Monday, 5 January 2015

Reminiscences of a Bachelor

Yes, I remember when I first heard the Ramones... No, hang on, it's another bachelor entirely we're concerned with here. The chap in question is the creation of J. Sheridan Le Fanu, and his reminiscences - two of 'em - make up the contents of the latest fine volume from the Swan River Press.

I'll begin by stressing how beautiful this little book is. The dust-jacket illustration by Paul Lowe is quite brilliant, with our man surrounded by the world of his imagination. The covers themselves are adorned by two contemporary illustration from the stories 'The Watcher' and 'The Fatal Bride'. Inside, as well as two stories narrated by Le Fanu's amiable unmarried gent, there are notes by Brian Showers and Jim Rockhill, plus an introduction by Matthew Holness.

Yes, you may say, but is it worth buying a very familiar tale by Le Fanu - one anthologised hundreds of times - simply to get another tale, non-supernatural, that hasn't appeared since it was first published in the Dublin University magazine in 1848? As an admirer of Le Fanu I would say yes, not least because placing the two together gives a valuable perspective on the author as artist.

'The Watcher' is, if you're struggling to recall, the one about the sea captain who returns to Dublin laden with prize money from the French wars and sets about finding himself a bride. It's notable that so long as Captain Barton is simply swanning around the smart parties he is not persecuted. But as soon as an engagement to the lovely but impecunious Miss Montague becomes likely that The Watcher takes steps. Barton's life only becomes forfeit when he sets out to find connubial bliss because - as we discover - he had 'ruined' an innocent young woman during his naval career.

This is interesting, and something I hadn't given a lot of thought to. Because the second story is also - as the title suggests - concerned with the pitfalls of courtship. A Gothic novella, 'The Fatal Bride' concerns the course of true love running very turbulently indeed. While I won't give away too much of the plot, it is full-on Victorian in its desire to both emphasise and conceal the sexual aspects of our passions. It has improbable plot twists, but that was expected and the 'sensation' was all the more intense. Oh, and there's a duel.

What Le Fanu does in both stories is emphasise how dangerous the marriage market was for women. Miss Montague narrowly escapes being wed to a man who has already treated one woman in a cruel, depraved manner. Mary Chadleigh, eponymous heroine of 'The Fatal Bride', fares slightly better, but it's clear that she is regarded by her appalling father as his property. The bachelor's chivalrous attitude toward her - while admirable in its way - only underlines the point that chivalry is a very poor substitute for equality before the law and other democratic niceties.

Am I claiming Le Fanu as a proto-feminist? Only if one views most Gothic writers that way. The horror in both stories is born of entrapment in a world that might seem well-lit, privileged and secure, but is in fact morally murky and largely contemptuous of individual happiness. Le Fanu's particular gift lay in his ability to be both disturbing and witty about this world, often in the same sentence. The description of the climactic duel in 'The Fatal Bride' is a little masterpiece. Le Fanu does, admittedly, give us a happy ending of sorts, as his readers would have expected. But the overall sensation in leaving both stories is of the remorseless way darkness closes in upon his ill-starred characters, and how goodness and honesty can at best light a guttering candle against it.

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