First edition title page
|Author||J. Sheridan Le Fanu|
|Publisher||Dublin University Magazine (serialized)
Richard Bentley (hardcover)
Uncle Silas is a Victorian Gothic mystery-thriller novel by the Irish writer J. Sheridan Le Fanu. It is notable as an early example of the locked room mystery subgenre. It is not a novel of the supernatural (despite a few creepily ambiguous touches), but does show a strong interest in the occult and in the ideas of Emanuel Swedenborg, a Swedish scientist, philosopher and Christian mystic.
Like many of Le Fanu's novels, it grew out of an earlier short story, "A Passage in the Secret History of an Irish Countess" (1839), which he also published as "The Murdered Cousin" in the 1851 collection Ghost Stories and Tales of Mystery. The setting of the original story was Irish; presumably it was changed to Derbyshire for the novel because this would appeal more to a British audience. It was first serialized in the Dublin University Magazine in 1864, under the title Maud Ruthyn and Uncle Silas, and appeared in December of the same year as a triple-decker novel from the London publisher Richard Bentley.
The novel is a first person narrative told from the point of view of the teenaged Maud Ruthyn, an heiress living with her sombre, reclusive father Austyn Ruthyn in their mansion at Knowl. She gradually becomes aware of the existence of Silas Ruthyn, a black sheep uncle whom she has never met, who was once an infamous rake and gambler but is now apparently a fervently reformed Christian. Silas's past holds a dark mystery, which she gradually learns from her father and from her worldly, cheerful cousin Lady Monica: the suspicious suicide of a man to whom Silas owed an enormous gambling debt, which took place within a locked, apparently impenetrable room in Silas's mansion at Bartram-Haugh. Austyn is firmly convinced of his brother's innocence; Maud's attitude to Uncle Silas (whom we do not meet for the first 200 pages of the book) wavers repeatedly between trusting in her father's judgment, and growing fear and uncertainty.
In the first part of the novel, Maud's father hires a French governess, Madame de la Rougierre, as a companion for her. Madame de la Rougierre, however, turns out to be a sinister figure who has designs on Maud. (In a cutaway scene that breaks the first-person narrative, we learn that she is in league with Uncle Silas's good-for-nothing son Dudley.) She is eventually discovered by Maud in the act of burgling her father's desk; this is enough to ensure that she is dismissed.
Austyn Ruthyn obscurely asks Maud if she is willing to undergo some kind of "ordeal" to clear his brother Silas's and the family's name. She assents, and shortly thereafter her father dies. It turns out that he has added a codicil to his will: Maud is to stay with Uncle Silas until she comes of age. If she dies while in her minority, the estate will go to Silas. Despite the advice of her friends Lady Monica and Austyn's executor and fellow Swedenborgian, Dr. Bryerly, Maud consents to spend the next three and a half years of her life at Bartram-Haugh.
Life at Bartram-Haugh is initially strange but not unpleasant, despite ominous signs such as the uniformly unfriendly servants and a malevolent factotum of Silas's, the one-legged Dickon Hawkes. Silas himself is a sinister, soft-spoken old man who is openly contemptuous of his two children, the loutish Dudley and the untutored but friendly Milly (her rustic manners initially amaze Maud, but they become best friends). Silas is subject to mysterious catatonic fits which are attributed by his doctor to his massive opium consumption. Gradually, however, the trap closes around Maud: it is clear that Silas is attempting to coax or force her to marry Dudley. When that tactic fails, and as the time-limit of three-and-a-half years begins to shrink, a yet more sinister plot is hatched to ensure that Silas gains control of the Ruthyn estate.
Milly is sent away to a boarding school in France, and arrangements are made for Maud to join her after a period of three months. In the meantime, Madame de la Rougierre reappears in Silas's employ, over Maud's protests, and it is she who is charged with accompanying Maud first to London, and then on to Dover and across the channel. However, unbeknownst to Maud, who is asleep in the carriage for most of the journey, she has in fact been taken on a round trip to London and back. She is returned to Bartram-Haugh under cover of darkness, and although she soon discovers the trick, her demands for an explanation are ignored and she is locked into one of the mansion's many bedrooms. Madame de la Rougierre, however, having been kept ignorant of Silas' true intentions, unwittingly partakes of the drugged claret that was intended for Maud, and promptly falls asleep on the latter's bed. Late that night, Dudley scales the building and enters the unlit room through the window, which is set upon concealed hinges that allow it to be opened only from the outside. Maud, crouched and hidden in a corner, watches on in terror as Dudley takes a spiked hammer from his pocket and savagely attacks the figure lying on the bed. Madame de la Rougierre screams briefly and convulses, then lies still. Uncle Silas, who has been waiting outside the door, enters the room, allowing Maud to slip out undetected. With the help of Dickon Hawkes' daughter, whom Maud had befriended during her stay, she is swiftly conveyed by carriage to Lady Monica's estate, and away from Bartram-Haugh forever.
Silas is discovered in the morning lying dead of an opium overdose, while Dudley becomes a fugitive and is thought to be hiding in Australia. Maud is happily married to the charming and handsome Lord Ilbury and ends her recollections on a philosophical note:
This world is a parable—the habitation of symbols—the phantoms of spiritual things immortal shown in material shape. May the blessed second-sight be mine—to recognise under these beautiful forms of earth the angels who wear them; for I am sure we may walk with them if we will, and hear them speak!
Allusions/references from other works
Uncle Silas remains Le Fanu's best-known and most popular novel. It was the source for Arthur Conan Doyle's The Firm of Girdlestone, and remains a touchstone for contemporary mystery fiction. There are also strong connections between Uncle Silas and some of Wilkie Collins' better-known novels, especially The Woman in White; both writers, while recognisably within the Gothic tradition, depict heroines who are far more highly developed than the persecuted maidens of Ann Radcliffe and others.
Film and television adaptations
A film version, also titled Uncle Silas, was made by Gainsborough Studios in 1947, directed by Charles Frank and starring Jean Simmons, Katina Paxinou and Derrick De Marney. The heroine's given name was changed from Maud to Carolyn. It was re-titled The Inheritance in the United States, and the incestuous material was excised.
- McCormack, W. J. (1997). Sheridan Le Fanu. Gloucestershire: Sutton Publishing. ISBN 0-7509-1489-0.
- Cox, J. Randolph (1989). Masters of Mystery and Detective Fiction: An Annotated Bibliography. Pasadena, Calif.: Salem Press. p. 168. ISBN 0893566527.
- David Punter, 1996, "The Literature of Terror: A History of Gothic Fictions from 1765 to the Present Day", Vol. I, "The Gothic Tradition", pp. 203-6.
- "Uncle Silas (1947)". Internet Movie Database.
- "Mystery and Imagination - Uncle Silas (1968)". Internet Movie Database.
- "The Dark Angel (1987)". Internet Movie Database.
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- Free unabridged audiobook by LibriVox.org: Uncle Silas