Le Fanu, (Joseph Thomas) Sheridan

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LE FANU, (Joseph Thomas) Sheridan

Nationality: Irish. Born: Dublin, 28 August 1814. Education: The Royal Hibernian Military School, Dublin; at home, 1827-32; Trinity College, Dublin, 1832-37, B.A. (honors) in classics 1837; Dublin Inns of Court, called to the Irish bar, 1839, but never practiced. Family: Married Susanna Bennett in 1843 (died 1858); four children. Career: Staff member, Dublin University Magazine, 1837; editor and owner, Dublin University Magazine, 1869-72; owner, the Warder, 1839-70, the Statesman, 1840-46, and the Evening Packet, all Dublin; part-owner and co-editor, Dublin Evening Mail, from 1861. Died: 7 February 1873.



The Poems, edited by Alfred Perceval Graves. 1896.

Madam Crowl's Ghost and Other Tales of Mystery, edited by M. R. James. 1923.

Ghost Stories and Mysteries, edited by E. F. Bleiler. 1975.

The Illustrated Le Fanu: Ghost Stories and Mysteries, edited by Michael Cox. 1988.

Short Stories

Ghost Stories and Tales of Mystery. 1851.

Chronicles of Golden Friars. 1871.

In a Glass Darkly. 1872.

The Purcell Papers. 1880.

The Watcher and Other Weird Stories. 1894.


The Cock and Anchor, Being a Chronicle of Old Dublin City. 1845; as Morley Court, 1873; edited by B. S. Le Fanu, 1895.

The Fortunes of Colonel Torlogh O'Brien. 1847.

The House by the Church-Yard. 1863.

Wylder's Hand. 1864.

Uncle Silas: A Tale of Bartram-Haugh. 1864; edited by W. J. McCormack, 1981.

Guy Deverell. 1865.

All in the Dark. 1866.

The Tenants of Malory. 1867.

A Lost Name. 1868.

Haunted Lives. 1868.

The Wyvern Mystery. 1869.

Checkmate. 1871.

The Rose and the Key. 1871.

Willing to Die. 1873.

The Evil Guest. 1895.


Critical Studies:

Le Fanu by Nelson Browne, 1951; Le Fanu by Michael H. Begnal, 1971; Le Fanu and Victorian Ireland by W. J. McCormack, 1980; Le Fanu by Ivan Melada, 1987.

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Sheridan Le Fanu spent most of his career as a busy journalist and editor, and much of his fiction appeared initially in newspapers and periodicals, especially the Dublin University Magazine, with which he had a long connection. Most of his work in volume form and all his best-known novels and stories were published during the last ten years of his life or posthumously, during the heyday of the sensation fiction popularized by Wilkie Collins and others. But he had been writing stories since his undergraduate days, and some of his significant early work belongs to the 1830s (for example, "A Strange Event in the Life of Schalken the Painter"). Although he began by writing historical novels and stories of Irish life, he discovered his real strength to be in the area of the tale of mystery and terror. Historically he can be seen as one of the pioneers of this genre and an influence on those who practiced it in the second half of the nineteenth century and afterwards. M.R. James, the leading English writer of the ghost story in the twentieth century, was a great admirer of Le Fanu and edited a selection of his stories, published in 1923. It has been argued that Le Fanu's work represents a landmark in Irish writing in its strong sense of form: rejecting the looser narrative forms based on the oral tradition and favored by earlier writers of fiction, he shows a concern with structure, point of view, and narrative framing.

His best stories are to be found in the collection In a Glass Darkly, which was originally issued in three volumes in 1872 and has been frequently reprinted. Introducing a 1947 reprint, V. S. Pritchett comments that Le Fanu "had the gift of brevity, the talent for the poetic sharpness and discipline of the short tale." The stories of the collection include "Green Tea," "Carmilla," "The Familiar," "Mr. Justice Harbottle," and "The Room in the Dragon Volant." All five are linked by the device of a first-person narrator who has edited the papers of Dr. Martin Hesselius—"a wanderer like myself, like me a physician, and like me an enthusiast in his profession." The references to wanderings and enthusiasm create a romantic aura that is deliberately tempered by the spirit of scientific enquiry in which the various "case-histories" are presented, and the effect of the framing is to provide an apparently clinical and objective standpoint for the recounting of stories of mystery and horror, as well as distancing the fictional events by furnishing a plausible contemporary intermediary between the action and the reader.

The cases presented have been selected, we are told, from "about two hundred and thirty" to be found among the late physician's notes. This detail is given at the opening of "The Familiar," the prologue to which mentions that Hesselius has had the story from an "unexceptionable narrator," a "venerable Irish Clergyman"—yet another credible intermediary between tale and audience—and offers the physician's generalized reflections, in the language of medical or psychological discourse, on the story that follows. The story itself begins in the late eighteenth century (another form of distancing) and concerns a man persecuted by a mysterious presence that dogs his footsteps and eventually drives him to his death. The chilling climax comes when one of those who find him dead exclaims that "there was something else on the bed with him" and points to "a deep indenture, as if caused by a heavy pressure, near the foot of the bed." As befits a story of supernatural malevolence, the cause of the persecution is never fully explained, though there is a hint that punishment has been exacted for a moral offence in the victim's earlier life.

"Mr. Justice Harbottle" similarly leads the reader to the heart of the narrative through an elaborate series of informants and eyewitnesses and is another striking example of Le Fanu's interest in fictional structures as a means of compelling a suspension of disbelief. The subject is an elderly judge, "dangerous and unscrupulous" in the execution of his office, who had "the reputation of being about the wickedest man in England." There are strong implications that his death, attributed officially to suicide, has been caused by a ghostly visitant who has been one of the victims of his judicial severity. Again the ending has a noncommittal quality, not forcing a supernatural interpretation upon the reader but presenting a final ambiguity.

"The Room in the Dragon Volant" is the longest story in the collection, in effect a novella. Set in Paris and opening in 1815, it is cast in the form of an autobiographical narrative and has elements in common with Wilkie Collins's well-known story "A Terribly Strange Bed."

Le Fanu's combination in his stories of mystery and a sense of evil has led to his being compared to Hawthorne. His great popularity in the late nineteenth century is attested by Henry James's comment in a story of 1888, with reference to an English country house, that "there was the customary novel of Mr. Le Fanu for the bedside, the ideal reading in a country house for the hours after midnight." A modern critic, Harold Orel, has said of In a Glass Darkly that it "still retains the power to change a reader's attitude toward the possibility of vengeful ghosts and the lurking dangers of darkness in both city streets and one's own home." As the last phrase suggests, Le Fanu, like Wilkie Collins, domesticated the Gothic tale of terror, transposing mysterious happenings from remote castles in Europe to more familiar scenes (though "Carmilla" is a notable exception to this rule) and from the Middle Ages to the nineteenth century. And, again like Wilkie Collins, his concern with authenticity led him to engage in experiments in fictional structure and point of view that were well in advance of normal practice in his time.

—Norman Page

See the essays on "Carmilla" and "Green Tea."

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