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J. Sheridan Le Fanu's Squire Toby's Will: A Two-Minute Summary and Analysis of the Classic Ghost Story

Revenge has consistently been a major theme of Le Fanu’s supernatural fiction. Whether it be the revenge of a spectral agent (Ultor de Lacy, The Familiar, etc.), or that of divine justice (Tyrone Family, Justice Harbottle, etc.), his protagonists/victims are assured a visit from the crepuscular world of the hereafter whenever they overstep the proscribed dance of mortal life. “Squire Toby’s Will” can be read as a political parable for the oversteps committed by the Anglo-Irish against the native Irish in collusion with the paternal British Throne, one which does little to spare the Protestant class to which Le Fanu himself belonged. It is entirely possible to read this as a chilling allegory for the relationship between the (rural, Catholic, lower class) native Irish and the (urban, Protestant, middle class) Anglo-Irish: they share a common lineage through their father (Great Britain), but differ in the way that they were treated and in the legacies they are left.

 

In 1847 Le Fanu supported a liberal, Catholic, Irish Nationalist push to condemn the indifference of the British government to the Great Famine. In 1852 he was humiliated in an election for the Tory MP of County Carlow, largely due to his insurgency in favor of the liberal Irish Catholics. His rejection by both the suspicious liberals and the disgusted conservatives seemed to raise the specter of his own rocky relationship with his father, and influenced some of his greatest works.

 

The almost sado-masochistic relationship between Handsome Charlie (the favored, younger son – an Anglo-Irish stand-in) and the tyrannical, port-bloated Squire Toby (a caricature of a violently irrational, mercilessly vain British government) reflects the miseries that Le Fanu himself suffered from his own withholding father, and trebles both as political commentary and as a moral study of the Seven Deadly Sins which seem to plague all three major characters in different ways.

 

Ultimately, “Squire Toby’s Will” remains one of Le Fanu’s most misanthropic tales: unlike Barton in “The Watcher” or Jennings in “Green Tea,” Charlie is afforded a variety of means to escape his fate, is warned by supernatural means, is inspired internally to show mercy, and is nearly convinced by fear, pity, and even whimsy to open his arms to a wronged brother before it is too late. But he always finds an excuse to hoard what is, after all, a pauper’s estate.

 

What remains is to dispense justice, and very few of Le Fanu’s scenes of horror are more blood-curdling than Charlie’s final confrontations with his dead father and brother – perhaps a prediction of what would befall the soul of the perfidious Anglo-Irish community who decided to stop their ears against the cries of their Irish siblings, to hoard British favor, and to deny the Catholic Irish their human dignity. It is a prediction that foresees disaster and doom, and history would prove it disturbingly accurate.

 

II.

The story is set in Ireland during the early 19th century, where the brutal Squire Toby enjoys pitting his two sons against one another. The younger son, Charlie, is tall, handsome, and athletic while his older brother, Scroope, is swarthy, stooped, and frail. Toby is a violent man given to gluttonous alcoholism, and enjoys fighting his own sons when in his cups. One night he attacks Charlie, trying to strangle him with his cravat, but when his younger sons beats him, he gains a respect for the boy’s own willful nature, seeing himself in his boy’s ruthlessness. Shortly after this, Toby is found dead one morning – his face blackened by the alcohol-driven stroke that strangled life from him in the night. Upon reading his will, the family learn that he has given his estate over to Charlie instead of his weaker, older brother (as custom would normally dictate). Not only this, but Scroope is left without a penny – completely at his brother’s mercy. Instead of showing pity, Charlie casts Scroope out, leaving him to fend for himself while he enjoys their father’s wealth.

 

His happiness is short-lived however, when he is critically injured in a riding accident, and begins to lose his own health. While recuperating, he dreams that his father comes to him – face black with death – and directs him to the family safe. Remembering Scroope’s claim to the lawyers that his father had hidden a more favorable will somewhere in the house, he suspects that his father is trying to reveal the location of the documents to relieve his torment in hell, but he doesn’t follow through on the specter’s hints. Soon after, a bizarre dog makes an appearance at Squire Toby’s grave: strangely shaped with a white body and black head, its face reminds Charlie of his father, and – despite the servants’ hatred of the grotesque animal – he brings it to live with him.

 

Although he finds himself compelled to keep the dog, he is disturbed by dreams of it crawling into bed with him and morphing into his father’s body, and pleading with him to make amends with his ailing brother. Its constant howls so terrify the servants that he eventually becomes convinced that it is his father’s avatar come to guide him to the will enfranchising Scroope, and finally follows its instructions: searching in the closet of a disused room, he finds the will, but decides to keep this information a secret, and has his servant shoot the monstrous dog (which he is only too glad to do).

 

Charlie later dreams that his father and Scroope are standing at the foot of his bed, discussing what ought to be done to such a treacherous brother, deciding that he should be hanged like a dog. That morning news arrives that Scroope has died from his infirmities, and when he is buried in the cemetery, Charlie refuses to send his respects. But the servants say that they notice two strange men in mourning dress enter the house without a word, and from that moment on the entire manor is haunted by the ghosts of Scroope and Toby.

 

Charlie is constantly tormented by the sight of them glowering at him in their black mourning clothes and crepe-swathed hats, and feels their grip tighten around him. Only one servant can bear to stay in the house, and he is also hounded by the grim specters of his old master and the hunchbacked Scroope. Pestered by voices and visions, Charlie tries to change his ways: he becomes religious, gets engaged to a pretty local girl, and tries to participate in human society more.

 

But it is all for naught: he keeps seeing the ghosts peeking at him around doors and from corners, talking to him about his past sins and about death and darkness and hell. One night Charlie leaves his bed and is not to be found in the morning. A thorough search is made of the home and the servant almost gives up before discovering the door to the closet in the upstairs room is jammed. Forcing it, he finds his master’s body had been blocking it. He is found hanging by his cravat (the same one his father had tried to strangle him with years before) in the room where the now-destroyed will had been hidden. Horrified by these events, his servant flees the country, becomes a regular church attender, and manages his finances with careful frugality.

 

III.

“Squire Toby’s Will” is one of Le Fanu’s darkest, most pessimistic pieces, and continues to perplex and disturb readers today with its sophisticated study of guilt. It is both a moral meditation and a political parable, which seems to deeply consider the role of character and sin in the distressing relationship between the occupied Irish, the imperial English, and the hybrid Anglo-Irish faction. The story largely follows the sins of a family polluted to the very roots by the Seven Deadly Sins: hubristic pride, greed, lust, malicious envy, gluttony, inordinate anger, and sloth.

 In some way or another, each of these capital vices is relished by the three remaining members of Squire Toby’s family. The eponymous pater familias – easily interpreted as a port-bloated, filicidal, tyrannical Father England – shares with his younger son (the dashing, spirited Handsome Charlie, a possible stand-in for the Anglo-Irish faction to which the Le Fanus belonged) a taste for heavy drinking and indulgent eating (gluttony), an unreasonable and merciless stubbornness (pride), and an outrageous temper which stupefies even his most corrupt lackeys (anger).

 

Dark-complexioned (read: Celtic), infirm, and destitute, the elder brother, Scroope – impossible to miss as a metaphor for the Irish people – lacks the athleticism of his hunter brother and father, and is thus charged with sloth (a common stereotype of the Irish), though his inaction is more due to infirmity of body than infirmity of character. As Father England fades away from the Irish landscape (coyly transplanted to the North Countree), which I interpret as symbolic of the migration of English landholders (called absentee landlords) from Ireland to Britain, our Anglo-Irish Charlie is endowed with the inheritance that should by rights belong to his older, more destitute sibling; but as in Anglo-Irish politics, favoritism prevails, and the less needy Charlie is granted a double portion while his brother suffers in penury until his demise.

 

What follows is both a Lefanuvian reflection on the source, effects, and desserts of sin, and a premonition of what will befall the Tory, Anglo-Irish class to which he belonged. Enjoying the lavish gifts of a distant national Father while their elder siblings (elder in that the native Irish clearly have a greater claim to their land as a birthright than the “younger,” transplanted Anglo-Irish), Le Fanu muses that Irish Protestants are ignorant of the reckoning that they will ultimately face. History proved him correct. The question might be raised, “we have accounted for six of the Seven Deadly Sins, but what of the seventh?”

 

Lust factors into Le Fanu’s work on a dependably regular manner. Desire, eroticism, and rape are frequent elements of his work, especially his ghost stories. Women feature hardly at all in “Squire Toby’s Will,” and yet there are distinct patterns of Lefanuvian sexuality present here, namely in his favorite symbol of eros, the bed. The bulldog is a disturbing phantom – the familiar or doppelganger of Squire Toby, right down to the bloated face and discolored head – and there is something vaguely phallic about its elongated neck and puffy head, something untoward about its nocturnal worrying about Charlie’s bed.

 

While (male) homoeroticism is not frequent per se in Le Fanu, it is hardly unheard of. “Green Tea” has fashionably been read as having homosexual symbolism (some viewing it as a metaphor for gay masturbation, etc.), and many of Le Fanu’s most notorious villains (the cozy Judge Horrocks, the foppish Justice Harbottle, the secret, Faustian companions of Ardagh and Sir Dominick) have positively overt tones of queerness. I would suggest that Le Fanu – in merging his moral and political fables – has located lust in the incestuous bedfellows of Father England and his Anglo-Irish offspring, who have whored themselves out to their parent in order to deprive their siblings of their birthright.

 

Like the Biblical Jacob (whose pseudo-incestuous machinations with his adoring mother stole the blessing of his father from his older brother Esau), Charlie has defied nature, morals, and tradition (a very un-conservative act, if we read him as symbolic of the Tory Episcopalians) through his relationship with his father. Squire Toby certainly seems to have an almost sado-masochistic relationship with his son, admiring his beauty, his athleticism, and his ability to physically dominate him, and Charlie’s questionable favor overrides Scroope’s natural ascendency as the firstborn. Just the same, Le Fanu seemed to view the relationship between the British and the Anglo-Irish as a shameful, incestuous conspiracy against a deserving sibling – one dominated by royal pride, militaristic violence, Anglo-Irish greed, gluttony, and envy, which collude in an act of political lust to take advantage of Ireland’s deep poverty by justifying it by characterizing destitution as sloth.  

 

You can read the original story HERE!

 

And you can find our annotated and illustrated collection of Sheridan Le Fanu's best ghost stories HERE!

 

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