Thomas Myler writes on Sheridan Le Fanu, the Gothic Irish writer believed to have influenced Bram Stoker’s Dracula
With Hallowe’en and the season of spooks and poltergeists and things that go bump in the night almost with us, it might not go amiss to recall the life and times of the Victorian writer whose work began the vogue of Gothic and mystery writing in the nineteenth century.
Sheridan Le Fanu, tall, handsome and charm of manner, was the Dubliner who was said to have influenced Bram Stoker’s Dracula.
Born in Lower Dominick Street in the city centre in August 28, 1814, Le Fanu was descended from a literary family of Huguenot origins. His grandmother Alicia Sheridan Le Fanu and his great-uncle Richard Brinsley Sheridan were both playwrights while his niece Rhoda Broughton would become a successful novelist.
The son of a Church of Ireland clergyman, Le Fanu spent his early years in the suburb of Chapelizod and would set one of his most famous murder mysteries The House By The Churchyard there. Backing onto the church and cemetery, the house still broods over Chapelizod, and Le Fanu’s story influenced James Joyce who made the village the home of Finnegan’s Wake characters Humphrey Earwicker and Anna Livia Plurabelle.
Le Fanu entered Trinity College, Dublin to study law in 1833, graduating in a few short years. He was called to the bar but never practiced, instead embarking on a career in journalism. Joining the staff of the Dublin University magazine, Le Fanu wrote his first story The Ghost and the Bonesetter in 1838 and it was published in the magazine. In 1861 he became its proprietor and editor.
Earlier he had become owner of several newspapers including the Evening Mail which only ceased production in July 1962. Many of his short stories were to form the basis for his future. In 1844, Le Fanu married Susanna Bennett, the daughter of a leading barrister.
They took a house in Warrington Place near the Grand Canal and had four children. Seven years later they rented a house on Merrion Square, Dublin, owned by Susanna’s parents.
When her parents moved to England, his brother-in-law took over the rent at £22 per annum but Le Fanu did not keep up the payments because of his dire financial situation. Nevertheless, he remained at the house until his death. It is now the office of the Arts Council. In 1847, Le Fanu supported John Mitchell and Thomas Francis Maher in their campaign against the indifference of the government to the Great Famine.
Isaac Butt, the barrister and politician who has a bridge over the River Liffey named after him, wrote a forty-page analysis of the national disaster for the Dublin University Magazine.
Butt, considered by historians as the father of the Home Rule Movement in Ireland, found that his support, however, cost him the nomination as Tory MP for County Carlow in 1852 but he was consoled by Le Fanu.
As well as having serious financial problems, Le Fanu’s personal life also became difficult as his wife suffered increasing neurotic symptoms. Susanna also had a crisis of faith and tended to attend religious services at the nearby St Stephen’s Church.
She discussed religion with her husband’s younger brother William, as LaFanu himself had apparently stopped attending religious ceremonies, being quoted as saying: “I don’t really see the point in them.”
Susanne had suffered from anxiety after the deaths of several close relatives including her father two years earlier and which may have led to marital problems with the couple.
In April, 1858, she suffered what her physician called ‘a hysterical attack’ and died the following day in what were described the following day as unclear circumstances.
She was buried in the Bennett family vault in Mount Jerome cemetery on the outskirts of Dublin City. Following her death Le Fanu became something of a recluse. The anguish of his diaries suggests that he felt guilt as well as loss.
For a long time afterwards he did not wrote any fiction, until the death of his mother in 1861. Turning to his cousin, Lady Gifford, for inspiration and advice, and who would remain a close friend until her death at the end of the decade, Le Fanu set to work on what would be his most productive and successful years as a writer. With two candles for light while in bed, he wrote on scraps of paper.
Signing a contract with Richard Bentley, his English publisher, it specified that all future novels and stories be ‘of an English subject and of modern times’, a step Bentley felt would satisfy the English audience. Le Fanu had already written many novels including The Ghost and the Bone-Setter, Ghost Stories and Tales of Mystery, The House By The Churchyard, The Last Heir of Castle Connor and one of his best Strange Event in the Life of Schalken the Painter, a disturbing story of a man returning from the grave to claim his bride.
This story was later adapted for broadcast by BBC television. Some of his short stories were published collectively in the Dublin University Magazine under the title The Purcell Papers.
They are mostly set in Ireland and include some classic stories of gothic horror, with gloomy castles, supernatural visitations from beyond the grave, madness and suicide. On February 7, 1873, Le Fanu died unexpectedly of bronchitis at the age of fifty-eight and was buried in Mount Jerome Cemetery, appropriately gothic, in Dublin. His peers paid tribute to his learning, wit and pleasant conversation.
A road and a park in Ballyfermot, near his Dublin home, are named after him. Remarking on his later years, the Freeman’s Journal lamented: ‘Le Fanu’s handsome, even distinguished face, was wholly missed from society, and he was known only on the title page of his books.’