Academic journal article Papers on Language & Literature

Theory, Empiricism, and "Providential Hermeneutics": Reading and Misreading Sheridan le Fanu's Carmilla and "Schalken the Painter"

Academic journal article Papers on Language & Literature

Theory, Empiricism, and "Providential Hermeneutics": Reading and Misreading Sheridan le Fanu's Carmilla and "Schalken the Painter"

Article excerpt

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 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. …

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