Sheridan Le Fanu

Sheridan LeFanuSheridan Le Fanu was born at 45 Lower Dominick Street, Dublin, into a scholarly family of Huguenot origins. His guardians were Thomas Philip Le Fanu and Emma Lucretia Dobbin.

Both his grandma Alicia Sheridan Le Fanu and his extraordinary uncle Richard Brinsley Sheridan were writers (his niece Rhoda Broughton would become a well known author also). Inside a year of his introduction to the world his family moved to the Royal Hibernian Military School in the Phoenix Park, where his father, a Church of Ireland pastor, was given the chaplaincy of the foundation. The Phoenix Park and the contiguous town and ward church of Chapelizod would show up in Le Fanu’s later stories.

In 1826 the family moved to Abington, County Limerick, where Le Fanu’s father Thomas began a second rectorship in southern Ireland. In spite of the fact that he had a tutor, Le Fanu taught himself with the aid of his father’s library. This may have influenced the young Le Fanu’s horror fiction later on. Thomas Le Fanu was a stern Protestant and brought his family up in the strict Calvinist tradition.

Be that as it may, as the consequence of Catholic revolts against the tithes given to the Protestant church, Thomas Le Fanu’s salary fell hard, and it stopped altogether two years after the uprising.

In 1838 the legislature settled on a plan of paying ministers a fixed sum which was very little. Apart from this the Dean had meagre rent on some properties he had inherited.

Indeed, at his passing Thomas had practically nothing to leave to his children and the family needed to auction his library to pay some of his obligations. Le Fanu’s mother stayed with her youngest son, William.

On 18 December 1844 Sheridan Le Fanu wedded Susanna Bennett, the daughter of a leading Dublin barrister. Isaac Butt was a witness. The couple then made a trip to his parent’s home in Abington for Christmas. They took a house in Warrington Place close to the Grand Canal in Dublin. Their first child was born in 1845, followed by three more in rapid succession.

In 1856 the family moved from Warrington Place to Susanna’s parent’s home at 18 Merrion Square (later number 70, the site of the Irish Arts Council). Her parents left to live in England. Le Fanu never possessed the house, he merely leased it from his brother in law for £22 per annum (which he never managed to pay in full).

His personal life deteriorated when his wife began having psychotic symptoms, and became a religious fanatic along with Le Fanu’s brother William. She died after an ‘hysterical incident’ which was never properly explained.

Le Fanu buried his wife in the Bennett family vault in Mount Jerome Cemetery close to her father and siblings. The anguish of Le Fanu’s journals demonstrates his extreme guilt and sense of personal misfortune at this time.

He turned to his cousin Lady Gifford for counsel and consolation, and she remained a friend and adviser until her demise at the end of the decade.

In 1861 he became the editorial proprietor of the Dublin University Magazine and he started to exploit his position, first serializing his work in the magazine, then editing it for the English market.

Le Fanu’s relationship with Richard Bentley, his London distributer, defined his future and he achieved success by aiming his work at the English market. Bentley convinced Le Fanu that future books should be stories “of an English subject and of present day times”, a step Bentley thought essential for Le Fanu to fulfill his ambition as a writer.

In 1864, Le Fanu published Uncle Silas, which he set in Derbyshire. In his last short stories, Le Fanu returned to his beloved Irish legends and supported his friend and companion Patrick Kennedy by having his Irish fables published in the Dublin University Magazine.

His earliest twelve short stories, written between 1838 and 1840, were published in the Dublin University Magazine and were later collected as The Purcell Papers (1880). They include some classic stories of gothic horror, with mournful castles, supernatural visitations from beyond the grave, madness and suicide. Also apparent are nostalgia and sadness for the dispossessed Catholic aristocracy of Ireland, whose ruined castles stand as mute witness to this history. Some of the stories still appear in anthologies:

  • “The Ghost and the Bonesetter” (1838), his first-published story.
  • “The Fortunes of Sir Robert Ardagh” (1838), an enigmatic story involving a Faustian pact and set in the gothic ambiance of a castle in rural Ireland.
  • “The Last Heir of Castle Connor” (1838), a non-supernatural tale, exploring the decline and expropriation of the ancient Catholic gentry of Ireland under the Protestant Ascendancy.
  • “The Drunkard’s Dream” (1838), of Hell.
  • “Strange Event in the Life of Schalken the Painter” (1839), a disturbing story of a man returning from the grave to claim his bride in the old folkloric motif of the demon lover. This tale was inspired by the atmospheric candlelit scenes of the 17th-century Dutch painter Godfried Schalcken, who is the hero of the story. M. R. James stated that “‘Schalken’ conforms more strictly to my own ideals. It is indeed one of the best of Le Fanu’s good things”
  •  It was adapted and broadcast for television by the BBC for Christmas 1979.
  • “Passage in the Secret History of an Irish Countess” (1839), an early version of his later novel Uncle Silas.
  • “A Chapter in the History of a Tyrone Family” (1839), which may have influenced Charlotte Brontë‘s Jane Eyre. This story was later reworked as The Wyvern Mystery (1869).

Sheridan Le Fanu died in Dublin on 7 February 1873, at 58 years old. Today there is a street and park named after him in Ballyfermot, close to his childhood home in Chapelizod, south-west Dublin.

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