Seriously, if everyone imagined Victorian novels as vividly as I do, there’d be no keeping ’em on the shelves.
Uncle Silas wasn’t quite the ripsnorter some of my boy Wilkie Collins’ books are, but for me, it’s the literary equivalent of chocolate cake: if the ingredients include 1.) Chocolate and 2.) Cake, I’m going to eat it and like it.
Maud Ruthyn, our seventeen-year-old narrator, lives with her wealthy and loving-but-kooky father, and has very little knowledge of the outside world. She is possessed of little except her beauty, her good nature, and her nervous temperament. Unfortunately for Maud, her world is a-brim with people and situations exactly calculated to play off a constitution as flimsy as hers. She’s afraid of her dad because he’s quiet and moody. She’s afraid of her dad’s doctor because he’s old, unattractive, and wears shabby clothes (though she does learn to value his friendship through force of comparison to other characters later in the book). She’s afraid of her governess because… well, because her governess is a scary bitch. Madame de la Rougierre truly reminded me of The Witches, from bald head to her no doubt non-existent toes. She feigns kindness in front of Maud’s father but is cruel and intimidating when she and Maud are alone together, and it’s clear she is plotting something. She is an excellent creation, and I’m only sorry that her appearances are limited to the beginning and near-end of the book. I can’t think why Le Fanu didn’t want to do more with such excellent material.
Maud’s father dies about 150 pages into the book, though I don’t count this as a spoiler since his days are clearly numbered from the start of the novel. Recklessly, Maud’s father names his estranged brother, Silas, as Maud’s guardian until she comes of age in three years. He does this by way of a favor to Silas, who was long ago accused, but never convicted, of the murder of a man to whom he owed a large gambling debt. He was acquitted only because the man was found dead in a room in which all the doors and windows had been locked from the inside (an often-used, but well-loved by me, device that makes a nice little side plot). Though he was found innocent, Silas was never able to regain the respectability that Maud’s father feels is the right of any member of his ancient and respectable family. By giving guardianship of his daughter to Silas, Maud’s father hopes to prove to the world his trust in his brother. To further demonstrate his trust, he stipulates in his will that should anything happen to Maud before she comes of age, the entire fortune will become Silas’.
Despite my mental image of him, Uncle Silas is clearly no Emmett Brown.
A fair portion of the middle of the book is rather slow. Things really don’t begin to cook until well after Maud is installed in Silas’ mansion. At that point, I could not stop reading and did not get to bed until 1:15 AM. But in between, I was forced to spend a lot of time with fairly irrelevant characters whose presence did not add to the richness of the book. I’m not the kind of reader who believes that every single page must be advancing the plot; remember, I love Charles Dickens, who could never be accused of verbal economy. But Le Fanu is no Dickens, and he doesn’t have the wit to keep a reader entertained between major plot events. If all you have is great plot and atmosphere, you had better stick to sustaining those for the duration of the novel, because if you try to break from that, your weaknesses as a writer become very evident, very quickly.
The book failed my Test for Excellence: I don’t think I’ll ever read it again. Not every book I read more than once is a great book, but every book I’ve really loved I’ve either read more than once, or plan to read again someday.
The sad truth is that the book’s subject matter and time period beg comparison to the work of Wilkie Collins, who was writing using the same material but doing much cooler stuff with it. I suppose the book most closely resembles Collins’ The Woman in White, which also featured a wispy heiress in dire straits. However, TWIW used the heroine’s helplessness to tacitly criticize the degree to which women were at the mercy of their fathers and husbands, and gave us the priceless Marion Halcombe, a brave, brainy, ballsy woman we could really root for as we couldn’t for her blonde, china-doll cousin Laura. TWIW’s Count Fosco is a great villain whose evil plans are motivated by more than just a love of money: he’s a greedy, lustful, insinuating narcissist who wakes up every morning delighted to find himself in his own skin. He may stab you in the back, but it’s nothing personal; you are too far beneath him for him to actually hate you. The villains in Uncle Silas are motivated by… money. Madame La Rougierre, it is hinted, has a rich and storied past, but we’re never given enough information to even infer a cohesive backstory.
In the end, though, it’s not every book that keeps me up until one in the morning praying that if I ignore the “Your battery is low” messages my e-reader keeps giving me, I’ll get to the end before having to re-charge. Uncle Silas had enough to it to engage me while I held it in my hands, even if I don’t think it will make an impression in my memory.