Anglo-Irish. There is nothing organic about society in Le Fanu. It’s a matter of arbitrary codes, iron consequences and ironic sombre exceptions.

Influential admirers of his style included Henry James, M. R. James, V. S. Pritchett and Bowen herself – all practitioners of the short story. After Uncle Silas came nine other novels, but the late work is best found in “ghostly” tales, collected in Chronicles of Golden Friars (1871) and In a Glass Darkly (1872). Carmilla, the blood-gem among these, has been frequently adapted to the big screen – first in Carl Theodor Dreyer’s 1932 film Vampyr and, more rompingly, as The Vampire Lovers (with Ingrid Pitt and Kate O’Mara, 1970). Other adaptations – French (by Roger Vadim, 1960), Polish and Spanish – are readily available. Its teaming of vampires with lesbianism and its setting in remote Styria make it a classic of exoticism.

Le Fanu’s subversive enquiries into sexual differences and identities have won him more latter-day readers than his interest in Swedenborgianism ever did. Film, rather than text, may now be his genre. In some cases, the advance into visuality involves loss of depth. Uncle Silas, generally taken as Le Fanu’s masterpiece, has been filmed twice – in 1947, with Jean Simmons as the heroine, and 40 years later, with Peter O’Toole playing the uncle-villain in a BBC television adaptation, The Dark Angel. One striking detail of O’Toole’s performance is the girlish giggle with which he greets his niece, even as he lusts after her. Here, a fine actor’s insight becomes a larger interpretation of the novelist’s concerns.

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