Joseph Sheridan le Fanu
Joseph Sheridan le Fanu
Within a year of his birth his family moved to the Royal Hibernian Military School in the Phoenix Park, where his father, a Church of Ireland clergyman, was appointed to the chaplaincy of the establishment. The Phoenix Park and the adjacent village and parish church of Chapelizod were to feature in Le Fanu's later stories. In 1826 the family moved to Abington, County Limerick, where Le Fanu's father Thomas became rector - this was his second rectorship in the south of Ireland. Although he had a tutor, Le Fanu also used his father's library to educate himself. His father was a stern Protestant churchman and imbued his family with a religious sense that bordered on Calvinism. In 1832 the locality was affected by the disorders caused by the Tithe War.
There were about six thousand Catholics in the parish of Abington, and only a few dozen Church of Ireland members. In bad weather the Dean cancelled Sunday services, as few if any parishioners would turn up. However, the poverty-stricken Catholics were compelled to pay tithes for the upkeep of the church of this tiny minority. The following year the family moved back temporarily to Dublin, to Williamstown Avenue in a southern suburb, where Thomas was to work on a Government commission. Although the Le Fanu's father Thomas made efforts to keep up the facade of a comfortably-off family, they were constantly beset by financial problems.
The reason that Thomas took the rectorships in the south of Ireland was financial, as they provided a decent living through tithes. However, from 1830, as the result of agitation against the tithes, this income began to decrease, and ceased entirely two years later. In 1838 the government instituted a scheme of paying rectors a fixed sum, but in the intervening period the Dean had little besides rent on some small properties he had inherited. In 1833 Thomas, who was broke, had to borrow £100 from his cousin Captain Dobbins (who himself ended up in the debtors' prison a few years later) to visit his dying sister in Bath, who was also deeply in debt due her medical bills.
At his death Thomas had practically nothing to leave to his sons and his library had to be sold to pay off some of his debts. His widow went to stay with the younger son William. Le Fanu studied law at Trinity College in Dublin, where he was elected Auditor of the College Historical Society. Under a system peculiar to Ireland he did not have to live in Dublin to attend lectures, but was allowed to study at home and take examinations at the university when necessary. He was called to the bar in 1839, but he never practiced and soon abandoned law for journalism.
In 1838 he began contributing stories to the Dublin University Magazine, including his first ghost story, entitled "The Ghost and the Bone-Setter" (1838). He became owner of several newspapers from 1840, including the Dublin Evening Mail and the Warder. On 18 December 1844 Le Fanu married Susanna Bennett, the daughter of a leading Dublin barrister. Isaac Butt was a witness. They then travelled to his parents' home in Abington for Christmas.
They took a house in Warrington Place near the Grand Canal in Dublin. Their first child, Eleanor, was born in 1845, then came Emma in 1846, Thomas, in 1847 and George in 1854. In 1847 he supported John Mitchel and Thomas Meagher in their campaign against the indifference of the Government to the Irish Famine. Among others involved in this initiative were Samuel Ferguson and Isaac Butt. Butt contributed a forty-page analysis of the national disaster to the Dublin University Magazine in 1847.
His support cost him the nomination as Tory MP for County Carlow in 1852. In 1856 the family moved from Warrington Place to Susanne's parents' house at 18 Merrion Square (now number 70, office of the Irish Arts Council). Her parents retired to live in England. Joseph never owned the house, but rented it from his brother-in-law for £22 per annum (which he still didn't manage to keep paid-up). His personal life also became difficult at this time, as his wife suffered from increasing neurotic symptoms. She had a crisis of faith and tended to attend religious services at the nearby St.
Stephen's Church and discuss religion with William, Joseph's younger brother, as Joseph apparently had stopped attending religious services. She suffered from anxiety after the deaths of several close relatives, including her father two years before, which may have led to marital problems. In April 1858 she suffered a "hysterical attack" and died the following day in unclear circumstances. She was buried in the Bennett family vault in Mount Jerome Cemetery along with her father and brothers. Anguished excerpts from Le Fanu's diaries suggest that he felt guilt as well as loss.
From then on he did not write any fiction until after the death of his mother in 1861. He turned to his cousin Lady Gifford for advice and encouragement - she remained a close correspondent until her death at the end of the decade. In 1861 he became the editor and proprietor of the Dublin University Magazine and he began exploiting double exposure: serializing in the Dublin University Magazine and then revising for the English market. The House by the Churchyard and Wylder's Hand were both published in this way. After the lukewarm reviews of the former novel, set in the Phoenix Park area of Dublin, Le Fanu signed a contract with Richard Bentley, his London publisher, which specified that future novels be stories "of an English subject and of modern times", a step Bentley thought necessary in order for Le Fanu to satisfy the English audience.
Le Fanu succeeded in this aim in 1864, with the publication of Uncle Silas, which he set in Derbyshire. In his very last short stories, however, Le Fanu returned to Irish folklore as an inspiration and encouraged his friend Patrick Kennedy to contribute folklore to the D.U.M. Le Fanu died in his native Dublin on 7 February 1873. Today there is a road in Ballyfermot, near his childhood home in south-west Dublin, named after him. Le Fanu worked in many genres but remains best known for his mystery and horror fiction.
He was a meticulous craftsman, with a penchant for frequently reworking plots and ideas from his earlier writing in subsequent pieces of writing. (Many of his novels are expansions and refinements of earlier short stories). He specialised in tone and effect rather than "shock horror", often following a mystery format. Key to his style was the avoidance of overt supernatural effects: in most of his major works, the supernatural is strongly implied but a possible "natural" explanation is left (barely) open—for instance, the demonic monkey in "Green Tea" could be a delusion of the story's protagonist, who is the only person to see it; in "The Familiar", Captain Barton's death seems to be of supernatural causes, but is not actually witnessed, and the ghostly owl may just be a real bird.
This approach has proven important for later horror writers and also for other media (it is surely an antecedent to the film producer Val Lewton's principle of indirect horror). Though other writers have since chosen blunter approaches to supernatural fiction, Le Fanu's best tales, such as the vampire novella "Carmilla", remain some of the most chilling examples of the genre. He had enormous influence on the 20th century's most important ghost story writer, M. R.
James. Although his work fell out of favour in the early part of the 20th century, towards the end of the century interest in his work increased and still remains comparatively strong. Read more on Last.fm. User-contributed text is available under the Creative Commons By-SA License; additional terms may apply..
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