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Context of Victorian Sexualities Edit

“Carmilla"[1] written by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu came out in 1872 originally presented as a serial story in a London literary magazine edited by an Oxford undergraduate, The Dark Blue,[2] later to be put together in Le Fanu’s short story collection, In a Glass Darkly.

In this late-19th century period, the categorization of sexualities were only just beginning to appear. In fact, as stated by Holly Furneaux in her article, "Victorian Sexualities"[3], the terms “homosexual,” “heterosexual,” and “nymphomania” were not even created until the 1880’s. Scientists such as Richard von Kraft-Ebing and Havelock Ellis pioneered sexology and the study of these terms/categories they created. This study completely shifted society’s view of what defined someone’s core identity. Granted, the idea took years to attach itself strongly, but before this sexual shift, a man could have sex with another man and still think of himself as normal. He was simply a more sexual creature than women as was the popular theory at the time.

Despite the fact that these terms had not been created until near-modern times, that does not mean the act was not present before then. In fact, among women, it was nearly encouraged. Female companionship was highly sought after for young women. Publicly, it was so these young ladies could learn from each other and share their accomplishments, but it was also to keep them from keeping the company of too many young men before they were ready to be courted. Therefore, it is logical to believe the intimacy between women we would now define as “lesbian” activities was very common since we now know that women are not as prudish as 19th century people once believed. Kathryn Hughes details in her article "Gender Roles in the 19th Century"[4] Dr. William Acton’s famous quote of, “The majority of women (happily for them) are not very much troubled with sexual feeling of any kind.” This belief was very common and therefore this notion that two close female companions might have an intimate, sexual relationship was rarely if ever focused on and any hints of such a thing ignored.

Lesbian Under- (and Over) tones in Carmilla Edit

This way of thinking leads into the interesting and “queer” relationship held between Le Fanu’s Camilla and the protagonist narrator of the story, Laura. Laura described even herself as an innocent child with no exposure to fairy tales or ghost stories who led a relatively lonely childhood. She lived with her father and their serving staff in a schloss (castle) and was quite devoid of company. Therefore, when the news of their friend’s delayed visit and his niece’s death, she is rather upset but merely for the simple reason of being alone still in their countryside castle. Up until this point in the story, the only potential “sexual awakening” she might have had was the supposed nightmare when she was younger of a young woman curling up with her in bed then a piercing sensation on her breast.[5]

It is not until Carmilla herself appears at the castle that we begin to observe the homoerotic tension that builds within the story. Laura describes many instances of Carmilla’s outbursts of love for her and her own discomfort at the situation. Because of her simultaneous repulsion and desire towards their new guest, it can be safely assumed that Laura is not a lesbian. However, Carmilla’s charm and Laura’s loneliness keep the two young women in very close company of each other. Also, due to the lack of stigma behind intimacy between two young ladies during this era, there is no hint of reproach or confusion in regards to this behavior from Laura. There is no hint anywhere in the story that anyone should find this attitude unusual except for the bipolarity of it from Carmilla.

The homosexual trend continues when Laura describes young women from the village nearby falling ill and quickly dying, clearly hinted at by Le Fanu that this was the work of Carmilla (or if the reader has not already caught on, then by a vampire in general). Then Laura is afflicted by dreams where she gets this sensation as if a cold river is rushing past her body (potentially describing arousal or orgasmic sensations) and at the same time Carmilla continues to tell Laura how she will be hers and how Laura will die for her and they will be one and so on. Later on, we hear a story from General Spielsdorf (the aforementioned family friend) about how a beautiful young woman named Millarca seduced his niece/ward and slowly drained the life from her. The symptoms he described were exactly like what Laura went through thus solidifying the suspicion that Carmilla and Millarca were the same person and that she preyed on young, beautiful women. She seems to cultivate a relationship with them before she takes them, falling into a pseudo-love with them first. As Laura puts it, “The vampire is prone to be fascinated with an engrossing vehemence, resembling the passion of love, by particular persons. In pursuit of these it will exercise inexhaustible patience and stratagem for access to a particular object may be obstructed in a hundred ways... [It] seems to yearn for something like sympathy and consent” (le Fanu, 136). Ultimately, the change of Carmilla’s name with every new identity she holds to only anagrammatical versions of itself hints at the “forbidden same-sex desires in the text.” Even though female companionship was cultivated by society and closeness was not uncommon, full-on same sex relationships were illegal and thus hidden behind whispers and the name of friendship. That is why “Carmilla's naming and wordplay suggest the Sapphic seductions between a female vampire and her unwitting descendant without being dangerously explicit”[6] giving the story a fascinating duality of expressing forbidden topics through thinly veiled tropes to discuss the truth of women’s sexuality.

Other Common Examples Edit

Today, this sort of story might be shocking to think of coming from what we might think of as a prudish time, but if we think about other stories based in this general era, i.e. Pride and Prejudice, Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, ect. we can begin to see the trend of close female relationships and how this tale might not be so odd. While the other famous period stories we tend to fixate on in modern times are not as overtly sexual or homo-explicit, there is a constant major theme of companionship and the necessity of friendship and closeness among young women thus making homosexuality among these women less surprising. And this is not the first vampire story where sex is a prevalent theme. As stated in the article “Lesbianism in Le Fanu’s Carmilla,” “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.” (5)

References Edit

  1. Le Fanu, J.S. & Costello-Sullivan, K. Carmilla: A Critical Edition. Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 2013. Project MUSE.
  2. Felluga. "Anna Maria Jones, “On the Publication of Dark Blue, 1871-73″." BRANCH. N.p., 2017. Web. 19 Apr. 2017.
  3. Furneaux, Holly. "Victorian Sexualities." The British Library. The British Library, 28 Mar. 2014. Web. 20 Apr. 2017.
  4. Hughes, Kathryn. "Gender Roles in the 19th Century." The British Library. The British Library, 13 Feb. 2014. Web. 20 Apr. 2017.
  5. https://letterpile.com/books/Lesbianism-in-Le-Fanus-Carmilla
  6. http://englishnovel2.qwriting.qc.cuny.edu/files/2014/01/Leal-names-desire-Carmilla.pdf

Hyperlinks to References Edit

  1. Le Fanu, J.S. &

Costello-Sullivan, K. Carmilla: A Critical Edition. Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 2013. Project MUSE. (https://books.google.com/books?id=koaiAgAAQBAJ&printsec=frontcover&dq=carmilla&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwjhtundrbLTAhVB4GMKHa7WBlIQ6AEIKjAB#v=onepage&q=carmilla&f=false)

  1. Felluga. "Anna Maria Jones, “On the Publication of Dark Blue, 1871-73″." BRANCH. N.p., 2017. Web. 19 Apr. 2017. (http://www.branchcollective.org/?ps_articles=anna-maria-jones-on-the-publication-of-dark-blue-1871-73)
  2. Furneaux, Holly. "Victorian Sexualities." The British Library. The British Library, 28 Mar. 2014. Web. 20 Apr. 2017. (https://www.bl.uk/romantics-and-victorians/articles/victorian-sexualities)
  3. Hughes, Kathryn. "Gender Roles in the 19th Century." The British Library. The British Library, 13 Feb. 2014. Web. 20 Apr. 2017. (https://www.bl.uk/romantics-and-victorians/articles/gender-roles-in-the-19th-century)
  4. https://letterpile.com/books/Lesbianism-in-Le-Fanus-Carmilla
  5. http://englishnovel2.qwriting.qc.cuny.edu/files/2014/01/Leal-names-desire-Carmilla.pdf

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