Uncle Silas by Sheridan Le Fanu

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.

10 thoughts on “Uncle Silas by Sheridan Le Fanu

  1. Nymeth says:

    I was also a fan of this one. Sheridan did such a great job of getting Maud’s powerlessness across, and of drawing attention to the legal circumstances that caused it.

  2. The Book Whisperer says:

    I’m glad you said about the slow start as I am about 40 pages in and had put it down for a “rest” between other books as despite loving the first few pages nothing then seemed to happen. I loved TWiW and I have had high hopes for this one too so I will definitely be picking this back up soon.

    Question: which did you prefer: this or The Monk? (I would like to read both if I get time).

    • Helen says:

      It did get better as I got further into the book, though as I said, there are about 150 pages before the first major event of the story happens. I think of the two, I actually preferred The Monk, although it was harder to read as it’s a much older book. I would definitely recommend both!

  3. Mel u says:

    A number of people, including me, “discovered” Sheridan Le Fanu during Irish Short Story Week Year One-I really like his prose style-I have not yet read Uncle Silas but would now like to-I really enjoyed his Camilla about a Lesbian Vampire and his short story “The Child Stolen by Fairies” is really brilliant and is also a commentary on the times of troubles in Ireland-thanks very much for posting on this novel-

  4. wutheringwillow says:

    I’d love to read Uncle Silas. La Fanu is one of the forerunners of the Gothic writers. But it may be a while before I can do it. Right now I am busy juggling work and The Shadow of the Wind. Tough doing that, if you ask me.

    • Helen says:

      I hope you have time to read this book eventually. If you like gothic fiction I’d definitely recommend it to you. And yes, it’s difficult to find a balance between work and reading! I hope you’re enjoying The Shadow of the Wind.

  5. Fay says:

    To be read. I read one of his short stories, “Green Tea,” for the R.I.P. challenge and liked it lot. He has such a finely tuned eye for the oppressive.

    • Helen says:

      I’d like to read more of Le Fanu’s short stories so I’m glad to hear Green Tea is a good one. I’ll certainly read some more of his work for next year’s R.I.P. if I don’t get a chance before then.

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