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Lesbianism in Le Fanu’s Carmilla

This article is not meant to promote or provoke any personal opinions regarding moral, religious, or political arguments on homosexuality. This should be read within a historical context, as its only purpose is to establish whether or not lesbianism is indeed prevalent in J. Sheridan Le Fanu’s Victorian novella.

This article contains spoilers.

Carmilla was originally published in serial form during 1871 and 1872. It was later published in book form as a part of Le Fanu’s short story collection In a Glass Darkly. However, the length of Carmilla as well as the popularity of vampire literature has led to its often being published as a separate work.

Illustration by Michael Fitzgerald of Carmilla and Laura - from the original publication of the novella.

Illustration by Michael Fitzgerald of Carmilla and Laura - from the original publication of the novella.

Plot Summary

The story is narrated by a teenage girl named Laura. For years she has lived alone with her father and is terribly lonely. She is looking forward to a visit from a girl her own age, but is disappointed when her friend’s uncle, General Spielsdorf, sends a bizarre letter which tells of his niece’s unexpected death.

Despite this, Laura’s loneliness is ended when a carriage overturns outside her castle. One of the passengers, a beautiful girl named Carmilla, is slightly injured and asks to stay with Laura and her father for awhile. Although excited about making a new friend, Laura is shocked when she realizes Carmilla is the same woman she had seen in a traumatic childhood dream. This dream had caused the young Laura to believe she had been bitten on the chest, but her fears were dismissed – although her nurse did send for a clergyman.

Nevertheless, Carmilla and Laura become great friends. Laura’s nightmares return, however, as more and more odd occurrences take place around her: She notices Carmilla’s exact resemblance to a centuries old portrait; a sudden plague effects the town and kills several young women; Carmilla’s behavior becomes increasingly strange: she sleeps in late, refuses to eat, and shows a repugnance for religious objects. Eventually, Laura discovers that she has indeed developed two puncture wounds upon her bosom.

One morning, Laura and her father go out for awhile. They meet General Spielsdorf, who explains that his niece became ill after meeting a beautiful girl named Millarca. The General hid in his niece’s room one night and caught Millarca biting the sleeping girl. He later sees Carmilla and realizes she is the same evil person – a vampire.

Illustration by David Henry Friston of Carmilla attacking the General's niece.

Illustration by David Henry Friston of Carmilla attacking the General's niece.

The main characters are then joined by a Van Helsing-like baron who helps them discover the ancient tomb of a countess. They find Carmilla’s blood soaked body inside and destroy her before she can do any more harm.

Understanding Laura’s Character and Personality

Laura’s behavior towards Carmilla and her great desire to meet the General’s niece are caused simply by her longing for a friend. She does not do anything which any other girl who had been lonely for a long time would not have done. She is happy she now has someone walk with; she describes the great pleasure she takes in dressing Carmilla’s hair – all innocent things that cannot possibly have a sexual connotation.

In other words, Laura is not a lesbian. Nevertheless, she is sexually awakened when she is bitten by Carmilla. After the vampire’s arrival in her house, she starts to have strange dreams which cause her to experience a “sensation” she had never felt before, not even during her childhood nightmares. This “sensation”, however, is not connected with any thoughts or images of Carmilla and does not affect Laura when she is alert.

The sexual awakening of Laura is nothing to be amazed at. This is a vampire story, for heaven’s sake! Sensual situations – and in some cases, sexual initiation – with young females is a hallmark of this genre which dates back long before Carmilla. John Polidori’s The Vampyre (1819) includes the seduction of not one, but two female characters. The first few chapters of James Malcolm Rymer’s Varney the Vampire (1845-1847) describe in a rather sensual and extremely graphic way how the heroine is attacked by the story’s vampire. Above all, I defy anyone to read certain parts of Dracula (1897) without noticing the obvious sensuality of the tale.

Illustration by H.J. Ford of the possibly homoerotic scene in Christabel

Illustration by H.J. Ford of the possibly homoerotic scene in Christabel

Something else which has created the suggestion that Laura may have been sexually interested in Carmilla is the novel’s inspiration: Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s unfinished poem Christabel (1797-1800). Although it is often listed with other works of vampire literature, Christabel is so fragmented that any evidence of vampirism is solely a matter of opinion. However, this poem does have some lesbian elements, particularly during a scene when Christabel (a Laura-type character) shows quite an interest in the body of Lady Geraldine (the poem’s Carmilla) while the latter is undressing for bed.

But that really is aside the point. What it boils down to is this: Carmilla is a vampire story. Ergo, there is going to be some sensuality. But there is absolutely nothing in Le Fanu’s text which indicates Laura’s sexual orientation either way.

Illustration by David Henry Friston of Laura being frightened by Carmilla

Illustration by David Henry Friston of Laura being frightened by Carmilla

Conversation started by Carmilla in Chapter IV

“You are afraid to die?”

“Yes, every one is”

“But to die as lovers may – to die together, so that they may live together. Girls are caterpillars while they live in the world, to be finally butterflies when the summer comes…”

Evidence of Lesbianism

This being said, there is little doubt that there are some homoerotic undertones in Carmilla’s behavior. In addition to the fact that she only attacks young girls, she often forces unwanted kisses on Laura and says things such as “You are mine, you SHALL be mine, you and I are one forever.” Despite the girls’ friendship, Laura is often unsettled by this kind of thing – understandably so – and never does or says anything to show she reciprocates Carmilla’s feelings.

It should be remembered that this novella was written during the Victoria era – a time when basically all sexual feelings and the discussion of such things were considered taboo. Homosexuality, in particular, was considered something too horrible to even think about. Anyone engaging in a same-sex relationship would have been forced to hide it and any obviously homoerotic elements in literature would have been censored. Taking all this into consideration, it should be noted that Le Fanu never received any criticism from his contemporaries regarding the sexual themes in his work. Yes, there are some elements of lesbianism in Carmilla. But they are rather ambiguous and most certainly do not make up the entire plot.

Over the years, Carmilla has been a victim of quite a few cinematic adaptations, all of which are overly graphic, quite bizarre and completely inaccurate. The worst atrocities are the 1970 Hammer Horror production of The Vampire Lovers and the more recent Lesbian Vampire Killers (2009). No one in the movie industry – and very few readers, for that matter – has ever made much of an attempt to understand the subtlety which J. Sheridan Le Fanu most likely wanted to be prevalent in his story.

Down With the Sympathetic Vampires!

The only people who ever really make an issue out of the lesbian elements in Carmilla are the ones who try to drag all the old vampires into the modern era. Or to put it another way, it is usually only brought up by the people who love to turn the evil villains into sympathetic vampires. The same people who try to turn Dracula into a hopeless romantic who is innocently pursuing Mina Harker are the same ones who try to turn Carmilla into a tragic figure by suggesting that Laura may in fact have been romantically interested in her. Carmilla was written during the Victorian era, NOT the Anne Rice/sparkly vampire era. Like it or not, the vampire is meant to be evil.

Let’s forget about any sexuality in the situation and simply take a look at Carmilla’s main character trait: she is a malevolent, dead spirit who attacks and often kills innocent girls who are so young they can easily be considered children. Who gives a darn about her sexual orientation? Stake this rotten woman!

Carmilla is, unfortunately, a true example of the way people try to ruin art. It is a fantastic, superbly written old horror story which should be used as a source of entertainment, NOT as something to support a moral or philosophical argument.

© 2013 LastRoseofSummer2


Anne on April 18, 2020:

I thought that Le Fanu was comparing lesbianism to vampirism as something evil...

And also, in the text, Laura does wonder if Carmilla is not a guy dress as a women because of the way Carmilla makes her feel. Because she should only feel this way towards a man.

I don't think Carmilla is actually homosexual, but she is just trying to get her (even if she leave before actually killing her, wich is a change in what she usually does), but it could only be because of frienships I guess, but the feeling of Laura are pretty clear, and as I said earlier, they were intend by Le Fanu.

ChillyPolly on December 27, 2017:

@DavidBlue, below: the problem with the "unreliable narrator", and other sophisticated interpretive ideas you appeal to, is that, though they can be valid in the right context, they too easily become an excuse for ignoring the only evidence available -- the actual text. And it seems to me you hardly engage with the text at all, in your comments below. You do refer (I suppose) to Carmilla's dilatory conduct in feeding upon Laura, but your explanation is adverse to that actually offered by the text -- namely that Carmilla is an "epicure" who wants to savor her food. The only emotion actually expressed by Laura toward Carmilla in the final paragraph is that of terror, which is why she starts when she imagines she hears Carmilla's footstep. That she sometimes remembers Carmilla in her usual guise as a beautiful girl does not actually contradict this.

DavidBlue from Los Angeles, CA on July 31, 2017:

With respect, you seem to be ignoring lots of details in the text which hint pretty strongly Carmilla has feelings for Laura. For one thing you presume Laura is what we today call a "reliable narrator." I edited THE ANNOTATED CARMILLA and in doing so went over the work line by line many times. More, I checked into details about the period, not least the location Le Fanu chose for his story--in the center of what at the time was viewed as one of the most repressive states in Europe. English speakers at the time generally viewed the Austrian Empire as a police state--and were right to do so. This makes for one of many ambiguities inherent in the work, which becomes more obvious if (as in the 19th century) one re-reads a book several times word for word carefully, often aloud (because of no radio, no t.v., no internet, no movies, theatre pretty rare outside major cities, etc.).

Essentially I would say there's a lot of odd details throughout CARMILLA, including the way the vampire tries not to feed on Laura at first and makes a half-hearted attempt to leave before doing so. Or the way Laura suddenly stops talking about her feelings when Carmilla is unmasked--until the very last paragraph in which she expresses mixed feelings for her friend. While the Victorian Era (contrary to popular belief) had plenty of fairly intense/weird pornography available, actual Literature (which was Le Fanu's career) usually dealt on such matters as homosexuality with extreme delicacy. One need only look at critical reaction to Arthur Machen's THE GREAT GOD PAN (vilified as almost pornographic--an accusation most modern readers find absurd in the extreme) to note that trend (although that was a quarter century later, when Victorian society had grown even more rigid).

I would even argue that Le Fanu even goes so far as to hint at Carmilla being a victim. After all, she did not choose to be a vampire but was murdered by one. The text contains the theory that vampires, once destroyed, enter into something even worse. That Laura herself remains sympathetic to Carmilla likewise is a hint, because she is our point-of-view.

My point is that CARMILLA fairly seethes with subtle ambiguity, with odd tensions between male and female, youth and age, religion and science, even city versus country and civilian versus government. Like many of the best works, it asks questions and amid a compelling story refuses to answer them, rather leaving the reader to find their own.

This in fact makes a fine example of what J.R.R.Tolkien described as the difference between "allegory" and "history," (he regarded good fiction as history, albeit feigned).

ChillyPolly on January 26, 2017:

Nice article. I would go further than you, though, and say that there is literally no homosexual conduct or motivations on the part of any characters anywhere in "Carmilla". I think I understand why "Carmilla" seems homoerotic to modern readers. But I think it is always a misunderstanding.

Laura never experiences a sexual awakening when attacked by Carmilla. When Laura describes Carmilla's touch as "strangely pleasant" she does not mean "sexily pleasant, but I don't understand sexy because I'm a naive Victorian girl"; she really does mean "STRANGELY pleasant." It's other effects are sedative and paralytic. This is analogous to the effect of a drug or narcotic; and quite unlike the effects of erotic stimulation. Carmilla is using her vampiric superpowers, just as when she used her grip to paralyze the General's hand, or when she petted Laura to sleep at age 6.

Also, many readers and critics mistake Le Fanu's reasonably accurate description of the symptoms of blood-loss, ending in syncope, with the symptoms of erotic excitement, ending in orgasm.

When Laura talks of events being "dimly remembered" when "our passions are wildly and terribly aroused", she means essentially that terrible traumatic experiences can impair memory (which is true) and not that being horny impairs memory (which is not true, as far as I know). "Passion" and "aroused" did not have the same erotic associations in Victorian times as they do now. Also, a "romance" is a tale with fantastic or supernatural elements; and a "romantic" person is someone with a belief or interest in such things.

All references to Laura's "breast" refer to her upper breast, near the breastbone, where the neck meets the throat. This is where Carmilla feeds, presumably so she can access major blood vessels, while still keeping the wound hidden under the collar. When Le Fanu has the fleshy part of the breast in mind, he says "bosom" (as when he refers to the painting of Cleopatra).

Laura actually considers the nature of Carmilla's weird "passion", and comes to the conclusion that it is not erotic. The modern reader assumes she is being naive (because she only considers the "cross-dressing man" theory), but I think Le Fanu intends her conclusion to be 100% correct. Carmilla is not horny. She's hungry. The final revelations explain everything.

Joe from north miami FL on July 02, 2014:

Wow interesting story and actually something vampire based that doesn't bore me. Way to pull out the old good vampire folklore.

K.A.E Grove from Australia on December 10, 2013:

I am a big fan of this classic story have been since i discovered it in my teens.

I reallyenjoyed your review and loved how you touched on the subtlety that weaves so perfectly through this wonderfully macabre story

well done !

LastRoseofSummer2 (author) from Arizona on October 10, 2013:

Thanks for reading! I love all the old cheesy horror pictures too. But there are a few where I have to try to forget about whatever book they claim it's based on lol!

Oh, by the way, Hello, fellow Arizonian!

Heather from Arizona on October 10, 2013:

This is a great review! I hadn't heard of it prior to reading your hub. I'm interested in getting a copy and reading it for myself. I also have to admit-- the 1970s flick looks like campy fun and I'm interested in tracking that down too. Oh guilty pleasures :)