Bill Kerwin's Reviews > Uncle Silas

Uncle Silas by J. Sheridan Le Fanu
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Mar 10, 2012

really liked it
bookshelves: 19th-c-brit, gothic, detective-mystery, irish
Read from March 10 to April 05, 2012 , read count: 1


Uncle Silas isn’t a great novel, but it does exactly what it sets out to do. It is an effective “novel of sensation” in the tradition of The Woman in White, presenting us with a likable heroine in increasingly perilous situations, leading to a hair-raising—and extremely well-executed—climax.

There are not many thrills in Uncle Silas, but the thrills themselves are indeed thrilling, and Le Fanu knows exactly how to administer them—sometimes by the dollop, occasionally with an eye-dropper—in order to make sure that the reader does not become jaded and is prepared to enjoy every thrill all the way till the end.

One of the reasons Le Fanu succeeds so well is the nature of his villain. Silas does not possess the heroic size—physically or spiritually—of Collins’ Count Fosco. As a matter of fact, he is almost his villainous opposite. (I suspect this might have been La Fanu's intention.) Silas is a small man of small ambitions, a hypocritical sociopath who hides behind the bible, an opium addict and an invalid, and yet in his own quiet way, he is just as dangerous as the Count. If the Count is like an aging lion, then Silas resembles more closely a poisonous spider. Even when his intentions seem benign, we know in our hearts that they are not, and consequently we continue to fear for Maude even in the midst of the comic interludes in the second third of the novel. Even if we cannot see the spider spinning, we know he--and his poisonous bite--is still there.

I don’t think this novel is quite as successful as the best of Le Fanu’s ghost stories (which are masterpieces of the form), but it is nevertheless a superb piece of craftsmanship, an absorbing and enjoyable work.
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02/13/2016 marked as: read

Comments (showing 1-16 of 16) (16 new)

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Leslie Excellent review. This is the first piece of Le Fanu's work that I've read. Which of of his ghost stories do you recommend?


Bill  Kerwin Green Tea, Carmilla, Madame Crowl's Ghost, Uncle Toby's Will, An Account of Some Strange Disturbances in Aungier Street, The Narrative of the Ghost of a Hand . . .

I think there are some other good ones. The Familiar and Mr. Justice Harbottle come to mind, but I read them so long ago the details fade . . .


Leslie Thank you!


Uncle Very enjoyable review of one my favorite Victorian novels. If you can ever find it, I recommend his novel The House By the Churchyard.


Bill  Kerwin I've got a copy of it on my shelves already, and I think about it from time to time, particularly because I like the Irish atmosphere of many of the ghost stories and one of my favorite pieces of Le Fanu's--"Narrative of the Ghost of a Hand"--is--I understand--an excerpt from that novel.

But I also have a copy of "Wylder's Hand," and I keep eyeing it as well. Have you read it?


Uncle No I haven't. But it's on my TBR list. If you can find it, I strongly recommend Seventy Years of Irish Life, a delightful memoir by his brother William LeFanu. If you really want to disappear down a LeFanu wormhole, his aunt Betsy Sheridan was a marvelous letter-writer and some of her letters were compiled and published as Betsy Sheridan's Journal. So worth reading if you can find it.


message 7: by Shelagh (new)

Shelagh Symonds Sounds to me as though you two have strange ideas about hands in books !


message 8: by Becky (new) - added it

Becky Can you recommend the best of Le Fanu's ghost stories? I like throwing a classic into my Halloween themed reads every year.


message 9: by Becky (new) - added it

Becky I loved Carmilla but am otherwise unfamiliar with his works.


Bill  Kerwin Becky wrote: "Can you recommend the best of Le Fanu's ghost stories? I like throwing a classic into my Halloween themed reads every year."

Check out message 2 n this comment thread.


message 11: by Nandakishore (new) - added it

Nandakishore Varma Fine review.

One of the reasons Le Fanu succeeds so well is the nature of his villain. Silas does not possess the heroic size—physically or spiritually—of Collins’ Count Fosco. As a matter of fact, he is almost his villainous opposite. (I suspect this might have been La Fanu's intention.) Silas is a small man of small ambitions, a hypocritical sociopath who hides behind the bible, an opium addict and an invalid, and yet in his own quiet way, he is just as dangerous as the Count. If the Count is like an aging lion, then Silas resembles more closely a poisonous spider.

Spiders are more scary than lions... ;)


message 12: by Bill (last edited Sep 10, 2015 02:20AM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Bill  Kerwin Nandakishore wrote: "Fine review.

One of the reasons Le Fanu succeeds so well is the nature of his villain. Silas does not possess the heroic size—physically or spiritually—of Collins’ Count Fosco. As a matter of fact..."


Good point. But then lions can come back even from the dead and bite you. Just ask that dentist from Minnesota who shot down Cecil the Lion!


message 13: by Estott (last edited May 06, 2016 08:25AM) (new)

Estott His best novel- the others have their strengths but also have endless digressions and long slack passages. Wylder's Hand has been represented as a supernatural tale but it is mostly a Wilkie Collins style mystery with impersonations and falsifications - and on that level it isn't bad


message 14: by Patrick (new)

Patrick Kiernan This author was Irish not British


message 15: by Bill (last edited Jan 05, 2017 04:08PM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Bill  Kerwin Patrick wrote: "This author was Irish not British"

As you no doubt know, when this book was written, Ireland was part of the British Empire. Sill, your point is a good one. I will add Irish too.


message 16: by Estott (new)

Estott I'm going to look into the supernatural tales of his niece Rhoda Broughton.


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