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A Database of Victorian Fiction, 1837–1901

A Database of Victorian Fiction, 1837–1901

Title: Uncle Silas

Author and Title: J. Sheridan Le Fanu. Uncle Silas: A Tale of Bartram-Haugh

First Edition: London: Bentley, 1864. 3 volumes, post 8vo, 31s 6d.

Serialization: Dublin University Magazine, July 1864 to December 1864 (monthly)

Summary: Originally titled Maud Ruthyn and Uncle Silas during its serial run. Told from the point of view of the adult Maud Ruthyn. As a child, she lives with her wealthy father, Austin Ruthyn, at their isolated estate of Knowles in the north of England (described with strong gothic overtones). He is a follower of the Swedish mystic Emmanuel Swedenborg and entertains visits from his co-religionist, the mysterious Dr. Bryerly. Austin's estranged younger brother is Silas Ruthyn: after living a dissolute life marked by scandal, he now lives a reclusive life as a sickly religious convert at his Derbyshire estate of Bartram-Haugh. During his life, Austin has repeatedly paid his debts and allows him to occupy one of his properties as a symbol of his faith in his brother's honor. Austin hires a French finishing governess named Madame de la Rougierre to educate his daughter—Maud quickly grows to distrust and fear her new governess who insists on questioning Maud about her father and taking long walks outside the grounds. During two of these walks, Maud meets a mysterious man (who later is revealed to be her odious cousin Dudley) and later escapes being kidnapped. Maud suspects, but cannot prove, that Madame planned these encounters. Austin finally dismisses Madame when Maud witnesses the governess breaking into her father's desk. When her father dies (for which he tries to prepare his daughter by hinting at a coming "journey"), the will leaves his fortune to Maud and names Silas as her guardian—another attempt by the eldest brother to repair Sila's reputation. Austin's cousin, Monica, Lady Knollys, and Bryerly as trustee both attempt to convince Maud not to go to her uncle's house. However Maud decides to go in order to fulfill her father's wishes. Before she leaves, Monica tells Maud about Silas: as a young man he gambled, married a barmaid and had two children, and ran into debt. A gambling partner named Charke, to whom Silas owed money, died at Silas's house in a locked room, presumably a suicide since no one could discover another way into the room. Maud goes to Bartram-Haugh, a dilapidated and wild estate, and meets her relations: the laudanum-addict Uncle Silas, his uncouth daughter Milly, and his loutish son Dudley (whom Maud recognizes). Clearly Silas suffers from financial problems and hopes to attain his ward's fortune. Maud befriends Milly, teaches her better manners, and visits Monica (who lives nearby). Surprisingly, Dudley proposes to Maud: she refuses him but Uncle Silas attempts to convince Maud to marry him. He only drops the proposed marriage when Dudley reveals he has already married (herself a barmaid). Thereafter, the isolation of Maud grows more menacing: Silas sends Milly away, he refuses to let Monica visit, and he confines Maud to the grounds. More sinister, Madame de la Rougierre returns—Maud suddenly discovers the odious governess occupying a room in a disused part of the house. Due to an impending action for debt, Silas decides to flee with Maud to France. He sends her ahead in the custody of Madame, Madame drugs Maud, and they secretly return to Bartram-Haugh where Maud is locked in the very room where Charke died. At night, Dudley sneaks into the room through a secret passage (thereby confirming the murder of Charke) and accidentally kills Madame. Maud escapes death and Silas overdoses on laudanum. She reports at the end her happy marriage to Lord Ilbury, a friend of her cousin. (TJB)

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References: EC; Sutherland; UCB; Wolff