Sheridan Le Fanu

Described by M. R. James as one of the best storytellers’ of the supernatural genre (M. R. James, 1923), Sheridan Le Fanu is perhaps best remembered for ‘In A Glass Darkly’ (1872), a collection of ghost stories, and his novels The House by the Churchyard (1863) and The Wyvern Mystery (1869).

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Table of contents

    Sheridan Le Fanu: timeline

    Timeline of Sheridan Le Fanu's biography
    1814Sheridan le Fanu is born in Dublin, Ireland
    1833Le Fanu is educated at Trinity College, Dublin
    1844Le Fanu marries Susanna Bennett
    1858Susanna dies, and Le Fanu withdraws from society
    1861Le Fanu becomes the owner of Dublin University Magazine
    1863The House by the Churchyard is published
    1864Uncle Silas is published
    1869The Wyvern Mystery is published
    1872In A Glass Darkly is published
    1873Willing to Die is published
    1873Le Fanu dies in Dublin

    Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu: biography

    Sheridan Le Fanu was an Irish journalist, essayist, mystery novelist, and writer of supernatural stories.

    There was the customary novel of Mr. Le Fanu, for the bedside; the ideal reading in a country house for the hours after midnight.

    (Henry James, The Liar, 1888)

    Sheridan le Fanu was a journalist, essayist, mystery novelist, and writer of supernatural stories.


    Le Fanu was educated at home by his father, who was the Dean of the Irish Episcopal Church. He studied law at Trinity College but never practised it, preferring to write instead.

    Le Fanu greatly admired the works of Walter Scott and tried to follow in his steps. His earliest published works included two historical novels, The Cock and Anchor (1845) and The Fortunes of Colonel Torlogh O’Brien (1847). These did not attract much attention, as it is possible that his ambition to be the Irish Walter Scott was not yet matched by his skill at that time. While well-researched and containing excellent descriptions, critics noted the following weaknesses:

    • exaggeration of characters,
    • characters lack depth,
    • scenes of excessive cruelty.

    The last point applies especially to Torlogh O’Brien, which even Le Fanu’s strongest defender M. R. James described as unreadable.

    Le Fanu also respected mystery novelist Wilkie Collins, and it has been suggested that he followed Collins in style and design. Both novelists share skills in creating atmosphere and suspense, but it has been debated whether Le Fanu thought of Collins as his master.

    On one thing many critics and supporters agree: Le Fanu’s characters in his early work tend to lack credibility. But while le Fanu’s early works may lack the vitality of Colllins in characterisation, they make up for it in atmosphere. Le Fanu uses a wide range of devices, including:

    • Arrivals and departures ‘at dead of night’/in secret.
    • Storms and tempests (usually at night).
    • Haunted houses.
    • Lighting: dark corridors lit by one candle alone.

    Le Fanu was descended from Huguenots. An early ancestor was Charles Le Fanu de Cresserons, and Sheridan also wrote under the pen name ‘Charles de Cresserons’.


    Critics praised both Le Fanus supernatural atmosphere and his accurate descriptions of everyday life.

    He was considered a ‘sensation’ novelist, something he denied in his preface to Uncle Silas, in which he asks for:

    a few words of remonstrance against the promiscuous application of the term sensation … No one it is assumed would describe Sir Walter Scott’s romances as sensation novels, yet in that marvellous series there is not a single tale in which death, crime and, in some form, mystery have not a place.

    (Sheridan le Fanu, Uncle Silas, Preface, 1864)

    In later works, Le Fanu also tried to depict the thoughts and psychology of his characters, which set him apart from his contemporaries.

    Sheridan Le Fanu's novels and tales

    In 1858, Le Fanu’s wife Susanna died, and Le Fanu withdrew from society, earning himself the nickname ‘The Invisible Prince’. At the same time, this new period saw his creative writing take off and his most important work written.

    He is a close observer of Nature, and reproduces her wilder effects of storm and gloom with singular vividness; while he is equally at home in his description of still life, some of which remind us of the faithfully minute detail of old Dutch pictures.

    (Alfred Perceval Graves, Essay, 1877)

    In 1863, his first novel in over ten years, The House by the Churchyard, was published, followed by Uncle Silas in 1864. Both of these are mystery novels.

    The House by the Churchyard combines mystery and detection when a battered skull is accidentally dug up in a graveyard. The novel is then told as a flashback, as the events leading up to the mystery are reconstructed. Uncle Silas is a mystery novel in the gothic tradition, which features a large creepy mansion, a wicked uncle and his oafish son, a child heiress, a terrifying governess, and plenty of intrigue.

    He [Sheridan le Fanu] produces page per page a far higher percentage of terror than the more widely read Edgar Allan Poe

    (E. F. Benson, Sheridan le Fanu essay, 1931)

    Uncle Silas is also interesting for the similarities it shares with Wilkie CollinsThe Woman in White (1859). In Uncle Silas, the heroine is tricked into believing she has travelled from her uncle’s house to another city when in fact, under the influence of a drug, she is brought back to the house.

    In The Woman in White, a similar ploy is used: Laura, one of the heroines, is persuaded to travel to London after being told her sister Marian is already there. She and her housekeeper check her sister’s room to find it empty, and so Laura leaves. Her housekeeper later discovers Marian has been transferred to another wing of the house while unconscious.

    Both Collins and Le Fanu are masters of suspense Collins is more dramatic and realistic (this is understandable as he also wrote for the stage), while Le Fanu is more subtle, idealistic and

    often surprises us by scenes of so much greater tragic intensity that we cannot but lament that he did not, as Mr Collins has done, attempt the drama.

    (Alfred Perceval Graves, Essay, 1877)

    In 1872, his novels were followed by a collection of short stories called ‘In A Glass Darkly’, which is considered his best work. The stories are told as ‘cases’, collected by a fictional psychiatrist Dr Hesselius and are titled as follows:

    • Green Tea.
    • The Familiar.
    • Mr Justice Harbottle.
    • The Room in the Dragon Volant.
    • Carmilla.

    After the death of his wife Susanna, Le Fanu sought comfort in the writings of Swedenborg (17491771), who refers to death as a ‘change’ or transition, a continuation of life in an altered way. However, less comfortingly perhaps, Swedenborg also refers to ‘an inner eye’ that everyone possesses. Once opened, it can allow us entrance to the world of spirits.

    It is this ‘inner eye’ that Le Fanu uses as a framework for his stories, in particular the first three (Green Tea, The Familiar, Mr Justice Harbottle).

    In Green Tea, a clergyman is pursued by a phantom monkey; in The Familiar, an army captain is haunted by a guilty past; and in Mr Justice Harbottle, a cruel judge endures nightmarish visions of his own cruelty.

    In all of these, Dr Hesselius suggests his ‘patients’ have been suffering from some form of hallucination. The perspective shifts with the last two stories: the ‘other realm’ is accessed but in a more physical, direct way. In Dragon Volant, Beckett, the central character, is buried alive (and then rescued), and in Carmilla, there is a real vampire, the undead Mircalla, Countess Karnstein, who stalks the living 150 years after her burial.

    Sheridan Le Fanu's Carmilla

    Carmilla is set in Styria, yet Laura, the narrator, claims to be English, although her mother was descended from the Karnsteins, whose ruined castle lies in the area. Laura and her father live isolated in another castle with an abandoned village. The villagers, fearing vampires, have left the village. They receive news from a family friend, a general, who is to visit them with his niece, who has suddenly died under mysterious circumstances, which their friend will explain on his arrival.

    Meanwhile, a carriage accident occurs outside the castle. Its passengers are a young girl called Carmilla and her mother. Carmilla is injured and is left in the care of Laura and her father, while Carmilla’s mother continues on her urgent journey.

    The mysterious Carmilla reveals nothing about herself and has a tendency to sleep all day and sleepwalk at night. Laura falls ill, and the doctor observes two puncture marks on her neck and warns her father. They meet up with the General, who explains his niece had been the victim of a vampire. His description matches Carmilla, and they find the tomb of Carmilla (who is Mircalla, Countess Karnstein) and destroy the body after driving a stake through her heart and beheading her.

    Much of Carmilla contains the tropes later used by fellow Dubliner Bram Stoker in his novel Dracula (1897): the isolated castle, the beautiful female turned vampire, the stake, the beheading. Stoker originally intended to open his story with ‘Dracula’s Guest’, which contains a reference to another Countess in le Fanu’s ‘Styria’. However, his publisher thought it announced the Count too prematurely. ‘Dracula’s Guest appeared in a collection of stories instead (Bram Stoker, Draculas Guest and Other Weird Stories, 1914).

    Robert Tracy suggests Carmilla conceals a backstory of political anxiety. Le Fanu, as an Anglo-Irish, was apprehensive of the rising power of the Catholic Irish nationalists. In his story, according to Robert Tracy, Laura and her father represent the diminishing Anglo-Irish landowners, whose abandoned village

    suggests Ireland after the Great Famine 18459. The people have been removed by what Laura’s father calls the ‘infection’ of superstition, their fear of vampires a recollection of the fever that accompanied the Famine. Many have chosen exile.

    (Robert Tracy, Introduction, In A Glass Darkly, 1999)

    Any more ghost stories?

    Le Fanu continued to run, and act as editor of, the Dublin University Magazine and, when not writing, was an avid collector of ghost stories.

    Dublin booksellers … became accustomed to see him just before nightfall when he would emerge like an apparition from the shadows and ask with his pleasant voice and smile Any more ghost stories for me?

    (Nelson Browne, Sheridan Le Fanu, 1951)

    Le Fanu would write at night by the light of two candles, doze off, wake up at 2.00 am, make himself some strong tea, and write again for a couple of hours.

    A year after In A Glass Darkly, his final novel, Willing to Die, was published. This is perhaps his most ambitious work and is more melancholic than his previous novels. Although it contains elements of mystery (including shipwreck, lost and found fortunes, villains, and romance), the heroine, Ethel, lives through extremes of poverty and despair to the point of suicide and finishes with a fortune that she is too broken in spirit to enjoy.

    Whether owing to his writing/sleeping habits, Le Fanu seems to have suffered from a recurring nightmare about an old mansion crumbling in upon him. When he died in 1873, his doctor is supposed to have said, ‘I feared this that house fell at last!’ Yet, according to a note his daughter sent to his cousin, Le Fanu passed away peacefully:

    He had almost got over a bad attack of Bronchitis but his strength gave way & he sank very quickly & died in his sleep. His face looks so happy with a beautiful smile on it.

    (Emmie L. Le Fanu, Note to Lord Dufferin, 1873)

    Sheridan Le Fanu - Key takeaways

    • Joseph Thomas Sheridan Le Fanu was an Irish novelist and ghost story writer who was born in 28th August 1814.
    • Le Fanu is best remembered for ‘In A Glass Darkly(1872), a collection of ghost stories, and his novels The House by the Churchyard (1863) and The Wyvern Mystery (1869).
    • He was once the editor and proprietor of the Dublin University Magazine.
    • His works fit the horror fiction genre and focus on tone, setting, and narration.
    • Le Fanu died on the 7th February 1873.
    Frequently Asked Questions about Sheridan Le Fanu

    What nationality was Sheridan Le Fanu?

    Sheridan Le Fanu was Anglo-Irish and of French descent.

    Who was Carmilla written by?

    Carmilla was written by Sheridan Le Fanu.

    Who was Sheridan Le Fanu?

    Sheridan le Fanu was a journalist, essayist, mystery novelist, and writer of supernatural stories.

    What is In A Glass Darkly about?

    In A Glass Darkly is a collection of ghost tales written by Sheridan Le Fanu.

    When was Carmilla written?

    Carmilla, by Sheridan Le Fanu, is a vampire novel written in 1871.

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