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Carmilla: "If you were less pretty I think I should be very much afraid of you"

Carmilla, by J. Sheridan Le Fanu, is 108 pages long, Victorian, and about a lady vampire.

I've been hearing about this book for a long time, but kept putting it off because A) Didn't sound like it'd be good B) I kept thinking it was 18th century and C) I didn't really feel like reading another thing where a lesbian's a life-sucking creature out to defile your daughters (I mean, only the latter part's even accurate).

But then the webseries Carmilla came out, and Tumblr wouldn't stop talking about it because it had lesbians and that's pretty much all that site needs, so I finally sat down and watched all of season 1. And you know what, it's not great. But Laura, the lead, is so cute and Natasha Negovanlis who plays Carmilla is so much fun to watch be grumpy that I've started watching it all over again. So it made me want to read the book. 

The book's kind of different from this

Carmilla was published in 1872, which predates Bram Stoker's Dracula by a good 26 years. It's about a girl named Laura who lives with her father in a small castle in Austria, and one day through total chance (note: not true), they get a house guest who is a beautiful young girl named Carmilla. But then weird stuff starts happening and oops, looks like Carmilla might be a vampire. Carmilla heavily influenced the writing of Dracula, which I would completely believe because many of the things we find to be vampire canon today that really seem to come from the Dracula story are ALSO in evidence in Carmilla. Well done, Le Fanu, you crazy Irishman.

In some ways, Carmilla is better than Dracula. Not in how it's written, because it's not written very well, but there's a much more interesting set-up, because you have this girl vampire who's completely able to blend in with proper society; she doesn't really have tell-tale "devilish" features or seem morally loose, but she tricks these families and basically steals their daughters away. The character of Dracula is kind of boring if you think of it that way, because oh, he's a guy who gets all weirdly sexually metaphoric with the young ladies of the neighborhood. That's kinda been done, sir.

Carmilla says weirdass things to the narrator, Laura. Weird for the 1870s. 

She used to place her pretty arms about my neck, draw me to her, and laying her cheek to mine, murmur with her lips near my ear, "Dearest, your little heart is wounded; think me not cruel because I obey the irresistible law of my strength and weakness; if your dear heart is wounded, my wild heart bleeds with yours. In the rapture of my enormous humiliation I live in your warm life, and you shall die--die, sweetly die--into mine. I cannot help it; as I draw near to you, you, in your turn, will draw near to others, and learn the rapture of that cruelty, which yet is love; so, for a while, seek to know no more of me and mine, but trust me with all your loving spirit."

We all know "dying" was a euphemism for orgasming in the past, right? Okay. I mean, it probably also means dying here, because she's a vampire, but the fact remains.

1869 involved the coining of the word "homosexual," a term invented by Karl-Maria Kertbeny in a pamphlet advocating for the repeal of Prussia's anti-sodomy laws. He was hoping that by using that term and opposing it to heterosexual, it would make homosexuality just the opposite of heterosexuality, so a classification rather than a morality issue.

So sexuality was coming into the public eye more in the latter decades of the 1800s, and with that came a suspicion of the previously lauded female friendships. People started to wonder, what if something more is happening, what if these friendships aren't so innocent. I'd say the 1870s are pretty early for these suspicions, but they still fit. 

If we look back at my 3 point list for why I didn't want to read this book, C is actually a pretty good reason. Le Fanu's all about vampires and lesbians being peas in a pod. Because of this (and because I kept picturing her as Natasha Negovanlis from the webseries), I felt sorry for Carmilla. I mean, yeah, she's an unholy demon who turns into a puma or something at night and then over a series of days sucks the blood from the girls she calls her friends, but this is the life she's known for over a hundred years! She doesn't actually see what she does as wrong. She says things like "I hate funerals. What a fuss! Why you must die--everyone must die; and all are happier when they do."

To her, she loves Laura and wants to be with her, as shown in this frankly shocking passage for the time (I mean, it's not like this is a French novel):

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 over-powering; and with gloating eyes she drew me to her, and her hot lips traveled along my cheek in kisses; and she would whisper, almost in sobs, "You are mine, you shall be mine, you and I are one for ever." Then she had thrown herself back in her chair, with her small hands over her eyes, leaving me trembling.

So there's Carmilla's want for Laura, but Le Fanu also puts Laura in the role of the Virginal Victim of the Lesbian. I don't know if this is the earliest case of it, but it was used throughout the 20th century in literature and cinema. Some woman would come on to a perfectly normal girl who just wants to get married to Jimmy and start a life, and the girl would be disgusted and horrified. This language pervades all scenes involving Carmilla being passionate. Laura is always attracted but repulsed.

In these mysterious moods I did not like her. I experienced a strange tumultuous excitement that was pleasurable, ever and anon, mingled with a vague sense of fear and disgust. I had no distinct thoughts about her while such scenes lasted, but I was conscious of a love growing into adoration, and also of abhorrence. This I know is paradox, but I can make no other attempt to explain the feeling.

It becomes almost comical when she's so naive that she wonders "was there here a disguise and a romance? I had read in old storybooks of such things. What if a boyish lover had found his way into the house, and sought to prosecute his suit in masquerade." Really, Laura? That's the only thing that could be going on here. Really.

She reacts "correctly" to Carmilla, and remains innocent regarding her intentions the entire time, and so she gets to live. Well done, Laura. I'm glad the 21st century made you make out with Carmilla. And Carmilla, I'm glad this new version worked out better for you in the end.


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