Tones of Estrangement in the works of Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu


Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu was born on the 28th of August, 1814, into a distinguished middle class Protestant family of Huguenot descent with a long history in Ireland. A talented boy, it would soon become apparent that he had literary gifts, as well as ambitions.

Le Fanu, in particular during his early years of writing fiction, turned often to the local folklore, legends and ghost stories of Ireland for inspiration. Many of these tales can be traced back to his childhood and adolescence in County Limerick, in southern Ireland, where his father ministered to a small protestant community for many years. The most extensive, and indeed practically the only, contemporary biographical data of Le Fanu's early years can be found in his younger brother William's memoirs. These memoirs are particularly interesting as they attest to Le Fanu's early fascination with local folklore and the occult (a quality he evidently shared with his father whose extensive library collection on the subjects would appear to have been the staple literary diet for the young Joseph, according to his brother William). William attests also to their mother's fascination of Irish history.

Ireland saw powerful changes during Le Fanu's lifetime. At the time of his birth, several Penal Laws, i.e. legal restrictions on rights and privileges for Catholics and non-conformists, were still in effect. The Penal Laws, along with other representative and economic restrictions, had long been a source of discontent among select demographical groups in Ireland, but by the early 19th century this discontent had spread to most layers of Irish society. A budding nationalist identity was forming among the general Irish populace. Le Fanu would during his lifetime see the final abolition of the Penal Laws, the Celtic Revival and the beginnings of Irish Republicanism and Fenianism, as well as the onslaught of the Famine.

During the years that the Le Fanu family lived in Limerick, unrest among the local Catholic population broke out. The Catholic population were dismayed at the insistence that they pay tithe to the Church of Ireland. This led to violent clashes between the Catholic population and government representatives. This went on for several years and became known as the "Tithe Wars". In County Limerick, there was only a handful of Anglican Protestants and several thousands of Catholics, many of which were struggling to get by as it was without having to support a church that was not their own. On one occasion, Le Fanu's sisters were attacked on the road, pelted by stones, and one of the sisters was struck to the head. The Le Fanu's had seen themselves as part of the local community, respected and accepted, despite their Anglo-French heritage and Protestant faith. The incident shook their faith in their neighbours and led to estrangement. From the day of the attack, none of the Le Fanu women, whilst they lived in Limerick, would ever leave the house without a male escort. Le Fanu would grow up isolated from the local Gaelic population whilst retaining a deep sympathy for them and a deep fascination for the history and native Gaelic culture and customs of Ireland.

Le Fanu studied law at Trinity College and passed the bar, but never practised. During his years at Trinity he became actively involved with the Extern College Historical Society, along with Thomas Davis, who would later co-found The Nation newspaper and the Young Ireland movement. The Extern Society was a continuation of the College Historical Society, known as The Hist, founded in 1770. From its founding, the society was opposed to British control of Ireland, politically as well as culturally. The society had had a tumultuous history during which both members and the society itself had been cautioned and even temporarily expelled as the college was concerned about the political content of the discussions.

While characterized as a conservative and a unionist, i.e. supportive of the Union between Ireland and England, at least during his mature years, Le Fanu supported a distinct Irish culture and Ireland's equal rights, politically, economically and culturally, compared to those of England.

Shortly after he left Trinity, Le Fanu found employ at a newspaper and he soon became known as a journalist with strong political convictions. He would later own or part-own a number of newspapers and journals, including The Warder, The Protestant Guardian, The Statesman, the Dublin Evening Mail, and the Dublin University Magazine. It was in these journals that he would first publish his fiction. The first of these was "The Ghost and the Bonesetter", in 1838, which would become the first instalment of the collection of short fiction known as "The Purcell Papers".

It would appear that Le Fanu initially had hopes of becoming known as a writer of historical romances, perhaps secretly hoping to be the Irish equivalent of Walter Scott whom he admired greatly, but it would be his gothic novels and his ghost stories that would find favour among Victorian readers.

In 1841 Le Fanu married. By all accounts it was a most devoted union. However, his wife suffered sporadically of a nervous disorder and Le Fanu found himself in repeated financial straits.

In 1858 Le Fanu's wife died after prolonged illness during which her mental state had been severely affected. During her illness, she appeared to fall into a form of religious paranoia and fears of damnation and death and visions of ghostly figures intensified her already suffering self to the extent that she finally estranged herself from her husband, much to his grief. Following the death of his wife, Le Fanu was reported to have small regard for religion and superstition, although his fascination for folklore, mysticism and the occult would not appear to have faded, judging by his writings in later years. One may note, however, that a darker aspect of the supernatural entered his tales after his wife's death, as seen in tales such as "Green Tea" or "Laura Silver Bell".

For three years after his wife's death, he did not write. Such was his grief that Le Fanu withdrew from public life in a such a way that he would become known as "The Invisible Prince", seeing only his very nearest and dearest. This did not mean that he withdrew entirely from the journalistic world and he undertook to manage the Dublin University Magazine in 1861. He also resumed writing fiction. Following the advice of his publisher, he began writing novels with an English locale in order to satisfy a larger English audience. He continued to write short stories with Irish locale, however.

Le Fanu died on the 7th of February 1873.