Lesbianism and the Vampire in “Christabel”and Carmilla

Holly E. Reynolds
Holly E. Reynolds

The vampire Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu inherited was not the folk figure that Coleridge might have known. By the time Le Fanu had begun work on Carmilla, the vampire had become recognised by the literary world.

The vampire was realised as an aristocratic, seductive demon in Polidori’s ‘The Vampyre’, employed as a “stock character” in the serial ‘Varney the Vampyre’, and alluded to in works by literary greats such as Byron, and Keats, or utilised “mythopoetically” by Charlotte and Emily Brontë (Twitchell 272).

James Twitchell believes it is the Brontës’ works, which portray the vampire as a powerful, passionate myth, that “set the temper” (Twitchell 272) for Le Fanu’s work.

By the time Le Fanu wrote ‘Carmilla’, the vampire had become a corporeal, familiar figure, although perhaps not as established, some critics may argue, as it would be post-‘Dracula’ (Costello-Sullivan xvii). Still, the fact that ‘Dracula’ has been considered a “direct response” to ‘Carmilla’ (Costello-Sullivan xvii) demonstrates its significance in the vampire canon, and how some of the vampiric conventions it establishes would live on for years to come.

Published first as a four-part serial in John Christian Freund’s eclectic Oxford magazine Dark Blue, the narrative was printed alongside works both “radical” and “conservative,” “transgressive” and “middlebrow” (Jones 1-4, 12), before being printed in Le Fanu’s collection ‘In a Glass Darkly’ (1872) (Jones 24 n.28).

Likewise, Carmilla occupies a divided space between its sexually transgressive elements and its considerably conservative author. The conflict of ambiguity is nothing new to the vampire narrative — and despite Le Fanu’s intentions, Carmilla and Laura’s relationship stands as a pinnacle of queer vampirism.

Of course, labelling “Christabel” and Carmilla not just as vampire texts, but queer vampire texts, cannot be done without considering what makes a “queer” text. Discussing “Christabel” and Carmilla within the contexts of queer literature, theory, and criticism is a daunting task for several reasons.

To suggest that Le Fanu and Coleridge intended to write texts that liberated the queer experience would be absurd: if anything, these works use cultural anxiety (Haggerty 10) about alternative sexuality and “female power” (Costello-Sullivan xx) to create an additional sense of “terror” and “exoticism” in their Gothic text (Haggerty 2), and exploit societal homophobia rather than fight it.

It is unlikely that the conservative Le Fanu, a middle-class Irishman and a clergyman’s son, a devout Protestant who supported British colonialism (Costello-Sullivan xxii), meant for his work to be read as anything other than as a “disapproval of challenges to patriarchal heteronormativity” (Fantina 172 n8).

Similarly, it is doubtful that Coleridge, who called Horace Walpole’s ‘The Mysterious Mother’ (1768) “the most disgusting, vile, detestable composition” (Coleridge 293), intended to sexually liberate the female population. However, while both these authors likely intended to use deviant sexualities to add additional anxiety and terror to their works, just by exploring transgressive sexualities, Coleridge and Le Fanu are breathing life into the queerness of their characters.

As Haggerty writes in regards to Gothic fiction as a whole, despite homophobic overtones, the queerness of a text does not “merely contribute to the sexual status quo”: to excavate alternative sexualities and identities is to “militate,” willingly or not, against heteronormativity (Haggerty 19).

While incongruity with authors’ intention may not necessarily preclude a text from being queer, another reason many may hesitate to call these texts queer is that the modern queer identities may not align with “homosexual identity and roles” that “are culturally and historically specific” (Summers 3).

However, while the specific identity of the “lesbian” may not have been alive in public consciousness during the eras in which “Christabel” and Carmilla were written, this does not mean that they have no value to modern queer readers.

Louise Fradenburg and Carla Freccero articulate this point beautifully in their collection Premodern Sexualities: “The joy of finding counterparts in the past…problematic though it may be…is not simply to be dismissed as anachronism…[and] the argument that modern desires and perspectives can and must be set aside if we are to read the past properly is itself revealing, for it suggests that historical knowledge is founded on the renunciation of ‘self’…[and] this renunciation…begs for queer scrutiny. ” (Fradenburg and Freccero viii)

To read the central figures of “Christabel” and Carmilla as lesbians, then, is not a task that anachronism strips of value. Modern readers have found validation in uncovering “counterparts in the past.”

James Jenkins, the founder of Valancourt Books, which publishes rare and queer fiction, noted in an interview that much of Valancourt Books’ success comes from contemporary queer readers’ “passionate responses” to older literature (Healey).

In ‘Myth of the Modern Homosexual: Queer History and the Search for Cultural Unity’, Rictor Norton notes that he, as well as historians Martin Duberman and John D’Emilio, finds “queer survival” in the past as “itself inspiring and empowering” and that this empowerment extends beyond the individual to create “solidarity,” “cultural community,” and to strengthen queer activism (Norton 3).

Scholarly aversion to applying modern queer perspectives to past sexualities may even be rooted in a desire to preserve and validate heteronormativity. Steven Kruger, in ‘Queer Middle Ages,’ notes that attempts to “stabilise” the past as something “other to modernity is a construction analogous to attempts to stabilise and essentialise gender or sexuality” — and that modern queer theory perspectives threaten that stability and demarcation (Kruger 414).

Claude Summers references a “scholarly tradition that has denied and obfuscated the homosexual presence in English literature,” that is strengthened by the “anxieties of anachronism” (Summers 3).

Fradenburg and Freccero point out that “historical scruples have been hard at work” to preserve one particular historical narrative (viii). That narrative is one of default heterosexuality, a narrative that claims queer identity is new deviance, a “fabrication of late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century male sexologists” such as Krafft-Ebing and Sigmund Freud (Castle 8).

The lesbian, in particular, has suffered from these “anxieties of anachronism.” What Castle calls the “‘no lesbians before 1900’ theory” (Castle 9) has been aggravated by hesitation to explore past sexualities and identities as formative or related to modern ones: “There are always ‘more lesbians’ to be found in the world than one expects… lesbians are indeed ‘everywhere,’ and always have been. For too long, our thinking has been dominated by a kind of scarcity model: either there aren’t any lesbians at all, or too few to matter. It is time, I maintain, to focus on presence instead of absence, plenitude instead of scarcity.” (Castle 18).

The idea that lesbianism was largely invisible before the late nineteenth-century is not completely unfounded: lesbianism was invisible, at the very least, in the eyes of the law.

In 1812, a Scottish case involving two lesbian schoolteachers was dismissed by a judge who believed “the crime alleged here,” lesbianism, “has no existence” (Faderman, Scotch Verdict: The Real-Life Story that Inspired “the Children’s Hour,” 279). The infamous Criminal Law Amendment Act of 1885 (used to convict Oscar Wilde), was meant to target male homosexuality, not female homosexuality (Castle 6). However, in the realm of literature and culture, there exists a rich history of female sexual expression, and a number of different conventions through which female sexuality is portrayed.

These expressions of female sexuality stretch all the way from Sappho’s fragments, to seventeenth-century poetry by writers such as Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz, Katherine Philips, and Aphra Behn, to eighteenth-century public figures such as the Ladies of Llangollen (who attracted high-profile visitors such as William and Dorothy Wordsworth [Watson 100]).

These women used languages such as romantic friendship, feudal hierarchies, pastoral imagery, “courtly love… and hermaphroditic perfection” (Summers 6), and “ventriloquized male [voices] and… verbal cross-dressing” (Andreadis, “Re-Configuring Early Modern Friendship: Katherine Philips and Homoerotic Desire,” 526) to depict female homosexuality, while at the same time keeping the lesbian safely “in the shadows, in the margins” (Castle 2).

Conversely, the lesbian is not so hidden in texts written by men. Male authors who write about lesbianism, as Castle notes, often produce text that is “pornographic or ‘underground’ in nature” — in other words, text that is explicitly obscene (Castle 9).

Likewise, “Christabel” and Carmilla are notably explicit texts. The sexuality of its female figures does not hide in the margins. Castle even uses “Christabel” as evidence that Western society, before the late nineteenth-century, had “always known on some level about lesbians” (Castle 9). However, although explicit, Carmilla and “Christabel” are also notable because they are not “underground” texts.

As Andrew Elfenbein notes, “When Christabel appeared in 1816, it changed the history of representation. Previous work had treated sex between women as a matter of pornographic interest, satirical commentary, scandalous exploration, or titillating innuendo. Christabel, for the first time, made lesbianism sublime.” (Elfenbein 177)

By sublime, Elfenbein means that lesbianism, in “Christabel,” was not included to “[shock]” readers, but to introduce them to the “sacred mystery” (Elfenbein 177) of relationship that, freed from “heterosexual framework… exists simply for itself” (Elfenbein 190).

Carmilla and “Christabel” are not pornographic: rather, they belong to the history of the Gothic, which George Haggerty notes was a “semi-respectable area of literary endeavour” where “modes of sexual and social transgression were discursively addressed on a regular basis” (Haggerty 3).

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