It’s been on my list for so long, but finally I downloaded an ebook of Carmilla by Joseph Sheridan le Fanu from Project Gutenberg. All I knew about Carmilla was that it was the first vampire novel, and it was about a lesbian vampire. I was excited.
The book is written as if it were a first-hand account by a young woman who at first says she wishes to remain nameless, and then later, seemingly on accident, mentions that her name is Laura. The novel Dracula, which was written a few years later (and which I also really like) is written in a similar epistolary fashion, though in that case it was several characters writing letters and journals, while Carmilla is told solely through Laura. This allows Laura to become an unreliable narrator. Not in terms of the actual events; there’s no reason to doubt her there. Where Laura starts to contradict herself is in her interpretation of her own reactions to the event she describes–particularly she felt about the beautiful girl named Carmilla.
The story starts with Laura explaining that she and her father and a few servants lived in a small chateau–she calls it a schloss–somewhere in the woods of Eastern Europe. They had few guests and Laura was often lonely as a child, which is why she was thrilled when, in the middle of the night, a noble lady’s carriage crashes outside the schloss as she rushes by, and the lady’s daughter is knocked unconscious. The noble lady is horrified, because she cannot halt her journey but she can’t continue if her daughter is injured, which prompts Laura’s father to offer to take the girl in. The lady agrees and disappears into the night. Soon after the girl awakens, but she refuses to say anything of her mother or her background except that her name is Carmilla. Laura is delighted to have a constant companion in Carmilla, and Carmilla also seems enthralled with Laura–so much, in fact, that Laura doesn’t know what to make of it.
Carmilla is a vampire, which the narrator, an older Laura, knows perfectly well, but her narration mostly tries to recount her feelings at the time, not her feelings when looking bacl on the increasingly disturbing memories of Carmilla’s stay. However, by the time we get to Chapter 4 Laura has a lot of trouble articulating, or even understanding, what she feels. Thus we get a long, confused, very queer and utterly fascinating chapter in which Laura at turns insists she was repelled by Carmilla’s strange attentions, yet also loved Carmilla and frequently sought her out to hug her or play with her beautiful hair.
“Sometimes…my strange and beautiful companion would take my hand and hold it with a fond pressure, renewed again and again; blushing softly, gazing in my face with languid and burning eyes, and breathing so fast that her dress rose and fell with the tumultuous respiration. 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.’ Then she had thrown herself back in her chair, with her small hands over her eyes, leaving me trembling.” (Chapter 4).
Lesbianism in Carmilla exists only within the framework of vampirism, at least on the surface. In that sense, one could read this book as a heteronormative text which associated homosexuality with the supernatural as a sort of cautionary tale against same-sex attraction. However, it is possible to read the book as if Laura herself experienced same-sex attraction to Carmilla outside of any magical vampire spells that Carmilla cast on her.
Later the baron explains that vampires are “prone to be fascinated with an engrossing vehemence , resembling the passion of love, with certain persons” (chapter 16) but it’s never explained whether they cast some sort of actual spell over their victims to make them return this passion. So if Laura was attracted to Carmilla, was that part of Carmilla’s magic, or was it true in Laura’s own heart? As our narrator, Laura herself seems unsure of this, though she may not even be aware of her own uncertainty.
Clearly Laura’s relationship with Carmilla was not a healthy one. The fact that it was a same-sex relationship should have nothing to do with that. But in Laura’s mind, the two seem to be mixed. That perhaps accounts for Laura’s continued confusion, even when she writes the narrative.
As a narrative Carmilla had a weak and anticlimactic ending that left many world-related questions open: who was Carmilla’s “mother”? Was she the one who bit Countess Mircalla, changing her from a human woman into the vampire known as Millarca and then Carmilla? Why did Carmilla only target beautiful young women, and was Mircalla a lesbian in life? Are Carmilla’s previous victims, such as the village woman and the General’s daughter, now vampires?
As narratively unsatisfied as I was with Carmilla‘s ending, I also thought its anticlimax resonated with the inconclusive nature of Laura’s own thoughts toward Carmilla. Laura makes clear that she is still deeply disturbed by her experience during the three months that she knew Carmilla, and it seems that a large component of her confusion. I don’t know what Le Fanu intended when he wrote Carmilla and, judging just from the historical context, I doubt he meant it as a confirming queer story. In fact I can entirely understand that some people would read Carmilla as a very homophobic text. But I read any homophobia in this story as belonging to Laura, the fictional writer of the tale, rather than the true author himself, and in that context it’s a fascinating look at a possibly queer young woman whose first encounter with same-sex love ended in the worst way possible.