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Carmilla; Lesbianism and the Victorian Woman

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Background and Plot Summary Edit

1280px-Carmilla

Illustration in Carmilla, Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu's vampire story, Wikipedia, Public Domain

Carmilla was written by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu and was first published as a serial from 1871-1872. The story is written in the first person and is narrated by the stories protagonist Laura.[1] At the begin of the story Laura recounts a memory from her childhood where whilst in bed she saw a beautiful girl at her bedside who then laid down beside her. She awoke to the sensation of two needles piercing her breast. The incident had made a great impact on Laura, to the point where she even had a servant sit up all night in her room until she was fourteen.[2] 

Laura's story then jumps forward twelve years to when she has an unexpected guest stay with her. Laura had been looking forward to having the niece of General Spielsdorf visit her but she had died of an illness. In a letter the General had sent her father he hints at his niece’s death having happened by odd circumstances. Soon after there is a carriage accident on the road near Laura's home, no one is severely hurt but the women in the carriage asks for a place she can leave her daughter, who had been hurt in the accident, so that she would not be late to her destination. Laura's father, knowing that Laura had been feeling lonely, tells the girl’s mother she can leave her in his charge. The girl, named Carmilla, turns out to be the girl Laura had seen at the side of her bed as a child.[2] 

Not long after Carmilla arrives there are deaths of women in neighboring villages and Laura becomes ill with what seemed to have plagued those women before their deaths. As Laura grows sicker Carmilla's behavior becomes odder until finally Carmilla's true identity as the vampire Mircalla, who was behind the death of the women in the neighboring villages and that of General Spielsdorf's niece.[2]

Carmilla's Lesbianism Edit

Vampire lovers girls kissing by julieluc-d3e32k0

Lesbian Vampires

Although Carmilla's lesbianism isn't discussed outright in the story it is implied. It is evident by the fact that her victims are all female and she uses her charm and beauty to gain their trust and affection;

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 over-powering; and with gloating eyes she drew me to her, and her hot lips traveled along my cheek in kisses; and she would whisper, almost in sobs, "You are mine, you shall be mine, you and I are one for ever." Then she had thrown herself back in her chair, with her small hands over her eyes, leaving me trembling.[2]

While Laura feels confused by Carmilla's actions she enjoys the doting and affection Carmilla gives her, "Young people like, and even love, on impulse. I was flattered by the evident, though as yet undeserved, fondness she showed me. I liked the confidence with which she at once received me. She was determined that we should be very near friends".[2] Laura never reciprocates the affection with anything more than friendship but Carmilla sexual allure is still apparent to her.

Even though it is never explicitly stated, it is fairly clear that Carmilla is a lesbian. For example, in Chapter 11, the General talks about his own experience with Carmilla, then known as Millarca, and how she and his daughter went through the same thing that Laura and her father were now a part of:

            “She was very witty and lively when she pleased, and after a time they had grown very good friends, and the young stranger lowered her mask, displaying a remarkably beautiful face. I had never seen it before, neither had my dear child. But though it was new to us, the features were so engaging, as well as lovely, that it was impossible not to feel the attraction powerfully. My poor girl did so. I never saw anyone more taken with another at first sight, unless, indeed, it was the stranger herself, who seemed quite to have lost her heart to her.”[2]

The Victorian era was when the terms “heterosexuality” and “homosexuality”[4] were created, though obviously both had existed for centuries before this.

In the story, Carmilla is never shown to have an interest in any of the male characters. Her victims were always women, which shows a clear preference for females. She also cares deeply for her victims, first, the daughter of the General, and later Laura.

Carmilla and her victims were also of the upper-class, which left them a lot of time to themselves during the day.[3] As the fashion changed and dresses became more bulky and harder to move in, women of the higher class left housework to the servants and had the days to do as they pleased. Laura and Carmilla spent all day together after Carmilla came downstairs in the afternoons since neither of them had any work to attend to. In this way, Carmilla grows close to her victims, even falls in love with them. 

Carmilla's Deviation from the Ideal Victorian Woman Edit

Roles-Of-Women-In-The-Victorian-Era-2

Roles of Women in the Victorian Era

Vampires often represent our fears and prejudices towards those we consider to be others and female vampires represent a specific type of other, women who are sexually dominant. 

Carmilla was written during the Victorian era and her sexual dominance and propensity for homosexuality is in stark contrast to the gender roles for women of that era. According to Kathryn Hughes in her article Gender Roles in the 19th Century, "Women were considered physically weaker yet morally superior to men, which meant that they were best suited to the domestic sphere. Not only was it their job to counterbalance the moral taint of the public sphere in which their husbands laboured all day, they were also preparing the next generation to carry on this way of life".[3]

This belief that women were morally superior to men meant that they were not driven by basic desires such as sex. In fact women were believed to engage in sex only as a means for motherhood, motherhood being their only true desire and motivation. Thus, Carmilla deviates from the Victorian ideal not only because she uses her sexuality as power but also because she is a lesbian. Carmilla, therefore is not driven by the desire for motherhood but desires that are more akin to that of men. What happens when these gender lines begin to blur and there is no longer a superior sex. In Carmilla, as it often happens in society the deviant is punished in the hopes of the return to normalcy. Carmilla in the end is found out for who she is and is killed in order to keep her from killing Laura and harming other young women. Thus, with her death order is restored and gender norms are reestablished.

References Edit

  1. Carmilla, Wikipedia, Web, 19 April 2017
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 2.4 Le Fanu, Joseph Sheridan (2013-08-01). Carmilla(Illustrated), Kindle Edition.
  3. "Gender Roles in the 19th Century." The British Library. The British Library, 13 Feb. 2014. Web. 19 Apr. 2017.

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