Le Fanu - Carmilla
The Literary Club

Lesbianism and Vampirism in Le Fanu’s Carmilla

In various cultures throughout history, the vampire myth has constantly evolved to reflect changing beliefs, fears and social anxieties. However, the modern presentation of the vampire in Western culture owes much of its heritage to the gothic fiction of the nineteenth century. Let´s explore vampirism in Le Fanu´s Carmilla.

The gothic genre allowed Victorian writers to subtly critique the era’s strict social codes and explore taboo subjects such as sexuality, mental illness, and gender roles. Specifically, adaptations of the vampire myth came to be associatively linked with the concept of sexual contagion. In these stories, female characters were frequently portrayed as virginal, innocent and pure, making them ideal prey for the powerful, sexually charged male vampires. Reflecting the patriarchal view that women are weak and passive and possess no agency over their own desires, the monster could easily seduce them. 

Hence, the Irish author J. Sheridan Le Fanu profoundly subverted the expectations of Victorian readers with his novella Carmilla (1872), predating Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897) by twenty-six years. For the first time, a vampire tale explored the concept of assertive women possessing the potential to manipulate other women. Le Fanu perpetrated this shift in gender roles to mark society’s growing concern about the power of female relationships in the nineteenth century. 

Le Fanu - Carmilla

Concerning the social commentary evident in Carmilla, this article explores whether a woman’s search for autonomy became demonised and conflated with the ‘contamination’ of lesbianism, or rather is advocated through education and companionship. 

Women and Experience

The story takes place in an isolated part of Styria, where the main character, Laura, lives a privileged but sheltered existence far from her home country. Laura’s overprotective father has attempted to alienate her from all which he deems harmful; however, he is unable to prevent a ‘predatory monster’ from invading their home.  

During her childhood, Laura first comes into contact with the female vampire, Carmilla. Carmilla’s uninvited presence in the nursery both frightens and comforts Laura, a mixed reaction that suggests the girl is unequipped with the knowledge necessary to confront danger wisely. Briefly acting as a substitute mother, she cradles the child, symbolising the vampire’s intention to provide innocent Laura with the knowledge and experience she lacks. The desires Carmilla will fulfil for the adult Laura in the future are foreshadowed by the sexual connotations of her attack on Laura’s breast. 

Possessing the gothic ‘female intuition,’ Laura’s first experience of genuine fear leaves a lasting impression, even though her father refuses to entertain that the vampire’s visit was anything but a dream. This event likely epitomises the moment when a young Victorian girl first starts to question her place in society as a female. 

Women –A Guarded Commodity

Before marriage, young women in Victorian society were generally encouraged to socialise only with members of their own sex and socioeconomic status. In theory, keeping the company of like-minded women limited their exposure to unorthodox ideas and temptations. The exchange of daughters, for the purpose of marriage or friendship, was a common operation that created alliances between men, binding them together in a socially acceptable manner. 

The short novella recounts that Laura’s father has arranged for Bertha, the daughter of a respected General, to visit their home. Laura and Bertha have both been brought up in carefully sheltered environments; thus, their male guardians detect no possible threat from the organised camaraderie. But Bertha’s untimely death appears to sentence Laura to a continued life of solitary confinement.

At this point, Carmilla strategically makes her entrance. Oblivious to the signs of encroaching danger, Laura’s father agrees to let the injured stranger stay with them to regain her strength and entertain his lonely daughter.  

The Power of Female Friendships

Arranged female friendships were immensely important to young Victorian women, as it provided their only opportunity to achieve companionship and emotional support in a society that restricted their social interactions. But, with the exclusion of men from these intimate conversations, Victorians began to fear that female relationships carried the potential power to subvert or demolish existing patriarchal kinship structures. 

As assertive individuals began questioning their rights and advocating for equality with their friends, the influence of the ‘New Woman’ movement began reaching even the most sheltered young women. To trivialise the voice of the ‘New Woman’, literature often depicted the social intercourse between female friends as shallow. Le Fanu, however, clearly conveys the eponymous character as extremely intelligent and capable of forming deep attachments. 

Women and Homosexuality

Threatening the long-standing traditions of marriage, female relationships offered an alternative source of intimacy that did not demand subservience and suppression. Lesbianism interfered with a woman’s perceived role as a dutiful wife and doting mother and, therefore, was considered to drain the female of her vitality, much like a vampire drains life from their victims. With this in mind, it is evident why Le Fanu has incorporated signs of underlying lesbian desire in the portrayal of Laura and Carmilla’s relationship. 

Continuously fawning over her prey, Carmilla’s discourse adopts the seductive language of an obsessed courtier. Mirroring Laura’s childhood interaction with the vampire, Carmilla’s influence produces contradictory emotions. The clear sexual undertones of Carmilla’s bite present her as a predator at first glance; however, Laura states she finds the experience strangely agreeable. Simultaneously attracted to and repulsed by her affection, the uncanny threat represents the risks female homosexuality poses for a patriarchal society.  

Carmilla’s Influence –Harmful or Healthy? 

Carmilla’s attempt to permanently convert Laura into a lesbian vampire, and thus into an assertive woman with independence and autonomy, is not entirely successful. Still, the change in Laura’s character between the beginning of the narrative and the end is never reversed, suggesting that her updated experience and shifting desires are healthy and vital to her personal development. Even after the vampire’s demise, Laura feels the presence of her lasting impact. 

Le Fanu’s short novella does not portray homosexuality as an antagonistic trait or behaviour that deserves punishment. Men kill the vampire because she challenges the socially accepted principles of femininity. Arguably, Carmilla is the actual victim of the tale. 

Carmilla advocates for the education and development of women, as well as the freedom for women to live and love without the intervention of men. This makes it an interesting literary study in the history of feminist and queer theory. Carmilla’s tale is still influential in today’s fictional stories.

One of the screen adaptations includes Castlevania (2017-2021), the Netflix animated series, where Carmilla appears as an ice-cold villain in the mediaeval fantasy show. She is as assertive, calculating and ruthless as Le Fanu’s Carmilla and antagonises men for underestimating her power. Consequently, Carmilla decides to live in a sisterhood with other vampire women – the council of sisters –  in Styria, plotting the downfall of men.  Both in literature and screen, Carmilla continues to haunt and fascinate the audience with her presence.