It seems strange to admit that I hadn’t really heard of this book, when I consider how devoted its fan base is. In my studies, I’d run into Carmilla, but Uncle Silas is apparently not much considered in this country, not even in academia, not even in the small circle of literary scholars who study Gothic. The publisher and editor, of course, make a number of claims to the book’s singularity, but please, set those aside and remember that they’re trying to sell a product. Le Fanu is heavily indebted to Ann Radcliffe, which he acknowledges through several references to The Romance of the Forest, and he follows her strategies fairly conventionally.

Maud Ruthyn is a standard Gothic heroine. Probably beautiful, but that’s not really important. Brought up in isolation by an emotionally distant father, so most of her life takes place inside her own head. She narrates the story several years after it’s finished, so our experience comes through the lens of her perception and memory. They’re likely to be flawed, what with the constant gaslighting and other terrorist tactics used on her.

But the valley of the shadow of death has its varieties of dread. The ‘horror of great darkness’ is disturbed by voices and illumed by sights. There are periods of incapacity and collapse, followed by paroxysms of active terror. Thus in my journey during those long hours I found it – agonies subsiding into lethargies, and these breaking again into frenzy. I sometimes wonder how I carried my reason safely through the ordeal.

Maud’s father is a Swedenborgian, and the occult religion provides a rationale for the isolation so Maud doesn’t question it. Unlike most Gothic novels, though, this one doesn’t use religious difference as a sign for evil. The Swede club is composed of good guys who might be a little weird and antisocial but are also essentially kind and concerned for Maud’s well-being. The evil comes from someplace else.

Volume I is largely concerned with Madame de la Rougierre, Maud’s new governess. The book was written in 1864, so of course being French makes Madame evil. She’s drunk and careless about Maud’s education; her primary concern seems to be manipulating Maud’s father. She lies and steals and at a couple of points tries to put Maud in compromising situations. Maud’s good sense pulls her through, relatively unscathed.

Along with the bad female role model, we also have the good, Monica Knollys, a cousin of Maud’s father. Cousin Monica is older, but fun and affectionate and sometimes a little shocking. She doesn’t see through the conspiracy instantly, but she knows when things aren’t right. She doesn’t have the power to fix everything, no one person does, but she has a position in society that could really help Maud understand the social class she belongs to. The sight of Monica shocks Madame out of her French accent for a couple of sentences, so while we never explore her past, I’m inclined to think her nationality is not all it’s presented to be.

In Volume II Maud goes to live with her Uncle Silas, the secret head of the conspiracy. She’s never really met him before, but she spent her entire childhood in a house with his portrait, and as an isolated teenager she thought he was pretty sexy. There was also a mystery surrounding him, which Cousin Monica finally explains to her. It’s the now-classic locked-room mystery setup, where someone was murdered in Silas’s house but no one could figure out how. The official ruling was suicide, but everyone knows he did it, except his brother. Maud’s father thinks that he’s innocent, so Maud’s residence with him is intended to prove to everyone that Silas is no murderer, even though if she were to die he would inherit a fortune that would relieve his debts, because of which he’s about to lose his house and possibly end up in prison. In Volume II he’s rather similar to Frederick Fairlie of The Woman in White – of too delicate health to abide the stimulus of other people, so he isolates himself and throws occasional tantrums. There’s a marked change in Volume III, when he becomes more of the Count Fosco type.

Silas’s daughter Milly is Maud’s companion for most of Volume II. She’s been given almost no education, and while her father frequently insults her for her ignorance, he does nothing to remove it. She runs wild, wearing dresses short enough to climb trees in, and uses the broadest country dialect she can manage (Derbyshire).

‘Will you tell – yes or no – is my cousin in the coach?’ screamed the plump young lady, stamping her stout black boot, in a momentary lull.

Yes, I was there, sure.

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

Despite their obvious differences (the Gothic heroine is always dressed fit for an aristocrat’s drawing room and has a natural elegance of mind that makes her a welcome addition to the highest social circles, whether her education and experience make that realistic or not), Maud and Milly become close friends very quickly. Milly gets sent to a boarding school in France for Volume III so that the conspiracy can assault Maud more easily. If Monica and Madame are contrasting mother figures, Milly is Maud’s reflection, the example of what she could have become in different circumstances.

Silas also has a son, Dudley. He’s quite as rustic as Milly, but rather more threatening because he’s a man. As her cousin, he’s entitled to more intimacy than most men, but he’s also a viable marriage partner. His role in the conspiracy is to attract and marry Maud to save his father and himself from financial ruin, but unfortunately, he has no idea how to attract a girl like her. She’s not impressed with his bragging about himself, nor is she pleased with his prowess in fistfights or hunting. I mean, if a girl doesn’t swoon over your muscles, what else can you do? A hundred and fifty years later I can shout, You can get a job and pay your own bills, but Dudley doesn’t have the training to do any mental work, and he is too proud of his position in society to do the work he is fit for. He’s one of the idle no-longer-rich, an aggressively useless sort of person.

Rounding out the conspiracy are Dickon Hawkes and his daughter Meg, because apparently Le Fanu was caught up with alliterative names. Dickon is a one-legged abusive father; he’s the real muscle in the group. Meg gets sick and Maud takes care of her, so Meg’s loyalty to the conspiracy’s intended victim makes her the weak link. She does her best to warn Maud, even if she gets beaten for it later. She’s a good kid, but unused to kindness or even civility.

Some people have called this the first locked-room mystery, but I’m disinclined to agree – Maud is no detective. She makes absolutely no effort to find clues or solve the mystery; she only discovers the truth because the conspiracy puts her in the same locked room and tries to kill her the same way. Speaking of genre conventions, the Gothic is a bit different here than it was in Radcliffe’s time. Le Fanu spends dramatically less time describing the scenery, so I guess the picturesque nature books were out of fashion seventy-five years later. In No Name, written only a couple of years earlier than Uncle Silas, Wilkie Collins describes the scenery in the different places we go to, but it seems like he’s working for a tourist commission rather than being artistically Romantic. Le Fanu’s story takes place in more private places, but Radcliffe would have been much more rhapsodical. While there’s a general air of mystery and vague threat, the real standard plot points don’t really happen until Volume III – secret messages crying for help being discovered, servants disappearing, heroine getting drugged and taken on a mysterious journey that ends in being concealed and imprisoned inside her own house, threats of bigamy and murder, that sort of thing. In Volumes I and II there are other possible interpretations of events, but in Volume III we finally make it all the way Gothic.

Maud doesn’t go into this question, but the narrative makes me wonder: Is reform possible? Do people ever really change? It depends on what you mean by change. For example, in the last six years I’ve worked through a lot of emotional stuff, and I’m happier and more confident than I was. But I think that at bottom, who I am is still the same. I am the same person I’ve always been, but my expression of my self is less clouded by fear, pain, and shame. I am freer to be who I am. But what about murderers? I think it depends on who they are and what circumstances led to the murder. For example, I think the man who killed my uncle did it as a consequence of fear and desperation, not out of hatred or anger. They didn’t even know each other. Fear and despair can be healed and managed, so that killer learned to deal with the mess of himself before the state killed him – or in other words, they reformed him and made him no longer a murderer, and then they killed him for what he had been before. The fictional murderers seem entirely different to me. Silas spends fifteen or twenty years not growing or changing, so he deals with problems the same way he did before. Two locked-room murders in the same house, in the same room, might be a little hard to explain, but he’s not concerned about that. Hawkes doesn’t change either – some people are so self-justified that they don’t see why they should. His daughter’s bruises are no one else’s concern. Maud, on the other hand, frequently refers to her own ignorance and stupidity, leading us to believe that as an adult she’s a lot wiser and less Gothic-heroine-y than she was at seventeen. Maybe the capacity for growth is a signal for moral quality. After all, Milton’s Lucifer is defined by his refusal to grow or change, so Le Fanu made his villains adopt the same quality. In real life, people are seldom so easy to define and categorize.

In some ways, you could argue that Uncle Silas is transitional, looking both backward and forward, like Disney’s Little Mermaid. There are some allegorical touches in the film that hark back to Sleeping Beauty and Snow White, but there’s also a psychological realism and a modern representation of the female protagonist that foreshadows Beauty and the Beast and Mulan. Uncle Silas relies heavily on the Radcliffe tradition, but that wave of Gothic fiction belonged to the 1790s and was pretty much finished by 1820. The locked-room mystery aspect also looks forward to Arthur Conan Doyle, Agatha Christie, and the modern mystery writers. There were other Gothic heroines after 1864 (I’m thinking of Gwendolen Harleth and Mrs de Winter), but Le Fanu’s book occupies this weirdly anachronistic limbo, of not being quite one thing nor quite another. It is very enjoyable, for those of us who enjoy the Gothic fiction of previous centuries, but not as easy to categorize as scholars might desire. The strange thing is that it is so determined not to be a sensation novel, even those were so popular at the time. I think it’s better than East Lynne or Lady Audley’s Secret, but why insist so hard on not being Wilkie Collins that you end up being Radcliffe instead?

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