Uncle Silas: A Tale of Bartram-Haugh

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Read 07/04/2022-19/04/2022

Rating 4 stars

Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu’s 1864 novel Uncle Silas is a locked room mystery centred upon the black sheep of a wealthy family, the titular Uncle Silas. A young woman is sent to stay with her uncle at his estate Bartram-Haugh, the location of the mysterious death of an acquaintance of Silas’s that led to him being shunned by his brother.

Le Fanu was an Irish writer, from Dublin, and Ireland is next on my virtual European literary tour. I have visited Dublin a few times. There are other Irish cities I’d like to visit, and for this virtual trip, I’ve chosen Waterford.

Waterford is the oldest city in Ireland, founded in 914 CE by Vikings led by Reginald, who named himself King of Waterford. The anglicised city name comes from Veðrafjorðr, the original Viking name for the city. There’s a virtual reality Viking experience, which I’ll steer clear of because VR headsets make me nauseous. I will visit Reginald’s Tower, though, to see the replica Viking longboat and the exhibition of Viking treasures, including a board game similar to chess.

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Elsewhere, because I love clocks and other timepieces, I’ll visit the national horological collection at the Irish Museum of Time.

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Waterford is, of course, famous for its crystal glass, so a tour of the factory might be in order, followed by afternoon tea in the Crystal Café.

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I might need to stroll off my afternoon tea, so I’ll pop to Lafcadio Hearn Japanese Gardens, located in the nearby seaside town of Tramore.

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Hearn was an Irish writer who moved to Japan where he studied and translated Japanese folklore, including ghost stories and mysteries, a collection of which I have read, making this a good point in my ramblings to return to Uncle Silas.

This is an excellent Gothic romp, with an ingenue heroine, a dour father figure, redoubtable servants, a bad-penny uncle, a rakish young man, an evil governess, and two female cousins, one a slight rube, the other older and more sprightly who keeps an eye on the heroine. My only criticism of the novel is that Le Fanu indulges too much in longeurs. There is more than one meandering episode on the way to the chilling part of the novel that I would have cut considerably.

The narrator is Maud Ruthyn, the seventeen-year-old daughter of Austin Ruthyn. She begins her tale with stories of her father and their life together at the family estate of Knowl. She describes her father as an oddity. “He had been early disappointed in Parliament, where it was his ambition to succeed. Though a clever man, he failed there, where very inferior men did extremely well.” It was ever thus, and not just in Parliament, either. The experience turns Austin Ruthyn inward on himself, his focus on studying and doing what good he can as a magistrate.

Maud’s father is remote but not unloving. He has joined the Swedenborgian religious sect and is visited by the mysterious Dr Bryerly who has a strange hold over him. He entrusts a locked cabinet to his daughter, should he ever be absent, and charges her with only giving access to it to Dr Bryerly.

Maud’s mother died when Maud was a girl, and at the start of the novel Maud spends the majority of her time in the company of Mrs Rusk the housekeeper and Mary Quince the maid. Following Dr Bryerly’s visit, her father starts to talk of taking a journey with a mysterious friend, leaving Maud alone. It seemed to me that he was speaking of his imminent death, but Maud takes it at face value. As part of this conversation, her father decides that Maud needs a governess.

Maud disagrees; she’s happy in the company of the servants and, wondering if her father’s unnamed friend could be her Uncle Silas, recalls a conversation she had about the portrait of Uncle Silas that hangs in the house. Mrs Rusk was happy to tell Maud tales of her erstwhile uncle, until her father overheard them and had a word with Mrs Rusk.

She also wonders whether the friend is the same man who visited her father after her mother died. He took Maud on a walk and tried to explain the beliefs of the Swedenborgians to her, but she was only nine years old and frightened by his talk of death.

The new governess, Madame de la Rougierre, is a monstrous caricature of a villain. Le Fanu must have had fun creating her, she is so outrageous. Like a pantomime character. She is everything the bad egg in a horror story should be, menacing with an air of campness. Maud distrusts her instantly, and Mrs Rusk, in a supremely British example of anti-French sentiment, isn’t keen, either, comparing her to the wolf in Little Red Riding Hood. They are correct in their distrust of her. As time goes on, her mask of agreeableness slips, only restored when she thinks Austin Ruthyn is observing her or when she and Maud are in public. The tactics of an abuser. She engineers conversations about Maud’s future inheritance and a meeting with a rakish young man by a churchyard. She lies about Maud’s behaviour to her father and he, despite seventeen years of knowledge of his own daughter’s character, believes the newcomer. She is also previously known by some of the other characters; a visiting tinker recognises her and is paid off to deny it, and Austin’s cousin, Lady Monica Knollys, also recognises her, but refuses to tell Maud anything about her. Instead, she promises to speak to Maud’s father about her.

This isn’t a ghost story, it’s a mystery with spooky undertones in the vein of Ann Radcliffe, who is name-checked by Maud in the middle of the novel. There are ghosts present, though, ranging from the memory of Maud’s dead mother that haunts her father to the living ghost that is the absent Uncle Silas, whose reputation haunts Knowl, via supernatural ghosts that walk the ancestral home. The grief-stricken Rachel Ruthyn is heard but not seen, while a nameless ‘link-man’ is seen but not heard, carrying his link, a type of torch, that flares up when he is agitated. Somehow, Madame de la Rougierre encounters Rachel Ruthyn straight away, setting up an air of mystery that makes Maud think the sound of a person on the landing outside her roomis also Rachel Ruthyn, and suggests to her that the light Mary Quince sees in the library in the early hours of the morning is the link-man. Of course, it isn’t. Later, the governess talks up the probability that the house is haunted to instill fear in her charge.

During Cousin Monica’s visit, Maud learns more about her uncle, setting the scene for her later entanglement in his affairs. But first she has to convince her father of the wrongness of her governess. It takes some doing, and there is more than one hairy episode along the way in which the governess is involved in both physical and mental abuse of her charge. When she is dismissed, it’s not because of anything she’s done to Maud; it’s because she has overstepped the mark with her employer. Excellent parenting from Austin Ruthyn, there. Madame de la Rougierre’s exit is deliciously melodramatic, causing Maud to reflect on it, “She had, however, judged her little parting well. She contrived to leave her glamour over me, and in my dreams she troubled me.”

A side note: I love that use of glamour to mean an occult enchantment. It’s a meaning that seems lost, or buried too deeply in our modern use of the word.

After a brief interlude of life returning to normal for Maud, catastrophe strikes, masked as an opportunity for Maud to clear Uncle Silas’s name. In a bizarre speech to Maud and to no-one, Austin Ruthyn describes his errant brother as drifting on a foul and dismal shoal, a man who cares nothing about how his behaviour has brought shame to the family, preferring to shrug it off, a man lacking in any sense of responsibility, “selfishly sunk in futurity – a feeble visionary.” He then asks Maud whether she has the nerve as well as the zeal to undergo an ordeal that will restore the family name. Shortly afterwards, the local curate pays a visit and, coincidentally or not, chatters away at Maud with more information about her uncle. Maud is apprehensive but determined to do what her father has asked her, despite the lack of detail.

Maud’s father goes on the mysterious journey he has long spoken of, leaving Maud alone. Le Fanu captures the nature of grief perfectly, describing the “awful days, and more awful nights”, the repulsiveness of remembrance followed by its comfort.

One of the terrible dislications of our habits of mind respecting the dead is that our earthly future is robbed of them, and we thrown exclusively upon retrospect. From the long look forward they are removed, and every plan, imagination, and hope henceforth a silent and empty perspective. But in the past they are all that they ever were.”

Maud’s future, while she is under 21, involves living with her Uncle Silas as part of a test of his character. If Maud dies while under his care, he inherits her father’s estate, making her presence a temptation to him, if Silas is the man rumour says him to be. Lady Knollys and Dr Bryerly offer to intervene, but Maud is full of innocent optimism, believing that her father wouldn’t deliberately put her in the way of danger. For Lady Knollys, the danger is primarily the damage to Maud’s reputation through spending three years in a house associated with scandal. For Dr Bryerly, it is that Maud will meet a fatal end. Maud goes to Bartram-Haugh, though, with nerve-wracking consequences.

Initially all seems fine, if a little bizarre, in Uncle Silas’s household. His daughter Millicent is a voluble character who bears her father’s low level bullying almost cheerfully. Silas’s retainers are as old and decrepit as he and the house are. On her first day there, Maud comments that, “It was a total change; but one likes ‘roughing it’ a little at first.” Silas himself blows hot and cold, his coldness a slump caused by laudanum. He uses his opium habit manipulatively, to maintain a hold of fear over his daughter Milly and subsequently Maud, overdosing strategically.

I felt sorry for Milly and the expectation Maud placed on her to be more ladylike. Untutored Milly is a tour de force, every bit of her being true to her personality. But Maud, as the daughter of a nobleman, even one as odd as Austin Ruthyn, finds her laughable and grotesque, and sets out to school her in acceptable social behaviour.

Silas has another child, a son. The rakish young man from the churchyard turns out to be Maud’s cousin Dudley. In contrast to Austin Ruthyn, who believed others over his daughter despite her inherent honesty, Silas believes every word that the mendacious Dudley speaks. Dudley denies Maud’s assertion that they have met previously and his confidence in doing so shakes Maud’s confidence in her recognition of him. Beyond the purview of his father’s opinion, Dudley is as rudely familiar and suggestive with Maud as he was at the churchyard. It’s the thin end of a very deadly wedge.

Dudley changes tack on his father’s advice and in the face of perceived rivalries with two other men apparently interested in Maud. Dudley is desperate for money and sees his wealthy cousin as a cash cow he need only snare in marriage to have all the wealth he desires. Simultaneously, Silas cuts Maud off from her trustee and advisor Dr Bryerly as well as from the society of Cousin Monica. Thus the endgame is set up, with Silas playing reason as his trump card, leaving Maud’s protectors shut out of play.

With Maud steadfastly refusing to marry Dudley, the scion of Bartram-Haugh heads for Paris. Perhaps the mention of Paris recalls Madame de la Rougierre to mind, but Maud is convinced that she sees her erstwhile governess one night as she and Milly sit vigil over Silas in another opiate-induced coma. The sight sends Maud briefly out of her mind. As she recovers, Silas hatches another plot – to send Milly to a finishing school in France where, in three months if Milly is happy there, Maud will join her.

It’s a ruse, of course. Although he does send Milly away, the dispatch of Maud to join her is a falsehood circled about with other falsehoods. Dudley doesn’t go to Paris, and this supposed journey is the first of many lies and intrigues surrounding this young man. Maud’s own much vaunted journey to France leads back to Bartram-Haugh. Plans are afoot to resolve not only Dudley’s money troubles but his father’s, too, by a method that proves irrefutably whether the rumours about Silas and his long-dead friend are true. Maud only escapes her fate because of Madame de la Rougierre’s alcoholism and the friendship of the daughter of the local miller. The final chapters are frantic with tension as Le Fanu gallops us to the conclusion.

I really enjoyed this old classic. Parts of it made me think of Jamaica Inn, although the heroine of that novel has more about her than Maud Ruthyn, who ends up where she is more by accident than intention. Le Fanu makes her nervy and timid of action in order to deliver the tale satisfactorily. As the narrator of the whole story, Maud applies a little hindsight to the proceedings she describes, and acknowledges that she was a curiously credulous and biddable girl in her youth. She tells a very good story, though.

9 thoughts on “Uncle Silas: A Tale of Bartram-Haugh

  1. Wow! What a review! I’m not sure I could keep all of that straight even while reading. Good job.

    Up until now, my only contact with Le Fanu has been as the subject of Harriet Vane’s scholarly research in Gaudy Night, considered Dorothy L. Sayers best (though sentimental me prefers Busman’s Honeymoon, the fourth novel, which ties up the marriage of Vane and Lord Peter Wimsey). This Uncle Silas sounds like a complete soap opera just in itself – and would probably have been read that way. Was it originally serialized, like Dickens’ novels?

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    1. Yes, it was serialised, which is where some of the longeurs come in, I think. It’s full of twists, turns and melodrama, like all the best soap operas!

      I read Le Fanu’s Carmilla a few years ago and really enjoyed it, so downloaded this one from Project Gutenberg. I will definitely read more by him.

      I’ve only read one Lord Peter Wimsey novel so far – The Nine Tailors. I used to love the tv show, but my first read didn’t grab me at all. Sayers’ writing style didn’t gel with me and, because I know nothing about bell ringing, a lot of the cleverness of the plot was lost on me. Perhaps starting with a book in the middle of the series was a mistake!

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      1. The Nine Tailors is… interesting.

        But if you want to see my favorites, start with Strong Poison, read through Have His Carcase (a bit meh), read Gaudy Night, and finish with my favorite, Busman’s Honeymoon.

        The Peter Wimsey of the earlier books was just a stylized British peer with too much time on his hands, but in Strong Poison he falls for the poisoner (?) in the dock at Old Bailey, and she turns him into one of the most truly educated and romantic detectives I have read. Busman’s Honeymoon is a fitting conclusion to the personal side. Then there are two short stories – and she went on to write theology. Interesting sequence.

        Both Sayers and (fictionalized) Wimsey went to Oxford; it it used beautifully.

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      2. Excellent, thank you for the tips, Alicia. I think the tv show might have focused on the Harriet Vane novels. I remember her being on trial and him falling for her. The Nine Tailors puzzled me, because I’d liked the character so much in the tv show but not at all in that novel.

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      3. Another tidbit: in the latter media versions of Lord Peter, Edward Petherbridge was the perfect actor for what turned into a very romantic man; the earlier actor, Ian Carmichael, might have been supposed from the earlier books – but was utterly wrong for the Lord Peter I came to love. Carmichael played a bluff pedantic aristocratic bumbler (IMNVHO); Petherbridge made you want to know him.

        I haven’t seen the version of Busman’s Honeymoon from soon after the book came out, with Robert Montgomery. Frankly, I’m afraid to. But Harriet Walter played the perfect foil to Petherbridge in the 1987 BBC version which ended with Gaudy Night (and could have been far more British). They match my mental conceptions of the characters.

        I think Sayers changed her mind, humanized Peter, and gave him a reason to live before leaving her most famous character behind.

        And now I will stop!

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  2. I’ve wanted to read this novel for a little while now, not just because Le Fanu is an author that has been recommended to me a few times but also because Uncle Silas is supposed to have inspired the young Joan Aiken to begin what became The Wolves of Willoughby Chase. And I’ve visited Waterford (even if only in passing), so what’s not to like?

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