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High Victorian Gothic
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).