Feb 15, 2010

Uncle Silas by Sheridan Le Fanu

Uncle Silas by Sheridan Le Fanu

Uncle Silas is a 1865 sensation novel which, curiously enough, begins with a preface in which the author states that what we’re about to read is not, in fact, a mere sensation novel, for Those Are Bad. Isn’t that funny? It put me in mind of certain contemporary authors who are so eager to distance their work from the genres to which they belong, and to belittle the traditions that so clearly inspired them. But anyway, none of this has any bearing on how excellent a novel Uncle Silas is.

The heroine of this story is seventeen-year-old Maud Ruthyn, who we initially meet at Knowl, the large and isolated estate where she lives with her reclusive father. Maud leads a lonely existence, and things don’t get much better when her father hires a governess, Madame De La Rougierre, who terrorises her. I don’t want to tell you too much about the plot, because the story’s main event, the thing you’ll read about in most synopses should you look one up, is something that only happens a good one hundred and fifty pages into the book – which, in my humble opinion, qualifies it as a spoiler. Good thing that I know better than to read back cover plot summaries these days.

Anyway, the start of Uncle Silas could perhaps be described as slow, but I wasn’t bored for a second. Eerie and mysterious events take place from the very beginning, and I was immediately drawn into the story. Here’s what I can tell you about the plot: we have not one but two atmospheric manor houses; a brave if slightly na├»ve heroine; a seriously creepy governess who enjoys playing mind games; and a possibly mad relative (hello, Raych): the uncle Silas of the title, of whom all we know at first is that he was involved in a scandal many years ago, and is now a social outcast. Needless to say, Maud ends up meeting him, but I shan’t tell you how.

There. I know that’s a vague description, but I hope it will be enough to make you want to read Uncle Silas. I seriously can’t imagine fans of Wilkie Collins not enjoying this book. Like Collins, Le Fanu knows how to create and sustain an atmosphere of suspense. Whatever else Uncle Silas is, it’s also immensely fun to read, completely engrossing, and very Gothic and awesome.

One of the other things Uncle Silas is is a very claustrophobic novel. Like in most sensation fiction, the plot is built around social cracks, contradictions and fears: mainly the fear of impeding social chaos, should certain lines be crossed or certain structures collapse. In this case, we first and foremost have class-based fears. Class boundaries are very much at the core of Uncle Silas’ unforgivable transgression. I can tell you this, as it’s not the secret that certain characters only allude to at first: one of the reasons why Silas and his brother Austin, Maud’s father, ceased to be in good terms was because Silas married a country girl, someone not of his class.

The novel sometimes seems to suggest that this explain certain things about Maud’s cousins, Dudley and Milly, though I’m not quite sure what to make of Le Fanu’s stance on this. When Maud meets Milly, she describes her lack of proper feminine demeanour as “grotesque”. But Milly changes considerably after spending time in Maud’s company, which implies that it’s her lack of education that is responsible for her eccentricity, rather than the lack of any innate class-based quality. Dudley, on the other hand, is as unpleasant a character as they come. There’s another working-class character in the novel, Meg Hawkes, who’s treated with kindness, but as I was saying earlier, Uncle Silas is still very much centred on the idea that crossing certain class boundaries has dreadful consequences.

It’s funny how suspenseful Uncle Silas manages to be, even though everything is as it seems. I’m trying not to give away too much of the story, but to be honest I don’t think a modern reader will be very surprised at all with any of what happens. Like in Lady Audley’s Secret, the scandals aren’t really all that scandalous in our day and age. But that doesn’t make the story any less interesting, or any less fun. And it’s neat to think about how a Victorian audience would have read it differently because of certain assumptions about what “gentlemen” do or do not do.

Uncle Silas is a first person narration, which tells us right away that Maud is going to be just fine in the end. Still, as the story progresses, as its atmosphere becomes increasingly oppressive, and as Maud grows more and more isolated, I truly feared for her. Even though I approached the story with a different set of assumptions than its original audience did, I found that the suspense still worked. As for Maud, she’s not exactly an unconventional heroine like Wilkie Collins’ Marian or Rachel, but she has a voice and a mind of her own. As I was saying earlier, she’s very much concerned with ladylike decorum, but while I wouldn’t necessarily describe her as a feminist icon, she definitely feels like a real person. That was enough for the characterisation to satisfy me.

The most interesting thing about Uncle Silas, when it comes to gender politics, is the fact that it exposes the positions of extreme vulnerability into which women were forced. The story takes place before the Married Women's Property Act, and Maud is completely dependant on her male relatives until she comes of age. The threats of being declared mad, of a forced marriage, of being robbed of everything she is to inherit, are all very much real. The fact that she’s completely in the hands of the men in her life is what makes her story so terrifying. Kudos to Sheridan Le Fanu for making Victorian readers face the position their social structure put her in. Kudos for making them sympathise.

Bits I liked:
There is not an old house in England of which the servants and young people who live in it do not cherish some traditions of the ghostly. Knowl has its shadows, noises, and marvellous records. Rachel Ruthyn, the beauty of Queen Anne's time, who died of grief for the handsome Colonel Norbrooke, who was killed in the Low Countries, walks the house by night, in crisp and sounding silks. She is not seen, only heard. The tapping of her high-heeled shoes, the sweep and rustle of her brocades, her sighs as she pauses in the galleries, near the bed-room doors; and sometimes, on stormy nights, her sobs.

We had tea in Milly's room that night. Firelight and candles are inspiring. In that red glow I always felt and feel more safe, as well as more comfortable, than in the daylight--quite irrationally, for we know the night is the appointed day of such as love the darkness better than light, and evil walks thereby. But so it is. Perhaps the very consciousness of external danger enhances the enjoyment of the well-lighted interior, just as the storm does that roars and hurtles over the roof.
(Have you posted about this book too? Leave me your link and I’ll be glad to add it here.)

25 comments:

  1. Oh I love Uncle Silas. It's one of my favourite sensation novels. SO glad you enjoyed it!

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  2. I have two words to say: wish list. (sigh) lol

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  3. I love sensation novels, so you wouldn't have to twist my arm to read this one. I know exactly what you are talking about, when you say it could be described a slow. Sensation books generally start out that way, building the tension and atmosphere. And what is the deal with governesses? Is there a good one in the bunch, except maybe Mary Poppins?

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  4. I really want this one for the Victorian challenge. It sounds so eerie and just so me.

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  5. I'd never even heard of this book before and I now desperately want to read it! I have wanted to read more Victorian sensation novels for years.

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  6. I love sensation novels, too, but had no idea Uncle Silas was one of them. Great review!

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  7. Okay. Here's my deal with Uncle Silas. A member of my book club mentioned it a few years ago. She wanted to read it as part of our group, but our library system only had 1-2 copies so we couldn't. I did decide to try reading it though, so I ordered one of those copies.

    It came to me, hardbound, old, musty, slightly moldy, and very hard to read. The print was small and off-center. The whole setup of the book was distracting. I think I made it ten pages in the course of a week and finally gave up. I can't tell if that's because of the story or the physical copy itself, though, but I've been scared to go back.

    Next month, I'll be reading The Mysteries of Udolpho. Maybe after reading some other sensationalism, I'll be more willing to go back to Uncle Silas.

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  8. I've never heard of this one! But judging by your review, it looks really great. I'm not familiar with this genre, but now I'm curious.

    Emidy
    Une Parole

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  9. I love your edition of it, with the dripping blood - I think I had Sweeney Todd in that same edition at one point. Yay for Le Fanu! I've been wanting to read him since I read Gaudy Night and Harriet does all her research on him, but I keep forgetting!

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  10. I feel really out of it - I'd never heard of a Sensation Novel before. I must investigate this further.

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  11. I've been looking forward to getting my hands on this one - glad to see the first review I've seen of it is a positive one!

    Have you also read Through a Glass Darkly?

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  12. When I read a review this good it makes me wish I'd already read the book, so I could enjoy it even more by knowing what it's describing first hand!

    Convoluted, huh?

    I'm going to have to look up the Married Women's Property Act. I knew inheritance laws were bad for women, then better, but it never occurred to me what caused the transition.

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  13. I keep reading positive reviews of atmospheric Gothic novels, and hearing them mentioned in a very positive light. I'll have to pick one up soon enough :)

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  14. I love how varied your reading is :)

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  15. This does sound like a book I need to read!! Excellent thoughts on this!

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  16. Good review! I am tempted to read this now... :)

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  17. My husband just opened the door to the TBR room (which we keep closed to keep the cats and dog out) and the cats sprinted to the door as quick as can be. Just can't resist.

    Why I'm telling you this when I should be commenting on your wonderful book review, I don't know. Sorry for the tangent. :-S

    Uncle Silas sounds like a great read. I understand about slow books not necessarily being boring. I've come across a number of those myself. As a Wilkie Collins fan (well, a fan of The Woman in White), I will trust you to know that I would like this one too.

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  18. Excellent review. This sounds like a fun read. I have heard of it but never considered reading it before. It also sounds like a senstion novel. It's funny that even back in the day writers tried to deny they were writing genre novels when they clearly were.

    Margaret Atwood, take note! ;=)

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  19. I've read some of Le Fanu's short fiction and enjoyed it and I have this and others on my list of books I would like to own at some point. Reading this review puts me in the mood for some gothic reading, especially after watching Northanger Abbey over the weekend.

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  20. Totally new title to me -- but who could resist a creep governess, a made relative, and scandal!? I'll have to see if my library has it. Dreary late winter is the perfect time for some good Gothic reading.

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  21. After reading your review, I went out and ordered myself a copy! This sounds like just the type of suspenseful gothic read that I would love. Thanks for the recommendation and the great review! I am glad that you enjoyed the book so much as well!

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  22. Mrs B: I'm very new to the genre, so if you have any other recommendations I'd love to hear them!

    DesLily: lol :P Enjoy :D

    Sandy: There's also Jane Eyre! She's my favourite of them all :P And yes, they do build up the tension slowly, but it so pays off!

    Vivienne, I hope you love it! It's perfect for the challenge.

    Meghan: They're such fun! I want to read them all.

    JoAnn: It doesn't seem to be one of the most well-known ones, which is a pity!

    Amanda: I hope it was the physical copy itself :P I look forward to hearing your thoughts on The Mysteries of Udolpho. 18th century Gothic tends to be a little *too* over the top for me, so I hesitate to try it.

    Emidy, they're the ancestors of today's Gothic novels!

    Jenny: And I thought I couldn't possible want to read Gaudy Night more :P And yes, I love these Wordsworth editions too!

    Bermudaonion: They're fun and Gothic and awesome :D

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  23. Colleen: No, but it's on my list! The only Le Fanu I'd read before this was Carmilla.

    Trapunto: You can always go read it and then come back :P

    Fence: They're wonderful, and they've aged really well, I think!

    Lenore: Thank you! Sometimes I feel like I don't have enough focus, so it's nice to hear that :P

    Staci and Heidenkind, thanks! I hope you both enjoy it if you pick it up.

    Wendy, I'm glad you told me that, as it made me smile :D I really think fans of TWIW will enjoy this.

    C.B. James: Ha, I thought of Margaret Atwood as well :P

    Carl: I'm trying to make the most of the rest of the winter by filling it with Gothic reads. The ones I don't get to will be saved for RIP, of course ;)

    Beth: Exactly :D I hope your library has it!

    Zibilee: yay! I hope you do love it.

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  24. Eerie and mysterious events are key phrases that is enough to make me want this book. For now, into the wish list it goes. (I just broke my bank buying lots and lots of Kindle edition books!)

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  25. The book Uncle Silas is everything you say and more. Attitudes and ideas about death from several angles and dealing with the death of others is another of the themes and excellently and frankly done. The novel has a fair bit of symbolism interwoven into it as well I think. In looking back over it, all characters are unambiguously acting either for good or evil. My opinion is that the final sentence literally sums up the entire point of the novel in suggesting that we all are essentially acting out in life some kind of universal symbolism that essentially expresses either good or evil and survival often depends on being able to sort them apart as we interact with them.

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Thank you so much for taking the time to comment - interaction is one of my favourite things about blogging and a huge part of what keeps me going.