This month in Classics & Contemporaries we're going to explore a section of the spooky genre that is Victorian Gothic, one of my personal favourites. I did an entire module on Victorian Gothic at university and I loved it, so I've been looking forward to this installment!
When it comes to Victorian Gothic there are some very famous pieces of literature; Bram Stoker's Dracula, Robert Louis Stevenson's The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, and Emily Brontë's Wuthering Heights just to name a few. Today, however, I've opted to explore some of the lesser known, but equally fabulous, pieces of Victorian Gothic fiction out there.
So today we're going to look at some vampire stories, and neither of them are Dracula!
First published in 1871 (that's right - before Dracula!), J. Sheridan Le Fanu's Carmilla tells the story of Laura, a young girl who lives in Styria with her retired, widowed father, who has been looking forward to a visit from Bertha Rheinfeldt, the niece of her father's friend. Her father receives a letter from his friend, General Spielsdorf, informing the two of them that Bertha has died under mysterious circumstances which he will soon discuss with Laura's father in more detail.
Disappointed that she will have no companion, Laura's prayers are answered when a carriage accident outside their home leaves a young girl, around Laura's age, in their care. The girl introduces herself as Carmilla, and she and Laura immediately bond when the two of them recognise each other from a strange dream they both claim to have had during their childhood.
Carmilla and Laura grow intimately close, but as the months wear on it is clear there is more to Carmilla than meets the eye.
First thing's first: Carmilla is more of a novella than a novel, my edition is only 108 pages long, so whether you feel intimidated by classics or not I highly recommend giving it a try, especially at this time of year. It's one of my favourite classics, and has one of the most exquisite last lines of any story ever. I love it!
There are plenty of reasons to read Carmilla; it's a pre-Dracula example of vampirism in literature, and when it comes to monsters in literature the Victorian era is possibly the best era to start your exploration; because of the publication of Darwin's On the Origin of Species, Victorian society was terrified by the prospect of devolution. If people really had evolved from apes, did that mean they could revert back to an animalistic state? Was devolution responsible for criminals, homosexuals and over-ambitious women?
Carmilla is beautifully written and utterly haunting, and the relationship between Carmilla and Laura is both fascinating and tragic.
But if you don't feel ready to tackle any 19th century fiction just yet, there's a piece of historical fiction that's perfect for this time of year!
First published in 1999, Sarah Waters' Affinity tells the story of Margaret Prior, a woman who is recovering from a suicide attempt following the death of her beloved father. She decides to volunteer at the nearby women's prison, Millbank, as part of her rehabilitive charity work, where she works as a companion to the inmates. She speaks with them, listens to their stories and their troubles, and is discouraged from growing close to any of them.
One woman in particular, however, intrigues her. Selina Dawes claims to be a spiritualist who has found herself in prison after one of her séances led to the death of one woman and the deep disturbance of another. Though Margaret is initially sceptical of Selina's claims, she slowly becomes enamoured by this mysterious, enchanting woman.
But is Selina all that she appears to be?
Obviously there are many differences between Carmilla and Affinity, the most obvious being that there are no vampires in Affinity! But there are many similarities between them. They are both beautifully written, both claustrophobic and gothic, and both set in the 19th century. I have mentioned Sarah Waters in Classics & Contemporaries before - here! - as an author well known for her LGBT historical fiction, and Affinity is no different. Margaret and Seline's sexuality is not shied away from at all throughout the novel; in fact if you're a lover of historical fiction who would like to see more LGBT characters in the books you read I highly recommend giving her work a try if you haven't already. The majority of Waters' novels include LGBT characters in lead roles, perhaps her most famous works being Fingersmith and Tipping the Velvet.
Similarly, if you'd like to see more LGBT characters in your classics then Carmilla is the ideal book for you! It's often described as 'the lesbian vampire story', though whether or not that description is true is debatable; there are certainly elements of the homoerotic throughout the text, but I would be surprised if Le Fanu himself meant it as an LGBT text.
All the same, if Affinity interests you then there's no reason you wouldn't enjoy Carmilla!
Next we have an even shorter and even lesser known 19th century vampire story...
Robert Louis Stevenson is no stranger to the Victorian Gothic genre. He is perhaps most famous for The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde and Treasure Island, but during his life he also wrote many short stories, and many of those short stories were spooky and included elements of the gothic and fantastical.
Olalla is one such story. First published in 1885, Olalla tells the story of a nameless English soldier who is recovering from his injuries received in the Peninsular War. Still weak, his doctor advises him to stay with a once noble Spanish family, consisting of a mother and her two children: her son, Felipe, and her mysterious daughter, Olalla.
Our narrator feels welcome and comfortable in his temporary home, although he believes his hostess and her son to be slothful and dim-witted, but something seems odd. Though he hears of Olalla he does not see her, and each night when he goes to sleep he hears wild noises as though he were staying in a mad house.
When he finally meets Olalla he discovers that, unlike her mother and brother, she is extraordinarily intelligent and the two of them fall deeply in love with one another. He wishes to take her away from her home, but when he cuts his wrist on some glass while trying to orchestrate their escape, Olalla's family have an incredibly strong reaction to his blood...
Olalla is a very interesting piece of gothic fiction in that it is still being debated as to whether or not it is a vampire story or a werewolf story, for there are strong cases for both. After all, it wasn't only vampires that were popular in Victorian Gothic fiction - werewolves, ghosts and monsters were also very popular!
Just as Carmilla explores the idea of devolution, in Olalla we have an idea common in Victorian vampire fiction: fallen noble families with bad blood. In Olalla it is implied that Olalla's mother and brother, and indeed Olalla herself, are the way they are because they are the product of years and years of inbreeding. This idea of tainted nobility can also be seen in Dracula, the most famous vampire story in history, and it can even be seen in more modern incarnations of the vampire story such as Scott Snyder and Rafael Albuquerque's American Vampire graphic novel series, where a new breed of vampire is able to survive beneath the sun and threatens the existence of vampires who are stuck in their bourgeoisie-esque ways.
But for a 21st century recommendation, I've turned to YA!
Sarah Beth Durst's Drink, Slay, Love is a fun standalone about 16 year old Pearl, a classic vampire - she's allergic to the sun, loves blood and really quite evil - who is stabbed through the heart by a unicorn. Naturally, her family, who just so happen to be the vampire mafia, think she's been attacked by a vampire hunter - because unicorns don't exist! - but what really shocks them, and Pearl, is that she's suddenly able to withstand the sun. In fact, she's slowly becoming less and less vampiric.
Never to waste an opportunity, especially with the Vampire King coming to visit, Pearl's family decide to make use of her new 'talents' and send her to high school. Why? For dinner, of course. But can Pearl really feed her family, and the King, her newfound friends when she's slowly starting to develop a conscience? And does she really have a choice? Because if she doesn't offer up her classmates, she's dead meat anyway...
Drink, Slay, Love is nothing like its 19th century fear-mongering ancestors, but there's certainly elements of the early vampires within the story even when they are being parodied. Like Olalla, Drink, Slay, Love plays on this idea of old, intimidating families who are as threatening to each other as they are to outsiders.
Obviously there are more differences than similarities here - there's a unicorn, for heaven's sake! - but if you enjoy this brilliantly bizarre and self-aware novel, then I don't see why you won't enjoy a 19th century short story.
As always, I hope this has been an interesting installment of Classics & Contemporaries! Happy Halloween!