Archive Project: Carmilla

For this project, I looked at Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu’s Gothic novella “Carmilla,” originally published in 1871-1872 as a serial in the literary magazine The Dark Blue. Shortly after, Le Fanu republished the piece in his collection of short stories, In a Glass Darkly. In 2014, “Carmilla” was adapted into a modern-day Canadian web series of the same name. As a result, the novella is steadily gaining recognition in popular culture.

The novella tells the story of an eighteen-year-old girl named Laura. As the narrator, she explains that she had been preparing to host a close family friend and his niece for a few weeks. One night, however, Laura’s father receives news from his friend explaining that his niece recently died under mysterious circumstances and he has decided to cancel the trip. Saddened and disappointed, Laura and her father walk out to the drawbridge. While enjoying the moonlight, they watch in horror as a passing carriage falls onto its side. The mother emerges from the carriage unscathed, but her daughter is found to be unconscious. The mother insists that she cannot delay her journey and asks where the nearest village is so that she may leave her daughter there to recover, but Laura implores her father to let the daughter stay with them. He agrees, and they take the young stranger into their home. Laura is instantly drawn to Carmilla, a beautiful and cryptic girl of the same age, and the two become extremely close.

I chose to upload two passages to the VQA. In both passages, Le Fanu expresses the sexual tension between the two girls. Laura develops a passionate love for Carmilla, and although an arguable statement (once Carmilla is revealed to be a vampire, we learn that she tends to seduce and manipulate all of the girls she preys upon), I believe Carmilla falls in love with Laura, too; their deep connection is both physical and mental, as seen in both of the passages I posted. However, regardless of whether their love is requited, the novella is “queer” in the sense that Le Fanu explicitly depicts both girls as lesbians. In the second passage, for instance, Carmilla kisses Laura and tells her that she loves her:

She kissed me silently. … ‘I have been in love with no one, and never shall,’ she whispered, ‘Unless it should be with you.’ … Her soft cheek was glowing against mine. ‘Darling, darling,’ she murmured, ‘I live in you; and you would die for me, I love you so.’

Unlike many other writers from the Victorian Era, Le Fanu doesn’t even code their love for each other; Camilla explicitly states “I love you” to Laura and kisses her, and considering how many Victorians were “prudish,” it’s extremely fascinating that Le Fanu decided to express their love so explicitly, especially in a relationship between two young women. The first passage I chose is even more sensual:

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, you and I are one for ever.’ Then she has thrown herself back in her chair, with her small hands over her eyes, leaving me trembling.

Le Fanu’s use of the words “hot lips” sounds like something you might read in an erotic novel in the 21st century, not something from the 19th century! And, again, not only is his word choice unusual for the Victorian Era, but it’s also referring to a relationship between two women. As we discussed in class the other day, I suppose most Victorians couldn’t even imagine two women having anything remotely close to a sexual relationship, so passages like this flew right over their heads.

I would highly recommend reading “Carmilla”–I absolutely loved it! Le Fanu is a brilliant writer.

Link to VQA:

Is Elizabeth Siddal the Femme Fatale?

Perhaps the last thing that comes to mind when reading Christina Rossetti’s poem The Goblin Market is the concept of the femme fatale. However, there are a few instances in the poem where Lizzie, the older sister, seems to possess some femme fatale-like qualities. In this post, I’ll examine how Rossetti’s definition of the femme fatale in her poem In an Artist’s Studio can be applied to Lizzie in The Goblin Market.

The term “femme fatale” was shaped by the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood in the mid 19th century. Members of the group included artists like Dante Gabriel Rossetti, who depicted a self-absorbed and beautiful femme fatale in his painting Lady Lilithamong others. And although Christina, Dante’s sister, was never officially a member of the Brotherhood, she played a crucial role within the group. Her poem In an Artist’s Studio was written in 1856. The poem references Dante’s art stuido and the many portraits of Elizabeth Siddal, the model for most of Dante’s work at the time.

In the poem, Rossetti notes how “one face looks out from all [Dante’s] canvases,” referring to the many portraits of Elizabeth Siddal. Through Dante’s paintings, Rossetti explains, Elizabeth can be depicted as anything, from “a queen in opal or ruby dress” to “a saint [or] an angel.” Now, the femme fatale, as defined on Merriam-Webster, is an attractive woman who causes trouble for the men who become involved with her. Dante spends all of his time and energy painting this one woman with “all her loveliness,” so Elizabeth must be at least somewhat attractive. Another line from Rossetti’s poem also hints that Dante is obsessed with Elizabeth: “he feeds upon her face by day and night.” The word ‘feed’ suggests that Elizabeth is Dante’s sustenance, in which case he physically cannot live without her and her beauty. At the end of the poem, Rossetti adds: “Not wan with waiting, not with sorrow dim; / Not as she is, but was when hope shone bright; / Not as she is, but as she fills his dream.” Rossetti explicitly states that “she” never waits for the man sorrowfully, but she did when he had hope, when she was in the man’s dream. This description precisely defines a female fatale, a beautiful woman who appears in a man’s dream but not in reality–at least, not for long periods of time.

Now, what if I told you Elizabeth Siddal’s nickname was Lizzie? Because it was. In fact, many articles refer to her as Lizzie, not Elizabeth.

In The Goblin Market, Lizzie isn’t the traditional femme fatale. The poem states that her sister has golden curls, so presumably Lizzie does too, an attractive feature for a young woman. Similar to the face in the paintings, though, she doesn’t seek to cause trouble. However, when the goblins attack Lizzie, tearing her gown, soiling her stockings, stomping on her feet and trying to make her eat the fruit, she resists, ultimately annoying the goblins and causing them to give up instead of submitting to them like another more submissive woman might.

Are both of Rossetti’s characters modeled after Elizabeth Siddal? Perhaps, but more importantly, her definition of the femme fatale in her poem In an Artist’s Studio can also be applied to Lizzie in The Goblin Market, connecting the two poems.



Looking into the Light (Future)

Image from the Trout Gallery archives in Dickinson College. ( courtesy of the archives of Dickinson College’s Trout Gallery)

The etching “Looking into the future” features a young woman on a balcony looking longingly up into the sky. Wearing a long white dress, she exemplifies the ideal Victorian woman–the “Angel in the House,” as Furneaux says in her article. As we’ve previously discussed, the white dress implies the woman’s purity and innocence. However, the dress darkens as it gets further and further into the room, possibly suggesting that the woman has had a bleak past and is only just coming out of the darkness. In the poem “My Last Duchess,” the portrait of the late duchess is hidden behind a curtain, a tradition that is often seen in the Victorian Era. Although the drapes depicted in the etching surround a window instead of a portrait (which doesn’t directly imply that they’re a symbol for mourning), they still add to the gloomy atmosphere of the room and adding to the implication that the woman’s past lurks behind her. However, the drapes are tied back, which could suggest that the woman has successfully moved on from her past and is not letting it get in the way of her future. Furthermore,the beautiful and decorative column next to the woman seems to stand almost entirely in the light, so maybe it could be interpreted as a pillar of life that represents strength and stability.

I do not believe that there are any passages to directly support this (?), but I see Laura Fairlie when I look at the woman in this etching. Although Laura’s life isn’t entirely applicable to this etching, the dark and gloomy past behind the woman might be Laura’s marriage to Sir Percival, her time spent in the mental asylum, and the time she spent hiding with Walter and Marian. Like I mentioned in my previous post, Laura seems to be happier than ever when she and Walter are married, so perhaps her marriage is her first step out into the light. Laura may or may not be the “Angel in the House” depending on your view of her, and given her past you might not see her as pure and innocent. However, I personally do see Laura Fairlie (or Hartright) in this “light.”

Happiness in the Darkest of Times

The door opened; and Laura came in alone. So she had entered the breakfast-room at Limmeridge House, on the morning when we parted. Slowly and falteringly, in sorrow and in hesitation, she had once approached me. Now, she came with the haste of happiness in her feet, with the light of happiness radiant in her face. Of their own accord, those dear arms clasped themselves round me; of their own accord, the sweet lips came to mine. ‘My darling!’ she whispered, ‘we may own we love each other, now?’ Her head nestled with a tender contentedness on my bosom. ‘Oh,’ she said, innocently, ‘I am so happy at last!’ (561)

Since Walter’s first departure, Laura has been through hell, to say the least. Following her marriage to the lying and self-righteous Sir Percival Glyde, Laura’s quality of life steadily declines. A quick recap: after leaving Limmeridge House and coming back from Italy, she complies with her abusive husband (who has taken her fortune) only to be kicked out of Blackwater Park. On her way back, she is drugged and abducted by the Count and put into a mental institution. Her identity is given to Anne Catherick, who is then announced dead. Laura escapes from the mental institution with Marian’s help, but then lives a life on the run. She develops PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) from her time in the mental institution and spends months recovering from it. Gradually she returns to her old self, and then, in the passage above, she gets engaged to Walter. Now, after everything she’s been through, she’s finally happy.

When she first said goodbye to Walter, she had everything an upperclass Victorian woman should have. She lived in a large house with servants, she had a suitor, she had an inheritance, and she was talented and beautiful. Why wasn’t she happy before, then? And now that she’s living in poverty and has been through absolute hell, she’s happy?

Her statement to Walter when she first said goodbye to him closely resembles what she says to Walter above: “‘Oh!’ she said, innocently, ‘how could I let you go, after we have passed so many happy days together!'” (126). Collins uses the word ‘innocently’ in both passages, despite everything that Laura has now been through. When Laura was once “strangely pale and strangely quiet,” her face now radiates with happiness (125).

I think this passage ties back to the Victorian views on class and social constructs. When she was wealthy, Laura was expected to marry someone of a high stature, like Sir Percival. It was impractical for her to be in love with a lowly drawing-master such as Walter, because a woman of her status would never marry anyone so beneath her. However, she never wanted to marry Percival, and she was never happy when she was married to him. Now that her fortune is lost, she is free to marry whoever she pleases, regardless of societal status. Thus, in this regard, the lack of social constructs upon the lower class allows Laura more freedom, which is all she ever really wanted. In turn, she’s happier than she was at the beginning of the novel, despite the hell she’s been through.


Marian Halcombe: Sweet or Sassy?

Wilkie Collins introduces Marian Halcombe as a bold and defiant young woman. She challenges conventional gender norms in both her outward appearance (her mustache) and in her demeanor. Upon meeting Walter, she says:

You see I don’t think much of my own sex, Mr. Hartright…no woman does think much of her own sex, although few of them confess it as freely as I do. Dear me, you look puzzled. Why? Are you wondering what you will have for breakfast? or are you surprised at my careless way of talking?…In the second case, I will give you some tea to compose your spirits, and do all a woman can (which is very little, by-the-by) to hold my tongue. (Collins 37)

She openly refers to herself as unusual when she tells Walter that few women speak as frankly as she does about her own sex. Furthermore, she attributes Walter’s surprise to either his choice of breakfast or to her unusual manner of speaking, recognizing that her behavior may perhaps be off-putting to a stranger.

However, Walter quickly becomes accustomed to Marian’s openness, and respects her immensely. He acknowledges her intelligence and audacity, and although he doesn’t love her in the same way that he loves Laura, I believe it’s arguable to say that he and Marian become partners in crime while attempting to solve the mystery that unfolds.

After Walter’s departure, however, Marian shows a change in character. Suddenly, she seems unfocused and somewhat incapable. For instance, when speaking to Mr. Gilmore after hearing Sir Percival Glyde’s explanation for Anne Catherick’s resentment, she says, “…I almost wish Walter Hartright had stayed here long enough to be present at the explanation, and to hear the proposal to me to write this note” (135). Surprised, Mr. Gilmore asks Marian how Walter’s presence could have any influence on the current situation. Distracted, she tells Mr. Gilmore that it was only a thought; Gilmore’s experience and guidance was the only thing she needed and desired.

Mr. Gilmore then remarks in his narrative:

I did not altogether like her thrusting the whole responsibility, in this marked manner, on my shoulders. If Mr. Fairlie had done it, I should not have been surprised. But resolute, clear-minded Miss Halcombe, was the very last person in the world whom I should have expected to find shrinking from the expression of an opinion of her own. (135)

Mr. Gilmore is right to be surprised by this discrepancy in Marian’s personality. Once bubbling with opinions, Marian now lacks, or at least keeps to herself, any opinions on the matter. Instead, she wonders how Walter would respond to Sir Percival Glyde, and blindly follows Mr. Gilmore’s guidance. Is she turning into the quiet and stereotypical woman of the Victorian Era that she seems to despise when she first meets Walter?

I hope Marian returns to her old self again soon!