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.

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