In the beginning, there were vampires. But the vampires in the beginning were very different than vampires today. In fact, classic vampires tales are so different, they’re boring to modern readers. In John Polidori’s The Vampyre (1816) and Lord Byron’s “Fragment of a Novel” (1816) there’s a lot of going on about the moon and unbreakable oaths, but it’s not exactly the stuff of nightmares.
Sheridan Le Fanu’s Carmilla (1872) delivers all those things Byron and Polidori left out: the madness, the mayhem, the blood-soaked nightgowns. But Carmilla was based on S. T. Coleridge’s Christabel (1816), a vampire text that predates Polidori’s and Byron’s.* There are many similarities between Christabel and Carmilla, but what really unites them in vampire lore are their sexy lady lesbian vampires.
In Coleridge’s poem, Christabel stumbles upon a woman, Geraldine, abandoned in the forest at midnight.** Christabel brings Geraldine home and, to avoid waking her father, suggests the stranger share her bed for the night. The morning finds our heroine mysteriously weakened and Geraldine strangely invigorated.*** In Carmilla, the vampire similarly insinuates herself into Laura’s home, and it’s difficult to read the final climactic vampire attack as anything but really good foreplay. Which leads to the question, why were the earliest vampires in English literature sexy ladies?
Nina Auerbach has a theory about that. Anne Williams tells us that vampires, as bloodsuckers, are “the most absolute embodiment of ‘the unnatural’” (Williams 3). As such, they do a good job standing in for all sorts of unnatural things, violating “assumptions about gender, sexual taboos, and the capitalistic imperatives of the nineteenth-century patriarch” (3). Auerbach similarly tells us that vampires represent the greatest fears and desires of their times.
Remarkably, the greatest fear and desire of the nineteenth century was … friendship. In both Christabel and Carmilla (and Polidori’s and Bryon’s tales, too), we are introduced to protagonists who are incredibly lonely. Laura, motherless, lives with her widowed father in an isolated castle in a foreign country. The arrival of Carmilla could not be more welcome to the friendless girl. Auerbach theorizes that vampires of the nineteenth century offered their victims options outside of sanctioned social roles. For women, unrestricted female friendship provided the possibility of intimacy outside of marriage, intimacy that “threatened the sanctioned distance of class relationships and the hallowed authority of husbands and fathers” (Auerbach 6). Taboo, indeed.
But that doesn’t explain why there were so many sexy lady vampires and not so many sexy men. It’s a classic case of the female body as a vehicle. Sure, in Polidori’s and Byron’s tales there are some gentlemen that get pretty cosy, but no one is sucking anyone else’s blood or anything. Geraldine and Carmilla are less squeamish. Coleridge and Le Fanu use Geraldine and Carmilla to represent the transgressive relationships both genders purportedly desired; they just needed female bodies to enact them. While some may (and have) chalked this up to good ol’ fashioned sexism, Auerbach has a different opinion. She states that females are “culturally constructed vehicles of intimacy” and thus are more free, in art at least, “to act out embarrassments like desire” (206).
But you’re thinking “Sexy lady vampires are nothing new. We see them all the time!”Geraldine and Carmilla differ significantly from the female fiends we have come to expect. They only drink the blood of other women, while the female vampires that follow are almost entirely heterosexual. The alluring female vampires we know today come to us care of Bram Stoker, who changed all the rules, gender and otherwise, when he published his famous Gothic novel Dracula.
*Published in 1816, Christabel was written in 1797. It is known to have been read at Byron’s villa on the shores of Lake Geneva that fateful summer in 1816 when the Shelleys came to call. Arguably, the poem spurred the group to write their own Gothic tales, giving us Frankenstein, The Vampyre, and Byron’s fragment. But Byron denied any relation between Coleridge’s vampire tale and his own, referring to Christabel’s antagonist, Geraldine, as a witch rather than a vampire.
**The attentive reader will ask, what was Christabel doing alone in the forest at midnight? The even more attentive reader will check Coleridge’s poem and see that Christabel couldn’t sleep because she had “dreams all yesternight/Of her betrothed knight;/Dreams, that made her moan and leap,/As on her bed she lay in sleep” (Coleridge 27-30). Christabel goes out into the woods to pray for her betrothed. I generally find moaning and leaping is better confined to the bedroom.
***Coleridge never actually uses the word “vampire” to describe Geraldine even though she displays some notably vampiric qualities. Geraldine was in fact derived from the mythical Lamia, a snakelike monster who feeds on the blood of her victims. In Christabel, Geraldine does have a propensity to hiss.
Auerbach, Nina. Our Vampires, Ourselves. University of Chicago Press: Chicago, 1997.
Coleridge, S. T. “Christabel.” Three Vampire Tales. Ed. Anne Williams. Boston, New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2003. 25–38
Le Fanu, Sheridan. “Carmilla.” Three Vampire Tales. Ed. Anne Williams. Boston, New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2003. 86–148
Williams, Anne, ed. Three Vampire Tales. Boston, New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2003.