The Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victoriana
by Jess Nevins
copyright © Jess Nevins 2022
“Carmilla” was written by J. Sheridan Le Fanu and first appeared in The Dark Blue (Dec 1871-Mar 1872). Le Fanu (1814-1873) was a noted Irish poet, novelist, and author of short horror stories. He wrote widely, but it is “Carmilla,” along with “Green Tea,” for which he is best-known.
“Carmilla” is set in Styria, an Austrian province along the Hungarian border. The story's narrator, Laura, lives there in a castle with her father and a few servants. When Laura is only six years old she has a terrifying experience: one night a woman appears in her bedroom and proceeds to slip under the covers with Laura and begin caressing her. Laura falls asleep and then is awakened “by a sensation as if two needles ran into my breast very deep at the same moment.”1 Laura screams, and the woman slips under the bed, but when the room is searched she is nowhere to be found. The nurses and maids believe Laura, however, because the space in the bed where the woman lay is still warm. Years pass and the woman does not reappear, but Laura does not forget about her and does not forget what she looked like. One day when Laura is nineteen her father tells her about the death of the daughter of her father’s friend General Spielsdorf. General Spielsdorf is vague about the details, but it is clear there was something untoward about it. That night there is a carriage accident near the castle, and one of the passengers, a young woman named Carmilla, is deemed by her mother to be too ill to continue on the trip. Laura’s father agrees, slightly regretting his impulsiveness.
Laura instantly recognizes Carmilla as the woman who preyed on her as a child, but as Carmilla immediately tells Laura about a strange dream she had eleven years before in which similar events occurred, Laura’s concerns are dissuaded. Carmilla is strange and will not discuss her past, but she is not unfriendly, and is passionate about Laura, and the two quickly become close friends, with Carmilla rapidly becoming physically affectionate with Laura. They are close for a while, but strange events begin to occur. Some old family portraits are being cleaned, and when the 1698 portrait of Mircalla, Countess Karnstein is revealed, everyone notices that Carmilla is a dead ringer for the Countess. Carmilla’s response is that she, like Laura, is descended from the Karnsteins, which strikes those listening as at least plausible. Carmilla’s health and mood fluctuate in strange ways. A series of unpleasant and possibly unnatural deaths occurs among the peasants in the countryside around Laura’s castle. Laura’s health declines, as she suffers octurnal attacks from something which is sometimes a cat and sometimes shaped like a woman. These attacks leave Laura increasingly languorous, dreamy, pale, and weak.
Then General Spielsdorf arrives. He tells Laura and her father about the wasting illness of his ward, who he thought of as his daughter, and how this illness coincided with the entrance into his life and that of his daughter of a mysterious young woman named Millarca. The General’s ward claimed the illness came from nocturnal attacks on her by a specter which sometimes looked like Millarca and sometimes a beast. A doctor the General consulted was certain that his ward’s condition was due to a vampire, and the General waited in the dying girl’s room and caught the vampire, who was Millarca, about to feed on the girl. The General tried to kill her but she was too quick for him and escaped, and the General’s ward died shortly thereafter.
The General has come to the castle of Laura’s father because the grave of the vampire who is descended from the Karnsteins, is nearby. They go to the ruined chapel of the Karnsteins and see Carmilla herself entering it. The General recognizes her as his Millarca and attacks her, but she overpowers him and escapes from him again. But the General, Laura, Laura’s father, and the General’s old friend Baron Vordenburg, go to the Chapel of the Karnsteins and open up the grave of the Countess Mircalla. Carmilla is inside, floating in seven inches of blood. The group stake Carmilla, cut off her head, burn her body, and throw the ashes into a river, which permanently kills her.
“Carmilla” is not merely significant as literature; it is an excellent horror story. Le Fanu was a skillful writer of terror tales; “Green Tea” and “Schalken the Painter” are disquieting and superbly disturbing. “Carmilla” is compelling, and the mystery of what Carmilla is and how everything will be resolved retains one’s interest even when the reader already knows Carmilla’s secret. Le Fanu does not put in the omissions that made “Schalken the Painter” so marvelously unsettling; “Carmilla” is written in the form of a more traditional folktale-like story, with the moral status quo asserted by story’s end through the saving of the innocent (Laura) and the destruction of the monster (Carmilla). But Le Fanu does a fine job of scene-setting, in the picturesque descriptions of the Styrian environment and in the dreamlike atmosphere in which Carmilla attacks Laura. Le Fanu does not explore the psychological aspects of Laura’s victimization the way he did in “Green Tea” with Mr. Jennings, but his characterization is generally solid in “Carmilla.”
“Carmilla” is mostly lacking in the Gothic trappings which are so common to most mid-century vampire stories. Le Fanu does not locate “Carmilla” in the real world as strongly as he did “Schalken the Painter” and “Green Tea,” but his characterization and settings are relatively realistic and lacking in melodrama. This was a departure from most previous vampire stories.
The erotic atmosphere of the story is worth noting. The lesbianism in “Carmilla” is too blatant to be a subtext. Le Fanu’s audience was shocked by how relatively explicit he was in making women, not men, the focus of Carmilla’s desires. The lesbianism of the story is not located in Carmilla’s predilection for biting her victim’s breasts, but rather in her attraction to women, in her kisses and caresses on them, in her holding their hands and cuddling with them and seeming to fall genuinely in love with them and acting like many young Victorian women did when they formed their passionate “romantic friendships.” That, and not the biting of the breasts, is what was shocking to Le Fanu’s audience—he took a common piece of real-life behavior and overtly sexualized it. He does so strongly, so that “Carmilla” is sexually charged at times, much more so than most previous vampire stories.
It can be argued that the “passionate friendships” of Victorian women were in fact usually sexualized, so that “Carmilla” was shocking not because it sexualized that which was ordinarily not sexual, but because it took a feature of Victorian life which most people agreed not to talk about and put it in print. The landmark—and controversial—article on Victorian “romantic friendships” was Carroll Smith-Rosenberg's "The Female World of Love and Ritual" (Signs 1, no.1 [Autumn, 1975]: 1-29), in which she drew equivalences between Victorian friendship between women and Victorian female sexual intimacy between women.
By contrasting the twentieth-century opposition between heterosexual normalcy and lesbian deviance to the nineteenth century’s failure to sequester friendship from erotic intimacy, Smith-Rosenberg implied that before the advent of sexual orientations, no lines were drawn separating friends, lovers, and family members. To prove the existence of a homogeneous “female world of love and ritual,” Smith-Rosenberg indiscriminately cited letters exchanged between sisters, cousins, mothers, daughters, sisters-in-law, married and single women, women of the same age and women of very different ages, lovers, friendly ex-lovers, distraught ex-lovers, and friends with reciprocal and nonreciprocal crushes who never became lovers...As a result, Smith-Rosenberg’s concept of romantic friendship between women has proven deeply ambiguous. Its emphasis on a broad “spectrum” of accepted forms of female intimacy suggested that Victorians were more willing to accept female homosexuality than their modern descendants...Yet for every scholar who cites “The Female World of Love and Ritual” to explain that Victorian women could have sexual relationships with each other without incurring social stigma, another uses it to prove the sexlessness of the most passionate, enduring, and exclusive love affairs.2
The reading audience’s reaction to “Carmilla” cannot help resolve this debate. We know that readers were shocked by its heavily eroticized portrayal of a woman-loving-woman relationship, but at this remove we cannot know whether the contemporary audience’s shock was because of Le Fanu sexualizing the unsexual or because he put in print that which most preferred to remain covert.
“Carmilla” is historically significant. Like most vampire stories written after 1850, “Carmilla” focuses on a female vampire who is a form of the femme fatale (see: The Fatal Woman). Théophile Gautier’s “Clarimonde” was the first vampire story to emphasize the sexual aspects of the vampire’s feeding, but “Carmilla” was the first vampire story with a lesbian theme.3 Importantly Le Fanu treats the lesbian vampire sympathetically and even transgressively.
Unlike her male predecessors whose intimacy with other men evades questions of desire, Carmilla “feeds on women with a hunger inseparable from erotic sympathy”...Carmilla is an earlier vampire to Dracula, and she is also his antithesis. She is not remote and solitary, but intimate and connected, and she suggests a sharing and a blending that can occur only outside of patriarchal sexual mores.4
This was very much not the case with the twentieth-century successors to Le Fanu:
Andrea Weiss notes that a “spate” of lesbian vampire novels appeared in the first half of the twentieth century in order to pathologise women’s friendships and to “enforce the transition from nineteenth-century socially accepted close female friendships to the redefinition of such relationships as deviant in the first half of the twentieth century....”5
Lesbian vampires would endure a century-long period of being portrayed in heterosexist and stereotypical terms before Jewell Gomez, in The Gilda Stories (1991), depicted a lesbian vampire in progressive rather than retrogressive terms.
“Carmilla” was the best written of the English-language vampire stories of the nineteenth century—much better written than Dracula. “Carmilla” was influential on Bram Stoker, whose better-known vampire set the mold for vampires for decades afterwards. Among the things Stoker took from “Carmilla” was the Eastern European setting, an undead Countess (who appeared in “Dracula’s Guest,” the deleted first chapter of Dracula), the figure of the knowledgeable and knowing vampire hunter (Van Helsing seems to have been mostly based on Doctor Hesselius, who appears in the framing sequence of “Carmilla”), and many of Carmilla’s powers, including her superhuman strength, her ability to change shape, and her sleeping in a coffin.
Modern readers will find “Carmilla” compelling, enjoyable reading.
Print: J. Sheridan Le Fanu, In a Glass Darkly. Oxford: Oxford World’s Classics, 2008.
1 J. Sheridan Le Fanu, “Carmilla,” in In a Glass Darkly, volume three (London: R. Bentley, 1872), 59.
2 Sharon Marcus, Between Women: Friendship, Desire, and Marriage in Victorian England (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University, 2007), 36.
3 Etienne-Leon, Baron de Lamothe-Langon (see: The Devil) was the first nineteenth century novelist to portray a female vampire, in La Vampire ou La Vierge de Hongrie (1825), although Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Geraldine, in the poem, “Christabel” (1797-1800), precedes her in poetry.
4 Milly Williamson, The Lure of the Vampire: Gender, Fiction, and Fandom from Bram Stoker to Buffy (New York: Wallflower Press, 2005), 35.
5 Andrea Weiss, Vampires & Violets: Lesbians in the Cinema (New York: J. Cape, 1992), 87, qtd in Williamson, The Lure of the Vampire, 34.