A Forgotten Creator of Ghosts: Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu, an Essay by Edna Kenton


A Forgotten Creator of Ghosts:

Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu

Edna Kenton

“He foresaw that the proprietors of Stayes would do him very well. In his bedroom at a country house he always looked first at the books on the shelf and the prints on the walls; he considered that these things gave a sort of measure of the culture and even of the character of his hosts. Though he had but little time to devote to them on this occasion a cursory inspection assured him that if the literature, as usual, was mainly American and humorous, the art consisted neither of the water-color studies of the children nor of “goody” engravings…. There was the customary novel of Mr. Le Fanu for the bedside; the  ideal reading in a country house for the hours after midnight. Oliver Lyon could scarcely forbear beginning it while he buttoned his shirt.” – From “The Liar,” by Henry James.


To a searcher in the barren field of Le Fanuana, who had run through innumerable indexes of literary “Histories” and “Studies” on the steadily diminishing chance of finding anywhere even bare mention of Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu, it was almost a shock to come upon a sturdy little row of figures following his name in one of the volumes of The Cambridge History of English Literature. Was it that in this dignified compendium of criticism he was at last recognized, “revived”? But no! Only in the light of the ever-projected Brontës did he shine on a few of their particular pages.

Straight into Charlotte Bronte’s centenary year—1916, when this thirteenth volume of The Cambridge History was issued—Professor A. A. Jack, of the University of Aberdeen, who wrote the Brontë chapter, shot a little shell which somehow failed to explode. With a theory of his own regarding the “sources” of Jane Eyre, he suggested that “the tale of actual and intended bigamy which Sheridan Le Fanu contributed to the Dublin University Magazine in 1839” might have been at once’ the source of the famous “plot” and the source of Thackeray’s vague disturbance over Jane Eyre’s reminiscent quality.

It is Le Fanu’s odd fate that his name should pass. Suggestions wilder than this have sufficed to rally the Brontëans for annihilation of the unfortunate suggestor; witness that naïve victim of Irish amiability, The Rev. William Wright, who looked up The Brontës in Ireland, or that unlucky prey of the deadly parallel who “proved”, that Branwell Brontë wrote Wuthering Heights. But Professor Jack’s stimulating chapter on Le Fanu’s possible influence has passed unchallenged. Today Wuthering Heights is more sacrosanct than Jane Eyre. Yet, if he had gone further, as he might have, and had suggested probable origins in The Purcell Papers for Emily Bronte’s “greatest villain in fiction”, Le Fanu’s predestined obscurity would doubtless have worked to hush even that profane pronouncement into silence. However, a book might be written (let us hope it will not be) on the correspondences between The Purcell Papers of Le Fanu and the Brontë novels.

Surely the unmitigated famelessness of Sheridan Le Fanu can be ranked among the outstanding curiosities of literature. One of the literal “best sellers” of the 1860-188o’s, he has disappeared even from cursory addenda to Victorian literary history. Author of some of the really remarkable ghost stories of our literature, he is remembered today only by the “occultists”—the people, by the way, who really recognize a really ghostly tale. You will find his “Green Tea”, his “Carmilla” and his “The Room in the Dragon Volonté” referred to still in occult literature. But if you should glance through Miss Dorothy Scarborough’s exhaustive work, The Supernatural in Fiction, you will search in vain for even passing mention of Sheridan Le Fanu as a craftsman of parts in the delicate art of transferring shadows to the printed page; and this omission from her extensive survey is high evidence of how completely he has passed away from the literary earth. Curious are the fates of little books and little writers—most curious of all sometimes when they are called great. Le Fanu was not a great writer, but he wrote a few great ghost stories. And even as the “sensation” author of Uncle Silas, The House by the Churchyard, Checkmate and Wylder’s Hand, to mention no others of a list so famous fifty years ago, his unqualified passing within a half-century’s short span is hardly comprehensible.

Only one biographer—and he a personal friend—has tried to keep his name alive. Alfred Perceval Graves wrote Le Fanu’s obituary in 1873 for the Dublin University Magazine which Le Fanu had owned. He wrote the preface for The Purcell Papers, the legends of the “wonderful priest of Drumcoolagh,” collected from the old Dublin University Magazine files of 1838-1839 and published in 1880. In 1886 he prefaced the posthumous Poems, and in the ‘nineties assisted Le Fanu’s son, Richard Brinsley Sheridan Le Fanu, in editing a short-lived series of reprints of the father’s work with illustrations by the son. In 1904 Mr. Graves published another edition of the Poems with another preface and, as recently as 1913, in his Irish Literary and Musical Studies, he gave many pages to what is probably his final tribute to his friend —a study pathetically reminiscent of all his others. He had so early said it all. Only a brother, William Le Fanu, in his autobiography, has contributed further to the picture of this charming Irish gentleman, littérateur, raconteur and occultist of old Dublin.

In the Lives of the multitudinous Sheridans we find him now and then. Contemporary of all the great Victorians (he lived from 1814 to 1873) his blood was that of some of the greatest English lights, social and otherwise,’ of his age. Through his grandmother, Alicia, daughter of “Tom” and Frances Sheridan and sister of Richard Brinsley and Elizabeth, he was direct descendant of a family whose members have kept unbroken claim to fame for two hundred years. The Sheridan connection was double, for the two Sheridan sisters married two Le Fanu brothers. In Le Fanu’s Merrion Square home in Dublin hung a dozen Sheridan portraits, all his by inheritance; “Tom” Sheridan, actor, father of the brood; Frances Sheridan, author of the Eighteenth Century Memoirs of Miss Sidney Biddulph, with their children and their children’s children. Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s granddaughters, the famous “Sheridan-Sisters” of London when Victoria was its girl-queen, were cousins of the Dublin Sheridan-Le Fanus —Caroline, the Hon. Mrs. Norton, Georgiana, loveliest of all the Duchesses of Somerset, and Helen, Lady Dufferin. The family ramifications stretched back and forth across the Irish Sea, and the whole family, all sides of it, wrote, from the old mother lioness down.

No wonder, then, that Sheridan Le Fanu scribbled from his earliest years. His métier was the mysterious, when it wais not the ghostly and the lurid, and for a score of years, from the 1860’s on, he was read enormously on both sides of the Atlantic, for he was issued in America as fast as he was published in England. But, famous contemporary of other famous “mystery” writers—Collins, Braddon et al.—their names remain on any roll call of the Victorians while his is literally obliterated. His one-time vogue is noted by a no less meticulous recorder of his time than Henry James. In “The Liar”, one of three tales published in 1889 under the title of A London Life, Mr. James remarks that, upon his hero’s arrival at Stayes to paint Sir David’s portrait, he looked, for omens and signs, at the pictures and the books, and they promised well: “There was the customary novel of Mr. Le Fanu for the bedside; the ideal reading in a country house for the hours after midnight.”

For Le Fanu, better than most of his lurid school, could “write”; more than others of his school, with the exception of Bulwer-Lytton, he was “occult”; his backgrounds were distinguished, they were thick with medieval lore and his pages were whimsical as well as lurid.

He had, however, a special gift for dealing with luridities. He was a real forerunner of the “psychic horror school” which Arthur Machen later on was to proceed to make his own and, after Machen, Blackwood. Why Le Fanu’s “Dr. Hesselius,” whose “case histories” furnish the material for the ghostly tales of In a Glass Darkly, does not lead the long modern list of “psychic doctors” in fiction is another mysterious mischance. His “Notes” on maladies of the mind were pioneer excursions into a field much over-cultivated today; he is the true father of Machen’s Dr. Raymond, of Blackwood’s Dr. Silence, even of that great degreeless, lay scientist, Mr. Sherlock Holmes himself.’

In his Victorian Novelists (1906), Louis Benjamin includes Sheridan Le Fanu, but all mistakenly devotes his rather shallow, critical attention to the “sensation” novels. This irritating study, the later Graves essays and the disregarded niche Professor Jack hollowed for him beside the Brontë sisters in The Cambridge History of English Literature are the only Twentieth-Century recognitions of Le Fanu’s life and works that a tolerably comprehensive search has salvaged from the modern flood of printed matter. Others may have been missed, but his exclusion from Miss Scarborough’s exhaustive research into supernatural fiction, Le Fanu’s veritable field, is fair evidence that Sheridan Le Fanu, for all modern cognizance, might never have lived at all.



If, in that pathetic list of Charlotte Bronte’s ‘ reading sources for 1829, set down in Mrs. Gaskell’s extraordinary Life, the old Dublin University Magazine had been listed with Blackwood’s, or if it had figured in a later catalogue of the Haworth parsonage library, this at least can be asserted fairly —Professor Jack would not have been the first to suggest, in 1916, The Purcell Papers as a plot source for fane Eyre. Long before her centenary year the extent of Charlotte Brontë’s indebtedness to Sheridan Le Fanu would have been the subject of more than one profound opus. It is inexplicable, however, that Professor Jack’s theory of sources stops short with one of The Purcell Papers and one of the Brontë novels; for, the further the comparison is carried, the stronger his case becomes. But, midway in his chapter on the Brontës, he springs, with disconcerting suddenness, a merely partial “case”. He quotes a letter of Charlotte’s to Mr. Williams in the autumn of 1847, that one which refers to Thackeray’s well-known remark on the “reminiscent quality” of the Jane Eyre plot and carries her own asseveration of her belief that it was original. Then he comments as follows:

Charlotte Brontë’s possible forgetfulness, if she had seen the story, and Thackeray’s dim recollection are equally explicable. The tale of actual and intended bigamy which Sheridan Le Fanu contributed to the Dublin University Magazine in 1839 was just one of those stories eminently adapted to floating in the back of the mind. In the strange fictions of Le Fanu the reader’s feelings are deeply moved without his either seeing the actual occurrences face to face or believing them to be real…. While nothing could be more probable than that the author of The Irish Sketch Book and Barry Lyndon had read this story, it is clear that Charlotte could have had access to it…. Charlotte Brontë herself, in requesting Messrs. Aylett & Jones to send out review copies of the Poems, mentions alone among Irish papers the Dublin University Magazine. A favorable notice appeared and in writing the editor to thank him for it, 6th October, 1846, she signs herself “Your grateful and constant reader.” Later, 9th October, 1847, she makes a special request that Messrs. Elder & Smith should send Jane Eyre to the same review. It is not improbable that a forgotten remembrance of Le Fanu’s story, read years before, supplied what was never a fertile inventiveness with the machinery it wanted.

Le Fanu’s story of “actual and intended bigamy”, A Chapter in the History of a Tyrone Family, the tenth of The Purcell Papers, is the story of Fanny Richardson, told by herself and set down by Father Purcell. Lord Glenfallen pretends to marry her and takes her to Cahergillagh Court which boasted legends in plenty, with an old housekeeper, Martha, for teller of tales. Martha’s first recital concerned the ominous fate of Lady Jane. There is a mysterious part of the castle which Fanny is forbidden to visit, but its mysterious dweller visits her, announcing herself as the true Lady Glenfallen and demanding that Fanny depart. This and succeeding visits Lord Glenfallen explains by saying that the lady is mad. She is blind, not mad; but at the end there is a murderous attack upon Fanny in her bedroom which is more than a little reminiscent of many things. The blind woman is hanged; Lord Glenfallen cuts his throat in mania and Fanny retreats to a convent. So much —and so very little —for one of The Purcell Papers in a Brontëan light. Professor Jack does much more with it; but nothing, of course, can convey the same delightfully piquant analogy as the Le Fanu story itself, to which, if he can obtain it today, the reader is cheerfully referred.


Now there are many reasons why the anonymous Purcell Papers, all of them, should have keenly interested the Brontë sisters in their fanciful girlhood. The tales were “Irish”, they were “ghostly”, above all, they were filled to running over with “coincidences”, “correspondences”, “identifications”. Bronte family names abounded —Patricks and Emilys and Janes and Marys and Hughs. If Lady Glenfallen had for servant an “old Martha”, so had the Haworth parsonage. If Father Purcell, “the wonderful priest of Drumcoolagh”, lived in a mythical parish, Patrick Brontë, priest of Haworth, had served his tutor apprenticeship in the literal Irish parish of Drumgooland.

Professor Jack’s suggested sources for plots end with A Tyrone Family and Jane Eyre. But speculation can go further and fare more abundantly with others of The Purcell Papers and their correspondences with Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights. For the Second, Fifth and Sixth of the Papers bear the oddest resemblances to that novel with its “greatest villain”, and they too are tales “eminently adapted to floating in the back of the mind”. In each of them there is a Lady Emily, and in each of them there is an arch villain. In each of them there is a superlatively lonely house, and in two of them the revengeful inferior becomes the brutal master. In the first, The Fortunes of Sir Robert Ardagh, there are three sisters, the second of whom, Lady Emily, lives with her husband at Castle Ardagh. Sir Robert has a mysterious valet, whose malignant will dominates his master’s fortunes and who at last destroys him. The second tale, A Passage in the Secret History of an Irish Countess, has the forced-marriage plot, wickedly manoeuvred by Sir Arthur T—n, father of an Emily and an Edward, and uncle of a Margaret, sincerely intent upon acquiring his niece’s fortune either through her marriage with his son or by her murder. Murder it is, but all mistakenly not of the heroine —Emily is slain, and Margaret ends her story in the very mood of the end of Wuthering Heights, the wish that Emily “had been spared and that in her stead I were mouldering in the grave, forgotten and at rest”.

But The Bridal of Carrigvarah yields the most of reminiscent likenesses, of suggestions for Heathcliffe’s villainy, revenge and love, of “correspondences’! and “identifications”. Here also is a Lady Emily’, sadly figuring as a minor deserted character.

It will be recalled that the old servant, Ellen Dean, tells the tangled tale of Wuthering Heights, most of it, of Heathcliffe’s servitude and later mastership. In The Bridal of Carrigvarah, Ellen Heathcote, daughter of a stern father, has at the outset two lovers, Richard O’Mara and Edward Dwyer, the latter a servant of the O’Maras, malignant, revengeful, plotting, their downfall. Having forced his young master into insincere assertion of his indifference to Ellen, Dwyer dickers for Heathcote’s farm lease and his daughter. Refused both, he muses thus:

Insolent young spawn of ingratitude and guilt, how long must I submit to be trod upon thus; and yet why should I murmur —his day is even now declining…. But I must wait —I am but a pauper now…. Were I independent once, I’d make them feel my power, and feel it so, that I should die the richest or the best avenged servant, of a great man that has ever been heard of.


Through Dwyer’s devices, O’Mara, though betrothed to Lady Emily, marries Ellen Heathcote secretly, “madly, fervently, irrevocably in love”, and hides her in the lonely Lodge, set in bleak and heathy hills. Again, through Dwyer’s villainy, O’Mara is challenged by Lady Emily’s brother and slain. While believing herself deserted, Ellen gives birth to a child and at its death sends for “the wonderful priest of Drumcoolagh”, who finds the Lodge as dreary as ever Ellen Dean found Heathcliffe’s Wuthering Heights. Ellen Heathcote dies, glad to know she was widowed, not deserted, and Dwyer completes the overthrow of the hated O’Maras.

“Correspondences” are, of course, a most delicate matter of shades, even shades of shades; things to be felt, not seen. Professor Jack’s launching of his little boat of surmise, on so cool an ocean of documents as make up The Cambridge History of English Literature, argues strongly for the strength of his feeling. Taking his tip and playing it farther, his “measure of correspondence,” as he calls it, between The Purcell Papers and the Brontë novels is largely increased. There is also, for the added amusement of “connections”, Le Fanu’s Uncle Silas, published nine years after Charlotte Brontë’s death, but of interest notwithstanding. This is no more than a three-volume extension of The Secret History of an Irish Countess, with many names changed and with a governess, Madame de la Rougierre, added to brim the cup of villainy. On Uncle Silas Sheridan Le Fanu won his first wide fame. It is a queer old book, yet queerer books have survived, by their titles at least, to keep the memories of their authors green. But Uncle Silas too has passed —until the other day when it was included in an “old novels” series. And, once again, Le Fanu’s fate of frustration has been operative. Since he was to be reprinted, why Uncle Silas, instead of those “occult” old tales by which alone, and by the smallest of small groups, the author has been remembered!



It was some years ago, during an evening of talk on “horror” tales (the cataleptic, the vampiric, the “buried alive”, the tangible ghostly and the intangible obsessionistic) that a title, “Green Tea,” floated suddenly to the surface. Just the title, nothing more. I recalled it (no one else had ever heard of it) as a tale, vaguely, of a physician, a clergy-man and an obsession —a little black monkey visible always by a halo of reddish light. “Nothing of the story remained —only the impression of its effect, which is indeed all any old forgotten tale can ask. Most of us who like to read can recall “the look of the page,” but this too had vanished.

A few days later the arm of coincidence reached across an old bookstall and laid a finger on Ignorant Essays, by Richard Dowling (1888). Both book and author were unknown, but a note of “authority” rang out on the contents page: “The Only Real Ghost in Fiction”, and the book fell open at the. fifteenth page and at this paragraph:

I am very bad at dates, but I think Le Fanu wrote “Green Tea” before a whole community of Canadian nuns were thrown into the most horrible state of nervous misery by excessive indulgence in that drug. Of all the horrible tales that are revolting, “Green Tea” is I think, the most horrible. The bare statement that an estimable and pious man is haunted by the ghost of a monkey is at first blush funny. But if you have not read this story read it and see how little of fun there is in it. The horror of the tale lies in the fact that this apparition of a monkey is the only probable ghost in fiction….

Sheridan Le Fanu, of course, and In a Glass Darkly! I saw again the little volume of ghostly tales of which “Green Tea” was one. I read on, and, in face of Mr. Richard Dowling’s naïve summary of it, interest lapsed. It seemed too sufficiently obvious; I explained its enduring impression by the surmise that a youthful faith in the goodness of all clergymen must have been extreme; better never go back to the story itself.

But later I was to go back to its author for other reasons, and I reread “Green Tea” and the other case histories of Dr. Hesselius. Le Fanu’s Father Purcell of Drumcoolagh may or may not lie back of Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights, but his Dr. Hesselius was John the Baptist for the little gods of later fiction —the psychic doctors. (Balzac’s Dr. Desplein is the great father of them all!)

“In Dr. Martin Hesselius,” writes his “Watson,” a young surgeon frustrated of a great career by the loss of two fingers, “I found my master…. His knowledge was immense, his grasp of a case was an intuition…. For nearly 20 years I acted as his medical secretary. His immense collection of papers he has left in my care to be arranged, indexed, and bound. His treatment of some of these cases is curious. He writes in two distinct characters. He describes what he saw and heard, as an intelligent layman might, and when in this style of narrative he has seen the patient either through his own hall door to the light of day or through the gates of darkness to the caverns of the dead, he returns upon the narrative, and in the terms of his art and with all the force and originality of genius proceeds to the work of analysis, diagnosis, and illustration.”

On these lines precisely “Green Tea” is done, in letters to a friend, Professor Van Loo of Leyden. These letters trace the strange case of the Rev. Mr. Jennings, a wealthy bachelor clergyman, beginning with Dr. Hesselius’s first observations of him at an evening party.

“Mr. Jennings,” writes the good doctor, “has a way of looking sidelong upon the carpet as if his eye followed the movements of something there. This, of course, is not always. It occurs only now and then. But often enough to give a certain oddity to his manner, and in this glance travelling along the floor there is something both shy and anxious.”

Mr. Jennings drinks too much green tea, but his troubles are not born of that. Later he brings his hallucination to the doctor, who traces its developments, observing, after some time, “He has not yet given me his full and unreserved confidence”. He never does, and goes down to a bitter death. And, after Dr. Hesselius has seen him “through the gates of darkness to the caverns of the dead,” he “returns upon the narrative” and sums up.

No bad pattern, this, by which to cut one’s dark psychologic cloth, in 1872. Dr. Hesselius was a gold mine for any novelist interested in the psychologic and the occult. In this German physician and metaphysician of the mind and soul, Le Fanu had hit upon more than a cunning device in the way of a reservoir for learning, intuition, magic or psychology to be tapped at will; he had hit upon a character as well, one that, had he lived to work with it, might have towered high in the heavens of ghostly fiction. But he had come upon it too late; he died the following year. The rest is silence, complete mysterious silence. He was famous; he was read; he “sold”; he’ was of the Sheridan blood; he was filially reprinted no more than a quarter century after his death, and that death is only half a century back. But his very name is lost to present-day historians of his age. His novels, so multitudinously printed and reprinted, have simply disappeared. They areas rare on old bookstalls as black swans on old lakes.

Sheridan Le Fanu himself was “rare,” after his wife’s death, which occurred in 1858. He had been wit and scholar of old Dublin society; but, says Graves:

From this society he vanished so entirely, that Dublin, always ready with a nickname, dubbed him “The Invisible Prince”, and, indeed, he was for a long time almost invisible, except to his family and most familiar friends, unless at odd hours of the evening, when he might occasionally be seen stealing, like the ghost of his former self, between his newspaper office and his home in Merrion Square. Sometimes, too, he was to be encountered in an old, out-of-the-way book shop, pouring, over some rare Astrology or Demonology….

If it is ever discovered that the Dublin University Magazine of 1838 and 1839 was in the parsonage at Haworth —was even in the little circulating library at Keighley where the Brontë sisters walked for books to read —was even in the libraries of those purgartorial homes where the sisters were sad governesses, Sheridan Le Fanu’s Purcell Papers may easily become the generating cause of a little literary thunderclap.

Meantime, Dr. Hesselius of “Green Tea” of In a Glass Darkly stands as the forerunner of the “soul doctors” so liberally employed by later writers in the supernatural field. On “Green Tea” alone (let pass the rest of his occult tales) Le Fanu, particularly charming descendant of the famous Sheridans, earned his right of way into any studies of the supernatural in fiction. That he has disappeared so completely from lists and records, even from the footnotes, of the Victorians, is so inexplicable as to be of itself almost “supernatural.” ^

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