‘Carmilla’: The First Female Vampire Was A Fearless Lesbian

J. Sheridan Le Fanu’s 1872 gothic novella, Carmilla, features the first female literary vampire, along with some not-so-subtle sapphic themes.

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Carmilla was published in 1872, 25 years before Bram Stoker’s Dracula. This gothic novella, which features the first female vampire in literature, incorporates distinctly sapphic themes in a time of prevalent stigma around homosexuality. J. Sheridan Le Fanu doesn’t demonize the love between the two girls, however. The relationship between Carmilla and Laura is loving and realistic and features no intervention from men. Society’s starkly negative view of gay people in England at the time makes this a highly progressive story.

I will disclose that this article looks at this work in the context of the time that it was written. Unfortunately, the story does include certain themes, including racism, that would not and should not be acceptable today. In analyzing this work, I am in no way endorsing this discrimination, but appreciating the portrayal of women and sapphic women which were progressive at the time. With that very important point being said, let’s dive in!

Carmilla and Laura’s Relationship


The beginning of the novella sees Carmilla left in the care of Laura’s father. Laura, who is all too eager to befriend someone her age, is immediately captivated by her. The two quickly become close friends. As the two girls spend more time together, their relationship begins to blossom. Carmilla begins making romantic advances toward Laura, who is charmed by her.

Carmilla keeps her past a secret despite Laura’s persistent questions. She refuses to pray with the family and sleeps most of the day. The mystery around Carmilla seems to endear her to Laura. She symbolizes here all Victorian women who were judged and reprimanded for similar romantic feelings. Le Fanu challenges the widely held view of lesbianism and female parasitism by depicting Laura and Carmilla’s relationship as healthy and their feelings as mutual.

I have been in love with no one, and never shall,” she whispered, “unless it should be with you.”

Carmilla, J. Sheridan Le Fanu (1872)

Laura and Carmilla’s relationship is allowed to freely develop without interference or input from the men. This is especially the case with Laura’s unnamed father and his friend, General Spielsdorf. J. Sheridan Le Fanu seems to make his male characters powerless throughout the story intentionally. They are powerless to help Laura and General Spielsdorf’s daughter Bertha when they become sick after being preyed upon by Carmilla. This deviates from how women were normally depicted in literature at the time. Previously, women were portrayed as helpless damsels in need of a man to save them.

Just as the men in Carmilla are helpless to save their respective daughters, they also have no role in Laura and Carmilla’s relationship. The two women are allowed to freely explore their feelings toward each other while the men have no say. This gives the women in the story more agency and takes them beyond simply being objects controlled by men. Le Fanu’s depiction of lesbianism and women, in general, makes Carmilla a prominent work in both queer and feminist literary theory.

Homophobia in Victorian England


Gothic literature was prominent at a time of technological, scientific, and social advancements in England. Subsequently, Gothic literature regularly reflected the anxieties held by the Victorian society surrounding these advancements. Authors like Mary Shelley, Bram Stoker, Oscar Wilde, and Robert Louis Stevenson all wrote works addressing the social climate at the time. Human sexuality became a frequent and controversial topic of discussion.

Christian values in Victorian society challenged homosexuality. This created deeply ingrained stereotypes about gay people and prompted psychological discussions about the cause and treatment of the “abnormality.” Le Fanu challenges these Christian ideologies in Carmilla. When Laura’s father states, “We are in God’s hands: nothing can happen without his permission[…] He is our faithful creator; He has made us all, and will take care of us;” Carmilla responds:

Creator! Nature![…] All things proceed from Nature—don’t they? All things in the heaven, in the earth, and under the earth, act and live as Nature ordains? I think so.

Carmilla, J. Sheridan Le Fanu (1872)

Not only does Carmilla reject the Christian God, but the statement signifies her preference for the female Mother Nature. Here she seemingly embraces her relationship with women. Carmilla’s involvement with her victims emotionally and (implicitly) sexually, is the opposite of how male vampires had previously been portrayed. This, along with Carmilla’s immortality, leads to an empowering representation of women in the novella.

Carmilla is a progressive story that intentionally challenged the social views of women and lesbians at the time. Le Fanu doesn’t shy away from sapphic and feminist themes. He diverges from literary norms by taking power away from the male characters and putting them on equal footing with women. Additionally, the positive portrayal of a same-sex relationship has made this story a favorite among feminist and queer literary analysts for decades.