I can't say I've often wondered what the offspring of the movie Deliverance
and Bronte's Wuthering Heights
might resemble. But now I know--Uncle Silas
. The residents of Bartram-Haugh are more hillbilly than Jethro Clampett, and at least as dangerous as the guy who tells Ned Beatty to "squeal like a pig." And Madame de la Rougierre (aka, "The Governess")? A priceless character almost as colorful as Wilkie Collins' Count Fosco. Despicable Madame does things like threaten to break pinkies to get her way. The Governess' scowl lingers throughout the story, even when Madame is hundreds of miles distant from the narration. Love her!
Similar to The Woman in White
, there's nothing supernatural about Uncle Silas
. It's all about bad, murderous decisions that mount one upon another. Early on, our heroine Maud lifts up mechanistic rather than supernatural explanations for suffering:
There is no dealing with great sorrow as if it were under the control of our wills. It is a terrible phenomenon, whose laws we must study, and to whose conditions we must submit, if we would mitigate it.
Other than a flurry of Swedenborgianisms mid-story, the materialistic view of the universe holds till Maud grasps frantically for supernatural explanations at the end:
This world is a parable--the habitation of symbols--the phantoms of spiritual things immortal shown in material shape. May the blessed second-sight be mine--to recognize under these beautiful forms of earth the ANGELS who wear them; for I am sure we may walk with them if we will, and hear them speak!
Is that our Maud? Or did Joseph Campbell develop a fascination for Doreen Virtue's über-angelology? Whatever the case, Maud's terrifying ordeal leads her to plumb the supernatural depths for answers. Uncle Silas
is a parable for our own fundamentalist era.
Mixed in all of this misery, blood and chicanery is a healthy amount of humor. There's Silas describing his buffoon of a son Dudley: "'[H]e has always seemed to me something like a centaur--that is a centaur composed not of man and horse, but of an ape and an ass.'" There's also cousin Milly's insistence on giving random nicknames to servants, family and friends (a maid nicknamed L'Amour, shortened from the opera protagonist Lucia de Lammermoor; Giblets the butler; Pegtop the one-legged mill guy; etc.), not unlike The Office
's Andy Bernard who gave Jim the nickname "Tuna" after Jim had a tuna sandwich his first day at the new regional office. Milly's a very funny character. I missed her the last third of the story! And what about Le Fanu's somewhat humorous disdain for religious movements like Swedenborgianism and Methodism? Being Methodist clergy, I giggled when Silas' long gray locks were compared to those of Methodism's founder John Wesley. Was Le Fanu a Church of Englander wary of newer, more charismatic religious movements? Or does his eschewing of the supernatural and his suspect treatment of Jews, Methodists, and Swedenborgians signal a disdain for all religious observance? Not sure, but I did enjoy Le Fanu's humorous side.
Milly's disappearance in the story provides evidence for why I did not give Uncle Silas
five stars. For my taste, Le Fanu leaves a few too many loose ends. I wanted to know more about the resemblances between questionable actors at Knowl and Bartram-Haugh. Did scheming on the Ruthyn fortune begin well before Maud left Knowl? Clearly Madame's relationship with Silas and Dudley Ruthyn goes back quite some time. How did she get to know them? Why does she appear so hellbent on connecting Dudley and Maud even before we meet Silas in the story? There's so much ambiguity in the depiction of relationships. What in the world's really wrong with these people? Maybe I should embrace the lingering doubts and open questions. Le Fanu must have meant to leave me guessing. Whatever. Connect a few more bloody dots next time.
I'm rambling due to fatigue, so I'll end here. By all means read Uncle Silas
for the smattering of humor, the darkness, and the beautiful descriptions of Silas, Madame, and the grounds of Bartram-Haugh. Avoid if you want an airtight, clearly drawn conclusion. Somewhat highly recommended.