This is Victorian Gothic/Sensation Fiction at its best. I’m a fan of Sheridan Le Fanu. I think that In a Glass Darkly, is one of the best collections of supernatural fiction ever written and the “lesbian” vampire story ‘Carmilla’ is a masterpiece of the uncanny. This is a writer who really knows how to play on our fears and he was a big influence on one of my other favourite writers of the supernatural, M.R. James.
Uncle Silas takes up the female gothic tradition of Ann Radcliffe and builds the tension to almost unbearable levels. There were honestly times when I felt I might not be able to continue reading this book because it was making me feel sick with anxiety. It is the story of Maud, your classic innocent, gothic heroine. She’s an heiress and has been brought up in almost complete isolation, which is never a good combination. Maud’s father dies and leaves a very strange will in which he gives his sinister brother Silas guardianship over our trembling heroine. Someone was once murdered in Silas’s house and he wants to clear his brother’s reputation by trusting him with his daughter until she comes of age in a few years time. Hmmm. He doesn’t seem to consider the potential danger of dangling an heiress in front of his spendthrift opium-addicted brother if Silas does turn out to be a murderer after all, but incompetent fathers are a feature of the nineteenth-century gothic, which often takes the failings of patriarchy as a starting point. Poor Maud is packed off to live with Silas in his even more isolated, dilapidated housem, with only a garrulous servant for company. Here she has to figure out if the conspiracy she suspects is real or if she’s imagining the threat.
One of the things that impressed me about this novel (and there is much) is Le Fanu’s apparent awareness of the socially constructed aspects of gender. Women like Maud are not born; they are created. He makes this apparent when we are introduced to Silas’s “hoyden” of a daughter, Milly, who, motherless and wild, has not been through the feminizing process. I loved Milly with her “swaggering walk,” her loud voice, saucy but honest talk and physical exuberance. Milly is a representation of what middle-class woman were not allowed to be and, of course, Maud immediately sets about “civilising” her (lengthening her dresses and telling her to keep her mouth shut in the company of men).
For a male writer, Le Fanu did a good job of constructing a “feminine” subjectivity for Maud as she develops from her victim role and works out how to use the powers available to her, namely, passive resistance, deceit and manipulation. And you really can’t blame her under the circumstances.
There’s plenty of gender-inversion in the book as whole. Silas is strangely effeminate, but the most frightening and grotesque figure is the malevolent, drunken French governess Madame De La Rougierre:
On a sudden, on the grass before me, stood an odd figure – a very tall woman in grey draperies, nearly white under the moon, curtseying extraordinarily low, and rather fantastically.
I stared in something like horror upon the large and rather hollow features which I did not know, smiling very unpleasantly on me; and the moment it was plain that I saw her, the grey woman began gobbling and cackling shrilly – I could not distinctly hear what through the window – and gesticulating oddly with her long hands and arms.
Although the book is full of these kinds of threatening, uncanny moments, in fact, until about the last quarter, it’s all suspense. Nothing much happens and you don’t know whether or not there really is a conspiracy against Maud, but the ending, when it comes, does not disappoint; it’s quite shockingly violent and gruesome for a Victorian novel.