In A Glass Darkly by Sheridan Le Fanu

Vel’s Perspective:

In A Glass Darkly is a collection of 5 stories, loosely connected by the common theme of being cases observed or brought to the attention of Dr Hesselius, who does not take an active part in them and are submitted to the attention of the reader by an assistant to the doctor.

‘Green Tea’ was a quick read and a good start for the book, it sets the tone and expectations for the rest of the pieces. This first story, along with ‘The Familiar’ and ‘Mr Justice Harbottle’ form a trio with each looking respectively into different key areas of society – clergy, military and justice, and picks at the rotten and spoilt practices which were common place at Le Fanu’s time. They come from a gradual disillusionment taking place in Le Fanu’s outlook and his following withdraw from the wider political scene at the time.

‘The Room in the Dragon Volant’ was by far the lengthiest and because of this, hardest, read for me. I was constantly thrown out of the story by the stupidity of the main character’s actions, by his naive comments and trust to complete strangers. Perhaps it is my upbringing which caused this – matters of money are considered private and are only discussed with a few close relatives/friends. Having a random large amount sat in a bank doing nothing, or considering spending even a single penny on gambling is considered foolish. Hell, even playing the lottery is something I’ve been taught to frown upon (yes, I have played the lottery, how hypocritical of me, I know). The story is an elaborate plot to rob a rich Englishman when he has gone travelling in a post-war France. In my opinion, he gets what he deserves, being prematurely placed in a coffin after being poisoned, but then again, I was glad his good friends managed to rescue him before ‘the joke had turned sour’.

Finally, I got to ‘Carmilla’, which was the entire reason I wanted to read Le Fanu’s stories. It was by far my favourite in the series, both in terms of writing, plot and characters. I imagine Carmilla’s advances on the main character would have been shocking in Le Fanu’s era, and it was a chuckle to place myself in those times and take their fears in seriousness. A couple of things made an impression on me – the entourage with which Carmilla first arrives is never mentioned again, what happened to them? The description of the dark-skinned woman and her turban also struck me as quite dated, a little touch to aid instilling fear in the white readers at the time.

In all stories I noticed the main characters bearing some similarities – they are rich or at least considered rich in their surroundings. They have far too much free time on their hands and seem to decide they cannot or must not share their predicament with anyone, and when they do, they trust the wrong person. Overall, I found this selection of stories an interesting snapshot of Le Fanu’s surroundings and the fears of the people at the time. On more than one account, I was quite happy we have moved on from there, for instance the description of the dark-skinned woman in ‘Carmlla’ as already mentioned, and the cripple hypnotist in ‘The Familiar’ – because, how dare she, a cripple wishes to be loved! Despite these drawbacks, I can see how, ‘Carmilla’ in particular, has been a great influence in Gothic literature and culture.

Nel’s Perspective:

I read In a Glass Darkly probably 12 years ago, when I was on one of my gothic novels reading sprees in high school. I was trying to read as many different authors and stories as I could, because I thought that there was more to the genre than the commercialized and, very often, overdone story of the misunderstood vampire and the damsel in distress, who eventually becomes his/her lover. Romance certainly plays a part in the gothic genre, however its role is more subtle and not so overly-simplified. In one of le Fanu’s stories – Carmilla – you do see the outlines of this narrative – Laura, who longs for a companion after her friend, Bertha, dies under mysterious circumstances, finds solace in the company of the enigmatic Carmilla, who shows all the features of being a vampire. Although this story also includes elements of erotica and lesbianism, the main point is how manipulation and influence work under the guise of concern and love for the other. In addition, Carmilla is not so much about love as it is about infatuation, the desire to possess and to control.

While I do regret not reading the Introduction and the Note on the Text parts of the book at the time, as it would definitely have made me appreciate the gothic genre more, I am grateful that enough time had passed so I could re-read the book and appreciate it again. I did perceive the narrative differently this time. I wouldn’t say that I was naïve 12 years ago, but the way I read books and what I searched for in a story then differs from how I interpreted the stories now. Also, I need to make a little note to myself not to skip the Introduction. I definitely added a few more books to my “to-read” list, because this is a good way to get oneself acquainted with a genre or find authors with a similar writing style.

In a Glass Darkly is a collection of stories, “authored” by Dr. Martin Hesselius, which describe his travels and encounters with the supernatural. His “patients” are seemingly regular people – a priest, a sea captain, a judge, a young man and a young woman. The common denominator is that each of the stories depict how intense feelings can plague one’s life by exacerbating or creating new problems. Like I said before, Carmilla is a victim of her own infatuation and desire to possess; the paranoia and anxiety of Rev. Mr. Jennings, the vicar, eventually lead to his tragic demise; and as for Mr. Barton, the sea captain – he becomes haunted by his guilt and fears.

The true horror lies not in the supernatural events or creatures that appear in the book, but in the everyday things that can make one’s life to spiral out control and sometimes lead to one’s own death. That’s why I prefer to view these stories as cautionary tales. I do relate to Dr. Martin Hesselius, because I also try to observe, take notes, collect experiences and memories, and possibly use the knowledge for my personal development. The whole process becomes more interesting and rewarding, if only one views it as an adventure.

Final thought: “When two people, who like reading, and know books and places, having travelled, wish to converse, it is very strange if they can’t find topics”.


Edition Published: 1997, First Published: 1872

Language book read in: English