(Hello, I’m back! Actually this is an illustration of Madame de la Rougierre, my favourite character in this novel, by Charles W. Stewart (London: Folio Society, 1988), found here; thanks to David Hulley for identifying the artist and edition)
Once again I have been away from here for rather a long time: that’s not because I’m lazy of course, but like the rest of Europe we in Belgium have been experiencing a snap of cold weather and somehow experiencing the sensation draining from my fingers in the draughty, squalid little room where the computer lives struck me as less fun than – taking to my bed outrageously early every night with my balding Winnie-the-Pooh hot-water bottle and a good book! And I have returned, dear readers, with the news that I have found the perfect novel for winterly hibernating should you ever be that way inclined: Sheridan Le Fanu’s Uncle Silas. It contains:
- an imperilled and beautiful heiress
- secluded country houses panelled and wainscoted to the hilt, one of which is furthermore crumbling and decayed
- a villain with a nature which is a ‘systematic blasphemy’
- a suspicious death in a locked room
- a witchy French governess (‘Don’t you love the dead, cheaile? I will teach you to love them. [...] I am Madame la Morgue – Mrs Deadhouse! I will present you my friends, Monsieur Cadavre and Monsieur Squelette. Come, come, leetle mortal, let us play.’)
- atmospheric writing
What more could you desire? If you haven’t read it, leave this weblog immediately and trot on down to your nearest bookshop or library, because the rest of this piece will spoil the plot for you. Uncle Silas is both a cracking and increasingly tense read and a truly clever and complex novel which I am still trying to work out.
The novel, narrated by Maud Ruthyn several years after her ordeal, falls into two parts, the one mirroring the other, and is filled with characters who also mirror each other. The young Maud is highly sensitive, nervous and more than a bit prissy; she is also terrified of death, in particular the dissolution of the body. In the first part of the novel she lives at Knowl, an orderly estate, with her reclusive father Austin; in the second, after Austin’s death, she is sent to Bartram-Haugh as ward to her Uncle Silas, also a distant recluse, but voluptuous where Austin was austere, cruel where he was essentially kind, and utterly selfish. Uncle Silas never leaves his crepuscular suite, except to direct Maud’s murder; his cadaverous appearance and terrible fiery gaze are frequently mentioned – basically he is an animated version of his brother’s corpse, a metaphorical vampire who intends to feed off Maud’s inheritance. Bartram-Haugh is a dark reflection of Knowl – derelict, its timber plundered or left to rot (in a novel where trees surely suggest family) – but also, with its dark corridors and secrets, perhaps of the state of Maud’s mind. Silas too has an only daughter, Milly, who physically resembles Maud, but she has been utterly neglected and Maud generously describes her as a ‘bumpkin’. Maud takes charge of Milly’s education and dress; Milly drags Maud out on long health-giving walks and her boisterous good humour builds up Maud’s courage. But there is also a third father–daughter relationship, that of the horrible miller Dickon Hawkes and Meg. Their abusive partnership acts out the violence Silas feels towards Maud.
While Bartram-Haugh takes on an increasingly fearful aspect, Knowl itself is no safe haven. Maud life there is made a misery for months by the delightful – for I loved her! – Madame de la Rougierre, who takes great pleasure in tormenting Maud, pilfers the brandy and creeps about the house at night. Of course, she reappears at Bartram-Haugh. Madame is surely refracted by Monica Knollys, who loves and protects Maud. They may represent mother figures, but Madame is also Maud’s counterpart, inspiring Maud’s jealousy when she spends time with Austin and ultimately being murdered in her place. In another set of correspondences, Cousin Monica forms a sort of trinity of help with Dr Bryerley and Mary Quince. Then there are Maud’s suitors: rascally Captain Oakley, thuggish Dudley Ruthyn and delightfully handsome educated and rich Lord Ilkley. It becomes a sort of game, looking for these facets of character and in fact you can take it as far as Uncle Silas being a double for Maud herself. After he is taken desperately sick, Maud sits alone at his bedside watching over him:
Uncle Silas was perfectly still. I would not suffer myself to think of the number of dark rooms and passages which now separated me from the other living tenants of the house. I awaited with a false composure the return of old Wyat.
Over the mantelpiece was a looking-glass. At another time this might have helped to entertain my solitary moments, but now I did not like to venture a peep. A small thick Bible lay on the chimneypiece, and leaning its back against the mirror, I began to read in it with a mind as attentively directed as I could. While so engaged in turning over the leaves, I lighted upon two or three odd-looking papers, which had been folded into it. One was a broad printed thing, with names and dates written into blank spaces, and was about the size of a quarter of a yard of very broad ribbon. The others were mere scraps, with ‘Dudley Ruthyn’ penned in my cousin’s vulgar round-hand at the foot. While I folded and replaced these, I really don’t know what caused me to fancy that something was moving behind me, as I stood with my back toward the bed. I do not recollect any sound whatever; but instinctively I glanced into the mirror, and my eyes were instantly fixed by what they saw.
The figure of Uncle Silas rose up, and dressed in a long white morning gown, slid over the end of the bed, and with two or three swift noiseless steps, stood behind me, with a death-like scowl and a simper. Preternaturally tall and thin, he stood for a moment almost touching me, with the white bandage pinned across his forehead, his bandaged arm stiffly by his side, and diving over my shoulder, with his long thin hand he snatched the Bible, and whispered over my head – ‘The serpent beguiled her and she did eat’; and after a momentary pause, he glided to the farthest window, and appeared to look out upon the midnight prospect.
Uncle Silas has seemed to be Maud’s opposite but here he materialises in the mirror where Maud’s reflection should be. I must admit when I read that passage I felt chilled, I hope that quoting it out of context hasn’t destroyed its creepiness.
(Charles W. Stewart, illustration of Uncle Silas (London: Folio Society, 1988) from here)
Each set of linked characters makes a ‘whole’ person, a person of shifting identities. Maud’s suitor can be as charming and kind as Lord Ilkley, as insincere as Captain Oakley and as loutish as Dudley Ruthyn because he is all of those characters at once. Equally, Maud’s father is the loving Austin and the malevolent Silas; also, perhaps, protective Dr Bryerley. And, perhaps, all of these characters are part of Maud herself, the houses the theatre of her psychodrama, the weather taking on her moods. The story may be her dream or vision.
Austin, Silas and Dr Bryerley are all followers of Swedenborg. Emanuel Swedenborg was an eighteenth-century scientist who experienced a series of powerful dreams which convinced him that God wanted him to reform the Christian Church. He devoted the rest of his life to writing biblical exegeses and accounts of his visions of the spirit world. His mysticism influenced many nineteenth-century writers and thinkers, including Immanuel Kant, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Carl Jung, W.B. Yeats, William Blake – and Sheridan Le Fanu. Swedenborg’s notion of correspondences is echoed by Maud at the conclusion of Uncle Silas: ‘This world is a parable – the habitation of symbols – the phantoms of spiritual things immortal shown in material shape.’ This surely influences the mirrored figures and scenes in the novel. Swedenborg’s belief that spirits are all around us flavours the eerie atmosphere and perhaps explains some of the characterisations. Maud admits early on that she fears and distrusts Swedenborgians and that she knows as little of their philosophy as I do: ‘I once tried to read one of their books upon the future state – heaven and hell; but I grew after a day or two so nervous that I laid it aside.’ Maud is too mired in her terror of death to understand the world properly, and she allows her desires – such as her wish for her uncle to be innocent – to distort her observations and divert her from the truth.
Uncle Silas works very well as a creepy psychological thriller, but the divided characters and places serve to suggest something more: that Le Fanu is arguing that people and places are not stable, perhaps not entirely material. The world is stranger than we think.
(I must note here that I got a bit stuck on Swedenborg and how he related to the novel, especially as I haven’t bothered to read any of his work, so to check I wasn’t being a total numpty I cheated, did some Googling and found this brilliant essay which I highly recommend if you are interested in reading more about Uncle Silas: Devin P. Zuber’s ‘Swedenborg and the Disintegration of Language in Sheridan Le Fanu’s Uncle Silas’, Chapter 7 in Victorian Sensastions: Essays on a Scandalous Genre, edited by Kimberley Harrison and Richard Fantina; you can read it here)