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4.4 out of 5 stars
Uncle Silas: A Tale of Bartram-Haugh: Nonsuch Classics
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on 8 February 2016
Uncle Silas was published at the height of the craze for what was known as ‘sensation’ fiction, popularized predominantly by Wilkie Collins (The Woman in White, The Moonstone) and by Elizabeth Braddon (Lady Audley’s Secret). Nevertheless, Le Fanu distanced his novel from this genre, describing it instead as a belonging to the ‘legitimate school of tragic English romance’.

Despite this disclaimer, as Victor Sage argues in his introduction, the novel has a ‘self-consciousness about its genre’: it is both a prime example of the sensation novel and what is generally regarded as the second ‘wave’ of the Gothic novel in the Victorian period, after its beginnings in the late eighteenth century. On at least two occasions, Le Fanu references the work of Ann Radcliffe (in particular her bestseller The Romance of the Forest (1793)), in describing the predicament of Maud Ruthyn, the novel’s heroine. Similar to Adeline La Motte, the heroine of Radcliffe’s gothic thriller, Maud finds herself at the mercy of a distant relation with a mysterious shady past, in this case her ‘enigmatical’ uncle Silas, after her father, Austin Ruthyn dies, leaving her an enormous inheritance that she is not yet able to claim as her own. Interestingly, Sage notes that the characters of Silas may possibly be modelled on William Beckford, the author of the Oriental-gothic-fantasy novel Vathek (1786) and who was infamous for queer affair with his younger cousin.

Le Fanu gradually creates a feeling of mystery and suspense about uncle Silas through Maud’s retrospective narration of events and the suspicious rumours told about his character. The reader does not meet Silas until one third of the way through the novel. The fine portrait of him as a handsome young man that hangs in Knowl Hall is contrasted with various stories that Maud hears, principally from her cousin, Lady Monica Knollys. One of these rumour is that Silas was ‘unspeakably vicious’ in his youth, and was accused of the murder of a man called Charke, and is now reputed to be a follower of the obscure religious cult of Swedonborgianism. While her father is alive, a French governess comes to Knowl to look after Maud, Madame de la Rougierre. Undoubtedly, Le Fanu’s creation of this character is one of the most powerful portraits of a villainesses in Gothic fiction, albeit touched with a little Francophobia:

‘ She was tall, masculine, a little ghastly perhaps, and draped in purple silk, with a lace cap, and great bands of black hair, too thick and black perhaps to correspond quite naturally with her bleached and sallow skin, her hollow jaws, and the fine but grim wrinkles traced about her brows and eye-lids. She smiled, she nodded, and then for a good while she scanned me in silence with a steady, cunning eye, and a stern smile.’
As Victor Sage notes in his informative introduction, Rougierre is also a part of the comic grotesqueness and humour that characterizes the novel at times. In particular, the rendition Rougierre’s poor pronunciation of English is rendered to comic effect. Perhaps one of the strengths, but also one of the difficulties for the modern reader too, is Le Fanu’s use of voice, especially those of the minor characters. As Sage notes: ‘the novel constantly sets dialect, slang and Madame’s unforgettable stew of argot and broken English against archaically polite versions of standard English, in an almost carnival fashion’ (xx). After Maud grows increasingly afraid of Rougierre and distrusts her motives after she catches her one evening rifling through her father’ desk, looking at his papers, Rougierre is confronted by Austin Knowl and dismissed.

After her father dies, Maud has to leave her family home to live with her uncle and her only cousins, Milly, in hermetic isolation at Bartram Haugh in Derbyshire. Similar to Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights on a larger scale, Bartram Haugh is a ruined mansion that is wild, remote, enshrouded in old woods, with disused and dark corridors and rooms, and few visitors. Befriended by her tomboyish, unpolished cousin Milly, who like Cathy in Wuthering Heights is left to run wild, Milly tells her that ‘I know I’m queer, but I can’t help it; and it’s a shame’ (p.222). Milly shows her the parts of the house that have been shut up for years, and where Maud thinks Charke was murdered. She also sees a place that will eventually come to have a distinct significance, both herself and for Madame de la Rougierre, who later returns to plot her downfall:

‘I rubbed the window-pane with my handkerchief and looked out. The surrounding roof was steep and high. The walls looked soiled and dark. The windows lined with dust and dirt, and the window-stones were in places tufted with moss, and grass, and groundsel. An arched doorway had opened from the house into this darkened square, but it was soiled and dusty; and the damp weeds that overgrew the quadrangle drooped undisturbed against it. It was plain that human footsteps tracked it little, and I gazed into that blind and sinister area with a strange thrill and sinking.’(p.224).
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on 17 February 2013
What a cracking good read this novel is! I've read many of Le Fanu's works before, and have always admired his supreme command of the gothic genre; but having read this book, I have to conclude that he has out-gothicked even himself! The famous ghost story writer M.R. James rated it (justly in my opinion) as Le Fanu's 'magnum opus'.
Although written in 1864, and in spite of some dialogue which dates it, this novel has a remarkably modern writing style. Short chapters, and sustained action make it a real page-turner. This is something I've noticed in all Le Fanu's works...perhaps in part due to his Irish roots, Le Fanu knows how to capture your attention like a celtic bard around a warm fire in the winter's gloom reciting a ghostly legend.
He is grossly underestimated (almost overlooked!) as a writer of the Victorian period, and ought to be rated above Wilkie Collins and up there with Stevenson and even Dickens. Uncle Silas himself must be one of the most intriguing and complex character studies by any author in the whole of English literature. It is well known that 'Jane Eyre' was heavily influenced by the Brontes' avid reading of Le Fanu's early stories. One has to conclude that the epithet of 'genre' writer has unjustly stained his reputation. Time to remove the stain!
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on 8 June 2010
Until I began 'Uncle Silas' I had only read a couple of Le Fanu's short stories (In A Glass Darkly (Wordsworth Mystery & Supernatural). Good as these are, to my mind 'Uncle Silas' is better still. The story itself is quite straightforward: when Maud Rhuthyn's father dies his will dictates that she will remain under the guardianship of her uncle Silas until she comes of age (and into the possession of her large inheritance). Uncle Silas however is, for some mysterious reason which Maud's other relatives are hesitant to disclose, a social outcast and a man of doubtful reputation. But Maud trusts her father's judgement implicitly, and travels to the old country house of Bartram-Haugh where Silas lives. Once at Bartram-Haugh however, Maud finds herself ever more isolated from the outside world, and though all kinds of things point to the contrary Maud time and again tries to convince herself of the honourable intentions of her uncle Silas.

I very much enjoyed this book for several reasons. First of all there's the heroine (though heroic she is not) Maud. I'm sure that to most 21st century readers she probably comes across as naive in the extreme but I found her very believable as a character nonetheless. This is according to me largely due to the fact that Maud is also the narrator of her own story, which allows Le Fanu to explore (and reveal to us) the workings of her mind and her inner logic. She may think, feel and react entirely different from us, but to discover why she thinks, feels and reacts as she does makes for fascinating reading. In fact, to me that is one of the key features of all good books: they open a window into other people's minds in such a way that we come to 'understand' them (though at the same time perhaps strongly disapproving of what they do or how they reason). Furthermore, in all her naivety Maud is a very likeable character, the kind you hope the author has a happy ending in store for (although I must confess that at times her unwillingness/inability to 'read the writing on the wall' did exasperate me). It is this detailed psychological study of a young, innocent person caught in the web of a villainous older person that makes 'Uncle Silas' far more than a mere horror story.

The whole story is framed as a memoir written by Maud and in theory this could spoil the fun (because whatever's in store for her at Bartram-Haugh, she obviously lived to tell the tale). However, this did not happen in my case, on the contrary: from the very beginning Maud's story grasped my attention and I found myself rushing from chapter to chapter to find out what happened next. All chapters are in fact written with exactly that in mind which is logical knowing that 'Uncle Silas' was first serialised in 1864 before it appeared in a three-volume first edition.

Lastly, I should mention Le Fanu's superb craftmanship in creating a sinister atmosphere, where something horrible always seems about to happen (and sometimes does). All in all, a superb novel, and deservedly a classic!
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on 25 December 2015
This is Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu`s great gothic novel about Maud Ruthyn whose father suddenly dies. She is left into custody of her uncle Silas Once she arrives to his house all kinds of strange things start to happen. Recommended to all who love Victorian or just any kind of horror stories.I love it.
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on 31 August 2015
a really scary story beautifully written and so gripping
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on 9 March 2016
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on 15 January 2016
good value item
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on 22 February 2017
Thoroughly enjoyed this.
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on 14 October 2014
Really enjoyed good book
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on 13 October 2015
takes some time but gets therein the end
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