Thursday, April 19, 2018

Dracula Gender Tropes and Victorian Sexual Panic

Almost 2000 years ago, in AD 54, St. Paul wrote the First Epistle to the Corinthians, wherein it states (verse 11:8), “For neither was the man created for the woman; but the woman for the man.” Taking this to heart, over the centuries, men took possession of their creations and liberated them from the burden of property and legal rights, in order to shelter the fairer sex from the quotidian mental toils of earthly existence.

By 1792, in Mary Wollstonecraft’s time, most women had conformed to this arrangement:

Women are told from their infancy, and taught by the example of their mothers, that a little knowledge of human weakness, justly termed cunning, softness of temper, outward obedience, and a scrupulous attention to a puerile kind of propriety, will obtain for them the protection of man; and should they be beautiful, everything else is needless, for, at least, twenty years of their lives.

Minister William Jay, at a wedding in Argyle Chapel, Bath, on August 16, 1801, gave this lesson: “Nothing will increase your influence and secure your usefulness more than being in subjugation to your own husbands.” This submission and corresponding protection had a legal name, feme covert, meaning women relinquished their property and surrendered their self-determination upon marriage in exchange for their husband’s protection.

The Married Women’s Property Act of 1882, which passed Parliament fifteen years before Dracula was published, changed these rules:

A married woman shall, in accordance with the provisions of this Act, be capable of acquiring, holding, and disposing by will or otherwise, of any real or personal property as her separate property, in the same manner as if she were a feme sole, without the intervention of any trustee.

From this fertile liberal soil springs Mina Harker, a stark contrast to the typical Gothic woman. It is wrong to classify Mina as the Woman-In-Peril archetype, because though Dracula targets her, she is empowered with her typewriter and shorthand, organizing diaries and case studies. She is no damsel-in-distress by choice. Indeed, she uses her agency to foil Dracula’s assaults. When the men intend to withhold the extent of Dracula’s evil, she argues, telling them, she “had read all the papers and diaries, and that [she and Jonathan], having typewritten them, had just finished putting them in order.” Arthur reacts by asking, “Did you write all this, Mrs. Harker?”, which today certainly seems condescending.

Simultaneously, though, Mina retains her traditional role as a virtuous woman and good wife. She is faithful to Jonathan when he is months tardy and holds motherly values dear. Self-sufficient enough to travel to Prague, she nurses Jonathan to health, and they marry. Later, she independently decides to read his diary and consults Van Helsing.

Later, she comforts Arthur writing, “I felt this big sorrowing man’s head resting on me, as though it were that of a baby that some day may lie on my bosom, and I stroked his hair as though he were my own child.” Only when Jonathan stops telling her their secrets does Dracula gain access to her chamber, but even then, she fights back. In fact, she allows Van Helsing to use her hypnotically as a window into Dracula’s mind.

If Mina is the Mother figure, Lucy, by contrast, is the Whore or Fallen Woman. The young beautiful narcissist attracts a bevy of admirers: Quincey Morris, Dr. John Seward, and Arthur. They all want to marry her, and she relishes their attention. Later, all three “strapping men” (in Van Helsing’s words) will replenish her blood before she succumbs at last to Dracula’s thirst. In the end, together with Van Helsing, these same men stake her in the grave, ending her Undead life, but not before she commits a mortal sin—Not the violation of the child’s neck, but displaying prurience in public, indeed before her husband’s friends:

Come to me, Arthur. Leave these others and come to me. My arms are hungry for you. Come, and we can rest together. Come, my husband, come! (Ch. 16)

Dr. Seward describes her tone as “diabolically sweet.” Luckily Van Helsing intervenes with his “little golden crucifix,” a symbol diminished in size to show its sublime power as a conduit of the ineffable. Later, Van Helsing explains to Arthur the peril his Undead wife represents:


Friend Arthur, if you had met that kiss which you know of before poor Lucy die, or again, last night when you open your arms to her, you would in time, when you had died, have become nosferatu. (Ch. 16)

The three sisters in Dracula’s castle foreshadow Lucy’s fall from grace. He feels guilt writing, afraid that Mina might someday read his words:

All three had brilliant white teeth that shone like pearls against the ruby of their voluptuous lips. There was something about them that made me uneasy, some longing and at the same time some deadly fear. I felt in my heart a wicked, burning desire that they would kiss me with those red lips.

In a saucy twist, Dracula would later get revenge by ravishing dear Mina’s pretty neck while she lies beside Jonathan.

Dracula also represents a Gothic sexual trope, the Vampire, its bloodlust paralleling sexual desire. Dracula is bisexual, feeding on sailors and maidens alike, as well as claiming both Jonathan and Mina. After the episode with the three sisters, Dracula berates them, saying, “This man belongs to me.” In this class, we have learned the vampire “invoke[s] horror and terror because of its power to allure and provoke one’s repressed desires” (Hasanat 2). In Dracula, Jonathan’s repressed homosexuality comes alive in his sultry description of Dracula whose “white skin seemed ruby-red underneath; the mouth was redder than ever” (Ch. 2). Stoker allows Jonathan to contemplate forbidden desire without ever mentioning homosexuality.

Dracula is a frustrating novel, possessing legitimate moments of well-constructed frights, but its overlong narrative often dawdles and rambles, and time has rendered much of its dialogue comical. Take the instance the men are rushing to save Mina from Dracula. They know Dracula is in her room:

Outside the Harker’s door we paused. Art and Quincey held back, and the latter said, “Should we disturb her?”

“We must,” said Van Helsing grimly. “If the door be locked, I shall break it in.”

“May it not frighten her terribly? It is unusual to break into a lady’s room!”

Van Helsing said solemnly, “You are always right. But this is life and death. All chambers are alike to the doctor. And even were they not they are all as one to me tonight. Friend John, when I turn the handle, if the door does not open, do you put your shoulder down and shove. And you too, my friends. Now!”


Even so, Dracula is a capstone of Gothic literature, and its antagonist is perhaps horror's most notorious villain. Dracula’s feeding extinguishes life, and his nourishment constitutes anti-sex, the destruction of life. Dracula is not the summit of human terror though. The Twentieth Century proved beyond doubt humans were the real monsters.


Works Cited

The Bible. The American Standard Version, First Epistle to the Corinthians, 11:8.

“Married Women's Property Act, 1882”. 1882 Act of Parliament. 45 & 46 Vict. Ch. 75.

Hasanat, Fayeza. “Lecture 2: The Gothic of the 1790s.”

Jay, William. “The Mutual Duties of Husbands and Wives; a Sermon [on 1 Pet. Iii. 1-7] Occasioned by the Marriage of R----- S-----, Esq., of M-.” Preached in Argyle Chapel, Bath, 16 Aug., 1801. Available Online.

Stoker, Bram. Dracula. Edited by George Stade. New York: Barnes and Noble Classics, 2005.

Wollstonecraft, Mary. A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. 1792. Project Gutenberg, Urbana, Illinois.


Tuesday, April 17, 2018

"You Must Come With Me, Loving Me, To Death"--Sexual and Gender Tropes in Carmilla

From its inception, Gothic literature provided a vitrine for presentation of taboo subjects, especially forbidden love. Walpole’s Castle of Otranto, for example, tells of Manfred’s pursuit of an incestuous relationship with his ward. Carmilla, by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu, written during the Victorian Era of adamantine sexual repression, features a steamy same-sex relationship, veiled as vampirism, between its narrator, Laura, archetype of the virtuous woman, and the alluring monster, Countess Karnstein, whose name cycles through anagrams from Mircalla to Carmilla. Even by today’s standards, the language is markedly erotic, but Le Fanu’s piquant prose surely shocked a significant share of the reading public.

Teenage Laura lives with her English father and several servants in an Austrian Schloss, a country estate. She is lonely, so lonely, in fact, we only learn her name at the end of Chapter 8 and, even then, she is not directly addressed. This is how Laura describes the isolation of their dwelling:


I have said that this is a very lonely place. Judge whether I say truth. Looking from the hall door towards the road, the forest in which our castle stands extends fifteen miles to the right, and twelve to the left.

Thus, Laura, aside from being the iconic Gothic forbidden woman, also represents the woman alone and in danger, but instead of facing peril “roaming freely outside the safe zone of a house,” Laura’s father invites Carmilla into her “safe domestic sphere” (Hasanat).

Laura is also a damsel in distress, who must wait passively while her father, the General, and their (all male) allies assemble to destroy Carmilla. Blood-drained Laura is infected by the languor (a word used seven times) Carmilla naturally experiences:

Except in these brief periods of mysterious excitement her ways were girlish; and there was always a languor about her, quite incompatible with a masculine system in a state of health.

The narrator depicts Carmilla’s “languor” as feminine. Later, Laura also describes it as “graceful”:


Carmilla was looking charmingly. Nothing could be more beautiful than her tints. Her beauty was, I think, enhanced by that graceful languor that was peculiar to her.

Carmilla’s excited behavior is described as “hysteria,” another loaded word in 1872:

Her face underwent a change that alarmed and even terrified me for a moment. It darkened, and became horribly livid; her teeth and hands were clenched, and she frowned and compressed her lips, while she stared down upon the ground at her feet, and trembled all over with a continued shudder as irrepressible as ague. All her energies seemed strained to suppress a fit, with which she was then breathlessly tugging; and at length a low convulsive cry of suffering broke from her, and gradually the hysteria subsided.


Only six years earlier, the president of the Medical Society of London, Dr. Isaac Baker-Brown, published On the Curability of Certain Forms of Insanity, Epilepsy, Catalepsy, and Hysteria in Females, a book linking masturbation with the natural progression from hysteria, epilepsy, insanity, to death. He recommended excision of the bothersome clitoris. Much controversy resulted, and he was expelled from the society, but not because they believed clitoridectomy was not a cure for masturbation. Youtube channel Victorians Exposed explains:



^ Her bookshelf is dreamy! :-)

Much is made of the feminine novelty of Le Fanu’s vampire character, but  Carmilla was not the first teenage woman vampire. The penny dreadful, Varney the Vampire, serialized from 1847-1849, featured Clara Crofton, turned UnDead on her wedding night, who later feasts on the blood of a schoolgirl before being staked by a mob. Here is Clara’s “dreadful” end:

The blacksmith shuddered as he held the stake in an attitude to pierce the body, and even up to that moment it seemed to be a doubtful case, whether he would be able to accomplish his purpose or not; at length, when they all thought he was upon the point of abandoning his design, and casting the stake away, he thrust it with tremendous force through the body and the back of the coffin.

The eyes of the corpse opened wide -- the hands were clenched, and a shrill, piercing shriek came from the lips -- a shriek that was answered by as many as there were persons present, and then with pallid fear upon their countenances they rushed headlong from the spot.

A mobile vulgus of frightened men gathered to penetrate a helpless woman with their phallic stake, conjures the same fear of rape underlying many Gothic stories. Almost the same scene repeats in Chapter 15 of Carmilla:

The limbs were perfectly flexible, the flesh elastic; and the leaden coffin floated with blood, in which to a depth of seven inches, the body lay immersed…In accordance with the ancient practice, was raised, and a sharp stake driven through the heart of the vampire, who uttered a piercing shriek at the moment, in all respects such as might escape from a living person in the last agony.


The two authors even describe the shriek of death as piercing, just as the thrusted, driven stake pierces, another interesting parallel.

In my opinion, what most distinguishes the novel is the lush diction Le Fanu uses to describe Laura and Carmilla’s relationship. Their first interaction, where the vampire is nurtured from Laura’s breast, subverting natural breastfeeding, occurs when the child is only six. Laura describes it so:

I saw a solemn, but very pretty face looking at me from the side of the bed. It was that of a young lady who was kneeling, with her hands under the coverlet. I looked at her with a kind of pleased wonder, and ceased whimpering. She caressed me with her hands, and lay down beside me on the bed, and drew me towards her, smiling; I felt immediately delightfully soothed, and fell asleep again. I was wakened by a sensation as if two needles ran into my breast very deep at the same moment, and I cried loudly. (Chapter 1)

Later, in Chapter 4, when Carmilla shares her version of the story, she describes Laura as “a beautiful young lady, with golden hair and large blue eyes, and lips—your lips—you as you are here.” “Your looks won me,” she says matter-of-factly. Her seductive language knows no bounds. “In the rapture of my enormous humiliation I live in your warm life, and you shall die—die, sweetly die—into mine.” Her infatuation with Laura is decidedly honest. “I cannot help it,” she says. “as I draw near to you, you, in your turn, will draw near to others, and learn the rapture of that cruelty, which yet is love.” For Carmilla, Death is only a passage, la grande mort, and her description of being UnDead is a promise of fulfillment: “Girls are caterpillars while they live in the world, to be finally butterflies when the summer comes.”

There are numerous lesbian readings of Carmilla, but modern readers seeking good sapphic fiction (sans vampires) have better options, among them Sarah Waters, Rita Mae Brown, Jeanette Winterson, and Nancy Garden. The gender-bending Orlando by Virginia Woolf is another must-read, in my opinion. Lesbian vampire stories are their own branch of paranormal, a hugely popular genre. Darkness Embraced, by Winter Pennington, Darkling, by Yasmine Galenorn, and The Hunger, by Whitley Strieber, are excellent novels I heartily recommend with lesbian or (at least) bisexual women vampire protagonists.

For a fan-fiction BDSM version of Carmilla, one that would never have passed the Victorian censors, seek out Catherine Rose’s, Carmilla’s Lament, essentially an erotic rewrite of Carmilla where our narrator describes “fingers stroking along swollen tender tissues that thrummed with each beat of [her] heart.” These are her thoughts in a moment of lambent contemplation:

Had I not been dreaming I would have rejected this advance but after all a dream means nothing and is gone with the morning dew. What harm could come from this strange dream?
What harm indeed?


(1318 words, 698 mine)


Works Cited

Hasanat, Fayeza. “Lecture 2: The Gothic of the 1790s”

Le Fanu, Joseph Sheridan. Carmilla. First published 1872. Web version: 2014 University of Adelaide, South Australia.

Prest, Thomas Preskett. Varney the Vampire or The Feast of Blood. 1847-1849 by E. Lloyd. London. Web version: 2011 by Project Gutenberg. p. 755

Rose, Catherine and Le Fana, Joseph Sheridan. Carmilla’s Lament. 2013 by Dark Horse Publications.

Thursday, April 12, 2018