Sheridan Le Fanu is one of Ireland’s greatest Gothic Horror writers, responsible for numerous collections of short stories and novels such as Uncle Silas and Carmilla. His depiction of the female vampire Carmilla predated Stoker’s Dracula by over 20 years. Carmilla is a dangerous and highly sexualised character. Carmilla is certainly a deadly female, dangerous and manipulative. The novel has shaped our idea of the vampire, and female vampires in particular. It’s interesting to consider how an Anglo Irish journalist and author came up with such an influential and enigmatic character.
Le Fanu was born in Lower Dominick St. Dublin in 1814, an Irish descendant of French Huguenots. He was brought up in quite a strict and religious household. Le Fanu’s father was exceptionally staunch, a Church of England clergyman. They grew up in near poverty but were part of Anglo Irish society, which set them apart somewhat both politically and socially at a time of significant trouble for the Irish Catholic population. Le Fanu’s father took up a Rector position in Abington in Limerick during the Tithe war of the 1830’s; this period in Irish history was one of tension between Protestant and Catholic communities. The Le Fanu family would have been living off of the tithes from the willing Protestant and unwilling Catholic communities. The family was forced to take this position due to their own poverty, however it would have made them despised figures in the rural community of Abington. Anglo Irish and Gothic literature often explores themes of otherness and alienation and I believe we can see this and some of Le Fanu’s own issues with his identity explored in works like Carmilla. The Le Fanu family were other in their own community and in some sense parasitic, living off of the tithes; this parasitism was sanctioned by the ruling establishment and social norms. The character of Carmilla is a parasite, feeding off of the community, using her perceived social position and ‘good manners’ to insinuate herself; for all that though Carmilla is a sympathetic character. She is charming and her need for survival is what forces her behaviour.
Another interesting aspect to Carmilla is her choice of victim; she is a scourge on young women, changing innocent young girls and eventually consuming them. The protagonist/victim of the story is Laura, a young naive and lonely girl. She has had visions of a mysterious, beautiful, dangerous creature from the age of twelve and is completely taken in by Carmilla when she arrives on Laura’s doorstep in a distressed state years later. Carmilla selects exclusively female victims and becomes enamoured of a few of these, prolonging her feeding of them, imagining it as a courtship of sorts. There are significant lesbian themes in Carmilla and many believe that the novel was born out of a fear of what Victorians saw as sexual deviancy. There is another way to read Carmilla in light of Le Fanu’s experiences. He had married in 1844. The family remained almost as poor as his father had been; Le Fanu’s support of figures like Thomas Francis Meagher prevented him from running for parliament. The family struggles to make ends meet and their problems are compounded by Le Fanu’s wife developing mental illness. She experiences a crisis of faith and shows erratic and changeable behaviour. The symptoms of mental illness in a relative can be extremely distressing and it can often seem like a person has been changed, become unrecognisable. She died in 1858, the details of her death were never released and it was three years before he wrote again. Laura the prey and Carmilla the predator might be both sides of a person suffering from acute mental illness.
Carmilla is an excellent Vampire story and uses various themes that have stayed with the genre over the last 100 plus years: Carmilla uses anagrams of her name, she appears as an animal familiar and there is a romanticising of the vampire and victim relationship which has recurred throughout the canon.
“Carmilla will be read as part of the Dublin Bram Stoker Festival and IFI Horrorthon on Sunday 27th October at 12.00 pm in the IFI MacTiernan Library“