Thursday, June 18, 2009

Carmilla (1872)

"Carmilla" is a Gothic novella by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu.
First published in 1872, it tells the story of a young woman's
susceptibility to the attentions of a female vampire named
Carmilla. "Carmilla" predates Bram Stoker's Dracula by 25
years and has been adapted many times for cinema.


"Carmilla" was first published in the magazine The Dark Blue in
1872, and then in the author's collection of short stories, In a
Glass Darkly the same year.

There were two original illustrators for the story, both of which
appeared in the magazine but which do not appear in modern
printings of the book. The two illustrators, David Henry Friston
and Michael Fitzgerald, show some inconsistencies in their
depiction of the characters, and as such some confusion has
arisen in identifying the pictures as part of a continuous plot.

>>Plot summary:

The story is presented by Le Fanu as part of the casebook of
Dr Hesselius, whose departures from medical orthodoxy rank
him as the first occult doctor in literature. The story is
narrated by Laura, one of the two main protagonists of the

Laura begins her tale by relating her childhood in a "picturesque
and solitary" castle in the midst of an extensive forest in Styria
where she lives with her father, a wealthy English widower,
retired from the Austrian Service. When she is six years old,
Laura has a vision of a beautiful visitor in her bedchamber. She
later claims to have been bitten on the chest, although no
wounds are found on her.

Twelve years later, Laura and her father are admiring the sunset
in front of the castle when her father tells her of a letter he
received earlier from his friend General Spielsdorf. The General
was supposed to bring his niece, Bertha Rheinfeldt, to visit the
two, but the niece suddenly died under mysterious circumstances.
The General ambiguously concludes that he will discuss the
circumstances in detail when they meet later.

Laura is saddened by the loss of a potential friend, and longs for
a companion. A carriage accident outside Laura's home
unexpectedly brings a girl of Laura's age into the family's care.
Her name is Carmilla. Both girls instantly recognize the other
from the 'dream' they both had when they were young.

Carmilla appears injured after her carriage accident, but her
mysterious mother informs Laura's father that her journey is
urgent and cannot be delayed. She arranges to leave her
daughter with Laura and her father until she can return in three
months. Before she leaves she sternly notes that her daughter
will not disclose any information whatsoever about her family,
past, or herself and that Carmilla is of sound mind. Laura
comments that this information seems needless to say, and
her father laughs it off.

Carmilla and Laura grow to be very close friends, but occasionally
Carmilla's mood abruptly changes. She sometimes makes
unsettling romantic advances towards Laura. Carmilla refuses to
tell anything about herself or her background, despite questioning
from Laura. Her secrecy isn't the only mysterious thing about her.
Carmilla sleeps much of the day, and seems to sleepwalk at night.
When a funeral procession passes by the two girls and Laura begins
singing a hymn, Carmilla bursts out in rage and scolds Laura for
singing a Christian song. When a shipment of family heirloom
restored portraits arrives at the castle, Laura finds one of her
ancestor, "Mircalla, Countess Karnstein", dated 1698. The portrait
resembles Carmilla exactly, down to the mole on her neck.

During Carmilla's stay, Laura has nightmares of a fiendish cat-like
beast entering her room at night and biting her on the chest. The
beast then takes the form of a female figure and disappears through
the door without opening it. Laura's health declines and her father
has a doctor examine her. He speaks privately with her father and
only asks that Laura never be left unattended.

Her father then sets out with Laura in a carriage for the ruined
village of Karnstein. They leave a message behind asking Carmilla
and one of the governesses entreated to follow after once the
perpetually late-sleeping Carmilla wakes up. En route to Karnstein,
Laura and her father encounter General Spielsdorf. He tells them
his own ghastly story.

Spielsdorf and his niece had met a young woman named Millarca
and her enigmatic mother at a costume ball. The General's niece
was immediately taken with Millarca. The mother convinced the
General that she was an old friend of his and asked that Millarca
be allowed to stay with them for three weeks while she attended
to a secret matter of great importance.

The General's niece fell mysteriously ill and suffered exactly the
same symptoms as Laura. After consulting with a priestly doctor
who he had specially ordered, the General came to the realization
that his niece was being visited by a vampire. He hid in a closet
with a sword and waited until seeing a fiendish cat-like creature
stalk around his niece's bedroom and bite her on the neck. He
then leapt from his hiding place and attacked the beast, which
took the form of Millarca. She fled through the locked door,
unharmed. The General's niece died immediately afterward.

When they arrive at Karnstein the General asks a nearby woodsman
where he can find the tomb of Mircalla Karnstein. The woodsman
relates that the tomb was relocated long ago, by the hero who
vanquished the vampires that haunted the region.

While the General and Laura are left alone in the ruined chapel,
Carmilla appears. The General and Carmilla both fly into a rage
upon seeing each other and the General attacks her with an axe.
Carmilla flees and the General explains to Laura that Carmilla is
also Millarca, both anagrams for the original name of the vampire
Countess Mircalla Karnstein.

The party is then joined by Baron Vordenburg, the descendant of
the hero who rid the area of vampires long ago. Vordenburg is an
authority on vampires and has discovered that his ancestor was
romantically involved with the Countess Karnstein, before she died
and became one of the undead. Using his forefather's notes he
locates the hidden tomb of Carmilla. An Imperial Commission is
then summoned who exhume and destroy the body of the vampire
on behalf of the ruling Habsburg Monarchy, within whose domains
Styria is situated.


As with Dracula, critics have looked for the sources used in the
writing of the text. Matthew Gibson has shown that LeFanu used
Dom Augustin Calmet's Treatise on Vampires and Revenants,
translated into English in 1850 as The Phantom World, the
Reverend Sabine Baring-Gould's The Book of Were-wolves (1863),
and his account of Erszebet Bathory, Coleridge's Christabel, and
Captain Basil Hall's Schloss Hainfeld; or a Winter in Lower Styria
(London and Edinburgh, 1836). Hall's account provides much of
the Styrian background and in particular a model for both
Carmilla and Laura in the figure of Jane Anne Cranstoun,
Countess Purgstall.

Funeral, illustration by Michael Fitzgerald for Carmilla in The
Dark Blue, January 1872.


Carmilla, the title character, is the original prototype for a
legion of female and lesbian vampires. Though Le Fanu
portrays his vampire's sexuality with the circumspection
that one would expect for his time, it is evident that lesbian
attraction is the main dynamic between Carmilla and the
narrator of the story:

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 ardour 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".

("Carmilla", Chapter 4).

Carmilla selected exclusively female victims, though only became
emotionally involved with a few. Carmilla had nocturnal habits,
but was not confined to the darkness. She had unearthly beauty
and was able to change her form and to pass through solid walls.
Her animal alter ego was a monstrous black cat, not a large dog
as in Dracula. She did, however, sleep in a coffin.

Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu.

Some critics, among them William Veeder, suggest that "Carmilla",
notably in its outlandish use of narrative frames, was an important
influence on Henry James' The Turn of the Screw.

Fonts: Wikipedia

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