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Having reviewed over 1200 books on this blog, I have now written two myself. Motherdarling is a story about a search for a missing Will which reveals long-hidden family secrets. The Kids of God is a thriller set in a dystopia ruled by fascist paramilitaries. Both are available as paperbacks and on Kindle through Amazon. I live in Canterbury, England. I lived for more than thirty years in Bedford. Having retired from teaching; I became a research student at the University of Bedfordshire researching into Liminality. I achieved my PhD in 2019. I am now properly retired. I love reading! I enjoy in particular fiction (mostly great and classic fiction although I also enjoy whodunnits), biography, history and smart thinking. Follow me on twitter: @daja57

Tuesday, 15 December 2020

"A Chapter in the History of a Tyrone Family" by Sheridan Le Fanu

 This delightful piece of Gothic horror was written in 1839 by a master of the genre. It includes a number of elements of the plot for Jane Eyre which was published in 1847; Milbank (2002, 151; The Victorian Gothic in English novels and stories. In: J. Hogle, ed, The Cambridge Companion to Gothic Fiction. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge UP, pp. 145-166) recognised the "imprisoned foreign first wife, as well as the veil and the mirror.

It is written as a frame fiction in order to increase verisimilitude; the author who allegedly writes down the dictated story of the narrator and protagonist ("I find that I have taken the story down as she told it, in the first person, and, perhaps, this is as it should be.") even includes a couple of footnotes, a technique also used by Byron. The first section of the tale seems disjointed from the rest: it describes how the narrator's sister goes away to be married and the apparent arrival of a supernatural coach as a harbinger of the sister's death. Then we move to the marriage of the protagonist and the story proper begins. The newly married wife is allowed to roam her husband's castle anywhere except for the back part (he even refers to Bluebeard as he says this): "You must promise me, upon your sacred honour, that you will visit only that part of the castle which can be reached from the front entrance, leaving the back entrance and the part of the building commanded immediately by it, to the menials, as also the small garden whose high wall you see yonder; and never at any time seek to pry or peep into them, nor to open the door which communicates from the front part of the house through the corridor with the back". She sees mysteriously disappearing swathes of black cloth which, on old family servant tells her, are a portent of bad things a-coming: "Whenever something—something bad is going to happen to the Glenfallen family, some one that belongs to them sees a black handkerchief or curtain just waved or falling before their faces". Then she is accosted by a blind Dutchwoman who claims to be the first (and only true) wife of the husband. One night the narrator is lying in bed when the Dutchwoman comes into the room. "The mirror, as if acting of its own impulse moved slowly aside, and disclosed a dark aperture in the wall, nearly as large as an ordinary door; a figure evidently stood in this; but the light was too dim to define it accurately." The narrator is paralysed with fear as the Dutchwoman takes a cut-throat razor and goes across to the husband before returning to the narrator and attempt to cut her throat. In the ensuing scandal the Dutchwoman is tried and convicted and hanged. Subsequently the husband begins behaving strangely, claiming to have conversations with the Dutchwoman in the next room. 

Some of the more gorgeously Gothic bits:

  • "nothing was to be seen but the tall trees with their long spectral shadows, now wet with the dews of midnight."
  • "What has he done to alarm you? he is neither old nor ugly." I was silent, though I might have said, "He is neither young nor handsome."
  • "Once, nearly twenty years ago, a friend of mine consulted me how he should deal with a daughter who had made what they call a love match, beggared herself, and disgraced her family; and I said, without hesitation, take no care of her, but cast her off;"
  • "I cannot conceive anything more unreasonable or intolerable than that the fortune and the character of a family should be marred by the idle caprices of a girl."
  • "Indeed I do not recollect that I was even so romantic as to overcome my aversion to rats and rheumatism, those faithful attendants upon your noble relics of feudalism; and I much prefer a snug, modern, unmysterious bed-room, with well-aired sheets, to the waving tapestry, mildewed cushions, and all the other interesting appliances of romance; however, though I cannot promise you all the discomfort generally pertaining to an old castle, you will find legends and ghostly lore enough to claim your respect"
  • "The gay, kind, open-hearted nobleman who had for months followed and flattered me, was rapidly assuming the form of a gloomy, morose, and singularly selfish man."
  • "I was wakened, after having slept uneasily for some hours, by some person shaking me rudely by the shoulder; a small lamp burned in my room, and by its light, to my horror and amazement, I discovered that my visitant was the self-same blind, old lady who had so terrified me a few weeks before."
  • "He had a wife living, which wife I am."
  • "There was something in her face, though her features had evidently been handsome, and were not, at first sight, unpleasing, which, upon a nearer inspection, seemed to indicate the habitual prevalence and indulgence of evil passions, and a power of expressing mere animal anger, with an intenseness that I have seldom seen equalled, and to which an almost unearthly effect was given by the convulsive quivering of the sightless eyes."
  • "I was within the reach of this violent, and, for aught I knew, insane woman."
  • "The horror and dismay, which, in the olden time, overwhelmed the woman of Endor, when her spells unexpectedly conjured the dead into her presence, were but types of what I felt."
  • "As I have never taken the opinion of madmen touching your character or morals, I think it but fair to require that you will evince a like tenderness for me."
  • "I heard a voice close to my face exclaim as before, "There is blood upon your ladyship's throat." The words were instantly followed by a loud burst of laughter."
  • "Quaking with horror, I awakened, and heard my husband enter the room. Even this was a relief."
  • "Whenever my eyes wandered to the sleeping figure of my husband, his features appeared to undergo the strangest and most demoniacal contortions."

December 2020

Le Fanu later reworked this story as The Wyvern Mystery. Written in 1869 after the best-selling success of Jane Eyre it included more Eyre-like features, such as an orphaned heroine, thus becoming an unusual example of a story which is influenced by the story that was influenced by it.

Sheridan Le Fanu was a massively popular novelist in his time and helped develop the prototype for much of the horror genre. in Gaudy Night by Dorothy L Sayers the narrator Harriet Vane considers writing a dissertation on Le Fanu but decides it will be thought too mainstream.

Le Fanu's works include
  • Uncle Silas, a locked-room mystery
  • Carmilla, featuring a lesbian vampire
  • Spalatro, whose Italian bandit hero seems to be a dead ringer for Anne Radcliffe's The Italian except that he has a necrophiliac passion for an undead blood-drinking heroine.
  • The House by the Churchyard (1863), a historical novel referenced by James Joyce in Finnegan's Wake

This review was written by Dave Appleby the author of Motherdarling



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