Tuesday, February 7, 2012

471. Uncle Silas – Sheridan Le Fanu

History: This is a Victorian Gothic mystery-thriller novel It was first serialized in the Dublin University Magazine in 1864, under the title Maud Ruthyn and Uncle Silas, and appeared in December of the same year as a triple-decker novel. 
Plot: The novel is a first person narrative told from the point of view of the teenaged Maud Ruthyn, an heiress living with her sombre, reclusive father Austyn Ruthyn in their mansion at Knowl. She gradually becomes aware of the existence of Silas Ruthyn, a black sheep uncle whom she has never met, who was once an infamous rake and gambler but is now apparently a reformed Christian. Silas's past holds a dark mystery, which she gradually learns from her father and from her worldly, cheerful cousin Lady Monica: the suspicious suicide of a man to whom Silas owed an enormous gambling debt, which took place within a locked, apparently impenetrable room in Silas's mansion at Bartram-Haugh. Austyn is firmly convinced of his brother's innocence; Maud's attitude to Uncle Silas (whom we do not meet for the first 200 pages of the book) wavers repeatedly between trusting in her father's judgment, and growing fear and uncertainty.
In the first part of the novel, Maud's father hires a French governess, Madame de la Rougierre, as a companion for her. Madame de la Rougierre, however, turns out to be a sinister figure who has designs on Maud. (In a cutaway scene that breaks the first-person narrative, we learn that she is in league with Uncle Silas's good-for-nothing son Dudley.) She is eventually discovered by Maud in the act of burgling her father's desk; this is enough to ensure that she is dismissed.
Austyn Ruthyn obscurely asks Maud if she is willing to undergo some kind of "ordeal" to clear Silas's name. She assents, and shortly thereafter her father dies. It turns out that he has added a codicil to his will: Maud is to stay with Uncle Silas until she comes of age. If she dies while in her minority, the estate will go to Silas. Despite the best efforts of Lady Monica and Austyn's executor and fellow Swedenborgian, Dr. Bryerly, Maud is forced to spend the next three and a half years of her life at Bartram-Haugh.
Life at Bartram-Haugh is initially strange but not unpleasant, despite ominous signs such as the uniformly unfriendly servants and a malevolent factotum of Silas's, the one-legged Dickon Hawkes. Silas himself is a sinister, soft-spoken man who is openly contemptuous of his two children, the loutish Dudley and the untutored but friendly Milly (her country ways initially amaze Maud, but they become best friends). Silas is subject to mysterious catatonic fits which are attributed by his doctor to his massive opium consumption. Gradually, however, the trap closes around Maud: it is clear that Silas is attempting to coax or force her to marry Dudley. When that plan fails, and as the time-limit of three-and-a-half years begins to shrink, it becomes clear that more violent methods may be used to ensure that Silas gains control of the Ruthyn estate.
Review: One of the other things Uncle Silas is is a very claustrophobic novel. Like in most sensation fiction, the plot is built around social cracks, contradictions and fears: mainly the fear of impeding social chaos, should certain lines be crossed or certain structures collapse. In this case, we first and foremost have class-based fears. Class boundaries are very much at the core of Uncle Silas’ unforgivable transgression. I can tell you this, as it’s not the secret that certain characters only allude to at first: one of the reasons why Silas and his brother Austin, Maud’s father, ceased to be in good terms was because Silas married a country girl, someone not of his class.
The novel sometimes seems to suggest that this explain certain things about Maud’s cousins, Dudley and Milly, though I’m not quite sure what to make of Le Fanu’s stance on this. When Maud meets Milly, she describes her lack of proper feminine demeanour as “grotesque”. But Milly changes considerably after spending time in Maud’s company, which implies that it’s her lack of education that is responsible for her eccentricity, rather than the lack of any innate class-based quality. Dudley, on the other hand, is as unpleasant a character as they come. There’s another working-class character in the novel, Meg Hawkes, who’s treated with kindness, but as I was saying earlier, Uncle Silas is still very much centred on the idea that crossing certain class boundaries has dreadful consequences.
Opening Line: “It was winter—that is, about the second week in November—and great gusts were rattling at the windows, and wailing and thundering among our tall trees and ivied chimneys—a very dark night, and a very cheerful fire blazing, a pleasant mixture of good round coal and spluttering dry wood, in a genuine old fireplace, in a sombre old room.”
Closing Line: “May the blessed second-sight be mine—to recognise under these beautiful forms of earth the ANGELS who wear them; for I am sure we may walk with them if we will, and hear them speak!”
Quotes: “There is no dealing with great sorrow as if it were under the control of our wills. It is a terrible phenomenon, whose laws we must study, and to whose conditions we must submit, if we would mitigate it.”
Rating: Boring, unsure of the ending.

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