The Gothic vs. the Internet: J. Sheridan Le Fanu’s Uncle Silas

uncle silas le fanu oxford 9780192815415-us-300

In the days before I purchased a computer (for work) and began to waste time on the internet, I read more books.  I didn’t realize quite how many more books I used to read until I took a break this week.

I am not alone.  Americans are reading fewer books, The Atlantic reported in 2014. Jordan Weissman wrote, “In 1978, Gallup found that 42 percent of adults had read 11 books or more in the past year (13 percent said they’d read more than 50!). Today, Pew finds that just 28 percent hit the 11 mark. ”

A few years ago the novelist Gary Shteyngart said in an interview at Salon:

“Our attention span is shorter; even I have trouble opening up a gigantic book and getting right into it. I find that when I travel somewhere and there is no Wi-Fi and no connection that I can finally get into a book and read it from cover to cover and really get into the way it’s structured and the narrators and appreciate it in a way that I used to appreciate books all the time.”

And so I launched an experiment I am calling The Internet vs. the Book.  By taking an extra day off from blogging, lo and behold!  I had more reading time. In a day I devoured Le Fanu’s stunning Gothic novel, Uncle Silas (400 pages).   I love my blog, but I do think I might take an extra day off now and then–for reading.

I confess, this is not my first reading of Uncle Silas. My aunt was fond of slightly offbeat 19th-century novels, and her shelves were filled with George MacDonald, George Meredith, Le Fanu, and Elizabeth Gaskell.   During a visit to Michigan when I was 12, she gave me a box of books. I barely looked up from Uncle Silas on the drive back to Iowa.

uncle silas dover good pic 9780486217154-uk-300Well, Uncle Silas still has that effect on me.   And so it was the perfect book to read for my experiment.

Le Fanu, an Irish writer best known for his ghost stories, is one of the most accomplished of nineteenth-century Gothic novelists. In his masterpiece, Uncle Silas,  Le Fanu paints a  vivid portrait of a heroine’s secure childhood under the supervision of a rich, eccentric, adoring father and then contrasts it with her orphaned adolescence under the care of a mysterious,  impoverished guardian.  As Maud looks back from a secure adult viewpoint at the events that befell her when she was 17,  the narrative is so vivid that we soon forget the distance between the past and present and are terrified for Maud.

The opening paragraph establishes the secure atmosphere at Knowls, Maud’s childhood home:  domesticity and comfort shore up all doubts and protect the family from outside forces.  The weather is dark; the house is cozy.

It was winter—that is, about the second week in November—and great gusts were rattling at the windows, and wailing and thundering among our tall trees and ivied chimneys—a very dark night, and a very cheerful fire blazing, a pleasant mixture of good round coal and spluttering dry wood, in a genuine old fireplace, in a sombre old room. Black wainscoting glimmered up to the ceiling, in small ebony panels; a cheerful clump of wax candles on the tea-table; many old portraits, some grim and pale, others pretty, and some very graceful and charming, hanging from the walls. Few pictures, except portraits long and short, were there. On the whole, I think you would have taken the room for our parlour. It was not like our modern notion of a drawing-room. It was a long room too, and every way capacious, but irregularly shaped.

Like the drawing room, the character of Maud’s beloved father, Austin Ruthyn,  may be said to be irregular.  He is a recluse and an intellectual, with some very strange but harmless ideas about spirituality.  He is a Swedenborgian: Maud doesn’t quite know what that means, but  she is afraid it will somehow take him away from her.  He spends hours closeted with tall, dark, ugly Dr. Bryerly, his doctor and spiritual advisor.  He is concerned about his daughter’s isolation and about what might happen if he had to “go away on a visit,” so he encourages Cousin Monica, a witty, smart woman of his own generation, to take her under her wing.   And he also makes a huge mistake:  he hires a governess ,Madame d la Rougierre, a sinister, hard-drinking, balding old woman who lies, cries at will, makes copies of keys, and snoops around the house.  From early on we see her hatred of Maud.  And we suspect she is in someone’s pay, scheming Maud’s downfall.

The Folio Society edition of Uncle Silas.

One day Austin says he can no longer postpone making a “visit” for business purposes, and he gives Maud  a key to a cabinet.  He makes her promise the cabinet will be opened only by Dr. Bryerly.  Austin dies shortly thereafter, and poor Maud is broken-hearted, realizing the “visit” was death.  And when they finally track down  Dr. Bryerly, he finds a very strange will in the cabinet.  Maud’s guardian will be Uncle Silas, Austin’s ne’er-do-well brother,  who was accused of murder in his youth.  She is to live with him till she is 21.   Cousin Monica and Dr. Bryerly are shocked:  they view Uncle Silas as the most inappropriate of guardians.  Dr. Bryerly, who turns out to be a sympathetic character and is one of the trustees, does not like the will. He explains to Maud that if she dies, Silas inherits all, and that even a better man than Silas might be tempted.   Maud doesn’t really understand what he’s saying.  And in the end she has to go to Silas.

At first Maud is happy at Uncle Silas’s house, though she sees little of Silas, an “invalid”/opium addict (who frequently ODs, because he refuses to measure the dose), who is very pious and pleasant on the surface.  Maud loves his daughter Milly, a wild Heathcliffian youngster who speaks in the dialect of servants and wears short dresses and gives clever nicknames to friends and servants.   But Milly is smart and funny, and the two girls are so innocent and devoted:  they laugh, take walks, and read Sir Walter Scott, and because Bartaram-Haugh is all they know, they do not realize the atmosphere is dangerous.  The contrast between Maud’s father’s house, Knowl and uncle’s is dramatic.

I had not half seen this old house of Bartram-Haugh yet. At first, indeed, I had but an imperfect idea of its extent. There was a range of rooms along one side of the great gallery, with closed window-shutters, and the doors generally locked. Old L’Amour grew cross when we went into them, although we could see nothing; and Milly was afraid to open the windows—not that any Bluebeard revelations were apprehended, but simply because she knew that Uncle Silas’s order was that things should be left undisturbed; and this boisterous spirit stood in awe of him to a degree which his gentle manners and apparent quietude rendered quite surprising.

Maud is in danger.  There are strange goings-on in the woods, Mr. Bryerly rebukes Uncle Silas for chopping down Maud’s trees and selling them as charcoal, and the gates are locked so that Maud and Milly cannot leave. Friends are forbidden to visit. And the plot thickens…

A terrifying novel!  Remember the episode of Friends where Joey is so frightened by Stephen King’s The Shining that he put it in the freezer?   That’s how I felt about Uncle Silas!

7 thoughts on “The Gothic vs. the Internet: J. Sheridan Le Fanu’s Uncle Silas

  1. Sounds scary and wonderful! And you’re right about the Internet – it’s a terrible distraction. Mind you, if the UK recession carries on and we end up with power cuts at least I’ll be able to read lots by candelight…. :s

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    • Oh, power cuts can be terrible! I hope it doesn’t come to that. Stock up on lanterns! Yes, the internet can be too distracting, though we are reading newspapers, etc. One of our friends has a generator–we practically lived there one week!

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  2. I hesitate to try to count each day how much time I spend just sitting and staring, browsing and then reading something I never intended to, then adding a new blog to my links …. LeFanu’s ghost stories are uncanny too.

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