Places: Uncle Silas

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: 1864

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Gothic

Time of work: Nineteenth century

Places DiscussedBartram-Haugh

Bartram-Haugh. Uncle SilasSprawling estate in Derbyshire, a locale in the English countryside. For decades, it has been the home of Silas Ruthyn, Maud Ruthyn’s ruined uncle, and its decrepit condition is clearly intended to symbolize aspects of Silas’s character. Upon her arrival Maud notes palatial architectural features that have eroded over time and the growth of moss and vegetation around the doorways, all of which give the place “a forlorn character of desertion and decay, contrasting most awfully with the grandeur of its proportions and richness of its architecture.” Like Silas, who is deeply in debt, the estate has seen more prosperous days. When Maud apprises the reader that “the actual decay of the house had been prevented by my dear father,” who has regularly loaned money to his financially irresponsible brother, she establishes the importance of the family fortune she has inherited to her Uncle Silas.

The nature of Bartram-Haugh’s dilapidation is also significant. Maud notes a courtyard “tufted over with grass” and a carved balustrade around the courtyard “discoloured with lichens.” The rarely visited estate is slowly being reclaimed by the natural world outside its once well-kept borders. This encroaching wildness suggests Silas’s own predatory scheme to dispose of his niece in order to steal her inheritance. Huge trees in the courtyard felled by a recent storm telegraph Silas’s intentions to the reader: they “lay with their upturned roots, and their yellow foliage still flickering on the sprays that were to bloom no more. . . .” Their general look suggests violent destruction of life.

Maud sees these subtleties of the estate’s disrepair mostly on the morning of her second day at Bartram-Haugh, having overlooked them the night of her arrival. Bartram-Haugh seems perpetually dark and shadowy, and its most telling details are often not easily discerned–just as Silas’s true motives are concealed from Maud by his affectation of avuncular devotion.

Bartram-Haugh is a classic gloomy gothic setting. As a writer, Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu was conscious of gothic tradition in literature, which was almost a century old at the time he wrote Uncle Silas. In one scene, Maud muses that Bartram-Haugh “was plainly one of those great structures in which you might easily lose yourself, and with a pleasing terror it reminded me of that delightful old abbey in Mrs. Radcliffe’s romance, among whose silent staircases, dim passages, and long suites of lordly, but forsaken chambers . . . the family of La Mote secured a gloomy asylum.” Anne Radcliffe, author of The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794), The Romance of the Forest (1791)–to which Maud alludes–and other gothic fictions, specialized in tales of heroines trapped in castles, and pursued through darkened halls and passageways. To Maud, the dark arches and the long corridors and galleries that stretch away “in dust and silence” are the stuff of sensational stories in which the menace to heroine is later revealed to have been more imagined than actual. But here, the menace is genuine. The estate is so large and unexplored that Maud will later be persuaded that she has been taken to another location when in fact she has been delivered back to an unfamiliar part of the house, where Silas committed a murder decades before. The intricacies of Silas’s devious plan to eliminate his niece mirror the labyrinthine layout of Bartram-Haugh.

Knowl

Knowl. Estate where Maud lives up to her relocation to Bartram-Haugh. In contrast to Bartram-Haugh, which is described as “the repeated scene of all sorts of scandals, and of one great crime,” Knowl is a place of “affectionate associations, and kind looks and voice” for Maud. Knowl, her childhood home, symbolizes a world of innocence and purity that the inexperienced Maud leaves behind when she agrees to become Silas’s ward at Bartram-Haugh.

BibliographyBowen, Elizabeth. “Uncle Silas.” In Collected Impressions. New York: Knopf, 1950. An incisive and appreciative analysis of Uncle Silas that places the novel on the same plane as Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights.Howes, Marjorie. “Misalliance and Anglo-Irish Tradition in Le Fanu’s Uncle Silas.” Nineteenth-Century Literature 47, no. 2 (September, 1992)): 164-186. Analyzes themes of heritage and inheritance in Uncle Silas. Focusing on the character of Maud Ruthyn, the author develops a feminist critique of the problematic status of the Anglo-Irish. Informed and lucid use of literary theory enhances the critical discussion.Le Fanu, Joseph. Uncle Silas. Edited by W. J. McCormack. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1981. A scholarly edition, containing a corrected text, a Le Fanu chronology, a bibliography, and a lengthy critical introduction that stresses connections with themes that emerged in later Irish authors such as W. B. Yeats and James Joyce. Also provides a comprehensive critical appraisal of the novel based on a sense of the central significance of deception in its formal design and complex plot.McCormack, W. J. Sheridan Le Fanu and Victorian Ireland. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1980. At the center of this definitive study of Le Fanu’s life and times is an elaborate and sophisticated reading of Uncle Silas. Drawing on Le Fanu family papers and on Sheridan Le Fanu’s intellectual and cultural background, this view of the novel acknowledges its place both as one of the landmark achievements of the gothic genre in English and as a revealing commentary on the mind-set of the Anglo-Irish class to which Le Fanu belonged.Milbank, Alison. Daughters of the House: Modes of the Gothic in Victorian Fiction. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1992. Of the two chapters devoted to Le Fanu, one deals with Uncle Silas and offers an analysis of the interlinking of gothic, feminist, and Swedenborgian elements in the novel. The protagonist, Maud Ruthyn, is the focus of this critique.
Categories: Places