Until now my only previous experience of the 19th century Irish author Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu was the short story, Laura Silver Bell, which I read for Mel U’s Irish Short Story Week in March. I was keen to see what I would think of one of Le Fanu’s full-length novels and decided to read Uncle Silas for the R.I.P challenge.
Uncle Silas is an 1864 novel which seems to incorporate almost every aspect of the Victorian sensation/gothic novel you can think of: gloomy, eerie mansions, graveyards, laudanum addiction, an evil governess, locked rooms and locked cabinets, poison, family secrets. I had high hopes for the book as it sounded like exactly the type of classic I usually enjoy, and after a slow start it didn’t disappoint.
Our heroine (and the narrator of the story) is Maud Ruthyn who lives with her father at Knowl, their family estate. Maud is fascinated by a portrait of her Uncle Silas which hangs on one of the walls inside the house – she has never met her uncle before and is intrigued by hints of scandal in his past. When Mr Ruthyn decides to find a governess for his daughter, the sinister Madame de la Rougierre comes to live at Knowl and a chain of events begins which will finally bring Maud into contact with her mysterious Uncle Silas.
And that’s really all I can tell you about the plot without beginning to give too much away! I had managed to avoid reading any big spoilers so I never had any idea what was coming next, and I think that was the best way to approach this book.
It did take me a while to really get into the story. It was fun and entertaining from the beginning and I was never actually bored with it, but it seemed to take such a long time before anything really happened. It wasn’t until about one hundred and fifty pages into the book that the pace began to pick up and then I could appreciate why Le Fanu had taken his time building the suspense and slowly creating a mood of menace and foreboding. It was a very atmospheric and creepy story (particularly any scene featuring Madame de la Rougierre, who must be one of the most horrible, grotesque villains in literature), though I didn’t find it as scary as I had expected to.
Maud may not be the strongest of female characters but she felt real and believable to me. Although she could be brave when she needed to be, she was young and naïve and I felt genuinely worried for her as she found herself becoming increasingly isolated, not sure who she could and couldn’t trust. And for me, this was where the story could be described as frightening: the complete lack of control Maud had over her own destiny and the way she was forced to depend on people who may not have had her best interests at heart.
If you enjoyed The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins then I think there’s a good chance you’ll like this book too. It doesn’t have as many surprising twists and turns as The Woman in White but it is a similar type of book, though with a much darker and more gothic feel. I think it’s a shame Le Fanu isn’t as widely read as other Victorian authors, as his work is definitely worth reading. I hope you’ll decide to give this book a try if you haven’t already.