Tuesday, 25 February 2014

Foreshadowings: Le Fanu's Carmilla

The next meeting of the Gothic Reading Group will tackle some fiction by J.S. Le Fanu, as we head into the nineteenth century and look at some classic 'Victorian Gothic.' Le Fanu has been on the cards for some time, having been one of the first authors suggested by GRG members in the 2012-13 year; it's great to finally take a look at some of his work. Our flagship text for this meeting will be Le Fanu's great vampire novella Carmilla. In the following preview blog Lauren Nixon picks up where the last session left us and takes a look at Carmilla's place in a broader tradition of vampire fiction, pre- and post-dating the Victorian period. 


Last week our group discussed the works of poor, neglected poet John Stagg, focusing in particular on his 1810 poem "The Vampyre". One question raised was whether there had been another piece of British vampire literature prior to Stagg’s poem and we, perhaps proving ourselves to be very poor students of the Gothic, couldn’t think of any: the earliest piece that occurred to us was John Polidori’s 1819 novella of the same name. The two are markedly different works, not just in their literary form, but in their depiction of the vampire itself. Stagg’s Sigismund is the monstrous undead, referred to repeatedly a "goblin" of gruesome appearance:
His jaws cadaverous were besmear'd
With clott'd carnage o'er and o'er,
And all his horrid whole appear'd
Distent, and fill'd with human gore
Polidori’s vampire, the mysterious Lord Ruthven, is able to pass as human and walk among society. Rather than a gory goblin, Ruthven is a sexually alluring, Byronic figure who seduces women and charms men. Which is not to say that Ruthven is not monstrous: he is of ambiguous origin, and so a dreaded ‘foreign other’, and he exudes a threatening sexuality that allows him lure the innocent girls he prays upon. He is the embodiment of a very different set of fears to Sigismund, the fears of the respectable men of Regency Britain that a foreign, deviant stranger would lead their young daughters to wreck and ruin whilst they watched helplessly. It is perhaps with Polidori then that vampire becomes less of  a ‘goblin’ and more like the sexualised vampire figures we recognise today. After all we currently live in a society where our vampires are presented not to be feared, but to be desired; they look nothing like Stagg’s "cadaverous" undead Sigismund and more like Paul Wesley, Robert Pattinson and Alexander Skarsgard. They typically appeal to the female gaze, clad in fitted shirts (or not at all- trust me, I’ve watched a lot of True Blood) and are played as brooding, tortured anti-heroes who struggle against their thirst for blood for the sake of true love (Skarsgard’s Eric Northman aside, for the most part. Probably not the example I should have used, but he is the most attractive man in the show, so what did you expect me to do?). They function to fulfil a predominantly female fantasy of dangerous, forbidden love- or, more to the point, sexual desire. What was once designed to scare us with us predatory, foreign sexuality now seeks to arouse us. 

The moustache is sharper than the sword: a famous illustration from the original magazine printing of Carmilla

Which, in a roundabout, I’ve-just-remembered-what-I’m-supposed-to-be-talking-about way brings me to Sheridan Le Fanu’s 1872 novella Carmilla. Le Fanu’s story may not have been the first vampiric tale, but it certainly had a massive impact of the genre’s most famous and formative text: Bram Stoker’s Dracula. As Robert Tracy notes in his introduction to the 1993 edition of Le Fanu’s collected short stories In a Glass Darkly:
Stoker had signalled his debt to Carmilla in what was intended to be the opening chapter of Dracula, deleted because his publisher believed it revealed the vampire theme prematurely. In that chapter, Jonathan Harker, en route to Castle Dracula, wanders in the vicinity of Munich on Walpurgis-Nacht (1st May), when the witches hold their revels. He arrives at a great tomb, inscribed as that of ‘Countess Dolingen of Gratz in Styria’, who ‘sought and found death, 1801.’ An iron stake transfixes the tomb and corpse inside. A violent storm arises, Harker sees a ‘beautiful woman, with rounded cheeks and red lips, seemingly asleep on a bier,’ and then a lightning bolt strikers the stake, rousing the dead woman ‘for a moment of agony, while she was lapped in the flame, and her bitter scream of pain was drowned in the thundercrash.
Even without the homage of this first chapter, known to us now as Dracula’s Guest, Carmilla’s influence on Stoker is evident throughout his text. Here I should probably offer you a detailed outline of those influences, but I’m becoming increasingly aware that I’m almost 700 words into this blog post and I’ve barely even mentioned the text I’m supposed to be discussing. What I’m really getting at, I suppose, is the importance of Carmilla, as a major influence on Dracula, to the vampire genre as a whole. It cements the Eastern European origin of the vampire, drawing from regional folk tales and legend, as well as their membership of ancient aristocracies and their sexual duality. The vampire’s languid, seductive nature is as inexplicably attractive, even irresistible as it is threatening. 

But there is a difference, something that sets Carmilla apart from both its predecessors and most of its many, many successors: Carmilla is a woman. As I’ve already mentioned the majority of popular vampires, from Dracula to the teen franchises available today, are male (see, I knew that bit earlier would be relevant at some point). The blood lust of vampires is aligned with a lust for sexual pleasures. A modern audience reads such lust as an exhilarating, dangerous fantasy, but for a Victorian audience it also plays upon those fears I also mentioned earlier. (I knew I had a point when I started this.)

It might be argued that I’m greatly simplifying the way in which we read vampires, both historically and currently, but my vampire theory is rusty and I’d really, really like to tell you how good Carmilla is. Because it is really, really good. 

The first edition of Le Fanu's In a Glass Darkly: the collection in which Carmilla appeared alongside other stories supposedly comprising the collected papers of the occultist and detective Dr Martin Hessalius

Le Fanu starts his novella by assuring us that though his young protagonist, Laura, has never seen England she is most certainly English- she bears an English name, manners and father, though her deceased mother was a native Styrian. As a child, Laura is visited in the middle of the night by a "solemn, very pretty face[d]" woman who, instead of terrifying her, gently lulls the young Laura back to sleep. She is then "wakened by a sensation as if two needles ran into my breast," causing her to cry out- at which the mysterious young woman seemingly disappears. Though no injury can be found upon the child and the incident is brushed aside by her father, a priest is summoned to bless the room, joined in prayer by Laura’s two evidently troubled governesses. 

The narrative then leaps forward to the nineteen year old Laura, who on learning of the death of a potential new friend, takes a walk to ease her sadness and witnesses a carriage violently overturn. It’s worth noting that these events take place under a full moon, to which a good two paragraphs are devoted, a clear symbol of Gothic goings on. The carriage is revealed to carry two women, mother and daughter, who are on a journey of great importance that cannot be delayed. Being good, English folk Laura and her father entreat the mother to allow her unconscious daughter to their care, to recover until her return: and so Carmilla is introduced. 

Interestingly, Le Fanu initially presents Carmilla as the distressed heroine in the Radcliffean tradition. Young and beautiful, she arrives "on a journey of life and death, in prosecuting which to lose an hour is possibly to lose all" and is initially unconscious, and therefore helpless, dependent on the goodness of others. Carmilla professes to have seen Laura’s face once in a dream, quelling Laura’s initial horror as she connects the face of her childhood incident with that of her new guests and the two begin an intense friendship. Laura recognises that "there was also something of repulsion" in her feelings towards Carmilla, but "the sense of attraction immensely prevailed. She interested and won me; she was so beautiful and so indescribably engaging." With Laura as our first person narrator, Le Fanu forces his reader to feel the same enthrallment and anxiety that she does- though our experience as a reader is amplified by Laura’s telling of the story in the past tense. We know that Carmilla cannot be harmless, that she must be the spectre of Laura’s childhood visit and not the distressed heroine the tradition has taught us to recognise her as. This twisting of the familiar is a simple but effective Gothic technique and Le Fanu uses it here to great advantage; it is almost impossible not to be as taken with Carmilla as our narrator, but we cannot shake the anxiety that she is not what she seems. 

Another image from the Dark Blue printing of Carmilla: Carmilla and Laura respond as a funeral procession passes them in the woods

"You are mine, you shall be mine, you and I are one for ever."

Though Le Fanu is not the first to distort the intense and instant friendships of early Gothic and sentimental heroines- Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey uses the manipulative, selfish Isabella Thorpe to warn against such connections on short acquaintances- he is perhaps the first to draw such unease and anxiety from it. Whereas the novels of the eighteenth century glorified these female friendships for the way in which they encouraged and displayed a woman’s sensibility, Le Fanu adds something far more sinister: sex. Though the novella is never explicit about the sexual nature of Laura and Carmilla’s relationship, it’s hard to deny its presence. Laura frequently comments on Carmilla’s beauty and their friendship, full of kisses and caresses, is extremely physical. Laura describes how after Carmilla "had spoken such a rhapsody, she would press me more closely in her trembling embrace, and her lips in soft kisses gently glow upon my cheek" and how she is often made uncomfortable and embarrassed by Carmilla’s ways, which are "like the ardour of a lover," yet finds herself unable to resist.

The lesbian aspect, so to speak, of Carmilla never fails to make it a salacious read. During my time as an undergraduate, it was the only text that every member of the class had actually read in full. Though there is no actual sex - this is 1872 after all - the central relationship reads very similarly to some of the popular vampire fiction I mentioned at the start. (Yes, I’m still trying to justify that.) In addition to their inherently illicit attraction, modern fiction builds the immortality of the vampire into its allure, reconstructing it as the ultimate ideal of true love: only a vampire can love you forever. Carmilla does not simply love Laura, she is passionately bound to her "I live in you;" she tells her "and you would die for me, I love you so." (She’s also later revealed to be Laura’s ancestor, but that’s another discussion for another time) It’s also worth noting here that since Le Fanu, ambiguous and non-heteronormative sexualities have become a key aspect of vampire lore. In the Victorian vampire tale, this is used to create fear. The vampire is above the laws of proper British society, its deviant sexuality threatening to ruin both men and women. The way Carmilla shakes the foundations of female friendships laid by the authors of the eighteenth century ignites both fear and taboo desire in its readers, a combination where each only amplifies the other. The more we as the reader are taken in by Carmilla, the more we desire her, the more we are repulsed by own reactions and subsequently fear her. (Well, if we were Victorian anyway.)

At this point, I think its best I stop rambling incoherently and let you read Carmilla for yourself.  And perhaps while you’re there, read the rest of the stories collected in In a Glass Darkly. I particularly recommend "Green Tea", especially if you enjoy stories about evil spectral monkeys. 


Lauren Nixon is an author of Austen criticism and PhD student in the school of English working on eighteenth- and early-nineteenth-century Gothic, particularly representations of women reading and the Northanger Novels. Reports of evil monkeys in her closet are unconfirmed.

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