As I mentioned in a previous article, horror is the perfect place to find a secret subtext. In some parts of human history, it became unfortunately necessary for the subject of homosexuality to remain hidden in the world of literature and film. The UK 1533 Buggery Act made sodomy punishable by death. In 1861, this was changed to life imprisonment rather than hanging. However, in 1885 the laws were extended to include all sexual activities between males (Queen Victoria did not believe there was such a thing as lesbians!). It was in this very dark era that “the love that dare not speak its name” had to find other ways to communicate itself. Gay and bi-sexual writers were able to give expression to the subject of homoerotic desires using the medium of Gothic literature. In fact, many of the early Gothic romance writers were linked to homosexual scandal. “Secret and unlawful desires” became euphemisms for homosexuality. Three such tales, where one may find allusions to homosexuality, are Carmilla (1872) by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu, The Strange Case of Doctor Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886) by Robert Louis Stevenson and The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890) by Oscar Wilde. A few years later in 1935, with the advent of film, the gay theme can be found in a couple of horror films such as Werewolf of London (1935) and Dracula’s Daughter (1936).
Carmilla is the story of a young woman’s susceptibility to the attentions of a female vampire called Carmilla. The young woman, Laura, whilst living in a castle in Styria, has a vision of a beautiful woman when she is six years old. She claims later in the story to have been bitten on the chest by the visitor, although no wounds are visible. Perhaps this signifies an initial pang of attraction. Twelve years later, Laura finally meets Carmilla face to face, when Carmilla’s carriage is involved in an accident. The two women recognise each other from the dream.
Carmilla and Laura start to become close friends, although Carmilla has very sudden mood swings, and makes unsettling advances towards Laura. Of course, Carmilla exhibits vampiric tendencies, such as sleeping during the day, being awake at night and becoming enraged at hearing religious songs. Furthermore, Laura sees a portrait of an ancestor from the 17th century: Mircalla, Countess Karnstein, who looks identical to Carmilla. Laura begins to have nightmares of being bitten on the chest by a fiendish cat, which transforms into a female figure. It would seem Laura’s feelings are being disturbed by an aggressive sexual predator.
Laura becomes very ill following these nightly visitations. Her father is told by a friend that his own, recently deceased, daughter had similar symptoms and goes on to describe the situation which involved a young woman named Millarca, who became friends with his daughter. He came to the conclusion that his daughter was being visited by a vampire, and upon a surprise attack the ‘cat-like creature’ took the form of Millarca and fled.
It all unravels that Carmilla, Mircalla and Millarca are one in the same person. All are anagrams of the same name. Of course, it is clear that lesbian attraction is the force between Carmilla and Laura:
Sometimes after an hour of apathy, my strange and beautiful companion would take my hand and hold it with a fond pressure, renewed again and again; blushing softly, gazing in my face with languid and burning eyes, and breathing so fast that her dress rose and fell with the tumultuous respiration. It was like the ardour of a lover; it embarrassed me; it was hateful and yet overpowering; and with gloating eyes she drew me to her, and her hot lips travelled along my cheek in kisses; and she would whisper, almost in sobs, “You are mine, you shall be mine, and you and I are one for ever”. (Carmilla, Chapter 4). (1)
Carmilla confined her attentions to female victims, was more comfortable at night-time, was very beautiful, able to walk through walls, could shape-shift into a cat and slept in a coffin. She was, most definitely, a lesbian vampire! A few films have been made in her honour. Some attempt to keep to the original story, but you may remember Carmilla making an appearance as the antagonist in Lesbian Vampire Killers (2009), starring James Corden and Paul McGann.
I had never thought of The Strange Tale of Doctor Jekyll and Mr Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson, as being homoerotic. Up until now, as one of my all-time favourite stories, I had viewed it as a tale of the classic ‘beast’ or monster within. What that monster was, I had put down to some sort of message about insanity and split personalities. However, it is thought that one reading can be interpreted as that of a queer tale, so let’s look at the evidence for homoeroticism within the story. It is said to be a story of disguise – and not only in the form of Jekyll and Hyde: ‘a Gothic tale is disguised as a moral fable; the moral fable is disguised as a monster story’ (1). It might be safe to assume, therefore, that there is much more going on beneath the surface than the initial reading of it might suggest – I’d expect nothing less from such a stylish writer as RLS.
Thanks to a potion invented by Dr Jekyll, he is able to lead a double life in the form of his alter ego, Mr Hyde (obviously the name ‘Hyde’ is the same in sound to the word ‘hide’, which is exactly what both Jekyll and Hyde are doing, depending on who is visible. Hiding. As for Jekyll, well…the only word I can think of is ‘jackal’ and it wouldn’t surprise me if this was indeed the intended meaning. In Egyptian mythology, the jackal-headed Anubis, is the god of the Underworld, protector and judge of the dead. Ultimately, I suppose, Jekyll is a doctor who leads himself to death, but is he also judging himself as well?
The story is commonly thought to be a tale on the horrors of the unleashed sexual appetite, and here is my initial mistake. Having only seen the film, I assumed that the sexual debauchery Hyde demonstrated were towards women. In fact, in the original text there are no female characters, apart from a cook and a housemaid – both peripheral to the story. However, Stevenson himself rejected the notion that Hyde was about sexuality of any kind, maintaining that the only reason people would read it that way is because they can think of nothing else! A trap we should be careful of when reading Gothic fantasy… Nevertheless, some people do believe that Hyde is a closet homosexual and RLS does include some suspicious markers of homoeroticism within the story:
The suspected blackmail of Jekyll by his “young man”, his “favourite”; the “very pretty manner of politeness of Sir Danvers Carew” when approached in the street – terms that may have denoted forbidden liaisons to a Victorian readership. The hidden door by which he enters Jekyll’s house is the “back way”, even “the back passage”. It happens that the year of composition, 1885, was the year in which an amendment to an act of parliament made homosexual acts between men a criminal offence.(3)
On closer examination it looks like there is much more to discover within the pages of the story, and I think it might be worth returning to this subject in full once I’ve had the chance to read the original text thoroughly. It would seem there are several possible interpretations, and I wonder if this in itself was deliberate. Quite often a writer has more than one message he/she wishes to convey.
Most people know of Oscar Wilde and the circumstances which led to his imprisonment, after being convicted of homosexuality. He spent two years in prison for the sake of the “love that dare not speak its name”, famously quoted in Wilde with Stephen Fry playing the lead role. Fry gave a very beautiful and moving speech on being brought to trial for daring to love a man. He explains that in ancient Greek times it was perfectly natural, and the purest of relationships, for a teacher and his student to share a bond.
It has been suggested that the name Dorian, the protagonist in The Picture of Dorian Gray, is a reference to the ancient Greeks, who had a very different and more accepting view of homoeroticism. Both Lord Henry and Basil compete for Dorian’s attention, praising him for his good looks and youthfulness. Basil even states: “as long as I live, the personality of Dorian Gray will dominate me.” Nevertheless, Dorian does claim to have only ever loved one woman in his lifetime: Sibyl Vane. It could be that Dorian, like Wilde himself, was actually bisexually inclined. The fact that he is as attracted to her when she is dressed up as a man, as he is when she is dressed as a woman might point to that. Wilde was very happy and in love with his own wife for the first few years of their married life. Although I do wonder if the use of the word Sibyl is another nod to the Greeks and their prophetess, the Sibyl, the priestess seer who pronounced her oracles in ancient holy places like Delphi. (In Finding Delphi the Sibyl plays an important part in the story). Either way, it would seem the attraction Dorian feels for Sibyl is as a result of her ability to be all things, and as an actress she is well-placed to “mask life”.
Although it remains obscure, Basil asks why Dorian’s “friendship is so fatal to young men” and mentions the “shame and sorrow” of one of the young men’s fathers. Basil also tells Henry how he worships Dorian, begging him not to “take away the one person that makes my life absolutely lovely to me.” In the 1890 edition, Basil is more focused on the love he feels; whereas in the 1891 edition the following year, this has been changed to reflect the influence Dorian has on his art: “the one person who gives my art whatever charm it may possess: my life as an artist depends on him.” (4, 5, 6, 7).
Like Dr Jekyll, Dorian has another side to himself, his hidden sexual menace, which lives in the portrait of himself he keeps locked away. About the secrecy of his portrait, Dorian says: “I have grown to love secrecy. It seems to be the one thing that can make modern life mysterious or marvellous.” In both stories, the protagonists enjoy the pleasures of leading a double life, whilst in Carmilla, the vampire is known as having three different names and with the ability to disguise herself in the form of a cat. Although these are necessarily inexplicit about the subject of homosexuality, in the Victorian era when these stories were written, it is of much use to the interested reader to read them bearing in mind the zeitgeist of 19th century Britain. To those who don’t see (or wish to see) the homosexual content in these stories, I’m sure you’ll find another interpretation and there is certainly much more to discover.
In the meantime, it is only by studying those dark times that we begin to see the horror of equating any kind of love with evil and ugliness. No character who hides away their repressed natural emotions ever meets a happy end.
Until next week, be true to yourself and love with pride. Your Fag Hag friend, A.D.
(1) Le Fanu, J S (1872) Carmilla in “In a Glass Darkly” (Kindle edition).
(2) Halberstam, J (2000) Gothic Surface, Gothic Depth: The subject of Secrecy in Stevenson and Wilde in Skin Shows: Gothic Horror and The Technology of Monsters Duke Uni Press: USA.
(3) Campbell, J The Beast Within in The Guardian (13th December 2008)
(4) The Picture of Dorian Gray Book Notes: http://www.bookrags.com/notes/dg/
(5) Literature (TPODG): http://www.sparknotes.com/lit/index_p.html
(6) TPODG: http://www.novelguide.com/ThePictureofDorianGray/index.html
(7) TPODG: http://www.gradesaver.com/the-picture-of-dorian-gray/study-guide/short-summary/