‘An Irish story in an English setting’: Sheridan Le Fanu’s Gothic classic Uncle Silas

The Anglo-Irish writer’s novel is secretly attuned to the seasons, from Samhain to Imbolc

When Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu, who died 150 years ago today, published his Gothic thriller Uncle Silas in 1864, he was already a successful writer and publisher. He was born in Dublin, where his father was chaplain to the Royal Hibernian Military School, and grew up near the fortified environs of the Phoenix Park. But Le Fanu’s youth was not entirely spent in the sheltering embrace of Anglo-Ireland. In 1826, Le Fanu snr moved the family to Abington, Co Limerick, affording them an intimate experience of the tithe war and the agrarian conflicts that convulsed the south of Ireland.

Although Uncle Silas contains not a single mention of the country of Le Fanu’s birth and residence, its readers have often sought out signs of Ireland. Stephen Gwynne regretted in 1919 that Le Fanu had left “no memorable presentment of Irish life”, caring too much about “sensational incident and ingenious construction”. But Elizabeth Bowen had no hesitancy in describing Uncle Silas as “an Irish story transposed to an English setting”.

Working on a new edition of the novel for Oxford World’s Classics, I have come to see how the dates that frame the action of the novel help us to measure the relationship between deep Irish time and the hurried schedules of Victorian publishing in Le Fanu’s imagination.

Uncle Silas (1864) opens “about the second week of November”, as the wind wails through the trees, while the action comes to a close on the first day of February under the faint light of a wintry moon. November was already an old familiar in fiction. When Victor Frankenstein, fevered and in pain, first begins work on his creature it is autumn. Winter brings completion of the dreadful task: “It was on a dreary night of November that I beheld the accomplishment of my toils,” he tells his sister. Earlier novels had used the same month for dramatic opening effects, as in the Scottish novel Clan-Albin (1815), which begins “In a dark and stormy night in November 17—”. But it is the popular Victorian novelist Edward Bulwer Lytton who came up with the winning formula for the opening line of Paul Clifford (1830): “It was a dark and stormy night.”


Sheridan Le Fanu, a businessman as well as a writer, was sure to have his novel in the hands of readers for the winter of 1864. He published it first in serial form in the Dublin University Magazine, the serialisation coming to an end in November so that the book could be purchased in three volumes from early December. November has long been associated with books and reading, the pages turning as the evenings draw in. Even now, the Booker Prize ceremony takes place in the first week of November. Our relationship with the seasons remains closely connected to the world of books and media: admirers of Keats’s Ode to Autumn, viewers of TV seasons or anyone awaiting the return of BBC’s Springwatch can tell us as much.

The violent plans fail and a French governess is murdered in her place, a sight witnessed by a petrified Maud, who looks on as a spiked hammer is driven into the body of the shrieking woman

November is also the month of the dead and Le Fanu uses it to introduce us to a girl poised on the edge of adulthood, Maud Ruthyn, whose coming peril is palpable. But Maud also loves Christmas. Even if it is Charles Dickens who is remembered as The Man Who Invented Christmas, Sheridan Le Fanu knew well the Victorian seasonal fad for festive stories. A Christmas Carol is not mentioned in the novel but Maud is “an admiring reader of the Albums, the Souvenirs, the Keepsakes and all that flood of Christmas present lore which yearly irrigated England”.

Maud also loves the “grand undefinable music” of winter. When her father dies, the seasons pass with him amid “stormy equinoctial weather that sounds the wild dirge of autumn, and marches the winter in”. The action of the novel passes through the darkest point of the year, bringing terrible threats. Left in the care of her uncle Silas until she comes of age, Maud becomes the subject of evil plots that culminate in a plan to murder her. The violent plans fail and a French governess is murdered in her place, a sight witnessed by a petrified Maud, who looks on as a spiked hammer is driven into the body of the shrieking woman.

What might have been a sensational shocker became, as Bowen described it, a novel that gains by the page in “pressure, volume and spiritual urgency”. In achieving his shocking effects, Le Fanu owed a debt to an earlier Catholic tradition of Irish Gothic, in particular the tales of Gerald Griffin (1803-1840). Griffin grew up on the Shannon estuary, not so far from Abington. The stories told by Griffin in his Tales of the Munster Festivals (1827) are framed according to a Celtic calendar closely attuned to the seasons with plots featuring “Law na Breedha” and St John’s Eve.

Just as the opening of Uncle Silas gathers about itself the shades of Samhain, the action concludes with Imbolc in sight. Duped into thinking she is en route to Dover, Maud is returned to Silas’s house in darkness and disguise. Letters allow us to track the dates: as morning dawns on January 31st, Maud realises that she is in a locked room overlooking an inner court. Her grave is being dug outside. A daring rescue on that same fateful night means that the novel’s action closes on the morning of February 1st, St Brigid’s Day: the start of spring and the day on which the Earth begins its turn towards the light. In the end, Maud’s troubles yield to her the power of “second-sight”.

Contemporary British novelist Ali Smith told the Guardian that she began her four-part seasonal cycle of state-of-the-nation novels as a kind of “time-sensitive experiment”, alert both to the rhythm of the year and “the old Victorian mode” of serial publication. In Smith’s novel Winter (2017), a character complains of the “half-season grey selfsameness” of the weather and longs instead for “the essentiality of winter”. Uncle Silas gives us that “essentiality” via a plot that is deeply, secretly attuned to the seasons and alive to ordinary magic of changing times.

Claire Connolly is professor of English at University College Cork. Her new edition of Sheridan Le Fanu’s Uncle Silas is published by Oxford World’s Classics