When Bram Stoker’s ‘Dracula’ was published in 1897, twenty-five years after Le Fanu’s ‘Carmilla’, Victorian society was amidst processes of numerous social dynamics and rethinking that would re-evaluate and review old ways of approaching important issues such as gender and sexuality.
Despite Queen Victoria’s reign on the throne, society was still undoubtedly patriarchally structured and organised. As a matter of fact, hegemonic masculinity functioned as a driving social force to subdue threatening female sexuality which was deemed unacceptable and merely a means for marital procreation to ensure the continued existence of the British Empire. The role of women was among the most widely discussed (political) discourses during the time. Dracula also addresses this topic of the so-called New Woman who intended to reclaim her own life, potential and education. However, granting women (or other subdued social groups respectively) more freedom, independence, power and education obviously comes at the price of loss of power for the ruling hegemonic patriarchy which perceived the ascending modern, emancipated and empowered woman as a threat to the male-dominated status quo. Suzanne Dixon (2006: 48) observes that “Stoker’s novel […] addresses the contemporary concerns of society with the immorality of the New Woman and the gender confusion she caused, and the associated degeneration and dilution of the race”. While men would provide for the family and, thus, represent the dominant active part of the family, women would traditionally be passively confined to the bedroom, the education of the children and the household. This rigid dichotomy was diluted as more and more women politicised themselves and strived to claim active positions which were traditionally considered a strictly male domain. Before this emerging early phase of first wave feminism, women were expected to behave according to a strict catalogue of rules on how to become and behave like the ideal proper English lady who was supposed to be the Angel in the House (a term based on the 1852-1862 poem of the same name by Coventry Patmore). Deviant behaviour such as expressive female sexuality was socially condemned and often backed through medical findings such as reports of hysteria (a medical condition particularly attributed to women). In a time that perfected the timing of the affects, unbridled female sexuality was obviously a dangerous thing that bore the potential to disrupt the homosocial male-dominated state of affairs. Both Stoker’s and Le Fanu’s works feature this fear of active female sexuality — often connoted as vampiric — and the consequent impending threat to society and the heteronormative sphere.
As coherent with the unequal distribution of rights and power, female sexuality — addressed and focused on for instance in Le Fanu’s Carmilla — and male sexuality were treated differently. While women were supposed to refrain from any sexual activity before marriage, it was acceptable for men to have multiple sexual partners during their lives. Women, on the other side, had to fear severe and socially detrimental consequences in case of extramarital sexual activity: the status of the degraded fallen woman can be seen as one instance of these consequences. Sex workers such as prostitutes — an example of the concept of fallen women — on the other hand, enjoyed much more personal and economic independence than married women who literally surrendered bodies, certain rights and assets to their husbands who represented the family henceforth. Marsh (2005) aptly notes that “as daughters, employees or servants, young women were subject to male authority; [sic!] as whores they enjoyed economic and personal independence“. Public campaigns against brothels and prostitution, however, reinforced and perpetuated the image of sordid depravity of female sex workers (cf. Marsh 2005)
In reference to Stoker — perhaps a closeted homosexual as some scholars have argued (cf. Brigitte Boudreau 2011: 44) in the light of homoerotic undertones in Dracula and scarce biographical information regarding Stoker’s private life — it may be argued that issues of sexuality were generally of heightened interest to him as he undoubtedly witnessed the excesses of Victorian morality as his life-long acquaintance Oscar Wilde was brought to trial and eventually convicted during the last decade of the century (1895) for gross indecency. Especially when looking at neo-Victorian fiction it becomes clear that even to the postmodern reader of the 21st century (imagined) Victorian sexuality still appears to be of particular interest (cf. Marie-Luise Kohlke 2008: 53). However, there is often a discrepancy between historically accurate Victorian sexualities and the ones portrayed in neo-Victorian fiction. Nowadays commonly perceived as repressive and anti-pleasure when it comes to sexuality, the Victorian population was allegedly forced to hide any erotic tension or frenzy. This supposed sexual secretiveness — in contrast to our arguably demystified, more liberated postmodern perception of sexuality — is often argued to be the reason for the sustained fascination with Victorian sexuality. For Kohlke (2008: 56) the contrast between them and us, and the insinuation of “imagined perversity” of Victorian sexuality, is the reason for postmodern recipients’ attraction to the topic: “By projecting prohibited and unmentionable desires onto the past, we conveniently reassert our own supposedly enlightened stance towards sexual liberation and social progress, indulging in the self-satisfactions of our assumed superiority”.
Especially during the second half of the 20th century, renowned scholars such as Michael Foucault strived to assess the underlying forces of (Victorian) sexuality. On a related note, his assessments of sexuality should not be understood as merely confined to England but as part of the zeitgeist of various western societies. As still today, the topic of sexuality and one’s own sexual identity was of much importance in Victorian England as gender, sexuality and sexual activity shifted into focus like rarely before (cf. Martain: 2006) and grew to become a defining criterion for one’s identity. Foucault (1976: 25) points out that “there emerged a political, economic, and technical incitement to talk about sex. […] This need to take sex ‘into account’, to pronounce a discourse on sex that would not derive from morality alone but from rationality as well, was sufficiently new that at first it wondered at itself and sought apologies for its own existence.”
For Foucault (cf. 1976: 5) sexuality is directly and interdependently linked with power structures such as social hierarchies. During the course of emerging capitalism, sexuality became steadily more and more socially repressed until it was eventually confined to the personal sphere throughout the 19th century in bourgeois Victorian England (cf. 1976: 3). Often people were simply uninformed on the topic of sex due to lack of educational material and the overall discretion towards sexual topics. Jan Marsh (2005), in reference to Foucault, argues that “sex was not censored but subject to obsessive discussion as a central discourse of power, bent on regulation rather than suppression”. Eroticism, sex and sexuality thus gained a status of something one does not talk about as it was not visible – since it was supposed to stay hidden under lock and key behind bedroom walls. Foucault clarifies that “sexuality was carefully confined; it moved into the home. […] On the subject of sex, silence became the rule” (1976: 3). The impression that the Victorians must have surely despised sex often suggests itself to unacquainted recipients of (neo-) Victorian art and fiction. Marsh (2005), however, argues that “evidence has shown that Victorian sex was not polarised between female distaste […] and extra-marital male indulgence. Instead many couples seem to have enjoyed mutual pleasure in what is now seen as a normal, modern manner. The picture is occluded however by the variety of attitudes that exist at any given time, and by individuals’ undoubted reticence […].”
The acting out of deviant sexual behaviour (such as homosexuality) thus moved underground (to brothels for instance) into nonexistence for the public. Obviously, forms of considered deviant sexual behaviour were existent (yet often hidden) throughout history. However, at the fin-de-siècle of the 19th century, a concrete process of mapping took place as every person was assigned a specific gender within the gender binary (male/female) and sexual orientation (homo/hetero), which highly influenced and reshaped various discourses and became the basis of identity. These discourses did not necessarily have to be of sexual nature as can be seen in the strong influence on fields such as law, medicine or psychology. Kathryn Hughes (2014) notes that “during the Victorian period men and women’s roles became more sharply defined than at any time in history”.
Among the emerging categorisations of sexual species there arose the (male) homosexual as a concretely defined class. As mentioned, it has been argued that Stoker entertained same-sex desire. Possible allusions to this can also be found in Dracula which will be examined later in this treatise. The xeno-homophobic facets of Victorian double morality and jurisdiction became publicly evident in the infamous trials of Oscar Wilde which most likely would not have motivated Stoker to change his attitude towards potential closetedness, especially as his most famous work Dracula would be published two years later. Eventually, during the last years of his life, Stoker developed a strong and publicly voiced aversion to (male) homosexuality.
In contrast to Stoker’s rather reserved private life, Wilde was forced into the public focus and the scale of his trials were of immense importance for the historical understanding and classification of the homosexual as it was built around Wilde’s persona and trials. He became the paragon of the homosexual man in the public notion (cf. Alan Sinfield 1994: 124). Historically, male homosexuality (or to use the more Victorian term same-sex desire) has generally always been the greater subject of condemnation then female homosexuality. Madiha Didi Khayatt (1992: 12) notes that “it is mostly true that male homosexuals were regularly singled out for persecution much more than their female counterparts”. Homosocial constellations between women allowed for much more freedom than the male counterpart. In Carmilla sexuality appears implicitly beneath the surface as the female character of Carmilla possesses much more scope in terms of socially acceptable affection, thus, masking her vampiric thirst for (female) blood. Women, socially perceived and raised as being more emotional than men, were much freer in their display of affection for each other than men. Dracula and Carmilla display these socially accepted liberties to a certain extent: Both characters Mina and Lucy feel comfortable in their affectionate behaviour towards each other as best friends. In Sheridan Le Fanu’s Carmilla the protagonist Laura yearns for a female companion without any initial erotic undertones. Carmilla — representing the threat of vampiric female sexuality — walks the line between socially acceptable homosocial behaviour and the transgression towards implicit explicitness.
Due to the rigid expectations towards sexual identity, behaviour, gender relations and the distribution of power during the Victorian era, queer breaches with or inversions of these concepts, issues and practices by the example of Dracula and Carmilla) are able to expose the fragility of male-hegemonic society and gender definitions and, thus, deconstruct arguments of gender inequality.