Nothing remained to assure us that the adventure had not been an illusion of a moment but the young lady, who just at that moment opened her eyes.
Carmilla was actually first published in 1872 some twenty-six years before the publication of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, and is a Victorian Gothic lesbian tale.
Gothic novels have various devices that mark them as such, and these metaphoric devices were easily understood by the readership of the day. I had quite a bit of fun noting them for this review… but don’t worry I won’t turn it into a lecture.
Carmilla is written in the first person from the point of view of Laura, whose dead mother was Austrian and whose father is an English gentleman, comfortably off, but not royalty or super rich. They live in a castle in Austria. She tells the story from a point eight years hence, and this therefore reassures the reader that the horror is in the past.
Gothic relevance…The foreign setting (alien) because it is too horrible to think anything so unnatural would take place in England. However, the female heroine is the daughter of an English gentleman and therefore, English enough to be believed and empathised with. They live in a castle… isolated and surrounded by trees; a traditional Gothic setting, with the wood representing the unknown, the impenetrable. There are also local ruins, a deserted village, a tower… oh and the castle has a drawbridge. It also has a contingent of nameless servants and a major domo. There is also a Gothic chapel and a woodsman.
Laura has the correct companions – a Swiss governess and a French ‘finishing’ governess. Although French or German would have been easier to use in this household, English is the language spoken every day. Laura tells us she is lonely and isolated but kept within the bounds of propriety by these ‘gouvernantes’. The household has regular visitors, but these are generally the same people. She has one blot on her otherwise idyllic childhood – a terrifying event when she was six, where a woman dressed in black paces at the bottom of her bed at night, caresses her cheeks, and bites her ‘breast’. Although, this is explained to her as a dream, there are worried looks from servants and governesses and from then on someone sleeps in her room at night. The dream never returns.
One evening close to their drawbridge there is a coach accident that the family observes when out for a stroll. While the coach is being fixed, an older, wealthy, aristocratic woman begs Laura’s father to take in her weak recuperating daughter for three months whilst she goes on some important business (the nature of which is never to be revealed). On seeing the beautiful, unconscious girl they agree. The girl is called Carmilla and appears to be of similar age to Laura. Laura now has a companion and a beautiful one. Her grace and beauty is described very often.
From this time on, strange deaths start occurring in the local village, and their good friend’s beloved ward dies suddenly. They also notice slightly worrying things about Carmilla who is always ‘languorous’ and doesn’t get up until late afternoon (though this seems fine to me!) On top of this, Carmilla is ‘embarrassingly’ enchanted by and fond of Laura,
…my strange and beautiful companion would take my hand and hold it with a fond pressure, renewed again and again; blushing softly, gazing in my face with languid and burning eyes, and breathing so fast that her dress rose and fell with tumultuous respiration…
In order for the author to include several passionate scenes, he has to make one of the protagonists evil. Vampirism and sex have always been interlinked in Western culture and the vampire has been accused of causing everything from lesbianism, STIs, fainting in women and impotence in men to surprise pregnancies and adulterous affairs. If early western society had an ill, or something it could not accept, it was blamed on the unnatural, the ‘phantasmagoric’, the un-Christian – the vampire.
This story was written over a quarter of a century before Dracula, and yet Carmilla includes transformation into mists or beasts, blood sucking from breast and throat, inability to cross running water without fainting, languor in victims, languor in vampires during the day, coffins, staking, and decapitation.
Only beautiful young women are the victims of this vampire’s ‘seduction’ – but don’t expect a feminist view or a modern day take on lesbianism. This is a sensual, Gothic Victorian novella. It is fun, and perhaps good to read to illustrate how far we have come, while simultaneously highlighting how far we still have to go where equality for women is concerned.
I heartily recommend this story, and the anthology from which it comes – In a Glass Darkly. (It and Carmilla are each 0.99 at Amazon.)