Carmilla, a novella by Joseph Sheridan LeFanu, was originally published in 1872 in London as part of an Oxford undergraduate’s journalistic venture, The Dark Blue.
The novella opens with a prologue to introduce “the Narrative which follows” and “the intelligent lady, who relates it.”
That lady, Laura, then places the novella in Styria. She lives with her father and servants in a castle remote from everything but the Karnstein and Spielsdorf estates.
Being 27, she recalls her earliest memory, when she was six. Alone in her nursery, she simply remembers looking up and seeing the face of another young girl looking at her. The other girl cuddles with Laura and they both fall asleep. Later, Laura wakes up screaming to a piercing pain in her chest. The other girl hides under the bed before the servants arrive to check on Laura, and when the servants check underneath the bed, no one is there.
Laura then takes us forward 13 years to when she was 19, her age for the rest of the novella. General Spielsdorf writes to Laura’s father to say his daughter had passed away. Laura is saddened by that because she was expecting Spielsdorf’s daughter as company.
Taking a stroll outside and admiring the moonlight, the residents of the estate witness a strange event. A carriage, swerving to avoid a large cross statue, topples over. Out of this carriage comes a woman (Matska) and her daughter (Carmilla). The woman asks Laura’s father to look after her daughter until she returns. He obliges, much to the joy of Laura.
Laura takes us through the development of her and Carmilla’s relationship. Strangely, Carmilla recalls the scene of Laura’s oldest memory from the point of view of the vanishing girl. Also, she takes quite an offense to Laura singing a funeral hymn, calling it “that discord and jargon.” Another point in their relationship, a hunchback comes to sell them amulets and notices that Carmilla has a tooth “long, thin, pointed, like an awl, like a needle.” Later, a picture arrives in which Laura sees the “effigy” of Carmilla, labeled “Mircalla, Countess Karnstein, A.D. 1698.”
Laura is attacked by the piercing creature for the second time, this time a large, cat-like animal moving around her bed. It springs onto her bed and she feels the needle-like piercing in her breast. Laura begins to take on the languid, melancholic state of existence that heretofore has been characteristic of Carmilla. In one of her dreams, Laura sees Carmilla, “standing, near the foot of my bed, in her white nightdress, bathed, from her chin to her feet, in one great stain of blood.” Laura wakes, servants show, and Carmilla is absent—absent even from her own room. Laura’s father rationalizes that Carmilla must have sleep-walked and remained in another room of his estate, which is as big as unable to be searched thoroughly.
Laura finishes her harrowing memory with the meeting of General Spielsdorf, who had been investigating rumors of vampirism associated with his own daughter’s condition and death. The events leading to her death parallel those happening to Laura. Spielsdorf was in his daughter’s room during her own “cat episode,” and he sees Carmilla—Millarca, as he knows her (yet another anagram)—with his own eyes. He leads Laura and her father to the Karnstein estate, where they run into Carmilla. Spielsdorf attempts to seize her, and Laura sees her “instantaneous and horrible transformation.” A Baron knowledgeable about the Karnstein estate leads the group to Carmilla’s grave. The General opens her coffin, finding her lying in a deep pool of blood. He drives a steak through her heart and cuts off her head to end her reign.
(With descriptions essentially comprehensive, precisely as Laura recalls them)
Laura spends many words describing characters in the novella, especially characters Baron Vordenburg (AKA the Ranger of the Forest) and the hunchback. They spend a relatively short length of time in Laura’s memory, together only a few pages’ worth in the novella, yet are recollected in detail with descriptions outmatched only by the observances Laura has from her long time spent with Carmilla. It is unclear why Laura gives such lengthy descriptions to those two characters, while she leaves her father, who is prevalent in her memory, an image almost completely to the imagination of the reader.
Laura: the narrator, six and 19 within the story, and 27 as she recalls it. Laura often presents herself as aware of, yet unable or unwilling to fight, her vulnerability to Carmilla.
Laura’s Father: English, kind and old.
General Baron Spielsdorf (a description of him as he appeared to Laura, it being ten years since she had last seen him): thinner; his cordial serenity was replaced by gloom and anxiety; his dark blue eyes, always penetrating, now gleamed with a sterner light from under his shaggy grey eyebrows.
Carmilla (or Mircalla, or Millarca): gentle, nice, absolutely beautiful, and with a sweet voice. She declares she is haunted with the terror of robbers. She is described as languid on exactly ten occurrences in the novella. Ten times she is also associated with melancholy, two of which refer to her effect on Laura. Above all, she is described as beautiful, in one way or another.
Doctor Spielsberg: pallid, elderly; with a long saturnine face, slightly pitted with smallpox; donning a chestnut wig; skillful, of sixty and upwards. He wore powder, and shaved his face as smooth as pumpkin. He is brought into the story at least four times: (1) he visits Laura after her first encounter with Carmilla; (2) he visits Carmilla after her mother leaves her; (3) he visits Laura’s father upon request to discuss the death of his peasant’s sister; and (4) he visits a fourth time after Carmilla “sleep walks” and observes the piercing feeling felt by Laura.
Baron Vordenburg (Ranger of the Forest): a native of Upper Styria; tall, narrow-chested, stooping, with high shoulders, and dressed in black. His face was brown and dried in with deep furrows. He wore an oddly-shaped hat with a broad leaf; his hair was long and grizzled and hung on his shoulders; and he wore a pair of gold spectacles. He walked slowly, with an odd shambling gait. His face wore what seemed a perpetual smile; and his arms were long and thin, his hands lank, on which he wore old black gloves ever so much too wide for them.
Bertha Rheinfeldt: Spielsdorf’s daughter; charming
Madame Perrodon (governess): good-natured, she raised Laura. She had a fat, benignant face; spoke French and broken English. Middle-aged, and romantic, she talked and sighed poetically.
Mademoiselle De Lafontaine (finishing governess): spoke French and German.
Matska (Carmilla’s Mother): tall, but not thin; pale, but with a proud and commanding countenance; an air and appearance distinguished and even imposing; her manner engaging. According to Laura’s father, she spoke very pure French. According to the General, she spoke French and German perfectly.
The Hunchback: with sharp lean features, wore a painted black beard. He was dressed in buff, black, and scarlet; and crossed with more straps and belts than could be counted. He carried a magic lantern, and two boxes. He had a fiddle, a conjuring apparatus, and a pair of foils and masks attached to his belt; several other mysterious cases dangling about him; and a black staff with copper ferrules in his hand.
The Priest: venerable, old, kindly, and gentle.
The Carriage Passengers (a black woman and servants): a black woman, hideous, grinning derisively, with gleaming eyes and large white eyeballs, and her teeth set as if in fury; and servants, ugly, hang-dog looking, wicked looking, with faces strangely lean, dark, and sullen.
The Servants (the Nurse, the Nursery Maid, and the Housekeeper), picture carrier, and a woodman: appear, but are not described at all.
Outside of characters, four themes are used heavily in Carmilla. It is interesting to note that the moon is given more emphasis in the novella than any other visual scenery, despite the several scenes displaying blood and Christian symbolism. Behind another recurring theme, one involving visuals within the play, lies the question, “Is this part of a dream, or is this reality?” Finally, the novella is notable for both its lesbianism and its ambiguity, the two often coexisting.
Lesbianism: Lesbianism occurs implicitly between Laura and Carmilla. In the following scene, Laura was only six: “[Carmilla] pressed my hand, and laid hers upon it, and her eyes glowed, as, looking hastily into mine, she smiled again, and blushed . . . . ‘Your looks won me; I climbed on the bed and put my arms about you . . . .’” Later, “[Carmilla] held me close in her pretty arms for a moment and whispered in my ear, ‘Good night, darling, it is very hard to part with you . . . .’” Laura’s thoughts on Carmilla’s behavior: “It was like the ardor of a lover.” And, Carmilla: “‘I have been in love with no one, and never shall,’ she whispered, ‘unless it should be with [Laura].’” Yet, the lesbianism in the novella is not only implicit, but ambiguously coupled with friendship.
Ambiguity/Contradiction: Laura describes Carmilla at length, especially her hair—“I have often placed my hands under it, and laughed with wonder at its weight. It was exquisitely fine and soft, and in color a rich very dark brown, with something of gold. I loved to let it down, tumbling with its own weight, as, in her room, she lay back in her chair talking in her sweet low voice, I used to fold and braid it, and spread it out and play with it.”—ending on this ambiguously sexual exclamation: “Heavens! If I had but known all!” It is frustratingly ambiguous whether Laura and Carmilla are sexual or friendly companions. Ambiguity finishes the last paragraph of Laura’s recollection: “Carmilla returns to memory with ambiguous alternations—sometimes the playful, languid, beautiful girl, sometimes the writhing fiend I saw in the ruined church [of the Karnstein estate].” Contradiction is also throughout the novella. For example, Laura is both drawn towards and repulsed by Carmilla. And, Carmilla says, “. . . there is no such word as indifference in my apathetic nature.” Finally, Laura describes a voice in her dream as “sweet and tender, and at the same time terrible.”
Dreams vs. Reality: Laura recalls Carmilla’s second attack “was no such transitionary terror as a dream leaves behind it” and from it “certain vague and strange sensations visited me in my sleep.” Finally, “I am going to tell you now of a dream that led immediately to an odd discovery.” Laura is always experiencing strange events within dreams. A screen between her dreams and reality repeatedly blurs the difference between the two.
(Aversion to) Christianity: Laura’s father says, “We are in God’s hands: nothing can happen without his permission, and all will end well for those who love Him. He is our faithful creator; He has made us all, and will take care of us.” The General speaks of “God’s mercy.” On the opposite end of the spectrum, the Karnstein carriage swerves and topples over just to avoid an ancient cross statue; Carmilla has a seizure at the sound of hymns, and Laura recalls that she “never came down in the morning until long after our family praters were over, and at night she never left the drawing room to attend our brief evening prayers in the hall.”
Rural vs. Urban: Laura uses this theme heavily in the beginning of the novel as she explains her solitude. Perhaps her want of company sets her up to be especially vulnerable to Carmilla.
Moon: The moon is recalled frequently just before the toppling of the carriage, including its beauty and “idyllic and magnetic influence.” Other times in the novella: “How beautiful [Carmilla] looked in the moonlight!” Later, Carmilla also stalls for time with Laura, adding “it is the last time, perhaps, I shall see the moonlight with you.”
Laity vs. Nobility: Mentioned explicitly at the beginning of the novella: “ill-bred.” Carmilla: “She? I don’t trouble my head about peasants.” And, the General recalls the ball at the Grand Duke’s as “a very aristocratic assembly. I was myself almost the only ‘nobody’ present.” He also describes Carmilla at the ball as having “the elegance and fire of high birth.”
Letter-Writing: General Spielsdorf writes two letters to Laura’s father. The first cancels his visiting of him on the basis of his own daughter’s death; the second is of unknown content. The Doctor also writes a letter, one to Spielsdorf on his own belief in vampires and their connection to his daughter’s death.
Narrative within a Narrative (within a Narrative): The first narrative is that of the prologue, and within it lies the narrative of Laura. (Within Laura’s narrative, the General gives one of his own.)