J. Sheridan Le Fanu, Uncle Silas (1864)
It’s yet another classic book review! I’ve been doing a lot of these lately as I try to plow through my accumulated TBR pile. But while on vacation I took a whole bunch of newer books along with me on the e-reader, so I hope to have something completely different for you very soon. Even though I do like reviewing classics, I don’t want to focus on them exclusively on the blog.
In the meantime, I’m going back to the Victorian era with a giant of the Gothic genre. I confess that it was the looks, not the content, of this book that initially caught my attention. It’s a Folio Society edition with illustrations by Charles Stewart, a fascinating character in his own right — a theatre enthusiast, collector, and artist who was obsessed with the tale for many years. He created some of the pictures for an edition that never made it into print, but these were eventually incorporated into the Folio publication along with a gorgeous period-style binding design.
The illustrations are also beautifully in tune with the Victorian aesthetic, and though done in pen and ink imitate the engravings that often adorned books of the period. These are plentiful and add marvelously to the brooding atmosphere. The typography is unobtrusively excellent as well.
But what about the story? (Spoiler alert here — I’m going to refer to some major plot points.) It’s narrated by a seventeen-year-old girl who inherits her father’s enormous estate and is sent to live with her Uncle Silas in his crumbling house. She wants to honor her father’s wish to believe him innocent of a horrible crime of which he was accused years ago, but this becomes more and more difficult as the ominous characters and events pile up …
Though I enjoyed the book overall, I was left with a faint sense of disappointment. Many elements seemed to me to have more potential than was actually fulfilled. There was a fantastically villainous French governess, for instance, but Le Fanu seemed to lose interest in her and her evil petered out into ridiculousness. Another character, a neglected girl with a wonderfully unconventional personality and manner of speaking, had to be immediately smoothed out and made into a model of Victorian propriety, which was unfortunate. And there was a big build-up of the “Swedenborgian” view of spirits and angels, which would seem to presage some supernatural-slash-psychological crisis, but nothing came of this.
Most seriously, our heroine, Maud, was too silly and passive for my taste. I loved the theme of trying to break through deception to the true reality, but Maud spent far too much time clinging to her wish for Silas to be good, even when it was completely obvious that he wasn’t. She ignored her forebodings for so long that she deserved what came to her, and was saved not by her own awakened initiative and insight, but by some equally silly antics on the part of her captors.
These left me baffled, because they were trying to kill Maud very cleverly in secret so that nobody would know, but the whole point of killing her was to get her inheritance, for which purpose her death would need to be made public. Perhaps this was an indication of Silas’s disturbed mental state, but as a crime it made no sense.
Then there was the way her killer had to enter the murder room laboriously through a secretly contrived window, creating a locked-room mystery — but then Silas barged in to check on the murder through the door. Wouldn’t it have been easier for the murderer to just go in through the door and exit through the window?
And so on. Such inconsistencies left me with a sense that Le Fanu was not quite in command of his material, in spite of the parts of it that shone. Influential as he was in the beginnings of the Gothic/thriller genre, there are others who have done it better — though for a dive back into those early days of the genre, you can’t do better than this beautifully rendered edition.