A VOID WHICH CANNOT BE FILLED UP:
The Obituaries of Mr. J.S. Le Fanu, Esq.
by Brian J. Showers, © May 2007
This article was first published in Le Fanu Studies Volume 2, Issue #1
"I DO NOT . . . claim for this author any very exalted place," wrote M.R. James in his notes on Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu in 1923. Although James continued his summation with unreserved praise, [Footnote 1] this former sentiment, I feel, is the general tone of the obituaries published in the wake of the Irish author's death in 1873. And even though words like "genius" and "uncommon merit," are used, they are often tempered with qualifiers like "[journalism] prevented him applying himself to his profession," and "he ran too swiftly, and he frustrated his own dearest ambition." Most of his obituarists seem to agree that Le Fanu was by no means a great writer, but was indeed a very good one; one who lamentably might have been better, or one still yet to reach his zenith. Re-printed below are five obituaries, which I hope will constitute a snapshot of how the general public viewed Le Fanu at the time of his death. I am by no means a scholar, but I hope you will indulge me a few paragraphs in which to write a brief biographical outline, hopefully putting the obituaries into context, followed by some additional observations and comments.
Although Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu (b. 28 August 1814) studied law at Trinity College, Dublin, and was summoned to the Irish Bar in 1839, journalism seems to have always been his first calling. He was the proprietor of a number of local periodicals including the popular Protestant newspaper, The Warder, which he bought in 1838, followed by the Dublin Evening Mail, Statesman and Dublin Christian Record, and the Protestant Guardian. One of his more notable ventures came in 1861 with the purchase of Dublin University Magazine. The DUM was a celebrated literary magazine that had, prior to his ownership, published a number of his short stories. And along with Le Fanu's proprietorship of the DUM came his editorship.
As an editor and journalist, Le Fanu was a well-known voice of Dublin's Protestant Ascendancy. At the same time, through ballads like "Shamus O'Brien" and "Phaudrig Croohore," he also channelled a cautious sympathy for the neglected native Catholic Irish population. His ballads were filled with both humour and passion, two attributes not frequently associated with the writer at present. His articles were written with "vigour and pungent sarcasm," no doubt necessary in reproaching the social order to which he was vitally tied. Le Fanu's fiction during this period of his life was limited to two historical novels, The Cock and the Anchor (1845) and Torlogh O'Brien (1847), and a short story collection entitled Ghost Stories and Tales of Mystery (1851). From 1858 until 1861 his creative pen was still.
Le Fanu's wife Susanna (née Bennett) died in April 1858, followed by the death of his mother Emma Le Fanu, his "primary confidante" in March 1861 [Footnote 2]. These were losses from which Le Fanu would never fully emotionally recover. From this period until his own death in 1873 Le Fanu withdrew from the public eye and into the seclusion of his great, four-storey Georgian home at no. 18 Merrion Square (now no. 70). However, he was far from inactive in his grief-stricken semi-reclusion. It was during this later period that Le Fanu wrote the bulk of his creative output: fourteen novels, commencing with The House by the Churchyard (1863), Wylder's Hand (1864), and Uncle Silas (1864); and a steady stream of short stories, many of which were only collected posthumously. The rate of his productivity was extraordinary; it was almost as if in his grief he was helplessly driven to write. As The Freeman's Journal obituary notes, "Hardly a magazine exists to which he has not contributed the leading serial."
By the end of his life Le Fanu was experiencing considerable financial difficulties. In 1870, Joseph's older brother William Richard Le Fanu (1816-1894) applied to their cousin Lord Dufferin [Footnote 3] for a loan: "The newspapers which formerly yielded him a moderate income give him nothing now, and he is altogether dependent upon what he can gather by writing; which owing to the depressed state of the Publishing trade is very little indeed- & his constant anxiety about his health and prospects-coupled with his frequent illnesses, principally caused I have no doubt by this very anxiety interferes sadly with his powers of writing" [Footnote 4].
Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu died in his home at around 6 o'clock in the morning on Friday, 7 February 1873 [Footnote 5]. Le Fanu's daughter, Emmie [Footnote 6], in a letter to Lord Dufferin on 9 February, wrote, "He had almost got over a bad attack of Bronchitis but his strength gave way & he sank very quickly & died in his sleep. His face looks so happy with a beautiful smile on it. We were quite unprepared for the end" [Footnote 7]. At the time of his death his final novel, Willing to Die, was in the midst of re-serialisation in Dickens's All the Year Round, and on his writing desk lay a mortgage for the amount of £83.
There is a definite distance between the obituarists and their subject, and given Le Fanu's withdrawal from society this is not surprising. Even in life, "[h]is handsome . . . face was wholly missed from society; and he was only known on the title page of his books," observes one obituarist. "To the public he was scarcely known apart from his books," echoes another. The rather charming nickname "Invisible Prince" is well known Le Fanu lore, but the appellation becomes downright grim if one considers his financial hardships and emotional decline. One gets the impression that Le Fanu was at the time of his death not personally known by many outside of his close circle. To the people of Dublin he was a prominent stranger, an apparition whose presence was keenly felt, but never seen. Fortunately through these obituaries we are offered clues as to the author's character and personality in happier times.
The Freeman's Journal notes Le Fanu's, "vigour and pungent sarcasm which he possessed in an uncommon degree," a characteristic also mentioned by family friend Alfred Perceval Graves (1846-1931) in the "Memoir" he wrote as an introduction to The Purcell Papers (1880) [Footnote 8]. The Freeman's Journal obit also recalls Le Fanu's, "handsome, even distinguished face," [Footnote 9] and that, "his manners were so impressive that you thought of him long after you have seen him. He was In [sic] every sense a gentleman. He bore himself with dignity and self-reliance." The Dublin University Magazine obituary, possibly written by one close to Le Fanu (see below), more elaborately lists the congenial qualities the author possessed. He was admired for his, "learning, his sparkling wit and pleasant conversation, and loved . . . for his manly virtues, his noble and generous qualities, his gentleness, and his loving, affectionate nature." M.R. James, who never knew Le Fanu, wrote, "I believe that he was a singularly striking personality both in looks and in conversation." [Footnote 10] Clearly the aforementioned nickname "Invisible Prince", regardless of its disheartening nuances, is one of respect and possibly sympathy for a man whose, "life was a most troubled one" [Footnote 11].
All of the obituaries that speak of Le Fanu's novels are unanimous in identifying Uncle Silas and The House by the Churchyard as his most accomplished and commercially successful novels; the later of which M.R. James famously wrote was, "a book to which I find myself returning over and over again and with no sense of disappointment" [Footnote 12]. But it is Uncle Silas that is shown the slight edge of favouratism in these eulogies. Without even mentioning The House by the Churchyard, The Irish Times regards Uncle Silas in particular as, "marked with great richness of invention, and force in the conception and delineation of character." The Freeman's Journal lauds The House by the Churchyard for its good style, cheerful tone and clever construction, but pulls out all stops in its subsequent praise for Uncle Silas, which it begins by calling, "a marvel of mystery and a prodigy of power," and goes on from there. The Dublin University Magazine, after mentioning "The House by the Church-Yard" [sic] and Uncle Silas ("perhaps the best of all his works"), goes so far as to state that of Le Fanu's other novels, "it is unnecessary to speak." Indeed, apart from his ghost stories, The House by the Churchyard and Uncle Silas still today seem to be the most popular and readily available of his novels. Interestingly enough, in the years since Le Fanu's death Wylder's Hand, written between the two aforementioned books, has steadily become at least as popular as The House by the Churchyard. Both past and modern critics seem to agree that Le Fanu was at his creative peak during the beginning of his career as a novelist.
An interesting observation regarding the Dublin University Magazine obituary comes from Le Fanu scholar Jim Rockhill: "The DUM obit was obviously written by a family member or close associate-perhaps Alfred Perceval Graves or William Le Fanu?-who knew Le Fanu well enough to express how he would have liked to be remembered. I sometimes get the sense while reading this one that Le Fanu himself is speaking. There is too much detailed family information for this to have come from anyone outside the man's immediate circle. Note also the attention paid to the family's nobility since the late 16th century" [Footnote 13].
Le Fanu owned the DUM from 1861 until he "gave up control" in 1869 [Footnote 14]. Le Fanu's successor was a poet by the name of James F. Waller (1810-1894) who resumed editorship of the magazine in 1870 until 1873. Waller initially served as editor of the DUM from 1846-1854 and was responsible for publishing a number of Le Fanu's early tales including "The Watcher" (1846), "The Mysterious Lodger" (1850) [Footnote 15], "Ghost Stories of Chapelizod" (1851), and "An Account of Some Strange Disturbances in an Old House in Aungier Street" (1853). Given their history, Waller and Le Fanu most likely had an affinity for one another. It is entirely possible that Waller was in contact with and commissioned the obituary either directly from the family or from one of Le Fanu's close friends. The DUM obituary is one of the lengthiest and most detailed published. Regarding Alfred Perceval Graves as its possible writer, it should be noted that much of the same intricate ancestral details are reproduced in his own "Memoir" published seven years later.
On a more trivial note is the matter of Le Fanu's name. In present day it is not uncommon for the author's name to be shortened to "Sheridan Le Fanu," omitting "Joseph." I am unsure why this is, but virtually every variation of Le Fanu's name has at one time or another seen print: Lefanu, le Fanu, LeFanu, Le fanu; a couple of these variations, be they typographical or orthographical, even appear in the obituaries below. At the very least, it is amusing to note that permutations of Le Fanu's name have been happening since the day after he died. I prefer either "Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu", "J. Sheridan Le Fanu," as appears in Rockhill, or simply "Le Fanu". On the title page of Le Fanu's first editions, when not published anonymously, his name is rendered either as "J. Sheridan Le Fanu" or "J.S. Le Fanu". Enough said!
Finally, from these obituaries we see that Le Fanu was remembered primarily as a novelist, a journalist, and even a balladeer. What he is mainly known for today, rightly or wrongly, are his chilling tales of the supernatural. Yet these are not once mentioned among his many accomplishments, and indeed constitute a comparatively small portion of his body of work. I am not sure whether the man himself would have placed his ghost stories highly on his list of achievements, although I am sure that M.R. James's final eulogy for the modern reader, applied equally to both short stories and novels, would have brought a smile to the Irish author's face: "Nobody sets the scene better then he, nobody touches in the effective detail more deftly . . . . [Le Fanu] succeeds in inspiring a mysterious terror better than any other writer" [Footnote 16]. More...
The full article can be read on the Le Fanu Studies website.
1. "I do not then claim for this author any very exalted place, but I desire to advance the claim that he has attained supremacy in one particular line: he succeeds in inspiring a mysterious terror better than any other writer." From a speech entitled "The Novels and Stories of J. Sheridan Le Fanu", given to the Royal Institution of Great Britain on 16 March 1923. Reprinted in Ghosts & Scholars #7.
2. See Jim Rockhill's introduction to Schalken the Painter and Others (Ash-Tree Press, 2002).
3. Frederick Temple Blackwood, 1st Marquis of Dufferin and Ava (1826-1902).
4. The full text of William Le Fanu's letter, dated 1 April 1870, can be found in Jim Rockhill's introduction to Mr. Justice Harbottle and Others (Ash-Tree Press, 2005).
5. "6 o'clock" is the time of death according to Emmie's letter dated 9 February 1873. According to William's diary entry dated 7 February 1873, Le Fanu died at "½ past 6".
6. Emma "Emmie" Lucretia Le Fanu (1846-1893) is the namesake of J.S. Le Fanu's mother.
7. I had not noticed this until just now: Le Fanu died on 7 February 1873 and was buried on the 11th. Emmie's letter is dated 9 February 1873. Note that in the second sentence "looks" is in the present tense. The sentences both before and after are in the past tense. It is almost as if Emmie paused in between these two sentences to look upon her dead father's face. There are no other verb tense inconsistencies in the letter, which can be found in Jim Rockhill's introduction to Mr. Justice Harbottle and Others (Ash-Tree Press, 2005).
8. Alfred Perceval Graves. "A Memoir of Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu". "As a press writer he is still most honourably remembered for his learning and brilliancy, and the power and point of his sarcasm, which long made the 'Dublin Evening Mail' one of the most formidable of Irish press critics."
9. This sentence in the Freeman's Journal obituary is paraphrased nearly verbatim by the Dublin University Magazine. Compare the Journal's: "His handsome, even distinguished face was wholly missed from society; and he was only known on the title page of his books," with the DUM's: ". . . he led a secluded life, mixing little in society, from which his handsome, distinguished face was missed. To the public he was scarcely known apart from his books."
10. M.R. James, "The Novels and Stories of J. Sheridan Le Fanu". (Ghosts & Scholars, #7).
11. Emma L. Le Fanu. Letter dated 9 February 1873. "He lived only for us, and his life was a most troubled one."
12. From M.R. James's prologue to Madam Crowl's Ghost and Other Tales of Mystery (G. Bell and Sons, Ltd., 1923). James goes on to declare that, "I think [Uncle Silas] is his best novel."
13. Private correspondence.
14. See Jim Rockhill's introduction to The Haunted Baronet and Others (Ash-Tree Press, 2003).
15. "The Mysterious Lodger" like the non-supernatural thriller "My Aunt Margaret's Mystery" (Dublin University Magazine, March 1864) is not accepted by all scholars as one of Le Fanu's stories.
16. The first line is from M.R. James's "The Novels and Stories of J. Sheridan Le Fanu", the second line his from the prologue to Madam Crowl's Ghost (1923).
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