Book Review: Carmilla by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu

Carmilla is a short vampire story published in 1871 which influenced the writing of Dracula and the vampire sub-genera as a whole. It is also notable for its significant lesbian undertones.

I really liked Carmilla and found it easily accessible for the modern reader. The only issue I had with the writing was the excessive usage of certain words, and its usage of the word “languid” in particular.

At the time Carmilla was written, Carmilla’s eventual unveiling as a vampire was supposed to be a surprise. There wasn’t the breadth of vampire material that there is today, and it hadn’t yet become known as a classic vampire story. I was worried about this coming in – how much of the story depends on the slow build up of Carmilla as a vampire? While it was obvious to the modern reader, I didn’t think that it took away from the story.

Carmilla isn’t exactly the type of vampire everyone’s familiar with – she can go out in the sun, usually only the late afternoon however. She’s beguiling and attractive and all who meet her tend to fall under her spell. She feeds upon young woman, killing most almost immediately, but with a few, she develops a relationship and drains slowly.

I read Carmilla as being lesbian. It is never said specifically in the book (This was 1871, and author Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu was already pushing at the limits of what was acceptable for the time). However her actions and attitudes towards Laura consistently show romantic affection. This quote from Chapter Four demonstrates well:

Sometimes after an hour of apathy, 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 the tumultuous respiration. It was like the ardor of a lover; it embarrassed me; it was hateful and yet overpowering; and with gloating eyes she drew me to her, and her hot lips travelled along my cheek in kisses; and she would whisper, almost in sobs, “You are mine, you shall be mine, and you and I are one for ever.

As shown by the quote, Laura’s sexuality is left unclear. She is at once drawn to and repulsed by Carmilla. I think this is to be expected for a proper Victorian lady, and it’s possible that she’s confused and frightened by her own sexuality.

Le Fanu chooses to finish of the plot of Carmilla the vampire, but he never reconciles the relationship between the two. I think his ambiguity is deliberate – as I said before, this was the Victorian era and there was only so much that you could get away with.

One of the questions left unanswered is to what degree Carmilla truly feels affection for Laura. Does she really come to care for her special victims? Or is it just the thrall of a predator? In my view, I think Carmilla really did have some feelings towards Laura and I don’t think that her sexuality was supposed to be related to her nature as a vampire. Yes, Carmilla lives off people’s blood, but strange as this may sound, she didn’t feel wholly unsympathetic. In part, I think her fate was meant to be viewed as tragic. However, this is one of those books where everyone is going to develop their own interpretation.

Carmilla is a must read for anyone interested in vampire literature or depictions of lesbian themes in classic literature, and I’d highly recommend it to everyone else too. It’s short, but there’s a real haunting depth to it.

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