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The novel is a first person narrative told from the point of view of the teenaged Maud Ruthyn, an heiress living with her somber, reclusive father Austyn Ruthyn in their mansion at Knowl. She gradually becomes aware of the existence of Silas Ruthyn, a black sheep uncle whom she has never met, who was once an infamous rake and gambler but is now apparently a reformed Christian. Silas's past holds a dark mystery, which she gradually learns from her father and from her worldly, cheerful cousin Lady Monica: the suspicious suicide of a man to whom Silas owed an enormous gambling debt, which took place within a locked, apparently impenetrable room in Silas's mansion at Bartram-Haugh. Austyn is firmly convinced of his brother's innocence; Maud's attitude to Uncle Silas (whom we do not meet for the first 200 pages of the book) wavers repeatedly between trusting in her father's judgment, and growing fear and uncertainty. In the first part of the novel, Maud's father hires a French governess, Madame de la Rougierre, as a companion for her. Madame de la Rougierre, however, turns out to be a sinister figure who has designs on Maud. (In a cutaway scene that breaks the first-person narrative, we learn that she is in league with Uncle Silas's good-for-nothing son Dudley.) She is eventually discovered by Maud in the act of burgling her father's desk; this is enough to ensure that she is dismissed. Austyn Ruthyn obscurely asks Maud if she is willing to undergo some kind of "ordeal" to clear Silas's name. She assents, and shortly thereafter her father dies. It turns out that he has added a codicil to his will: Maud is to stay with Uncle Silas until she comes of age. If she dies while in her minority, the estate will go to Silas. Despite the best efforts of Lady Monica and Austyn's executor and fellow Swedenborgian, Dr. Bryerly, Maud is forced to spend the next three and a half years of her life at Bartram-Haugh. Life at Bartram-Haugh is initially strange but not unpleasant, despite ominous signs such as the uniformly unfriendly servants and a malevolent factotum of Silas's, the one-legged Dickon Hawkes. Silas himself is a sinister, soft-spoken man who is openly contemptuous of his two children, the loutish Dudley and the untutored but friendly Milly (her country ways initially amaze Maud, but they become best friends). Silas is subject to mysterious catatonic fits which are attributed by his doctor to his massive opium consumption. Gradually, however, the trap closes around Maud: it is clear that Silas is attempting to coax or force her to marry Dudley. When that plan fails, and as the time-limit of three-and-a-half years begins to shrink, it becomes clear that more violent methods may be used to ensure that Silas gains control of the Ruthyn estate....
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Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu was born in Dublin in 1814. He was the great-nephew of the playwright Richard Sheridan. He was educated at Trinity College, Dublin, and called to the bar in 1839, but chose instead to pursue a career in journalism. He began his writing career by publishing a number of stories anonymously in the Dublin University Magazine, which had been founded in 1833 by a group of Trinity College students. Le Fanu went on to purchase the magazine in 1861 and became its editor. From 1840 onwards he bought and edited the Warden and the Protestant Guardian, among other magazines and newspapers.
His first two novels, The Cock and Anchor (1845) and Torlogh O'Brien (1847), followed the style of Sir Walter Scott. After purchasing the Dublin University Magazine, in which much of his writing was serialized, he wrote the tales that made him a bestseller. These novels use mystery and the supernatural to explore the psychological effects of fear, and often deal with a young, innocent person being drawn into a dangerous situation in which older people conspire to swindle and harm them, as in Uncle Silas (1864). His other works include The House by the Churchyard (1863), Wylder's Hand (1864), The Wyvern Mystery (1869) and The Rose and the Key (1871). In 1872 he collected and published the remarkable stories of In a Glass Darkly, including the famous story of a female vampire, 'Carmilla', which predates Bram Stoker's Dracula by 25 years and formed the basis of the 1932 film Vampyr. After his death in 1873, Le Fanu's works faded in popularity, but interest was revived in 1923 when a collection of stories was published, entitled Madam Crowl's Ghost and Other Tales of Mystery.
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