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Tuesday, 11 October 2011

Book Review: Uncle Silas by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu

I blogged last week about the impact the first quarter of this book had on me. I have to say, the narrative didn't weaken. I was kept on the edge of my seat for the duration and it encouraged me to be both more scared and suspicious in everyday life! Essentially, the plot revolves around an orphaned young woman who is sent by her father's will to live with her uncle, Silas Ruthyn. This man has lived in strict seclusion since a stain attached itself to his character many years ago. Lady Monica Knollys, another relation, is extremely worried about protagonist Maud being sent to live with an uncle who will gain her money should she die before the age of twenty-one. It seems she has reason to be.

The plot itself is foreshadowed to the extent that knowing what Silas will eventually attempt is part of the delicious fear that pervades each page. But Le Fanu doesn't rely solely on a sensational plot. He also creates some memorable and vivid characters. My post last week talked about Madame de la Rougierre, Maud's governess, but Silas himself is a worthy creation. This is the first view we get of him:

A face like marble, with a fearful monumental look, and, for an old man, singularly vivid strange eyes, the singularity of which rather grew upon me as I looked; for his eyebrows were still black, though his hair descended from his temples in long locks of the purest silver and fine as silk, nearly to his shoulders. (p187)

A few lines later, Maud adds to herself:

I know I can't convey in words an idea of this apparition, drawn as it seemed in black and white, venerable, bloodless, fiery-eyed, with its singular look of power, and an expression so bewildering - was it derision, or anguish, or cruelty, or patience? (p188)

That's quite a question. More than that, it's quite a face. Le Fanu is adept at portraying figures so entirely memorable that they will stay with me for some time. Silas's children, Milly and Dudley, are identified by their 'country bumpkin' ways but are markedly different. Neighbour and worker, Meg Hawkes, is another outstanding character who assists the plot in unexpected ways. Lady Knollys always seems a lot younger than she is - which is Le Fanu's intention - and makes a welcome change from the darkness on occasion. Maud, however, seems to me the weakest character. Her rebellions against the fate her uncle has in mind are fairly weak and she fulfils the stereotype of the innocent young woman as victim. That's a typical sensation fiction plot device and shouldn't necessarily be seen to Le Fanu's detriment. Some of his other female characters - Madame de la Rougierre, Lady Knollys and Meg Hawkes - prove that he doesn't always place woman into this 'helpless' category. Maud had to be relatively helpless to facilitate the plot but she does have an underlying motivation in accepting her move to her uncle's property: she is staying true to her deceased father's wishes for her.

All in all, I thoroughly enjoyed this book. It's a spine-tingling read that doesn't entertain pretensions to grandeur. Since Amazon currently have a copy at less than three pounds I'd recommend anyone interested in creepy Victorian fiction to give it a go. And, even if you not, at that price it might be worth a shot!

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