When one begins to think about great Irish writers some legendary household staples spring to mind such as Joyce, Wilde, Yeats and Stoker. These are the names that we recognise so frequently that they feel like extended family members, especially if you’re a literature student! But as much as we sing their praises, or indeed condemn them, there are other Irish writers worthy of similar acclaim that are all but swept under the carpet. The writer I’d like to talk to you about in this blog post today is Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu (1814-1873).
Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu was a gothic fiction writer whose literary works advanced themes and custom in gothic literature as a whole, particularly the sub-genre of the ghost story. He was, as most Irish writers from the Victorian period were, a member of the waning Anglo-Irish caste with French Huguenot roots. He lived a precarious and fractured life in societal and historical contexts that permeate even his finest works.
The Purcell Papers collection of stories, his first foray into published literature, particularly his stories The Last Heir of Castle Connor and The Fortunes of Sir Robert Ardagh show an evocative nostalgia for dispossessed Catholic aristocracy. This sentiment was even before the Great Famine during which Le Fanu felt the aristocracy was failing in its humanitarian duty to help the native population. One can go as far as comparing the monkey in Green Tea, where the main character is afflicted to years of torment, restless nights, endless paranoia and inability to attend Church sermons as being somewhat inspired, or if not mirroring what Le Fanu must have been feeling in Abington, County Limerick during the Tithe Wars. The Tithe Wars brought with them a sense of claustrophobia and paranoia for the Le Fanu family as they were surrounded by agrarian upheaval and anger where they were seen as tools of oppression by natives who had now had enough, even if as it turns out, the Le Fanus were only scraping by also.
The House by the Churchyard gives us an intimate look into what Victorian life was like in the insular aristocratic village of Chapelizod where Le Fanu grew up and we can garner much about evolving Victorian mannerisms and behavior in his sensation novels. Stories like Carmilla challenge assumptions regarding sexuality and Le Fanu’s ghost writing is so revolutionary it inspired M.R. James who described Le Fanu as “absolutely in the first rank as a writer of ghost stories”. His work certainly influenced Bram Stoker’s Dracula which meant he was the major catalyst in spawning a whole new wave of gothic fiction, paving the way for the vampire novel to saturate mainstream readership. A Chapter in the History of a Tyrone Family may have influenced Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre too by the way! These are just the larger influences yet Le Fanu is a name that does not instantly click with a lot of people beyond Irish literary circles. After the bicentenary of his birth in 2014 new light has been shed on many of the nuances and layers that affirm his credentials as possibly Ireland’s most underappreciated writer.