Although he is probably not as well known as Edgar Allan Poe, Bram Stoker or Mary Shelley, the Irish writer Sheridan Le Fanu, who was born 200 years ago on August 28th, is a seminal figure in the development of horror writing. His novella Carmilla is one of the earliest examples of a vampire story in English literature and predates Dracula by some 25 years.
Of French Huguenot descent, he was born in Lower Dominick Street in Dublin, the son of a Church of Ireland clergyman. His grandmother Alicia and his great-uncle Richard Brinsley Sheridan were playwrights. He was tutored privately and also made extensive use of his father’s library to educate himself. He attended Trinity College Dublin, and his time at university, where he studied classics, was a success.
He went on to study law at King's Inns in London but his main interests were literary. He contributed stories to the Dublin University Magazine, one of which was his first ghost story, The Ghost and the Bonesetter (1838). In 1839, he became owner of a newspaper, the Warder, and from then on journalism was his chief occupation. He had financial interests in a number of newspapers during his life, such as the Statesman, the Dublin Evening Mail and the Dublin University Magazine.
In 1844, he married Susanna Bennett, the daughter of a leading barrister, and they had four children. But the marriage suffered from financial difficulties and Susanna’s increasing ill health. When she died in 1858 at the age of 34, Le Fanu was shattered and blamed himself for what had happened to her. From this time on, he lived a largely reclusive life.
When he became editor and owner of the Dublin Magazine in 1861, he used it to serialise his work, which he then revised for the English market, as he entered upon the most productive period of his writing life. He published the novels The House By the Churchyard (1863) and Wylder's Hand (1864) in this way.
Neither experienced the success of his next novel, Uncle Silas, although the multifaceted The House by the Churchyard remains one of his best-known novels. In it he blends his historical style with his later Gothic style. It is set in Chapelizod, where he lived when young, and has been called an important influence on Joyce's Finnegans Wake.
By this time he had acquired a London publisher who insisted he set his work in England and in modern times to appeal to an English readership.
Uncle Silas, set in Derbyshire, is his greatest Gothic mystery and tells how the main character, a wealthy heiress, survives a murder plot against her by her uncle, her cousin and an evil governess. Two film versions of the book have been made.
Le Fanu wrote as many as 10 "sensation novels" in the contemporary style of Wilkie Collins and others in the late 1860s and early 1870s but In a Glass Darkly, published in 1872, featured what were probably his five most chilling horror stories. They were purportedly taken from the posthumous files of a German Dr Hesselius, who had an interest in psychic phenomena.
The most important story, from a literary point of view, is Carmilla, which takes the story of vampires in English literature some stages further. The eponymous vampire is a woman who preys upon an innocent young maiden, thus introducing a lesbian element, and the setting is Styria; eastern Europe became the setting for many subsequent vampire stories, most famously Dracula. Carmilla greatly influenced Bram Stoker and stimulated many films, such as Vampyr (1932), Blood and Roses (1960), The Vampire Lovers (1970) and Daughters of Darkness (1971).
Le Fanu greatly pushed out the boundaries of the Victorian ghost story. He was a meticulous craftsman who combined the contemporary Gothic literary conventions with his own realistic technique to produce stories with psychological insight and supernatural terror. He did not seek to produce a “shock horror” effect but often left important details unexplained, which added to the mystery.
VS Pritchett analysed part of his achievement as follows: "Le Fanu's ghosts are the most disquieting of all ghosts ... The secret doubt, the private shame, the unholy love scratch away with malignant patience in the guarded mind. It is we who are the ghosts. Let illness, late nights and green tea [the title of one of the In a Glass Darkly stories] weaken the catch we normally keep clamped so firmly down, and out slink one by one all the hags and animals of moral or Freudian symbolism."