Sunday, 16 June 2013

Sheridan Le Fanu's Uncle Silas: or, why real books are best

At my school, Lancing, you were assigned a tutor, whom you would meet once a week for half an hour or so to talk about non-academic subjects - your personal development, your career choices, or anything that was on your mind. I had one of my Greek teachers - a deeply spiritual man who decided that he wanted to become a monk on Mount Athos. In order to do this, he had to give away all his worldly possessions. And so he gave me some of his books.

One of them, Uncle Silas by Sheridan Le Fanu, I've had knocking about my various abodes since he presented it to me. It's an Oxford Classics paperback, with a mysterious painting on the cover by Judith Millais, showing a woman putting a finger to her lips. I've only just got round to reading it - a mere fourteen or so years later - and boy, was I pleased to have done so.

It's a wonderful book - part Gothic horror, part romance, with a good dose of morality and humour. The story concerns a young woman, Maud Ruthyn, the heiress to a fortune, who at the death of her father is put into the care of her Uncle Silas, about whom there hang many rumours - that he killed a man, that he is dissipated and criminal. If Maud dies, then Silas becomes the sole heir to her princely fortune.

The danger mounts steadily, and appears in surprising and intriguing forms: a vicious French governess; a brutish son. Le Fanu expertly creates a sense of claustrophobia and mounting hysteria. It's not just a physical battle, though, that Maud must endure: it's a moral one.

When I finished the book, I thought about who had given it to me, and I thought about his story, and why he'd read it in the first place. It is an extremely spiritual novel - it perhaps describes the battle of the soul to win goodness, and ends with a resounding paean to God. It must have meant a lot to him.

And now, it does to me too - not just the text of the book, but the physical book itself. After a party at my house, it's received a wine stain, and it's crumpled and the pages are bent back, but it is still itself, and it contains a hoard of other stories around it.

One day, who knows, I may give it to someone else. And they will have it by them, and think about me when they read it, on into the future, and the book will continue acquiring layers of meaning until the day when it falls apart.

That, you see, is what you don't get with an ebook. Real books are part of us, part of our stories. And that is why they will survive, adding links into the chain of our greater narrative.

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