Review: Uncle Silas
Uncle Silas is simultaneously J. Sheridan Le Fanu’s greatest novel and also his most celebrated and widely known—which is a rare combination indeed. It is a thorough reworking of the Radcliffean mode and of the Female Gothic in general, but it is also something entirely fresh, concerning as it does elements as diverse as Swedenborgian mysticism, Collins-esque sensationalism, and—a relative rarity for its time and genre—the first-person, retrospective narration of a young, female protagonist. A classic work of 19th century Gothic, it is also generally considered one of the first examples of the ‘locked room mystery’ and contains many motifs that have now become common stock of detective fiction and of the mystery genre in general.
Written with the kind of lush and yet curiously straight-forward prose that characterizes all of Le Fanu’s fiction, Uncle Silas concerns, for the most part, three extremely well-written characters: the first, its titular hero-villain, is an impressive revision of the Byronic hero in all its complexity of characterization and is one of the more successful of these ‘stock types’ in all of Gothic literature; the second, our narrator Maud Ruthyn, is fleshed out to a degree that is much more three-dimensional than the typical 'Emily St Aubert' of most of these kinds of fictions; and the third, and perhaps most remarkable of Uncle Silas's cast, is the insidious, revolting, and utterly outrageous Madame de la Rougierre, who is worth the price of admission in and of herself. With these characters, Le Fanu takes the familiar mechanisms of the Gothic novel and twists and turns them about into fabulously crisp and colorful new shapes that are as enjoyable and darkly fascinating today as they were to Victorian audiences one hundred and fifty years ago.
The plot itself concerns the isolation of our young protagonist at the decaying rural estate of her rumour-haunted Uncle Silas after the death of her father, where she may or may not be the target of a plot that is still capable of chilling the blood. Silas, whose decades-old association with a ghastly crime which he may or may not have committed and which continues to plague him, has been entrusted with Maud’s guardianship; it becomes apparent, however, that this circumstance contains more of self-interest than devotion to his late brother. Madame de la Rougierre, whose early appearance in the novel is interrupted by the shift in action from Maud’s ancestral home to Silas’s mini-Udolpho, Bartram-Haugh, reappears as the novel begins to plunge towards its shockingly violent climax and brings with her a final word on the mysteries of Uncle Silas and its brilliant and compelling expansion of Mrs. Radcliffe's tropes. I won’t reveal much more in the way of story, but Le Fanu is successful in that many times we can see exactly where Uncle Silas is heading, and yet still we are surprised with exactly where we have wound up.
I suggest reading some of Mrs. Radcliffe’s fiction before taking on Uncle Silas, for context: though the trappings used to such success in Le Fanu's novel are so common and pervasive in Gothic fiction that one is probably aware of them without ever even having experienced them first hand: the dark mansion posing as a haunted castle and full of enigmas to be sorted through, a persecuted young woman and a scheming male anti-hero, the vicious foreigner, the vague and shadowed suggestions of a dubious ‘supernatural:’ these are the hallways, crypts, and secret passageways through which Le Fanu treads with adept, if provisional, reimagining. His subtle insertion of Swedenborgian axioms and the metaphysics with which they are entangled lends a unique cast to his storytelling that is distinctly his own in its breadth of consideration.
Of all the foundational works of the Gothic, Uncle Silas remains one of the most accessible for modern audiences and one of the more intriguing. One can see its influence on everything from The Turn of the Screw to Rebecca and beyond, and it is perhaps fitting: Le Fanu’s greatest novel is a variation on a theme and on an entire genre, and has itself been reimagined and reworked by modern practitioners of the Gothic to this very day. Like Radcliffe’s Udolpho, Le Fanu's own blueprint, it has been seized by its devotees and projected onto new sets of characters and motifs that continually expand the borders of the Gothic imagination while remaining firmly linked to a central conception and credo.