Sheridan Le Fanu’s Uncle Silas is considered one of the greatest Gothic novels ever. In the best Gothic tradition, the novel delivers a spooky atmosphere, sinister characters, building tension, and a sympathetic heroine.
Maud, the first-person narrator, is 17 when her wealthy widowed father dies and she becomes a ward of Uncle Silas in Derbyshire. She has never met Uncle Silas, who has a bad reputation: his youthful sins included gambling and maybe even murder. But he’s supposed to have reformed and gotten religion.
If Maud dies before age 21, her inheritance will go to debt-ridden Uncle Silas — a vulnerable situation that causes Maud’s two faithful advisers to recommend she live elsewhere. But Maud wants to do what her father would have desired — show trust in Uncle Silas. It isn’t until the end of the book that readers find out if Maud’s trust is misplaced. Uncle Silas is creepy and mysterious throughout, but is he a villain, a wronged man, or just ruined by his past and his opium habit?
Le Fanu maintains suspense through the long narrative (more than 400 pages) with a consistently dark atmosphere and eerie characters who, besides Uncle Silas himself, include a contemptible French governess, Silas’s predatory son, and a malevolent one-legged servant.
Although nothing overtly supernatural occurs in Uncle Silas, the book shows the interest that Le Fanu, an Irish Anglican, had in the ideas of the Swedish mystic Emanuel Swedenborg. In scenes such as Maud’s thinking she hears her late father’s voice, Le Fanu implies the supernatural while leaving open the possibility of a natural explanation.
Uncle Silas was one of the earliest examples of the locked-room mystery subgenre. It influenced Arthur Conan Doyle and remains a draw for mystery readers today.
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