Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Le Fanu, Joseph Sheridan

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LE FANU, JOSEPH SHERIDAN (1814–1873), novelist and journalist, born at Dublin on 28 Aug. 1814, was son of Thomas Philip Le Fanu, dean of Emly, by his wife Emma, daughter of Dr. Dobbin, fellow of Trinity College, Dublin. The father, the eldest son of Joseph Le Fanu, by Alicia, sister of Richard Brinsley Sheridan [see DNB lkpl}}], was a descendant of an old and ennobled Huguenot family, and the appointment of Joseph Le Fanu, the novelist's grand-father, to the office of clerk of the coast of Ireland brought the family into official connection with that country. Le Fanu gave early proof of his literary tendencies by writing verses as a child, and is said to have produced at fourteen a long Irish poem (cf. Purcell Papers, Preface). He was privately educated under the direction of his father, until in 1833 he entered Trinity College, Dublin. There his career was sufficiently distinguished, though exhibiting perhaps more brilliancy than solid achievement, and among unusually gifted contemporaries he took nearly the highest place as a debater in the college historical society. While at the university Le Fanu made his first appearance as an author in the pages of the then recently founded 'Dublin University Magazine.' Of this periodical he soon (1887) joined the staff, and maintained the closest connection with it, first as contributor, and afterwards (1869) as editor and proprietor, until within a year of his death. About 1837 he produced his two brilliant Irish ballads, 'Phaudhrig Croohore' and 'Shamus O'Brien.' The latter was recited with great success by Samuel Lover in the United States, and won a wide popularity. Its authorship was for a time erroneously attributed to the reciter {Dublin Univ. Mag. xxxvi. 109; Notes and Queries, 4th ser. iii. 60). In 1839 Le Fanu was called to the Irish bar, but made no serious attempt to practise, and soon devoted himself wholly to journalism. In the year of his admission to the bar he purchased 'The Warder.' a Dublin newspaper, soon afterwards secured possession of the 'Evening Packet.' and later became part proprietor of the 'Dublin Evening Mail.' He thereupon amalgamated the three papers, issuing the combined venture daily under the title of ' The Evening Mail.' with a weekly reprint, to which he attached the name of 'The Warder.' He proved himself a strenuous advocate of the conservative cause. In 1844 he married Susan, daughter of George Bennett, Q.C., and on her death in 1858 he withdrew altogether from society, where he had long been one of the most familiar and acceptable figures.

Le Fanu's career as a novelist belongs almost altogether to the period of his retirement. While still in college be had contributed to the 'Dublin University Magazine' the first of the 'Purcell Papers'—Irish stories purporting to be edited by the Rev. Francis Purcell of Drumcoolagh, and in 1845 and 1847 had made two sustained attempts at fiction in 'The Cock and Anchor.' a tale of old Dublin, and 'Torlogh O'Brien.' Both these works were published anonymously, and met with no great success, but after his wife's death Le Fanu turned once more to fiction, and in 1863 published 'The House by the Churchyard.' This work at once met with a cordial reception. 'Uncle Silas.' in many respects his most powerful and original work, confirmed his reputation in the following year, and between that date and his death, nine years later, he published twelve more volumes of fiction. It was his curious habit to write most of his stories in bed on scraps of paper and in pencil. He died at his residence, 18 Merrion Square South, Dublin, on 7 Feb. 1873. His last work, 'Willing to Die.' was completed only a few days before. He was buried in Mount Jerome cemetery. Le Fanu was a man of handsome presence and great charm of manner. As a journalist and politician he took an active part in the electoral contests in his university, and a good specimen of his humorous and satirical power may be found in a pamphlet called 'The Prelude.' an electioneering squib, written under the pseudonym of 'J. Figwood.' Of modern Irish novelists he stands next to Lever in popularity, and, if inferior to Lever in narrative vigour, is his superior in imaginative power. The supernatural had a powerful charm for him, probably deepened by the melancholy of his later life, and this trait gives to his novels an effect that recalls some characteristics of Hawthorne. In the ingenuity of his plots he rivals Wilkie Collins. The following is a list of his works:

  1. 'The Cock and Anchor.' Dublin, 1845.
  2. 'Torlogh O'Brien.' Dublin, 1847.
  3. 'The House by the Churchyard.' 1863.
  4. 'Uncle Silas: a Tale of Bartram Haugh.' 1864.
  5. 'Wylder's Hand,' 1864.
  6. 'Guy Deverell,' 1865.
  7. 'All in the Dark.' 1866.
  8. 'The Tenants of Malory.' 1867.
  9. 'A Lost Name.' 1868.
  10. 'Haunted Lives.' 1868.
  11. 'The Wyvern Mystery.' 1869.
  12. 'Checkmate.' 1870.
  13. 'The Rose and the Key.' 1871.
  14. 'Chronicles of Golden Friars.' 1871.
  15. 'In a Glass Darkly.' 1872.
  16. 'Willing to Die.' 1875.
  17. 'The Purcell Papers.' with a memoir by Alfred Percival Graves, 1880.

With the exception of Nos. 1 and 2 all were published in London. New editions of most of them were published in the lifetime of the author.

[Memoirs prefixed to the Purcell Papers, an expansion of an article contributed to Temple Bar, 1. 504, by A. P. Graves; notice in Dublin University Mag. lxxxi. 319; Webb's Compendium of Irish Biography; private communications.]

C. L. F.