M.R. James on
J.S. Le Fanu

by M.R. James

(from Ghosts & Scholars 7.)

The following article is adapted from a lecture given by M.R. James at the weekly meeting of the Royal Institution of Great Britain on March 16th, 1923. The speech was entitled "The Novels and Stories of J. Sheridan Le Fanu". MRJ's own abstract appeared in Volume XXIV of the Institution's Proceedings, and was reprinted in Peter Haining's M.R. James: Book of the Supernatural (Foulsham, 1979). The notes for the lecture are in King's College Library, Cambridge, and were edited into article form for first publication in G&S. For this web site version I have reinstated a few sections which were cut out in G&S 7.

Reproduced by kind permission of N.J.R. James.

Only one novelist known to me ever refers to Sheridan Le Fanu as an acknowledged authority or master in the particular line to which he devoted himself: the name of this writer is respectable but not more. It is James Payn. Probably if the works of Andrew Lang ever have a concordance made to them, the name of Le Fanu will be found to occur in it. But the fact remains that Le Fanu is not at the moment the occupier of any particular pedestal. There has never been a boom in his writings. I am not anxious for one, though if it comes I shall be prepared to concede the great author of booms, Poet Gosse, several points or bisques.

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. I have heard the proposition advanced that Edgar Allan Poe stands at the head of those who have written terrible stories in English, but I can in no sort of way agree with those who think so. For one thing, the effect of this kind of literature depends largely, I fancy, upon its modernity: in style, at any rate, it must not be antiquated, however remote the scene or date of the events described. To be really frightful, the story must seem possible and near for the moment. But Poe's tales have to my mind such an essential flavour of 1830-1840 as takes the whole edge off them, and suggests the costume, furniture and art of the time when they were written. Moreover, there is usually a suggestion or introduction of the mad element, which accounts for anything supernatural, and brings everything horrible into the range of everyday life; for, though the things that madness do may be horrible and no doubt would be if one was to experience them, yet they are so constantly being done that they fail to stimulate the imagination.

So when I read "The Fall of the House of Usher" which by some is thought the most horrific of all stories, I merely feel that it is like a bad dream. Reality is there none. This low estimate may perhaps be influenced by my abhorrence of his verses.

However, it is time to say something about Le Fanu - and what he wrote. His life is easily dismissed: he came of an old Huguenot stock, lived all his days in Dublin, and died in 1873 - a widower. For many years he edited the Dublin University Magazine and another Dublin organ, a newspaper whose name I don't remember.

I believe that he was a singularly striking personality both in looks and in conversation. During the last years of his life - and after and in consequence of his wife's death - he became almost entirely a recluse, having been before that a very prominent figure in Dublin society.

The novels and collections of stories which have been published with his name attached to them (I will explain this qualification in a moment) are: The Cock and Anchor, Torlogh O'Brien, Uncle Silas, The House by the Churchyard, Checkmate, Guy Deverell, The Tenants of Malory, Haunted Lives, A Lost Name, The Wyvern Mystery, Wylder's Hand, All in the Dark, The Rose and the Key, and Willing to Die - these are his novels. The collections of stories are Chronicles of Golden Friars, In a Glass Darkly and The Purcell Papers - this last is a posthumous publication, with a memoir by Mr Graves prefixed to it. But besides these, there are a number of anonymous stories in magazines which are identifiable with moral certainty as productions of Le Fanu. For example: "Squire Toby's Will" in Vol. 22 of Temple Bar, one of the best of his ghost stories; "Dickon the Devil", a ghost story which appeared in a Christmas number of London Society or Belgravia in or before 1871; and a fair number of similar stories in the early volumes of the new series of All the Year Round (e.g. "Sir Dominick's Bargain", "The White Cat of Drumgunniol", "Tom Chuff's Vision", "The Child that went with the Fairies", "Stories of Lough Guir").

I will say something about such of the novels as I know or remember. The Cock and Anchor was probably never republished after its appearance in a Dublin journal. I have never seen it, but it would seem to be a story of Old Dublin. Torlogh O'Brien is a romance of the Battle of the Boyne period; it was illustrated by Phiz and I know at least three editions. It shows strongly the influence of Harrison Ainsworth, but is a far better constructed book than any that Ainsworth ever wrote. In one chapter, where the villain of the book falls into the hands of rebels and is tortured with the strappado, an absolute mastery of the horrible is shown - and yet there is nothing disgusting.

Uncle Silas may perhaps be spoken of in the next place. The leading episode appeared twice in stories of much less compass before the novel took its present shape and name. It is probably the best known of Le Fanu's books - and I think it is his best novel. The framework of the story is easily sketched. A girl is left by her father's death heiress to an immense property. There is an uncle who, years before, had been suspected of murdering a man - a disreputable gambling acquaintance - who was found dead, and might have committed suicide, in his house. This uncle had lived a reclusive life ever since, and the father of the heiress - in order to demonstrate his confidence in the baselessness of the accusation - leaves his daughter in the sole guardianship of her uncle. The masterly way in which the coils are gradually drawn close round the girl by her uncle, and the final terrific murder-scene and escape can hardly be forgotten by those who have read the book. Extraordinarily powerful, too, is the drawing of the spectral uncle ("venerable, bloodless, fiery-eyed"), of the dreadful Madame de la Rougierre, and in a less degree, of Dudley Ruthyn and Dr Bryerly.

In Checkmate and The House by the Churchyard we have a situation of which Le Fanu is plainly very fond: the idea of a formidable and almost supernaturally wicked man returning after years of absence and living quite unsuspected, in one case on the very scene of an early crime, and in the other among men who had known him in early years. Dangerfield and Longcluse are such men - and they strangely resemble one another.

I think it is in Tenants of Malory that the same idea crops up again. Checkmate has moreover some tremendous episodes: not least, that of the German Baron whose trade it is to change the faces of people who are 'wanted'. The House by the Churchyard seems to be a typical book of the author's. The construction is by no means faultless and, indeed, I can but agree that any one not in sympathy with the author might be frightened off by reading the first third of the book. But with all this there is the most curiously successful atmosphere of horror and mystery; and the background - a suburb of Dublin in the last century - is far more vivid and real, in spite of an absence of word painting, than anything in the vast majority of recent novels. There is but one chapter in the book which introduces the supernatural, but that whets the appetite for more. It is the description of appearances at a haunted house: foremost among them the hand of an old man, which is seen resting toadlike on the pillow of some sleeping member of the family, and once the mark of it is found on a dusty table in the parlour.

Wylder's Hand and A Lost Name are probably the best of the remaining novels; in both of them we find the same power of infusing into every moment of the story a colouring, sometimes only melancholy, more often sombre and mysterious. In nearly all his books this quality is present in varying degrees. I shall return to it again.

The Wyvern Mystery introduces a character not unlike Madame de la Rougierre; a blind Dutch woman, almost insane, and in this author's hands a terrific apparition who almost succeeds in murdering the heroine. Guy Deverell I have totally forgotten. Weakest of all the novels is All in the Dark - a domestic story with a sham ghost: an offence hard to forgive in any writer but much harder in Le Fanu's case, seeing that he could deal so magnificently with realness without incurring any more expense.

When we turn to the three collections of stories, and to the short anonymous tales in the magazines, we come upon some of Le Fanu's best work. There are one or two humorous quick stories in dialect in The Purcell Papers, which seem to me admirable. In the same collection is the truly horrifying "Episode in the Life of Schalken the Painter". A motif not unlike that of Bürger's ballad "Lenore" is employed here: a living corpse marries a girl, and when she has escaped from the vault, comes to reclaim her - with success only too marked.

"The Drunkard's Vision" again has considerable power - and so certainly have one or two of the non-supernatural stories in the collection. The Chronicles of Golden Friars contains two good stories and one less good: so far as I remember one only introduces anything like a ghost and I shall have a little more to say about it.

The volume called In a Glass Darkly is probably the best known, next to Uncle Silas, of all the author's works, and to those who have read it, the titles "The Familiar", "Mr Justice Harbottle", "Carmilla" and "Green Tea" will suggest the remembrance of an agreeable thrill. The two first, and "Squire Toby's Will", I should assert to be the best ghost stories in the English language.

This is more than enough of a catalogue: my business is now to notice some favourite ideas and devices of Le Fanu, and to try and arrive at some analysis of his peculiar powers.

But perhaps his weaknesses may be mentioned first. Among these I should rank the tendency to use over and over again certain devices in themselves striking. I have spoken of one of these - the motif of the banished villain returning to the society of men in a new shape. This thought is closely connected in my mind with another which dominates several of the ghost stories. I may call it the Vampire-idea. Of course, one story, "Carmilla", is a real Styrian Vampire story, but the idea I speak of is rather a wider one. It takes two forms: in one the dead returns to earth in a form sometimes human sometimes animal - thus the owl in "The Familiar" and the bull-dog in "Squire Toby's Will" are embodiments of the 'Watcher' and of Squire Toby. In the other form, a human soul or else an evil spirit takes possession of a body and uses it. Minheer Vanderhausen, in the Schalken story, is a case in point, and so is the young man in "The Haunted Baronet". He has been drowned and after every effort to recover him has failed, and he has lain for the greater part of the night a corpse, he suddenly revives; and there can be no doubt from what follows that the reader is meant to understand that the evil genius of the Macdyke family has taken up its abode in his body. There is a hint of the same in Miss Agnes Marbyn (in A Lost Name). Even in Uncle Silas, Lady Knollys says of that worthy: "Silas Ruthyn is himself alone, and I can't define him, because I don't understand him. Perhaps other souls than human are sometimes born into the world and clothed in flesh."

The conception is one which Le Fanu has certainly used with tremendous effect and the recurrence of it would be probably not obvious until one had read nearly all his work with attention. And further it must be remembered that a good many of the stories in which it occurs are incomplete or fugitive sketches which ought not perhaps to be strictly reckoned with.

A similar weakness is the recurrence of types of character. The old servant (both malignant and kindly), lunatic or visionary, whose rhapsodies are written it seems to me with great skill, the hard-drinking squire, the broken man of pleasure - these may all be found in several of his books. But they are always used with effect.

There is really only one element which I would wish away, and that is a certain vein of almost maudlin writing into which he falls - though rarely - and which induces him to give hopeless pet names to some of his characters, and otherwise makes his reader blush for him. Three books err in this way: in Wylder's Hand I find a number of scenes connected with a little boy; in A Lost Name there are a brother and sister whose names I really cannot bring myself to repeat; and All in the Dark contains more than a fair proportion of such matter. However, the whole amount of it is small.

As to his peculiar power: I think the origin of it is not far to seek. Le Fanu had both French and Irish blood in his veins, and in his works I seem to see both strains coming out, though the Irish predominates. The indefinable melancholy which the air of Ireland and its colouring inspire - a melancholy which inspires many Irish writers - is caught by Le Fanu and fixed in words with an almost complete success. He dwells very fondly and very frequently on sunset scenes over a horizon of dark hanging woods, on moonlight shining on a winding river with wooded banks, on a heavily-timbered park, a black tarn in a lonely glen, an old air heard in the distance at night, a ruined chapel or manor-house, a torchlight funeral in a gloomy church. Pictures like these strike his fancy and he makes them stand out for his readers. They have been made commonplace enough by worse writers; but we indeed have [bad] pictures of ruined castles on the Rhine or Melrose Abbey by moonlight, yet it is possible to have good pictures of these subjects, and most likely had there been no good pictures of them there would have been no bad ones. I think Le Fanu's are good pictures, and I am certain they have inspired a great many that are not good.

But how does he contrive to inspire horror? It is partly, I think, owing to the very skilful use of a crescendo, so to speak. The gradual removal of one safeguard after another, the victim's dim forebodings of what is to happen gradually growing clearer; these are the processes which generally increase the strain of excitement. "The Familiar" and the concluding chapters of Uncle Silas are the best specimens of this. And again the unexplained hints which are dropped are of the most telling kind. The reader is never allowed to know the full theory which underlies any of his ghost stories, but this Le Fanu has in common with many inferior artists. Only you feel that he has a complete explanation to give if he would only vouchsafe it.

Who was the person who, in Uncle Silas, was heard to say "Fly the Fangs of Belisarius"? Where did Minheer Vanderhausen take his wife to? What was the rationale of the mysterious coach and the lady and her servants who brought Carmilla the Vampire to the house where she was to find a new victim? And what exactly was it that passed when Lewis Pyneweck and the hangman came to see Mr Justice Harbottle? We are never told. The trick of omission or suppression may be used in a very banal fashion, but Le Fanu uses it well.

As to his real beliefs and theories, we can gather something: to spirit rapping he was, I am glad to think, a decided foe - All in the Dark is partly a hit at the system. Was he a Swedenborgian? I think not, but he was greatly attracted by Swedenborg's speculations. They are quoted in "Green Tea" and Uncle Silas: in the latter book a speech of Dr Bryerly gives us a clue to the sort of view Le Fanu half-entertained.

It would be a plausible thing to compare the place of Le Fanu in fiction with that of Doré in art. In so far as they possess a style easily distinguishable from others, and like rather cognate subjects, they have something in common; but there the plausibility of the comparison ceases, to my mind, for apart from the general fallaciousness of these comparisons I cannot see that Doré's merits are nearly equal to Le Fanu's, when both men are taken at their best. The name of Wiertz, again, might occur to some as supplying a fit analogy in painting to Le Fanu's written works. After my first visit to the Wiertz Gallery at Brussels I might have said so too. After my second, nothing could seem unfairer to Le Fanu. Almost all that had before seemed strong appeared merely outré, and what I had thought really tragic and terrible was either disgusting or mad.

No: if an analogy to Le Fanu in pictorial form be desired, I would suggest that Bewick, where he treats a supernatural subject, is not unsuitable to cite. There is, for instance, an excellent vignette which shows us a tired pedlar with a pack on his back approaching a cave surrounded by lichen, and evidently intending to spend the night there. Look twice at the picture and you will see that the cave mouth and the trees around it are crowded with bird hobgoblins. They will only wait till the poor man is asleep, then they will come out, and if anyone leaves the place at all it will be a raving maniac. But more probably no-one will leave it alive.

In this sketch, I have left a great many points untouched: Le Fanu on death; Le Fanu as a master of felicitous quotation; Le Fanu as a writer of ballads. These and other aspects of my author must remain for you to discover if, as I hope, you peruse his works well enough to be able to do so. Were I asked to give in a few words and in literary slang an estimate of his position, I should be inclined to say that he occupies a very important place as an exponent of the Celtic imagination, and with this I must leave you.

This Thomas Bewick woodcut, referred to by MRJ above, appears in British Birds, Volume One, at the end of the chapter entitled "Of the Shrike".

Copyright (c) 1985, 1999 N.J.R. James

back to top

back to Ghosts & Scholars Archive

back to Ghosts & Scholars Home Page

Bar by Syruss