Friday, October 8, 2021

My New Favorite Book: J. Sheridan Le Fanu's "The Rose and the Key"

 


For years I thought I was the only fan of the Irish writer J. Sheridan Le Fanu, who is best-known  for his ghost stories and Gothic novels.  As an adolescent I discovered his masterpiece, Uncle Silas, and decades later I enjoy it just as much.  But until I got Wifi, I never met anyone who had heard of Le Fanu. Most of his books are out-of-print in the U.S.


Having raved about Uncle Silas, you will hardly be surprised to learn that my new favorite book is Le Fanu's little-read The Rose and the Key. Mind you, I do not claim it is a great novel.  Parts are brilliant, parts are draggy and dull. And yet I loved it from the beginning, with its ornate description of "a summer sunset, over a broad heath." Maud, the impulsive heroine, and her good-humored elderly cousin, Miss Max, are enjoying a sketching tour.

 But Le Fanu is an expert on withholding information. He teases us with the question of Maud's identity.  Early on he asks whether the shabbily dressed Maud might be a governess or an artist.  Maud idly wonders aloud if she could earn a living by sketches and water colors.  Miss Max is wildly indulgent and laughs at Maud's whimsy. 

Nothing is as it seems, and the idyll is interrupted.  They are shadowed by a stalker, an "odious, ill-looking" old man who follows them from inn to inn.  Miss Max angrily confronts him on the heath, but they cannot stop him.  And a romantic young gentleman, Charles Marston, pursues Maud after falling in love with her at first sight.  She chides him and challenges him with the information that she is poor and must earn her living.  Miss Max thinks Maud is much too hard on him.
 

Le Fanu has postponed telling the truth about Maud's identity.  He is a tease.  We soon learn that she is not poor.  She is the daughter of the fabulously wealthy Lady Vernon, a cold, pale woman who hates her beautiful daughter.  This is a mother-daughter relationship we seldom see in 19th-century novels.  (But tell me if you think of others.)

There are many twists and turns - you are in suspense till the very end, because Le Fanu withholds information and we are misled as to motives.


(SPOILER - DEPENDING ON WHY YOU READ & WHAT YOU WANT TO KNOW)
 

This is one of several 19th-century novels, among them The Woman in White, in which  a sane woman is committed to a lunatic asylum.  There are some terrifying scenes.

Since I read two eerie 19th-century novels with this trope almost back-to-back, I wonder how many other such novels I've missed out there.

Let me know if any come to mind.

14 comments:

  1. This sounds like an excellent book to put on my winter reading list!

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  2. Well, I read Uncle Silas in my job as story analyst for Warner Bros - decades ago, very early in my career, and thought it was absolutely wonderful! But I can tell you a literary reference for Le Fanu - do you remember Harriet Vane writing a scholarly paper about him? Right!

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    1. I'd love to see a movie or TV series of Uncle Silas or ANYTHING by Le Fanu. Harriet Vane is one of my favorites, but I seem to have neglected her scholarship. Great reference.

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  3. The power to lock a woman up in a madhouse regardless of her sanity was vested in her husband or family, who could usually find compliant doctors, if they were willing to pay. Edward Bulwer-Lytton (the original author of "It was a dark and stormy noght...") was standing for Parliament when his estranged wife Rosina Bulwer Lytton (who had already written several romans a clef about him) denounced him at the hustings and he had her locked up, as one does (or did). This provoked an outcry (and a new novel by Rosina) and she was eventually released after Bulwer-Lytton was elected and the laws eventully changed.

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    1. What a harrowing story!I've never read Bulwer Lytton nor heard of Rosina but now hope to find a free e-book of one of Rosina's novels. I'm sure many were forgotten and mouldered away.

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    2. There are quite a few of Rosina's books on Internet Archive. The BBC did a fine adaptation of Uncle Silas in a series with Peter O'Toole in the title role.
      You've got to be careful with their names. They began as Mr & Mrs Bulwer, but after his mother's death Edward changed it to Bulwer-Lytton (acccording to his mother's wishes in a typically Victorian will. His brothers happily stayed Bulwer), But Rosina insisted on Bulwer Lytton without a hyphen. Equally, when her husband became Lord Lytton, she insisted on calling herself Lady Lytton, even though they were formally separated.

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    3. I wonder if it's possible that I would like "The Last Days of Pompeii,"despite Bulwer-Lytton's style. Perhaps the movie.... Kind of endearing that Rosina wanted to be Lady Lytton, though after the madhouse incident it is very odd. I must watch the BBC series of Uncle Silas, as Peter O'Toole is one my favorites.

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    4. B-L is best known now for The Coming Race, an early SF novel which features a race superior to humans in which - interestingly - the women make the romantic advances. Stylistically it's pretty turgid, but occultists are fans.
      "It was a dark and stormy night" is a good opening sentence, but B-L couldn't leave well alone and went on "... the rain fell in torrents—except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness."
      I think Rosina insisting on being Lady Lytton was a way of rubbing in "I'm still here."

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    5. Well, I may have to glance at The Coming Race. I do not know my B-L. We Americans all know "It was a dark and stormy night," but the rest does sound horrendous. Rosina should be the subject of a biography.

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  4. Thanks for a great post. I love Uncle Silas too. Also brilliant is Carmilla - do please read that. Will read The Rose and The Key asap - thanks. G

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    1. Thank you. I agree, I need to read Carmilla. In the bright sunshine!

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  5. I like Sheridan !e Fanu, altho', as you say, there are dull parts too his writing.ivevnit read this work, so shall look for it. His works are easier to find here in the UK.

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    1. I do wish I lived in the UK because the bookstores would carry the books I want!

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