By frequently rewriting his short stories and novels, Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu (1814-73) created challenges for his bibliographers, editors, and interpreters. W. J. McCormack and Robert Tracy have traced some of the features and phases of Le Fanu's reworking process, in which, for example, stories from The Purcell Papers (1838-40) were revised, renamed, and reframed for Ghost Stories and Tales of Mystery (1851) and In a Glass Darkly (1872). However, the tangled textual trail left by Le Fanu and a few of his editors has occasionally led even astute explicators astray. (2) In their readings of two of Le Fanu's most acclaimed stories--"Strange Event in the Life of Schalken the Painter"/"Schalken the Painter" (1839; 1851) and Carmilla (1869; 1872)--McCormack and other critics inadvertently reveal how contingencies of textual transmission and editorial interpolation can lead to incorrect interpretations. By taking a rhetorical hermeneutics approach, we can discover what happens when theoretical desire overcomes empirical discretion. (3)
THE MYSTERY OF THE NARRATEE IN CARMILLA
The identity of the narratee in Le Fanu's vampire tale Carmilla has proved to be a hermeneutic puzzle for several scholars. The story, first published in The Dark Blue journal between December 1871 and March 1872, reappeared as the last of the five stories comprising In a Glass Darkly. In Ghost Stories and Tales of Mystery, his earlier anthology of previously published short fiction, Le Fanu had created a unifying device by affixing a biblical epigraph to each story. (4) A similar unifying device for In A Glass Darkly was provided by Dr. Hesselius and the anonymous editor of his papers; both characters appeared in the collection's first story, "Green Tea," which had been previously published in 1869 in Charles Dickens's All the Year Round. Le Fanu created new prefaces, supposedly written by Hesselius's editor, for "The Familiar," "Mr. Justice Harbottle," "The Room in the Dragon Volant," and Carmilla, none of which had possessed these paratexts in their previous incarnations. (5)
In the new prologue to Carmilla, the fictional editor states that Hesselius had "commenced" a "correspondence [ ... ] many years before" with Laura, the narrator of Carmilla, who was a youthful victim of the eponymous vampire and barely survived the ordeal (Le Fanu, Carmilla 243). Describing Laura as "the intelligent lady, who relates [ ... ] the Narrative" and as Hesselius's "clever and careful [ ... ] informant," the editor mentions that "she had died in the interval" between corresponding with Hesselius and theeditor's publication of her account (243). Despite the editor's description of Laura in the paratext as Hesselius's "informant," however, Laura tells her narratee in the main text that "[t]he nearest inhabited village is about seven of your English miles to the left" and that Carmilla's "habits" are "[p]erhaps not so singular in the opinion of a town lady like you, as they appeared to us rustic people" (Carmilla 244 and 265; emphasis mine). Since Hesselius is neither English nor female, it thus appears that he is not the narratee.
McCormack introduces and speculates upon this conundrum as follows:
Sexuality doubles up for religion [in In A Glass Darkly]--but that's hardly rare. What is more curious is that the narrator of Carmilla addresses herself to a woman ("a town lady like you") while we are officially led to believe that Martin Hesselius is her correspondent. At the structural or narrative level this reproduction of transferred gender ("[W]hat if a boyish lover had found his way into the house ... ?" [Le Fanu, Carmilla 265]) echoes the narrated substance of the tale. But whether it echoes by way of confirmation or mockery is less clear. "Boyish" still implies the lover's femaleness even as it insinuates the word "boy." (Dissolute 146)6
We should first note that although the editor states Laura and Hesselius exchanged letters, he does not specifically say that Hesselius was the narratee, the "you," of her narrative. One could infer that Hesselius somehow heard of Laura's narrative in his studies and subsequently contacted her; after all, we are told that "the correspondence" had been "commenced" by him (Carmilla 243). Nonetheless, the editor's words are ambiguous, and one can understand McCormack's puzzlement. His response is to look for evidence of intentional symmetry between form and content and to question whether the authorial tone is literal or ironic. In other words, his response is to theorize, using the kind of literary critical providentialism in which no element of a work is permitted to be accidental; if we try hard enough, we will find--or construct--symmetries ("reproduction," "echoes") that correspond to our other concerns ("transferred gender").(7)
What happens, however, if we empiricize instead of theorize? Occam's Razor suggests a more parsimonious explanation for the mystery: in revising Carmilla, Le Fanu simply overlooked the contradiction (or potential contradiction) between the "town lady" as the explicit narratee of The Dark Blue version of Carmilla and Hesselius as the implicit narratee of the In A Glass Darkly version.
In an endnote in his book-length study of Le Fanu, Victor Sage acknowledges the possibility of an empirical explanation of the narratee mystery (Le Fanu made a mistake) but chooses to pursue the more alluring theoretical one (Le Fanu chose to make his narrative more complex): "This is either a mistake of Le Fanu's, who had intended to frame it [the story] differently, or another (absent) witness in the chain" (Le Fanu's Gothic 223). He confesses that it "is a doubtful point" but is "willing to believe it is the latter, given the elaboration of his [Le Fanu's] framing devices elsewhere" (223).8 In opting for authorial intention rather than authorial inattention, Sage exhibits a critical version of the religious and artistic principle he elsewhere terms "providential irony," which he describes as "[a] doctrine [ ... ] common to almost everyone in the horror tradition, and [ ... ] a major determinant of narrative in the nineteenth-century novel in general" (Horror Fiction 235). For the religious believer in providence, "each historical event, like each breath of wind, is particularly and specially willed by God"; for writers "[i]n the horror tradition," "providential irony" proves "essential, because it forces the reader to take the step from the fragments to the whole, the invisible, proleptic thread that runs through a tissue of apparently aimless documentation" (Horror Fiction 234-35). In a similar manner, for readers like McCormack and Sage, a critical version of "providential irony" becomes "essential" because it allows artistic felicity to be redeemed from inartistic fortuity.
Something equivalent occurs in Gaid Girard's book-length study of Le Fanu: she notes the "town lady" puzzle, concedes that it may arise from authorial error, but providentially incorporates it into her argument nevertheless:
Meme si cette incise peut ne relever que de l'erreur de relecture de la part de Le Fanu, ou du lapsus, elle fait systeme dans un recit dont la structure est une structure de seduction du lecteur, place en position de reception d'un discours du desir qu'il comprend mieux que la narratrice elle-meme, comme nous l'avons vu. Laura cherche-t-elle a seduire ou a averter une correspondante aupres de laquelle elle est peut-etre devenue une autre Carmilla? En tout cas, la dimension feminine et saphique du texte en est renforcee. (370)
Even if this aside only stems from a proofreading error by Le Fanu, or a slip of the pen, it fits within the system of a story whose structure works to seduce the reader, who is positioned to receive a discourse of desire that he understands better than the narrator herself, as we have seen. Is Laura seeking to seduce or to warn a correspondent for whom she has become perhaps another Carmilla? In any case, the feminine and lesbian dimension of the text is reinforced.
For other critics, the "town lady" presents no puzzle, since the desire for theoretical …