Sheridan Le Fanu

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Carmilla Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on Sheridan Le Fanu's Carmilla. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of Sheridan Le Fanu

In 1814, Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu was born into a family of literate Irish and English Protestants in Dublin. Throughout his childhood, he and his family moved frequently around the country, and he largely educated himself by reading books from his father’s library. He attended Trinity College in Dublin, originally studying law, but ultimately dropping it for journalism. He contributed to various magazines during this time, publishing his first horror story in 1838. He married Susanna Bennett in 1844 and they had four children together. However, in 1856 she began to suffer from extreme anxiety and neurosis, dying in 1858. This brought great grief to Le Fanu, who refused to write fiction again until his mother died three years later in 1861. Afterwards, he resumed writing and publishing fiction, becoming the editor of the Dublin University Magazine. He continued writing until his death from a heart attack in Dublin at the age of 58. Although Le Fanu experimented with many different genres throughout his lifetime, he was and remains best known for his Gothic horror and mystery novels. 
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Historical Context of Carmilla

Carmilla is set in Austria during the late 1800s, and Le Fanu clearly draws upon contemporary issues of the Victorian era. This was a time that was noteworthy for its social and industrial reform, and for the formation and rise of the middle class. This middle class, to which Laura and her father belong, began to revolutionize society, while also furthering the gap between the wealthy and the poor. Additionally, the Victorian period placed a strong emphasis on domestic morality, tackling the prominence of prostitution and sexually transmitted diseases, which led to a greater emphasis on female purity and chastity, making the female sexuality portrayed in Carmilla particularly noteworthy.

Other Books Related to Carmilla

While people have increasingly begun to recognize Carmilla and the works of Le Fanu for their own literary merit, the book is perhaps still best known for the work it inspired. Carmilla is widely regarded as one of the main sources of inspiration for the most famous work of vampire fiction, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, which was published 26 years after Carmilla. Carmilla was one of the first books to portray a female vampire, one of the only earlier such works being “The Dead Woman in Love,” a short story by French writer Théophile Gautier featuring the female vampire Clarimonde. The vampire is a trope that still figures prominently in contemporary literature, including works such as Anne Rice’s Interview with the Vampire (who has listed Carmilla as one of her sources of inspiration) and young adult series such as Twilight and The Vampire Diaries, which feature both male and female vampires as romanticized and heroic figures.
Key Facts about Carmilla
  • Full Title: Carmilla
  • When Written: 1871-72
  • Where Written: Isle of Man
  • When Published: 1871-72 as a magazine serial, then reprinted in Le Fanu’s collection of short stories In a Glass Darkly in 1872
  • Literary Period: Victorian
  • Genre: Gothic novella
  • Setting: Styria, Austria
  • Climax: Laura, along with her father, listen to General Spielsdorf’s story and realize the truth about Carmilla as they hunt her down. 
  • Antagonist: Carmilla
  • Point of View: First person 

Extra Credit for Carmilla

Illustrations. When Carmilla was first published as a serial in the literary magazine The Dark Blue, it was accompanied by illustrations by David Henry Friston, who is known for creating the first illustrations for Sherlock Holmes. These illustrations do not appear in modern editions of the book.  

Carmilla in College. Carmilla has inspired many modern adaptations, including a web series of the same name, which is the story of Laura and her college roommate Carmilla. This series, while only loosely adapted from the original, takes the homosexual undertones of the text and brings them front and center, as Laura and Carmilla become romantically involved despite Carmilla’s taste for blood.