Friday 6 December 2013

Review: In a Glass Darkly, Sheridan Le Fanu (1897)

This collection of short stories from Irish writer Sheridan Le Fanu varies in length, narration and style. They deal with vampires in Styria, legal malpractice in London, a strange man stalking his victim through the streets of Dublin. What unites them all is play with the supernatural and uncanny. Initial scepticism and a trust in the ‘scientific’ is increasingly unsettled and undermined as Le Fanu leaves us with no clear answers. These are ‘ghost’ stories which linger both in their telling and in their effect. Don’t expect horror movie shocks and twists. But draw up to the fireside this December to be more disturbed than entertained.

Sheridan Le Fanu
For general readers: In a Glass Darkly is an uneven experience and its strange narrative structure, as a series of loosely connected stories collected by a shadowy doctor (Dr Hesselius), may be off-putting to readers used to more traditional Victorian novels, but there is much here to interest a non-academic audience. The scepticism about the supernatural which pervades the novel, almost in spite of its content, is readily recognisable to modern reader, while the connection between the conscience or subconscious and the onset of hallucination and mania which the stories often suggest is one which is easily recognisable, even if this means the stories lose something of their ground-breaking edge. ‘Carmilla’ will probably have the widest popular appeal, dealing as it does with a form of vampirism with overtly erotic lesbian overtones. It’s the kind of story which confounds common misconceptions about the ‘Victorian’. The other longer story, ‘The Room at the Dragon Volant’, has similar character interest, especially given its hero’s actions are far from morally uncomplicated.

For students: As well as being an interesting read, ‘Carmilla’ will also be of interest to students of the Gothic and Bram Stoker in particular, predating as it does Dracula (1897), for which it provided some inspiration. Those interested in the impact of Swedenborgism on literature should turn to ‘Green Tea’, the first story in the volume, where the apparition of a phantom monkey also suggests interesting Darwinian contexts. And comparison with Charles Dickens’s short stories could also work, both in terms of structure (see my earlier discussion of MrsLirriper) and in some cases content – the judgement undergone by Justice Harbottle here makes the ghostly apparition which appear to Scrooge in A Christmas Carol seem almost cuddly.

What should the Secret Victorianist read next? Let me know here, on Facebook or by tweeting @SVictorianist!

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