Women's sexual liberation from victorian patriarchy in Sheridan Le Fanu's Carmilla

Seminar Paper, 2004

13 Pages, Grade: 1,7



1 Vampirism as a an Expression of Lesbian Sexuality

2 Women’s Sexual Liberation from Victorian Patriarchy
2.1 Men’s Loss of Control
2.2 Carmilla's Take-over
2.3 Carmilla's Roles

3 Finally Free or Imprisoned Again?

4 References

1 Vampirism as an Expression of Lesbian Sexuality

Carmilla is the concluding story of Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu’s horror story collection In a Glass Darkly which was published in 1872. Carmilla does not simply complete this collection but raises the topic of lesbianism and thus conveys the most provocative idea of all preceding texts. Considering the extreme prudery prevailing during the Victorian age, the publication of Carmilla represented a real scandal ignoring the severe, moral restrictions of that time. Women were not understood as sexual beings and moreover, homosexuality was a term people were absolutely ignorant of. An erotic relationship with a partner of the same sex was a thing people could not think or dared not to think of. Among others McCormack states, “We begin with a pious clergyman and end with lesbianism, the offence Queen Victoria found unbelievable.” (McCormack 154). Nevertheless or even because of this, Carmilla is Le Fanu’s best remembered work and considered one of the most influential texts of English vampire literature. It is not without reason that Carmilla served Bram Stoker as an inspiration for his novel Dracula which has been the most popular piece of vampire literature until today. Carmilla is set in Styria with no apparent hint when it takes place. The two protagonists Laura and Carmilla are both young girls whose relationship becomes more and more erotic as the story proceeds. Together with her father and a few servants, Laura lives very isolated in the family’s castle with no surroundings but forest for miles. She is more than happy to have finally found a companion in the beautiful Carmilla. Carmilla who turns out to be a vampire seduces Laura and loftily confesses her love to Laura more than once. While the reader is aware of Carmilla’s nature quite early, Laura ignores the obvious until the very end. Laura has ambiguous feelings for her female lover. On the one hand she feels drawn towards her; on the other hand she has a revulsion against Carmilla’s strange behaviour. During the process of Laura being vampirized, she becomes weaker every day and more and more similar to Carmilla. Laura’s father watches this proceeding sorrowfully without being able to help it.

In the following, I will show that Laura’s devotion to Carmilla exercised through the vampiric act can be read as a female escape from patriarchal chains. The male characters that all play minor roles lose control of the events and are powerless against the unknown enchantment Carmilla radiates. In the literature of the Victorian era vampirism and death were the best means to describe an alternative concept of femininity or female gender roles, especially concerning sexuality.

2 Women’s Sexual Liberation from Victorian Patriarchy

The ideal image of a Victorian woman has always been compared to an angel. A woman was considered the virtuous heart of the family: a caring mother and housewife as well as a passive loving wife who must not reveal any sign that she is as well as her male counterpart a sexual being. Nina Auerbach’s remark that “the Victorian angel is defined by her boundaries” (Auerbach 72) hits the nail squarely on the head. In Carmilla we meet a woman who bears angelic features in her outward appearance only. At first, she seems to be the ideal companion for Laura fulfilling all Victorian claims. As Christy Byks notices “Homosocial relationships among women were legitimate because they were used to promote the interests of other women” (Byks). The homosocial bond between women served patriarchy to keep women whom they treated rather as objects than as individual beings with a will of their own out of the so-called male business. But some females having become notorious as “the new woman” began to claim social and political rights as well as sexual freedom. As this new woman was feared, Carmilla is feared by Laura’s father as soon as he notices her dangerous potential. Amy Nelson ascribes this new defined female role to the female vampire: “Vampires haunt much of Victorian literature...To many this may appear to be simply the use of the myth of the undead to horrify readers. In Carmilla, however, vampires represent much more. They identify and challenge gender roles of women in the Victorian age, as well as symbolise “new women” or lesbians of that era” (Nelson). Carmilla and Laura’s relationship soon turns out to have much more than a homosocial character. Carmilla awakes sensations in Laura which she has never known before because Laura’s sexuality has always been suppressed. Speaking in Byks’ words: “it is through their homosexual relationship that Laura and Carmilla are able to become free from rule by men and by a patriarchal society” (Byks). Female sexuality and especially sexual activity of lesbian nature were an absolute taboo. It is due to vampirism that the two girls in the story are able to break it. According to Colleen Damman “as a woman, Carmilla can only claim her sexuality after death. Thus, vampirism is the only way she can express her own carnal desires. Besides marriage, becoming a vampire is one of the only ways that female sexuality is licensed in the Victorian era” (Damman).

2.1 Men’s Loss of Control

Rightly at the moment when Carmilla arrives at the castle, Laura’s father intuitively feels that something bad is going to happen: “But I feel as if some great misfortune were hanging over us” (Le Fanu 79). This presentiment turns out to be justified. While her stay at the castle Carmilla is more and more able to take Laura away from paternal control. Carmilla embodies a friend Laura long time yearned for and she even becomes her lover. Carmilla is Laura’s new person to turn to and thus, the father becomes superfluous. Carmilla is even able to replace men in general as Colleen Damman observes: “Since they have each other, they do not need men to fulfil any of their needs, both emotional and sexual” (Damman). It is characteristic of the father’s unimportantness that he stays nameless throughout the story. Being always referred to as “Laura’s father” he is defined by his role rather than by his individual self. The father tries to interfere the girls’ “male-excluding intimacy” (McCormack 148) by ascribing Laura’s change to an illness. He insists on a doctor being sent for although Laura herself does not believe that she is sick: “I would not admit that I was ill, I would not consent to tell my papa, or to have the doctor sent for” (Le Fanu 105). Like Laura’s father the doctor is very worried and upset by the girl’s condition. The men use medical terminology to keep control of the situation. They cannot stand to have the traditional gender roles be reversed by two young girls who are rebelling against the conventions. Byks notices that the men stigmatise the girls’ lesbian activities as an illness which has to be cured:

“Two ideas are at work in this passage. First is Laura’s father’s attempt to control/ analyse/ label the women who are becoming “ill” and dying; the men want to “cure” her [Laura] by making her well and keeping her among the living, for it is in death that the women break free from the control of men…He [the father] is also defining the women’s interactions with Carmilla which are homoerotic as a medical problem, saying that “horrible fancies do accompany some forms of fever” in which he is prescribing that hallucinations or a nervous breakdown is occurring. By making these interactions with Carmilla a medical problem, the situation can be contained and defined, thus still under the control of men.” (Byks)


Excerpt out of 13 pages


Women's sexual liberation from victorian patriarchy in Sheridan Le Fanu's Carmilla
University of Marburg  (Institute for English and American Studies)
Blood, Lust and (Un)Death: Vampires in American and British Cultures
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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Women, Sheridan, Fanu, Carmilla, Blood, Lust, Vampires, American, British, Cultures, Victorian patriarchy, sexual liberation
Quote paper
Ilona Gaul (Author), 2004, Women's sexual liberation from victorian patriarchy in Sheridan Le Fanu's Carmilla, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/79669


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