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reading about her becomes sometimes tedious and repetitive
on 19 January 2015
Although usually categorised as a ‘sensation’ novel, Uncle Silas is a slow-burning exercise in atmosphere and drawn out suspense that is likely to frustrate as many readers as it entertains. The protagonist is a sheltered young girl who, at the beginning of the novel is living under the protection of her rich father, a devout and emotionally withdrawn recluse. I don’t want to give away the story, but suffice to say that various threatening forces begin to enter the life of the young lady, beginning with the arrival of an extraordinarily eccentric and malevolent French governess with nefarious hidden intentions. There is nothing wrong with the writing in this novel, much of which is highly atmospheric and suggestive. Some of the character portraits too are as vivid and exciting as those of Dickens, for example. Modern readers, however, may lose patience with aspects of the novel, such as the innocence and lack of agency of the heroine. Her position, as the young, only daughter of a devout rich recluse living in a remote country estate mean that she understands very little of the world she lives in (we understand more than her, which is not much) and has virtually no power to act against the forces that conspire around her. When the central character is so helpless, reading about her becomes sometimes tedious and repetitive. Too many things just happen to her, and she has no particular goals or desires which might create a sense of stakes to play for. The other big problem is that for long stretches of the novel, very little happens. The novel of suspense works according to a principles of anticipation and delayed gratification. Wilkie Collins was a master of this. Uncle Silas delays gratification until you can’t even remember what it was you were anticipating; case in point: Uncle Silas, the titular character doesn’t even appear until almost halfway through the book. When he does, it is rather a letdown, as we haven’t been given enough facts about him to feed our imagination. The merits of Uncle Silas ultimately lie in its portrayal of atmosphere and character, its sense of brooding menace and innocence under threat. But structurally, it’s a stodgy Victorian pudding of a novel.