Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu – ‘The Invisible Prince’ – is best known for his novel about the ‘venerable, bloodless, fiery-eyed’ uncle, Uncle Silas (1864), however, it was his vampire novella Carmilla (1872) that would contribute to defining the horror genre and influenced Bram Stoker in his writing of Dracula. He was a leading ghost story writer of the nineteenth century and was central to the development of the genre in the Victorian era.
During the first few years of the Tithe Wars the Le Fanu family lived in Abington, Co Limerick, at great risk. Exposure to folk superstitions in rural Ireland surely left an impression on Le Fanu at an early age.
In 1833 Le Fanu entered Trinity College, Dublin to study law, graduating in 1839. He was called to the bar but never practiced, instead embarking on a career in journalism. In 1838 he began contributing stories to the Dublin University Magazine, including his first ghost story, entitled ‘The Ghost and the Bone-Setter’ (1838). He became owner of several newspapers from 1840, including the Dublin Evening Mail and the Warder.
In 1844 Le Fanu married Susanna Bennett with whom he had four children. In 1851 Le Fanu and Susanna moved to their house on Merrion Square, Dublin, where he remained until his death. Ghost Stories and Tales of Mystery was published this year and The Mysterious Lodger in 1850.
In 1847 Le Fanu supported John Mitchel and Thomas Francis Meagher in their campaign against the indifference of the government to An Gorta Mór. Others involved in the campaign included Samuel Ferguson and Isaac Butt. Butt wrote a forty-page analysis of the national disaster for the Dublin University Magazine in 1847. His support cost him the nomination as Tory MP for Co Carlow in 1852.
In the year 1858 Le Fanu’s wife Susanna died and he became a recluse, setting to work in his most productive and successful years as a writer. With two candles for light while nocturnally writing, he was to become a major figure of 19th century supernaturalism. His work turned Gothic’s focus on external sources of horror to the inward psychological potential to strike fear in the hearts of men. Le Fanu wrote to George Bentley his publisher that through his writing he sought ‘the equilibrium between natural and the super-natural’.
Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu died in Merrion Square and lies buried in Mount Jerome Cemetery, Dublin.
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