Sheridan Le Fanu's Carmilla

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Sheridan Le Fanu's Carmilla

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Editat: nov. 20, 2016, 5:17am

This is a bit of a landmark in the genre, so it deserves its own thread. In fact, I had to check that it didn't already have one ... surprising.

Editat: nov. 20, 2016, 6:00am

I recently watched a web series based on this, which prompted me to re-read it and read some lit-crit on it.

It is pointed out here that the scene set for Laura's first (adult) meeting with Carmilla is actually quite beautiful - anything but creepy, and more suited to the opening of a love story than a Gothic story. So I re-read again and realised that most of the story is really surprisingly beautifully set for a horror tale. Even the abandoned village and schloss of Karnstein, the setting of Carmilla's grave and of her eventual destruction, is presented as the kind of attractive and picturesque place where upper-class young ladies are taken in carriages for picnics.

It has in the past occurred to me that the exterior settings are the kind place where I'd love to spend a walking holiday, but, a little to my embarrassment, I don't think I've previously stopped to consider what significance that may have.

I note that the only really creepy scene setting is in Laura's bedroom - in her own home, in other words. I note that Le Fanu seems to have a bit of a thing about this - Maud's childhood home in Uncle Silas - which you'd assume to be the safe starting point before her setting out on scary adventures - is depicted in the opening chapters as a place of shadows and ghosts.

I'm finding this all rather fascinating but I'm rather stuck at the moment - I know that it works its magic, but I'm rather struggling to get my head around how, exactly, Le Fanu is doing it.

nov. 20, 2016, 5:55am

Then there are the odd little clues that Le Fanu leaves littered about, which, rather than building an atmosphere, seem more calculated for the reader to pick up at leisure:

The fact that Laura's father picked up their schloss as a bargain is suggestive, with hindsight; as is the fact that there was a watchtower guarding the pass between the territory of the original owners of their schloss and Karnstein territory - as, I suppose, is the fact that, at the time of the story, it's ruined and no longer serving its function.

But what are the implications and significance of the fact that Laura - unlike her father - is a descendent of the Karnsteins? I've still to get all that straight in my mind. In a way, she's on the wrong side of the watchtower - or has a foot in both camps. Is there any significance in the fact that the presenter of the story attempted to contact Laura but found her dead? In what state of being 'dead'?

nov. 20, 2016, 5:59am

I've read it twice in the last week or so. After all the guff above I realise I have to read it yet again - feel I've nowhere near got to the depths of it ...

nov. 20, 2016, 5:50pm

There's a folklore angle (specifically an Irish one) that might be fruitful in examining this story.

Many commentators have pointed out that Le Fanu's Irishness is a very strong element of his work. The details in some works (including Uncle Silas are slightly "off" because, although they are set in England for commercial reasons, Le Fanu "really" had the landscape and social set-up of Ireland in mind when writing.

Although it's set in Styria, I gather that the vampire-lore of "Carmilla" actually mirrors Irish folklore (around the "fairy folk" rather than vampires per se). A parallel has been drawn, by more than one commentator (I wish I could remember where I read it so as to give proper credit) between the figure of Carmilla's mother (or the woman posing as her mother) and the "princess", the "very grand-looking lady" from the story "The Child That Went With the Fairies", which is set "eastward of"..."Limerick".

This thread, and Euro Gothic, have just prompted me to order a DVD of Roger Vadim's Blood and Roses. apparently, despite being a German DVD, it has English subtitles.

Editat: nov. 21, 2016, 9:01pm

Le Fanu drew his inspiration for Carmilla from a historical account of a real vampire case in an eighteenth century study of vampirism and ghosts called "A Treatise on the Apparitions of Spirits, and on the Vampires or Revenants of Hungary, Moravia, etc." by Dom Augustin Calmet (Paris 1751), translated by Henry Christmas as "The Phantom World : or, the Philosophy of Spirits, Apparitions, etc." (London 1850).

More info here:

nov. 21, 2016, 5:38pm

>6 DavidX:

Thanks for that. I'd somehow got it into my head - presumably from the Wikipedia entry - that Calmet's Treatise wasn't available in English. Your post prompted me to hunt up the translation on Project Gutenberg and now it's on my Kindle.

Editat: nov. 22, 2016, 1:39am

>7 alaudacorax:

I have it on my kindle as well. It's a treasure trove of old world folklore. Great fun on a rainy day.

nov. 22, 2016, 7:23am

Alright, so I got drunk tonight on straight vermouth (hey, I'm far away from home and it's Thanksgiving week...but feel free to judge the choice of straight vermouth), and decided to read two short novels/novellas (it's around six in the morning in San Antonio, so it's been a long night). Tackled Radcliffe's The Castles of Athlin and Dunbayne (SO AWFUL: who'd have thought her style could actually be more readable in a 600 page dose (I am in the modern minority that actually enjoys The Mysteries of Udolpho, The Italian, The Romance of the Forest...) than in just under 100? strange, but true, folks) and also reread Carmilla. It seems my recent return to LibraryThing has involved a confessional approach, so I'll admit: last time I read this, I was also, er, 'in my cups.' Second reading and my predominant take-away is (I'm just gonna be the one to come out and say it, though I know it's been covered a thousand times before and that this is hardly a novel observation): HOLY LESBIANS, BATMAN. I live for homoerotic (crypto-homoerotic?) over- and undertones in Gothic lit, but I caught more of the flavor on the reread than I did my first time around, liquor aside (maybe it helped this time?). I suppose I'll have more to say if I remember to post again after I get some sleep.

As an aside, I think I have a film version of this with Ingrid Pitt on a double-feature DVD. The Vampire Lovers sounds familiar? I'd google it, but where's the fun in that?

Much admire your dedication to the multiple rereadings back-to-back, Paul. I'm a rabid rereader, but I've never been able to do it without giving a solid month (or year...years, even?) in between approaches (aside from the shortest of short fiction, I suppose).

nov. 22, 2016, 8:27am

>9 veilofisis: Much admire your dedication to the multiple rereadings back-to-back, Paul.

Um ... it's a bit of a complicated story (why I've been re-reading, I mean).

It started with watching the web series I linked in >2 alaudacorax:. From one or two comments I saw in the 'additional material', the people behind the series seemed to regard Le Fanu's text as, in effect, 'anti-lesbian', and that's a viewpoint I've come across previously in lit-crit. My reaction to that was that I couldn't really see it, and thought that Le Fanu was merely throwing in a bit of 'girl-on-girl action' for male-gaze titillation.

So then I thought that, if I was going to hold that viewpoint, I'd better be able to argue it; so I started to re-read the work and hunt up lit-studies on it.

Naturally, it quickly dawned on me that things weren't as simple as I'd thought. There's a whole, complex web to be looked at of interactions between what Le Fanu intended and the set of cultural mores within which he and his readers were operating.

Then, once I'd realised that and started taking the first steps into looking into it, I got completely side-tracked by the realisation of Le Fanu's 'uncreepy' scene-setting (>2 alaudacorax:). One of the factors of it being a favourite story of mine has always been its 'visual attractiveness' (a bit reminiscent of all those picturesque travel passages in Ann Radcliffe), but I'd never really registered the incongruity of that.

So now I've forgotten about the lesbian thing and I've got really focused on unpicking Le Fanu's technique (or trying to, at least). It's to do with contrasts and subverting expectations, I think, but I really haven't got my head around it yet.

nov. 22, 2016, 8:46am

An anti-Lesbian reading is surely easy enough: Carmilla is the villain, and by the Hitler-ate-sugar principle, everything a villain does is bad. Carmilla is lesbian, ergo lesbianism is bad. That the narrator misses her affections afterwards only shows that the propensity for sin is within us all*.

Not saying that that's a good reading, or what Le Fanu intended, but it's a fairly obvious one methinks.

* Tangentially, I've had the dubious pleasure to talk with with a couple Evangelicals who, in effect, believed we're all bisexual - to be straight, acc'd them, isn't a matter of nature or conditioning but of moral choice. As someone who certainly never consciously chose my sexual orientation, it's very hard to avoid the conclusion they're projecting.

nov. 22, 2016, 9:12am

>10 alaudacorax: & >11 AndreasJ:

I attended a talk on Carmilla given by Jarleth Killeen of Trinity College, Dublin. You may have seen some of his writings in The Irish Journal of Horror and Gothic Studies. He introduced an interesting interpretation of Carmilla's early interaction with Laura as a baby.

Carmilla comforts the child when she cries and tries to sooth her. At the time the story was written and published, the "good" motherhood wisdom of the time, as expounded in Mrs. Beeton's Book of Household Management, was to let baby's cry and to never give in to their cries. Jarleth interpreted Carmilla's actions with the baby/child Laura, as an indication to Le Fanu's contemporary readers, that Carmilla would be a bad mother.

I believe his paper on this topic can be found in Reflections in a Glass Darkly: Essays on J. Sheridan Le Fanu.

Editat: nov. 22, 2016, 9:35am

>5 housefulofpaper:

Just read The Child That Went With the Fairies: interesting correspondences with Carmilla. I'd love to know home much was Le Fanu's invention and how much Irish folklore.

The black woman is interesting - I've come across other depictions of black people in old folk tales and, as, perhaps, here, what seems to be being described is a typically Caucasian person but with black skin, the blackness seemingly intended to imply either the Devil or some sort of lesser demon. There would seem to be much darker versions (pun not intended but I'll claim it anyway) of the fair folk than Shakespeare or the kids' books of my childhood would have them.

Editat: des. 13, 2016, 5:06am

Among a multitude of things I'm currently reading is Repossessing the Body: Transgressive Desire in "Carmilla" and "Dracula" by Elizabeth Signorotti (

She has a lot of interesting angles on Carmilla, but one thing that quite startled me is her belief that Laura's father intends her to marry General Spielsdorf.

All I can say at the moment is that this idea has never, ever crossed my mind in my readings of the tale so far.

Has anyone else come across this idea? Or suspected this when reading the story? Or come upon the belief elsewhere in lit. studies?

des. 13, 2016, 7:24am

>14 alaudacorax:

... and having written that, I come across the same idea in the Jarlath Killeen essay mentioned in >12 pgmcc: ...

des. 13, 2016, 7:31am

>14 alaudacorax: &>15 alaudacorax:

I will have to read Carmilla again. Your comments rang a bell in the back of my mind but I cannot be sure if the bell tolls from my having had that thought or is reverberating from auto-suggestion and/or 20:20 hindsight.

Editat: des. 13, 2016, 7:35am

And talking about Killeen's essay (In the Name of the Mother:Perverse Maternity in "Carmilla", in Reflections in a Glass Darkly: Essays on J. Sheridan Le Fanu), I do wish these people wouldn't bring Freud into things - Freud is unreliable and it muddies the issues dreadfully, especially as Le Fanu was writing to too early to have been influenced by the old fantasist.

des. 13, 2016, 7:47am

>17 alaudacorax: Perhaps it was Le Fanu who influenced Freud.

des. 13, 2016, 7:50am

>18 pgmcc:

I have a feeling I've read that somewhere - or, at least, that Freud had dealt with Carmilla somewhere or other.

des. 13, 2016, 8:04am

Freudian analysis of pre-Freudian literature is best seen, I think, as a creative enterprise in itself rather than as critical work on the original.

des. 13, 2016, 8:11am

>17 alaudacorax:

Having written that, there is a lot of interesting stuff in the article - it reminds me again that there's a lot more to be got out of the tale if I can only put it in the context of its times.

Incidentally, I've bought Sharon Marcus` Between Women: Friendship, Desire, and Marriage in Victorian England expressly to get to grips with some of the background against which Le Fanu may consciously have been writing. From my reading so far (assuming Marcus is reliable), it's becoming clear to me that a number of literary theorists who have dealt with Carmilla have assumed for Le Fanu and his time of writing the very different and 'more Victorian' cultural mores of twenty or thirty years later - it was a time of great changes.

des. 13, 2016, 8:13am

>20 AndreasJ:

I wish I'd said that - much cooler than the burst of asperity in >17 alaudacorax:.

Editat: març 17, 2018, 7:01pm

How fortuitous to have dusted this off on St. Paddy's Day! Interesting topics and timelines. I have yet to read it but obviously it served as a catalyst on many issues. Might save Carmilla & Uncle Silas for 2019.

>12 pgmcc: And what is with that phrase "in a glass darkly"?? Noticed it in Villette and thought nothing of it, but here it is again, as the title of a book of short stories and also as the essay study piece. Was it common wording in the 19th century, is it a folk gothic term, or is that specific wording referencing something earlier? Pardon my ignorance in the obvious. If I don't ask, I'll never learn. The internet is far too vast and untrustworthy for my simple queries. Villette was written or published in 1853 and Charlotte died in 1855, then Le Fanu book emerged in 1872, the year before he died.

If they are both just coincidentally landing on Corinthians, well well well.

-ps- there is a key character called Pere Silas in Villette - must have been a popular name?!

març 17, 2018, 5:51pm

Well, it's definitely from 1 Corinthians 13.

As to what made it current currency in the mid-19th century so that two Anglophone authors would reference it separately, whether it still only had its Biblical meaning, or had become unmoored from that meaning so that it was merely a resonant phrase floating around in the culture (which, if you look at the relevant Wikipeida entry, seems to have been the case by the middle of the 20th century)...those are the interesting questions but I wouldn't know how to go about trying to answer them.

Unless Non-conformist Protestantism and/or Spiritualism particularly leant on, put store in, those verses? The timing would be about right, I think. But this is just a guess.

Editat: març 17, 2018, 6:56pm

Here is a quick summary of insight: (not sure if spoiler warning is in order?)

"Revelation thus becomes part of her romantic ambition. Awaiting the de'nouement of the mystery surrounding Justine Marie, she says, ‘I had seen this spectre only through a glass darkly; now was I to behold it face to face’(p.512). Her ironic reference to Corinthians suggests that earthly revelations, truths and knowledge are the only kind available to her. When, shortly after, she sees M. Paul through ‘the dimness left in her eyes through many nights’ weeping’ and claims ‘she knew him’ (p.513), she implies that it is only through her own dark vision that she is able to achieve the face-to-face encounter that in Pauline theology is ‘to know’. However, Lucy’s revelation regarding Justine-Marie is partial. She believes herself to be in possession of the truth but it is not until M. Paul’s final explanation of his relationship with his ward that she really can be said to ‘know’. This scene abounds with bright reflections. Lucy’s first impressions of the salon in 7 Fauborg-Clothilde include waxed (and by implication shiny) floors, ‘brilliant carpet’, and ‘a small round table which shone like the mirror over its hearth’ (p.534). The brightness of the salon anticipates Lucy’s assurance of M. Paul’s ‘sleepless interest’ which breaks on her ‘like a light from heaven’ (p.536). However, their short-lived union is longingly described as a period of lost grace."

Sorry for the confusion, but I found Lucy to be an unreliable narrator, although this is supposed to be Charlotte's tour de force, with uninhibited outpouring of grief and remorse, or lack of fulfillment in what she believed was to be her 'claim'. I wondered, when I read Anne's The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, if the old woman who lives in solitude in the town after her 'plain-Jane' sister marries a pastor who coulda/shoulda been her spouse, hinted at Charlotte. With 3 older sisters myself, I can relate to Anne's perspective. The woman cannot believe that this lovely man has chosen her homely dowdy sister over her own impressiveness, and she feels sorry for both of them rather than being angry. It made me laugh, bringing to mind Mrs.Dubose in To Kill A Mockingbird. Love that feisty morsel! With all her flaws, she is the bravest person Atticus had ever known, for kicking her addiction prior to death. For this reason, the book will always be more profound than the film, since they cut most of her scenes. That would make a great stand alone film. My 3 boys were named after 3 characters in this book.

Looks like Charlotte Bronte and Le Fanu both had fathers who were protestant ministers. Interesting link. Whether Irish or English, they used the same bible! Same study lessons I bet.

març 17, 2018, 6:57pm

>23 frahealee: "A glass darkly" was the term used to describe a piece of darkened glass used to look at bright objects. One could be made by playing a candle flame over the surface of a piece of glass. To see something through a glass darkly would be to see it dimmed and possibly obstructed slightly.

Editat: març 17, 2018, 7:10pm

>25 frahealee: Really?! Like an early smudge to achieve a tinted lens. So the cover of night, or a veil of fog could achieve the same effect. Even though no actual glass was involved, like a view through a window, etc. Thank you!

Great to know all of these indepth essays exist. Some of it is way over my head but enthusiasm and interest sometimes bridges the gap to intellectual prowess.

març 17, 2018, 7:09pm

>27 frahealee: Exactly. Early Ray Bans.

Editat: març 18, 2018, 6:23am

Note that in Le Fanu's case he misquotes, probably deliberately - 'in' rather than 'through'. He turns the Corinthians' window into a mirror. I imagine he expected his readers to spot the change, so make of that what you will ...

març 18, 2018, 9:12am

>29 alaudacorax: Mirror sunglasses? He would have loved "Cool Hand Luke".

Editat: març 20, 2018, 6:24am

>23 frahealee: -ps- there is a key character called Pere Silas in Villette - must have been a popular name?!

Interesting point. I've just remembered Silas Marner and, looking it up, find it's 1861 - so right in the middle. So Silas does seem to have been popular with authors, at least. There was also Silas Wegg in Our Mutual Friend (1864-5)

Don't know if there's any symbolic significance to the name - all I can find in a quick search is that Silas was a companion of Paul the Apostle and is often painted holding broken chains. He appears sometimes in the bible as Silas and sometimes as Silvanus - a possible connection with woodland and forest?

Can't see that has any bearing on Uncle Silas, and I haven't read Villette and Our Mutual Friend, and it must be decades since I read Silas Marner and I can barely remember it, but my memory is that he was a 'good guy'. Anyone?

I wonder if there's some contemporary popular culture connection (other than novels) or sensational news story connection?

Googling, I find Silas was the 124th most popular boy's name in 1850, 146th in 1860, so not very popular, but I couldn't get earlier, to see how popular it was when the authors were growing up. My instinct is to believe that if an author chooses an unusual name there must be some significance to it, but perhaps not ...

març 20, 2018, 7:30am

>31 alaudacorax: Perhaps they chose an unusual name to avoid picking a name that someone might have and cause complications with people trying to identify the real person he/she was writing about.

oct. 29, 2018, 5:28pm

Voila! The countdown begins...

Editat: feb. 8, 2019, 10:00am

Finally, got this one done and dusted. It was the final of the five of In A Glass Darkly. None were what I expected. Postponed Carmilla to my vampire theme month of February. Got through Varney the Vampire fairly quickly, and now on to another by Bram Stoker. I read his Jewel of Seven Stars last month, after completing The Beetle, and enjoyed both. Next is The Vampire by Neruda and Dracula's Guest, and maybe if there's time, The Vampyre by Polidori. There is a picture of Vampire tales posted someplace by Housefulofpaper which I hope to unearth eventually, for reference of further options.

To reiterate, I am more of a werewolf gal, so I consciously put off Dracula until just last autumn, and thought I should do my due diligence. That is why I thought I would dislike this one, but it wasn't so bad. It was a fast read. After The Night Land by Hodgson, I needed a quick gust. I have read only one book by Anne Rice, Violin, since I found the relationship between four sisters relatable. I may tackle her vampire tales eventually, but they are not currently on my radar. I have not seen the films either, although a fan of Kirsten Dunst.

>23 frahealee: Happy to have at least competed both Uncle Silas and Carmilla within a year of this initial intention. =( Good grief Charlie Brown. How quickly my plans fly sideways... so much material to sort through!