In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu

  • Introduction
  • Biography
  • Bibliographies
  • Reference Works

Victorian Literature Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu
by
Melissa Dickson
  • LAST REVIEWED: 11 January 2024
  • LAST MODIFIED: 11 January 2024
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199799558-0204

Introduction

Joseph Thomas Sheridan Le Fanu (b. 1814–d. 1873) was an Irish writer who worked across several genres, including historical fiction, nonfiction, sensation novels, short stories, and tales of mystery. Throughout his career, he worked as a journalist, editor, and writer, and he contributed to several newspapers and magazines. He is best remembered today, however, for his Gothic and horror stories, which were central to the development of the 19th-century ghost story. Born in Dublin in 1814 to a well-educated middle-class Protestant family of Huguenot origins, Le Fanu studied law at Trinity College, Dublin, where he became involved with the Dublin University Magazine. From January 1838 he began to publish a series of supernatural stories in the magazine under the pseudonym of the Catholic Father Francis Purcell. These early works, many of which comprised the germs of his later writings, were heavily influenced by the Romantic and Gothic movements of the time. They contain many early toposes of the ghost story tradition while exploring questions of Irish nationalism and political dissent. They were collected and published in 1880 in the anthology entitled The Purcell Papers. In 1843, Le Fanu married Susanna Bennett, and they had four children. He supported his family as a journalist, publisher, and writer of fiction, producing a series of short stories and historical novels, including The Cock and Anchor (1845) and The Fortunes of Colonel Torlogh O’Brien (1847). After Susanna’s death in 1858, Le Fanu became something of a recluse, and after the subsequent death of his mother in 1861, he devoted himself to writing and publishing. In 1869, he became editor and proprietor of the Dublin University Magazine and he was also an owner of a number of other newspapers. Among the many works he produced during this period, which emerged from his preoccupation with the supernatural and the boundaries between the living and the dead, are his 1864 Gothic novel Uncle Silas, and his 1872 novella Carmilla, which became part of his In A Glass Darkly collection and was an early work of vampire fiction in English. Le Fanu died of a heart attack in February 1873 at the age of 58. Although he had been a best-selling author for over twenty years, the body of his work fell from popular attention until the 20th-century ghost story writer M.R. James sought to reinstate Le Fanu with the publication of a collection of his stories in 1923, entitled Madam Crowl’s Ghost and Other Stories.

Biography

Le Fanu 1894 is the earliest biographical study of the Le Fanu family, written by Sheridan’s younger brother William, who was a railway engineer and commissioner of public works. This was followed by Le Fanu 1924, a memoir by Williams’s son Thomas (T.P. Le Fanu). The biographical details contained in these two early works heavily informed Browne 1951, which was the first single-author study of the Irish writer, as well as biographical studies Ellis 1951 and Begnal 1971. More recent biographies, including McCormack and Wallace 1995, and Melada 1987, have expanded considerably on this early source material. Selerie 2006 is a more recent book of poetry inspired by Le Fanu, but it includes a wealth of biographical information about the extended Le Fanu/Sheridan family.

  • Begnal, Michael H. Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu. Lewisburg, PA: Bucknell University Press, 1971.

    An account of Le Fanu’s literary career and major works in the context of his Irish background.

  • Browne, Nelson. Sheridan Le Fanu. London: Arthur Barker, 1951.

    Draws heavily on William Le Fanu’s memoir while exploring the functions of the Gothic and the tension between the rational, or scientific, and the supernatural across Le Fanu’s novels, short stories, and verse.

  • Ellis, S. M. Wilkie Collins, Le Fanu, and Others. London: Constable, 1951.

    Includes a biographical outline of Le Fanu and his works.

  • Le Fanu, Thomas. Memoir of the Le Fanu Family. Manchester, UK: Private Printing, 1924.

    A biographical study of the wider Le Fanu family written by Sheridan’s nephew Thomas (T.P. Le Fanu).

  • Le Fanu, William. Seventy Years of Irish Life: Being Anecdotes and Reminiscences. London: Edward Arnold, 1893.

    The autobiography of Sheridan Le Fanu’s younger brother William, which includes material on early family life and childhood stories.

  • McCormack, W. J., and Valerie Wallace. Sheridan Le Fanu and Victorian Ireland: A Life of the Hymn Writer, 1818–1895. Dublin, ROI: Lilliput Press, 1995.

    A detailed scholarly biography, exploring the life, achievements, personal struggles, and influence of Le Fanu. The more recent paperback edition includes new appendix materials.

  • Melada, Ivan. Sheridan Le Fanu. Boston: Twayne, 1987.

    A critical biography which celebrates Le Fanu as a master of the literature of terror and novels of suspense and mystery, as well as a critical contributor to the ghost story tradition.

  • Selerie, Gavin. Le Fanu’s Ghost. Hereford, UK: Five Seasons Press, 2006.

    Following a prologue and a lengthy critical and biographical essay on the complex interrelationships of the extended Le Fanu, Blackwood, and Sheridan families, as well as their major literary works, this book of poetry seeks to draw out the different traditions and contexts at play in Le Fanu’s work.

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