I am happy to admit that I’m a total language nerd. I love nineteenth century novels and will gleefully ooze into the pages of my favourite Austin and Bronte novels when I need something comfortable and familiar to read. They are my duvet novels, my go-to emotion soothers, my reset button after particularly testing weeks.
I get lost in the language, the perfection of their sentences, the way they use a dozen words where two or three would have done, without forced verbosity. I love how the use of flamboyant words is commonplace, they speak of serenity, felicity and their offended sensibilities. These stories preserve a long forgotten properness which I find enchanting. I could, and do, read these over and over again.
Imagine my enamour when I discovered a new favourite to add to my go-to list. This week I finished listening to an Audible dramatisation of Carmilla by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu. I was completely entranced. It featured the talents of David Tennant, Phoebe Fox, Rose Leslie (Game of Thrones fans) and and James Wilby. I am mourning the end of the performance like a grieving parent and now slip into loneliness without it on my daily commute.
Le Manu’s gothic novel is described as the original vampire story, being first published in 1872 and pre-dating Bram Stoker’s Dracula by 26yrs. The story is told with appropriate circumspection for the time yet explores what must have been the first depictions of both lesbians and vampires in literature. I like to think that this novel, like many of the period, shows how the Victorians were able to take their somewhat repressed sexuality and channel it into manners and romance.
Whilst this post is not intended to be a book review, I feel a little context is required: Carmilla and Laura are both petite, well-mannered girls, intimate friends by design as opposed to fate. The author uses the expected veneer of ladylike properness to juxtapose a vivid contrast between this image and that of the snarling, circling beast of the nocturnal, vampiric Carmilla. Throughout the novel, Le Fanu’s style is soft, languid and unhurried. He uses language to set the tone of each scene and show Carmilla as a feline predator, toying with her mouse. She repeatedly lulls Laura into trancelike states where her gentle, persuasive advances are unwillingly accepted, using words such as ‘murmured’ and ‘lullaby’ to describe the effects of Carmilla’s presence.
The book is a ghost story at heart but is more a commentary on the effects of the vampire on her object rather than the blood-thirsty counterparts we are used to in modern depictions. It explores the dark romance between Laura and Carmilla and portrays Carmilla as a languid, listless being. Since Laura does not know Carmilla’s intentions, neither does the reader. It’s only towards the end that Laura comes to recognise her dire situation reflected in that of another.
I always doubt I could read a nineteenth century novel aloud. The sentences are so long I would run out of breath before the end of each one, despite the prolific use of semi-colons. I can’t imagine living in that period and having the wherewithal to construct such sentences as spoken by the characters, but I suppose they must have spoken in that manner for it to be portrayed as such. Yet, I love to read it. It pulls me into a world I could easily have been a part of. I adore the manners, the customs and the overall deference of social situations.
Opinion of the author’s style is polarised with some identifying with his beautiful, flowing vocabulary whilst others dismiss the novel as rambling and verbose, but this is what captivates me most. As a story, it was aimed at the Victorian audience of the time, they loved a good ghost story and this ticks all the boxes of an unlikely culprit. Le Fanu could have done more to conclude the dark romantic thread, but one feels this would not have been socially acceptable at the time, nor was it the popular genre.
If you love to get lost in language as I do, I would recommend this short read. The Audible dramatisation is even better. The feeling left when it’s over will stay with you for days after it’s finished, especially if you’re a fan of the ridiculously romantic notions of the Victorian authors.