No Place for Men: Carmilla and Lesbian Vampires
You are mine, you shall be mine, you and I are one for ever.
(Le Fanu, 1872)
There is no vampire tale more famous than Bram Stoker’s Dracula, and even though it was not the first to feature the modern vampire as Polidori’s The Vampyre did, its influence on horror fiction is undeniably palpable. Nevertheless, Dracula owes most of its success to the less famous Carmilla by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu. Published in 1872, 25 years before Dracula, Carmilla is the story of a young girl, Laura, that was preyed upon by a vampire, Carmilla. Like other vampire tales produced during the 19th century, it was heavily influenced by Victorian anxieties about social and moral decay, homosexuality being one of them. However, Le Fanu never portrayed homosexuality as an antagonistic trait nor was it ever seen as behaviour deserving of punishment. Carmilla represents women loving women freely and without men’s intervention, which makes it quite the key work for feminist and queer literary theory.
Many critics have argued that Dracula was not only influenced by Carmilla, but was also conceived as a response to it. Following renown sex and gender theorists Gayle Rubin and Eve Sedgwick's views on marriage and women’s role in society, Elizabeth Signorotti claims in her essay “Repossessing the Body” that while Le Fanu allows her female protagonists “to usurp male authority and to bestow themselves on whom they please”; Stoker responded by giving the power over to men and “repossess[ing] the female body for the purposes of male pleasure and exchange” (607). She continues explaining how women were part of a marriage market where they obtained no benefits, and merely the object of transaction. Men, however, received both a monetary and a social reward by using women as an object that “bind[ed] men together and creat[ed] social order” (Signorotti, 1996, p. 607). Therefore, women acted as a firewall so that men could enjoy what Rubin calls “homosocial relationships” without the threat of a homosexual relationship. This gives a whole new perspective to Le Fanu’s narrative of female empowerment; by erasing men’s power of action in female relationships, he is threatening men’s relationship system.
The uniqueness of Carmilla as a vampire and queer story relies on the fact that Le Fanu relegated men to powerless roles in the story where they had no say in the exchange of women, and therefore no successful homosocial relationship. In Polidori’s and Stoker’s stories, women were just instruments; they “fill their biological needs, but men kindle emotional complexity” (Auerbach, 1995, p. 57). While the homosexual subtext is there, those vampire stories never dared to cross the threshold and Dracula’s thirst for Jonathan Harker was never satisfied. However, and for the first time in 19th-century vampire stories, women in Carmilla had an aggressive role in the narration and their homosexual desires were fulfilled.
Le Fanu pushes men away from the centre of action, and he does so in several different ways. Firstly, the two male/father figures of the story, Laura’s nameless father and General Spielsdorf, are incapable of protecting the women they are supposed to. When Laura and her maids realize that Carmilla was not in her room, they could not call upon Laura’s father because he slept far away in the other side of the castle. In the same line, when General Spielsdorf finally realizes that the cause of Bertha’s illness was a vampire, he tries to surprise the creature by waiting in Bertha’s room ready with a sword. When he sees the creature approach his niece, he is paralyzed, unable to act, and then fails at stabbing the vampire with his sword. Carmilla preys upon Bertha, changes shape and escapes without a single scratch. General Spielsdorf is relegated to an onlooker’s position; he is incapable of correcting the transgression in the scene and bound Carmilla to her role assigned by society (Signorotti, 1996, p. 615).
That scene is not the only instance when Carmilla refuses to be bound by men’s system of power. When Laura’s father exclaims: “We are in God’s hands: nothing can happen without his permission[…] He is our faithful creator; He has made us all, and will take care of us;” Carmilla responds: “Creator! Nature![…] All things proceed from Nature —don’t they? All things in the heaven, in the earth, and under the earth, act and live as Nature ordains? I think so” (Le Fanu, 1872, p. 43). She is refusing to comply with a Christian God that idolizes male power, and prefers the female Mother Nature that fully embodies her relationship with women (Signorotti, 1996, p. 616). Another example lies in Laura's complaints about how Carmilla “would not tell [her] the name of her family, nor their armorial bearings, nor the name of their estate, nor even that of the country they lived in” (Le Fanu, 1872, p. 34), but she has no problem kissing and caressing her. Carmilla is not interested in taking part in a male system of exchange (titles and names being passed over generations through the men of the family). Sharing her lineage with Laura is not relevant to her, sharing her sexuality is.
However, Laura ends up discovering something about Carmilla’s ancestry: both women are related to the Karnstein family through their mothers. Laura was looking at the portraits in the castle (property of her mother’s family) with her father and an uninterested Carmilla, when she stumbles upon one portrait that holds an eerie resemblance to her companion. Carmilla pretends not to notice Laura’s comment about her resemblance, but corrects her: “It is not Marcia […] The name is Mircalla, Countess Karnstein” (Le Fanu, 1872, p. 47). She proceeds to explain how her mother is a descendant of that family, and so was Laura’s mother. Once again, men have no place in the relationship and the connection that these two women are creating. This portrait also offers a very interesting perspective of Carmilla, and of the way Le Fanu constructed the story. The portrait has no frame, which may seem like an irrelevant detail until one realizes that Carmilla, the story, is also unsuccessfully framed. The story begins with a prologue where the narrator explains how this story reaches the reader through a Dr. Hesselius, who had an informant, Laura, tell him the events. However, once the reader arrives to the end of the story, there is no closing note on Dr. Hesselius nor the prologue's narrative voice. It is not completely framed. Furthermore, Laura refers to the reader directly several times and addresses them as "a town lady like you" (Le Fanu, 1872, p. 37). By doing this she is erasing the middleman, Dr. Hesselius, and speaking directly to a female reader, from woman to woman. Carmilla rejects every form of male participation in her life and refuses to be bound by them, and Laura follows her example.
However, General Spielsdorf arrives and reveals Carmilla's identity and Bertha's fate. After the General's tale, Carmilla loses her material body and becomes a monstrous phantom that can walk through walls. Laura's description of Carmilla's familiarity and material body is nowhere to be found from this point on in the narrative, "it loses vitality, the female authority is severed" (Auerbach, 1995, p. 67). The group of male vampire experts that travelled with Spielsdorf was ready to kill Carmilla, and they succeed: they stab her, cut her head and throw her ashes into the river. Laura survives and recovers after Carmilla's preying, but her father's attempts to take her back to the male system of exchange fail. She does not wish to go back to her previous life. Carmilla ends with Laura's reverie, the frame incomplete, giving Carmilla back her material body with one last sentence: "and often from a reverie I have started, fancying I heard the light step of Carmilla at the drawing room door" (Le Fanu, 1872, p. 113).
Le Fanu's Carmilla is a unique piece of 19th-century literature, he presented a world where women are free to express their sexuality. 25 years before Dracula, he created a story depicting the modern concept of the vampire with one major alteration: women hold the main and active role in the story. Carmilla rejects every single form of male power, and develops a meaningful and sexual relationship with Laura, their behaviour not punished but encouraged. Carmilla's influence on Laura was profound and lasting, as she never returned to the male societal system and expressed no desire to create any form of connection with men, because in Laura's story there is no place for men.
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