Uncle Silas - Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu
This quintessential gothic tale, first serialised in 1864, has its origins in Le Fanu's 1839 short story, "A Passage in the Secret History of an Irish Countess". A first person narrative (with some deviations from this technique) the story takes place in 1845, when the teenage narrator, Maud Ruthyn, is sent to live with her guardian - the mysterious Uncle Silas - upon the death of her father. The central mystery in the novel is whether Uncle Silas is the innocent man Maud's father believed him to be, or whether he is a murderer who may now want to get his handare s on Maud's fortune, by whatever means are available to him.

The required elements of a gothic novel are all present: an innocent teenage heiress, sinister villains and a gloomy mansion in poor repair, complete with dark corridors and surly servants. There is suspense and some genuinely creepy moments. However, a few factors stop this tale from being all it could be. Firstly, it is clear that the narrative is a memoir, written some years after the events of the novel take place. The reader therefore knows that whatever threat Maud faced, she survived apparently unscathed. This somewhat dilutes the effect of the novel's most suspenseful moments. Secondly, while the opening and closing sections are very strong, the action in the middle of the novel drags and it is difficult to maintain interest in the heroine's fate. Thirdly, Maud is not a particularly sympathetic character. She has all of the annoying snobbery of a Victorian female of her class, without any great degree of charm or intelligence. In fact, there were times I wanted to slap her. There is only so much crying, fainting, foot-stamping and overlooking the bleeding obvious that I can take.

This was the first work by Le Fanu that I have read and I am interested in reading more. He was an influential writer in his time and has been influential on mystery and thriller writers since. Dorothy L. Sayers, for example, was a fan. However, my enjoyment of the novel was adversely affected by two factors. To fit in with a group read schedule, I read it too slowly to maintain a high level of interest. In addition, during the period I was reading it, I also listened to an audiobook of Wilkie Collins' The Woman in White. Uncle Silas suffers in comparison. While it includes gothic elements (and has a number of flaws), The Woman in White has a much more complex plot and considerably more sophisticated characterisation. In addition, although it has a rather annoying heroine, The Woman in White does at least have one very superior female character - the truly wonderful Marian Halcombe. None of the female characters in this novel come anywhere close to her brilliance.

Recommended for those with an interest in Victorian writers and the evolution of gothic fiction, this novel may not appeal very much to other readers.