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Vampires as a Means of Expression For Stoker and Le Fanu

 The vampire is such a compelling figure of literary representation for Irish writers like Le Fanu and Stoker because the medium of the vampire could be used to express ideas and convey thoughts about the authors’ lives and society that could not be expressed before. Le Fanu and Stoker were both upper class Anglo-Irish Protestants who lived in a country where the majority lower class Catholic population would not affiliate with them either by choice or through reason. This makes both Carmilla by Le Fanu and Dracula by Stoker such compelling literary presentations of both authors. As Milly Williamson puts it:

The vampire offers a way of inhabiting difference with pride, for embracing defiantly an identity that the world at large sees as other. To embrace the vampire is also to embrace pain; a painful awareness of outsiderdom, a life at least partly lived on the edges.

Stoker and Le Fanu were writers entangled in a cultural identity crisis, a crisis that gave rise to the perfect conditions to create the image of the vampire, who epitomized the outsider, living life ‘partly on the edges’ of society.

One major commonality between both literary representations is the position of the vampire as an obscure detached entity straddling the realms of human existence and the supernatural. An entity that is struggling to remain normal and abide by cultural conventions may very well have paralleled the feelings of Le Fanu as he was writing Carmilla. In the novella we see Carmilla’s unorthodox behaviour and ghostly antics being called into question as Laura struggles to correlate the natural and supernatural:

It was long before the terror of recent events subsided; and to this hour the image of Carmilla returns to memory with ambiguous alternations—sometimes the playful, languid, beautiful girl; sometimes the writhing fiend I saw in the ruined church. – Carmilla

In this instance Carmilla broke societal and cultural norms by advancing on Laura in a homoerotic way. She challenged contemporary sexual norms and perhaps the very nature of societal order by instigating something so taboo for Le Fanu’s time, even if she is not completely of the mortal world. The fact that Carmilla was not fully mortal allowed Le Fanu to push the moral limits of popular fiction at the time. Williamson dissects this same theme in Dracula by denoting that ‘the sexual desires dramatised in the novel take the symbolic form of vampires because of the sexual repression of the Victorian age’.

By being able to convert such relatable repression of any nature, including sexual, into the symbolic nature of the vampire, it allowed authors like Le Fanu and Stoker to finally convey ideas that would’ve been so out of place and unpopular previously. Having the ability or indeed the very option to write in a way that allowed greater freedom of expression was a big step forward for popular fiction in this period. Le Fanu, Stoker and Maturin relished this period to explore the occult and the taboo and open it up to the people who were now reading such fiction. Gothic literature in Ireland can thusly be seen as indulgent escapist literature. An example of this is Stoker’s use of Catholic imagery throughout Dracula. It later transpires that an immense level of comfort is attained through bearing the Catholic crucifix as Harker exclaims ‘bless that good, good woman who hung the crucifix round my neck! For it is a comfort and a strength to me whenever I touch it’.  Stoker would have been acutely aware of Catholic tradition and rituality by living in Ireland and through the gothic setting of Dracula he can indulge what must have been an inner curiosity.

Stoker’s vampire Count Dracula perpetuates the prototypical image of the vampire that has remained steadfast in popular culture right up to the present day. Le Fanu on the other hand makes it obvious that vampires do not always follow such conventions. The image of the vampire is forever evolving but it serves the same function today as it did for these Irish gothic writers. Vampires blur the lines between the natural and supernatural realms, indulge inner fantasies and often romanticise the occult. Through embracing the vampire both authors embraced outsiderdom, which they must have felt themselves living such an intricately complicated lifestyle in Ireland at the time.

A Look at Le Fanu

When one begins to think about great Irish writers some legendary household staples spring to mind such as Joyce, Wilde, Yeats and Stoker. These are the names that we recognise so frequently that they feel like extended family members, especially if you’re a literature student! But as much as we sing their praises, or indeed condemn them, there are other Irish writers worthy of similar acclaim that are all but swept under the carpet. The writer I’d like to talk to you about in this blog post today is Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu (1814-1873).

Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu was a gothic fiction writer whose literary works advanced themes and custom in gothic literature as a whole, particularly the sub-genre of the ghost story. He was, as most Irish writers from the Victorian period were, a member of the waning Anglo-Irish caste with French Huguenot roots. He lived a precarious and fractured life in societal and historical contexts that permeate even his finest works.

The Purcell Papers collection of stories, his first foray into published literature, particularly his stories The Last Heir of Castle Connor and The Fortunes of Sir Robert Ardagh show an evocative nostalgia for dispossessed Catholic aristocracy. This sentiment was even before the Great Famine during which Le Fanu felt the aristocracy was failing in its humanitarian duty to help the native population. One can go as far as comparing the monkey in Green Tea, where the main character is afflicted to years of torment, restless nights, endless paranoia and inability to attend Church sermons as being somewhat inspired, or if not mirroring what Le Fanu must have been feeling in Abington, County Limerick during the Tithe Wars. The Tithe Wars brought with them a sense of claustrophobia and paranoia for the Le Fanu family as they were surrounded by agrarian upheaval and anger where they were seen as tools of oppression by natives who had now had enough, even if as it turns out, the Le Fanus were only scraping by also.

The House by the Churchyard gives us an intimate look into what Victorian life was like in the insular aristocratic village of Chapelizod where Le Fanu grew up and we can garner much about evolving Victorian mannerisms and behavior in his sensation novels. Stories like Carmilla challenge assumptions regarding sexuality and Le Fanu’s ghost writing is so revolutionary it inspired M.R. James who described Le Fanu as “absolutely in the first rank as a writer of ghost stories”. His work certainly influenced Bram Stoker’s Dracula which meant he was the major catalyst in spawning a whole new wave of gothic fiction, paving the way for the vampire novel to saturate mainstream readership. A Chapter in the History of a Tyrone Family may have influenced Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre too by the way! These are just the larger influences yet Le Fanu is a name that does not instantly click with a lot of people beyond Irish literary circles. After the bicentenary of his birth in 2014 new light has been shed on many of the nuances and layers that affirm his credentials as possibly Ireland’s most underappreciated writer.

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