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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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