Le Fanu, Joseph Sheridan (1814 - 1873)

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(1814 - 1873)

(Also wrote under the pseudonyms Charles de Cresserons and Reverend Francis Purcell) Irish novelist, short story writer, poet, journalist, and editor.

Le Fanu is a major figure among Victorian-era authors of Gothic and supernatural fiction. Critics praise his short stories and novels for their suggestive and detailed descriptions of physical settings, powerful evocation of foreboding and dread, and convincing use of supernatural elements. In addition to Le Fanu's mastery of these Gothic conventions in his fiction, his works are also admired for their insightful characterizations and skilled use of narrative technique. Scholars have observed that Le Fanu's subtle examinations of the psychological life of his characters distinguish his works from those of earlier Gothic writers.


Born in Dublin, Le Fanu was the second of three children of a Protestant clergyman. He began writing poetry as a teenager and was privately educated by tutors until entering Trinity College, Dublin, in 1833. There Le Fanu studied law, although he never practiced; instead he launched a joint career in journalism and litera-ture. He contributed regularly to the Dublin University Magazine and gained recognition for his short stories and his ballads "Phaudrig Crohoore" and "Shamus O'Brien." Between 1838 and 1840 Le Fanu wrote short stories and poetry under the pseudonym Reverend Francis Purcell; these works were posthumously collected as The Purcell Papers (1880). In 1839 Le Fanu bought three Dublin periodicals and combined them to form the Evening Mail, a conservative publication in which many of his early works appeared. During this period he published two historical novels, The Cock and Anchor (1845) and The Fortunes of Colonel Torlogh O'Brien (1847), as well as his first collection of short stories, Ghost Stories and Tales of Mystery (1851). These early works were virtually ignored by both critics and the reading public. Le Fanu married Susanna Bennett in 1844, and they became a prominent couple in Dublin social and cultural circles. Le Fanu was considered a brilliant conversationalist and was a popular member of society until his wife's death in 1858. His anguish caused him to withdraw from his companions, who labeled him the "Invisible Prince." During this time Le Fanu produced the four novels for which he is best known: The House by the Churchyard (1863), Wylder's Hand (1864), Uncle Silas (1864), and Guy Deverell (1865). In addition, he became the editor of the Dublin University Magazine in 1859, and, in 1861, assumed its proprietorship as well. Le Fanu continued managing and editing the publication until a few months before his death in 1873.


In his earliest short stories, primarily those collected in Ghost Stories and Tales of Mystery and The Purcell Papers, Le Fanu only occasionally displayed the inventive use of the supernatural and psychological character studies that distinguish his most esteemed works. The five longer stories in the later collection In a Glass Darkly (1872) are widely acknowledged as his best work in the genre. In these stories Le Fanu combined many of the themes and techniques of traditional Gothic literature with those of modern psychological fiction. Le Fanu used the recurring character Dr. Martin Hesselius, a German physician specializing in mental disorders, to introduce each narrative as a case history illustrating both supernatural and psychological phenomena. This technique allowed Le Fanu to successfully link the stories and to explore the psychology of his characters. For example, in "Green Tea" Hesselius reports the case of Reverend Jennings, whose habit of drinking strong green tea causes him to see a small, black, talking monkey that torments him with its blasphemous chatter until he ultimately commits suicide. Critics have also expressed high praise for "Carmilla," in which Hesselius suggests a connection between the bloodlust of a female vampire and lesbian sexual desires. In these and others works of the supernatural, Le Fanu rarely depended on the stock devices of Gothic literature—such as isolated castles, forlorn landscapes, and maniacal villains—to further his eerie plots. Rather than relying on these clichéd tropes of prior fiction, he generally opted for subtlety and mystery, and routinely left incidents in his stories unexplained for the purpose of heightening suspense. Additionally, unlike much earlier horror fiction, there are no actual ghosts in Le Fanu's supernatural works; instead his characters are frequently haunted by phantasms that are solely the creations of their imaginations. Lastly, his stories generally feature a first person mode of narration designed to convey an individual's progressively developing experience of terror. This narrative technique, coupled with Le Fanu's realistic settings, skillfully imbued with a sense of menace, are thought to lend credibility to his supernatural stories and contribute to their dramatic impact.

Of Le Fanu's fourteen novels, The House by the Churchyard, Wylder's Hand, Uncle Silas and Guy Deverell are generally considered his finest. These works are characterized by the taut construction and psychological insight that inform the stories of In a Glass Darkly. While not a work of supernatural or even classically Gothic fiction, The House by the Churchyard is pervaded with a sense of chilling gloom, and is thought to represent an intermediate stage between Le Fanu's earlier historical novels and his later tales of mystery. The work also marks his first attempt at psychological analysis of character. Wylder's Hand is regarded as the most uncomplicated of Le Fanu's mysteries, and is sometimes referred to as his masterpiece. Featuring fewer characters than his previous novels, the work concentrates on establishing a fully realized psychological portrait of Wylder. The title figure of Uncle Silas, perhaps Le Fanu's best-known work, is an ominous figure who subtly calls upon the tradition of the murderous Gothic villain. Praised for its clear narrative and lucid structure, this novel is often regarded as the first psychological thriller. In it, Le Fanu deftly manipulates levels of suspense, gradually elevating the reader's anticipation and sense of horror as the brutal Silas intimidates his increasingly frightened niece and ward, Maud. Guy Deverell, the last of Le Fanu's critically acclaimed novels, is likewise noted for its mysterious atmosphere and finely delineated, realistic characterizations.


During his lifetime, Le Fanu's works were moderately successful, although they received scant critical attention. With the appearance of Uncle Silas, however, some reviewers complained that Le Fanu had exceeded the boundaries of Gothic mystery writing and charged him with sensationalism. Following Le Fanu's death, his reputation suffered a gradual decline as readers and critics lost interest in his realistic and psychological mode of Gothic narrative. In the 1920s, however, the prominent ghost-story writer M. R. James (see Further Reading) drew attention to Le Fanu by writing introductions to several reissued volumes of his out-of-print works. V. S. Pritchett (see Further Reading) and Elizabeth Bowen (see Further Reading) later wrote essays championing Le Fanu as one of Gothic literature's foremost figures. After the reassessments of Le Fanu made by these and other late twentieth-century scholars, interest in Le Fanu grew, with commentators identifying him as a significant transitional figure in the Gothic tradition whose use of psychological horror is considered a key contribution to the genre. Additionally, several of Le Fanu's major works, including the novel Uncle Silas and the short story "Carmilla," have also been singled out for reappraisal. While he is not generally well-known today as a novelist, Le Fanu continues to be noted as an innovative and masterful writer of psychological horror stories and as a pivotal figure in the history of supernatural fiction.


"Phaudrig Crohoore" (ballad) 1837; published in the journal Dublin University Magazine
The Cock and Anchor, Being a Chronicle of Old Dublin City
. 3 vols. [as Charles de Cresserons] (novel) 1845; also published as The Cock and Anchor, 1895
The Fortunes of Colonel Torlogh O'Brien; A Tale of the Wars of King James [as Charles de Cresserons] (novel) 1847
"Shamus O'Brien" (ballad) 1850; published in the journal Dublin University Magazine
Ghost Stories and Tales of Mystery
(short stories) 1851
The House by the Churchyard. 3 vols. (novel) 1863
Uncle Silas: A Tale of Bartram-Haugh. 3 vols. (novel) 1864
Wylder's Hand. 3 vols. [as Charles de Cresserons] (novel) 1864
Guy Deverell. 3 vols. (novel) 1865
All in the Dark. 2 vols. (novel) 1866
The Tenants of Malory: A Novel. 3 vols. (novel) 1867
Haunted Lives: A Novel. 3 vols. (novel) 1868
A Lost Name: A Novel. 3 vols. (novel) 1868
Checkmate. 3 vols. (novel) 1871
Chronicles of Golden Friars. 3 vols. (novel) 1871
The Rose and the Key. 3 vols. (novel) 1871
In a Glass Darkly. 3 vols. (short stories) 1872
Willing to Die. 3 vols. (novel) 1873
The Purcell Papers, with a Memoir by Alfred Perceval Graves. 3 vols. (short stories) 1880
The Watcher and Other Weird Stories (short stories) 1894
The Poems of Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu [edited by A. P. Graves] (poetry) 1896

∗ This collection includes the short stories "Green Tea" (first published in the journal All the Year Round, October, 1869) and "Carmilla" (first published in the journal Dark Blue, December 1871 to March 1872).



SOURCE: Le Fanu, Joseph Sheridan. "Carmilla." In Carmilla and 12 Other Classic Tales of Mystery, pp. 288-97. New York: Penguin, 1996.

The following excerpt is from chapter 4 of "Carmilla," a short story first published serially in the journal Dark Blue from December 1871 to March 1872.

Her Habits—A Saunter

I told you that I was charmed with her in most particulars.

There were some that did not please me so well.

She was above the middle height of women. I shall begin by describing her. She was slender, and wonderfully graceful. Except that her movements were languid—very languid—indeed, there was nothing in her appearance to indicate an invalid. Her complexion was rich and brilliant; her features were small and beautifully formed; her eyes large, dark, and lustrous; her hair was quite wonderful, I never saw hair so magnificently thick and long when it was down about her shoulders; I have often placed my hands under it, and laughed with wonder at its weight. It was exquisitely fine and soft, and in colour a rich very dark brown, with something of gold. I loved to let it down, tumbling with its own weight, as, in her room, she lay back in her chair talking in her sweet low voice, I used to fold and braid it, and spread it out and play with it. Heavens! If I had but known all!

I said there were particulars which did not please me. I have told you that her confidence won me the first night I saw her; but I found that she exercised with respect to herself, her mother, her history, everything in fact connected to her life, plans, and people, an ever-wakeful reserve. I dare say I was unreasonable, perhaps I was wrong; I dare say I ought to have respected the solemn injunction laid upon my father by the stately lady in black velvet. But curiosity is a restless and unscrupulous passion, and no one girl can endure, with patience, that hers should be baffled by another. What harm could it do anyone to tell me what I so ardently desired to know? Had she no trust in my good sense or honour? Why would she not believe me when I assured her, so solemnly, that I would not divulge one syllable of what she told me to any mortal breathing?

There was a coldness, it seemed to me, beyond her years, in her smiling melancholy persistent refusal to afford me the least ray of light.

I cannot say we quarreled upon this point, for she would not quarrel upon any. It was, of course, very unfair of me to press her, very ill-bred, but I really could not help it; and I might just as well have let it alone.

What she did tell me amounted, in my unconscionable estimation—to nothing.

It was all summed up in three very vague disclosures:

First.—Her name was Carmilla.

Second.—Her family was very ancient and noble.

Third.—Her home lay in the direction of the west.

She would not tell me the name of her family, nor their armorial bearings, nor the name of their estate, nor even that of the country they lived in.

You are not to suppose that I worried her incessantly on these subjects. I watched opportunity, and rather insinuated than urged my inquiries. Once or twice, indeed, I did attack her more directly. But no matter what my tactics, utter failure was invariably the result. Reproaches and caresses were all lost upon her. But I must add this, that her evasion was conducted with so pretty a melancholy and deprecation, with so many, and even passionate declarations of her liking for me, and trust in my honour, and with so many promises that I should at last know all, that I could not find it in my heart long to be offended with her.

She used to place her pretty arms about my neck, draw me to her, and laying her cheek to mine, murmur with her lips near my ear, "Dearest, your little heart is wounded; think me not cruel because I obey the irresistible law of my strength and weakness; if your dear heart is wounded, my wild heart bleeds with yours. In the rapture of my enormous humiliation I live in your warm life, and you shall die—die, sweetly die—into mine. I cannot help it; as I draw near to you, you, in your turn, will draw near to others, and learn the rapture of that cruelty, which yet is love; so, for a while, seek to know no more of me and mine, but trust me with all your loving spirit."

And when she had spoken such a rhapsody, she would press me more closely in her trembling embrace, and her lips in soft kisses gently glow upon my cheek.

Her agitations and her language were unintelligible to me.

From these foolish embraces, which were not of very frequent occurrence, I must allow, I used to wish to extricate myself; but my energies seemed to fail me. Her murmured words sounded like a lullaby in my ear, and soothed my resistance into a trance, from which I only seemed to recover myself when she withdrew her arms.

In these mysterious moods I did not like her. I experienced a strange tumultuous excitement that was pleasurable, ever and anon, mingled with a vague sense of fear and disgust. I had no distinct thoughts about her while such scenes lasted, but I was conscious of a love growing into adoration, and also of abhorrence. This I know is paradox, but I can make no other attempt to explain the feeling.

I now write, after an interval of more than ten years, with a trembling hand, with a confused and horrible recollection of certain occurrences and situations, in the ordeal through which I was unconsciously passing; though with a vivid and very sharp remembrance of the main current of my story. But, I suspect, in all lives there are certain emotional scenes, those in which our passions have been most wildly and terribly roused, that are of all others the most vaguely and dimly remembered.

Sometimes after an hour of apathy, my strange and beautiful companion would take my hand and hold it with a fond pressure, renewed again and again; blushing softly, gazing in my face with languid and burning eyes, and breathing so fast that her dress rose and fell with the tumultuous respiration. It was like the ardour of a lover; it embarrassed me; it was hateful and yet overpowering; and with gloating eyes she drew me to her, and her hot lips travelled along my cheek in kisses; and she would whisper, almost in sobs, "You are mine, you shall be mine, and you and I are one for ever." Then she has thrown herself back in her chair, with her small hands over her eyes, leaving me trembling.

"Are we related," I used to ask; "what can you mean by all this? I remind you perhaps of some one whom you love; but you must not, I hate it; I don't know you—I don't know myself when you look so and talk so."

She used to sigh at my vehemence, then turn away and drop my hand.

Respecting these very extraordinary manifestations I strove in vain to form any satisfactory theory—I could not refer them to affectation or trick. It was unmistakably the momentary breaking out of suppressed instinct and emotion. Was she, notwithstanding her mother's volunteered denial, subject to brief visitations of insanity; or was there here a disguise and a romance? I had read in old story books of such things. What if a boyish lover had found his way into the house, and sought to prosecute his suit in masquerade, with the assistance of a clever old adventuress? But there were many things against this hypothesis, highly interesting as it was to my vanity.

I could boast of no little attentions such as masculine gallantry delights to offer. Between these passionate moments there were long intervals of common-place, of gaiety, of brooding melancholy, during which, except that I detected her eyes so full of melancholy fire, following me, at times I might have been as nothing to her. Except in these brief periods of mysterious excitement her ways were girlish; and there was always a languor about her, quite incompatible with a masculine system in a state of health.

In some respects her habits were odd. Perhaps not so singular in the opinion of a town lady like you, as they appeared to us rustic people. She used to come down very late, generally not till one o'clock, then she would take a cup of chocolate, but eat nothing; we then went out for a walk, which was a mere saunter, and she seemed, almost immediately, exhausted, and either returned to the schloss or sat on one of the benches that were placed here and there, among the trees. This was a bodily languor in which her mind did not sympathise. She was always an animated talker, and very intelligent.

She sometimes alluded for a moment to her own home, or mentioned an adventure or situation, or an early recollection, which indicated a people of strange manners, and described customs of which we knew nothing. I gathered from these chance hints that her native country was much more remote than I had at first fancied.



SOURCE: Rolleston, T. W. "Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu." Irish Fireside 1, no. 9 (26 February 1887): 133.

In the following excerpt, Rolleston offers a laudatory estimation of Le Fanu's skill as an author of sensation novels, noting particularly The House by the Churchyard.

Le Fanu was a poet as well as a novelist, and he was a poet as a novelist. Unfortunately his powers, though great, were limited, or rather he chose to exercise them too much in one particular groove. In taking up a novel of Le Fanu's we enter a region of mystery and terror, the region whose secrets such writers as Wilkie Collins, the late Hugh Conway, and too many others, have devoted themselves to bringing to light. But Le Fanu is incomparably superior to any of these. Where, in the best of them, do we find his wit, his learning, his sense of beauty, his passion, his mastery of language, his creative power? His characters in his best books are real human beings, in whom we can take interest apart from the tale in which they figure….

Of all [Le Fanu's] works The House by the Churchyard seems to us to exhibit the richest and most varied power. For intensity of excitement nothing can match Uncle Silas. And yet in Uncle Silas one feels that Le Fanu has adopted a métier, and narrowed the sphere of his art. He defended this novel in express terms against the charge of sensationalism, and it certainly contains much that the usual sensational novel does not aim at. But on the whole it must be confessed that it and most of the author's other productions aim at working on the nerves, not on the spirit of the reader. This, however, cannot be said of The House by the Churchyard. It is true that in the latter the main interest is of a sinister kind, centering upon the fortunes of a criminal, and linked with circumstances of physical horror. But though such is the motive of the story, and such it must appear in any bare narration of the plot, yet there is so much beauty and dignity in some of the characters, so much pathos and noble passion, so much healthy humour and mirth, and vivid description of simple things and people, that the dark thread which runs through the whole fabric is rarely seen. The picture which this book gives of Irish society about the middle of the eighteenth century, is as brilliant an example as could well be found of the imaginative power which can revive a past epoch, and make it seem as real to us as our own. The plot is simple enough, although enveloped in mystery until near the end….

Artists in general, writers of fiction. included, may be divided into two classes—those who make the main interest of their work centre on what is high, lovable, beautiful; and those who seek to impress us with revelations of the sinister, the malignant, the appalling. All great artists belong to the first order, nor is there any other way of being great than theirs. Le Fanu, on the whole, and judging him by his most powerful and impassioned work, belongs to the second order. But in this order he stands high, he stands among the highest; and he stands there, in spite of a too diffuse and erratic manner of conducting his plots, mainly by virtue of his splendour of style and imagination. And he has traits of the higher school which ennoble his work, and make the ineffaceable impression which it leaves in our memory something better than a haunting horror.


SOURCE: Sage, Victor. "Gothic and Romance: Retribution and Reconciliation." In Le Fanu's Gothic: The Rhetoric of Darkness, pp. 29-40. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004.

In the following essay, Sage illustrates how Le Fanu departs from the typical Gothic formula in his historical romances.

When we come to the two historical romances which Le Fanu wrote in the 1840s, the rhetorical situation is somewhat different from that of The Purcell Papers. The evidentiary mode—the home of dark epiphany—has to go, and plot—the plot of History—must take its place. It was not really possible in the 1840s to write a historical romance that had a 'national' character, without responding to the work of Scott.1 To emulate Scott, you had to find a way of doing the opposite of what Le Fanu had done so brilliantly in The Purcell Papers : you had to imply that two or more different traditions were one. The whole sweep of Waverley, the panorama created by its rhetorical fiction of 'centrality', suggests that if you look at history from a certain vantage-point, it all makes sense and leads into the present. And that meant introducing some kind of fictional détente, some notion of negotiation, even perhaps of mutual recognition, between hostile, or traditionally opposed, parties, within the parameters of a single language or, at least, a single text. The most striking example of this structure is the way the Jacobite cause is finally dismissed as outmoded by the modern political state in Redgauntlet, which is done by giving the violence and the romanticism of Jacobite conspiracy enough room and textual presence to allow it to become an anachronism and give way ('historically', i.e. by the choice of the characters) to the 'modern' (Hanoverian) political state.


[Le Fanu] at different times was a writer of ballads voicing the aspirations and romance of Irish national life; a journalist expressing High Tory views; an historical romance writer; a writer of squibs and satires; a fine poet; and a supreme author of ghost stories and novels of murder and mystery. In these last categories he is pre-eminent, and his success is almost entirely achieved by his art of suggesting evil presences and coming horrors. Very rarely is there an actual, visible ghost in his stories. His was not the old school of traditionary apparitions, in white or grey, with blue fire, clanking chain, and wailing cry. His spectres—far more terrible—are in the brain of the haunted. Demoniacal possession, and the resultant delusional apparition, or concrete crime—these are the bases of Le Fanu's finest stories. For the actual details of a murder it is true he had rather a morbid partiality, and spared no particulars about the wounds and blood and the aspect of the mangled or strangled corpse. Like Ainsworth, he was distinctly macaberesque, and both seem to have had a sort of flair for scenes of human torture and physical pain. There is a description in Torlogh O'Brien of the death of a man by the strappado which makes painful reading, so particular are the details of the agony. But, after all, this is merely realism, and realism is not unknown or unprofitable to romance writers of to-day. However realistic Le Fanu may be, there is over all his scenes of horror a softening veil of romance and mystery; and if Death is all too prominent in his books—why so it is, unhappily, in real life, and Le Fanu's chief exemplar is but a reminder of that inexorable enemy from whom no poor mortal may escape at the last.

SOURCE: Ellis, S. M. "Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu." The Bookman 51, no. 301 (October 1916): 15-21.

But in these romances, although he adopts the overview method, Le Fanu reads Scott as romantic, not realist.2 And he adopts a number of conventions to produce textual unity, which keep on breaking down and getting threatened. He adopts a sentimental register, which is broken into by the grotesque; and he adopts a historical discourse which exists in tension with very un-Scott-like outbreaks of the Gothic and the uncanny.

This latter point can be illustrated quite succinctly. The Fortunes of Torlough O'Brien (1847) recycles several of the stories from The Purcell Papers, but in each case, their Gothic or uncanny elements have been removed. For example, Turlogh O'Brien in Chapters 50 and 51, disguised as a pedlar, is captured by the Protestant forces and his enemy, Garrett. This incident is recycled from the short story 'An Adventure of Hardress Fitzgerald' from The Purcell Papers. There, it took place with the background of the (first, I take it) siege of Limerick. In the romance, Torlough O'Brien, it is transferred to just before the battle of Aghrim (Aughrim), three years later. In each case, the plot is the same: a resentful soldier betrays his Protestant masters, and the prisoner, Fitzgerald in the story (or O'Brien, in the romance) is given a weapon with which he kills his jailor and escapes. Here is the Gothic epiphany of the story, which violates the decorum of the Scott model:

As I arose and shook the weapon and the bloody cloth from my hand, the moon, which he had foretold I should never see rise, shone bright and broad into the room, and disclosed, with ghastly distinctness, the mangled features of the dead soldier; the mouth, full of clotting blood and broken teeth, lay open; the eye, close by whose lid the fatal wound had been inflicted, was not, as might have been expected, bathed in blood, but had started forth nearly from the socket, and gave to the face, by its fearful unlikeness to the other glazing orb, a leer more hideous and unearthly than fancy ever saw.3

This is a moment of revenancy: the 'other world' shows through, here, in a flash of imagination (i.e. 'superstition') beyond mere 'fancy'; so that for the reader the 'leer' is asserted and denied in the same phrase. This is the chiaroscuro effect: attention is paid to the lighting of the scene. The corpse of Captain Oliver is resurrected here for a moment, in a pocket of the uncanny that is most undecorous from the Scott point of view: it exists in tension with the boy's own adventure story of Hardress Fitzgerald.4

But the epiphany also harnesses a political point: Captain Oliver is a (power-mad, vengeful) Protestant Williamite and the narrative pursues the adventure of a dauntless Catholic rebel. This incident is recycled in The Fortunes of Torlough O'Brien. But in the romance, Torlough O'Brien merely gets back his charger from the rascally Garrett and rides to Aughrim to join Sarsfield's cavalry unit, an engagement in which he is wounded. In the romance version, the Gothic effect—a moment that defies narrative extension—is subdued to sentimental and heroic plot-convention.5

Rewriting like this is evidently a response to the dominance of a certain rhetorical mode in the historical romance. There is a struggle to retain and yet occlude, and alter, the language of the grotesque; and the uncanny is also more interestingly evident in a number of places. These examples amount to a much more ambiguous and interestingly personal inflection of a tension between the the legalistic framing devices of the 'old Gothic' (already fully developed and updated by Le Fanu, in a strikingly effective fashion, as we have seen) and the quite different conventions of historical overview in Scott's new historical romance.

The Cock and Anchor (1845): Gothic instabilities


The plot of this novel is reconciliatory, crossing the divide between Catholic and Protestant; but the divisions in Irish culture which associate themselves with the overcoded epiphanies of a demonic rhetoric in The Purcell Papers are portrayed as fully established in the social system, and seem to have a more powerful and pervasive position in the immediately post-civil War society, in the anti-Whig argument of this first novel, The Cock and Anchor. The roots of Le Fanu's Gothic are close to satire.6

Here again the plot is a sentimental crossing of the boundaries between Catholic and Protestant traditions. We are now in the early eighteenth century, about 1710. Edmond O'Connor, the handsome young Milesian, and soldier in exile, has fallen in love with the daughter of the unpleasant Whig baronet, Sir Richard Ashwoode (i.e. wood that is, or has become, unsound). O'Connor has returned to Ireland from the Continent, to ask for Mary Ashwoode's hand. His love is returned by Mary, but Sir Richard Ashwoode, is determined, for economic reasons, that his daughter, Mary, should marry the ancient, foppish Whig peer, Lord Aspenly (even more unsound wood). O'Connor's friend, Mr Audley appeals on his behalf, to Sir Richard, offering a dowry, but is waved aside. Another friend, an old soldier, Major O'Leary, then intervenes and fights a duel with Lord Aspenly, who afterwards rejects the marriage. After a paroxysm of fury, Sir Richard dies. Meanwhile, his son and heir, Mary's brother, Sir Henry, is also deeply in in the hands of moneylenders. O'Connor happens by chance to save his life, which he repays with rank treachery by acting as an agent for his father against O'Connor's interests in the marriage. Reduced by gambling debts to desperation, his own cynical marriage plans having fallen through, Sir Henry falls victim to a plot to ensnare him and forges a cheque in the name of a dastardly villain, Nicholas Blarden, the penalty for which is death. Sir Henry has publicly and savagely beaten Blarden at Smock Alley theatre for daring to approach his sister, and Blarden has sworn revenge; now, he is in Blarden's hands and Blarden's revenge on him is to have Mary in marriage, having hired a rascally clergyman to perform the ceremony, and take over Morley Court, where she is being kept a prisoner. In a long sequence of pastiche-Gothic suspense, Mary (the imprisoned heiress) escapes with her resourceful maid, Flora Guy, and they manage to travel to safety at her uncle, Old Oliver Trench's estate in the country at Ardgillagh. Sir Henry is hanged. O'Connor finally returns and finds Mary, and but too late. She has fallen ill and died.


We first see O'Connor at the ramshackle inn which gives to the novel its title. This wooden structure (like the Carbrie in Torlough O'Brien ) acts as a site of 'irregularity', of picturesque, a rambling building vaguely reminiscent of ecclesiastical architecture in the medieval Catholic tradition:

The front of the building, facing the street, rested upon a row of massive wooden blocks, set endwise, at intervals of some six or eight feet, and running parallel at about the same distance, to the wall of the lower story of the house, thus forming a kind of rude cloister or open corridor, running the whole length of the building.

The spaces between these rude pillars were, by a light frame-work of timber, converted into a succession of arches; and by an application of the same ornamental process, the ceiling of this extended porch was made to carry a clumsy but not unpicturesque imitation of groining. Upon this open-work of timber … rested the second story of the building; protruding beyond which again, and supported upon projected beams whose projecting ends were carved into the semblance of heads hideous as the fantastic monsters of heraldry, arose the third story, presenting a series of tall and fancifully-shaped gables, decorated, like the rest of the building, with an abundance of grotesque timber-work.7

This stretch of picturesque is a mini-allegory: a political set-piece. 'Cloisters', 'groining', 'fantastic monsters' and 'grotesque timber-work' all suggest the anti-utilitarian past, an earlier tradition of (Catholic) cathedral-building in stone. This building is a part of this book's subdued, but insistent allegory about the unsound forests—the rottenness of the 'present' (i.e. 1710; 1845 is a discreetly silent layer here), Whig-dominated, house—of Ireland, to which it acts as a counterpoint.8 It has been left behind, 'narrowing the street with a most aristocratic indifference to the comforts of the pedestrian public' (4) and the luxury and fancy of its charming old woodwork may suggest a lost tradition of benign patrician rule: sound aristocracy and religious tolerance—which opposes itself to the brutal and ruinous combination of commercial exploitation and penal law which claim to be 'modern'.

It is in this inn that the Jacobite plot is first developed; we witness an encounter between Edmond O'Connor and a stranger, Captain O'Hanlon, who turns out to be an old friend of O'Connor's father. O'Hanlon gives two speeches in O'Connor's room, the first of which is addressed to the spirit of his deceased old friend and comrade-in-arms, Richard O'Connor:

'Nevertheless—over-ridden, and despised, and scattered as we are, mercenaries and beggars abroad, and landless at home—still something whispers in my ear that there will come at last a retribution, and such a one as will make this perjured, corrupt, and robbing ascendancy a warning and a wonder to all after times. Is it a common thing, think you, that all the gentlemen, all the chivalry of a whole country—the natural leaders and protectors of the people—should be stripped of their birthright, ay, even of the poor privilege of seeing in this their native country, strangers possessing the inheritances which are in all right their own; cast abroad upon the world; soldiers of fortune, selling their blood for a bare subsistence; many of them dying of want; and all because for honour and conscience' sake they refused to break the oath which bound them to a ruined prince. Is it a slight thing, think you, to visit with pains and penalties such as these, men guilty of no crimes beyond those of fidelity and honour!'9

This ominous speech suggests the more retributive context of this romance, in this early eighteenth-century period. After the Civil War of the 1690s and the Williamite settlement, Ireland is now a betrayed house, the flower of whose Catholic aristocracy, or even middle class, have been driven from their land by the new interest, a cold-hearted company of rulers emblemised, and, briefly, led, by Lord Wharton. It turns out that O'Hanlon was one of the highwaymen who set about young O'Connor, on the road to the inn, mistaking his identity for that of a Whig messenger:

I took you for one who we were informed would pass that way, and about the same hour—one who carried letters from a pretended friend—one whom I have long suspected, a half-faced, coldhearted friend, carried letters, I say, from such a one to the castle here; to that malignant, perjured reprobate and apostate, the so-called Lord Wharton—as meet an ornament for a gibbet as ever yet made feast for the ravens.10

Catholic reviewers objected to the way this plot is handled, and the bloodthirstiness of one of the conspirators, a Catholic priest, when they capture O'Connor who has strayed innocently into the grounds of Finiskea House in Phoenix Park, a house they are occupying, and threaten to execute him as a spy.11 But it is not only Captain O'Hanlon's prejudice, as a Catholic exile, that represents Wharton as corrupt. Later in the novel, there is an interesting scene inside Dublin Castle, in which the text dramatises a conversation between Swift, Addison and Wharton. The text allows us to witness the way in which a patter of double-talk and blackmail is operating at the top of the social system. Swift is casually blackmailed by Wharton:

He paused, but Swift remained silent. The lord lieutenant well knew that an English preferment was the nearest object of the young churchman's ambition.

He therefore continued—

'On my soul, we want you in England—this is no stage for you. By― you cannot hope to serve either yourself or your friends in this place.'

'Very few thrive here but scoundrels, my lord,' rejoined Swift.

'Even so,' replied Wharton with perfect equanimity—'it is a nation of scoundrels—dissent on the one side and popery on the other. The upper order harpies, and the lower a mere prey—and all equally liars, rogues, rebels, slaves, and robbers. By― some fine day the devil will carry off the island bodily. For very safety you must get out of it. By― he'll have it.'12

We catch a glimpse of the Gothic irony about 'superstition' here, and the retributive plot rears its head briefly. In his cynical frankness, Wharton jokes in the language of 'superstition', describing with ironical accuracy the culture he has himself created. It is the Devil's work. Wharton has Swift in his power here, and the process of corruption and cynicism in Ireland, in which the good and heroic are preyed upon by the merely manipulative, is portrayed as beginning at the top of the political system. Wharton is described ironically as 'a steady and uncompromising Whig, upon whom, throughout a long and active life, the stain of inconsistency had never rested…'.13 By contrast, when a country prebendary at a gathering Dublin castle looks upon Swift's face, he finds a 'countenance, full, as it seemed, of a scornful, merciless energy and decision, something told him that he looked upon one born to lead and command the people …' (I, 267).14

The text suggests that noble and natural (i.e. patrician) leaders, everywhere in this Whigdominated Ireland, both Catholic and Protestant, are in thrall to mercenary and manipulative interests. What price now the old oak of the 'Cock and Anchor' which has lasted so long? The Williamite Settlement led to a drastic reduction in the numbers of old estates that were in Catholic hands. The bitter conditions created by the penal code partly explain this romance's tone and its code of 'unsound timber'. The novel's most recent editor, Jan Jedrejewski, sees the Wharton scene in Dublin Castle as a rather weak piece of historical realism, judging it by the standards of Scott, because Le Fanu had simply based it on a pamphlet by Swift.15 But Joseph Spence argues, rightly, I think, that this scene is crucial to the intellectual structure of the novel because Le Fanu's anti-Whig polemic does not commit itself to being anti-Hanoverian. Le Fanu is careful not to praise, blame, or even mention, Wharton's successor, Ormonde, when he could have done. Seen in this light, the novel's 'even-handedness' is in tension with its rhetorical energy, a conflict which follows on from the ironical connection between 'superstition' and the theme of Williamite guilt in The Purcell Papers. This tension associates itself in the text with undercurrents of the Gothic—the grotesque and uncanny.

These are strange times, the text argues, which generate an exotic undergrowth of shabby black-mailers, grotesque money-lenders, and rascally parasitic lawyers, low types who creep into the lowest rungs of professions to leech off foolish or desperate Whig aristocrats and their wastrel offspring. The villain of the novel, Nicholas Blarden, is a kind of Gothic echo of Wharton's joke about the devil ('old Nick', as his friends refer to him) who drives the second-half of this plot in his relentless squeezing of young Sir Henry Ashwoode and pursuit of his sister, Mary. Old Sir Richard, likewise, has his creepy shadow, Mr Craven, who is a mixture of stereotypes:

The bell pealed and the knocker thundered, and in a moment a servant entered, and announced Mr Craven—a spare built man, of low stature, wearing his own long, grizzled hair instead of a wig—having a florid complexion, hooked nose, beetle brows, and long-cut, Jewish, black eyes, set close under the bridge of his nose—who stepped with a velvet tread into the room. An unvarying smile sate upon his lips, and about his whole air and manner there was a certain indescribable sanctimoniousness, which was rather enhanced by the puritan plainness of his attire.16

The demonising rhetoric of this figure is made up of two Dickensian stereotypes: the old-fashioned theatrical figure of the Puritan hypocrite, and the almost immemorial figure of the Jewish usurer. 'Craven' means coward, principally, but it also connotes 'pleading' (cf. Miles Garrett's 'I crave your pardon' in Torlough O'Brien ) and Mr Craven is a lawyer, a professional pleader. It is implied that his 'lowness' is a combination of low church, low class, and low race. This anti-puritan, anti-Semitic caricature is the beginning of a long line of figures associated with the Whiggification of society in Le Fanu's later romances. Indeed this anti-Whig novel is really a template for many of those later texts, whose anti-Semitism reaches its apotheosis in The Tenants of Malory. 17

I have no space here to scrutinise the nuances of the rhetoric, constantly shading into darkness, the grotesque and the uncanny, in which a number of minor characters (servants and hangers-on) are encased in this text.18 But there is also another concealed Gothic story which deserves comment, because it simply looks an excrescence at first sight. In a characteristically roundabout and backhanded way, it again sets Catholic 'credulity' (superstition) against Whig rationalism. This is the curious rewrite of the 'Locked Room Mystery' in II, v, which is inset into Sir Richard Ashwoode's death. The retributive Gothic is mediated through the 'superstitious' witness, the Italian, forger and hanger-on, Parucci. Whole passages here are recycled from The Purcell Papers. Parucci pushes open the door of the baronet's dressing-room and encounters 'A candle, wasted to the very socket …' but still burning on the table beside the 'huge hearse-like bed …' (II, 53). Parucci seems to have heard Sir Richard speaking, in the next room, and he asks himself who could possibly have been with the baronet:

'What made him speak; nothing was with him—pshaw, nothing could come to him here—no, no, nothing.'

As he thus spoke, the wind swept vehemently upon the windows with a sound as if some great thing had rushed against them, and was pressing for admission, and the gust blew out the candle; the blast died away in an lengthened wail, and then again came howling and rushing up to the windows, as if the very prince of the powers of the air himself were thundering at the casement; then again the blue dazzling lightning glared into the room and gave place to deeper darkness.

Pah! that lightning smells like brimstone. Sangue d'un dua, I hear something in the room.

Yielding to his terrors, Parrucci stumbled to the door opening upon the great lobby, and with cold and trembling fingers drawing the bolt, sprang to the stairs and shouted for assistance in a tone which speedily assembled half the household in the chamber of death.19

This is a flash of Gothic. This wind was used to very good effect later by M. R. James. The undermining of the witness's full credibility yields the required ambiguity between natural and supernatural explanations. But this is not just a detached 'formal' property of the Gothic genre here, incongrously and perhaps wilfully thrust into a historical romance about the Williamite Settlement. There is a retributive logic: Parucci is a conventional materialist—hence his expressions of contempt—but here the irrational has taken him back to his Catholic roots and stimulated his imagination, and the supernatural ambiguities of the shorter fiction are left for the reader to respond to as an equilibrium of competing explanations.20

Coda: readerly darkness: The Fortunes of Torlough O'Brien (1847)


We must go back to the summer of 1689. [In The Fortunes of Torlough O'Brien ] King James II has left the throne of England and removed himself to France, and the Prince of Orange has entered London and occupied the throne of England. Ireland is in a state of anarchy, under the violently discriminatory rule of James's deputy, the Earl of Tyrconnel, who (in the eyes of many) has set about creating a Catholic state. The Irish Parliament has been disbanded. The countryside is full of 'rapparees', armed bandits who tend to be discharged soldiers from James's armies.

Old Sir Hugh Willoughby, a Protestant peer and the current occupant, when the novel opens in 1689, of Glindarragh Castle, a large rambling fortified house in County Limerick, is accused on a charge of treason, trumped up by his cousin, Miles Garrett of Lisnamoe. The time-serving Garrett who is a justice of the peace, is an apostate from Protestantism to Catholicism and his main concern in life is simple: to acquire Glindarragh for himself. He tries what he thinks of as the honourable way—by asking for the hand of Grace Willoughby, Sir Hugh's beautiful daughter, but the old man violently rejects him. Garrett, however, has acquired influence with Tyrconnel himself: it appears that Old Sir Hugh's wife, Lady Willoughby, who is now half-imprisoned in obscurity somewhere in Dublin, has had an affair with Tyrconnel, a fact which allows Garrett to blackmail him into accepting the charge of treason, despite its evident flimsiness.

Garrett calls on 'motley thousands' (97) of rapparees who besiege Glindarragh, on the pretext of seeking some allegedly stolen cattle. There is a pitched battle just before which, during the initial parlay, Garrett makes sure the name of King James is audibly insulted by the hot-tempered and outraged Willoughby, thus providing the charge of treason. Eventually, the castle is taken and Willoughby and his daughter are at the mercy of Garrett and his rapparees.

Grace Willoughby has already been rescued once from the clutches of a particularly ugly and grotesque rapparee, called Desmond Hogan, by an unknown and handsome dragoon, who is recognised by her old nurse as Torlogh Dhuv, or 'Dark Torlough', a scion of the ancient O'Brien family, who are the real owners of Glindarragh castle. The ancient Gaelic prophecy says that when the one with the shamrock mark on his brow is seen on Glindarragh Bridge, then the O'Briens will return to Glindarragh. It seems that the O'Briens were driven out at the dissolution of the monasteries and that the Willoughby family was subsequently given the castle by the 'old queen', Elizabeth.

Just at the moment of Garrett's triumph, Torlogh O'Brien appears with a troop of dragoons and takes over from him. O'Brien thus, for the first time, enters what is arguably his own property. He quarters his men at the castle and takes personal charge of Garrett's prisoners, escorting them himself to Dublin for the trial. It is plain that the honourable and kindly O'Brien has no sympathy for Garrett and every sympathy for Willoughby and his daughter, despite the fact that they are, technically, his enemies.21

James II enters Dublin, and we catch a glimpse of his Privy Council tetchily discussing Willoughby's case. In Dublin, thanks to the machinations of Garrett and his associates, who manipulate one of the key witnesses into betraying Willoughby, the trial goes against the old man. O'Brien, having declared himself to Grace Willoughby and been accepted, helps her to plead secretly with James himself for her father's life, but the King rejects her plea and her father is thrown into jail to await execution.

However, Garrett discovers that the Glindarragh estate has been set up in such a way that it will revert, not to the state, but to another party on Sir Hugh's death. It is imperative therefore that he not be hanged, while they search for the deed and destroy it. So Sir Hugh obtains a temporary reprieve, which is reported with teasing irony.

Meanwhile O'Brien has been obliged to rejoin his unit. He fights with Sarsfield's cavalry all the way through from Boyne Water to the battle of Aughrim where he is wounded, and we find him lying in the vaults of St Mary's Abbey towards the end of the book, very weak, but protected from the incursions of Protestant Williamite soldiery by a ragged crew of rapparees.

Garrett, who has in the meantime characteristically turned coat and become a Williamite, and is an officer in the Protestant forces, has been overtaken by history and fails in his project. Glindarragh is eventually reclaimed by O'Brien with Grace Willoughby as his bride and the old man carries on in residence, as the current but temporary owner. Garrett is finally killed by Ned Ryan, one of his neighbouring rapparees, in a skirmish after a cattle raid. The villain is thrown into a ravine, and his corpse is found by children picking 'frahans' (whortleberries).


I am deliberately simplifying the plot in the above summary to reveal its main lines. It is clear that this plot is again reconciliatory, and that the story is sympathetic, in the manner of earlier writers of Irish romance, Lady Morgan and Charles Maturin, to 'the O's and the Mac's', the ancient Catholic (but also pagan) nobility of Ireland who were the original owners of the land. Willoughby, the doughty old Whig peer (a rather rare character in Le Fanu: a good (i.e. a high-toned) Whig, and O'Brien, the Milesian who resembles a 'Moorish prince', come to recognise one another because they share a common trait: honour. They are both true Irishmen, whatever their religious persuasions, family histories, and ancestral claims to the same piece of property.

This sentimental convention is, in a sense, a class recognition. Garrett, the ambitious villain, is a hypocrite opportunist who is born 'low'. He is typical of the 'New Interest'. There is a range of minor characters who occupy the place of other stereotypes hovering between the fictional and the historical. Another 'low' character, Old Tisdal, the respectable tenant of Glindarragh's manor farm at Drumgunniol, and follower of Sir Hugh, who betrays him and testifies against him, is a highwayman turned Puritan, whose pious exterior masks his murderous past. This again, though not simple hypocrisy, is an important version of 'lowness' which Le Fanu will exploit in the villains, and sometimes, in a twist of expectations, the sympathetic characters, of his later romances.22


The Prologue of this text is a rhetorical feat, which goes some way towards providing Le Fanu with a solution to the conflict between the Gothic (i.e. the indirect and retributory) use of 'attestation' he has invented for the short story in The Purcell Papers, and the pressure of the historical romance towards panorama and overview, which implies a 'central' narrative voice, a more stable, or at least a more visible, relationship between implied author and reader:

In the summer of the year 1686, at about ten o'clock at night, two scenes were passing, very different in all the accidents of place, plot, and personage; and which although enacted, the one in London, and the other near it, yet exercised an influence upon the events and persons of our Irish story, so important and so permanent, that we must needs lift the curtain from before the magic mirror, which every author, in virtue of his craft, is privileged to consult, and disclose for a minute the scenery and forms which flit across its mystic surface.23

At first sight, this device is simply mechanical: it is evidently a dramatic way of providing a 'backstory' for the novel's plot, whose main action begins in 1689. But it has certain oddities about it, which are in excess of this function. What is a curtain doing in front of the 'mirror'? The reader is metaphorically in the dark: a member of the audience at a fairground show, or perhaps a fantasmagoria.24 And the author? A mixture of Gypsy Rose Lee, Hecate from Macbeth, and the Master of Ceremonies at a peepshow. Narration is a kind of prophecy about the past. We stare into the essence of the scene, and we watch while its 'forms'—characters shorn of names and all but the accidental properties of their clothing, bearing, and environment—act out a proleptic dumbshow of the novel's narrative.

But we are not just metaphorically in the dark. This process plainly teases the reader with their very distance from the images in front of them; our (modern) position of almost total ignorance and helplessness is mocked by the insistent intimacy of this partial realisation. How for example can we (even the early-nineteenth-century reader) identify whether these 'forms' are 'fictions' or representations of historical characters?

In the chamber into which we are looking, there burns a large lamp, which sheds through its stained-glass sphere a soft, rose-coloured light on all the objects which surround it; and eight wax lights, flaring and flickering in the evening breeze which floats lightly in at the open windows, tend an additional distinctiveness to the forms that occupy the room.

These are four in number: two lean over a table, which stands near the window, and seem to be closely examining a map, which nearly covers the board over which they stoop—the one sharp-featured, sallow, somewhat slovenly in his attire, his short cloak hanging from his shoulder, and his high-crowned hat (then an obsolete fashion) dangling in his hand, leans over the outspread plan, and with eager gestures and rapid enunciation, and yet with a strange mixture of deference, appears to harangue his listening companion. He is a strong, square-built man, somewhat perhaps, beyond the middle age, gravely and handsomely dressed—his huge perriwig swings forward and rests his chin upon his jewelled hand, and fixes upon the chart before him a countenance bold and massive, in which the strong lines of sense and sensuality are strikingly combined.25

We are placed in the position of one who must deduce from the signs the meaning of this scene. The 'chart'—as in a stage play—indicates planning, if not conspiracy. But the text tells us nothing directly. Our sensory targets are confined to the visual sign—the sound has effectively been turned off. The figures are seen from a distance, and with an uncertainty that represents our own ignorance in advance—the first form 'appears to harangue' the second, for example—of its actual appearance.

The first of these figures is a fiction: it is the villain of this novel, Miles Garrett, whose clothes and manners betray his lowly origins and his country fashions. The second figure is the brother of Richard Talbot, Earl of Tyrconnell, and is a historical figure. (The emphasis on 'He' may convey a clue to an Irish reader of the 1840s, but it is a rhetorical gamble, which looks more like teasing to me.) It might be supposed that the next chapter would begin by explaining all this. But no such revelation follows. How do I know this? Because after 144 pages, or twenty chapters, the author suddenly adds a series of 'casual' afterthoughts:

… this was the very individual whom Sir Hugh had that day pointed out to his daughter as the "lay priest", and brother to the Earl of Tyrconnell, while the procession was passing beneath the windows of the Carbrie; let us add too, that this is the identical person whom we described in the earliest chapter of this book as leaning over a certain map, in company with Miles Garrett, upon a soft summer's night in the year 1686, in a rich saloon in London.26

The fictional Garrett then, in the magic-mirror image, is setting up the first stage of his plan to gain Glindarragh castle—hence the map. The rest of the first magic-mirror scene is an equally unknowable mixture of fictional plot and historical fact:

Pacing to and fro, and sometimes pausing half abstractedly at this table, looking for a moment at the outspread paper, and betraying the absence, and, perhaps, the agitation of his mind by his wandering gaze and the restless drumming of his knuckles on the table; then turning again to resume his rapid walk across the floor, and stealing occasionally a hurried and uneasy look towards a figure who sits alone upon a sofa in the obscurest part of the chamber, is seen a man of commanding stature and lofty mien, though somewhat tending to corpulence, richly dressed in a suit of dark velvet, sparkling with jewels, his neckcloth and ruffles fluttering with splendid point, having in his countenance a certain character of haughty command, according well with the high pretensions of his garb.

We are plunged again into the activity of deduction or guesswork. This must be 'Lying Dick Talbot', the Earl of Tyrconnel himself, a historical figure of great importance. The implication is that he is aware of the conspiracy which his brother is entering into with Miles Garrett, but is too distracted to find it of interest.

That is because of his apparently guilty interest in the fourth 'form':

Another figure remains to be described, it is that toward which the regards of him we have just examined are so often turned: the form is that of a female, seated, as we have said, upon a sofa, and wrapped in a close travelling cloak, the hood of which falls over her face, so that, excepting she is tall, and possesses hands and feet of singular beauty and slimness, we can pronounce nothing whatever of her personnel—she is evidently weeping, her dress shows the vibration of every sob, and the convulsive clasping of her small hands, and the measured beating of her tiny foot upon the floor, betoken her inward anguish.27

This is Lady Willoughby, a fictional character, whose affair with Tyrconnell has become known to Garrett, who in his turn intends to use this knowledge as a means of convicting her husband, Sir Hugh Willoughby, of treason and thus gaining the object of his desire, the possession of Glindarragh castle in Limerick, the Willoughby seat.

Again, I infer this from having read the novel. I could not actually 'deduce' it from what is in front of me, so completely is it reduced to the bare 'forms' and 'figures' of the magic mirror's images. It intrigues me, of course; but the mirror reveals a drama I am explicitly forbidden at this stage to enter, and, indeed, for much of the novel to come. To read at this point is to enter the space of darkness. And yet the author—the showman-prophet—teases me mercilessly with my own efforts to infer meaning from the text in front of me, which he is in the act of creating:

Lo! there must have been some sudden sound at the door! They all start and look toward it—the lean gentleman, in the shabby suit, clutches his map; his brawny companion advances a pace; the tall aristocrat arrests his walk, and stands fixed and breathless; while the lady shrinks further back, and draws her hood more closely over her face.

Their objects, then, must be secret.

It is, however, a false alarm, they resume their respective postures and occupations—and so leaving them, we wave the wand which conjured up the scene, and in a moment all is shivered, clouded, and gone.28

The frustration of that hackneyed old picturesque opening device of 'the hypothetical observer' becomes explicit here, as the narrator turns the parodic screw on the melodrama of the early Victorian reader's expectations, fed on a diet of Ainsworth, Reynolds, Dickens, Eugène Sue, and Sir Walter Scott.

What is interesting are the expressionistic lengths to which Le Fanu is prepared to go and what he is prepared to risk to gain his effect of readerly 'darkness'. The frame is an assimilation of reading—and specifically, the state of expectation—to the early cinema, and the darkness that descends between each scene. No sooner is the mirror 'wiped', than a second scene appears, just as obscure as the first. This time the reference-points are more obviously 'Gothic'; we seem to be in an undercroft or even burial vault of some kind:

… it represents the dim vistas of a vaulted chamber, spanned with low, broad arches of stone, springing from the stone floor. Two blazing links, circled with a lurid halo from the heavy damps which hang there, in thin perpetual fog, shed a dusky, flickering glare upon the stained and dripping roof, and through the dim and manifold perspective of arches, until it spends itself in vapoury darkness.


One thinks here of the numerous underground scenes (often Catholic—Rookwood, or Guy Fawkes, for example) in Harrison Ainsworth's novels, much read at this time; and of the Jacobite climax to Scott's The Black Dwarf, which takes place in an underground chapel. But here we are treading the line of the frame, not the text proper: there is little clue as to what is happening. In fact, the rhetoric works hard to deny us information, undermining the reader's position of privilege once again, so that the 'fitful glow' of the turpentine torches acts as a metaphor for our state of knowledge as much as it 'illuminates' the characters before us:

A group of some seven or eight figures stands in the fitful glow of this ruddy illumination—gentlemen of wealth and worship, it would seem, by the richness of their garb: some are wrapt in their cloaks, some are booted, and all wear their broadleafed, low-crowned hats. Strong lines and deep shadows mark many a furrowed and earnest face. This is no funereal meeting, as the place would seem to indicate—no trappings of mourning are visible, and the subject of their conversation, though deep and weighty, is too earnest and energizing for a theme of sorrow; neither is there, in the faces or gestures of the assembly, a single indication of excitement or enthusiasm. The countenances, the attitudes, the movements of the group, all betoken caution, deliberation, and intense anxiety. From time to time are seen, singly, or in couples, or in groups of three, other forms in the shadowy distance, as richly dressed, gliding like ghosts through the cloistered avenues, and holding with themselves, or one another anxious debate.29

All we are allowed to know from the text is that this is the summer of 1686. One year, that is, after the failure of the Monmouth rebellion. We are somewhere near London. I infer from the atmosphere that this is the beginning of the real rebellion against James II by leading Protestants who had grown tired of watching the transformation of England into a catholic state, a move which eventually led to the invitation to the Prince of Orange to invade their country and which was to lead to civil war in Ireland. There is a touch of irony about the odd use of 'wealth and worship' in the above (does 'worship' here refer to religion, or 'adulation based on', or even 'of', material prosperity? This is precisely the ambiguity of the demonic Vanderhausen, from 'Schalken the Painter') which suggests that the leading interests here might well be 'the New Interest' of the Whigs. This is no romantic, Jacobite conspiracy, for a lost kingdom; but a serious, worldly, and above all feasible affair.

The scene is suddenly animated:

And now, a tall and singularly handsome man, in gorgeous military uniform, turning from an elder personage in a velvet cloak, to whom he has been deferentially listening, moves a pace or two toward the detached parties, who walk slowly up and down, as we have described, and raising his plumed hat, he beckons them forward; and so they come, and must with the rest; whereupon the elder gentleman, in the velvet cloak, draws forth a letter, and with a brief word or two of preface, as would seem, reads it for the rest, pausing from time to time to offer and receive remarks. This over, he says something further, whereupon he and all the rest raise their hats for a moment, and then he shows the letter to one of the company nearest himself, who takes it, looks to the end, and then to the beginning, and so passes it on to another, and so from hand to hand it goes, until again it first reaches him who first produced it; and then, with the same solemn and earnest looks and air, they, one by one, take leave, shake hands, and glide away, until the old gentleman in the cloak, and one other remain. Then he in the cloak holds the corner of the momentous letter to the flaring link, and now it floats to the ground in flame, and now all that remains of the mysterious paper, is a light black film, coursed all over by a thousand nimble sparkles.30

I am obliged to guess here. Among these shades of the obscure and dead, I take the leading conspirators to be the young Duke of Marlborough, second-in-command of James's army and a known plotter, and Anthony Ashley Cooper, the Earl of Shaftesbury, who had already been imprisoned in the tower for fomenting the Monmouth rebellion. This fateful letter is a draft of the invitation to William, Prince of Orange, son-in-law to King James, to invade the country and oust James from the throne. Either that, or it is James's reply. But Le Fanu would then have had to have moved it forward by two years because that did not occur until 1688, so I assume that this scene in the summer of 1686 perhaps represents the solemn undertaking to invite, rather than William's acceptance. Hence, everyone is given the opportunity to comment, finally, on the wording, and then health is wished to the enterprise and loyalty and respect are expressed towards the Protestant Prince, the arrangement is checked, sealed by handshakes, and this copy of the letter destroyed.

The nature of the image and what it represents is interesting. The Gothic vault is a fiction: the condensation of a set of underground political actions into a set of 'forms', not an attempt to portray realistically those actions. The reader's attempts to identify are kept at bay by the technique of (what we would call in modern jargon) defamiliarisation.

This is worthy of Pinewood Studies or Hollywood. Le Fanu shows he would have probably written for the movies if he had lived in the twentieth century. The Reader of the 1840s is invited to think of this as a version of the Fantasmagoria—a kind of magic-lanthern show of resurrected apparitions. Le Fanu has appropriated this literal phenomenon for its metaphorical value in alluding to the process of reading. The conceit sets the reader outside the text, and is an elaborately new form of framing and distancing, while ostensibly whipping up, the reader's responses. It establishes the dark space we enter when we read—the space of ignorance and 'superstition' and secrecy, which is there to be manipulated and preyed upon by the fictional text.31 Le Fanu continues to insert, in other words, even in the leisurely overview of the romance genre, his estrangement of the reader from the text.

And, I think secondly, through the metaphor of 'forms' or 'figures', normally a temporary rhetorical device, he re-introduces a chiaroscuro effect into the frame of the fiction itself. This replaces, or shifts into a different form his earlier rhetoric of 'attestation'. It clearly assimilates the reading process to that of drama: and yields a space between the reader and the text, a kind of 'stage' on which the text performs itself, a non-mimetic plane, on which a complete mingling can take place between the discourses of history and fiction.


1. See Ian Duncan, Modern Romance and Transformations of the Novel: The Gothic, Scott, Dickens (Cambridge, 1992). See also on Scott's successors, A. Sanders, The Victorian Historical Novel, 1840–1880 (London, 1978), 14-31.

2. For equivocations between realist and romantic readings of Scott, see Duncan, op. cit., 62. And see note 12, for bibliography. For the evidence Le Fanu thought of Scott as a romantic writer, see the Preface to Uncle Silas, ed. V. Sage (Harmondsworth, 2000), 3-4, and the commentary on this in relation to other Victorian readings of Scott in the Introduction, ix-xiii.

3. Le Fanu, The Purcell Papers, III, 217.

4. See his insistence on 'lowering' Maturin's effects in their correspondence, Ratchford and McCarthy, eds, op. cit., passim.

5. Le Fanu, The Fortunes of Colonel Torlough O'Brien, Dublin, 1847, 217.

6. In this case, Swift's own. See The Cock and Anchor, Ulster editions and Monographs 9, (Gerrard's Cross) 2001, ed. J. Jedrzewski, whose view of the novel is that Le Fanu was writing 'against himself' in this novel. See Intro., xviii.

7. Le Fanu, The Cock and Anchor (Dublin, 1845), 2-3.

8. This politicising of the 'picturesque' is an important theme which Purcell has established at the outset of The Purcell Papers, in his comments on the analogy between the ancient forests of Ireland, and the depleted condition of the genealogical trees of great Catholic families. Later, the notion of 'waste' is made into a sub-plot in Uncle Silas; in his desperate need for money Silas begins to burn his patrimony, the 'grand old timber' on the estate for charcoal. The bitter conditions created by the penal code at this time in Ireland partly explain the tone of this romance and its code of 'unsound timber':

'The social and economic effects of the penal code must have been very considerable. Family life was disrupted in many ways: Catholic fathers were estranged from Protestant heirs; bitter disputes were caused by the activities of 'discoverers' within the family. As the Catholic class diminished in numbers and influence, they were more and more cut off from the social life of the countryside. Uncertainty of tenure discouraged investment in land improvement and led to the cutting of timber for immediate profit.'

A New History of Ireland, Oxford, 1986, Vol. IV, eds T.W. Moody and W.E. Vaughan, Chapter I, 20.

9. Le Fanu, op. cit., I, 20-1.

10. Le Fanu, ibid., I, 22-3.

11. See Jedrzejewski, Appendix, 476-8.

12. Le Fanu, op. cit., I, 271.

13. Le Fanu, ibid., I, 263.

14. Le Fanu, ibid., I, 267.

15. Jedrzewjski, op. cit., Introduction, xvi-xvii., and 416, note 4. Spence, op. cit., 314. For other aspects of the novel's analysis and its connection to the Gothic of Maturin, see also Spence, 348-9.

16. Le Fanu, op. cit., I, 202.

17. See Paul Hopkins, 'An Unknown Annotated Copy of The Tenants of Malory: J. Sheridan Le Fanu Regrets Some Anti-Semitic Expressions', Long Room, 30 (1985), 32-5.

18. Two examples I would briefly point to, however. Gordon Chancey, Blarden's lawyer has a dangerously languid nature and sleepy, glittering eyes. These eyes will become those of 'Carmilla', fifty years later. The other example is Black Martha, the demonic female servant of Old Mr Audley. She is the first example in Le Fanu of the 'unconscious hypocrite', whose compulsive, but totally concealed, interior, insists on emerging, in a splendid, purely theatrical soliloquy towards the end of the book. See below for further commentary on this. For a political analysis of this incident, see Spence, op. cit., 348. When Jedrzejewski, calls Le Fanu's characters 'puppets', he is disappointed, using Scott's rounded historical realism as an evaluative criterion, but if seen as a kind of combination of Gothic and political satire, these characters are comic as well as violent and threatening. Their artifice is that of the stage, but shifted into the novel.

19. Le Fanu, op. cit., II, 55-6.

20. The textual presentation of the incident and its equivalent effects in The Purcell Papers anticipate Le Fanu's very clear statement to Bentley about how he conceived of a rhetoric of'explanation'in his texts. See Walter C. Edens, op. cit., 238: 'The 3rd Vol. [The Haunted Baronet] is a story in equilibrium—between the natural and the super-natural. The supernatural phenomena being explainable on natural theories—and people left to choose what solution they please.'

21. Le Fanu is using the biography of Patrick Sarsfield in this novel for 'reconciliatory' purposes. See Piers Wauchope, Patrick Sarsfield and the Williamite War (Dublin, 1992). See the incidents at Birr castle (Offaly) reported in this book, which Le Fanu seems to have used as a model for the fictional Glindarragh castle plot, and the generous and just behaviour of O'Brien to his enemies, 50-3, 124, 170,186, and 242.

22. Paul Dangerfield in The House by the Churchyard straddles both low and high and is a fake gentleman, with a murderous past. Likewise, Walter Longcluse, in Checkmate is another mask for another personality in a past of bloodshed and murder. Both these are Gothic versions of the Double, who begin with Tisdall, the Ainsworthian ex-highwayman who conceals his past under a mask of pious puritanism. But Bryerly in Uncle Silas, and, to a lesser extent, Mr Dawe, in The Rose and The Key are inverted 'low' characters.

23. Le Fanu, op. cit., 1.

24. For the relation between this early form of cinema and the Gothic, see Terry Castle, 'The Spectralising of the Other in The Myseries of Udolpho', in The New Eighteenth Century, eds Felicity Nussbaum and Laura Brown (New York and London, 1987), 231-54. For a more extended account, see also the more detailed and extended background in 'Phantasmagoria and the Metaphorics of Modern Reverie' in The Female Thermometer: Eighteenth Century Culture and the Invention of the Uncanny, 140-67. For some further, more recent comment, see Thomas Ruffles, Life after Death in the Cinema, unpublished PhD thesis, University of East Anglia, 2001.

25. Le Fanu, ibid., 2.

26. Le Fanu, ibid., 144.

27. Le Fanu, ibid., 3.

28. Le Fanu, ibid., 3.

29. Le Fanu, ibid., 3-4.

30. Le Fanu, ibid., 4.

31. Cf Terry Castle's description of the ambiguities of the fantasmagoria as a badge of the Enlightenment:

It was never a simple mechanistic model of the mind's workings. Technically speaking, of course, the image did fit nicely with post-Lockeian notions of mental experience; nineteenth century empiricists frequently figured the mind as a kind of magic-lanthern, capable of projecting the image-traces of past sensation onto the internal 'screen' or backcloth of the memory. But the word phantasmagoria, like the magic lanthern itself, inevitably carried with it powerful atavistic associations with magic and the supernatural. To invoke the supposedly mechanistic analogy was subliminally to import the language of the uncanny into the realm of mental function. The mind became a phantom-zone—given over, at least potentially, to spectral presences and haunting obsessions. A new kind of daemonic possession became possible.

       (Castle, (1995) op. cit., 144 (my italics))

Le Fanu is using the fantasmagoria here in the opposite way, not 'subliminally', but as a conscious and elaborate rhetorical analogy with the craft of the novelist, which allows him to exploit the ambiguities of 'superstition' which Castle describes so beautifully here, for his own (quasi-political) purposes. He frames his novel explicitly as a phantasmagoria in language, which immediately introduces another layer of representation.




SOURCE: Senf, Carol A. "Women and Power in 'Carmilla.'" Gothic New Series 2 (1987): 25-33.

In the following essay, Senf considers the characterization of women as both victims and victimizers in "Carmilla."

Although Joseph Sheridan LeFanu (1814–1873) wrote eighteen books and numerous short stories, he is remembered today primarily as a writer of Gothic tales, such as Uncle Silas and "Carmilla." In "Carmilla," the most overtly supernatural of these Gothic tales, the title character is actually a centuries old vampire, who—unlike Charlotte Brontë's Bertha Mason or George Eliot's Bulstrode, characters who resemble the vampire—literally returns from the grave and sustains her unnatural existence by drinking human blood. Despite the presence of the supernatural in "Carmilla," however, LeFanu uses the vampire motif primarily to focus on the condition of women's lives during the time that he wrote. Revealing that women are neither the angels often portrayed in sentimental Victorian fiction, household management manuals, and periodical literature nor the devils of either Gothic novels or sensation novels, "Carmilla" demonstrates that women's lives are complex and varied. Sometimes victims of outright exploitation, women are also powerful victimizers as well.

A survey of LeFanu's works reveals a number of the sweet and passive women so common to nineteenth-century popular fiction. For example, his first novel, The Cock and Anchor, includes a young woman whose father is willing to sacrifice her to save himself from debt and whose brother will give her in marriage to a monster to avoid social and financial embarrassment. Even more extreme is Maud Ruthyn (in Uncle Silas ) whose uncle is willing to murder her for her inheritance. Often LeFanu—as he does in "Carmilla," Uncle Silas, Loved and Lost, and Willing to Die —uses young unmarried women as narrators. As W. J. McCormack observes in Sheridan LeFanu and Victorian Ireland, "the hysterical and untrustworthy" narrator of Willing to Die, LeFanu's last novel, "is the culmination of a series of female narrators, beginning with the inexperienced and … sexless Maud Ruthyn and including Edith Aubrey of Loved and Lost and the naive victim of lesbianism and vampirism in 'Carmilla' " (243).

In fact, there are so many victimized women in LeFanu's work that Michael Begnal observes that LeFanu's women are tragic figures because they "perceive the inequities which exist in their own situations and in the society around them yet they are powerless to effect any significant change" (72). Similarly William Veeder also focuses on LeFanu's women characters:

Although men as well as women suffer from repression in "Carmilla," LeFanu chooses female protagonists because he agrees with clear-sighted Victorians that woman in particular is stunted emotionally. "Carmilla" is part of that High Victorian self-examination which called into question literary and social conventions and the moral orthodoxies underlying them.


The problem with both of these views is that, in seeing women only as victims, they ignore both the literary evidence—the powerful Carmilla and some of LeFanu's other competent women (including Miss Darkwell in All in the Dark, Laura Challys Gray in Haunted Lives, and Ethel Ware of Willing to Die )—and the facts of historical reality.

The feminist historian Gerda Lerner addresses this historical reality in her essay, "New Approaches to the Study of Women in American History." Although Lerner's observations about power refer specifically to the United States, they are applicable to all nations and all cultures:

Women have for centuries been excluded from positions of power, both political and economic, yet as members of families, as daughters and wives, they often were closer to actual power than many a man. If women were among the exploiters, if some women were dissatisfied with their limited opportunities, most women were adjusted to their position in society and resisted efforts at changing it.


In addition, the unique facts of Victorian history are addressed by Judith Newton who, using manuals and periodical literature as background for her reading of women's fiction in Women, Power, and Subversion, demonstrates that some women in the nineteenth century had a great deal of power:

The debate over the "woman question," in addition to its mass production of theories about women's "mission," "kingdom," or "sphere," gave an emphasis to the subject of women's power, and in particular to their influence, which was historically unprecedented. One has only to take manuals addressed to genteel women in the late eighteenth century and lay them alongside those written for middle-class women some sixty to seventy years later to see a deepening tension over women's power begin to manifest itself.


As Newton suggests, the woman question was on many minds during the nineteenth century. Therefore, LeFanu, who was both a writer of fiction and a working journalist, could hardly have ignored the question of women's power and influence.

Besides the general nineteenth-century interest in women's issues, there may be personal reasons for LeFanu's preoccupation with the power of his women characters. The first is an unhappy marriage. Although LeFanu's wife was reputedly a quiet and inoffensive woman, McCormack notes that the marital difficulties about which LeFanu wrote in his diary affected the entire family and adds that LeFanu's mother-in-law, undoubtedly aware of these troubles, made the following bitter observation when she recorded her daughter's death in the family prayer-book:

My darling Susy died at No. 18 Merrion Square Wednesday 28 April 1858 suddenly. She was laid with her beloved father and two brothers in the vault at Mount Jerome near Dublin beloved and bitterly lamented by those who knew her loving and attractive nature.


Whatever the reason for their marital unhappiness, LeFanu apparently felt like the victimized party. In addition to a feeling of victimization that may have led him to identify with oppressed groups, he was extremely close to his mother; and that relationship may be the most important reason for his sympathetic identification with women. McCormack notes that both Joseph and his brother were attached to their mother and that she was Joseph's only confidante until her death in 1861 (121). In addition, Nelson Browne's study indicates that LeFanu's mother was an extremely complex woman and cites as proof the Memoir of T. P. LeFanu, which contains a bibliography of her works (11). Because she was a social activist and a woman of some power both within the family and outside it, LeFanu's mother may have been a source of his interest in the power that women have.

"Carmilla appears to divide women into two separate groups—the powerless and the potentially powerful. The powerless group includes young peasant women who are simply food for Carmilla; Laura's two governesses, gentlewomen apparently down on their luck; and Laura who, although descended from an aristocratic family, is forced to live in comparative retirement for financial reasons. All are victims or potential victims. Powerful women include Carmilla, the aristocratic seducer, and Carmilla's mother, who appears to be even more powerful than Carmilla herself.

That women are often victims is easily seen in Laura, the naive young narrator. A typical Victorian heroine, Laura is presented as an "everywoman" figure. For example, she is nameless for the first part of the story, and the reader never does learn her last name. She is interested in the subjects that were expected to be the center of a young woman's life—parties and the opportunities they represented for meeting eligible young men. Furthermore, even though she mentions in the first paragraph that her father is English and later that her mother is from an old Hungarian family,1 these specific details do little to individualize her; and additional information, such as her pride in her rationalistic education (she mentions, for example, that she was "studiously kept in ignorance of ghost stories, of fairy tales" [399]), serves only to reinforce her typicality. Indeed the only thing that makes Laura unique is her perverse relationship with Carmilla; and that relationship will leave her drained and ultimately dead.

The relationship begins when Laura is a small child—too young to recognize either the sexual overtones of the vampire's embrace or the fact that such an embrace is ultimately deadly. Nonetheless, Laura is terrified by Carmilla's first visit, and she becomes more frightened when her father (the source of power and authority in her world) laughs at her fears. Two decades later the memory remains strong:

I remember my father coming up and standing at the bedside, and talking cheerfully, and asking the nurse a number of questions, and laughing very heartily at one of the answers; and patting me on the shoulder, and kissing me, and telling me not to be frightened, that it was nothing but a dream and could not hurt me.

But I was not comforted, for I knew the visit of the strange woman was not a dream; and I was awfully frightened.

                          (400, LeFanu's italics)

Such patronizing treatment of a six-year-old child is perhaps understandable, but the same kind of condescension is more disturbing when she is a grown woman, for it reveals her father's inability to see her as a person. In fact, continuing to laugh off her questions when she asks what the doctor had revealed about her illness (caused by Carmilla's repeated nocturnal visits), her father fails to give her information that might enable her to protect herself: "'Nothing; you must not plague me with questions,' he answered, with more irritation than I ever remember him to have displayed before" (440). This refusal to divulge the doctor's suspicions may be the result of his rationalism or a misguided desire to protect her, but it leaves the ignorant Laura vulnerable to another attack. Lonely and ignorant, she is ready prey for Carmilla.

Furthermore, by constructing a partial genealogy of Laura's family, one that includes only the female line, LeFanu suggests that other women have been similarly victimized. Laura reveals that her mother was from an old Hungarian family and that the picture of the Countess Mircalla (the real name, of which Carmilla is an anagram) of Karnstein came from her mother's family. In addition, LeFanu suggests that Laura's mother may also have been a victim of vampire attack, for Laura hears her voice in a dream—"Your mother warns you to beware of the assassin" (432)—right before she awakes to discover a blood-drenched Carmilla at the foot of her bed; and Laura's father tells the general that his wife was "maternally descended from the Karnsteins" (442-43, my italics), a family now extinct. That Carmilla is a distant ancestor of Laura's mother, another woman who may have succumbed to vampire attack, leads the reader to infer that Laura is simply the last in a long line of victims.

The genealogy of victims seems to extend beyond Laura's mother, however, for even the powerful Carmilla reveals enigmatically that she had been almost assassinated (the word links her to the warning Laura receives), wounded in the breast after her first ball; and she seems to be surrounded by women who control her. Laura mentions, for example, that Carmilla's mother "threw on her daughter a glance which … was not quite so affectionate as one might have anticipated from the beginning of the scene" (407); and Laura's governess later describes a third woman … who was gazing all the time from the carriage window, nodding and grinning derisively toward the ladies, with gleaming eyes and large white eyeballs, and her teeth set as if in fury" (409). These references suggest that others may hold the same kind of power over Carmilla that she holds over Laura.

During the day Carmilla woos Laura with words and actions, behavior that the lonely girl describes as being "like the ardor of a lover":

… it embarassed me; it was hateful and yet overpowering; and with gloating eyes she drew me to her, and her hot lips traveled along my cheek in kisses; and she would whisper, almost in sobs, "You are mine, you shall be mine, and you and I are one forever."


Carmilla's nightly visits are less subtle than her daytime seduction. Nonetheless her power over Laura remains indirect:

Sometimes there came a sensation as if a hand was drawn softly along my cheek and neck. Sometimes it was as if warm lips kissed me, and longer and more lovingly as they reached my throat, but there the caress fixed itself.


In fact, this "attack," which is Carmilla's most overt show of power over Laura, is described in terms of love instead of aggression.

Although Carmilla's power over Laura is quite subtle, the relationship between vampire and victim reveals a great deal about the power and powerlessness of women. While the vampire does have the power of life and death over its apparently helpless victim, the vampire is itself subject to a number of constraints. For example, it is able to move only at night and (apparently LeFanu's invention) it has to use anagrams of its original name. On the other hand, the seemingly weak Laura has a significant kind of power—that of telling other women about their condition. Although the prologue suggests that she tells her story to Dr. Hesselius, she actually tells it to another woman, "a town lady" (416). Even though it is too late for Laura—the prologue reveals that she has died—it may not be too late for the woman to whom she writes. Thus, writing is a way of demonstrating a new kind of power to manipulate people and events.2 There are sinister undertones as well, however, if one thinks about the way that vampires are created: Laura is both Carmilla's victim and someone who—more likely than not—will become a vampire in her turn. Even Carmilla had been a victim of vampire attack when she too was young and innocent.

In using the vampire motif to focus on certain aspects of women's lives, LeFanu follows a familiar pattern. The vampire, which had been a staple of English literature since the beginning of the nineteenth century, had been used metaphorically by other Romantic writers. James Twitchell's The Living Dead observes that writers used the vampire "to express various human relationships, relationships that the artist himself had with family, with friends, with lovers, and even with art itself" (4). A dead body that drinks the blood of its human victims to sustain its existence, the vampire is a metaphor in "Carmilla" for certain aspects of women's lives. Both vampires and women are parasitic creatures the one only by nature, the other by economic necessity. Both are dead, the one literally, the other legally. Both are defined primarily by their physiology rather than by their intelligence or emotions. Finally, however, both have a latent power to influence the lives of others. (In addition, unlike their demonic counterparts, women gained more overt power as the century progressed, with the passage of the Married Women's Property Acts in the 1870s and 1880s, the opening of Girton College, and the entry of women into the professions.)

As a vampire, Carmilla is a literal parasite, one that the reader sees standing at the foot of Laura's bed drinking the blood of her sleeping victim. However, LeFanu links this biological parasitism and the economic dependence that was virtually mandated for women during most of LeFanu's lifetime, for Carmilla is the idle guest of her victims' families in addition to being a literal bloodsucker. For example, her mother establishes this relationship on at least two separate occasions, when she asks Laura's father and the general to take charge of her daughter. Although this kind of traditional feminine behavior might be justified in Carmilla who is—after all—a creature from the past Laura apparently has no plans for a life outside her father's home either even though she is aware of her family's financial situation:

A small income, in that part of the world, goes a great way. Eight or nine hundred a year does wonders. Scantily enough ours would have answered among wealthy people at home … But, in this lonely and primitive place, where everything is marvelously cheap, I really don't see how ever so much more money would at all materially add to our comforts, or even luxuries.


Laura makes no mention of what she plans to do after her father's death, and one must wonder whether she has been adequately provided for.

Besides being parasites, vampires and women can be described as dead. Carmilla has been literally dead for centuries, but Laura lives a kind of half-life because she has no intellectual or spiritual life of her own. Her conversation is full of the cliches and platitudes of her day, of sentimental beliefs in romantic love, of obligations to family and friends, and of the excitement of parties.

Finally both vampires and women are defined primarily by their physiology. A vampire is a creature motivated exclusively by its need for blood; and the reader sees Carmilla as this kind of vampire. However, as a woman, she is also repeatedly described as beautifully languid, apparently passive in almost all ways. Having learned that such useless and ornamental behavior is desirable for women, Laura's father, the general, and Laura herself see this languor as attractive. Laura in fact describes Carmilla as "the prettiest creature I ever saw" and as "absolutely beautiful" (409). Since the other characters rarely question Carmilla about either her past'or her family, Le Fanu suggests that it is enough for women to be physically attractive. After all, what are they to do except attend the kind of masked ball that General Spielsdorf describes so they can attract suitable husbands?

Acting as a surrogate mother, Carmilla seems to be teaching Laura to be exactly like her (that the relationship begins when the motherless Laura is a child is further indication of Carmilla's motherly role), for Laura becomes more and more languid as Carmilla's visits increase. A great deal of critical energy has been devoted to the lesbianism in "Carmilla" and also to LeFanu's supposed homosexuality,3 but it is equally likely that he uses the relationship between vampire and victim, mother and child to reveal how women learn to become languid and ornamental parasites. Isolated and vulnerable, women are trained (as LeFanu suggests, by other women—mothers and surrogate mothers) to be beautiful and passive.

As LeFanu shrewdly reveals, however, some women ultimately learn to use this very passivity to gain power over others while still others—such as Carmilla's mother—learn to manipulate others directly. Carmilla, in fact, is much more aware of the manner in which women can use their passivity to manipulate others. She may not have control over her own mother, but she knows that women can manipulate others; and she is able to wrap Laura and her father and General Spielsdorf around her little finger. Furthermore, she confesses to Laura that romantic love, an emotion that many Victorians believed could be used to soften the most aggressive man and a virtue associated with women, could be used to gain power over others:

You will think me cruel, very selfish, but love is always selfish; the more ardent the more selfish. How jealous I am you cannot know, you must come with me, loving, to death; or else hate me, and still come with me, and hating me through death and after.

                           (426, LeFanu's italics)

Thus LeFanu reveals that women—even those who appear weak or delicate—may have the power to manipulate others. What these women are not trained to do is to understand themselves and the world around them, much less to attempt to change that world.

However, LeFanu reveals that the men in the story who attempt to change their world through violence are equally ineffectual.4 The fact that their violent destruction of Carmilla seems not to work may be LeFanu's way of saying that a problem that has evolved over centuries can not be eradicated in an instant. Although Laura's narrative relates Carmilla's destruction in graphic detail, she concludes with the acknowledgement that Carmilla "returns to memory with ambiguous alternations … and often from a reverie I have started fancying I heard the light step of Carmilla at the drawing-room door" (465). Carmilla and everything that she stands for (a leisured and pampered feudal existence that depends on the subtle exploitation of others) thus continue to exist; and Laura's dreamy remembrance of Carmilla recognizes this fact. (That the preface points to Laura's death also suggests that she is finally destroyed by these forces and perhaps that she has switched from victim to victimizer.)

Nina Auerbach observes in Woman and the Demon that Carmilla resembles the Victorian ideal for good women, "Dickens' motherly angels … except that this angel proceeds to bite the child sharply in the breast" and adds that the "conceit of the Good Angel of the race has turned literal and become demonic, for Carmilla … has a vampire's power to survive generations, her cannabalistic loves keeping her face intact" (106-7).

Woman and the Demon focuses on powerful images of women in Victorian fiction, but it doesn't probe the real social reasons for this fear and awe. At the time LeFanu was writing, however, many women were insisting on greater power for themselves; and the issue of greater rights and responsibilities for women was constantly before the public eye. Others—including writers in the Gothic tradition and the group known as the sensation novelists—drew people's attention to the power that women already had.

Newton's preface reminds feminist critics of the necessity of exploring women's power as well as their oppression:

For our experience of the magnitude and the complexity of the forces against us in the present seems to be prompting still another alteration in our reading of the past: a renewed sense … that it is women's power as well as their oppression which we must explore….


Because "Carmilla" reveals that there are many methods of acquiring power, some of them both more legitimate and more humane than others and shows that women can be victimizers as well as victims, it serves as a healthy alternative view to an occasionally simplistic feminist approach to both history and literature. Women prior to the twentieth century were not simply passive victims of masculine oppression Indeed, some women were extremely powerful; and some of them used their power against other women. Recognizing the reality, Joseph Sheridan LeFanu uses a Gothic motif to paint a balanced picture of women's lives in "Carmilla."


1. Veeder also notes this fact, observing that "Laura is unnamed for forty pages, is never given a last name, and is not located specifically in time because she is everyperson—all men and women in every era who overdevelop the conscious" (199). However, Laura is an everywoman, not an everyperson. Her father's careful protection of her, her secluded life, her innocence of the world are all more characteristic of women during the nineteenth century than of men.

2. In The Rape of Clarissa: Writing, Sexuality and Class Struggle in Samuel Richardson, Terry Eagleton focuses on writing as a manifestation of female powerlessness:

The letter in Clarissa, then, is the site of a constant power struggle. For Clarissa herself, writing, like sexuality, is a private, always violable space, a secret enterprise fraught with deadly risk. In an oppressive society, writing is the sole free self-disclosure available to women, but it is precisely this which threatens to surrender them into that society's power. The Harlowes wrest writing materials from Clarissa in what she explicitly terms an 'act of violence."


However, writing can also be an act of power, of telling the truth. In "Carmilla," Laura shares her experience with another woman and provides that woman with the power of shared experience.

3. Among the studies that focus on perverse love in "Carmilla" are Veeder, Begnal, and Twitchell. For example, Twitchell compares "Carmilla" and Christabel, calling both stories of "a lesbian entanglement, a story of the sterile love of homosexuality expressed through the analogy of vampirism" (129). Begnal argues:

LeFanu's purpose is not to attack … homosexuality, but rather to comment on the self-destruction of a total submission to sexuality. Just as Carmilla will drain the life's blood from her prey, so too will lust destroy the moral and physical lives of its victims.


4. Waller is wrong to argue that Laura survives because of the men in the story:

… the old men of this rural world—doctor, father, General, scholar, Baron, priest—destroy the … female creature who has threatened their young women; through their alliance of social, religious, and scientific authority, these men reaffirm the power and the validity of a patriarchal ruling class that can only see female sexuality as an abberration.


If anything, "Carmilla" suggests that women gain power over men.

Works Cited

Auerbach, Nina. Woman and the Demon: The Life of a Victorian Myth. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1982.

Begnal, Michael. Joseph Sheridan LeFanu. Lewisburg, PA: Bucknell UP, 1971.

Browne, Nelson. Sheridan LeFanu. London: Arthur Barker, 1951.

Eagleton, Terry. The Rape of Clarissa: Writing, Sexuality and Class Struggle in Samuel Richardson. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1982.

LeFanu, Joseph Sheridan. "Carmilla." Seven Masterpieces of Gothic Horror. Ed. Robert Donald Spector. New York: Bantam, 1963. 397-465.

Lerner, Gerda. "New Approaches to the Study of Women in American History." Liberating Women's History: Theoretical and Critical Essays. Ed. Bernice A. Carroll. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1976. 349-56.

McCormack, W. J. Sheridan LeFanu and Victorian Ireland. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1980.

Newton, Judith. Women, Power, and Subversion. Athens: U of Georgia P, 1981.

Twitchell, James B. The Living Dead: A Study of the Vampire in Romantic Literature. Durham, NC: Duke UP, 1981.

Veeder, William. "Carmilla: The Arts of Repression." Texas Studies in Literature and Language 22 (1980): 197-223.

Waller, Gregory A. The Living and the Undead: From Stoker's Dracula to Romero's Dawn of the Dead. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1986.

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Surely the unmitigated famelessness of Sheridan Le Fanu can be ranked among the outstanding curiosities of literature. One of the literal "best sellers" of the 1860–1880's, he has disappeared even from cursory addenda to Victorian literary history. Author of some of the really remarkable ghost stories of our literature, he is remembered today only by the "occultists"—the people, by the way, who really recognize a really ghostly tale. You will find his "Green Tea", his "Carmilla" and his "The Room in the Dragon Volonte" referred to still in occult literature…. Curious are the fates of little books and little writers—most curious of all sometimes when they are called great. Le Fanu was not a great writer, but he wrote a few great ghost stories. And even as the "sensation" author of Uncle Silas, The House by the Churchyard, Checkmate and Wylder's Hand, to mention no others of a list of famous fifty years ago, his unqualified passing within a half-century's short span is hardly comprehensible….

For Le Fanu, better than most of his lurid school, could "write"; more than others of his school, with the exception of Bulwer-Lytton, he was "occult"; his backgrounds were distinguished, they were thick with medieval lore and his pages were whimsical as well as lurid.

SOURCE: Kenton, Edna. "A Forgotten Creator of Ghosts: Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu, Possible Inspirer of the Brontës." The Bookman 69, no. 5 (July 1929): 528-34.

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McCormack, W. J. Sheridan Le Fanu and Victorian Ireland. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1980, 310 p.

An extensively detailed biography of Le Fanu.


Achilles, Jochen. "Fantasy as Psychological Necessity: Sheridan Le Fanu's Fiction." In Gothick Origins and Innova-tions, edited by Allan Lloyd Smith and Victor Sage, pp. 150-68. Atlanta, Ga. and Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1994.

Elucidates Le Fanu's use of Gothic motifs to produce psychological effects in his supernatural novels and short fiction.

Andriano, Joseph. "'Our Dual Existence': Loving and Dying in Le Fanu's 'Carmilla.'" In Our Ladies of Darkness: Feminine Daemonology in Male Gothic Fiction, pp. 98-105. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1993.

Argues that the vampire in "Carmilla" is not a symbol of sterile lesbianism, but rather an iconic representation of death.

Barclay, Glen St. John. "Vampires and Ladies: Sheridan Le Fanu." In his Anatomy of Horror: The Masters of Occult Fiction, pp. 22-38. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1978.

Concentrates on motifs of vampirism and lesbianism in Le Fanu's short stories.

Bayer-Berenbaum, Linda. "Uncle Silas, by J. S. Le Fanu." In The Gothic Imagination: Expansion in Literature and Art, pp. 107-19. London: Associated University Presses, 1982.

Discusses the style of Le Fanu's major novel within the context of Gothic literature and architecture.

Begnal, Michael H. Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu. Lewisburg, Pa.: Bucknell University Press, 1971, 87 p.

Survey of Le Fanu's fiction that considers his place within the Victorian and nineteenth-century Gothic literary traditions.

Benson, E. F. "Sheridan Le Fanu." Spectator 146, no. 5356 (21 February 1931): 263-64.

Appraises the tales collected as In a Glass Darkly, focusing on Le Fanu's method of creating atmosphere and building suspense.

Bleiler, E. F. Introduction to Best Ghost Stories of J. S. Le Fanu, edited by E. F. Bleiler, pp. v-xi. New York: Dover, 1964.

Surveys Le Fanu's use of the supernatural in his fiction.

Bowen, Elizabeth. Introduction to Uncle Silas: A Tale of Bartram-Haugh, pp. 7-23. London: The Cresset Press, 1947.

Analyzes in detail the style, plot, characters, and setting of Uncle Silas.

Briggs, Julia. "Ancestral Voices, The Ghost Story from Lucian to Le Fanu." In Night Visitors: The Rise and Fall of the English Ghost Story, pp. 25-51. London: Faber, 1977.

Favorably locates Le Fanu in the context of other ghost story writers of the 1860s and 1870s. Argues that Le Fanu's works are distinguished by his "intuitive understanding and vivid portrayal of fear, guilt, and anxiety."

Browne, Nelson. Sheridan Le Fanu. London: Barker, 1951, 135 p.

Book-length critical survey of Le Fanu's fiction and poetry.

Brownell, David. "Wicked Dreams: The World of Sheridan Le Fanu." Armchair Detective 9, no. 3 (June 1976): 191-97.

Considers the overall effectiveness of Le Fanu's mystery and supernatural fiction.

Ellis, S. M. "Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu." In his Wilkie Collins, Le Fanu, and Others. 1931. Reprint edition, pp. 140-91. Freeport, N.Y.: Books for Libraries Press, 1968.

Biographical and critical study. Includes a bibliography of Le Fanu's works.

Gates, Barbara. "Blue Devils and Green Tea." Studies in Short Fiction 24 (1987): 15-23.

Concentrates on the theme of suicide in Le Fanu's short stories.

Howes, Marjorie. "Misalliance and Anglo-Irish Tradition in Le Fanu's Uncle Silas." Nineteenth-Century Literature 47, no. 2 (September 1992): 164-86.

Stresses the Anglo-Irish political context of Le Fanu's novel Uncle Silas, while studying the work's representation of female sexuality.

James, M. R. Prologue and Epilogue of Madam Crowl's Ghost, and Other Tales of Mystery, by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu, edited by M. R. James, pp. vii-viii, 265-77. London: G. Bell and Sons, 1923.

Considers Le Fanu among the "first rank" of ghost story writers and appraises the strengths and weaknesses of his work.

Mangum, Teresa. "Sheridan Le Fanu's Ungovernable Governess." Studies in the Novel 29, no. 2 (summer 1997): 214-37.

Probes Sheridan's characterization of aggressive, sexually ambiguous, and perverse governesses in his novels Uncle Silas and A Lost Name, as well as in his Gothic short fiction.

Melada, Ivan. Sheridan Le Fanu. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1987, 142 p.

Biographical and critical overview of Le Fanu's life and works.

Michelis, Angelica. "'Dirty Mama': Horror, Vampires, and the Maternal in Late Nineteenth-Century Gothic Fiction." Critical Survey 15, no. 3 (September 2003): 5-22.

Examines Le Fanu's symbolic treatment of mother and vampire in his short story "Carmilla," and its connection to anxiety and the theories of Sigmund Freud and Melanie Klein.

Milbank, Alison. "Doubting Castle: The Gothic Mode of Questioning." In The Critical Spirit and the Will to Believe: Essays in Nineteenth-Century Literature and Religion, edited by David Jasper and T. R. Wright, pp. 104-19. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1989.

Discusses the theme of religious doubt in Le Fanu's novels and short stories.

Nalęcz-Wojtczak, Jolanta. "Uncle Silas: A Link between the Gothic Romance and the Detective Novel in England." Studia Anglica Posnaniensia: An International Review of English Studies 12 (1980): 157-67.

Characterizes Uncle Silas as a transitional work in the tradition of the English novel that occupies a pivotal place between the eighteenth-century Gothic romance and late nineteenth-century mystery and detective novels.

――――――. "Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu and the New Dimensions of the English Ghost Story." In Literary Interrelations: Ireland, England and the World, edited by Wolfgang Zach and Heinz Kosok, pp. 193-98. Tübingen, Germany: Gunter Narr Verlag, 1987.

Explores the ways in which Le Fanu's interest in Irish folklore, Swedenborgian ideas, and psychology brought expanded possibilities to the English ghost story tradition.

Orel, Harold. "'Rigid Adherence to Facts': Le Fanu's In a Glass Darkly." Eire-Ireland: A Journal of Irish Studies 20, no. 4 (winter 1985): 65-88.

Focuses on Le Fanu's device of presenting the supernatural stories of In a Glass Darkly as factual accounts.

Penzoldt, Peter. "Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu (1814–1873)." In The Supernatural in Fiction, pp. 67-91. London: Peter Nevill, 1952.

Discusses Le Fanu's importance to the history and development of the Gothic novel.

Pritchett, V. S. "An Irish Ghost." In The Living Novel & Later Appreciations. Revised edition, pp. 121-28. New York: Random House, 1964.

Praises the style and narrative technique of Le Fanu's short stories and contends that because he had primarily a "talent for brevity" Le Fanu never achieved the same level of success in his novels as he did in his short stories.

Scott, Ken. "Le Fanu's 'The Room in the Dragon Volant.'" Lock Haven Review, no. 10 (1968): 25-32.

Treats themes of love and death in "The Room in the Dragon Volant."

Shroyer, Frederick. Introduction to Uncle Silas: A Tale of Bartram-Haugh, by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu, pp. v-xviii. New York: Dover, 1966.

Presents a general overview of Uncle Silas, outlining the elements that contribute to the novel's atmosphere of terror and claiming the work to be one of the best Gothic novels ever written.

Signorotti, Elizabeth. "Repossessing the Body: Transgressive Desire in 'Carmilla' and Dracula." Criticism 38, no. 4 (fall 1996): 607-32.

Interprets Bram Stoker's Dracula as a patriarchal response to Le Fanu's rendering of an empowered female vampire in "Carmilla."

Stoddart, Helen. "'The Precautions of Nervous People Are Infectious': Sheridan Le Fanu's Symptomatic Gothic." Modern Language Review 86, no. 1 (January 1991): 19-34.

Assesses the paranoia motif of "Green Tea" and "Carmilla" in terms of Freudian psychoanalysis.

Sullivan, Jack. "'Green Tea': The Archetypal Ghost Story" and "Beginnings: Sheridan Le Fanu." In his Elegant Nightmares: The English Ghost Story from Le Fanu to Blackwood, pp. 1-68. Athens: Ohio University Press, 1980.

Detailed examination of Le Fanu's short fiction that explores his development as a writer while analyzing individual stories, including "Green Tea" and "Carmilla."

Sullivan, Kevin. "Sheridan Le Fanu: The Purcell Papers, 1838–40." Irish University Review 2, no. 1 (spring 1972): 5-19.

Explores themes of terror and humor in The Purcell Papers.

Sweeney, St. John. "Sheridan Le Fanu, the Irish Poe." Journal of Irish Literature 15, no. 1 (January 1986): 3-32.

Considers the prose style and plot structures of Le Fanu's short stories, concluding that Le Fanu was not simply the Irish version of Edgar Allan Poe.

Veeder, William. "Carmilla: The Arts of Repression." Texas Studies in Literature and Language 22, no. 2 (summer 1980): 197-223.

Studies the theme of emotional repression in "Carmilla," considering the work as "part of the High Victorian self-examination which called into question literary and social conventions and the moral orthodoxies underlying them."

Wagenknecht, Edward. "Sheridan Le Fanu." In Seven Masters of Supernatural Fiction, pp. 3-21. Westwood, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1991.

Interpretive essay focusing on Le Fanu's supernatural novels and stories. Also features several plot summaries and commentary by additional critics.


Additional coverage of Le Fanu's life and career is contained in the following sources published by Thomson Gale: Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vols. 21, 70, 159, 178; DISCovering Authors Modules: Popular Fiction and Genre Authors; DISCovering Authors 3.0; Literature Resource Center; Nineteenth-Century Literature Criticism, Vols. 9, 58; Reference Guide to English Literature, Ed. 2; Reference Guide to Short Fiction, Ed. 2; St. James Guide to Crime & Mystery Writers, Vol. 4; St. James Guide to Horror, Ghost & Gothic Writers; Short Story Criticism, Vol. 14; and Supernatural Fiction Writers, Vol. 1.

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Le Fanu, Joseph Sheridan (1814 - 1873)

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