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Monday, December 03, 2012

Uncle Silas by J. Sheridan Le Fanu

Jean Simmons as Maud Ruthyn

Book Review
Uncle Silas
by J. Sheridan Le Fanu
published in 1864- serial in Ireland, three volume book in England

Jean Simmons screen testing for the Audrey Hepburn role in Roman Holiday

   Wikipedia calls Uncle Silas a "Victorian Gothic mystery-thriller" as well as an "early example of the locked room mystery subgenre."  Sheridan Le Fanu was an Irish writer descended from (French) Hugenots.  He inhabits the same literary space as Wilkie Collins and is a forerunner of Bram Stroker and Arthur Conan Doyle.  Uncle Silas should be properly seen as a stand-out work in an area that produced a lot of non classic literature.   Sensationalistic literature was often inspired by the news and the Audience for "Victorian Gothic mystery-thrillers" or the literature of the sensational over-lapped with the Audience for non literary sources like crime pamphlets and daily newspapers.

This is a good representation of what Uncle Silas- the character is all about- kind of a Scooby Doo villain vibe if you know what I mean.

  The story of Uncle Silas involves a young heiress, Maud Ruthyn, who is sent to live with her creepy Uncle Silas.  Uncle Silas may or may not be scheming to murder poor young Maud because if she dies before she reaches 18, he inherits her estate.   Although this novel is part of the gothic/thriller genre, it does not involve any explicit supernatural plot points (Ghosts, for example) and I think the ability of Le Fanu to evoke the supernatural without being cheesy about it is a key reason that Uncle Silas has endured as a mid period Victorian classic, albeit a minor classic.

This is the cruel french maid Madame de Rougierre with Uncle Silas in another adaptation
  A stand out minor character is Madame de Rougierre and I wanted to mention that the character of the evil french maid re-occurs in Victorian literature.  It's funny, because Le Fanu himself is descended from French immigrants to Ireland.   But just generally speaking the evil French Victorian period maid is an under-developed character archetype. I think you could get lots of play with it artistically, especially since "naughty french maid" is an already established motif with wide-spread familiarity.   Cruel French maid wears more clothes and is craftier then naughty French maid- and cruel French maid is specifically mid-period Victorian whereas naughty french maid can be from any time period.

      Dickens famous evil French maid- Hortense of Bleak House- was actually based on a real life murder- but where Hortense of Bleak House actually is the murdered, in Uncle Silas, Rougierre ends up being a pawn of the real villains.  Thus, Le Fanu successfully manipulated an Audience that had no doubt read the books of Wilkie Collins and Charles Dickens Bleak House.

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