Dracula Has Nothing on Her: A Review of Carmilla by Joseph Sheridan le Fanu
Good day. Welcome back to Reading Has Ruined My Life. My name is Hannah, and today we are going to be talking about the OG gothic literature vampire. Spoiler alert, she’s a lesbian.
Listen, we are halfway through June and it’s almost my birthday so therefore I am going to talk about gothic literature. And I know I talked about Dracula just a few short weeks ago, but Carmilla deserves more recognition!
Written by Joseph Sheridan le Fanu in 1871, Carmilla predates Bram Stoker’s famous novel Dracula by a cool 26 years. Dracula is often times thought of as the epitome of vampire literature and has heavily inspired scores of vampire media for well over a hundred years, but a lot of what Bram Stoker did in his famous novel was inspired by the lesbian vampire we’re talking about today. It should be noted that le Fanu was Stoker’s editor for Dracula; I am not throwing shade at Stoker or calling him a plagiarist. All I’m saying right now is that two major authors of the vampire literature subgenre worked closely together on the most well-known vampire novel. I am requesting more acclaim from Carmilla though.
That’s where today’s post comes in. Part review, part analysis, part gushing about gothic literature; we’re going to talk about a novella that I view as the grandmother of gothic vampires. So buckle up, baby!
A massive spoiler alert is in order because I’m gonna spoil this whole story. I highly recommend you read this novella though. It’s in the public domain and you can easily find the entire thing online. Leave right now, find and read Carmilla, then come back.
As I said, Carmilla was written by Joseph Sheridan le Fanu in 1871. It was originally published in a literary magazine entitled The Dark Blue, and the story was broken up into a series of installments between 1871 and 1872. Like nearly every piece of gothic literature, our story is being retold. In this case, our narrator is actually the protagonist of the story, and she’s telling her story to a man by the name of Dr. Hesselius as part of a casebook he’s writing.
Laura, our protagonist, begins her story by talking about an occurrence she had in the middle of the night when she was the ripe old age of six. She tells the doctor about how a beautiful woman came into her bedchamber one night, and how this woman did not come across as a foe. Although, that same night, after this strange and beautiful woman had joined her in bed, Laura claims to have been punctured in chest. By what? She does not know. But I think you can all guess what happened to our narrator that night.
Flashforward about ten years, Laura is now a young woman and leads a pretty isolated life. One night everything changes. She, her father, and two governesses who have raised her since she was a baby are out watching the beautiful sunset when a fast moving carriage has an accident conveniently right where the group stands. While no one was injured, a young woman around Laura’s age ends up remaining with the rest of the cast due to her health. This young woman is, of course, the titular Carmilla.
Things seem fine at first. Laura has a new friend, the pair get along so well it’s almost as if they were destined to be together, or have met before...perhaps once upon a dream. With Carmilla’s arrival, there’s just so much more life in the once quiet home; everyone is having a grand old time! Except for the people in the nearby village. Many young men and women pass away due to mysterious circumstances once Carmilla arrives. What is also odd is Carmilla’s behavior. The woman has an aversion to religion in every way shape and form, she locks her bedroom door from the inside, does not allow anyone to see her once she retires for the night, and she doesn’t appear again till the late afternoon the next day.
Laura is no better. While her mannerisms don’t change once Carmilla arrives, she does begin seeing, and hearing, things in her room during the night. Sometimes she sees a large cat similar to a panther, and other times she sees visions of Carmilla. On one occasion she hears the voice of her deceased mother. But after each night, she slowly grows sicker and sicker with no diagnosis and treatment in sight. Although the doctor in this story does tell Laura’s father that a vampire may be the reason for his daughter’s sickness. Naturally, no one believes this at first.
They do believe the doctor’s assumption when a family friend comes to visit. Enter General Spielsdorf. He’s a friend of Laura’s father, and he has tragically lost a child to a mysterious illness that he believes was caused by the supernatural. Our good General is out to stop the beast that killed his daughter, and save many more lives in the process. As for how Carmilla ends, I’ll leave that to you to find out for yourself. I’ve spoiled too much as it is.
Actually, I’m not sorry for the amount I’ve spoiled. Gothic horror is just so rich with details that it’s hard to cut down the synopsis sometimes. Carmilla is no different. What is different is just how progressive the novella is for the time.
The year, 1871, Queen Victoria has ushered in a time familial ideals and an early version of the nuclear family. Ideally, men make the money while the women run the household and control the giant brood of children who are supposed to respect the parents. Family life should be peaceful, and a family’s reputation should be highly respectable. Women and children should basically be seen and not heard…basically ever. And being a member of the LGBTQIA+ community is highly taboo, and very unrespectable. Carmilla is a pretty big “fuck you” to all that.
Let’s start with the main family. While the family does indeed fit into the ideal, respectable, nuclear family of the time, Laura shows some major agency throughout the story. As for the father character, he allows Laura to pretty much do as she pleases while still having a healthy relationship with her as well as being a major figure in her life. Le Fanu makes sure that this family is not presented exactly like families of the time were expected to be. He makes sure his female characters are not possessions of the men in their lives. Instead, he makes both male and female characters equals.
This is also some serious feminist literature. Again, Laura shows a lot of agency throughout the story while still coming across as the idealized Victorian woman who is docile and the “less intelligent than her male counterparts.” For example, Carmilla seemingly goes missing and Laura is the one to spearhead the search. Yet when it comes to her physical health, the doctor would rather talk to her father instead of Laura.
However, le Fanu never presents Laura as an unintelligent character. She figures things out for herself many times throughout the novella. She won’t back down from an argument when she feels she has something to say and points to prove. She’s pushing the boundaries of the oppressive world around her.
The same goes for Carmilla. Again, we have a female character who is a major player in the story while still seemingly fitting into the idealized woman mold. Like Laura, she’ll argue if she has something to say on a topic. She has thoughts and issues with religion during a time when faith was a major driving force in society. Not to mention, she basically takes the place of male dominance in this book. Carmilla is a massive symbol of female power as she’s the one seducing Laura and overpowering nearly every other character in the story.
I respect how much this novella pushes the boundaries for the time; especially with the gay subtext. Let me just give you one famous passage from the novella:
Sometimes after an hour of apathy, my strange and beautiful companion would take my hand and hold it with a fond pressure, renewed again and again; blushing softly, gazing in my face with languid and burning eyes, and breathing so fast that her dress rose and fell with the tumultuous respiration. It was like the ardor of a lover; it embarrassed me; it was hateful and yet overpowering; and with gloating eyes she drew me to her, and her hot lips travelled along my cheek in kisses; and she would whisper, almost in sobs, "You are mine, you shall be mine, and you and I are one for ever."
There isn’t a straight thing about that passage. And that subtext I mentioned? Yeah, it’s really not subtext, it’s straight up text. I said this once as a joke to a friend, but I’m now going to say it here: gothic literature was written by the gays, for the gays. That’s it, send tweet.
I wish this book was as widely known as the likes of Dracula and The Picture of Dorian Gray. Sadly it’s not. Which is why I’m here to yell at you to read this book. Carmilla is a gothic feast for the eyes. It contains all the hallmarks of the genre while putting women and the LGBTQIA+ community in the forefront of an otherwise straight male dominated time. I have no choice but to stan, and you should too.
On that note, I must bid you all adieu. Next week, I have a review on a piece of contemporary literature that I think you’ll all like. Until then, stay safe, wash your hands, wear a mask if you aren’t vaccinated, and read some good books for me.