Thursday, January 15, 2015

Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu, Uncle Silas (1864)

One fun thing is to read the books that were lying around the house growing up but that I didn't investigate at the time because I was too dumb. That was my initial impetus for reading Wilkie Collins, which worked out great, 'cause Wilkie Collins is awesome. It was also my impetus to read Le Fanu, here. I won't lie: I was definitely hoping to find another Collins, the two of them being basically in the same wheelhouse. And...

The book starts out strong. Our heroine and narrator is Maud Ruthvyn, only daughter of a rich landed widower. Her father is taciturn and possessed of esoteric religious beliefs (he's a Swedenborgian). He meets with strange religious figures and has a Very Important key that he bequeaths to his daughter in the event of his disappearance. And then there's the sinister French governess that he hires for her, who clearly has her own agenda. Also, the titular Silas, mysterious and unseen, who may or may not have committed a murder for which he was never convicted many years past. The writing isn't hugely sophisticated, but it's still a good set-up that promises some fun gothic thrills'n'chills.

Spoilers from hereon in. From heron in. Spoilers about herons from hereon in. Her father dies, and Maud is sent to stay with the mysterious Silas, and this is where the novel seriously loses momentum. Silas himself remains mostly unseen, and isn't very strongly characterized, beyond seeming stern and pious and stuff. Maud becomes friends with his daughter, Milly, who is wild and uncultured due to never having been schooled particularly, but Maud schools her right up. She makes some delightful trips to see her vivacious Cousin Monica. She meets an ill-tempered worker and his wild daughter. She fends off the advances of Silas's oafish son Dudley, who comes round sometimes during lulls in debauching. And while all this is going on, the reader is left to wonder: why? Why is all this going on? What's the POINT? I feel like I'm supposed to be in suspense about something, but what? Because I'm NOT. I'm just sort of bemused, and thinking, okay okay, get ON with it already, Joseph. This isn't the most gripping thing I've ever read. There needs to be a sense of growing tension here, but there ain't. It seems very water-treading-y.

I was surprised and pleased, however, to discover that it actually gets a lot better in the last eighty-odd pages, as it becomes clear that SOMETHING is going on and Maud doesn't know who to trust and things get more and more foreboding. The Sinister Governess, Madame de la Rougierre, reappears. Silas is clearly up to no good. The ending, indeed, is downright exciting. You must just do Le Fanu the favor of not remarking that NONE of the promised intrigue in the first section leads to anything: Madame de la Rougierre's motivations in her first appearance appear to have nothing to do with what she becomes in her second; the “key” business is a total red herring, and Maud's father's religiosity is ultimately irrelevant. Nor should you question how it came to pass that both her father and then her uncle JUST HAPPENED to hire this same clearly insane woman to work for them. Or point out the narrative dead-end that is Captain Oakley, a potential love interest that goes absolutely nowhere and serves no narrative purpose just disappears after getting beaten up by Dudley. BUT STILL.

So yes! Ignore these things, endure a really dull middle three hundred pages, and you've got a decent novel. Admittedly, these may be significant caveats, but I did finish the book feeling a LOT more positive about it than I had expected to. Not in the same league as even Collins' lesser novels (that I've read), however.

Let's turn out attention to more important questions, however. Such as: does Le Fanu employ a barely-veiled vulgarity that you would NOT expect to see in a respectable Victorian novel? As Milly says when Maud first gets to Silas's estate:

And why the puck don't you let her out, you stupe, you?

HUH. When did the “[interrogative] the fuck” construction first come into use, anyway? Though I must admit, the occasional use of “dang it” sounded even stranger to my ears. But that is not the point. The point is, CONFORM:

Now, Milly, you must not be crying; if you choose you may be just as the same as any other lady—and you shall; you will be very much admired, I can tell you, if only you will take the trouble to quite unlearn all your odd words and ways, and dress yourself like other people.

It's too bad, because pre-reformation Milly is a pretty engaging character; post-reformation Milly is just boring. It is, however, interesting to note the way Le Fanu renders the pronunciations of uncultured or generally bad characters phonetically. Okay, maybe it's not THAT interesting. But it IS something I noted. TAKE IT OR LEAVE IT. I probably won't bother with reading any more of him. It's interesting to note, however, that this, his most famous novel, is only his SECOND-most-downloaded text on Project Gutenberg. The most, by a very wide margin, is “Carmilla,” a story that I'm pretty sure is popular because people have the impression—I suspect they'll come away disappointed—that it's about sexy lesbian vampires. Fun for kids of all ages!


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