Wednesday, December 2, 2009

J. Sheridan Le Fanu – Wylder’s Hand (1864)

Like many, I’m a fan of Le Fanu’s best-known works, his short stories (including the canonical Green Tea). I’ve also read and enjoyed his sensation novel, Uncle Silas – but it’s outdone by Wylder’s Hand. Again in the mould of the sensation novel (one of my favourite genres), WH tells the story of upstart Mark Wylder’s unlikely impending marriage to Dorcas Brandon, scioness of the ancient Brandon family (who share a history of intermarriage and murderous feud with the Wylders). But when Mark Wylder conveniently absconds to the continent, his rival, Captain Stanley Lake, steps into the breach… but what does he have to hide? Why is his relationship with his fiery but despairing sister, Rachel, so tense? And what role will be played by the pious hypocrite, lawyer Joss Larkin?

Wylder’s Hand is not without flaws – a first-person narrator who rarely appears, when the narrative is otherwise told from an omniscient perspective, is odd, and the novel contains the typical flaws of the sensation genre such as a reliance on coincidence and a too-convenient tying-up of loose ends – but overall I thoroughly enjoyed this macabre and mysterious tale, more so than the aforementioned Uncle Silas. The characters have a depth and complexity which is fascinating, and, unlike many Victorian novels, the women – Rachel Lake and Dorcas Brandon – are not stereotypical personality-less heroines who are little more than objects of fate, but agents with subjectivity and complexity of their own (though, like the other characters, ultimately at the mercy of fate). Likewise, the villains are not embodiments of evil (and indeed, in another original twist, the role of villain changes over the course of the work), but humans whom we may recognise, and even at times feel sympathy for. As in Le Fanu’s other work, the writing is fine and the milieu is beautifully depicted – an atmosphere which is gothic without being overblown, one interspersed with critical observation of the day-to-day social and economic exigencies of Victorian life, is created in impressive fashion. Like the best works of its kind, the feeling of uneasy tension rises over the course of the book, to come to a climax in a grisly crescendo.

This novel was one of Le Fanu’s most popular in its day, but is now, unfortunately, for the most part forgotten. My edition is published as part of the Atlantic Classic Crime series, and if we think of the Victorian era and the sensation authors as forerunners to the crime genre (the classic example is, of course, Collins’ The Moonstone) then we can read this work as a crime novel, by no means a procedural as is the case for the aforementioned, but certainly a narrative of manoeuvre and counter-manoeuvre in which a hidden and mysterious deed, which is made to seem impossible, is brought to light and its mechanics explained. Insanity (as well as the ‘blood curse’), that staple of the sensation genre (and something with which Le Fanu was personally familiar in the tragic life of his first wife, Susanna Bennett), makes an appearance in the prophetic figure of Uncle Lorne. The notes to my edition quote Terry Eagleton’s suggestion that the novel is heavily influenced by Le Fanu’s Irish background (Le Fanu set his later works in England on the basis of his publisher’s injunction that Irish settings were not commercial) – that the family blood feud and its relationship to land and property (and indeed, inherited land as sacred is one of the characteristically Victorian themes here) were characteristic of the Irish rather than English landowning gentry. That other doyen of the gothic tale, M. R. James, is also quoted commenting on melancholy as a defining tonal characteristic of the author’s writing.

Wylder’s Hand is a work which skilfully conceals and reveals the dark and mysterious underlying the everyday, which is deeply atmospheric, and which evocatively calls forth a mounting unease, drawing the reader subtly but relentlessly into a vortex of inhumanity and bloodshed. As do the characters, I intend to delve further into the depths of Le Fanu’s oeuvre.

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