Le Fanu, Joseph Thomas Sheridan (1814–73), novelist and journalist, was born 28 August 1814 in Lower Dominick Street, Dublin, eldest son and second child of three children of the Rev. Thomas Philip Le Fanu (1784–1845), Church of Ireland clergyman, and his wife, Emma Lucretia (née Dobbin; d. 1861), whose family was related to Richard Brinsley Sheridan (qv). The Le Fanus were proud of their (allegedly aristocratic) Huguenot ancestry; a character, Charles Le Cresseron, based on one of these ancestors narrates two of Le Fanu's novels. Of his siblings he appears to have been the most interested in, and overwhelmed by, the family's past. Le Fanu's early childhood was spent in the peaceful surroundings of Phoenix Park, where in 1815 his father became chaplain to the Royal Hibernian Military School; this provided the inspiration for his semi-nostalgic portrayal of eighteenth-century Chapelizod in The house by the churchyard (1863). In 1826, on his appointment as dean of Emly, Thomas Le Fanu moved his family to Abington, Co. Limerick, whose absentee rector he had been since 1823 (he had also been rector of Ardnageehy, Co. Cork, since 1817). This brought the family into contact with the agitations leading up to catholic emancipation, and the subsequent large-scale disturbances known as the ‘tithe war’; members of the family experienced serious violence and the family income was affected by non-payment of tithes.
Le Fanu was educated privately at home, then attended TCD (1832–6, graduated BA), where he was active in the College Historical Society. There he came into contact with the young tory intellectuals associated with the Dublin University Magazine, which sought to provide intellectual ammunition for the Church of Ireland and conservatism in the aftermath of emancipation and the Reform Act. Le Fanu's first published story appeared in the magazine in January 1838; it was the first of a series of ghost stories eventually collected in 1880 as The Purcell papers. Like his friend Isaac Butt (qv), who was the magazine's editor, Le Fanu saw himself as defending Irish traditions against catholic demagogues backed by soulless whig reformers. Le Fanu's hostility to whiggery as godless, rationalistic, and materialistic influenced his persistent view of ultra-evangelicals as shallow religious hypocrites and the venomous portrayal of Jewish moneylenders in some of his later novels. (There is, however, some evidence that Le Fanu privately regretted his savage depiction of the usurer Mr Levi in The tenants of Morley (1867) and Haunted lives (1868)). Le Fanu's version of toryism could extend to a certain sympathy with advanced nationalists; his mother admired Lord Edward FitzGerald (qv) and Robert Emmet (qv) and disliked Major Sirr (qv). In 1839 Le Fanu recited his new ballad ‘Seamus O'Brien’ at the TCD Historical Society, provoking some controversy by its (semi-humorous) sympathy for a 1798 rebel.
Le Fanu's first two novels, The cock and anchor (1845) and The fortunes of Colonel Torlogh O'Brien (1847), which represent an attempt to put himself forward as the Irish equivalent of Sir Walter Scott, are notable for their relatively sympathetic portrayal of displaced catholic Jacobite aristocrats, whose plight he identified with that of the protestant ascendancy in his own day. Although Jacobite plotters are equated with the detested O'Connellites, and many of the evils of the time are laid on the shoulders of English whigs, this naturally implies a certain disquiet about the origins of the ascendancy. The cock and anchor, in particular, emphasises such characteristic Le Fanu themes as the weight on later generations of an inheritance acquired by conquest, eighteenth-century amorality paving the way for nineteenth-century retribution, the confinement and sacrifice of a female victim to patriarchal self-indulgence, and the wilful self-damnation of a proud man trying to uphold a supposed honour which his own actions have fatally compromised. Several of Le Fanu's ghost stories depict a relatively sympathetic figure inexorably pursued by a malevolent spirit, which nonetheless has just cause deriving from the victim's past crimes.
Le Fanu studied law at the King's Inns and was called to the bar in 1839, but enjoyed little success. In 1840 he purchased the Warder, a Dublin tory evening paper, which he retained until 1870, and the Statesman, a less successful paper, which ceased publication in 1846. These acquisitions were financed by loans which added to his considerable indebtedness. In 1840 Le Fanu, like Butt, was involved in discussions within the Dublin Metropolitan Conservative Society over the possibility of supporting repeal, and in 1847 he was one of those Irish conservatives who responded to perceived governmental inaction on the famine by tactical cooperation with more radical Irish factions, including the Young Irelanders. This initiative was short-lived, and in May 1848 he welcomed the conviction of John Mitchel (qv), while describing him as a victim of government incapacity, in a manner which (W. J. McCormack notes) suggests a sense that Le Fanu himself had had a narrow escape.
In 1861 Le Fanu bought a half-interest in the Dublin Evening Mail (regarded as the principal paper of the Irish conservative gentry), with Henry Maunsell (qv) as co-proprietor; he subsequently tried unsuccessfully to acquire the Dublin Daily Express. In 1861 he also became proprietor of the Dublin University Magazine, briefly reviving its literary stature by using it as the vehicle for first publication of his own novels and of the work of a few associated writers, such as his niece Rhoda Broughton. Le Fanu's political disillusionment extended not only to the patriot tradition but to the 1830s hope of Irish tory intellectuals that a conservative government might reverse the gains of whiggery and political catholicism. While continuing to regard himself as a conservative, Le Fanu threw the support of his newspapers behind Palmerston's whig government. His anonymous pamphlet The Prelude, which dealt with the contest for Trinity in the 1865 general election, applied Le Fanu's characteristic preoccupation with hypocrisy to the political sphere: Joseph Napier (qv), James Whiteside (qv), and the Lefroys were accused of making political capital from religious professions with a view to their own enrichment, and of treating the college seats as hereditary possessions.
Le Fanu lamented Palmerston's death as releasing new forces of extremism (symbolised by the growth of Fenianism), and thereafter reverted to official conservatism. He claimed credit for the appointment of Francis Blackburne (qv), rather than Whiteside, as Irish lord chancellor in Derby's last government (1866), and entertained disappointed hopes of acquiring legal patronage in return. It is symptomatic of his political exhaustion that although he had denounced any suggestion of disestablishment in the Dublin University Magazine in the early 1860s, the magazine was silent when Gladstone mounted the final assault in 1868–9. Le Fanu finally disposed of his newspaper interests in 1870.
On 18 December 1843 Le Fanu married Susan Bennett; they had two sons and two daughters. In the last years of her life Susan Le Fanu suffered from intense depression and religious doubt; she dreamt of her father's ghost inviting her to join him in the family burial vault. Le Fanu was deeply affected by his wife's death on 16 April 1858. It has been suggested that the recurrence in his later works of motherless girls, emotionally unformed young female narrators, and emotionally scarred women experiencing a form of living death reflects guilt over his relationship with his wife and concern over the responsibility of bringing up his daughters. Some critics have suggested these feminine preoccupations reflect unacknowledged homosexual feelings, a view supported by his story ‘Carmilla’, in which the account of a female vampire has a conspicuous lesbian sub-text (emphasised in a number of modern film adaptations, of which the most famous is The vampire lovers (1970), directed by Roy Ward Baker).
Le Fanu also appears to have experienced religious doubt, though its extent is indeterminable; it was sufficient to create, but not dispel, a persistent fear of damnation and to foster a preoccupation with the moral self-destruction of the rationalistic sceptic. A persistent distrust of catholicism, visible in the scheming of the Jesuit order in Willing to die (1873), and not offset by that novel's presentation of a saintly Jesuit convert from anglicanism, coexists with fear that the Reformation principle of private judgment leads to isolation and nihilism. Le Fanu's later works are influenced by the visionary occultism of Emanuel Swedenborg, with its emphasis on shadows and doubling, but he never established formal contact with the Swedenborgian church.
After a relatively fallow period in the 1850s, Le Fanu's literary activities revived with his acquisition of the Dublin University Magazine. He published sixteen works of fiction in book form in the last decade of his life. Most of these have English settings – his first London publisher, Bentley, held that Irish novels were out of fashion; but it has been argued that their settings in old country houses, their pervasive air of insecurity (achieved by combining banal domestic detail with supernatural horror or criminal intrigue), and the religious isolation of some of their characters (in Uncle Silas the heroine's father is regarded with suspicion by the local peasantry because he is a Swedenborgian) reflect the Irish situation. Le Fanu occupies a pioneering role in detective as well as supernatural fiction: for example, Checkmate (1871) is the first novel whose plot turns on plastic surgery. With the exception of Uncle Silas (1864), which is widely regarded as a minor classic and has been filmed at least twice (1947, directed by Charles Frank with Jean Simmons as Caroline Ruthyn; 1987, directed by Peter Hammond for television as The dark angel, with Peter O'Toole as Uncle Silas), Le Fanu's later novels are generally felt to be flawed by careless and hasty writing driven by the demands of serial publication and his own financial problems. More recently, with the growth of critical interest in Victorian sensation literature some critics (notably Victor Sage) have argued that the novels in fact display a sophisticated range of narrative strategies aimed at unsettling readers’ expectations. Le Fanu's reputation principally rests upon his ghost stories, notably the five (including ‘Carmilla’) collected in In a glass darkly (1872), supposedly from the notebooks of the spirit doctor Dr Martin Hesselius, who was a model for Bram Stoker's Van Helsing. (Carl Theodor Dreyer's classic 1932 film Vampyr is a loose adaptation.)
In later life Le Fanu's habits were noticeably reclusive, and in Dublin he was nicknamed ‘the Invisible Prince’. (His bio-bibliographer Gary Cowper, however, suggests that this feature of his character may have been retrospectively exaggerated by his son Brinsley when promoting his father's reputation as a master of the macabre; Cowper notes that Le Fanu continued to take an interest in public affairs and to travel to Britain for negotiations with publishers.) He died 7 February 1873 of bronchitis at his home, 18 Merrion Square, Dublin, and was buried on 11 February at Mount Jerome cemetery.
Le Fanu never attained the first rank among Victorian novelists, and his reputation fell into eclipse after his death. Although his younger son Brinsley oversaw the republication of several of his books by Edmund Downey's London publishing firm in the 1890s, Le Fanu's literary rehabilitation began with the celebrated British ghost-story writer M. R. James (1862–1936), who regarded himself as a literary disciple and collected some of Le Fanu's unattributed magazine stories (Madame Crowl's Ghost, 1921). Thereafter Le Fanu enjoyed a genre reputation among aficionados of Gothic literature, ghost stories, and (to a lesser extent) detective fiction, focused on the short stories (regularly anthologised) and Uncle Silas. Attention to Le Fanu as a specifically Irish writer was fostered by Elizabeth Bowen (qv) (whose stories are unmistakably influenced by Le Fanu) and intensified by W. J. McCormack's classic Sheridan Le Fanu and Victorian Ireland (1980).