The Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victoriana
by Jess Nevins
copyright © Jess Nevins 2022
“Clarimonde” (original title: “La Morte Amoureuse” [transl.: “The Dead Love”]) was written by Théophile Gautier and first appeared in La Chronique de Paris (June 23-26, 1836). Gautier (1811-1872) was a French poet, novelist, and critic of art and literature. He was one of the major figures in French letters for almost fifty years, a leader of the French Romantic movement, and the founder of the l’art pour l’art (art for art’s sake) movement, which held that beauty, not morality, was the only aim of art. “Clarimonde” is, like Gautier’s “One of Cleopatra’s Nights,” viewed as a classic of the weird, and like “One of Cleopatra’s Nights” it completely deserves the title.
“Clarimonde” is about the double life of Romuald. He is a young man, only twenty-four, whose entire life has been spent in a “prolonged novitiate,” so that he has never stepped beyond the walls of his college and seminary, and his only goal in life, the highest ideal he aspires to, is to become a priest. He is wholly ignorant of women: his only exposure to them his twice yearly visit by his aged mother. Both his devotion to becoming a priest and his ignorance of women changes during his ordination when he notices, in the crowd in the church, an extraordinarily beautiful woman. She makes him an offer with her eyes: “If thou wilt be mine, I shall make thee happier than God Himself in His paradise. The angels themselves will be jealous of thee.”1 Despite his complete willingness to say yes, he somehow resists and is ordained as a priest. As the woman leaves the church she tells him, “Unhappy man! Unhappy man! What hast thou done?”2 On his way back to his cell Romuald is given a note reading, “Clarimonde. At the Concini Palace,” and this sends him into transports of ecstatic love, but there is no way he can leave his cell undetected and make it to the tryst. Then the Abbé Serapion, who has been watching Romuald, tells him that he is likely under attack by the Evil Spirit and that he should pray for the strength to resist. He does, and remains in his cell through the night. The next morning Romuald leaves for his new curacy. On the way out of the city he notices one tower in particular and asks the Abbé about it. He is told that it is the palace which Prince Concini has given to the courtesan Clarimonde, and that “Awful things are done there.”3
Romuald takes up his new position and does it well, but he is unhappy, finding a great arid emptiness in his new life. A year after assuming his new job he is summoned to a neighboring castle, to the death bed of a noble lady who turns out to be Clarimonde. Romuald arrives after she dies, but he stays to pray for her soul. He is bewitched, looking on her dead body, and he weeps, “bathing her cheeks with the warm dew of my tears,”4 and he cannot resist one last farewell kiss on her lips.
She responds by coming to life and embracing him and saying,
What ailed thee, dearest? I waited so long for thee that I am dead; but we are now betrothed; I can see thee and visit thee. Adieu, Romuald, adieu! I love thee. That is all I wished to tell thee, and I give thee back the life which thy kiss for a moment recalled. We shall soon meet again.5
He responds to this by passing out and waking up back in his chambers, having been unconscious for three days. The Abbé Serapion visits as Romuald recuperates and tells him of Clarimonde’s death:
The great courtesan Clarimonde died a few days ago, at the close of an orgie [sic] which lasted eight days and eight nights. It was something infernally splendid. The abominations of the banquets of Belshazzar and Cleopatra were reenacted there...there have always been very strange stories told of this Clarimonde, and all her lovers came to a violent or miserable end. They used to say that she was a ghoul, a female vampire; but I believe she was none other than Beelzebub himself.6
Serapion also advises Romuald to be wary, as “Satan’s claws are long, and tombs are not always true to their trust.”7 Soon after Romuald resumes his duties, Clarimonde appears in his chamber, looking beautiful. She tells him,
I have kept thee long in waiting, dear Romuald, and it must have seemed to thee that I had forgotten thee. But I come from afar off, very far off, and from a land whence no other has ever yet returned. There is neither sun nor moon in that land whence I come; all is but space and shadow; there is neither road nor pathway; no earth for the foot, no air for the wing; and nevertheless behold me here, for Love is stronger than Death and must conquer him in the end. Oh what sad faces and fearful things I have seen on my way hither! What difficulty my soul, returned to earth through the power of will alone, has had in finding its body and reinstating itself therein! What terrible efforts I had to make ere I could lift the ponderous slab with which they had covered me! See, the palms of my poor hands are all bruised! Kiss them, sweet love that they may be healed!8
He is smitten with her more than ever, and goes with her, when she offers, to be her lover, to live with her the high life in Venice. From that point forward he lives two lives. By day he is Romuald, priest in a rural area. By night, when he goes to sleep, he lives the life of Clarimonde’s titled gentleman lover, “Il Signor Romualdo.” “At one moment I believed myself a priest who dreamed nightly that he was a gentleman, at another that I was a gentleman who dreamed he was a priest.”9
Romuald thoroughly enjoys his nocturnal life, gradually becoming more Il Signor and less the Father. But Clarimonde’s health weakens and she is close to death (again) when, one morning, Romuald accidentally pricks his finger. Clarimonde leaps on the wound and sucks it and is revitalized, her pale weakness gone. This troubles Romuald, and the next time he sleeps he sees Abbé Serapion, who warns him, “Not content with losing your soul, you now desire also to lose your body. Wretched young man, into how terrible a plight have you fallen!”10 Romuald ignores this warning, but one night he sees Clarimonde emptying a powder into his wine. He empties it when she isn’t looking and then pretends to fall asleep. She draws a pin from her hair and pricks his arm and says,
One drop, only one drop! One ruby at the end of my needle...since thou lovest me yet, I must not die!...Ah, poor love! His beautiful blood, so brightly purple, I must drink it. Sleep, my only treasure! Sleep, my god, my child! I will do thee no harm; I will only take of thy life what I must to keep my own from being forever extinguished. But that I love thee so much, I could well resolve to have other lovers whose veins I could drain; but since I have known thee all other men have become hateful to me...11
She then drinks a few drops of his blood. (Only a few drops, though).
Romuald is immediately convinced that the Abbé was right about Clarimonde, but Romuald is so wretched that he does nothing until the Abbé tells him that the most extreme measures must be taken. Romuald is miserable and ready to have one of his two selves die, and so he accompanies the Abbé to Clarimonde’s tomb, where they dig up her grave and sprinkle holy water on her corpse. She disintegrates. That night he sees her one last time and says, “Wert thou not happy? And what harm had I ever done thee that thou shouldst violate my poor tomb, and lay bare the miseries of my nothingness? All communication between our souls and our bodies is henceforth forever broken. Adieu! Thou wilt yet regret me!”12 And forever after he does just that.
“Clarimonde” is another of Gautier’s classics. The storytelling style is not as lush and ornate as in “One of Cleopatra’s Nights,” but it is still nicely descriptive, still wonderfully visual, and still sensual, both in terms its eroticism and its creation of impressions on the reader’s senses. The story, so marvelously imagined and told, is charged with sex and desire, but not in a dangerous or unnatural way, despite Clarimonde’s undead status. “Clarimonde” is a horror story, but it is a love story much more than a tale of terror. Clarimonde truly loves Romuald, as is clear from her speech to his supposedly slumbering body, and Romuald loves her back. They are lovers, not carnal bedmates, which makes the ending so much more bitter than sweet. Romuald knows he did wrong, knows that his love was much more important than his calling. In “Clarimonde,” as he did in “Arria Marcella,” Gautier presents a view of the erotic that is similar to Pierre Louÿs’ in Aphrodite: Ancient Manners, seeing the classic approach to sex as healthier and better than the modern, Christian view.
“Clarimonde” has an interesting place in the history of horror. Written roughly contemporaneously with the best work of Edgar Allan Poe (see: “The Fall of the House of Usher”), “Clarimonde” was translated into English in 1843 (as “The Deathly Lover”), but its influence on later English vampire fiction was small. “Clarimonde” is firmly in the tradition of first-half-of-the-nineteenth-century fantastika in its portrayal of the supernatural woman as unthreatening; it was only in the second half of the nineteenth century that the supernatural woman was routinely portrayed as a femme fatale (see: Fatal Woman). The influence of “Clarimonde” on French horror, however, was that of Gautier’s himself: in company with the work of Prosper Mérimée (see: “Lokis”) and Erckmann-Chatrian (see: “The Spider of Guyana”), Gautier laid “the groundwork for a substantial and self-sustaining pattern of weird writing”13 in France.
Traditionally “Clarimonde” was not given its due in histories of vampires in fiction, being ignored or overlooked out of a combination of ignorance and Anglophilia. But in the last twenty years critical histories and reference books about vampires have begun including “Clarimonde,” however cursorily, into their narratives. Which is as it should be. “Clarimonde,” is, after all, an intriguing and early take on the vampire myth, published a decade before James Malcolm Rymer’s Varney the Vampire and forty years before J. Sheridan Le Fanu’s “Carmilla,” and only seventeen years after John Polidori’s “The Vampyre.” “Clarimonde” is the first story to emphasize the sexual aspects of a vampire’s feeding. “Clarimonde” shows some ways in which the vampire myth might have gone. Being a vampire does not automatically make Clarimonde evil, and it is clear that the Abbé’s condemnations of her arise from his own misogyny rather than an accurate judgment of her character. There really is little of evil in her. She deceives Romuald, true, but it is a small deception, and done out of love. Vampirism, in “Clarimonde,” is as much an affliction as it is anything else. It gives Clarimonde some supernatural powers, but it also makes her dependent on blood, something she is obviously unhappy about.
There were certainly predecessors to Clarimonde in vampire fiction. John Keats’ Lamia and Poe’s Ligeia, Marella, Berenice, and Madeleine Usher are “a succession of female vampires without using the word at all,”14 and it has been argued that Ernest Raupauch’s “Wake Not The Dead” was an influence on “Clarimonde,” with Gautier writing “Clarimonde” as an argumentative response to the negative portrayal of a female vampire in Raupach’s story. More likely “Clarimonde” was partially influenced by Raupach’s work and partially influenced by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s poem “The Bride of Corinth” (original: “Die Braut von Korinth,” 1797), which was “the first text to make the vampire respectable in literature”15 and which “re-introduced the female vampire into modern European literature.”16
In the context of French literature as a whole, “Clarimonde” is usually seen by critics as using the vampire character to
express the perils of an overly carnal relationship, and in doing so satirizes the attitude toward sexuality and wealth present in the time of Louis-Philippe’s bourgeois monarchy, in contrast to the healthier attitude toward both sexuality and objets d’art exemplified in Mademoiselle de Maupin, Gautier’s novel of the previous year. Thus the tale reinforces the extremes caused by Catholic repression¼.17
Another critical argument states that “Clarimonde” and Dracula
play upon a natural fear of formlessness, absence and death to reinforce an apparently natural order of life, but that order is an arbitrary one, which identifies the norm as a middle-class, monogamous and male-dominated culture. In the name of defeating the “inhuman,” such fantasies attempt to dismiss forces inimical to a bourgeois society. Consequently, it can be asserted that Dracula and “La morte amoureuse” like many other narratives in the Gothic tradition serve rather than subvert a dominant ideology. Their horrors, transgressions and sexual license are exploited to deter a bourgeois reading public from revolutionary action even as they provide the public with a temporary fulfilment of ungratified desire.18
These are, I think, bad interpretations of the story. The preferred inscribed narrative of “Clarimonde” is a love story—not about the “perils of an overly carnal relationship” or the dangers of “formlessness, absence and death,” but about the perils of sacrificing love for principles. As horror scholar Johnny Eatman put it, salvation is a poor substitute for ecstasy.19
“Clarimonde” is a very appealing and bittersweet vampire story, historically significant but also still entertaining to the modern audience.
Print: Italo Calvino, ed., Fantastic Tales: Visionary and Everyday. New York: Penguin Modern Classics, 2009.
1 Théophile Gautier, “Clarimonde,” in Théophile Gautier and Lafcadio Hearn, One of Cleopatra’s Nights and Other Fantastic Romances (New York: Brentano’s, 1906), 91.
2 Gautier, “Clarimonde,” 94.
3 Gautier, “Clarimonde,” 104.
4 Gautier, “Clarimonde,” 118.
5 Gautier, “Clarimonde,” 118-119.
6 Gautier, “Clarimonde,” 122-123.
7 Gautier, “Clarimonde,” 123.
8 Gautier, “Clarimonde,” 126-127.
9 Gautier, “Clarimonde,” 134-135.
10 Gautier, “Clarimonde,” 140.
11 Gautier, “Clarimonde,” 141-142.
12 Gautier, “Clarimonde,” 149.
13 Joshi, Unutterable Horror, 224.
14 M.J. Trow, A Brief History of Vampires (London: Constable & Robinson, 2010), 51.
15 Christopher Frayling, Vampyres. Lord Byron to Count Dracula (London: Faber and Faber, 1991), 43.
16 Marie Mulvey Roberts, The Handbook to Gothic Literature (New York: NYU, 1998), 70.
17 Matthew Gibson, The Fantastic and European Gothic: History, Literature and the French Revolution (Cardiff: University of Wales, 2013), 105.
18 Nursel Icoz, “The Un-dead: To be Feared or/and Pitied,” in Peter Day, ed., Vampires: Myths and Metaphors of Enduring Evil (New York: Rodopi, 2006), 221.
19 Johnny Eatman, “Theophile Gautier’s ‘La Morte Amoureuse,’” Violet Books, Web Archive, accessed Jan. 24, 2019.