The Vampire & Homoeroticism In 19th Century Gothic Literature (Part 1)

“But to die as lovers may – to die together, so that they may live together.”
― Sheridan Le Fanu, Carmilla

Note: I’ve added images of reference texts that delve into the topics of vampires, sexuality, queerness, and 19th-century literature within their pages. These are but a few, though ones I’ve very much enjoyed.

THE VAMPIRE, especially in its literary form, mixes elements of horror and sexuality. They’re a creature that symbolizes both otherness from heteronormative society and liberation from sociocultural restrictions on sexual behaviour. In the nineteenth century, sexuality was a taboo topic in Christian Europe, let alone homosexuality which was soon to be known by the euphemism, “the love that dared not speak its name.” This is a phrase taken from Lord Alfred Douglas’ poem, “Two Loves,” written in September 1892, and later used in the Oscar Wilde trials. 

In response to this sexual suppression, Gothic Literature utilized the heightened sensuality associated and accepted with supernatural “deviance,” especially vampirism, to circumnavigate this sexually puritanical ideology with coded language, innuendo, and suggestive imagery. [Image On Left: The Living Dead: A Study of the Vampire in Romantic Literature by James B. Twitchell, 1981]

Spanning the nineteenth century, from “Christabel” by Samuel Taylor Coleridge to Dracula by Bram Stoker, there’s a noticeable, yet often subtle, homosexual presence among the first pieces of what Anne Rice liked to call “vampire literature.” The incidents of lesbian vampiric relationships, which appeared first in the literary vampire tradition during the early part of the nineteenth century, further illustrate the essential sexual nature of the vampire’s relationship with its victim. In such early works as Carmilla by Sheridan le Fanu and “Christabel,” there are solid lesbian relationships based initially on mutual friendship but then go beyond platonic affection.

The process of “queering the text” allows for a close introspective reading of vampire fiction to look both at and beyond the obvious to the more subtle hints of homosexuality between characters—between vampire and prey. Queer Theory offers the reader the tools to see texts in a different light, to both view and validate the sexual nature of a vampire as one that surpasses the boundaries of heterosexism in literature. [Image On Right: Reading the Vampire by Ken Gelder, 1994]

However, while there was a recurring theme of queer women in 19th-century vampire literature, the same can’t be said of male homo/bisexuality. The first significant occurrences of male homosexuality among vampires and their victims didn’t occur until well into the twentieth century during the sexual revolution of the nineteen-sixties, a far cry from the repression of the nineteenth century. Works like the Hammer film The Brides of Dracula (1967), with the film’s gay as hell antagonist, the vampire Baron Meinster, and Anne Rice’s 1976 novel Interview With the Vampire, which depicts overt homo/bisexual male vampires, are such examples.

Male vampires of the nineteenth century, from John Polidori’s Lord Ruthven in “The Vampyre” to Varney the Vampyre, invariably sank their teeth into female victims. Dracula is the exception and one I’ve spoken about in an earlier BLOG entry: READING BRAM STOKER’S DRACULA THROUGH A QUEER LENS, though I’ll explore it further in Part 2.

Still, a close reading of some of these 19th century texts involving male vampirism does hint at the possibility of male homosexual desire that, despite being denied, again, except for Harker and Count Dracula, is still awakened in the characters through their homosocial situations and exposure to homoeroticism—at least subtextually.

“”Varney the Vampire,” by James Malcolm Rymer and Dracula, by Bram Stoker, as well as the rest of the male vampires of the nineteenth century, are heretical by definition. Still, their emotional life is as compartmentalized as any Victorian patriarch’s. In the nineteenth century, women had few choices: they could marry or be depleted emotionally and financially. When females were turned by a male vampire, they became little more than an extension of their male creator, much like the wives of the Patriarchs whose family names they took. [Image On Left: Cover from one of the original publications.]

 When the female victim in “Varney the Vampyre,” Clara, rises from her coffin after being made into a vampire, she has nothing to say. As Rymer writes: “And now the light… shone on a mass of white clothing within the coffin, and in another moment, that white clothing was observed to be in motion. Slowly, the dead form that was there rose up, and they all saw the pale and ghastly face. A streak of blood was issuing from the mouth, and the eyes were open.” Clara’s individuality has been stripped away, and her features are no longer hers; she’s indistinguishable from the white clothing she’s draped in. Her entire countenance becomes Varney’s fabrication: his creations come alive but are not unique, as they’re now an extension of his ghastly vampiric self. 

 In Dracula, Lucy Westenra, the vivacious ingenue inspired by Rymer’s Clara, also loses her individuality and playful flirtatiousness and takes on the animalistic nature of her male vampire creator. Stoker writes Arthur, her fiancé, exclaiming upon seeing her Undead state, “Is this really Lucy’s body, or only a demon in her shape?” and recalls, “She seemed like a nightmare of Lucy as she lay there.” It’s noticed that after Arthur drives a stake through her heart, Lucy’s harsh, fiendish expression, which had characterized her transformation from Lucy to “bride of Dracula,” disappears, and a face of pure sweetness and innocence reappears. Thus, her individuality and nature return once her bond with Dracula is broken.

Carmilla’s story is very different. As far as the reader perceives, she acts autonomously and falls in love via her authority. Remembering back through the centuries, Carmilla, as Le Fanu writes, reveals to Laura the story of the “cruel love—strange love” that turned her into a vampire. Though she leaves the gender of her creator unspecified, the word strange, the 19th-century euphemism for homosexual love, as implied by English writer Algernon Charles Swinburne (1837–1909), who dealt with controversial topics of the times, suggests that Carmilla’s maker was most likely female. Unlike Varney and the egomaniacal Dracula, many vampiric women left no signature to claim ownership of their creations. Carmilla’s sexuality and desires are her own and not the projection of some megalomaniacal creator.

Carmilla has all the agency of her male counterparts but with none of their erotic ambivalence. Carmilla targets the nineteen-year-old Laura, the daughter of her host, and proceeds to seduce her. As Le Fanu writes, Laura recalls, “She used to place her pretty arms around my neck, draw me to her, and laying her cheek to mine, murmur with her lips near my ear… And when she had spoken such a rhapsody, she would press me more closely in her trembling embrace, and her lips in soft kisses glow upon my cheek.” Le Fanu mixes those elements of horror and sexuality within his work as Laura reacts to Carmilla’s advances with both “adoration and abhorrence.” The homoerotic is explored but still only within the confines of Christian morality. Carmilla is a lesbian but still deviant, still vampiric. 

Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “Christabel,” the first vampire poem in English, began the theme that would reappear in vampire literature: lesbian vampire relationships. The poem centres around the vampiric relationship of Christabel and Geraldine, the vampire. The poem is riddled with scenes of obvious lesbian overtones.  [Image On Right: Christabel and Geraldine from The Blue Fairy Book (1891), ed. Andrew Lang; illus. H. J. Ford and Lancelot Speed.]

After sharing a bottle of wine, Geraldine suggests that Christabel undress, after which Geraldine partially disrobes, revealing her breast. Coleridge writes: “Behold! Her bosom and half her side… A sight to dream of, not to tell.” This intimate revelation of female flesh is a symbol of friendship, yes, but Christabel is aroused by this vision, though she acknowledges that it is homoerotic; as such, it must remain secret. As Geraldine’s intentions are homoerotic—her desire to have Christabel naked in bed with her—they’re forbidden, yet undeniably present. [Image On Left: Our Vampires, Ourselves. Nina Auerbach, 1997.]

Also, the scene when the two women lay together for an hour has a very strong lesbian overtone as well. Christabel exclaims, “Oh Geraldine! One hour was thine—Thou’st had thy will!” The following day, Geraldine awakes refreshed, while Christabel awakes with guilt and immediately goes to prayer. If one queers this text, it appears that Geraldine’s vampiric nature is entirely at ease with her sexuality; she can enjoy the pleasures of homosexuality without feeling the trappings of Christian guilt. If Geraldine was a lesbian in life, her vampiric nature would have heightened her existence as a sexual being. The same may be said of Carmilla. 

On the other hand, Christabel is confused by the homosexual desire she has felt and performed physically, feels guilty like a stereotypical nineteenth-century Christian would, and “once under Geraldine’s spell, [Christabel] prays.” It’s fascinating to see how the overtly sexual nature of the vampire allows both Geraldine and Carmilla to empower lesbian eroticism within the restrictive morality of the time frame that Coleridge and Le Fanu wrote in. Like Laura in Carmilla, Christabel, as a victim, doesn’t have to take responsibility for her homoerotic desires as she was seduced by dark forces. [Image On The Right: Blood & Roses: The Vampire In 19th Century Literature. Adele O. Gladwell, Editor.]

Carmilla and Geraldine, as vampires, are deviant, but this negative connotation doesn’t diminish their sexuality or sensuality in the reader’s perception. Perhaps it was Coleridge and Le Fanu’s intent to explore the homoerotic and arouse their readers with forbidden fruit while cleverly saving their own work from condemnation through Christabel’s personal guilt towards her “sin” and Laura’s rescue from Carmilla through the vampire’s destruction. It seems the guilt of Christabel was enough for critics and censors of the period to allow the story’s sexual nature to go without reproach. As for Carmilla, the vampire was destroyed by the patriarchal and, most assuredly, heterosexual men whose women she threatened, so she served to reveal a moral for the time: vampiric sexuality, “unnatural sexuality” or homo/bisexuality, won’t be tolerated by the Christian norms of the Patriarch. [Image On Left: Horror by Mark Jancovich, 1992]

If a reader views these stories as ones about the influence of temptation, then as long as a person of traditional values who is seduced by them realizes they must repent, all may be forgiven. Ironically, the appeal of homoeroticism still gets through in the text. Carmilla and Geraldine are two of the few self-accepting homosexuals in Victorian literature.

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