Allen Poe’s words, “The boundaries which divide Life from Death are at best shadowy and vague. Who shall say where the one ends and where the other begins?”
There is something about vividly unsettling images that has always tickled my analytical bone, and Carmilla (1872) by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu, a vampire novella written decades before Bram Stoker’s Dracula, did just that. The lesbian vampire narrative not only appealed to the interests of my 2014 Tumblr-user self, but it also made me question the perception of female sexuality and desire in Gothic literature.
Intimacy is often depicted as fearful and terrifying in Gothic narratives due to the grotesque and supernatural storylines. However, the desirable relationship between vampire Carmilla and mortal Laura in this novella doesn’t just contain bouts of pain and intoxication but also points towards other, gentler directions in the depiction of lesbian intimacy. The text hints towards a broader question of whether the characters’ desire is an alternative in the absence of heterosexual romantic satisfaction.
The novella focuses on Laura’s lack of social connections, as she lives a life of modest comfort in a ‘lonely and primitive’ place. Laura’s identity is restricted to the first few pages where she talks about her family, but not her individuality, which demonstrates how women are expected to see themselves as dependent on others. The limited insight into Laura’s character not only points towards social alienation, but her lack of opportunities for heterosexual intimacy which would typically determine a woman’s life. Laura’s social depravity lies in the Victorian social structure, where a man was seen as the benefactor of a woman. Elements of romantic exploration and identity building through socialising are missing in her rural upbringing. Before Carmilla enters her life, we see her downtrodden, solemn outlook:
I was not frightened, for I was one of those happy children who are studiously kept in ignorance of ghost stories, of fairy tales, and of all such lore as makes us cover up our heads when the door cracks suddenly, or the flicker of an expiring candle makes the shadow of a bedpost dance upon the wall, nearer to our faces. I was vexed and insulted at finding myself, as I conceived, neglected, and I began to whimper. (6)
However, the entry of Carmilla soothes her and she looks at her with ‘‘a kind of pleased wonder’’ (6). The novella artistically frames lesbian romance as a much needed alternative; an escape from Laura’s adolescent wait for a heterosexual connection. Even the pains of physicality with the vampire are shown to be emotionally satisfying rather than obnoxious.
Another factor which shows that their desire is not fearful and terrifying, is the normalcy that Laura shows towards Carmilla in their interactions, despite her being a supernatural creature. Tales of vampirism revolve around a narrative of the contaminating vampire and its innocent victim. However, in this novella, the perceived predator is normalized and romanticized by the victim as a viable alternative to the drudgeries of a heterosexual life path. Laura associates pleasant things like languidness and beauty with the vampire, she says, “There was nothing in her appearance to indicate an invalid” (33). The use of words like ‘invalid’ shows a further blurring of the boundaries, where although Carmilla is an outsider, her movements are completely acceptable to Laura. Their connection organically blooms and is an exciting intervention in Laura’s traditional life. The novella also depicts the clashes of interest that are also seen in mainstream heterosexual romances, like Carmilla’s disbelief in God. Her contrast to Laura’s religiousness is startling, but not a frightening, horrendous opinion that disturbs Laura enough to change her feelings. We see a sense of comfort and mingling of the opposing lovers both physically and emotionally, where neither one of them harmfully overpower the other. The lack of dominance of one lover in this relationship despite Carmilla being a vampire is presented as an alternative to heterosexual connections in this novella, charting a growth of affection into passion.
Carmilla and Laura’s relationship is a tale of equal interest fuelled by ardour and affinity. The diminishing of vampiric and human boundaries arises when we see how Carmilla’s desire for Laura is equally or even further reciprocated. There is no contaminating one-sided chasing in this romance unlike in a typical heterosexual love story where the man courts the woman, which would make the vampire story grotesque and fearful. Laura admits that she feels there is a ‘‘love growing into adoration’’ (37) and that her curiosity towards Carmilla is a ‘‘restless and unscrupulous passion’’(34). The story invigorates a building tale of equal desire, a perceived comfort from Laura’s end too as they hold hands, kiss, and Laura calls Carmilla romantic. Their desire is idiosyncratically that of equal interest, which is quite different to heterosexual love practices, demonstrating how women are capable of strong feelings of desire too, which challenges traditional patriarchal ideas. There is an absence of any romantic endeavours from a man towards Laura, but she does suspect that Carmilla is a male interference.
What if a boyish lover had found his way into the house and sought to pursue his paramour in masquerade with the assistance of a clever old adventuress? (38)
She rejects this by saying that she cannot boast of any “masculine attentions” (38). There is a conscious lack of male attention and a pointed removal of male intervention through their relationship. Their romance is not fearful, but a way of fulfilling desire in Laura’s rural and social terrain. The presence of the supernatural in the narrative is used to transgress the patriarchal boundaries of our reality to portray female sexual and emotional passions in new and powerful ways.
Le Fanu’s novella was one of the first to talk about about lesbianism in way that was complex and passionate, and can be considered revolutionary if we think about the appropriateness of literature to its time. When I read this text, I wondered whether or not it should be deemed as feminist literature, or just a text with some forward-thinking undertones in its depiction of female desire under the guise of the supernatural. Such a presentation of lesbianism made me speculate whether we can placidly take in unconventional love stories of other texts at face value. Carmilla unravelled a new dimension of Gothic literature for me because includes softness and comfort even in an unsettling storyline; its blurring of boundaries is indeed a small act of radical revelation.