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Wednesday, 28 September 2011

Madame de la Rougierre

I'm only a quarter of the way into Uncle Silas, the 1864 suspenseful and sensational work by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu. I originally bought this as side-reading for my thesis but I've had so much primary and secondary reading to crack on with that I haven't had the chance to read it before now. I shunted it over to my TBR pile and picked it up yesterday.

So far I'm astounding by the creepiness. I blogged last year about Wilkie Collins's ability to perturb modern readers and I reviewed his particular success in The Haunted Hotel around the same time. However, Le Fanu's atmospheric and claustrophobic novel is so far surpassing that success. I'm petrified and we haven't even been introduced to the title character yet!

Madame de la Rougierre is the protagonist's governess. The reason she was initially engaged and her past are both mysterious at this point but what isn't mysterious is the impact she is supposed to have on the reader: we're not simply to think of her as unpleasant - she is evil and manipulative. Le Fanu adds more anxiety to the protagonist with almost every scene involving her and the governess. The suspense and mystery doesn't let up for a moment. It's disturbing enough reading this in the electric glow of a modern bedroom; I can't comprehend how unsettling it would've been being read by candlelight when it was first serialised in the Dublin University Magazine. It's interesting from a writer's perspective to watch how Le Fanu builds up the tension. From the first moment we meet Madame de la Rougierre we know the protagonist should be careful:

On a sudden, on the grass before me, stood an odd figure - a very tall woman in grey draperies, nearly white under the moon, courtesying extraordinarily low, and rather fantastically. I stared in something like a horror upon the large and rather hollow features which I did not know, smiling very unpleasantly on me; and the moment it was plain that I saw her, the grey woman began gobbling and cackling shrilly - I could not distinctly hear what through the window - and gesticulating oddly with her hands and arms. (Chapter Four)

That's a taster of the language used to describe Madame de la Rougierre throughout the portion of the novel I've read so far. It's creepy stuff and it only builds as time goes on. The combination of facial descriptions, adjectives used about her and her French accent all work to create a sensation of foreboding. This is Katina Paxinou portraying the character in the 1947 film adaptation which I'm now quite desperate to see:

Doesn't she look alarming?

I think I'd kill to be able to invoke the kind of feeling that Le Fanu does in Uncle Silas. And I'm looking forward to seeing how the character's evil personality impacts the rest of the novel. What I am not anticipating, however, is peaceful slumber, neither while I'm reading the book nor when I'm finished with it.

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