Carmilla: the most ambiguous female vampire in fiction?

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Listened to the thrilling dramatisation of Le Fanu’s ‘Carmilla’ on Radio 4 Extra tonight by candlelight whilst the wind howled outside and I contemplated my pile of marking. Love the ending of this story and the trope of the portrait and the masked ball and the wonderful  illustrations to the first edition. I recommend the Valancourt Books version that has these, together with a lively introduction and splendid appendices….after listening I reached it down off the shelf again and turned to the final passage:

‘To this hour the image of Carmilla returns to memory with ambiguous alternations – sometimes the playful, languid, beautiful girl; sometimes the writhing fiend I saw in the ruined church; and often from a reverie have I started, fancying I heard the light step of Carmilla at the drawing room door'(p.85).

ambiguous alternations….yes…love this story!

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About Lucy Northenra

Senior Lecturer in Literature, University of Hertfordshire
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0 Responses to Carmilla: the most ambiguous female vampire in fiction?

  1. Norbert Besch, The Gothic Vault on Facebook says:

    I have done extensive research on the vampire in 19th century French fiction and the female vampire is predominant here in comparison to other countries and languages, and in many ways just as ambiguous.
    Inspired by Polidori’s phenomenally successful Vampire (1819) and Henri Faber’s immediate translation into French, Cyprien Bérard, a man of the theatre, adapted the story of Lord Ruthwen into his own two-volume novel, Lord Ruthwen ou Les Vampires (1820, note the plural!). Of poor literary quality, the novel yet enjoys an outstanding position as introducing the first and one of the few full-blooded vampires in 19th century France. And more than that, it also features the first female vampire in French prose fiction, however reluctantly, and not seductive, who is also a rare instance of a benevolent vampire. Returned from her grave by celestial intervention Bettina is some kind of anti-vampire, and the remedy that facilitates Ruthwen’s destruction. She is acting according to a religious vow after being resuscitated by angels: “the quaking earth opened up, and like terrifying claps of thunder, these terrible words resounded in mid-air: ’Vampire woman! Emerge from the tomb!’” She shall not share the future of every vampire and she shall not be “the terror of mortals, like those monsters, the detested scourge of humankind”. The angel spurns her on to bring about the vampire’s end when she dies a second and final death by receiving a poisoned dart from Ruthwen’s hands.
    The first seductive FEMALE vampire or femme fatale entered French fiction in 1824 with Etienne Léon Lamothe-Langon’s novel La Vampire ou la Vierge de Hongrie (The Vampire or the Hungarian Virgin). Edouard Delmont, a young French officer breaks his promise of marriage (which was written in blood) to the Hungarian girl Alinska who thereupon commits suicide. According to a Hungarian superstition “a female virgin affianced in that manner may rise from the tomb in order to torment, in the fashion of a vampire, the perfidious man who has abandoned her”. And seven years later Alinska reappears to take revenge on Delmont. But this Hungarian revenant is not a vampire predator but rather an instrument of a higher power, more puppet than actor. There is a strong religious context that makes the novel quite unique, and the originality lies in the ambiguity of the story and the fact that Alinska is obviously working either for a satanic Lord or for God as an instrument of Divine Wrath as a punishment for her suicide, and more importantly, to punish the man who has violated a sacred vow, at least that’s how she sees herself. In this light she is not a self-made vampire but her monstrosity has been inflicted on her. “My fate is determined….it’s not my own will that directs me…I no longer belong to myself. I have a cruel imperious master who commands my every step” she explains and in this sense she appears more like a victim than an aggressor. She knows that she is dead and irredeemably damned, but it is not clear whether she is conscious of being a vampire and we never catch her in the act but there are reports and hints that suggest as much like when she says “I no longer have any blood…But there’s no shortage of that which replaces it – I know where to renew it.” And it is only in the dramatic finale that she openly hungers for it: “I need blood! Blood! Yours, Edouard!” However the deaths of various people show every sign of a vampiric assault. A local girl is found completely drained on the night of her wedding, but more importantly two deaths in Delmont’s family throw suspicion on Alinska. His confidante saw her in the night of his son’s death placing “her fetid mouth on the pure mouth of the child” as if she drank “long draughts of blood”. Delmont’s wife also seems to decline and eventually dies under the influence of a vampire and she feels pursued by a horrible demon which “couched on my heart, aspires into its infernal mouth the blood that runs in my veins.” The fickle Delmont however succumbs to Alinska’s attractions and as a man of the Enlightenment he is the only one blind to everything that’s going on. Despite her protests and warnings he forces Alinska to the altar and his lust brings about the vampire virgin’s death. Deaf to her shrieks he removes the glove from her hand to place the ring on her finger when “the hideous fleshless skeleton hand strikes his gaze”. The ceremony is disrupted and Alinska has turned into a cadaver.
    We have to wait another twelve years until we finally meet the first irresistible female vampire and a true belle dame sans merci in Théophile Gautier’s masterpiece and vampire tale par excellence La Morte Amoureuse (1836).
    But is Clarimonde who has a close affinity to the tomb where she passes her non-existence (in fact it seems she is only alive in Romuald’s dreams), well, is she a demon or an angel? Gautier is particularly ambiguous about this. At one point she is associated with a serpent, at another her feline aspect is emphasized and her phosphorescent greenish eyes (often associated with the devil) enthrall Romuald. The young priest however sees in her an angelic revelation and “la beauté idéale” right on the day of his ordination, while the Abbé Sérapion, who serves as his stern moral guide and conscience, is described as a demon ready to destroy his post-mortem vampire love.
    Clarimonde is also the first obvious vampire in French literature to suck blood, however this is done using a needle, then through the victim’s thumb and arm. The embrace, and bite into the neck is still a taboo. When her health visibly deteriorates she sucks the invigorating blood from a deep wound Romuald gives himself when cutting a fruit (which is slightly reminiscent of the scene when Jonathan Harker cuts himself while shaving at Castle Dracula). Clarimonde “sprang upon my wound”, the priest tells us “which she commenced to suck with an air of unutterable pleasure” and she exclaims “I shall not die…a few drops of thy rich and noble blood more precious and more potent than all the elixirs of the earth, have given me back life.” The sensuality and voluptuousness of this vampiric act is further enhanced when Romuald completely succumbs to Clarimonde’s seductive appeal, “The great coolness of her skin penetrated my own and I felt voluptuous tremors pass over my whole body.” And he is even prepared to sacrifice his own life, “I would rather have opened myself the veins of my arm and said to her ‘Drink, and may my love infiltrate itself throughout thy body together with my blood’ “, a scene which could be read as the consummation of the sexual act.
    It is the aforementioned Abbé Sérapion who dissolves the glamour and relentless and obsessed like a true vampire hunter forces the infatuated priest to accompany him to Clarimonde’s grave where he traces a cross on the coffin and sprinkles the body with holy water, whereupon it crumbles into dust. Sérapion has not only reduced the vampire lady to ashes, he has also exorcised the wordly lover out of Romuald and there only remains the poor and disenchanted priest who in later years gives out a warning to younger brethren thus admitting that Clarimonde was in fact a femme fatale: “Never come too close a woman…no matter how chaste and calm you are, it only takes a minute for you to lose eternity.”
    Another tale featuring a highly seductive female vampire is Marie Noémi Cadiot’s “Isobel la Ressuscitée” published in 1856, and it shows some striking similarities to Gautier’s tale. In the Rhine region in 1538 young student Franz falls fervently in love with the young widow Isobel of Linkenberg while praying in a church. And just like Romuald in La Morte amoureuse Franz has a warning voice. It’s the scientist Sturff who warns him “Isobel n’appartient pas à la terre” (she does not belong to this world) and we learn that she died in childbed but returned from the grave as a “fille d’enfer qui boirait ta jeunesse et ta vie” (a daughter of hell who drinks your youth and life) and that behind her beauty she hides a deadly poison. At one point in the story Isobel’s fatal influence is compared to that of the legendary Loreley leading men to their destruction, yet Isobel is never actively seen at her work until the very end. When the naïve youth Franz seems to become completely addicted and an easy prey, his guiding conscience Sturff reveals her bloodsucking vampire nature: “elle est vampire … sangsue qui boit la vie humaine pour soutenir son règne infernal.” And he sends out one last warning “tu ne peux pas la posséder sans mourir!” However Franz is deaf to all his counsels and seems subject to her hypnotic influence just like Romuald succumbs to that of Clarimonde. Clearly both follow Gautier’s pattern of a young man “à la recherché d’un idéal.” And just like Romuald before, the young student follows his fatal love as in a trance. In her castle Isobel, la femme pâle, la ressuscitée, is preparing their marriage and places her deathly kiss on his lips. Sturff arrives too late to prevent it, “le front de Franz flétrit comme une fleur séchée”, and he falls dead on the ground. In contrast to Romuald’s pyrrhic victory in La Morte Amoureuse, there is no escaping for Franz and his life is destroyed by the vampire woman.
    In 1891 Marcel Schwob wove an account in ancient Greek mythology of the Striges, bird-like evil female creatures feeding on human flesh and blood into his own short story of the same title. (The word Strigoi in the Romanian language actually means vampire). The host of an evening party tells “des faits reconnus” about those mysterious beings watching us and paralyzing us with their evil eye. While keeping watch over his just deceased wife an irrestible force nails him to his chair, he hears rustling sounds and falls asleep. In the morning the corpse “était couvert de meurtrissures noires…la figure était un masque de cire sous lequel on vit la chair hideusement rongée…” The singing Striges, part cannibals, part vampires, have disemboweled the woman and devoured everything, sucking her dry. The thunder-struck narrator realizes “L’Homme ne peut pas résister au pouvoir des sorcières. Nous sommes le jouet de la destinée”, and he concludes resigning to his own fate: Mine is but a miserable body…The Striges are gonna get me!
    The vampire in French literature has always enjoyed rather an ambiguous status: malevolent, satanic, often seductive (and the female vampire is predominant in comparison to other languages), a diabolical creature provoking a strange fascination, even love and admiration among its victims. It can be seen in this light when Lautreámont has his hero Maldoror say: “Tu as un ami dans le vampire”

    • Hello Norbert,
      Thank you for sharing this very informative and lively post. I am currently researching the vampire theatre (post Polidori pre Dracula) so this is of great interest to me. I have a PhD student working on cultural manifestations of the Ruthven vampire and so he will be interested in your material here too. I have found James Twitchell helpful on the female vampire within European Romanticism (involving Goethe, Keats, Coleridge etc. and later Burne-Jones and Kipling) in particular, and I also have copies of Planché’s The Bride of the Isles, Moncreif, The Spectre Bridegroom, and Blink, The Vampire Bride, alongside Goethe The Bride of Corinth and Boucicault, The Phantom. The book Before the Count: British Vampire Tales, 1732-18-97 ed. by Margo Collins (2007) includes some of these interesting early texts. This has just been reprinted as Beyond the Count by Bathory Gate Press (2014) and I would certainly recommend it to anyone reading who has an interest in early vampire tales. One of MA students has been writing on Planché and the stage’s contribution to the female vampire so I will point her to this post too. There were of course lots of women and actresses involved with such theatricals in London and I am sure they influenced the role of the female vampire. Does France have any female writers of vampire fiction at this point? As you probably know, Florence Marryat published The Blood of the Vampire in 1897 (pre-dating Dracula by a few months) and I would be interested to hear if you have come across any more early examples of women writing on vampires.
      Thanks again for sharing this. I hope you will continue following the blog.

    • firekrank says:

      This is really interesting. An old lecturer of mine gave me a book of French vampire short stories. The only downside was that it was written in the original language leaving this anglophone a little bewildered. I’ll have to get more reading done! Do you have any idea as to why French writers like the trope of the female vampire? I was wondering whether Elizabeth Bronfen’s ‘Over Her Dead Body’ might connect to the imagery of the beautiful female corpse?

  2. Norbert Besch says:

    Hello Lucy,

    I only saw your last post an hour ago. Here is a list of 19th century French Vampire novels and tales, probably by no means exhaustive, but it is a very detailed overview. Fiction by female authors are marked with *
    You can tap me on anything Gothic or the vampire. You can also contact me via email or on Facebook under my own name or The Gothic Vault.

    French Vampire Tales and Novels of the 19th Century

    [ Henri Faber: Le Vampire, nouvelle traduite de l‘Anglais de Lord Byron (1819)]
    Cyprien Bérard: Lord Ruthwen ou Les Vampires (1820)
    Charles Nodier: Smarra ou les Démons de la Nuit (1821)
    Ch. N*** (Charles Nodier ?): Infernaliana, ou Anecdotes, Petits Romans, Nouvelles et Contes
    sur les Revenants, les Spectres, les Démons et les Vampires (1822)
    Etienne de Lamothe-Langon: La Vampire ou La Vierge de Hongrie (1825)
    Jules Barbey d‘Aurevilly: Léa (1832)
    Théophile Gautier: La Morte Amoureuse (1836);
    Alexandre Dumas père: ”Histoire de la Dame Pâle ”(in: Les Mille et Un Fantômes, 1849)
    Angelo de Sorr, i.e. Ludovic Sclafer: Le Vampire. Roman Fantaisiste (1852)
    Pierre-Alexis de Ponson du Terrail: La Baronne Trépassée (1852)
    Paul Féval père: La Sœur des Fantômes (1852); 1867 as Une Histoire de Revenants
    Paul Féval père: La Vampire, ou bien le Malheur d‘écrire les Romans Noirs (1856)
    *Claude Vignon, i.e. Marie-Noémi Cadiot: Isobel, la Ressuscitée (1856)
    Théophile Gautier: Jettatura (1857)
    Léon Gozlan: Le Vampire du Val-de-Grâce (1861)
    Paul Féval père: Le Chevalier Ténèbre (1862)
    Jean Bruno, i.e. Jean Vaucheret: Madame Vampire; Histoire de ta Femme (1864)
    Villiers de l‘Isle-Adam: Claire Lenoir (1867); 1887 as Tribulat Bonhomet
    Pierre-Alexis de Ponson du Terrail: La Femme Immortelle (1868)
    Pierre-Alexis de Ponson du Terrail: L‘Auberge de la Rue des Enfants-Rouges (1868)
    Prosper Mérimée: Lokis (1869)
    Paul Féval père: La Ville-Vampire, Aventure Incroyable de Mme Anne Radcliffe (1857; 1874)
    *Marie Nizet: Le Capitaine Vampire, Nouvelle Roumaine (1879)
    *Justine Mie d‘Aghonne, i.e. Justine Louise Augusta Philippine Lacroix: La Buveuse
    de Sang (1880)
    *Rachilde, i.e. Marguerite Eymery: Monsieur Vénus (1884) unexpurgated first edition
    Michel Morphy: Le Vampire/Le Docteur Noir (1886)
    Guy de Maupassant: Le Horla [second version] (1887)
    Jules Lermina: Le Centenaire (1887); 1888 as L‘Elixir de Vie
    *Rachilde, i.e. Marguerite Eymery: La Marquise de Sade (1887)
    *Justine Mie d‘Aghonne : Le Vampire aux Yeux bleus (1888)
    Jean Lorrain, i.e. PaulDuval: L‘Egrégore (1888)
    Joris-Karl Huysmans: Là-Bas (1891)
    Marcel Schwob: Les Striges (1891)
    Léon Bloy: La Salamandre Vampire (1893)
    Jean Lorrain: Le Verre de Sang (1893)
    Jules Lermina: La Deux Fois Morte (1895)

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