In 1836, French author Théophile Gautier published a short story titled “Le Morte Amoreuse” in Le Chronique de Paris. While the title translates into English as “The Dead in Love,” it was published in English as “Clarimonde” after its primary female character.
The work was likely influenced by the popularity of Polidori’s The Vampyre (1819), the first vampire story in England, which was soon translated into French and became more popular through stage productions. Gautier no doubt was influenced by Polidori’s work, but Gautier’s story was also translated into English and likely influenced the vampire novels that succeeded it. One reason “Clarimonde” stand out is it was the first prose work about a female vampire. (Previously, female vampires appeared in English poetry, notably Coleridge’s “Christabel” (1816)—although Coleridge never finished the poem so it is unknown whether he truly considered the character of Geraldine to be a vampire—and Keats’ “Lamia” (1820). However, Clarimonde is a far more detailed work than either poem, and it clearly points toward later works like J. S. LeFanu’s Carmilla (1872) and Stoker’s Dracula (1897), which it must have influenced directly or indirectly.
But “Clarimonde” deserves recognition for far more than just what it influenced. In fact, it is a work far ahead of its time for its use of Gothic themes and its psychological innovation.
The story begins when a young priest, Romuald, is about to be ordained. At his ordination, he sees the beautiful Clarimonde and is immediately smitten with her. He develops strong erotic desires for her that threaten to make him reject becoming a priest. He also hears a voice promising him love that will be greater than anything he could experience in Paradise. Despite the temptation, Romuald finishes the ceremony. Afterwards, he receives a letter with just Clarimonde’s name upon it.
Romuald is soon after stationed at a parish in the country where he feels trapped as a priest. One night, a man comes to him saying that a woman is dying and wishes to see a priest. The woman turns out to be Clarimonde, but she is already dead when Romuald arrives. Unable to restrain himself, he leans over and kisses her, and he is surprised when she returns the kiss. For a brief moment, she seems to return to life and tells him they will be reunited. Romuald then faints as he sees the breath leave Clarimonde’s body.
Days later, Romuald awakes, thinking he has dreamt the experience, but then Clarimonde appears to him. This time, she does not look dead but alive, and she convinces him to go on a journey with her. They travel to Venice where they live together. At times, Romuald wakes and realizes he is dreaming, but soon the dreams begin to feel more real to him than his real life, and sometimes, he feels like he is a grandee who is having nightmares about a life as a priest.
Eventually, Clarimonde becomes ill and Romuald fears for her life. One day, however, he accidentally cuts his finger and Clarimonde sucks the blood from it, restoring her to health. Romuald now realizes she is a vampire, but in his dream state, he is unable to resist her.
Meanwhile, in the real world, the Abbe Serapion warns Romuald that his desires for Clarimonde are born of sin and that the devil is trying to lead him astray. To prove to Romuald the truth, Serapion takes him to Clarimonde’s tomb where they find a spot of blood at the corner of her mouth. Calling her a demon, Serapion sprinkles holy water on her corpse. She then crumbles to dust.
That night, Clarimonde appears to Romuald in a dream for the last time, admonishing him for how he has treated her and asking him what harm she truly did him.
The story concludes with Romuald regretting Clarimonde’s loss, although he knows that her destruction has saved his soul. He then warns his reader never to look at a woman because even just one glance can cause one to lose his soul.
While “Clarimonde” is not a long story, it contains several points worth noting that seem like harbingers of later Gothic works.
For me, the story’s most remarkable aspect is the extent to which Romuald enters into a dream world so that each night he is living happily with Clarimonde to the point where the real world seems like a dream to him. I don’t know of any other nineteenth century author who used dreams to such a powerful extent until George DuMaurier in Peter Ibbetson (1891) where the characters are able to perform what we would today call lucid dreaming and even communicate with one another through their dreams.
Clarimonde’s eyes also cannot go without notice. There’s a long tradition of vampires having a mesmeric gaze, an attribute they inherited in literature from the Wandering Jew. When Romuald first sees Clarimonde, he describes her eyes as:
“sea-green eyes of unsustainable vivacity and brilliancy. What eyes! With a single flash they could have decided a man’s destiny. They had a life, a limpidity, an ardour, a humid light which I have never seen in human eyes; they shot forth rays like arrows, which I could distinctly see enter my heart. I know not if the fire which illumined them came from heaven or from hell, but assuredly it came from one or the other. That woman was either an angel or a demon, perhaps both. Assuredly she never sprang from the flank of Eve, our common mother.”
The reference to Eve is also interesting since Eve is usually the transgressor of Eden who brought sin to mankind, but Clarimonde is distanced here from her, to clarify she is not even human.
That Romuald feels like he has two identities is also significant. It is as if he is Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, living two separate existences, and while he never becomes a monster, he certainly feels he is powerless to break the control that one of those identities has over him. He states:
“From that night my nature seemed in some sort to have become halved, and there were two men within me, neither of whom knew the other. At one moment I believed myself a priest who dreamed nightly that he was a gentleman, at another that I was a gentleman who dreamed he was a priest. I could no longer distinguish the dream from the reality, nor could I discover where the reality began or where ended the dream. The exquisite young lord and libertine railed at the priest, the priest loathed the dissolute habits of the young lord. Two spirals entangled and confounded the one with the other, yet never touching….” He eventually realizes he must kill one or the other of the men or kill both because so terrible an existence cannot be otherwise endured.
Clarimonde’s death is also interesting because of how it is described. When she dies her human death, after Romuald kisses her, we are told of the flower she holds: “The last remaining leaf of the white rose for a moment palpitated at the extremity of the stalk like a butterfly’s wing, then it detached itself and flew forth through the open casement, bearing with it the soul of Clarimonde.” This detail is fascinating because it suggests Gautier may have had some knowledge of the Eastern European tradition that butterflies are connected to the soul. The dead, and vampires particularly, were said to have a butterfly fly out of their mouths when they died, thus releasing their souls. (See my previous blogs on the1880 Serbian novel After Ninety Years and also James Lyons’ 2013 novel Kiss of the Butterfly.)
Finally, the novel was significant as a translation into English because not only does it feature a Catholic priest (he isn’t, however, the first Catholic priest to fall into sexual morality; Matthew Lewis’ The Monk (1795) has a main character who has sex with a nun, who turns out to be Satan in disguise), but the vampire is destroyed through the use of holy water, a Catholic tool. Most of the Gothic novels of the 1790s to 1820s were very anti-Catholic. That lessened to some extent after Catholic Emancipation in England in 1829, but because “Clarimonde” is by a French writer, Gautier had no qualms about using Catholicism to defeat his vampire. That said, I believe it may be the first use of holy water to defeat a vampire in literature. Of course, Catholic implements like the crucifix and Eucharistic would be more famously used by Bram Stoker in Dracula.
Clarimonde would go on to influence French works like Paul Feval’s The Vampire Countess and directly or indirectly British works like Carmilla and Dracula. Today, Clarimonde is far from a household name—Dracula gets all the press—but the significance of Gautier’s story to vampire fiction and its innovations that do not appear again for many decades in literature make “Clarimonde” a piece deserving of far more attention.
Tyler Tichelaar, PhD, is the author of The Gothic Wanderer: From Transgression to Redemption, a study of nineteenth-century British Gothic literature from 1794 (The Mysteries of Udolpho) to 1897 (Dracula) with a look at twenty and twenty-first century texts like Tarzan of the Apes, Anne Rice’s vampire novels, and Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight series. Tyler has also written Haunted Marquette, a history of hauntings in his native city of Marquette, Michigan, Spirit of the North: A Paranormal Romance, and the historical fantasy series The Children of Arthur, which details the story of King Arthur and his descendants, beginning with Arthur’s Legacy and including Lilith’s Love, which is largely a sequel to Dracula. You can learn more about Tyler at www.GothicWanderer.com, www.ChildrenofArthur.com, and www.MarquetteFiction.com.