by Bud R. Berkich
Carmilla (1872) by Sheridan LeFanu is a classic work of Victorian literature. But, is it classic vampire literature? This reader, after a careful study of the work, says “no.” In fact, not only is Carmilla not vampire literature, it really has nothing to do with vampires at all. Yes, it is true that this story is one of the main source materials for Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897). And yes, there are so-called “vampires” in the text. But it becomes increasingly evident to the close reader of Carmilla that the “vampires” spoken of are actually symbolic for something else. Something much more scandalous and taboo…
To call into question preexisting viewpoints concerning Carmilla, they must first be identified. Basically, all viewpoints in the text originate with the narrator, Laura. And what is Laura’s basic premise? That “Carmilla”1 is a vampire. But what if she is not a vampire? What if Laura is wrong or, the more likely scenario, she is making the whole thing up? Or course, the question to ask in this regard is why– why would Laura make the whole thing up? And the answer is simple: to protect the reputations of her family and herself. Because what is being dealt with here is not a question of vampirism, at least, in the traditional sense. In truth, it is a question of sexual integrity. But more on this later. At present, it is important to discuss how Laura deceives her readership.
Basically, Laura’s deception works on two levels. The first one concerns her family background. The second concerns the prejudice that one senses with Laura towards “Carmilla.” Indeed, it is this sense of latent animosity that Laura directs towards “Carmilla ” that provides the best clue to the reader that not everything with Laura’s story is what it seems. These two levels will now be looked at and discussed, in turn.
In the very first paragraph of Carmilla, we read the following:
“In Styria, we, though by no means magnificent people, inhabit a
castle, or schloss. A small income, in that part of the world, goes
a great way. Eight or nine hundred a year does wonders. Scantily
enough, ours would have answered among wealthy people at home.
My father is English, and I bear an English name, although I never
saw England. But here, in this lonely and primitive place, where
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everything is so marvelously cheap, I really don’t see how ever so
much more money would at all materially add to our comforts, or
even luxuries. ” (Glass, 244)
Even the most casual reader would have to admit that this is a strange opening for any narrative, but especially one supposedly concerning itself with vampires. It would seem that Laura here is more concerned about establishing in the mind of her readers her socio-economic status, above anything else. Why? To answer this question, it must be understood what exactly Laura is saying (and, as a result, not saying) here. To put it in the language of the present, Laura is stating that although her father owns a castle, he (and, by proxy, Laura as well) is not rich. In fact, the money that her father makes in a year, if in England, would be on the lowest rung of the socioeconomic ladder. But because Styria (Austria-Hungary) is so underdeveloped, everything is dirt cheap. And, for good measure, Laura adds that even if her father and her had more money, she does not know how they could be any better off.
These statements are interesting, but even more interesting are the things that are not being said by Laura, that can be gleaned from the text. In truth, these things paint a very different picture of Laura and her father’s supposed “modest” means. Things such as:
1.) The fact that Laura and her father have a permanent staff of maids and butlers at their disposal (cp. p. 245 with p. 284). Of course, these people are probably not there for free. They are most likely making some sort of salary.
2.) Laura is educated by a French “finishing governess,” one Mademoiselle DeLafontaine who, along with another governess Madame Perrodon, lives permanently at the schloss (245). As anyone steeped in Victorian literature knows, governesses are the educators of the wealthy, while a finishing governess is responsible for the stylistic acclimation of the wealthy to the upper class.
3.) Laura’s father worked for the government (i.e., the “Austrian service”) (244). It is well known that government workers make handsome sums of money, especially if one can purchase a castle and afford to staff a permanent team of governesses, maids and butlers. In addition, Laura’s mother was related to the “Karnsteins,” Carmilla’s family, who were counts and countesses (273). So, whether Laura wants to admit it or not, she has “blue” blood running through her veins.
It would seem from the above textual evidence that Laura can be deemed what in literary circles is called an unreliable narrator. And in this light, the question that the reader of Carmilla must ask is if Laura as narrator cannot be trusted with her own background, how can a reader trust her to tell the truth about Carmilla’s background?
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Prejudice Toward “Carmilla”
We now come to the second observation concerning Laura’s deception, her not so latent prejudice towards her guest (and supposed friend) “Carmilla.” A couple of examples from the text should suffice:
“Now the truth is, I felt rather unaccountable towards the
beautiful stranger. I did feel, as she said, ‘drawn towards
her’, but there was something of repulsion (260).”
“In these mysterious moods I did not like her. I experienced
a strange tumultuous excitement that was pleasurable, ever
and anon, mingled with a vague sense of fear and disgust”
In truth, there are numerous criticisms of Laura towards “Carmilla” throughout the text, concerning anything from Carmilla’s daily routine (265) to her religious practices (277). It seems odd for a young girl to be so critical towards another girl the same age that is considered her friend. Possibly, an explanation of the context surrounding the two quotes above can shed some light upon why Laura seems so demanding. These two quotes represent the majority type of criticism aimed against “Carmilla” by Laura in the text.
The first quote is referring to Carmilla’s first night in the schloss. It comes after “Carmilla” and Laura relate to each other how they supposedly saw each other in some sort of eerie dreamscape at age six in Laura’s nursery room (cp. pp. 246-48 with 259-61). “Carmilla” says to Laura just prior to this comment:
“I feel only that I have made your acquaintance twelve years ago,
and have already a right to your intimacy; at all events, it does
seem as if we were destined, from our earliest childhood, to be
friends. I wonder whether you feel as strangely drawn towards me
as I do to you; I have never had a friend — shall I find one now?”
She sighed, and her fine dark eyes gazed passionately on me“
(260, emphasis mine).
As can be seen, when the contextual sentences prior to Laura’s “Now the truth is” quote above are closely studied, the apparent reason for Laura’s “repulsion” is because “Carmilla” supposedly looked at her “passionately.” For those not convinced, it might be a good idea to now examine the context of Laura’s second comment above, beginning with ” In these mysterious moods.” Here, just prior to Laura stating her feelings of “fear” and “disgust” towards “Carmilla,” we read:
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“And when she 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.
“From these foolish embraces, which were not of very frequent
occurrence, I must allow, I used to wish to extricate myself; but
my energies seemed to fail me. Her murmured words sounded
like a lullaby in my ear, and soothed my resistance into a trance,
from which I only seemed to recover myself when she withdrew
her arms” (264-65).
At this point, even the skeptic should be able to see a pattern. Why is Laura so critical towards “Carmilla?” Because ” Carmilla’s amorous feelings towards Laura make her uncomfortable, but also enraptured at the same time. This warring sexual conflict that is created — this confusion — within the mind of Laura, in light of her highborn background, explains everything; from Laura’s family deception, to her prejudice and criticism, and even her fabrication of “Carmilla” as a vampire. It should be evident by now that the “trance” that “Carmilla” holds Laura under has nothing to do with “Carmilla” being an actual vampire . It has everything to do, however, with a lesbian relationship between two relations, and the extenuating circumstances created as a result.
In truth, when one reads Bram Stoker’s Dracula, there is no doubt that Count Dracula and his three wives are anything other than actual vampires. It is also known that Dracula in real life — as Vlad the Impaler– is an evil person. So, it is not surprising that Count Dracula is an un-dead. However, when one reads LeFanu’s Carmilla, one does not get the same impression. In truth, nothing adds up. Yes, Laura states that it is all true. “Carmilla” is a vampire. She is responsible for the deaths of many girls in the area. She tries to kill Laura, but is not successful.
Nevertheless the question that one must ask is can one actually believe Laura? Indeed, when one looks closely at Laura’s questionable background, along with her fairly obvious prejudice against “Carmilla,” one would hesitate to believe her. And, as said above, if one cannot trust Laura to tell the truth about her own background, why should anyone trust her to tell the truth about Carmilla’s?
Why does Laura apparently lie about herself and “Carmilla?” It is pretty evident that something more than a friendship is going on between the two. Something of a sexual nature. In the end, it goes sour. So, to take attention off of the sexual endeavor, Laura turns the tables on her nemesis, so to speak. Laura creates an elaborate fiction, with the focal point being “Carmilla” (i.e., the girl that Laura is having the sexual tête á tête with), who is conveniently made into a vampire. Of course, “vampire” here is nothing more than a euphemism for sexual license. In
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truth, it would not be difficult for Laura’s readership to get the point: she, as well as other girls in the vicinity, are taken sexual advantage of by a predator — a “vampire,” if you will. No elaboration is necessary to assist the reader in figuring out what Laura is implying concerning “Carmilla” here. It is also not a far stretch to believe that Laura’s description of “Carmilla” would most likely identify her beyond the shadow of a doubt to Laura’s immediate audience.
Hence, we see why Laura is so intent on fabricating/hiding important details about her family background. She does not want her family to associate too soon in the narrative with Carmilla’s family, the “Karnsteins,” which we eventually learn are also related to Laura on her mother’s side. Laura does not want it to be known that not only does she succumb to Carmilla’s advances, but that she is also a relation. So, basically, we have a teenage member of a wealthy family engaged in an incestuous, lesbian relationship with a girl that is most likely promiscuous. In this light, it can be seen why Laura wants to keep certain details hidden from her readership.
LeFanu’s Carmilla. Not a narrative concerning actual vampires. No. This is not Dracula. This is something else entirely. And although Le Fanu’s classic tale is one of the main inspirations for Bram Stoker’s classic tale Dracula, the evidence speaks for itself: Carmilla is a unique landscape all its own. With its own personal demons.
LeFanu, Sheridan. In a Glass Darkly. Oxford World Classics. Oxford University Press. 2008 (1872). New York.
1 Quotations around Carmilla, when referring to the character herself, allude to the idea brought forth in this analysis that Carmilla, although based on an actual person, is most likely not named Carmilla in real life. She has been fictionalized by Laura to fit the narrative. The only time the name is not put in quotations in this analysis is when the possessive is used (i.e., Carmilla’s).