Tones of Estrangement in the works of Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu

The Nationalist Writer

What defines a nationalist writer is first and foremost that he furthers, through his works, a sense of nationalist or cultural identity to his readership. This can be achieved in a number of ways, the most popular, especially when Irish literature is concerned, being to include and communicate national treasures, such as mythology, folklore, native customs and patterns of speech and song, national character and national and local history, and to assert their unique characteristics and values. It may also express itself in the form of the direct or indirect praise of native landscapes, frequently by invoking the sublime in those landscapes, i.e. depicting them in a way that inspires awe.

Irish Nationalist and Cultural Identity

The late 18th century saw a shift in what was considered acceptable and admirable in culture and expression. The Romantics rejected the formulae and values of the Neo-Classicist Era, regarding them as rigid and contrived, and looked out, and back, for new, and more genuine and natural, forms of expression. This led to an increased interest in antiquarian studies and old forms of expression, such as folktales, ballads and songs. These forms were considered to be untainted by artificiality and preconceptions and examples of genuine and unspoiled emotion and expression. At the same time, the simple and rustic was held to have similar advantages.

The combination of antiquarian studies and the new popularity of the rustic and "exotic" led to a peaked interest into Celtic studies. Not only was Ireland a treasure trove of inspiration, but the ancient oral traditions were still alive in some parts of the country and could be witnessed first hand. The Gaelic Irish, who had for centuries suffered under the general preconception that they were brute and unpolished and prone to dangerous superstitions, suddenly found themselves the object of admiration.

In 1789, Charlotte Brooke (1740-93) published the first book on Gaelic poetry, including both translations and the original works. From this time onwards, the enthusiasm for Celticism grew. Certain characteristics and values became identifiable with the Celtic character, such as fortitude, musicality, poetic temperament, generosity, humour, defiance and hospitality, which would form the core of an emerging sense of national identity and character. It became apparent that here was the foundation of an idea that might unite the peoples of Ireland, regardless of denomination or descent. This combination of antiquarian studies, nationalism and political agenda would become known as "The Celtic Revival".

It could not have come at a better time. In the early 19th century Irland had a mixed population of native Gaelic Catholics, Catholics of Anglo-Norman descent (Old English), Anglican Protestants of English descent (Protestant Ascendancy) and a variety of non-conformist Protestants (Dissenters), primarily of Scots descent. A nation as such was not identified. The rights of Catholics and Dissenters suffered under legal restrictions in the form of the Penal Laws. While the Protestant Ascendancy enjoyed practical and legal privileges, they, like the rest of the population of Ireland, were dismayed at the depreciation of the Irish in general, the unfairness of the religious laws and economic restrictions and the lack of political and economic autonomy. Nationalists speculated that if the Irish were recognized as a nation separate and equal to the English, and not just as an appendage of the Union, England would have to address Ireland's status in the Union, the status and rights of its population, and its possible autonomy. This necessitated that the Irish, all of the Irish, should identify themselves as part of the same nation. The values of Celticism could potentially provide a common ground for all the peoples of Ireland and, in addition, the validity that a long history infers.

Thomas Davis (1814-45), who for a time was a member of the Trinity College Extern College Historical Society, along with Le Fanu, and Charles Galvan Duffy (1816-1903) would become the leading figures in the founding of The Nation newspaper and the Young Ireland movement which would become the central force of the Celtic Revival. It was the objective of the Young Ireland movement to usher in a new era of Irish cultural and literary awareness and have the Irish people recognized as a nation, equal to other nations. Rather than accepting English cultural standards and the English canon, i.e. the list of literature perceived as superior and of course English, they would have a separate Irish cultural identity and literary and historical tradition. During the following decades, increasing interest in ancient Celtic culture, Irish folklore and the Gaelic language bloomed.

Following close in the footsteps of the Young Ireland movement, came the Literary Revival which re-introduced the formats of ancient Celtic poetry, folklore and legend on a wider scale. Among those who joined in this pursuit was William Butler Yeats (1865-1939). The Literary Revival can be seen as not only a reaction to Anglo-centrism, i.e. the focus on English culture and history at the expense of other cultures, but also to the increasingly industrial Victorian society. In many ways, it echoed early Romanticism with its longing for authenticity and simplicity, seeking it within an idyllic past, but with the added aspect of an increasingly fierce nationalism and the overhanging shadow of contemporary political tensions and social problems in Ireland.

The Literary Revival had a flip-side, however. The focus on Irish culture and identity and the rejection of English culture led to a rigid rejection of all things non-Irish, including modernity. Many writers would feel the restrictions and prejudice, including those who had helped formulate the cultural ideals of the Literary Revival. The ideals of the Literary Revival would endure into the 20th century and form part of the ideology that founded the independent Republic of Ireland.

Estrangement, Landscape and the Gothic

The gothic genre is a complex genre which employs and plays on a wide variety of conventions. Its primary effect is that of terror. It provides both thrills and commentary. It expresses our fears of the dark, the unknown, the marginal and the unspeakable, such as death, the deterioration of values and society, tabus and estrangement. Its monsters and effects challenge accepted standards and defy natural laws, revealing our dependency on them and their inherent frailties.

The scope of gothic novels include such diverse volumes as Bram Stoker's "Dracula", Charlotte Brontë's "Jane Eyre" and Mary Shelley's "Frankenstein or the Modern Prometheus". To this day, the gothic genre and mode is very much alive, particularly in the form of films and its subgenre, the detective story.

The gothic landscape is an invaluable convention in connection to the genre. The landscape is not merely a locale or a setting; it accentuates the primary themes and conventions of the story. With its closed confines and labyrinths, antique locations and ruins, dimly lit streets, or vast exotic or dismal panoramas, it underlines the sense of decay, conflict, isolation and estrangement. The landscape is a place of haunting and can be used to stir unease or awe in the reader by invoking the sublime, but may also reflect changes in the protagonist and in the plot. Contrast is occasionally provided by including pastoral scenes, which further enhance the menace and symbolic significance of the gothic landscape, as is frequently seen in Le Fanu's works. An added effect that can sometimes be found in Le Fanu is a fusion of the gothic and pastoral landscape, i.e. a threatening landscape capable of interacting with the protagonists.

Haunting is another frequent gothic convention. The dead, or the prospect of death, past crimes, secrets, dangers and fears haunt the protagonists of the gothic genre. In the works of Le Fanu hauntings by the dead and by spirits is a re-occurring theme. M. R. James saw this as one of Le Fanu's weaknesses, although admitting that Le Fanu was very skilled at convincingly effecting and portraying hauntings. His predilection of the theme of haunting can be ascribed to its popularity and his ability at successfully presenting it, but also suggests a personal symbolism. Associated with the otherworldly, and with death, the dead and supernatural spirits are symbolic of, among other things, "Otherness".

"Otherness" is a term used to describe difference, particularly in connection to estrangement and conflict between cultures, races and sexes. In the gothic genre, the "Other" may be represented by monsters and villains who challenge or transgress natural and moral laws. It may also manifest itself as the marginalized, rejected or prosecuted, sometimes in the form of doubles. Typically ambiguous, the gothic will express both our fears of the "Other", as well as our attraction to the strange and the dangerous, and simultaneously voice the resentment or distress of the monstrous and/or marginalized "Other". The monster in Mary Shelley's "Frankenstein or the Modern Prometheus" is an example of such.

The gothic genre arose along with the new-found popularity of the folktale, to which it owes much of its plot and style elements, and the rise of Romanticism in the late 18th century and early 19th century which had kindled the re-discovery and appreciation of the folktale and urged artistic appreciation toward the intense and subjective.


Folktales relate of the most basic of existential human dilemmas and dramas, such as the transition into adulthood, heroics in the face of seemingly overpowering odds, or the tribulations of young love. They tell lessons about life and give warning about the dangers along the way. Those dangers are frequently represented by the supernatural. The role of the supernatural is to lead the hero astray (usually unto his destruction) or to delay or prevent the hero from completing a quest or a journey.

One of the classic conventions in folktales is that of the tempter or temptress – a character that frequents Le Fanu's works. It is the story of typically a youth or a maiden who falls under the spell of a supernatural or unnatural being. Usually an ill-fated liaison that as often as not leads to misery or death, the hero may be saved by a benign power, such as true love or an older individual well versed in the workings of the supernatural and the pitfalls of life. The temptress may use her feminine wiles, her magic or simply overwhelm her victim with luxuries, comfort or wealth. An example of this plot is "The Odyssey" where the enchantresses Circe and Calypso captivate Odysseus and delay his return to his true love, Penelope. Occasionally, there is a parasitical element, and the temptress may require her victim for some form of vampirism, such as in Le Fanu's "Carmilla".

Initially attracted to the romantic appeal of the folktale, Irish writers would later utilize the structure, plot and style of the folktale for nationalist purposes.


Fairies and fairy-lore frequent the works of Le Fanu. Faeries are a native element of Irish folklore. The Irish faeries are not, however, to be confused with modern perceptions of faeries or the Victorian idea of small, gracious winged creatures upon which modern perceptions are based. In Irish folklore, the term faeries is used collectively to describe a wide range of beings.

What can be generally said of faeries is that they are illusionists in that they may assume any form they desire; forms that may be beautiful or wretched. They may conjure up visions of entire worlds at their will, but their illusions have no real substance. Faeries live in a separate world of their own; the bridge between the faerie and human worlds is found on natural borders such as streams, fences or woodland edges. They will lure humans to pass over with the purpose to ensnare them and "mark" them with their magics so that the human becomes trapped between worlds. Once inside the realm of the faeries, human beings are outside time and may find that, if they escape, no time or many years have passed whilst they were with the faeries. The human beings which are lured into the world of the faeries are estranged from or entirely forget their human life, past and common sense. Faeries are particularly attracted to the young, the beautiful and the innocent. Faeries, more often than not, are treacherous. Faeries must, however abide by certain rules if they enter the human world, and it is by knowing these rules that humans may protect themselves from the potential danger that faeries represent.

Within the faerie tradition, is the concept of the "faerie bride"; a person who has been enamoured, betrothed or even wed to one of the faerie folk, frequently without his or her knowledge or by means of trickery. The bride, or groom, is restricted by certain rules which, if broken, will lead to either losing their faerie love or their death. Another tradition is that of "changelings"; faerie children that have been switched with human children. Faeries covet humans, because they have a soul and the faeries have not, and their children, because faerie children are frail and weak.