Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu was born two hundred years ago today at 45 Lower Dominic Street in Dublin. He was author of at least fourteen novels, numerous short stories, poetry, and one play. He also wrote a great many articles for the city’s conservative press. Today, Le Fanu, whose family were originally Huguenot refugees and who counted Richard Brinsley Sheridan among his forebears, is mostly remembered for his gothic and horror fiction. His imagination was dark, almost to the point of disorder. Here he describes the victim of a fire:
The head and one arm and shoulder, as well as one knee, were thrust through the iron stanchions, and all was black and shrunk, the clothes burned entirely away, and the body roasted and shrivelled to a horrible tenuity; the lips dried up and drawn, so that the white teeth grinned and glittered in hideous mockery, and thus the whole form, arrested in the very attitude of frenzied and desperate exertion, showed more like the hideous blackened effigy of some grinning ape, than anything human.
Le Fanu, in this mode, might remind some readers of Stephen King. Certainly he could write sensational material very well, yet he never quite achieved his literary or commercial potential. His narratives seemed to turn in on themselves rather than advance towards the sort of orderly conclusions the Victorian reader had grown to expect. The indirection which marks his work ultimately derived from his ceaseless desire to imagine an Ireland in which Anglicans, like his own family, played a legitimate and honourable role. His elaborate narratives, which were frequently historical in setting, were ultimately allegorical and, at heart, tortured efforts to square the impossible circle of Ireland’s past. If Le Fanu had been content to “just write stories” he might well have been an Irish Wilkie Collins – though he might have been less interesting as a result.
The family moved from Dominic Street when Joseph was two. His father was an Anglican minister and was appointed chaplain at the Royal Hibernian Military School in the Phoenix Park. The park, with its eighteen hundred acres of rolling grassland and various imperial institutions, was one of the few locations in the country where one might gain the impression of a well-ordered and harmonious society under a benevolent crown. Le Fanu spent about eleven years there and it seems they were untroubled and carefree. As WJ McCormack recounts in his biography of the writer, the young Joseph sometimes amused himself drawing pictures. One featured balloonists speeding towards the earth, having fallen from their basket. The picture was accompanied by the caption: “See the effects of trying to go to heaven.” Perhaps he had heard of the Daedalus myth ‑ or perhaps it was an early sign of his conservative instincts.
In 1826 Le Fanu’s father, Thomas, having gained some remunerative clerical posts in rural Ireland moved the family to a country parish in Co Limerick. The contrast with the well-ordered world of the Phoenix Park could hardly have been greater. In Limerick, the harsh realities of Irish life were unavoidable: it was an area which at that time ‑ to use the term favoured by the authorities ‑ was “disturbed”. Beyond the modest walls of the glebe house the sullen Catholic masses were threatening. It was here that the young Le Fanu first encountered the Irish peasantry and their grievances. A part of him sympathised. He understood his relatively privileged status, and yet he couldn’t have felt very privileged since his family was hard-pressed financially. The main reason the Le Fanus were short of money, and obliged to borrow from relatives, was that the Catholic peasantry was increasingly reluctant to pay the tithes tax to the Anglican church.
Le Fanu spent his teenage years in this troubling environment, which shaped his imaginative world and his political principles. His view of the world came to be characterised by two contending impulses: a deep sympathy with the fate of the “old Irish” and a firm commitment to the political interests of his caste. When he moved to Dublin to study law he gravitated towards conservative politics and spent many evenings attending meetings of the Metropolitan Conservative Society in Dawson Street. The meetings were held in the building which now houses the Royal Irish Academy. Yet one of his first pieces of writing from around that time reveals a pronounced sympathy for the rebels of 1798.
But if you would ask me as I think it like,
If in the rebellion I carried a pike,
And fought for old Ireland from the first to the close,
And shed the heart’s blood of her bitterest foes,
I answer you “Yes” and I tell you again,
Though I stand here to perish, it’s my glory that then
In her cause I was willing my veins should run dry,
And that now for her sake I am ready to die.
It has been said that the character in the verse was based on a Co Limerick rebel named Kirby who was condemned to death for participating in the rebellion.
If Le Fanu had some popular sympathies he was also a virulent opponent of O’Connell and a staunch defender of the Protestant interest. He owned and contributed to The Warder and several other ultra-Protestant journals. But, it seems, he found no joy in this work and was driven more by wearisome duty than substantial emotional engagement. In the Gothic horror genre he found freedom from the oppressively factual, a freedom which allowed for literary exploration beyond the arid political rhetoric of the everyday. And in his historical fiction Le Fanu could probe emotionally satisfying might-have-beens. Yet in both forms he found it impossible to imagine the desideratum of an Ireland where his alienation evaporated and both Anglican and Irish co-mingled in harmony. Fiction, even gothic fiction, could only stray a certain distance from the actual.
An episode in The Cock and Anchor, an historical novel published in 1845, does offer the vision of an Irish unity but the unity discovered is not based on noble or generous impulses but rather on the basest of human instincts. The exhibition of a cock fight sees the coming together of all social classes but offers no hopeful augury for the future:
all these gross and glaring contrarieties reconciled and bound together in one hellish sympathy. All sate locked in breathless suspense, every countenance fixed in the hard lines of intense, excited anxiety and vigilance; all leaned forward to gaze upon the combat whose crisis was on the point of being determined … Every aperture in this living pile was occupied by some eager, haggard or ruffian face; and, in spite of all the pushing, and bustling, all were silent, as if the powers of voice and utterance were unknown among them.