Jochen Achilles
University of Würzburg, Germany | Published: 17 March, 2024
ISSUE 19 | Pages: 39-56 | PDF | DOAJ |

Creative Commons 4.0 2024 by Jochen Achilles | This text may be archived and redistributed both in electronic form and in hard copy, provided that the author and journal are properly cited and no fee is charged for access.

This essay contends that emotional oscillations between subordination and emancipation are responsible for the inconclusivity and evasiveness of Le Fanu’s plots, which critics often emphasise but rarely try to explain. The parallels between, on the one hand, the dual structures that pervade Le Fanu’s works and, on the other, the binaries of latent dream thoughts and manifest dream content, the familiar and the uncanny, which Sigmund Freud employs in his explorations of the unconscious, shed significant light on the motivational forces at work in Le Fanu’s oeuvre. Le Fanu uses displacement and condensation, the major operations Freud attributes to dream work, to create an outside world, which reveals itself as an upended world within. This essay tries to demonstrate the psychological significance of central motifs in Le Fanu’s works, such as the double and the closed room. In light of later psychoanalytical insights into the influence of childhood traumatisation on the creativity of writers, Le Fanu appears absorbed by the incorporation of his innermost mortifications and yearnings into the defamiliarisations of his fiction. On the basis of Gothic patterns, he produces psychological fiction avant la lettre. He anticipates George Orwell’s dissection of mental processes in terms of manipulative social engineering, H.P. Lovecraft’s fantastic evocations of a Jungian collective unconscious, and literary interiorisation by modernist techniques, developed not long after Le Fanu’s death by the likes of James Joyce and Virginia Woolf.

Este ensayo sostiene que las oscilaciones emocionales entre subordinación y emancipación, típicas de la obra de Le Fanu, conducen hacia un sentido implícito de inconclusión y evasión narrativa en sus relatos. Su obra se nutre de estructuras duales y los binarios latentes en los pensamientos oníricos, así como del contenido manifiesto de los sueños – lo familiar y lo extraño, que Sigmund Freud emplea en sus exploraciones del inconsciente –, que explicarían las fuerzas motivacionales de sus creaciones literarias. El autor utiliza el desplazamiento y la condensación – las principales funciones que Freud atribuye a los sueños – para crear un mundo exterior que se revela como un mundo interior en desequilibrio. El presente ensayo analiza el significado de dos símbolos centrales en Le Fanu: el doble y la habitación cerrada. Basándonos en reflexiones psicoanalíticas sobre la influencia del trauma infantil en la creatividad de los escritores, parecería que Le Fanu, mediante la desfamiliarización, estaría insistentemente incorporando sus traumas y anhelos más íntimos en su ficción. A través de una estética gótica, Le Fanu produjo ficción psicológica avant la lettre. Este autor no solo se adelantó a George Orwell en su descripción de los procesos de manipulación mental producidos socialmente, sino que también produjo un imaginario junguiano en torno al inconsciente colectivo, antes que H.P. Lovecraft lo hiciera. Le Fanu también fue precursor de la introspección literaria presente en diversas estrategias narrativas modernistas, desarrolladas poco después de su fallecimiento, por autores como James Joyce y Virginia Woolf.

estrategias narrativas; categorías freudianas; trauma infantil; liminalidad; inconclusión

Introduction: Le Fanu’s Liminalities

In Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu’ novel The Wyvern Mystery (1869), the negative qualities of his father Henry, “such vices as pride, violence, and hard-heartedness” (Le Fanu 2022: 48), keep Charles Fairfield in emotional bondage to him long into his maturity, as the narrator analyses:

The fears of childhood survive its pleasures. Something of the ghostly terrors of the nursery haunt us through life, and the tyrant of early days maintains a strange and unavowed ascendancy over the imagination, long after his real power to inflict pain or privation has quite come to an end. (Le Fanu 2022: 24)

This notion of an introject, which activates paternal power while it also signals that this power has actually ceased, corresponds to psychoanalyst Theodor Reik’s description of the formation of the superego as a liminal sphere in “The Shock of Thought”, the third part of The Compulsion to Confess: On the Psychoanalysis of Crime and Punishment (1972/1928):

The original identification of the small boy with his father is continued in the emotional incorporation of the father into the ego in the form of the superego. Formation of the superego is an attempt to overcome the fear of the father […] While it establishes the father’s power forever, it also replaces it to some extent, making the effects of his presence superfluous to a certain degree by taking over his sphere of influence. (Reik 1972: 462-63)

Reik argues that the formation of the superego leads to a liminal dynamic “of an emotional ‘le roi est mort, vive le roi’, where the new king is the ego enriched by the superego” (Reik 1972: 466). Le Fanu’s plots similarly meander between respect for, and horror of, paternal authorities by filial characters, who should long have emancipated themselves from such dependencies. But these imaginary reproductions of oedipal constellations can also be understood as only semi-successful and therefore repeated attempts to formulate a declaration of independence from paternal authority. The ambivalences Manuel Aguirre attributes to Gothic fiction in general are also characteristic of Le Fanu’s works:

One way to look at Gothic victims is to say they go through a rite of passage the liminal stage of which threatens to lengthen forever and engulf them: they are lost in the threshold-territory, and become liminal entities caught between contending forces (often arising from within themselves), unable to retreat, advance or escape. (Aguirre 2004: 20)

It is my contention that such emotional oscillations between subordination and emancipation are responsible for the inconclusivity of Fanu’s plots. [1] The historical, political, and religious contexts and implications of Le Fanu’s works, brilliantly dissected by W.J. McCormack, Frances A. Chiu, Jarlath Killeen, and Aoife Dempsey, do not erase the rhetoric of darkness explored by Victor Sage and the vacancy attributed to Le Fanu’s oeuvre by James Walton. Beyond the specific contours of Le Fanu’s works loom multiple ambivalences. In her 2016 essay on the hyphenated state of Irish Protestantism and the settler Gothic dimension of Le Fanu’s fiction, Dempsey states that “the reader is never left with a sense of concrete conclusion. There is a pervading sense of inconclusivity, as though the problems encountered in the story remain to be resolved another day” (Dempsey 2016: 137). A foregrounding of the psychological dimension of Le Fanu’s oeuvre may perhaps shed some light on the mystery of such evasiveness.[2]

Le Fanu’s and Freud’s Binaries – Displacements and Condensations

While other nineteenth-century writers, such as Edgar Allan Poe, Robert Louis Stevenson and Oscar Wilde, also have a penchant for duality, perhaps no one else uses dual structures as systematically as Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu. He employs the stock motifs of Gothic fiction in almost all of his works to generate dual patterns for the expression of buried emotions. Le Fanu’s systematisation of dual structures takes the shape of reduplication, repetition, and fission. It determines temporal and spatial arrangements, characterisation, and plot development. It leads to a nearly magical symmetry in his works and generates uncanniness. It contrasts demonic reality and reality as we know it, as one of two elements of the same kind appears frightful and the other does not. Of two mansions or Big Houses, one has a skeleton in the closet or a madwoman in the attic and the other does not. Alternatively, one and the same place transforms itself accordingly. “Passage in the Secret History of an Irish Countess” (1838) and “A Chapter in the History of a Tyrone Family” (1839) as well as Uncle Silas (1864) and The Wyvern Mystery, the English novels which grew out of these Irish tales, are examples of the juxtaposition of realistic and Gothicised characters as well as environments. “A Strange Adventure in the Life of Miss Laura Mildmay” (1871) and The Cock and Anchor (1845) are examples of the transition of one into the other. On the plane of character delineation, doubles or doppelgänger (the brothers Austin and Silas Ruthyn in Uncle Silas, for example) correspond to the duality of realistic and Gothicised spaces, revenants (Carmilla, for example) to transformed spaces. Puzzling and horrifying combinations of love and hatred result in love plots, which transform themselves into – often repeated – murder attempts in numerous narratives, from “Strange Event in the Life of Schalken the Painter” (1839) and “Carmilla” (1872) to, once again, Uncle Silas and The Wyvern Mystery, as well as the stories these novels are based on. Le Fanu thus creates a dual world, which symbolises both the overt and the covert side of the human soul. The arsenal of Gothic motifs Le Fanu employs is transformed into a medium for the illustration of inner processes.

Like Le Fanu’s fiction, Freud’s theory of the unconscious is based on duality: the relationship between a deep and a surface structure, between the conscious and the unconscious, the civilised world of rationality and the unruly world of instincts, waking and dreaming, familiar and uncanny realities. In Five Lectures on Psycho-Analysis, the printed version of a series of lectures given at Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts, in September 1909, during his one and only visit to the United States, Freud characterises dreams as possessing a dual structure resembling that of Le Fanu’s works. Like Gothic fiction, dreams are marked by distortions, which result from the relationship “between the manifest dream-content, which we remember in the morning only confusedly [. . .] and the latent dream thoughts, whose presence in the unconscious we must assume” (Freud 2013: 25). The manifest dream content both veils and indirectly reveals the latent dream thoughts. The relationship between the latent dream thoughts and their overt representation by the manifest dream content is mediated by what Freud calls “‘dream-work’”, “psychic processes [. . .] between two such separate systems as the conscious and the unconscious. Among these [. . .] psychic processes, two, condensation and displacement or trans-valuation, change of psychic accent, stand out most prominently” (2013: 26; original emphasis ).

Displacement and condensation have been interpreted as forms of selection and combination, the basic processes of Saussurean linguistics. Roman Jakobson’s observation in “Two Aspects of Language and Two Types of Aphasic Disturbances” (1956) that the rhetorical figures of metaphor and metonymy are variants of these structures suggests an interrelation of psychoanalysis, linguistics, and poetics, which leads to both Jacques Lacan’s conception of the unconscious as a language and to David Lodge’s redefinition of modernism in The Modes of Modern Writing: Metaphor, Metonymy, and the Typology of Modern Literature (1977). In Le Fanu’s works displacement and condensation are employed as narrative techniques, which structurally express emotional conflicts. Le Fanu’s writings thus document how art can develop out of strategies of the unconscious, which are at the same time basic structures of language.

In “Five Lectures on Psycho-Analysis”, Freud illustrates his concept of repression by visualising it for his American audience as hypothetically trying to remove from his lecture at Clark University a fictitious troublemaker. Several strong men, he says, “take their chairs to the door and establish themselves there as a ‘resistance’, to keep up the repression. Now, if you transfer both locations to the psyche”, Freud continues, “calling this ‘consciousness’ and the outside the ‘unconscious’, you have a tolerably good illustration of the process of repression” (2013: 17). In this spatial visualisation of an inner process, the anteroom stands for the unconscious, the lecture hall for the conscious and the persona non grata for a tabooed instinctual urge or an idea connected with such an urge.

Once relegated to a corridor in front of Freud’s lecture hall, the troublemaker will not necessarily accept his or her expulsion. Repression is a dynamic process, which needs physical or psychic energy to be sustainable: “in the unconscious the suppressed wish still exists, only waiting for its chance to become active, and finally succeeds in sending into consciousness instead of the repressed idea, a disguised and unrecognisable surrogate-creation, to which the same painful sensations associate themselves” (Freud 2013: 19). It is as if the troublemaker of Freud’s lecture returned in disguise, wearing different clothes, or a face mask, much like the attire and respirator of Le Fanu’s titular “Mysterious Lodger”. From a Freudian vantage point, Le Fanu’s demonic father figures, who sometimes also appear in animal shape, as in “The Watcher” (1847) or “Squire Toby’s Will” (1868), can be considered such “disguised and unrecognizable surrogate creation(s)”, who retain “a remnant of traceable similarity with the originally repressed idea” (Freud 2013: 19), as they remotely or partially resemble the benign father figures, who also populate Le Fanu’s texts.

In his Clark lecture on repression, Freud visualises a psychic process by an actual situation. Le Fanu’s works can also be considered in this light. The factual details of Freud’s simile are obviously derived from the situation in which he used it. If the bourgeois academic flavour of this comparison is replaced by a feudal atmosphere of bloodthirsty unscrupulousness; if instead of an academic lecture hall we envisage a gloomy chamber in a lonely mansion, and if the rebellious student is transformed into a vengeful squire, the basic structure of Le Fanu’s typical plots can be seen to emerge. These mystery plots of concealment and disclosure, in which locked rooms play a vital part, are aesthetic visualisations of the same psychic mechanism Freud tries to illustrate by his simile. Most of Le Fanu’s locked rooms are supplemented by an alcove, passage or dressing room, thus forming the dual arrangement of a closed and an accessible room, which can be understood to represent the interrelation between the conscious and the unconscious. Le Fanu’s locked rooms are either images of a consciousness trying to ward off unruly instincts or they stand for an unconscious restraining such instincts (see Achilles 1994: 156). These dynamics of repression and the return of the repressed are as ongoing as Le Fanu’s fiction is repetitive.

In Gothic fiction the distortions of dream work and the disguise of the unconscious are brought about by the aesthetic generation of uncanny effects, a hallmark of Le Fanu’s works. In his famous essay “The Uncanny” (1919), Freud describes uncanny effects as results of repression and the return of the repressed in defamiliarised shape. Like the distortions of the manifest dream content, the uncanny is a form of anxiety “in which it can be shown that the frightening element is something repressed that now returns” (Freud 2003: 147). If Le Fanu’s fiction can be said to be uncanny in this Freudian understanding, it reproduces once only too well-known, familiar experiences of trauma and desire in un- or barely recognisable fashion. By displacement and condensation, the major operations Freud attributes to dream work, Le Fanu generates dualities, which reproduce the uncanny dynamics of repression and the return of the repressed. He thereby creates an outside world which reveals itself as an upended world within.

The Visualisation of the Invisible – Freud’s Unconscious and Le Fanu’s Closed Rooms

Le Fanu’s fiction uses variants of traditional Gothic motifs to illustrate otherwise intangible emotional dynamics. One such device is the locked room-mystery, a motif with whose invention Le Fanu is credited. It occurs for the first time in “Passage in the Secret History of an Irish Countess” (1838) and thus precedes the locked rooms in Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher” (1839), “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” (1841), “The Black Cat” (1843), and “The Cask of Amontillado” (1846) (see also Dempsey 2022: 88). In some of his tales, Le Fanu adapts the closed room-motif so that it uncovers its psychological significance with regard to the dynamics of repression and the return of the repressed. Characters appear as closed rooms themselves, their secrets hidden in their locked-off, comatose, or paralyzed brains.

In the novel The House by the Church-yard (1863) as well as the stories “The Room in the Dragon Volant” (1872) and “The Mysterious Lodger” (1850), Le Fanu’s interest in the mechanics of mental processes finds expression in related fantastic images. In The House by the Church-yard, Dr. Sturk, a physician in Chapelizod, once witnessed how one Charles Archer murdered a fellow gambler. When he receives a terrible blow on the head, Sturk does not die but goes into a coma for many months. Sturk’s comatose condition keeps information about the villainy confined to his brain. Black Dillon, a both unscrupulous and ingenious Dublin surgeon “with the powers of a demigod, and the lusts of a swine” (Le Fanu 1977b: III, 96), risks a trepanation of Sturk’s skull in order to release the pressure inside. As a result of the operation, Sturk regains consciousness long enough to disclose his tormentor Dangerfield’s true identity before he dies. It is as if this secret surfaced from his unconscious by escaping through the hole in Sturk’s head.[3]

In “The Room in the Dragon Volant” (1872), the English protagonist Richard Beckett is repeatedly paralyzed. His knowledge of a murderous plot against him, which causes his paralysis, remains encapsulated within his brain, only to return from his closed-off psyche after he has been rescued. Beckett imagines that the membrane which surrounds his brain hardened and became impenetrable so that his knowledge of iniquity was held back within (see Le Fanu 1947a: 143-44; 206-219; Walton 2007: 183-84). Archer’s crime remains similarly buried inside the bony walls of Dr. Sturk’s skull. The permeability of the membrane of Beckett’s brain has to be restored and Sturk’s skull has to be penetrated before the walled-off evil instincts and the deeds resulting from them can reach the light of day and become communicable.

The most grotesque confirmation of the psychological function of Le Fanu’s closed rooms can be found in “The Mysterious Lodger” (1850). Mr. Smith, the title character, has turned himself into a closed room on two legs by an imposing array of fashion clothes, including “a sort of white woolen muffler”, “a pair of prominent green goggles”, and a “respirator” (Le Fanu Jan. 1850: 59). On occasions when he leaves his eyes and mouth unprotected, his landlord’s two children are killed. What renders Mr. Smith’s exhalations so dangerous are the atheism and egalitarianism he adheres to (see Le Fanu Jan. 1850: 59-60; Achilles 1994: 157). If the closed rooms of Beckett’s and Sturk’s heads enclose the knowledge of individual greed and brutality, Mr. Smith’s whole person is a reservoir of sceptical and heretical notions. Mr. Smith’s clothing rituals fail as insulating measures since his unorthodox spirit seems to diffuse through his very pores. The House by the Church-yard, “The Room in the Dragon Volant”, and “The Mysterious Lodger” thus provide visualisations of the unconscious as a cage or prison, which retains socially and morally unacceptable impulses, until the repressed can be released.

Secret Histories – Le Fanu’s Demonisation of Parent-Child Relationships

In a variety of stories and novels, Le Fanu probes into the ambivalences of parent-child relationships. Both father and mother figures and their doubles are ambivalently linked with tender care and unfeeling cruelty, respectively. In this context, Le Fanu uses a technique which is familiar from many fairy tales. Instead of presenting an evil mother, considered too frightening for the infant reader or listener, fairy tales often begin in a household where a wicked stepmother holds sway. In The Uses of Enchantment (1976), his famous study of fairy tales, Bruno Bettelheim tells us that this displacement enables children to channel aggressive impulses in such a way that conflicts with real parents can be camouflaged and toned down (see Bettelheim 1991: 66-73, 111-116; Achilles 1994: 158).

In two early tales of the 1830s, both of which were later republished in the collection The Purcell Papers (1880), Le Fanu employs a very similar technique. “Passage in the Secret History of an Irish Countess” and “A Chapter in the History of a Tyrone Family”, as well as Uncle Silas and The Wyvern Mystery, their later novel versions, are both thematically and structurally related (see Dempsey 2022: 37-39, 87-88, 111-112). The numerous duplications and repetitions in these stories as well as the rites of passage of their protagonists, Lady Margaret in “Irish Countess” and Fanny Richardson in “Tyrone Family”, which involve the departure from their respective parental homes to the haunted houses of uncle or husband, only make sense if they are understood symbolically. The striking symmetries of the bipartite structure of both tales suggest that the two parts of each story represent different aspects of the same “disturbance of the primordial family unit” (Dempsey 2022: 90). The callousness of their parents, which both young women understandably play down, recurs in fantastic exaggeration and diabolical proportions in the second part of each story. Le Fanu’s artistic imagination produces what Freud will analyse as the distortions of dream-work and as the uncanny. Her uncle is the uncanny version of Lady Margaret’s father (see Walton 2007: 22 and Dempsey 2022: 87-89). The morose husband and the mad Dutchwoman, who claims to be his wife, are equally uncanny substitutes for Fanny Richardson’s parents. The murder scenes, which in both stories take place in closed rooms, reveal what has hitherto been repressed. They are symbolic translations of Lady Margaret’s and Fanny Richardson’s emotional reactions to the unrelenting severity of their parents. These parents completely ignore the personalities of their children. The demonic surrogate fathers and mothers, who try to destroy Margaret’s and Fanny’s selfhood by literally killing them, express openly the aggression which remains discreetly implied in the respective parents’ behaviour. The Gothicised surrogate parents represent what the daughters feel about their parents but repress.

“Irish Countess”, “Tyrone Family”, and similarly also “Schalken the Painter” displace the evil aspects of the father to a demonic uncle or spectre bridegroom. Both “Irish Countess” and “Tyrone Family” can thus be decoded as externalised dramatisations of adolescent identity crises and traumatisations. They reveal themselves as psychological tales, which indirectly deal with repressed emotions in the parent-child-relationship by displacement and distortion. These stories represent “the theme of domestic terror” (Dempsey 2022: 89) and mark “the erosion of the difference between legitimate and spurious, benign and malevolent patriarchies” (Walton 2007: 60; see also Achilles 1991: 80-92 and 1994: 158-61). Le Fanu’s own scruples may well have been responsible for this cryptic form of his criticism of parental authority.

“Carmilla” (1872), Le Fanu’s most famous story, which may have influenced Bram Stoker’s short fiction and his 1897 novel Dracula (see Dempsey 2022: 114-116), has generated a multiplicity of interpretations (see Chiu 2007: xxiii-xxvi and Dempsey 2022: 104). It has frequently been interpreted in terms of its obvious homoerotic valences (see Costello-Sullivan 2013: xxi; Leal 2007; Saldana 2022) and recently of postcolonial split allegiances in Irish Protestantism (see Killeen 2013; Dempsey 2022: 101-103, 143). This vampire story also lends itself to an interpretation that foregrounds motherhood and childhood trauma (see Killeen 2011; Michelis 2003; Senf 1987). Like “Irish Countess” and “Tyrone Family”, the story is told by an adolescent girl who falls victim to murderous attacks masked as a relationship of love and care. Like Lady Margaret and Fanny Richardson, Laura lives with her father in a picturesque mansion. Her late Styrian mother belongs to the Hungarian Karnstein family whose decayed family seat, surrounded by a ghost village and the also dilapidated family vault, is situated nearby. This architectural dualism can be considered an Austrian variant of the Big-house and Gothic-castle arrangement of “Irish Countess” and “Tyrone Family”.

At the age of six, Laura has a dream, in which a young woman appears to her and soothes her fear of being alone by stroking her. Laura goes to sleep contentedly but reawakens very soon from “a sensation as if two needles ran into my breast very deep at the same moment” (Le Fanu 2013: 7). The young woman responsible for Laura’s contradictory sensations is apparently real enough to leave a warm body mark on Laura’s bed. Sitting like a caring mother at her child’s bedside, the young woman generates an amalgamation of affection and pain, which remains Laura’s decisive childhood experience: “I forget all my life preceding that event, and for some time after it is all obscure also, but the scenes I have just described stand out vivid as the isolated pictures of the phantasmagoria surrounded by darkness” (Le Fanu 2013: 9).

Laura’s life consists of repetitions of this inexplicably enigmatic childhood experience whose impact is so strong that it invalidates everything else. Laura resumes her autobiographical report around the time period when she herself is at the age of the young woman in her childhood vision. As for the young narrators of “Irish Countess” and “Tyrone Family”, this period of adolescence is for Laura not an opportunity to distance herself from the emotional climate of her childhood, but rather its reinforcement and renewal. But, unlike the plots of “Irish Countess” and “Tyrone Family” based on parent-child relationships, “Carmilla” seems to describe the encounter of two adolescents. Laura makes the acquaintance of Carmilla, a young woman of her own age, who quickly becomes her intimate friend, as she shares Laura’s experiences like a double. In the spirit of Le Fanu’s Swedenborgianism, Carmilla claims to have also had a “corresponding vision” (Le Fanu 2013: 24), when she was six or seven years old, in which Laura appeared to her as the young woman she has meanwhile become. Carmilla tells Laura that “‘it is so very strange that you and I should have had, each of the other so vivid a dream, that each should have seen, I you and you me, looking as we do now, when of course we both were mere children’” (Le Fanu 2013: 24).

Jarlath Killeen has pointed out that Carmilla “becomes a hybrid of mother and daughter” (Killeen 2011: 369). She is both the caring and aggressive mother, as well as the ravenous vampire daughter. By the same token, Laura turns from cared-for child into an involuntary mother figure when she begins to feed a vampire without her knowledge and against her will. Both young women are thereby tied to “their infantile desires and needs” (Killeen 2011: 368) in a period when they should not re-enact and revitalise the pre-oedipal situation of an undivided oneness of mother and child, but rather develop individuality by severing these immature ties. Rather than transitioning to adulthood, they uphold the liminalities of an everlasting initiation process, which cements “the pre-Oedipal matrix” and does not lead to independence (Killeen 2011: 375; see 377, 383). As Laura and Carmilla adopt the roles of both mother and daughter in turn, they mirror each other and develop into doubles in whose relationship the childhood mystery of a tenderness that remains inseparable from aggression returns in sexualised form. Laura is aware of this contrariety: “I was conscious of a love growing into adoration, and also of abhorrence. This I know is paradox” (Le Fanu 2013: 29). Exactly “the same faint antipathy that had mingled with my admiration of her” also stirs in Carmilla (Le Fanu 2013: 26).

The reflection of Laura in Carmilla and vice versa gains added complexity, when a family portrait is cleaned and restored in Laura’s and her father’s Styrian mansion. It shows Mircalla Countess Karnstein, a Hungarian relative of Laura’s mother, whose face resembles Carmilla’s as much as the first names of both women anagrammatically resemble each other. Laura and Carmilla obviously share the same maternal bloodline. When, as a consequence, the remnants of the nearby Karnstein mansion are inspected, the journey from Laura’s and her father’s home leads to an uncanny territory of repressed and sealed-off aspects of the past – a movement which under maternal auspices resembles the transitions from a parental to a demonic estate described in “Irish Countess”, “Tyrone Family”, “Schalken the Painter”, Uncle Silas, and The Rose and the Key. Several father figures involved in the disclosure of Carmilla’s true identity also add a paternal dimension to “Carmilla”, which brings this late story even closer to early tales which demonise father-daughter relationships (see Killeen 2011: 377-81; 2013: 101).

The return of the repressed is tied to the rediscovery of the hidden grave of Mircalla Karnstein. When it is opened, Carmilla reveals herself as Mircalla, her undead forebear, who writhes in her grave, breathing and bathed in blood. When a stake is driven through Mircalla’s heart and she is beheaded, Laura’s symptoms of illness slowly subside. After Carmilla alias Mircalla alias Millarca has died, Laura regains her physical health, but remains under the spell of the emotional ambivalence Carmilla represents: “[T]o 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” (Le Fanu 2013: 96).

In the person of Carmilla, both the temporal dimension of ancestral multiplicity and the spatial dimension of the closeness of same-generation young women meet. Carmilla is not only the demonic double of un-demonic Laura, she is also the revenant Mircalla Karnstein. Synchronically, Carmilla is Laura’s projection and externalises her emotional ambivalence. Diachronically, she represents the maternal line of Laura’s family. With regard to Laura Carmilla offers three different identities, that of ancestor, quasi-mother, and lover. She over-determines the emotional ambivalence Laura is both addicted to and suffers from. Carmilla is a non-binary character of extreme diversity: “As a menstruating, adolescent, quasi-mother, suckling child, and vampire, Carmilla is a very complicated figure” (Killeen 2011: 372; see also Veeder 1980: 206, 210-12, 215-16). This multiple emotional attunement has several consequences. It essentially unfolds as inherited familial guilt, as disturbance in the mother-child relationship, and as a lesbian relationship with sadomasochist overtones.

The last-mentioned aspect may be regarded the most avant-gardist because the most tabooed in the period when Le Fanu wrote. If, however, Laura’s childhood dream of caresses which turn into stinging pain is considered the key passage of the story, camouflaged maternal sadism, socially perhaps even less acceptable than lesbian love, emerges as the story’s submerged theme. This topic is also structurally repressed, as the early death of Laura’s mother renders her an off-stage character. Her position remains blank and silent. In more complex ways than the French governess in “Irish Countess” and the blind and insane Flora Van-Kemp in “Tyrone Family”, Carmilla can be seen as a surrogate mother figure, whose position she only unequivocally adopts in the scene of Laura’s childhood dream. In the following narrative, she is generationally displaced in both directions either as a filial character like Laura or as a (fore)mother (see Achilles 1991: 128-39; 1994: 163-64).

If Laura’s love affair with Carmilla is understood as a displaced treatment of her ambivalent feelings for her mother, “Carmilla”, like “Irish Countess“, “Tyrone Family”, and “Schalken the Painter”, emerges as a story about the parent-child relationship. The repetitions in Le Fanu’s texts illustrate the compulsive resurgence of the very psychic symptoms which motivate their production and are their raison d’être. Not only Laura’s repeated failure to understand her relationship with Carmilla but Le Fanu’s literary production on the whole may illustrate the author’s inability to come to grips with the ambivalences that characterise his work and have therefore to be recreated in ever new and never successful attempts at conflict resolution.

In “Carmilla”, the mother child-relationship is both condensed and displaced in singularly multifarious and therefore not easily recognisable ways, as both lovers alternately adopt the subject positions of mother, child, and lover with un-Victorian physicality. In their liminal undecidedness, both Carmilla and Laura oscillate between, on the one hand, the caring and the aggressive mother and, on the other, the submissive and the rebellious child. Against all appearances, “Carmilla” may yet be the most complex of Le Fanu’s tales of uncanny parent-child-relationships.

The Personal as the Impersonal – Cryptic Traces of Childhood

The structures of dissimulation and revelation, which dominate Le Fanu’s works, suggest that the repressed which returns in the Gothicism of his fiction is what he conceals in life, that his creativity is akin to dream-work, as it brings to light in defamiliarised fashion what remains otherwise repressed (see Achilles 1991: 137). As a matter of course, such a psychoanalytic reading of Le Fanu’s oeuvre does not equate with the psychoanalysis of its author. The structural parallels between the aesthetic composition of Le Fanu’s stories and novels on the one hand, and Freud’s theories about intrapsychic processes on the other, open up a space of correlations whose contours do not yield unequivocal causal relationships. Le Fanu could not read Freud, who began writing after Le Fanu’s death in 1873. And Freud did not read Le Fanu. But both their works contribute to mapping out the soulscape of Victorianism in overlapping ways. Robert Lee Wolff, an expert on nineteenth-century fiction, tries to capture the anticipation of Freud’s insights by writers who were born a generation prior to Freud:

Unaware that Freud would supply future students with a new set of keys to the interpretation of character and motivation, they [. . .] often recorded their dreams and their symptoms in a way that has become all but impossible for their descendants. Under most circumstances only his psychoanalyst can know about a twentieth-century man the things the Victorians sometimes unwittingly told us about themselves. And their fiction [. . .] swarms with clues to character. (Wolff 1971: 71; cited in Achilles 1991: 24-25)

In some of Le Fanu’s fictions his indirection and discreetness in establishing and at the same time subverting atmospheric associations between the families who populate his works and his own background encourage speculations about subterranean interrelations. The Wyvern Mystery reveals paternal oppression and filial submission as a transgenerational psycho-social system (see Achilles 1991: 247-251). In both Uncle Silas and The Wyvern Mystery adolescents are committed to surrogate parental characters of dubious repute. In Uncle Silas Austin Ruthyn entrusts his brother Silas with the education of his daughter Maud, in The Wyvern Mystery Harry Fairfield leaves his nephew Henry, whose rightful claim to inherit Wyvern he wants to boycott and obliterate, in the hands of his confidant, a former Sergeant-Major named Archdale. The effect is similar in both cases – a delegation of aggression and cruelty.

Archdale’s impeccable composure and respectability camouflage his emotional insensitivity and the sadistic rigour he displays with regard to the three children in his home. As Harry Fairfield’s underling is more difficult to recognise as a cruel father figure than Le Fanu’s more frequent demonic uncles or hoary husbands, unjustifiable aggression against children can express itself more openly in his behaviour (see Le Fanu 2022: chapts. 62, 63). When Archdale abducts him, he canes little Henry repeatedly, causing “three great black weals across the slender fingers of each hand” (Le Fanu 2022: 296; see 293). Archdale equally brutally intervenes in his moribund only daughter’s love for a farm boy, whom he ruins. The combination of his “inflexibly serene face” (Le Fanu 2022: 293) and ruthless conduct turns Archdale into an uncanny character. The narrator goes out of his way to expose his furtive malignity: “No one ever heard Mr. Archdale use a violent expression, or utter a curse. He was a silent, cold, orderly person, and I think the most cruel man I ever saw in my life” (Le Fanu 2022: 300).

The ex-Sergeant-Major engages in a hobby which is unusual for a military man. Before the regular Bible readings and prayers, which end his days as pater familias, he devotes himself to building organs – a craft whose affectively charged delicacy jars with his callous coarseness. But in the organ workshop, Archdale also regularly and mercilessly beats Tony, the frightened workhouse orphan he employs as assistant and servant (Le Fanu 2022: 299). The chain of associations provoked, when the notions of “military man”, “organ”, and “garrison church” are strung together, brings to mind the clerical world of Le Fanu’s own family in Phoenix Park where his father Thomas was chaplain of the Royal Hibernian Military School (see McCormack 1980: 4-5, 9-36). Archdale is a soldier with a penchant for a musical instrument used in churches; Le Fanu’s father was a clergyman in a military installation. Association comes about in the shape of an assembly and disentanglement puzzle or the rebuses Freud describes as dream-work.

The Rose and the Key (1871) can, not only on account of its title, similarly be read as a roman à clef (see Achilles 1991: 255-259; Chiu 2007: xxvi-xliii and 2012: 173; Walton 2007: 149-66). As in The Wyvern Mystery religious associations play a submerged but important role. Lady Barbara Vernon, mistress of the huge country seat Roydon Hall, devotes her life to religious activities and charities. With regard to her adolescent daughter Maud, one of the wealthiest heiresses in England, she exercises a severity reminiscent of Austin Ruthyn in Uncle Silas. Similar to Austin she sends her daughter to a neighbouring country seat. When Maud Vernon accepts Lady Mardyke’s invitation to Carsbrook, her mother has her travel to Glarewoods instead, a mental institution owned by the cleric Dr Damian and operated by Dr Antomarchi, a sinister medical practitioner and mesmerist. As Lady Vernon’s piety only gradually reveals her cruelty, the estate Maud believes to be the serene Carsbrook only very gradually reveals itself as bleak Glarewoods (see Walton 2007: 152). As Silas’s Bartram-Haugh is a demonically displaced version of his brother Austin’s Knowl, Glarewoods appears as a demonically displaced version of both Roydon Hall and Carsbrook.

Maud’s liberation from Antomarchi’s brutal therapeutic measures in the torture chambers of Glarewoods goes hand in hand with the disclosure of Barbara Vernon’s secret, her repressed prehistory. Lady Vernon’s seemingly inexplicable cruelty towards her daughter has to do with the fact that Maud is the daughter from her second marriage to Sir Amyrald Vernon, whom Lady Vernon thoroughly hated, as he compelled her to marry him. Otherwise, he would have disclosed the secret of her first marriage to a clergyman, the late Reverend Howard, whom she loved as passionately as she still loves Captain Vivian, the son they had together. She sends her daughter to Glarewoods instead of Carsbrook in order to be able to bequeath her wealth to Captain Vivian, the son from her previous marriage. Like her namesake in Uncle Silas, Maud almost becomes the victim of an inheritance plot.

These familial and dynastic complications make the reader forget what Barbara Vernon tried to repress all her life, namely, that she once was the wife of a clergyman, like Le Fanu’s own mother. Sending her daughter to Glarewoods, owned by the clergyman Damian, she exposes her to an environment with theological associations, occupied by an enlightened but despotic therapist or educator. As severe as Lady Vernon, Damian resembles Austin and the many other all-too strict father figures in Le Fanu’s oeuvre, while Antomarchi shares Silas’s eccentricity. Damian may be a disciplinarian, but he ostracises the demon Antomarchi and thus saves both Glarewoods and Maud. Discharging Antomarchi, setting Maud free, and retransforming Glarewoods from a torture prison into a place of refuge, Damian turns into a redeemer. Liberated from the evil representative of a destructive scientific worldview, the haunted mansion turned asylum reverts to the atmosphere of Damian’s own devout respectability and thus comes to resemble the clerical household Lady Vernon once established but tries to erase from memory.

Youthful Maud’s initiation experience consists in the revelation of irredeemable liminality. The decorous respectability of home is not to be trusted, as it can unforeseeably merge into pathological coercion. Parental goodness and malevolence are displaced in the constellation of pious Damian and sadistic Antomarchi, while Lady Vernon condenses good and bad qualities. She is both Maud’s hateful mother and Captain Vivian’s loving mother. Le Fanu does not dissociate himself from the ambivalences built into his parent-child relationships. Ex-Sergeant-Major Archdale’s organ building in The Wyvern Mystery and the asylum associated with a parsonage in The Rose and the Key, as well as the numerous clerical and monastic allusions in both novels, suggest roots in Le Fanu’s own life.

Conclusion: Le Fanu’s Writing – A Cure?

The Freudian approach can be tentatively extended beyond the aesthetic structures of Le Fanu’s fiction to the genesis and motivation of his artistic impulses. In “Creative Writers and Day-Dreaming” (1908), Freud concerns himself with the nature of artistic creation, which, like day-dreaming in general, “is a continuation of, and a substitute for, what was once the play of childhood” (Freud 1995: 12). Freud considers artistic creation a form of coming to terms with childhood memories in a tripartite process of mediating past, present, and future:

A strong experience in the present awakens in the creative writer a memory of an earlier experience (usually belonging to his childhood) from which there now proceeds a wish which finds its fulfilment in the creative work. The work itself exhibits elements of the recent provoking occasion as well as of the old memory. (1995: 11; see 7-8)

Freud claims that this is even true of popular fiction, based on “the refashioning of ready-made and familiar material” (Freud 1995: 12). This fits Le Fanu’s works, which employ the arsenal of Gothic motifs, from the haunted castle to the damsel in distress and the vampire, for the expression of repressed emotions. In Freud’s view such aesthetic distortions and defamiliarisations may serve to disguise their essentially personal and intimate core: “The writer softens the character of his egoistic daydreams by altering and disguising it, and he bribes us by the purely formal – that is, aesthetic – yield of pleasure which he offers us in the presentation of his phantasies” (Freud 1995: 13).[4]

Freud’s followers deepen and expand his insights into the interrelations of childhood, dream-work, and artistic creativity. Like their master, they tend to prioritise the development of the male child. Theodor Reik, a Viennese psychoanalyst, whose doctoral thesis on Gustave Flaubert, published in 1912, is considered the first psychoanalytical study of literature, discusses fright, an emotion almost all of Le Fanu’s texts focus on, in terms which render it a substructure of Freud’s description of day-dreams and creative activity. As the day-dream is an actualisation of a childhood memory, fright also appears as a revitalisation of childhood emotions: “it is as if (I emphasize, as if), suddenly, in an unexpected manner, something we once dreaded and then disclaimed and banned from our thoughts became real. The dark disaster, which we unconsciously expected, is suddenly at hand” (Reik 1972: 371). According to Reik’s model, the present reality, which motivates an author’s fiction, recalls an original traumatisation, repeats it in diversified and distorted shape, and thereby reactivates it without revealing it. Fright, triggered by a relatively harmless actual situation, throws us back on the atmosphere of childhood, which it recalls. Behind the present situation is “the regression to early anxiety released by this factor” (Reik 1972: 375). From Reik’s perspective, the horrors the adolescents in Le Fanu’s works experience at the hands of parental characters may be illustrations of either traumatic childhood fantasies or experiences. In this light, Le Fanu’s Gothic may be considered a secondary phenomenon, the defamiliarisation of primary childhood trauma, which is at the same time emotionally evoked and aesthetically veiled.

Le Fanu’s narrative ambivalences correspond to Reik’s description of the superego as a liminal sphere, which, on the one hand, perpetuates and consolidates paternal influence by preserving a parental presence beyond the father’s death and, on the other, defeats and overcomes the father by incorporation, as it empowers the ego by his introjection (see Reik 1972: 462-63). From this angle, Le Fanu’s works are creative writing in the service of the superego and at the same time represent the attempt to reduce or abolish its might. The oscillation between the disempowerment and resurgence of parental authorities in Le Fanu’s initiation plots, which James Walton describes as the centrality of “the undead Father” (1), plays out the liminalities, which Reik analyses as formative for the development of both the parent-child relationship and the individual psyche.

Leonard Shengold’s Soul Murder: The Effects of Childhood Abuse and Deprivation (1989) sheds light on what he calls the “too-muchness we call trauma. [. . .] Child abuse means that the child has felt too much to bear” (Shengold 1989: 1). Too much aggression or eroticisation in relationships with children can result in a “sado-masochistic mixture of unbearable affect” (Shengold 1989: 1), as Le Fanu describes it in “Carmilla”. Frequently, in “Schalken the Painter” for example, Le Fanu illustrates unexplained alternations of callousness and the overflow of powerful feelings, which Shengold diagnoses as soul murder, “instances of repetitive and chronic overstimulation, alternating with emotional deprivation, that are deliberately brought about by another individual” (Shengold 1989: 16-17).

Shengold tries to establish correspondences between works by George Orwell, Anton Chekhov, and Rudyard Kipling and the childhood of their authors. Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, for example, is described as “a primer on soul murder” (Shengold 1989: 69). Shengold tries to link the rigid disciplinary measures Eric Blair was exposed to as a child at home and in public school as well as his resulting feelings of isolation and loneliness to the brainwashing of Winston Smith, the protagonist of 1984, and his opposition to, as well as final identification with, Big Brother:

When one parent can tyrannize, the need for a loving and rescuing authority is so intense that the child must break with the registration of what he or she has suffered, and establish within the mind (delusionally) the existence of a loving parent who will care and who really must be right. Like the broken Winston Smith at the end of 1984, the child loves Big Brother. (Shengold 1989: 73; see 69, 72-75)

Winston Smith’s growing isolation in Nineteen Eighty-Four resembles the loneliness of the many maltreated adolescents in Le Fanu’s fiction, who are exposed to evil parental authorities. By the equally large number of demonic and understanding parental characters in his fiction Le Fanu immerses them in an opacity not so different from Winston Smith’s emotional ambivalences. Uncle Silas may well be Maud Ruthyn’s Big Brother. Shengold analyses the doublethink in Nineteen Eighty-Four, a systematic numbing of memories and a mindset of permanent liminality, which allows one

to hold simultaneously two opinions which cancelled out, knowing them to be contradictory and believing in both of them, [. . .] to forget whatever it was necessary to forget, then to draw it back into the memory again at the moment when it was needed, and then promptly to forget it again. (Orwell 1983: 35)

According to Shengold Orwell’s doublethink resembles “autohypnosis so often used by victims of soul murder to effect nonregistration and denial” (Shengold 1989: 76). Maud Ruthyn’s attitude to her uncle Silas comes close to this mindset. While Le Fanu’s own self-isolation as the Invisible Prince of Merrion Square remains largely unexplained (see Dempsey 2022: 141-42), Shengold tries to analyse Orwell’s similar tendencies: “The strength and pervasiveness of his isolative defenses do resemble what is found in those who have to ward off the overstimulation and rage that are the results of child abuse” (Shengold 1989: 83).

With regard to Rudyard Kipling’s relationship to his mother, Shengold points out that “the lack of empathy for the child [. . .] seems to have been so prevalent in Victorian times [. . .] and was frequently passed down from one generation to the next as part of a compulsion to repeat the past, sowing misery even in the homes of the wealthy and privileged” (240). The psychological problems Le Fanu indicates by his Gothicism may come close to having been Victorian normalcy. Shengold also makes clear that traumatic childhood experiences are not necessarily the result of glaringly pathological relationships: “a touch of soul murder can be an everyday affair” (23). Trauma can even stimulate creativity: “The literary and clinical presentations support the surprising finding that the damaging traumata can also contribute to the strengths and talents of the suffering victim” (Shengold 1989: 13).[5]

Theorists of psychoanalysis keep debating the question whether the childhood memories of patients in dreams and statements refer to their oedipal fantasies or to actual childhood experiences.[6] With regard to Le Fanu and his oeuvre such questions are unanswerable. The contours of Le Fanu’s life have been described but its emotional core remains largely in the dark. Even W.J. McCormack’s 1980 biography, still the most detailed study of interrelations between Le Fanu’s life, time, and fiction, admits not without resignation: “The surviving correspondence, which provides a mass of minor details of Le Fanu’s life, unfortunately falls into clearly defined periods which leave much of his life unrecorded” (1980: vii). While Freudian insights may shed light on the processes of his aesthetic creativity, Le Fanu himself refrains from opening himself to the analysis of his psyche.

The urgency with which patterns of repression and the return of the repressed recur in Le Fanu’s fifteen novels and numerous short stories are remarkable, nevertheless. His whole oeuvre can be described in terms of variations of the same basic structures, systematically employing well-worn motifs of Gothic and popular fiction in the service of the indirect delineation of psychological deep structures. The way in which Le Fanu is absorbed by the incorporation of his innermost mortifications and yearnings into the defamiliarisations of his fiction as the only form of their expression renders his works unique. On the basis of Gothic patterns, Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu produces psychological fiction avant la lettre. He anticipates not only George Orwell’s dissection of mental processes in terms of manipulative social engineering, but also H.P. Lovecraft’s fantastic evocations of a Jungian collective unconscious, which “waits and dreams in the deep” (Lovecraft 1999: 169) until it returns from repression and rules over a post-human world. Finally, Le Fanu is the forerunner of literary interiorisation by modernist techniques, developed not long after his death by the likes of James Joyce and Virginia Woolf.


[1] The present essay is a revised and substantially expanded version of my oral contribution to the 2022 Le Fanu Video Symposium organised by Sean O’Rourke, see

[2] In nineteenth-century political discourse, Chiu analyses the metaphorisation of Ireland as damsel in distress and Cinderella in opposition to England as vampire. Against this background she lays bare a submerged, perhaps un- or semi-conscious political allegorisation in Le Fanu’s oeuvre, notably in Uncle Silas, “Carmilla”, and The Rose and the Key (Chiu 2007). Both Killeen in “An Irish Carmilla?” and Dempsey in her 2016 article and her 2022 book pursue a historical contextualisation of Le Fanu’s works, which positions them between “the colonizer and the colonized” within a highly ambivalent Anglo-Irish tradition (Dempsey 2016: 118; see also 2022: 143). On the plane of historical conflicts, political allegiances, and metaphysical uncertainties, this approach leads to the disclosure of liminalities, which resemble the ones I try to unravel from a psychological perspective. Killeen states that hesitancy “is clearly important, not least because Le Fanu was an Irish Protestant, an enclave dedicated to perpetual hesitation, vacillating between Ireland and England, unionism and nationalism, rationalism and the occult, and attracted to both sides of the critical binary” (Killeen 2013: 106). If the conflicts of English and Irish, coloniser and colonised positions are replaced by those of parent-child relationships, the results converge in a diagnosis of irresolvable transitionality: “Just as the colonial settler is situated in perpetual liminality, infinitely transgressing between a set of mutually exclusive identities, [. . .] the Irish Protestant in the nineteenth century faced a crisis of origin. [. . .] To be Anglo (meaning English rather than Anglican), and Irish was at once to be both and neither” (Dempsey 2016: 123). Like Victor Turner’s initiands, Le Fanu’s characters “are at once no longer classified and not yet classified” (Turner 1967: 96) both from a historical and a psychological vantage point. In Byung-Chul Han’s essay “The Hyphenization of Culture”, Le Fanu’s inability or unwillingness to take sides interestingly appears as the requisite form of orientation in contemporary hyperculture.

[3] For an extensive evaluation of The House by the Church-yard, see Dempsey 2022: 74-82. In this context, Dempsey finds Freud’s notion of the uncanny “a useful concept to unpack what makes Le Fanu’s destabilisation of the home so disturbing to the reader” (Dempsey 2022: 76).

[4] For a critical assessment of both the assets and limitations of Freud’s theory of creative writing, see Infante (1995) and Trosman (1995). For perspectives of extending and updating Freud’s thoughts on fantasising, see Emde (1995) and Lemlij (1995).

[5] Shengold tries to explore why neurotic predispositions sometimes lead to delusion but, in very rare instances as in Chekhov’s case, also to inimitable creativity. In “some still unanalyzable way Chekhov can transcend and transform his neurosis – at least in his art” (Shengold 1989: 230; see also Segal 1986). In Le Fanu’s case the transformation of psychic crises into artistic greatness also remains a mystery. It warrants the efforts of literary criticism and scholarship rather than psychoanalysis, however.

[6] Freud initially assumed that his patients reported actual scenes of child seduction and abuse and developed what is called the seduction or trauma theory. He later also assigned a significant role to instinctual conflicts and unconscious fantasies, which led to the theory of the Oedipus complex. Jean Laplanche and Alice Miller are proponents of the seduction theory (see Davis 2004: 224, Laplanche 1989 and 1999; Miller 1998: 120-22, 134). Like Freud himself, Shengold holds a middle ground and pays tribute to both interpretations of childhood experiences. He points out that the distinction of memories from fantasies proves problematic in retrospect. Child abuse happens but not every such childhood fantasy originates in actual molestation (Shengold 1989: 15, 36-38, 309).

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| Received: 30-11-2022 | Last Version: 06-11-2023 | Articles, Issue 19