Sheridan Le Fanu, Uncle Silas (1864)

Today is chaos, with big brother ill, little brother colicky (Cue: he wants to be held and nurse all day. Reality check: this isn’t happening), both parents up all night and an out-of-town business trip for Mr. S in the morning. So, why not blog? This won’t make me any less tired, but it will make me happier.

Uncle Silas is a Gothic tale reminiscent of the Udolpho mysteries (in fact, Le Fanu refers to Radcliffe several times), but while Radcliffe’s persecuted innocent girl annoyed me, this one, Maud Ruthyn, who is telling the story, seemed more plausible in her naivety and more likeable.

She lives a solitary life in the Derbyshire family estate with her father, a reclusive gentleman who has turned to mystical philosophy. Although her father loves her and she doesn’t lack anything, this doesn’t make for a very happy childhood (she’s supposed to be a teenager) but when her father hires a governess, it only gets worse: Madame de la Rougiere is a creepy, deceitful French woman with an awful accent and who has more on her agenda than teaching.

Maud learns before his father’s death that she has an uncle, Silas, with a terrible reputation: a gambler and a libertine, he’s also strongly suspected of murder after a guest of his and fellow gambler apparently committed suicide in a locked room at his place. Silas is supposed to have turned devout now, but is he really? Maud’s father is convinced of his innocence, so he draws a strange will. All his estate is going to Maud, provided she spends 3 years until her majority under the guardianship of Silas, at his place. If she dies before being of age, the money will go to Silas.

The idea, of course, is to tempt Silas to try and kill his niece, but if she lives, the family name will be cleared for good. Doesn’t that sound a dangerous (aka pretty stupid) idea? Yeah, to me too. And to all the people who hear about that. As for Maud, she wavers between believing her father, and being scared, not knowing whom she can trust.

The plot is far from being completely foolproof and consistent, but the idea is to throw as much foreboding (and a few red herrings too) as possible in the pages, until a few climactic scenes. Despite its flaws, it works. You constantly shake your head and think “don’t go there, it’s a bad idea”, but Maud does it nonetheless, and guess what, bad things happen. I guess it’s the Victorian equivalent of Scream, complete with the hot teenaged girl who always finds herself alone after dark despite being warned against it.

The comparison remains valid in terms of genre, because it’s more of a thriller than a supernatural tale (Le Fanu flirts with it, but it might only be Maud’s nerves)  and a pre-Sherlockian murder investigation (the locked room mystery is very peripheric). Once again, Le Fanu proves more fun than Wilkie Collins who is way more famous.


2 thoughts on “Sheridan Le Fanu, Uncle Silas (1864)

  1. Do you not think Le Fanu would have had the most wonderful time with the internet and social media? If he could put women in that sort of perilous position in Victorian times what would he have done today?

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