Sheridan Le Fanu

Orfeas Katsoulis | Jul 17, 2023

Table of Content


Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu, born on August 28, 1814 in Dublin, where he died on February 10, 1873, is an Irish writer.

He is one of the major authors of fantasy stories.


Of old Norman stock, Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu was the son of the dean of the Irish Protestant Church. He was also the grand-nephew of the famous Irish playwright and politician Richard Brinsley Sheridan (Dublin, 1751 - London, 1816), author of the comedy of manners School of Scandal (1777). He grew up at 45 St Dominic Street, in the center of Dublin, with his parents, Dean Thomas Philip Le Fanu and Emma Dobbyn, and his older sister Catherine, born in 1813. The name Le Fanu comes from the writer's Huguenot ancestors (the former name given to French Protestants of Calvinist persuasion during the Wars of Religion), who had emigrated from Caen to Ireland when the Edict of Nantes was revoked by King Louis XIV on October 18, 1685 (the Edict of Nantes was replaced by the Edict of Fontainebleau).

In 1815, Dean Thomas Philip Le Fanu, Joseph's father, was appointed Rector at the Royal Hibernian Military School in Phoenix Park. Joseph received a private education from his father who taught him English and French. In 1816 Joseph's brother William was born.

The years of training

In October 1832, Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu studied law at Trinity College, Dublin, where he published his first fantastic short stories. He then turned to journalism. In 1838, he published two short stories, Passage in the Secret of an Irish Countess and The Ghost and the Bone-Setter in the Dublin University Magazine. In 1839, Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu was called to the bar in Dublin as a lawyer. At the same time, he wrote the new History of the Family of Tyrone. Le Fanu was also a journalist for the Dublin Evening Mail, one of the most important newspapers in Dublin. In 1841, Joseph's older sister, Catherine, died at the age of 28. Joseph became director and owner of the newspaper The Warder.

In 1842, Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu met his future wife, Susanna Bennett. They got married in 1844. The couple had three children and settled permanently in Dublin. They settled at 2 Nelson Street. Joseph was elected an honorary member of the College Historical Society. In 1845, Le Fanu loses his father, Thomas Le Fanu. Joseph publishes a novel, The Cock and Anchor. Joseph and Susanna move to 1 Warrington Place on the banks of the Liffey, then to number 15. Their first daughter, Eleanor Frances, is born on February 10 of the same year. It was at this time that the blight epidemic began, which caused the Great Famine and forced many Irish people into exile, particularly in the United States. On September 3, 1847, Thomas Philip was born. On May 21, 1848, the couple had a third child, Emma Lucretia. In 1850, Le Fanu wrote the short story The Mysterious Lodger, which he published anonymously in the Dublin University Magazine.

The first successes

The year 1851 marked a turning point in the prolific writer's career with the publication of his first collection of fantasy short stories: Ghost Stories and Tales of Mysteries. Following the death of Susanna's father, Joseph and his wife moved into his father's house at 18 Merrion Square. Le Fanu spent the rest of his life there. It was in this elegant residential area of Dublin that Le Fanu met Sir William Robert Wills Wilde, an Irish surgeon, and Jane Francesca Elgee, known as "Speranza", a poet and Irish nationalist. This couple of friends had as a child another writer: Oscar Wilde. Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu's wife, Susanna, showed the first signs of the disease that would take her life seven years later. On August 1, 1854, George Brinslay was born, who later illustrated his father's novels and painted the few surviving portraits of him.


After the death of his wife on April 28, 1858, Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu devoted himself exclusively to writing fantasy novels. In July 1861, Le Fanu became the owner of the Dublin University Magazine, an important Victorian newspaper in Ireland for literature and ideas. It was in this journal that he published most of his works. In 1863, Le Fanu published The House by the Churchyard. The following year, the writer published in serial form in the Dublin University Magazine the novel that is considered by many to be his masterpiece, Uncle Silas. Le Fanu entitled the first episode Maud Ruthyn and Maud Ruthyn and Uncle Silas for the other two. Uncle Silas was adapted for the stage at the Shaftesbury Theatre in London, which shows the fame of this novel at the time of its publication.

In 1869, Le Fanu sold the Dublin University Magazine, which he abandoned in 1872. That same year, the man of letters published his most famous collection of short stories, In a Glass Darkly. This collection contains some of Le Fanu's most widely read works to this day, such as Green Tea, Mr.. Arbottle, The Room in the Dragon Volant, and the classic that would inspire another famous Irish writer 25 years later (Bram Stoker), Carmilla. He died in Merrion Square, Dublin, on February 7, 1873, while writing his last text: Willing to Die. He is buried in Mount Jerome Cemetery in Dublin.

In his afterword to the novel How My Cousin Was Murdered, Alain Pozzuoli speaks of Le Fanu's chronic depression, his neuroses, and the guilt that haunted him. Convinced that he had mistreated his wife, Susanna, Le Fanu carried this burden to his last days. At the end of his life, the writer led a most frugal life, sleeping little and drinking only black tea. Without falling into an easy psychologism, these few observations on the author of Carmilla throw an interesting light on some essential texts of the "Le Fanu" corpus.

Le Fanu was passionate about everything that had to do with scientific discoveries. Among these fields of discovery, two stand out in relation to Le Fanu's work: medicine, with in particular the contribution of nascent psychoanalysis, and mesmerism, hypnosis also constituting a method of investigation of the human psyche. This contribution is far from negligible, for it helps to explain an essential characteristic of Le Fanu's fantasy. The ghosts, whether they are whole entities or "body" parts, such as the recurring motif of the spectral hand, are closely linked to the tormented psyche of the characters. Not to mention that the text never explicitly mentions the motivations of these disembodied entities that come to haunt the living. This feature adds to their disturbing, even fatal character. For, not only do they terrify humans, they can also be fatal to them. In this sense, the Lefanian fantasy announces the modern fantasy, which will prevail towards the end of the 19th century and throughout the 20th century. In this respect, let us mention one of the masterpieces of the American writer Henry James, The Turn of the Screw (1898) as well as Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House (1959).

Uncle Silas, published in 1864, is considered Le Fanu's masterpiece and remains his best-known novel. Arthur Conan Doyle was inspired to write The Firm of Girdlestone. It is regularly cited in the annals of detective literature. The interest of this novel lies partly in the fact that it highlights a major figure of thought in the 18th century, the Swedish scientist, philosopher and theologian Emmanuel Swedenborg (Stockholm 1688-London 1772). From the latter's illuminist theory, which also permeates several of Le Fanu's other writings, he will retain Swedenborg's neo-platonic theory that every real object has a corresponding spiritual double. A. Pozzuoli considers that the pain of losing his wife may have played a role in Le Fanu's infatuation with Swedenborg's spiritualism. The contribution of Swedenborg's thought is interesting in that it allows us to understand an important element of the originality of Le Fanu's fantasy.

To this influence of Swedenborg we could add another source, multiple this one, from which Le Fanu drew abundantly, that of the different literary currents still in vogue at that time. This is what Gaïd Girard explains in an essay devoted to Le Fanu: "We have seen how he borrowed from the multiple currents of the British Gothic novel, from Hoffmann's stories, from William Beckford as well as from Poe, and even, in his first part, from Walter Scott, from whom Le Fanu drew inspiration for the two historical novels published in 1845 and 1847. . Le Fanu and Edgar Allan Poe had a great admiration for each other, especially on the part of Le Fanu for the famous American writer. The two men never met personally, but in their correspondence they admit to having drawn inspiration from each other's work for the writing of some of their texts.

In his afterword to Le Fanu's long novella How My Cousin Was Murdered, Alain Pozzuoli gives one of the keys to the Irish writer's universe: In the novella The Mysterious Lodger, "Le Fanu's favorite theme is already beginning to emerge: the disquieting strangeness that comes from outside and brings danger to the seemingly peaceful universe where it is introduced. Thus, in The Murdered Cousin (1851) we find this universe of confinement, of claustration dear to Le Fanu and which puts in scene a landed nobility with strict rules, marked by hypocrisy, lies. A social and family universe where everything is only appearance, but where, in the shadows, the worst dramas and the most dreadful conspiracies are being plotted. In this sense, The Murdered Cousin, a short story published in 1851, already announces, in condensed form, the masterpiece that Le Fanu would publish thirteen years later: Uncle Silas.

This comparison between The Murdered Cousin and Uncle Silas is revealing of Le Fanu's work in the sense that it highlights leitmotifs present in both the short stories and the novels. In addition to the themes highlighted above, we can also highlight the theme of fate that plagues the female characters, whether we think of Margaret in The Murdered Cousin or Maud Ruthyn in Uncle Silas. A sociological and feminist analysis would allow us to deduce that the situation of women was far from being the most enviable in the Victorian era. Indeed, in Le Fanu, the woman, most often the narrator and heroine of the story, has to face practically alone a male universe that is as opaque (since the woman is constantly kept away from the Machiavellian decisions of the men) as it is distressing (since these same decisions taken by the male characters are almost always to the detriment of the heroine of the story, and most often lead to her death). Seen in this light, the Lefanian heroine is presented as the scapegoat of a cold, calculating, amoral patriarchal order, devoid of scruples and ready to sacrifice everything to maintain its hegemony. Perhaps, as A. Pozzuoli suggests, we should see in this the troubled relationship that Le Fanu had with his elder sister, Catherine, who was his main confidante (incestuous attraction?) until her premature death, and with his wife, Susanna, whom the man of letters reproached himself for not having taken sufficient care of.

Film adaptations

Of Le Fanu's major works, Carmilla is by far the one that has inspired most filmmakers. The Sapphic dimension of the eponymous heroine of Le Fanu's short story, even if it is much more suggested than explicit, is surely not foreign to the popularity of this story in cinema.


  1. Sheridan Le Fanu
  2. Sheridan Le Fanu
  3. ^ Roach & Hartman, eds. (1997). English Pronouncing Dictionary, 15th edition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. p. 289.
  4. a b c d et e Alain Pozzuoli, « Un homme et ses fantômes », postface au roman Comment ma cousine a été assassinée, éd. Mille et une nuits, 2002.
  5. Gaïd Girard, Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu, Une écriture fantastique, chap. IX « Mesmérisme et modernité »
  6. a et b Gaïd Girard, Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu, une écritude fantastique, éd. Honoré Champion, Paris, 2005, p. 241.
  7. Sorozábal Serrano, Pablo (D.L. 1988). El tío Silas. Siruela. ISBN 84-85876-94-6. OCLC 434561573. Consultado el 25 de abril de 2023.
  8. 1 2 Sheridan Le Fanu // Encyclopædia Britannica (англ.)

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