Thou Foster-Child of Silence and Slow Time

Irish Writer J. Sheridan LeFanu (1814-1873)

He is probably most famous for his ghost stories. His Carmilla (1872) was a Lesbian vampire tale that inspired Bram Stoker’s Dracula and was turned into a Roger Vadim film called Blood and Roses (1960). His stories were an unusual mixture of horror, mystery, and historical fiction. After putting it off for decades, I am finally reading his Uncle Silas: A Tale of Bartram-Haugh (1864) and am enjoying immensely.

The title of this post comes from John Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn”:

Thou still unravish'd bride of quietness,
       Thou foster-child of silence and slow time,
Sylvan historian, who canst thus express
       A flowery tale more sweetly than our rhyme:
What leaf-fring'd legend haunts about thy shape
       Of deities or mortals, or of both,
               In Tempe or the dales of Arcady?
       What men or gods are these? What maidens loth?
What mad pursuit? What struggle to escape?
               What pipes and timbrels? What wild ecstasy?

There is something eminently satisfying about reading a long nineteenth century novel. It calls for reserves of patience, but rewards with insights similar to those of the Grecian urn about which Keats writes. That is particularly true of novels from the British Isles, where the prose at times approaches the realm of poetry:

See how a sleepy child will put off the inevitable departure for bed. The little creature’s eyes blink and stare, and it needs constant jogging to prevent his nodding off into the slumber which nature craves. His waking is a pain; he is quite worn out, and peevish, and stupid, and yet he implores a respite, and deprecates repose, and vows he is not sleepy, even to the moment when his mother takes him in her arms, and carries him, in a sweet slumber, to the nursery. So it is with us old children of earth and the great sleep of death, and nature our kind mother. Just so reluctantly we part with consciousness, the picture is, even to the last, so interesting; the bird in the hand, though sick and moulting, so inestimably better than all the brilliant tenants of the bush. We sit up, yawning, and blinking, and stupid, the whole scene swimming before us, and the stories and music humming off into the sound of distant winds and waters. It is not time yet; we are not fatigued; we are good for another hour still, and so protesting against bed, we falter and drop into the dreamless sleep which nature assigns to fatigue and satiety.

I am presently 70% of the way through Uncle Silas and look forward to finishing the book tomorrow, come hell or high water. If you are interested in exploring LeFanu’s work, the following editions were issued by Dover Publications and may still be found from used book dealers (I recommend http://www.abebooks.com):

  • Best Ghost Stories of J. S. LeFanu
  • Green Tea and Other Ghost Stories
  • Ghost Stories and Mysteries
  • Wylder’s Hand
  • Uncle Silas: A Tale of Bartram-Haugh
  • The Wyvern Mystery

It is my opinion that LeFanu is a sadly neglected writer who, over time, will come into his own.