Carmilla (1872) tells the story of a young woman, Laura, and her encounter with a supernatural entity known as Carmilla. Set in rural Austria, this work of fiction was written in by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu and published in 1872. This piece records the first modern interpretation of the Vampire mythos, being published 25 years before the better known Dracula (Stoker 1897). Although a gothic horror story centered around a vampiric mythology, Carmilla is also a love story between two young women that ends in a tragedy as heteronormativity is forcibly restored. This is one interpretation, based on LGBTQ¹ criticism, that I will explore in this paper.
In the prologue the reader is informed that this story was written down after the fact by a woman who is now dead. Laura’s story took place some eight to ten years prior to her written account, when she was a teen aged girl budding into adulthood. This, for many, is a time of exploration and coming to understand who a person is. By design, Laura meets Carmilla and finds herself not only forlorn of attention, noting on several occasion that her castle is remote, but drawn to Carmilla, attracted to her. Indeed, Laura offers time and time again vivid detail of her guest’s appearance, and refers to her as beautiful at seemingly every chance she can muster. Upon initial meeting, Laura’s description is almost matter of fact:
“[Carmilla’s face] was pretty, even beautiful; and when I first beheld it, wore the same melancholy expression.” (18; ch. 3); “Now the truth is, I felt rather unaccountably towards the beautiful stranger. I did feel, as she said, "drawn towards her," but there was also something of repulsion. In this ambiguous feeling, however, the sense of attraction immensely prevailed. She interested and won me; she was so beautiful and so indescribably engaging.” (20; ch. 3).
During this initial meeting, Laura, though shy, feels a want to touch Carmilla, sitting with her on the bed, holding her hand. Laura even described herself as becoming bold and confident, emotions that seem to be amplified by the blushing of Carmilla. Already, Laura seems conflicted, both repulsed and afraid of her feelings towards this other girl, and emboldened by the coy play that Carmilla puts on. Her attraction, as she notes, wins out, though soon it is Carmilla who takes a clear lead in the relationship between the two girls. Even as Laura describes her strange visitor, there are hints to the amount of physical contact that Laura has with Carmilla:
“I have often placed my hands under [Carmilla’s hair], and laughed with wonder at its weight. It was exquisitely fine and soft, and in color a rich very dark brown, with something of gold. I loved to let it down, tumbling with its own weight, as, in her room, she lay back in her chair talking in her sweet low voice, I used to fold and braid it, and spread it out and play with it. Heavens! If I had but known all!” (23; ch. 4)
Laura goes on to describe those things that are sometimes off-putting to her, and here she mostly discusses Carmilla’s aloofness when it comes to her past and her family. However, if Laura’s attraction to Carmilla is met with some trepidation, Carmilla’s is clearly more direct and far more tactile. Carmilla touches, caresses, hugs and kisses Laura on many occasions, and talks of love to her over and over again. These advances both attract and repulse Laura, the young girl never pushing away from the advances of her more dominant friend, though at times becoming uncomfortable with the prospect of the two being so close and so tactile. Yet Laura consistently finds reasons to be around Carmilla alone, and consistently allows herself to be put in situations where Carmilla’s advances are welcomed. Here we see Laura’s beginning to explore and become part of what “[Adrienne Rich] calls a lesbian continuum” (Tyson 325; ch. 10) as although unsure of herself, as the story progresses Laura becomes increasingly attracted to and infatuated with Carmilla through not only physical, but emotional and psychological bonding. Indeed, when Laura and Carmilla are together it seems all Laura remembers is near constant contact between the two of them, and when they are apart Laura’s thoughts are consumed with Carmilla. Upon finding the painting with the likeness of Carmilla, Laura insists that it be hung in her room that she can be reminded of Carmilla even when they are apart.
“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."” (25; ch. 4)
Here Laura reminisces about the first encounter between the two of them where Carmilla lavishes kisses on Laura. Unsure of herself, Laura finds herself embarrassed and scared (“it was hateful”) though she succumbs again to her desire for Carmilla over her fear of being with another woman (“yet over-powering”). Carmilla’s mere glance draws Laura in and, even after the sudden outburst of kissing and almost threatening profession of love, Laura remains with Carmilla a while longer, not seeking to remove herself from the situation. Laura even attempts to restore her heteronormative understanding of the relationship between herself and Carmilla by musing over the similarities between Carmilla’s actions and those of the men she’s read about in story books, and her own actions likened to that of the women in the same stories, though ultimately, initially, dismisses this notion as nothing more than a play to her own vanity. Her assumptions seem to be that as long as she doesn’t actually call the feeling between the two of them ‘love’ that she and Carmilla can carry on as though nothing is amiss. It is almost as if it is safer for her to call it attraction or Carmilla’s infatuations than it is for her to admit openly to herself, even in her journal, that she loves Carmilla. Initially, it could be that the seeming romance between the girls is a result of the Romantic movement that pervaded the era in which Carmilla was written, and that theirs was a “romantic friendship” (Tyson 324; ch. 10); but it is the physical symptoms, aside from the excessive kissing and fondling, that leads to the belief that it is not merely a case of overly dramatized friendship. Laura’s self-denial leads her to physical bouts of depression:
“My sufferings had, during the last week, told upon my appearance. I had grown pale, my eyes were dilated and darkened underneath, and the languor which I had long felt began to display itself in my countenance.
I had no pain, I could complain of no bodily derangement. My complaint seemed to be one of the imagination, or the nerves, and, horrible as my sufferings were, I kept them, with a morbid reserve, very nearly to myself.” (44; ch. 7)
“[A]lthough I felt very weak, I did not feel ill.” (52; ch. 9)
But given these bouts of weakness and languidness, the depression symptoms seem to disappear around Carmilla. After finding Carmilla, having searched for her and thought her missing, Laura is ecstatic, and musters the strength to embrace and kiss Carmilla over and over, her depression completely vanquished as she embraces Carmilla. With the story being told as a diary of a past event, it makes sense that perhaps Laura would not want to admit too openly her feelings for Carmilla, especially given the tragic ending and Laura’s loss, but try as she might, Laura does a poor job of masking her true feelings, and barely makes a case against her feelings for Carmilla. Indeed, unlike many works of literature discussed in Critical Theory Today, in Carmilla there is not so much a “coded lesbian meaning in [an] apparently heterosexual narrative” (Tyson 326; ch. 10), so much as there is overt lesbian meaning. The novel Carmilla doesn’t attempt to disguise the sapphic² relationship between the two girls, though it does lay a horror / macabre story over it.
It is General Spielsdorf that represents the ultimate homophobic backlash at the relationship between not only Laura and Carmilla, but of a previous relationship between Carmilla and his own surrogate daughter Bertha. After having sent word that his daughter fell under a ‘strange illness’, word is sent to Laura’s father that the young girl has ultimately died. From here, the General makes it clear that he is on a crusade to kill the ‘monster’ that ‘did this’ to his daughter. He has taken to hunting Carmilla to make her pay for the death of his daughter.
The General recalls the night his daughter died:
“I saw a large black object, very ill-defined, crawl, as it seemed to me, over the foot of the bed, and swiftly spread itself up to the poor girl's throat, where it swelled, in a moment, into a great, palpitating mass. / For a few moments I had stood petrified. I now sprang forward, with my sword in my hand. The black creature suddenly contracted towards the foot of the bed, glided over it, and, standing on the floor about a yard below the foot of the bed, with a glare of skulking ferocity and horror fixed on me, I saw [Carmilla]. Speculating I know not what, I struck at her instantly with my sword; but I saw her standing near the door, unscathed. Horrified, I pursued, and struck again. She was gone; and my sword flew to shivers against the door. / I can't describe to you all that passed on that horrible night. The whole house was up and stirring. The specter [Carmilla] was gone. But her victim was sinking fast, and before the morning dawned, she died.” (77; ch. 14)
Though the exact circumstances are somewhat obfuscated in General Spielsdorf’s recollecting of the events leading to Bertha’s death, it seems that the General caught the girls in an act of “monstrous lusts” (57; ch. 10) and “hellish arts” (57; ch. 10), and in a fit of rage accidentally killed his own daughter as he attempted to murder Carmilla late in the night with his sword after having witnessed Carmilla’s mouth on Bertha’s neck. The scene recalled in chapter 14 by the General sounds as though he snuck in and found his daughter and her friend in a carnal act, though he does not come directly out to say so. Instead, here is used erotic imagery to demonize Carmilla and the act in question, and thereby justify his “righteous and merciful purpose” (8; ch. 2).
It is with reluctance that Laura’s father is drawn into Spielsdorf’s crusade against the girl. Laura’s father is led to believe that with the death of the ‘monster’, his daughter Laura will be spared the fate that Bertha ultimately was not, succumbing to lesbianism that leads to death. However, even though Laura’s father follows the General, it is the General that murders his proclaimed monster. The General seeks to restore a heteronormative lifestyle by taking the instigator of what he views as unnatural acts out of the picture for good. It is not enough to simply kill Carmilla though, he first drives a steak through the girl’s heart, imparting a message that her kind of love is wrong. This idea is further supported by the author of the books that Laura later reads, which inform “The vampire is prone to be fascinated with an engrossing vehemence, resembling the passion of love, by particular persons” (85; ch. 16) where here the feelings Carmilla are spun negatively in order to protect the idea that it is only heterosexuals that are capable of love, and the demonized homosexuals are capable only of feeling something that merely resembles love. The General then takes off the girl’s head in a final act to remove the face of the behavior he deems deviant, thus restoring heteronormativity to the countryside of Austria. Carmilla is dead, and Laura can resume her status as a ‘good girl’. Here, the General’s character was able to not only restore heteronomativity, but also restore Laura’s place in a patriarchal society. Whether or not Carmilla and Laura took their relationship further than kissing is irrelevant to the patriarchy, here represented by the General, what is important is that here, the patriarchal norms are restored. The style of relationship that Carmilla represented was in direct conflict with the norms of the society at the time (and still now in many ways). Not only was did she represent a taboo love, she was also a threat to the patriarchal power structure in the Austrian countryside. That Castle Karnstein was essentially hers, that she represented an influence in local society, and an independence from the patriarchal power structure was dangerous enough, but to add a kind of romance that did not include the patriarchal ideals of romance, love, or a woman’s place made Carmilla even more of a threat to the traditional power structure. These interpretations are important because Feminist criticism and Lesbian criticism are linked together, as the two criticisms “grew from the same soil – as responses to patriarchal oppression.” (Tyson 322; ch. 10)
What I find particularly interesting and telling is that in neither the prologue, written from the perspective or a researcher, not in the conclusion written from the perspective of Laura is there any mention of family outside of Laura’s father. No mention of a husband, or of children. Indeed, the prologue even hints that Laura died young. She wrote the piece some ten years after the incident; though she is already dead by the time the researcher in the prologue wants to investigate the case further. Indeed, the only thing that Laura really concludes with is that although Carmilla is no longer alive, Carmilla is still constantly in Laura’s thoughts and imagination. Even as Laura concludes her memoire, she leaves with an intended ambiguousness that ultimately betrays her attempt to hide her feelings.
“It was long before the terror of recent events subsided; and to this hour the image of Carmilla returns to memory with ambiguous alternations—sometimes the playful, languid, beautiful girl; sometimes the writhing fiend I saw in the ruined church; and often from a reverie I have started, fancying I heard the light step of Carmilla at the drawing room door.” (86; ch. 16)
Laura admits that she still thinks about Carmilla, stating that at times she remembers the fiend, which could be Laura’s own fears as to what she felt or her apologetic restoration of a heteronormative relationship where she was the object of desire, not an equal part in the relationship between her and Carmilla. However, the recollection of the beautiful girl and the anticipation of being with her again or that she’ll come back betray Laura’s attempt to dismiss her own feelings for Carmilla. No matter how Laura attempts to deny her feelings or contrive a reason as to how it is something else, in the end Laura loved Carmilla just as Carmilla loved Laura.
The ultimate end of this novel is a tragic restoration of Patriarchal heteronormativity at the expense of three women; Carmilla and Bertha both dying or being killed within a short span of time, and Laura’s own early death before the memoire is even recounted. As a teen girl, Laura’s life encounter with Carmilla came at a terrifying and wonderful time of self-discovery that young people begin to explore as they explore themselves and who they are. Unfortunately, Laura’s self-discovery was swiftly ended with a steak and a sword, by an almost too perfect representation of the Patriarchy in General Spielsdorf. But even after her death, Carmilla stayed with Laura until Laura’s own end³.