“Nasty” Women of Western Literature: Empowering Women Against Misogyny by (Re)Claiming Language and Autonomy

by Mirabella McDowell

  1. Introduction— “Nasty” Is As “Nasty” Does

“Whether I am meant to or not, I challenge assumptions about women. I do make some people uncomfortable, which I’m well aware of, but that’s just part of coming to grips with what I believe is still one of the most important pieces of unfinished business in human history—empowering women to be able to stand up for themselves.”Hillary Rodham Clinton

In the midst of our most recent United States presidential election, as Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton navigated her way through the third and final debate and began a nuanced discussion of her economic plan, Donald Trump interrupted in a targeted slur against Clinton, protesting, “Such a nasty woman.” This particular callous moment of flagrant condescension publicly marked the continual existence of a toxic ideology that underlies much of our culture: misogyny. Misogyny, defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as, “Hatred or dislike of, or prejudice against women,” essentially promulgates the ideology that women are inferior to men in one respect or another (1a). A recent Washington Post article entitled, “How to Define, Survive, and Fight Misogyny in the Trump and Weinstein Era” by Carlos Lozada deepens this definition, adding that:

Any and all women can suffer misogyny, but its primary targets are women who overtly undermine that power imbalance, ‘those who are perceived as insubordinate, negligent, or out of order’… those unwilling to be categorized only as the supportive wife, cool girlfriend, loyal assistant or attentive waitress. Misogynists expect women to dutifully provide ‘feminine-coded goods’ such as affection, adoration, and indulgence while they enjoy ‘masculine-coded perks’ such as leadership, authority, money and status. Women give, men take. (Lozada)  

Women who violate these anticipated gender codes in particular are most often those who “call out powerful men for their misdeeds,” hold a career or position of high status or influence, or reject a man sexually, romantically, etc. (Lozada). These ideas reveal a common, troubling motive among misogynists: seeking the control and containment of women, whether of their bodies, of their minds, or of their voices. In other words, when a woman gains power, she becomes a threat to the patriarchal system of order in place. Thus, according to misogynistic perceptions, she is not only dangerous, but as recently accused sexual assault perpetrator Matt Lauer allegedly put it when his lewd advances towards a coworker were denied, she is “no fun.”

In understanding the extent of this noxious ideology, it is important to touch upon the severity of the problematic circumstances in which misogynistic rhetoric and belief remain alarmingly ubiquitous in our daily culture. Unfortunately, some people do not identify misogyny in the modern world as a prevalent issue, which could be attributed to the strides of progress women have made in terms of equal rights over the past century. After all, more women than ever hold and maintain successful and lucrative careers and lives; many insist that the notion of misogyny is outdated, even archaic. This misconception is not only false, but also incredibly damaging. President-elect Trump’s remark against Clinton during the 2016 debate is not an uncharacteristic or rare attack, but rather has been preceded and since followed by an onslaught of misogynistic statements against women by Trump himself, who has been on record calling, “…women he does not like ‘fat pigs,’ ‘dogs,’ ‘slobs,’ and ‘disgusting animals.” Trump has been reinforced in his sexism by a flurry of authoritative male voices within the government—from prevalent Senators to outspoken politicians— who, for instance, silenced “nasty-mouthed” Senator Elizabeth Warren during a congressional hearing in which she, ironically, attempted to give voice to another woman, Coretta Scott King. Most recently, there has been a disturbing outcry of sexual assault accusations against some of the most powerful and influential men in seemingly all professions – to name a few, Donald Trump, Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey, Charlie Rose, Matt Lauer, Roy Moore, Bill Cosby, John Conyers, and Bill O’Reilly. Sexual assault can be understood as an extreme manifestation of pervasive societal misogyny and sexism, in that the perpetrators – typically men—seek to dominate and intimidate their victims – typically women. The justice system currently in place overall enormously fail women, often making it a woman’s responsibility to present enough evidence against her attacker to make her story trustworthy, her case only viable if the statute of limitations has not yet been reached, procedures that prefer and defer to the man’s protection. Thus, this environment where harassment and abuse are chronic — and in which women’s safety, livelihoods and well being are therefore limited — is itself misogynistic.

Regardless of one’s political views, this blatant misogyny – both spoken and written – in contemporary culture calls attention to a tradition within our society of oppressing, demeaning, and attempting to shame or intimidate women into silence. These outright displays of objectification and of prejudice against women and their thoughts, opinions, and voices express an upsetting yet normalized trend throughout history, which begs a multitude of important questions; namely how, in a period of such marked division and derision, can women respond to repugnant remarks against their sex? As Lozada contends, “We could out and rout the predators and misogynists and attackers lurking in our midst and our memories, until all those open secrets are simply open. But even if what has been dubbed this ‘Weinstein moment’ succeeds in unmasking, shaming and banishing more and more offenders, it’s not clear that crossing names off an endless list of hideous men will topple the structures of entitlement and permissiveness enabling their actions” (Lozada). Thus, where then do we – advocates of feminism and of the female—start and progress in building and strengthening our responses?

I would like to suggest that a key place for women to gain power has been and can be in language. The revolution of resistance and support for women that has exploded from Trump’s snide quip has mainly stemmed from his use of the word “nasty” in association with “woman.” The use of the word “nasty” as an insult is seemingly meant to be a more “acceptable” stand-in for overtly offensive women specific slurs. Yet, instead of being disgraced into submission by Trump’s turn of phrase, women around the world have instead reclaimed the word nasty as their own and for their own purposes, wearing it proudly as a badge of honor. This can be observed in the progression of the Oxford English Dictionaries’ definitions for the word “nasty”: since 1390, “nasti” has been used to mean “filthy, dirty; esp. offensive through filth or dirt” or, as of around the 17th century, “morally corrupt’ indecent, obscene, lewd” (1a; 4). Yet, a recent entry for “nasty” declares it is “slang, U.S.” for “terrific, wonderful, formidable; used as a term of approval” (6). In this way, women have been able to take the stereotypes and smears hurled at them and repurpose them to their own benefit, as aforementioned in the OED, a “nasty” woman can now be interpreted as a woman who is strong and fierce, outspoken and courageous. This reclamation of language has in turn prompted an outpouring of female solidarity, with women around the world uniting under this terminology. In this way, modern women have repossessed the word nasty for themselves when under attack of being “nasty” in the other previous senses of the word, using their own voices to speak against the often louder or more powerful male voices that attempt to silence, belittle, or discredit them.

Consequently, I argue that our responses to misogyny can be furthered through the examination of prominent literature of the past, literature about, by, or for women, women who use language in cunning ways to speak their truth. I contend that this “reclaiming” of stereotypes and derogatory statements to gain autonomy is not entirely new, but that works throughout literature have done this same kind of repurposing, and it is to literature we can and should turn to better understand misogyny, women’s continual plight against it, and how to combat it. Literature forces us to be aware and grapple with certain issues society faces by allowing us a glimpse into the minds of those being oppressed or under attack, giving readers a new perspective or broadening the depth of one’s understanding on an issue. Women characters and writers have actually been building the framework for us on this topic for centuries. Therefore, this literary tradition of female voices confronting misogyny, exploring its roots, and condemning its justifications can help shape the way women today are able to recognize misogyny. By analyzing their various methods for regaining female agency, we can learn how we can better cope with and fight against misogyny.

My research into this female literary tradition will explore seven different female responses to misogyny in Western Literature, from the medieval era to the modern, and ask central questions: What are some of the most prominent and recurring antifeminist stereotypes, where do the contradictions lie within them, and how do these stereotypes paradoxically empower these female literary voices? How does each text counteract misogyny, and how does each attempt to reclaim and redefine female identity in the face of male assertion, coercion, and overall dominance? By directly engaging with particularly misogynistic literature and rhetoric, how does each woman contribute to a female literary tradition, and take part in—both literally and figuratively—rewriting female history?

My analysis will begin with the medieval era and a contemplation of “The Wife of Bath’s Prologue and Tale” by Geoffrey Chaucer, who stands as the quintessential paradigm of the “bad woman” as she scandalously rebuts the religious doctrine and literature that suppresses her sexuality and freedoms. Next is an examination of The Book of the City of Ladies by Christine de Pizan, which strives to reverse the trauma caused by misogynistic literature by reconstructing the pillars of womanhood and female identity and providing a utopian, strong female community. Following this is a move to the Victorian era and an analysis of “The Introduction” by Anne Finch, a work that engages the stereotypes of women by men, skillfully refuting the need for a man to justify her writing through her sharply critical analysis and the “expert” techniques embedded within her poetry. After this is a brief look at the preface to Aphra Behn’s “The Lucky Chance,” which offers a dialogical response in renegotiating the terms of the gender contract in literature. Accused of being overly sexual in instances in which men would not have been, Behn firmly retorts that “the pen” is her “masculine part,” thereby challenging these rigid ideologies of sex, sexuality, and woman’s censorship. Coinciding with this ideology, there is next a comparative analysis of Behn’s “The Fair Jilt” and Eliza Haywood’s Fantomina, which confront gendered double standards in Early Modern society as well as play with stereotypes of passion, agency, sexuality, and a reversal of a woman’s passivity through the formulation of the female rake. Finally, in a transition to the modern era, A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf exemplifies a literary tradition of female engagement with and response to misogyny in literature, explaining the differing circumstances that hindered female writers and exposing modern illusions of women’s equality.   

Ultimately, I’d like to argue that these literary women are in fact precisely the “nasty” women that misogynists constantly slander, as these women are imbued with passion, anger, and above all, a desire for autonomy. Yet, these women simultaneously challenge these stereotypes in order to reshape them in a more positive light and refute the negative depictions of women, especially women in, and who write or read, literature. I’d like to suggest that ultimately, misogyny has essentially always served the same purposes, and has been vocalized and manifested in the same sorts of ways: the ultimate goal being to silence and belittle women. However, I would argue that the misconception that women were essentially silent on these issues before our modern moment is false, as these texts, spanning centuries, all confront, respond, and interact directly with female stereotypes meant to harm them. They attempt to discredit misogynistic assumptions and alter misleading perceptions of women, thus negotiating and opening a legitimate, fair space for women and women’s writing, a sphere in which women were able to be heard and advocating for women’s autonomy and women’s education. Thus, this paper will primarily focus on how these negatively marked attributes of the female were repurposed by women to instead be empowering—just as the word “nasty” has been in contemporary society.

  1. Ye Nasty Women of the Middle Ages

“Come to vanquish from the world the same error into which you had fallen, so that from now on, ladies and all valiant women may have refuge and defense against the various assailants.” – Christine de Pizan, The Book of the City of Ladies


Western European culture during the Middle Ages was teeming with misogynistic ideology, as institutionalized patriarchal codes shaped, and were given credibility through, nearly every authoritative establishment, from the Church and its earliest fathers to the social hierarchies and mores of the ruling and wealthy classes. This domineering dogma inexorably percolated into the scholarship of the time, and as academic R. Howard Bloch reflects, “The discourse of misogyny runs like a rich vein throughout the breadth of medieval literature” (Medieval Misogyny 1). Examples of such literature are innumerable: “in Latin satires like John of Salisbury’s Policraticus, Walter Map’s De nugis curialium, Andreas Capellanus’s Art of Courtly Love (book 3), as well as in the XV Joies de marriage and what is perhaps the most virulent antimatrimonial satire in the vernacular tongue, Jehan Le Fevre’s translation of the Lamentations de Matheolus” (Bloch 1). This “ritual denunciation of women,” as Bloch puts it, “constitutes something on the order of a cultural constant, reaching back to the Old Testament as well as to Ancient Greece and extending through the fifteenth century” (1). Thus, with as prevalent, pervasive, and accepted as misogynistic sentiment was in both literature and in everyday custom in the Middle Ages, it is particularly valuable in understanding how medieval women experienced this culture to investigate moments where this misogyny was seemingly challenged, or at least examined, by female voices.

In alignment with this notion, Geoffrey Chaucer’s [1343-1400] self-assertive, outspoken character of the Wife of Bath offers insight into women’s engagement with and to this noxious philosophy of subjugation. For her provocative language and altogether blunt charges against the male gender, the Wife is unsurprisingly one of Chaucer’s most controversial characters, as scholars have long contested her purpose in “The Canterbury Tales,” and struggled with whether or not she can be classified a proto-feminist of sorts. Speaking to this debate, in her essay “What Women Want: Mimesis and Gender in Chaucer’s Wife of Bath,” Anne McTaggart masterfully articulates the central questions at hand when unraveling the nuances of meaning nestled within the Wife’s Prologue and Tale, observing how, “Chaucer’s Wife of Bath centers on a wonderfully fruitful paradox: she claims for women and for herself the right to “maistrie” and “sovereynetee” in marriage, but she does so by articulating the discourse imparted to her by the “auctoritee” of anti-feminism. Indeed, this paradoxical challenge to and reiteration of anti-feminist ideas has left Chaucer’s readers debating for decades which way the irony cuts: is the Wife to be understood as a proto-feminist, or is she merely a delightful buffoon inadvertently lampooning herself for the ironic pleasure of a knowing, male audience?” (1).

Subsequently, it could assumed that the Wife is a mere embodiment of anti-feminist rhetoric and literature, as she behaves precisely in the manner accused of and forewarned by medieval misogynists – perhaps most markedly, for her confession that “for half so boldely kan ther no man/ Swere and lyen, as a womman kan” (Chaucer, “The Wife of Bath’s Prologue” 227-228). Furthermore, she explains that in her youth she was wayward, “faire, and riche, and yong, and wel bigon/ And trewely, as myne houbondes tolde me, / I hadde the beste quoniam myghte be,” casting her as the promiscuous and manipulative stereotype of the “bad” wife that prominent literature described (605-608). Indeed, there has been much scholarship in the past that has scathingly denounced her, from early commentators such as William Blake, who found her to be a “scourge and a blight,” and John Dryden, who would not dare, “to adventure on her Prologue; because tis too licentious,” to twentieth-century voices such as Tony Slade, who bitingly remarks, “The Wife’s character has already been exposed in some detail in her Prologue, which rambles around the theme of ‘sover-eynetee’ in marriage; her tone is coarse and garrulous, and there is little evidence of that sort of delicate poetic beauty which some critics have professed to find in the Tale itself” (Treharne 1). Ironically, these critical replies—which all use misogynistic stereotypes of women in their confrontations— all come from men centuries later in similar attempts to seemingly undermine the validity of the arguments and issues the Wife raises in her speech by condemning her character itself. The Wife could easily be responding to her own critics of the Modern Era when continually addressing all the slanderous things men have charged women with, imploring, “What eyleth swich an old man for to chide?” illuminating, too, the longevity of misogyny in our society (278; 281). It is precisely and predominantly this engagement with and to these kinds of persistent antifeminist forces that the Wife seems to be directing her words to as she discusses and takes issue with the writings of antifeminists cited in her Prologue, which is why I would like to assert that in her individuality and fearlessness, the Wife seems to serve as a brilliant depiction of how an early “proto”-feminist could have been, as she embodies these stereotypes to actively call attention to and subvert them in ways we still do in contemporary culture.  

Though Chaucer cannot exactly speak from a woman’s own experiences, he nonetheless masterfully gives the Wife of Bath a consciousness and a vital humanity through his superb writing capability, depicting how real lives were affected by this ideology. The wife speaks candidly about her experiences with misogynistic stereotypes, such as her repeated testimonies of the things, “Thou [men] seyest” of women, such as, “And if that she be fair, thou verray knave,/ Thou seyest that every holour wol hire have;/ She may no while n chastitee abyde” (253-255). Yet, she also expresses the trauma these broodings cause her, as she proclaims, “Who wolde wene, or who wolde suppose,/ The wo that in myn herte was, and pyne?” (786-787). These experiences of discomfort and actual physical pain at the internalization of this misogyny is indicative of how most women feel when subjected to it, and not only sheds light on how medieval women could and would have felt about hearing these things, which is in a way incredibly similar to how women still feel today, but this harm to women’s psyche is at the very core of misogynists purpose: that is, to gain control and domination. As Jill Mann contends:

The double structure of the Wife’s speech thus has a meaning of far wider import than its role in the Wife’s individual experience. And yet it plays a crucial role in creating our sense of the Wife as a living individual. For what it demonstrates is her interaction with the stereotypes of her sex, and it is in this interaction that we feel the three-dimensionality of her existence. That is, she does not live in the insulated laboratory world of literature, where she is no more than a literary object, unconscious of the interpretations foisted upon her; she is conceived as a woman who lives in the real world, in full awareness of the anti-feminist literature that purports to describe and criticize her behavior, and she has an attitude to it just as it has an attitude to her. (Treharne 3)

In this way, the Wife’s Prologue highlights the impact of these misogynistic broodings on the lives and reputations of real women, ultimately exhibiting that, “Texts affect lived lives, and the Wife’s feminist criticism demonstrates this: if women had relatively little opportunity to author texts, they nonetheless felt their effects” (Dinshaw 14). Yet, the Wife does not allow Jankyn this power over her; in a moment of truly remarkable and radical indignation, “whan [the Wife] saugh he wolde nevere fine/ to redden on this cursed book al nyght,/ Al sodeynly thre leves have I plight/ out of his book, right as he radde, and eke/ I with my fest so took hym on the cheke/ that in oure fyr he fil backward adoun” (788-793). Not only does the Wife throw the pages into the fire, but the misogynist himself falls down with them, symbolic of her stand to destroy these treatises and the ones who propagate them (and, to replace them with her Tale). The Wife of Bath thus seems to represent the culmination of all these “bad wives” and the manifestation of their traits. Yet, by giving her (and in effect, them) a voice, “Chaucer, as a man writing in the voice of a woman opposing this tradition, explores the impact of writing in creating gender itself” – precisely the same way that these ‘old dolts’ the Wife refers to seem to attempt to falsely create and thus slight the female gender by writing all women as bad (Dinshaw 15). In this vein, it seems to be the Wife’s very embodiment of these “bad” traits that gives her a sense of agency and autonomy as an individually minded, opinionated woman of her time, proudly admitting to these characteristics instead of being shamed into silence, and boasting them with an air of satisfaction and utter candor. In this way, the Wife seems to be reclaiming these roles that were meant to harm her, and instead wearing them as badges of honor, much like contemporary women have done with the word “nasty” with all its contexts and connotations. In turn, Chaucer seems to be writing a new narrative for women – one in which women have the control and mastery.

In this same manner, it seems especially poignant and defining insofar as exploring the Wife of Bath’s character that, while nearly every other character in Chaucer’s tale is described using their occupation (for instance, The Knight, The Prioress, or The Miller, to name a few), Alisoun is distinguished and demarcated for being a wife, despite the fact that it is revealed to us almost immediately that she is a merchant. Thus, Chaucer seems to suggest that wifehood is not only her primary function in the narrative, but also perhaps her primary “trade,” i.e. her importance stems from this womanhood, and as we are meant to recognize her principally as a bad wife, and her main role becomes defending her own sex. Therefore, when confronted with the “book of Wikked Wyves” the Wife of Bath not only opposes it, but vehemently protects women’s reputations by underlining that none of these texts were written by women themselves, then scandalously and continuously formulating logical arguments using biblical allusions and holy men to justify her reasoning (685). This can be observed when she deliberately underscores why men of the period, particularly old clerks and scholars, composed copious amounts of misogynistic and anti-women literature: because, as all interpretation bears the mark of the interpreter, these old men –who she has authority to speak of because she has experience in marriage to them—are frustrated with their own sexual inadequacy and ability to perform, and thus whine instead about the infidelity of women. As the Wife puts it, “The clerk, whan he is oold, and may nought do/ Any of Venus’s werkes worth his old shoe” will “writ his dotage/ that women kan nat kepe hir mariage!” (707-710). Moreover, she explains that “For trusteth wel, it is an impossible/ that any clerk will speak good of wyves” for this reason, and claims that if women “hadde written stories/ as clerkes han withinne hire oratories,” there would be a tremendous amount of literature speaking also of the wickedness of men (688-689; 694). Yet, since most women were constrained by societal limitations and domestic expectations, the literature is left to the men to write, in which “no woman of no clerk is preysed” (706). Who called the lion a savage beast, she implores of the group in a simple metaphor, concluding it certainly was not the lion itself (692).

By taking these negative assumptions about women and finding a logical root for them, other than the notion that women are merely inherently wicked, rather than merely embodying the stereotype of the wicked wife, the Wife of Bath fervently pushes back against these stereotypes that seek to control her and control the perception of all women, reclaiming them in order to empower herself. Moreover, the Wife continuously brings up biblical men to help validate her ways of living: when defending her multiple marriages, she argues, “God bad us for to wexe and multiplye/… he seyde myn housbande/ Sholde lete fader and mooder and take me./ But of no nombre mencion made he, Of bigayme, or of octogame;/ Why sholde men thanne speke of it vileynye?” (28-34). Similarly, she alludes to “the wise kyng, daun Salomon” whom “I trowe he hadde wyves mo than oon.” (35-36) In this way, the Wife seems to be internalizing these stories of the Bible, then reinterpreting and repurposing them in order to empower, rather than cast shame upon, women who live their lives freely as she does. Simply put, through this method of reclaiming language, the Wife is able to gain agency. As Carolyn Dinshaw eloquently contends in A History of Feminist Literary Criticism:

She is in fact the anti-feminist stereotype of a nightmare wife come to life: she says to her husbands, for example, exactly what Theophrastus said bad wives say to their husbands. But even as she thus confirms the stereotype, the Wife in her mimesis takes a stand-in subversion of it: she repeats the anti-feminist discourse with a difference, finally seizing that book and ripping it up. Chaucer’s creation of her is an act of feminist literary criticism. (14)

The Wife essentially seems to be “quite”-ing these antagonistic male-driven sentiments, not in the least concerned with what Christian male authorities have to say on the Bible and about her conduct nor what her husbands have to say about how a wife should behave, but rather, only about what she desires and what brings her mirth and amusement.

It is curious to note, too, that the Wife of Bath is interrupted not once in her Prologue, but on numerous occasions, the most significant being the Friar who complains of the length of her Prologue –which she then “quite-s” through hilariously satirizing monks at the beginning of her Tale. While these moments of interruption nearly directly reflect, centuries later, Trump’s interruption of Hillary Clinton, scrutinizing her for speaking up and speaking proudly, they also speak to the Wife’s own sense of agency and her proto-feminist, progressive views even within a period riddled with woman-hating, woman-beating, and the silencing of women overall. Thus, by giving her this power to strike back, and shifting the perspective to that of this “nasty” woman herself, Chaucer invites his audience to glean insight into an all-too-overlooked perspective, Chaucer enables the Wife—on behalf of all women— to have a voice with which to defend herself while appropriating these negative depictions of women into something empowering – her tale ultimately signifying that what women want most of all is this autonomy she openly exercises.

Echoing the final lines of her Prologue in which Jankyn tells her she can claim “al the soveraynetee” in their marriage, her Tale tells of a Knight who rapes a woman and, in order to save his life, must discover what women most desire (818). In the Tale he reveals, “women desiren to have sovereyntee” and “for to been in maistrie [hir housbond] above,” and eventually ends up “in parfit joye” in his marriage, but only when things become resolved through giving his wife total power (1257-1259). In this regard, while the Wife of Bath may be considered a sort of exemplar of all the stereotypes of women as greedy, self-serving parasites combined, these specific lines tie into the idea of the Wife of Bath as, again, a “proto-feminist,” who speaks of the different varying discourses she has learned and has been exposed to and creates a powerful counterargument to men who represent women as rotten and evil, and who blame and scapegoat women rather than owning up to their own faults and shortcomings. The moral takeaway of the tale demonstrates the power of listening to women (an act which provides the turning point in her Tale and is the reason the knight is not put to death for his crime—which coincidentally, is a crime of overpowering and forcing a woman against her will), and the benefits of giving them mastery in marriage, as the Knight ends up perfectly happy as well. The word “maisterie” is defined by the OED as “superiority or ascendancy in battle or competition, or in a struggle of any kind; victory resulting in domination or subjugation”; thus, the Wife principally craves to claim a sort of victory for women in this certain arena of life, a victory of power that men have long enjoyed (1a). Therefore, she is not the docile, obedient woman that the Clerk describes when he “quites” her tale (which is ironic since he tells the tale of the ideal woman, who happens to be everything the Wife of Bath is not), but a boisterous, outspoken woman who engages with the social expectations of the time and responds to them in a sort of call to arms to other wise wives. Though she struggles between her own personhood and the way others try to define her, she speaks rather than being spoken about with defined energy and fervor—thus, a victory to the cause of women’s rights in her very existence.

Finally, these ideas also reflect The Canterbury Tales as a whole, which, through the verbal portraits created and the constant back and forth “quite”ing of the characters, can be understood as a heteroglossia of different voices each addressing the social expectations and anxieties people had about certain types of people, as Chaucer crafts multi-faceted characters who do not always end up aligning with how they are initially portrayed, or how they would be interpreted initially in real life. The Wife of Bath’s Prologue and Tale could represent Chaucer as being the “friend of women,” or could be yet another unconventional depiction of a member of society—a “bad wife”— that sows doubt in the reader’s mind about how we are supposed to view and judge women in society. Overall, it seems that the Wife of Bath is meant to be a voice of the female that propagandizes a new truth in the midst of misogynistic literature of the Middle Ages. Therefore, in her embodiment of a “nasty” wife who simultaneously confronts and rebuts the negative attributes prescribed to her through engaging these stereotypes head-on, not only does the Wife of Bath provide a new perspective on wifehood, but on the role and power of women in general.


In her novel The Book of the City of Ladies, Christine de Pizan [1364-1430] takes a deeply personal and fierce, yet simultaneously articulate and dignified approach to the misogynistic literature of the Middle Ages, first speaking to the damaging effects of her own internalization of misogynistic rhetoric, then later countering the insidious, inflammatory antifeminist literary tradition by building a City of Ladies. In turn, she offers a “new” type of perspective on women in literature: the perspective of a woman, from a woman author. Through the poignant use of allegorical figures—in this case, the embodiments of Reason, Rectitude, and Justice as women— Pizan illustrates her own lived experiences with this kind of rhetoric, and how through her encounters with these “women,” is prompted to “come back to herself” and “not trouble [herself] anymore over such absurdities,” being restored in her own observed truth that, “Causing any damage to harm one party in order to help another party is not justice – and likewise, attacking all feminine conduct is contrary to the truth” (Pizan 8; 10).

In this feminization of virtue, Pizan’s ultimate goal seems to be that of, as Marina Warner puts it, “moral tutor,” to rehabilitate her sex and to replace the portrait of the “bad woman” by calling back to memory the “lives and deeds of virtuous women of the past,” who have been overlooked by history (Foreword xii). As Warner astutely reflects in her foreword to Pizan’s literary triumph, Pizan “restores speech to the silent portion of the past,” giving a voice to these women who have been scorned or ignored by scholars and thus altogether “silenced” (xiii). Thus, Pizan can be added alongside Chaucer’s the Wife of Bath as a so-called “nasty woman,” for her challenging of the misogynistic norms of the period, as a woman who takes the negative stereotypes of women and reclaims them as empowering, debunking the assertions that women are inherently wicked. In a voice of controlled indignation, Pizan offers thoughtful arguments to counter society’s attitudes and opinions towards women, arguments that hold just as much relevance and resonance today as they still ring true in the modern world.

To begin, it is significant to point out Pizan’s title, which is The Book of the City of Ladies, not of women. While this may seem like a word choice meant to exclude rather than include, to speak only about the educated and elite ladies of the time, rather, I’d like to offer that Pizan has instead taken over the traditional term “lady” and invested in it an innovative significance: that is, a “lady” for Christine refers to the nobility of the soul rather than the nobility of the blood (Richards xx). In this way, Pizan “transposes the dignity afforded to noble women in the late medieval class structure to women who have proven their worthiness through their achievements, whether military, political, or religious” (xxx). Therefore, just as the word “nasty” has been infused with a new significance of empowerment in contemporary society, Christine reclaims the word “lady” to express that “every woman possessed the potential for true nobility” (xxx). Pizan cunningly names her new kingdom “Kingdom of Femininity,” the City of Ladies rather than the City of Women, in order to make readers clearly understand her underlying point: that is, that all women could find a place in a city of ladies by realizing their “feminine potential” (xxx). Thus, the word “lady” becomes a symbol representative of inclusion and empowerment, a plea for the recognition of women’s contributions in social and political life.

Moreover, Pizan’s adept manipulation of language can be attributed to her education as well as her desire to “disprove masculine myths and appeal for change,” as her “learnedness served as a springboard for her to address the question of women’s role in society in more extensive terms” (xxx). Pizan immediately asserts her superior education from the first few lines of the novel, suggesting that education will be the foundation of much of her argument. This hypothesis proves to be accurate, as Pizan repeatedly uses her education as the basis by which to criticize authority: by page three she is already disregarding Maltheoulus’ work with the biting criticism that not only is it a conglomeration of lies, but that is has a “lack of integrity in diction and theme,” and she resolves to “turn [her attention to more elevated and useful study” (3). Yet, it is after this encounter with Maltheoulus’s work that an apparent shift is felt in Pizan’s tone, as the derision she has read puzzles and troubles her deeply. Using logic and reason, she desperately tries to work through one of the most critical questions of this misogynistic rhetoric: How it happened that so many different men, and learned men among them, have been so inclined to express both in speaking and in their treatises and writings so many wicked insults about women and their behavior?(3) “I do not know how to understand this repugnance” she sighs, “It all seems they speak from one and the same mouth” (4). Since, as she notes, “they all concur in one conclusion: that the behavior of women is inclined to and full of every vice,” and “it would be impossible for so many famous men – such solemn scholars… to have spoken so falsely on so many occasions,” she finally resolves that she has no choice but to rely “more on the judgments of others than on what I myself felt and knew,” and finally decides “God formed a vile creature when He made woman… I detested myself and the entire feminine sex, as though we were monstrosities in nature” (4). This section of Pizan’s text reflects her keen ability to use deduction and reason, illustrating her immense intelligence.

Yet, the real point Pizan seems to be making is the psychological toll that internalizing this rhetoric has on real lives – real women – that are deeply affected by this constant outflow of derogatory slander against women by men, so much so that even women start to believe it. Similarly, though the Wife of Bath was not educated or literate, she internalized oral readings of this literature and thus understood the implications this literature had against women; here, Pizan is able to read the very words themselves, and both examples demonstrate how medieval women, regardless of class and status, would have felt about this literature. Their responses, though marked by their differences in education, are again, essentially similar: whereas the Wife of Bath was so outraged by this type of literature that she impulsively incinerated it, and attempts to use her voice to help build a female tradition of good women through her fairy-tale like story, Pizan similarly works to extinguish these accusations about women and make something new, too – a metaphorical City of Ladies, with her book itself standing as a temple of solace in literature for which women can find shelter. As the first of the three Ladies reminds Christine, “you know that any evil spoken of women so generally only hurts those who say it, not women themselves,” reminding Pizan not to acknowledge these evils as truth or actual reflections on the character of womankind, and to instead help build a new feminocentric and realistic literary tradition of women, by women (8).

Similar to the Wife of Bath once more, Pizan directly engages with the misogynistic rhetoric and literature of the time, which is done in order to further her emphasis on the importance of the erudition of women, as well as their participation in literary and cultural life. Pizan fervently objected to the treatment of women in “The Romance of the Rose,” for instance, and was supported in her counterattacks by the influential chancellor of the University of Paris, Jean Gerson, seemingly giving her voice, thoughts, and opinions validation and credibility in the public, educated sphere. “If women had written the books we read, they would have handled things differently, for women know they have been falsely accused,” she writes in response, an argument quite similar in fact to the Wife of Bath’s (11). Furthermore, she cleverly sets forth that:

Those who attack women because of their own vices are men who spent their youths in dissolution and enjoyed the love of many different women, used deception in many of their encounters, and have grown old in their sins without repenting, and now regret their past follows and the dissolute life they led. But Nature, which allows the will of the heart to put into effect what the powerful appetite desires, has grown cold in them. Therefore, they are pained when they see that their good time has now passed them by, and it seems to them that the young, who are now what they once were, are at the top of the world. They do not know how to overcome their sadness except by attacking women, hoping to make women less attractive to other men. Everywhere one sees such old men speak obscenely and dishonestly, just as you can fully see Maltheoulus, who himself confesses that h was an impotent old man filled with desire. You can thereby convincingly prove, with this one example, how what I tell you is true, and you can assuredly believe that it is the same with many others. (19)

This carefully rendered retort that gives reason to the misogyny of the period, instead of blaming women’s lack of moral integrity for their representations in literature, allows Christine to begin to rebuild her own confidence and self-assuredness, as well as rebuild the reputation of women in the Middle Ages.

It is important to note, too, that for men, there is this recurrent theme of their sexuality being at stake in most of these motives for them to vilify women, as when they perceive inferiority in their own bodies, they project this vulnerability onto the women they cannot satisfy, accusing women of being inherently weak in mind, character, and constancy rather than facing their own shortcomings. As Christine contends that these sorts of men are, “evil, diabolical people who wish to twist the good as well as the virtue of kindness naturally found in women into evil and reproach” (26). From this line, she then goes on to detail in great length the stories of other “good women” from all sorts of religions, myths, and cultures—from Mary Magdalene, to Queen of Sheba, to Marie of Blois, Hippolyta, Zenobia, Minerva, etc.—who’s stories act as the actual building blocks that support and shelter her city of ladies, as they correspondingly support her overall thesis. Not coincidentally, all the women she calls to memory are strong women with formidable ideas and thoughts who have helped the growth and well-being of civilizations and often of humanity as a whole, thus reversing the assumptions that these traits, when found in women, must necessarily be threatening, or “bad.” A keen example she draws forth refers to the Bible, in that, “If anyone would say that man was banished because of Lady Eve, I tell you that he gained more through Mary than he ever lost through Eve,” thus tying in the Church to her logic to support her assertions on both intellectual and religious grounds, and consequently adding another layer of credibility to her arguments (13).

From these justifications, Lady Rectitude finally critically implores, “How many harsh beatings, without cause or reason, how many injuries, how many cruelties, insults, humiliations, and outrages have so many upright women suffered, none of whom cried out for help?” (119). The Book of the City of Ladies, thus, seems to be Pizan’s own “battle cry,” of sorts, her valiant defense of women and their inherent nobility and “goodness.” By adding her voice and views into the literature of the time, she stirs a conversation about women’s role in the Middle Ages, and counters much of the inflammatory accusations wrongfully flung against women, women who could not defend themselves because they did not typically have the education to do so. “Where is there a city so strong which could not be taken immediately if no resistance were forthcoming…” she asks, metaphorically symbolizing that such defamation exists against women only because their morality could not be properly fortified, as most women of the period were uneducated and illiterate and therefore could do little to deflect or denounce any such assaults (Pizan 13). Yet, in her building of the city, and in her feminization of virtue through the personifications of Reason, Rectitude, and Justice, Christine offers a strikingly successful attempt to not only remind, but rewrite the true history of women, as she represents a womanly eloquence, the affinity women have for learning, the power of the educated woman, and the double standards of men, who she suggests should examine their own morality before attacking others. In this way, Pizan’s novel “represents a determined and clear-headed attempt to take apart the structure of her contemporaries prejudices” through the interspersion of “formidable and exemplary heroines of the past with down to earth remarks about the wrongs done to women by society’s attitudes and opinions,” and thus is a triumphant endeavor to reclaim agency and authority for women in the Middle Ages (xiii).

2. Nasty Women Of The Victorian Era; Or, Virtue Befouled

“Women are supposed to be very calm generally: but women feel just as men feel; they need exercise for their faculties, and a field for their efforts, as much as their brothers do; they suffer from too rigid a restraint, to absolute a stagnation, precisely as men would suffer; and it is narrow-minded in their more privileged fellow-creatures to say that they ought to confine themselves to making puddings and knitting stockings, to playing on the piano and embroidering bags. It is thoughtless to condemn them, or laugh at them, if they seek to do more or learn more than custom has pronounced necessary for their sex.” – Charlotte Bronte, Jane Eyre


In the early modern era, women writers continued to struggle with the complex query of how to claim authority in a culture that obstinately and steadfastly denied it to women. Prolific poet Anne Finch, Countess of Winchilsea [1661-1720], attempted to challenge societal limitations set upon women and advocated the capability and right for educated women to share their voice in the public sphere through writing. However, Finch was an elite woman expected to only fulfill certain patriarchal standards of being and was therefore unsurprisingly met with many obstacles in attempting to enact these beliefs and broaden the scope of accepted female behavior. Thus, as a way around these limitations, Finch tended to legitimize her work through another male agent—which in turn could be perceived in contemporary culture as undermining her own work or supporting or legitimizing misogynistic rhetoric about the inferiority or inability of the female to speak for herself. Moreover, Finch, like Pizan, uses examples of other women to carve out a space both for herself as well as for the woman writer, though despite this, continued to authorize her own work through the authority of prevailing male figures, which again seemingly exposes an underlying, crucial tension between effectively legitimizing women’s authorship yet paradoxically marginally acquiescing to the exact patriarchal codes set up by society that impeded and discouraged women’s writing. Yet, in deeper examination of her poetry, it becomes clear that Finch often toyed with this authority in a playful way that nearly parodied this need for male approval and acceptance, while using this male authority to her own advantage. Likewise, I would like to suggest that in her vital work, “The Introduction,” Finch uses this type of male authorization as a strategic attempt to gain tolerance and agency for women. By using the highest male authority (God) to contest this cluster of patriarchal gender codes, and in a sense finding an ingenious “loophole” to the constraints set upon women, Finch contends that an educated woman fulfilling her intellectual potential is a critical component of society and rebuts the negative stereotypes prescribed to her and her sex as innately less intelligent than men, ultimately adding herself to this collection of “nasty” women.

In her poem “The Introduction,” Finch insightfully confronts the gender politics of her era by first challenging the stereotypes set upon women, then resourcefully interweaving biblical references of theological men and women in order to legitimize her own authority as a woman and women’s writer—much like Pizan does centuries prior. Finch begins by mordantly noting, “A woman that attempts the pen/ Such an intruder on the rights of men,” instantly calling into question this “right” of men to write that women are consequently seen as imposing upon because men believed that women should be occupying their time with more “suitable” matters (Finch 9-10). Likewise, she perceptively continues “They tell us we mistake our sex and way;/ Good breeding, fashion, dance, dressing, play/ Are the accomplishments we should desire,” pointing out the vapid lifestyle that men expected elite women to assume, as “To write or read or think or to inquire/ Would cloud our beauty, and exhaust our time, / And interrupt the conquests of our prime” (13-15; 16-18). Finch sardonically scrutinizes and denounces this notion that elite women’s time should be filled with activities merely to enhance one’s beauty and satisfy the duties of “a servile house,” maintaining that this is not, contrary to the patriarchal principles ingrained within her society, the “utmost art, and use” of women (19-20).

After setting up this series of dismaying circumstances and standards prescribed to women, Finch turns to the authority of the Bible to make her case in favor of elite women’s capabilities and right to write, bringing in the figure of Deborah as the ultimate paradigm of the importance and sway of strong female figures historically:

A woman here leads faintly Israel on,

She fights, she wins, she triumphs with a song,

Devout, majestic, for the subject fit,

And far above her arms, exalts her wit. (45-48)

While this reliance on the prominent male figure of God to stake her claim could be viewed as undermining her credibility and agency, rather, I believe it serves as a tactful way to argue for the rights of women writers using the highest male authority of all, since no earthly man would contest the word or will of God. Furthermore, by referencing Deborah, Finch makes the critical point that had Deborah been told to merely focus on her vanity and live a submissive existence, her country would have been left in chaos and shambles, illustrating the importance and necessity of enlightened females intellectuals within society. The notion of Deborah as a key leader, judge, and even advisor of military strategy asserts that the disparity of social influence between men and women is not immutable, and reinforces Finch’s claims that an elite woman should not be confined in her intellect or restrained by societal ideologies of women’s femininity, but should rather be educated in order to become an illustrious member of society. Likewise, by aligning the early modern woman’s writer with figures and stories from the Old Testament, Finch not only claims the own significance of her voice and creates this space of authority for the elite female writer endorsed by God himself, but further posits that women are not historically or innately inferior to men, but rather, have lacked the education to become intellectually equal with them, “fallen by mistaken rules and education” and thus “debarred from all improvements of the mind” (53). The deliberate use of iambic hexameter in Finch’s last line asserts her overall mastery over the poetic form and thus situates herself within this tradition of knowledgeable, powerful women, valued for their wit and ability over their passivity. Thus, Finch’s use of the ultimate male authority, as well as another powerful woman, emphasizes and deepens her credibility and the credibility of other women’s writers.

Ultimately, through her poetry, Finch skillfully faces the problematic question of how a woman can reclaim authority by (rather ironically, and ingeniously) using powerful men, Christian ideology, and other women to legitimize the status of the female. The notion of gender politics is inextricable from this question of authority, and thus in legitimizing herself, Finch also cunningly comments upon the power relations between elite men and women of the era, using the highest male authority (God) to authorize her work. By reclaiming the often patriarchal teachings of the Church as advantageous to women’s rights to write, Finch carves out a space for the female writer that mortal men could not rightfully contest, thus “taking a stab” at misogyny with the poetics of the pen. Finch, therefore, played a pivotal role in shaping various ways in which women’s work could be legitimized, supporting a female community of women’s writers, and in stipulating how women’s compositions should be judged and received within society.


Both Aphra Behn [1640-1689] and Eliza Haywood [1693-1756] were prominent authors who wrote during the Victorian era, a time in which many believed women’s voices to be all but silenced in the public sphere. Yet, both women wrote copiously, often calling into question the biases placed against women and the privileges men, and male writers, seemed to enjoy freely. These women were pivotal in the gradual acceptance and success of female artists; it was Virginia Woolf who once claimed, “All women together ought to let flowers fall upon the tomb of Aphra Behn, for it was she who earned them the right to speak their minds” (Woolf, A Room of One’s Own, 116). Likewise, Behn can be considered one of the first (if not the first) professional female writers, meaning she made a profit from her writings, and thus when met with the obstacles imposed by men for women to make strides in the public arena of writing and entertainment, she often skillfully objected and replied. For instance, in the Preface to her play “The Lucky Chance,” Behn demands of her critics, “All I ask, is the Priviledge for my Masculine Part, the Poet in me, (if any such you will allow me) to tread in those successful Paths my Predecessors have so long thriv’d in, to take those Measures that both the Ancient and Modern Writers have set me, and by which they have pleas’d the World so well” (Behn xi). By contesting the overly sexual nature of her plays –plays that, were they written by a man, would not have been so derided— and by asserting that the pen is in fact her phallic part, Behn lures men into this conversation about the terms of the gender “contract,” refusing these pure categories of the male and female arenas and instead offering a dialogical response. Therefore, Behn uses this defamation against her work as an empowering agent, and rather than be silenced, uses this idea of being “overly sexual” and other smears to her advantage, adding her (and Haywood, later discussed) to this tradition of “nasty” women.

Consequently, women writers of the Early Modern period such as Behn and Haywood were met with the profound challenge of representing a “female desiring subject” in literature within a society in which male prerogatives and perceptions of how women should behave dominated culture. As aforementioned, “good” women of this period were expected to be well mannered, submissive and altogether naïve about sex and sexuality; thus, this was the depiction of women encapsulated in much of the prominent literature of the era. As a result, both Behn and Haywood radically explored and experimented with the question of what would happen if the woman attempted to claim the role of the partner in power in a sexual exchange, rather than guileless victim? Both Behn, in her work “The Fair Jilt” and Haywood, in Fantomina, or, Love in a Maze, pointedly and playfully rewrite, revise, and in fundamental ways, reverse the common tropes, scripts, and scenarios of the emblematic male “libertine” within amorous fiction in order to allow the typically marginalized zone and perspective of the woman to prevail. Moreover, both writers were fundamental in opening this space in Early Modern literature for the desiring woman to be represented, as they allow each of their female protagonists to devise and control the “means of seduction” and, in turn, gave women readers a sense of autonomy otherwise rigorously denied to them in this arena. Thus, authors such as Behn and Haywood helped mold and contribute to a “feminocentric” literary collection that offers different views of the ways women of the Early Modern period attempted to manage and work through the “double bind” that Eros posed to them—in this case, by depicting the “female rake.”

I’d like to propose that this “female rake” is demarcated by her active role and use of deviant, devious tactics to craft and execute seductive schemes in efforts to sate her own pleasures and desires. While notions of sexual freedom for women remained somewhat illusory, this ironic inversion of gendered power in literature nonetheless exposed gendered hypocrisies within society and served to highlight and publicize notions of feminine artfulness, skill, and agency, as seen in both “The Fair Jilt” and “Fantomina,” within key instances of deliberate deceit and calculated manipulation by their female protagonists, dually allowing women writer’s to rewrite female characters as strong agents and claim their own sense of sexual indulgence just as men were able to.

Behn’s protagonist in, “The Fair Jilt,” the cunning sybarite Miranda, masterminds a series of plots to seduce a sequence of young men in order to satisfy her own sensual motives, thus perfectly embodying this notion of the female rake. Moreover, by upholding the typical “sex-as-force” literary scenario of the era but reversing the traditional gendered roles—the female becoming the predatory agent while the man is rendered the powerless object— Behn consequently provides a refreshing depiction of the lady-in-love as an active, autonomous being. This is superbly demonstrated in the scene in which Miranda proclaims her love for young priest Henrick in the church, as when he is openly resistant to Miranda’s initial ploys to win his affections, she expresses her outrage in the characteristic “codified language of the male seducer,” exclaiming, “Answer my flame, my raging fire, which your eyes have kindled; or here, in this very moment, I will ruin thee” and “take away your life and honour,” a proclamation which leaves the hapless priest “trembling” (Bowers, “Sex, Lies, and Invisibility” 56; Behn, “The Fair Jilt, 46). For a woman in society to behave this way would have been perceived as subversive and appalling, and yet not so for the man—therefore, by not completely overhauling the expected power dynamics in scenarios of courtship, but merely reversing them, Behn offers a powerful testament to the gendered double standards cemented into amatory culture. Furthermore, by positioning female characters like Miranda as “both the central subject of the narrative and the possessor of active sexual subjectivity,” rather than as mere recipients of desire, authors such as Behn ultimately, “threaten[ed] traditional male prerogatives based on female subjugation and objectification, and provide [d] space for readers to imagine something new” (Bowers 58).

This striking demonstration of female adroitness is further asserted as the church scene progresses, as in response to the priest denying her advances, Miranda convincingly stages her own pseudo-rape, a fabrication so persuasive in fact that Henrick is arrested and put in prison for many years. Miranda is not only able to regain power over the situation through this deceptive performance, but exhibits the artful abilities of the female subject to, like the archetypal male profligate, mold a situation to fit her agenda and subsequently “triumph” over the male object of her desire, epitomizing the characterization of the female rake (Behn 50). It is indisputably Miranda that maintains the control within this sexual encounter, for though she does not have the physical ability to actually rape the priest, her ensuing scheme, in which she casts herself as the target of the very atrocity she herself attempted to commit, impressively and inventively condemns the priest but also “beats patriarchy at its own game” (Bowers 57). Therefore, while a unique, specifically female model of sexuality is never quite realized, the importance of moments such as these lies in the effort of Behn to at least open this space in literature for female desire to be explored and acknowledged, and to provide readers with a feminocentric version and vision of otherwise male-dominated situations, as in scenarios of lust. The lasting value and appeal of Behn’s work lies in her keen capability to overturn conventional, gendered stereotypes of who was permitted to act upon desire in society, as the misogynistic portrayal of the passive, defenseless woman of standard amatory fiction is—if rather comically—confronted and replaced by Behn with the image of the quick-witted, conniving female rake.

Similarly to Behn’s Miranda, in Haywood’s Fantomina, or, Love in a Maze, the protagonist epitomizes this notion of the female rake by exploring and quenching her own sensuous urges, passionate yearnings, and steadfast objectives by artfully and continually duping and outmaneuvering the clueless Beauplaisir. Fantomina is essentially the female equivalent of the male libertine, gaining agency and garnering a fulfilling sense of power through the active use of subterfuge and duplicity to con and seduce the object of her affection; yet, instead of using this power to conquer a series of different men, Fantomina uses her power to attempt to confound only one. Specifically, Fantomina plays out her role as female rake by assuming an assortment of fraudulent identities, such as the Widow Bloomer and Incognita, masquerading as entirely new women each time in order to experience “the first time” with Beauplaisir again and again without his knowledge, using his libertine faithlessness to her advantage and ingeniously allowing him to garner a false sense of control. This is the type of calculated plan that typically the man would devise, and Fantomina discovers that she too finds, unsurprisingly, immense satisfaction from accomplishing her ruses. “How could she not forbear laughing heartily” she reflects in one instance, “to think of the Tricks she had played him and applauding her own Strength of Genius and Force of resolution, which by such un-thought of Ways could triumph over her Lover’s Inconstancy, and render that very Temper, which to other Women is the greatest Curse, a means to make herself more Blessed” (Haywood 243). It is this active engagement in shaping her own future, this questioning of social norms of pleasure and conquest, and this ardent pursual of her own desires that prominently defines the female rake—which, undoubtedly, Fantomina embodies. Moreover, this harkens back to Pizan’s remarks about the hypocritical nature of men, and how they should examine their own morals before libeling the morals of women.

One of the most superb mechanisms of deception of Haywood’s female rake (along with Behn’s as well, though Miranda’s skillful letters are not provided) is her ability to all too easily craft deceitful letters of courtship to her male object, which seems to, in a way, further highlight women’s literary skills, thus accentuating women’s abilities and indirectly authorizing women’s writing. This letter-writing serves as a means of seduction, but also offers a certain agency to Fantomina through the concealment of her true self, while the back and forth literary exchange between man and woman depicts a woman’s equal ability for adept artifice, to write not just an outpouring of passionate ramblings, but as part of a premeditated strategy to achieve her aims. Moreover, like her letters, Fantomina’s continual façade made up of distinctive wardrobes, disguises, and personas convey and celebrate a specifically feminine artistry and cunning. For instance, when dressed as Incognita, Fantomina cleverly hides her face so as to conceal her true identity, and when Beauplaisir confidently attempts to catch the sight of her by the morning light, she is already one step ahead, having “taken care to blind the Windows in such a manner, that not the least Chink was left to let in day” (Haywood 245). Through moments such as these, Haywood illustrates Fantomina as having the supreme control and foreknowledge in each sexual interaction with Beauplaisir, reversing this trope of male domination and thus, in a way, undermining the domineering masculine control of traditional Early Modern courtship. Through her endeavors to stay on equal footing with Beauplaisir by this constant recreation of self, each new persona subsequently allows Fantomina a new freedom, an agency otherwise denied of women, and allows Haywood to boldly explore this realm of the desirous female, while also exploiting the gendered hypocrisies regarding male/ female conduct inbuilt and ingrained within Fantomina’s society. “O that all neglected wives, and fond abandoned nymphs would take this method!” she proclaims, “Men would be caught in their own snare, and have no cause to scorn our easy, weeping, wailing sex!” (251). In an era where women’s virtue was revered and advocated to the most stringent degree, Haywood offers her female character and female reader instead—however short-lived— a sense of female agency, expression, and insight into a male dominated realm, and through Fantomina’s astute trickery, overturns the perception of women as incapable of being anything but the innocent, submissive sexual conquest.

Despite the agency and cunning both Haywood and Behn seem to be attributing to their female protagonists, the query lingers as to why, then, both female characters are eventually caught in their own web of transgressions – in other words, why must the female rake fall? While it is true that each writer’s female protagonists do suffer consequences as a result of their “licentious” behavior, I’d like to suggest that this is not an ultimate condemnation or denunciation of desiring women, but rather another key avenue in underscoring hypocritical gendered codes of conduct, as well as a necessary literary stratagem to enable their work to be published and circulated in the print marketplace. Both Haywood and Behn’s characters have fleeting experiences with being able to act upon their sexual desires, as within their society, the “wanton” sexual desire of the woman was seen as necessarily needing containment and eventual restriction in order to uphold the moral principles of Early Modern culture. Yet, Behn and Haywood handle this obligatory entrenchment of their characters back into the reality of female expectations in subtly ingenious ways: for instance, Miranda is guilty of countless morally reprehensible acts, but is not imprisoned or put to death like the males involved, and gets to live the rest of her life in relative comfort and leisure in Holland. As libertine men were rarely denounced or punished for their wrongdoings, free to act however they pleased, the conclusion to “The Fair Jilt” delivers its protagonist a realistic, didactic end, but doesn’t make her suffer anything too severe or extreme, allowing Miranda to perhaps retain a sense of the liberation enjoyed by innumerable male libertines. Haywood’s ending is not quite as forgiving: Fantomina ultimately gets pregnant, goes into labor publicly, and is sent to spend the rest of her days in a convent.

This ending could be read as a moralizing conclusion of Fantomina’s lewdness, but could alternatively be interpreted as a biting, stark depiction of the circumstances and reality of the female rake, whose biological make-up and societal expectations of innocence and decency made it nearly impossible for her to get away with the kinds of sensuous folly men could heedlessly enjoy and indulge. Therefore, the necessary fall of the female rake in both Behn and Haywood’s fictions represents an endeavor for female authors to still be publishable while attempting to navigate the realm of female sexuality and taking this delicate, censured private notion into public life. While the actuality of the female rake might not be entirely plausible, her presence in literature nonetheless enabled readers to ascertain a new feminocentric perspective in literature, exposed societal gendered hypocrisies, and, in turn, allowed women “a sense of involvement in the outside world—which for all its dangers and disappointments, had great advantages over restrictive domesticity” (Bowers 62).

Ultimately, by inverting the roles of men and women in amatory fictions, both Behn and Haywood were instrumental in opening up a space in literature for the desiring female perspective to be acknowledged and signified. Rather than creating a new kind of female sensuality, however, Behn and Haywood invert the typical aggressive predator-prey structure and power dynamic of Early Modern patriarchal courtship through the “female rake” in order emphasize the craft and wit of the female individual, but dually call awareness and perhaps critique to the double standards of moral behavior expected by men and women in love. In this way, both Fantomina and Miranda embody the notion of the female rake, a characterization that touches upon the gender codes and politics of Early Modern fiction and attempts to work through the double bind of Eros that amatory fiction put young women in. As Bowers contends, the proper approach to works such as these, thus, is not to judge them by a “good” or “bad” literary standard, or whether they are worthy of the literary canon, but instead to ask “how our capacity for pleasure might be augmented by respectful engagement with works we have been trained to resist or dismiss” (70). By refusing to downplay the lustful aspects of love in both sexes, intrepidly prescribing these sensuous passions to women as well, these authors have often been scandalized, villainized, and criticized—both in the past and present. Yet, their powerful insights into the perspective of the desiring, loving female subject have helped pave the way for other female writers to describe the realistic, uncensored experience of the female in love, in lust, and in life. This leaves a powerful legacy in women’s literature and in culture, as their “bad” characters are able to find autonomy in their “nastiness,” to reclaim certain roles otherwise limited to them and subsequently empower themselves and women’s writing. Thus, much like Behn herself, these characters find power in owning their sexuality, their stereotypes, and their “masculine” parts – most prominently, the pen.

3. The Nasty Woman Of Modernity: Virginia Woolf


“The world did not say to her as it said to them, Write if you choose; it makes no difference to me. The world said with a guffaw, Write? What’s the good of your writing?” – Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own

In this final section is a turn to the Modern period, in which prolific modernist author Virginia Woolf [1882-1941] helped illuminate the farcical illusion of women’s equality in modernity and dually emphasizes the female experience within the realm of literature. In the 1920’s, while suffrage movements and the age of the “New Woman” did help progress women’s rights, and allowed women perhaps more freedoms than ever before, certain damaging patriarchal norms and ideologies remained firmly engrained in Western culture. Particularly, Woolf’s work A Room of One’s Own was a revolutionary feminist milestone, as it eloquently articulated the circumstances of the modern woman when faced with misogynistic discourse.

Like Pizan, the wording of the title of her work is particularly invocative of her forthcoming denunciation of patriarchal values and ideologies since, as literary critic Jane Goldman points out, the title “not only signifies the declaration of political and cultural space for women, private and public, but the intrusion of women into spaces previously considered the spheres of men” (75). Moreover, this “room” seems to stand as an underlying metaphor for a space, a shelter, for women’s self-expression, but also as a space in which women could cultivate their own identity, and ways of writing separate from the typical, traditional modes of the man –

which Woolf was incredibly instrumental within her fictional career, employing such methods as free indirect discourse, etc. As Goldman argues, women have had little to do with the ways in which gendered roles have been divided in society, as even the “category of women is not chosen by women” and “it represents the space in patriarchy from which women must speak and which they struggle to redefine” (78). Woolf’s chief aims as a “nasty” woman in writing A Room of One’s Own seem to be to find a voice of her own in the literary world, to advocate for women’s ingenuity and creativeness and explain women’s seemingly inferior triumphs, and to express the need for a literary language “appropriate for women to use when writing about women” in order to carve out a space for women’s expression (78). Thus, as Woolf reflects on both women’s continual oppression in both the past and present, she seems to tie together many of the ideas in the works previously discussed in this paper, while leaving lasting, powerful sentiments of her own.

Woolf ultimately argues that the vastly different and unequal circumstances and expectations of women throughout history have inhibited women’s ability to write, even if they possessed the genius to do so. Woolf dually makes a powerful point about the institutionalized patriarchal codes that are threaded throughout our society, and how gender norms hinder a woman’s ability to participate or reach her full or greatest potential. One of the most moving parts of her essay is when she speaks about how men believe that if they proclaim something, it must be so, sarcastically proclaiming, “How much thinking those old gentlemen used to save one! How the borders of ignorance shrank back at their approach! Cats do not go to heaven. Women cannot write the plays of Shakespeare” (Woolf 46). She then ingeniously approaches this claim by discussing the idea propagated by men that women do not have the abilities to write such grand works as Shakespeare (yet mentions in previous paragraphs, too, the paradox of women’s relationship to literature, as they are represented as highly central within the text itself, yet cast aside in reality as “insignificant”), revealing the domineering patriarchal perception of male authority and control within society, and thus reflected in literature. While the more common argument of the period was that there was no real women’s literary history or wholly impressive works by women merely because of their intrinsically inferior creative capabilities, Woolf takes the contrary stance. Rather, “it would have been impossible” for women’s work to rival men’s achievements, she purports, not because they were lacking in the potential, but because they were not afforded any of the same advantages, education, etc., as women were merely expected to marry and bear children throughout history (56). To demonstrate this, she cites the lack of diverse characters women have played in the literature of men as part of the reason women have been oppressed from reaching such literary acclamation: “Suppose, for instance, that men were only represented in literature as the lovers of women, and were never the friends of men, soldiers, thinkers, dreamers; how few parts in the plays of Shakespeare could be allotted to them; how literature would suffer! We might perhaps have most of Othello; and a good deal of Antony; but no Caesar, no Brutus, no Hamlet, no Lear, no Jaques—literature would be incredibly impoverished, as indeed literature is impoverished beyond our counting by the doors that have been shut upon women” (62).

This exclusion of women from certain roles, particularly spheres of higher knowledge, are highlighted throughout Woolf’s work, and she skillfully interweaves the anguish and struggle women of prior periods could have felt –precisely because there is a lack of facts to rely on to build a different narrative—and stresses how these constructed codes of women’s inferiority would have been eventually internalized by women as well, damaging and oppressing even the most brilliant women throughout history. This is exemplified in her example of Shakespeare’s sister “Judith,” who she describes could have been just as talented in writing as Shakespeare, yet because she was a woman, never could have reached the acclaim of her brother and thus died in obscurity. Judith stands for the “silenced woman writer or artist,” yet is dually “a figure who represents the possibility that there will one day be a woman writer to match the status of Shakespeare, who has come to personify literature itself” (Goldman 78). Therefore, she is the embodiment of the struggles of women’s writers in the past, but also stands as a testament to the hope for women’s writers in the future.

Woolf’s overarching, repeated solution to rebutting the patriarchal codes of her society is through women’s education, specifically through literature. She describes the infuriating persistence of men to keep education out of women’s reach, explaining, “Possibly, when the professor insisted a little too emphatically upon the inferiority of women, he was concerned not with their inferiority, but with his own superiority. That was what he was protecting rather hot-headedly and with too much emphasis, because it was a jewel to him of the rarest price” (33). She rebuts this sexist monopoly on knowledge by declaring emphatically the right for all human beings to learn, to read, to write, and to create—as these things are fundamental and individual entirely to the human experience. “Literature is open to everybody,” she declares, “Lock up your libraries if you like; but there is no gate, no lock, no bolt, that you can set upon the freedom of my mind” (28). Woolf believed that education was the key tool to success—so long as women were so staunchly denied this, as her fictional character was denied entry into Oxbridge’s library in the text, so long would women be held back from their greatest achievements.

Woolf herself was exactly the educated, fierce, intelligent, and wealthy woman that misogynists feared most, precisely because she had her own means and her own wits, thus taking these stereotypes of women who protest men as being “bad women” and using them to empower women’s voices. Once a woman is educated, she believed, she must have then certain basic tools in order to thrive: “money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction” (21). Woolf’s claims emphasize how women were routinely bound to the inferiority prescribed to them by men precisely because they had little opportunity or authority to challenge or rectify their situations, in which they were typically legally and financially obliged to their husbands or fathers, and thus denied such basic freedoms. These revolutionary assertions by Woolf ultimately recast the accomplishments of women in a more frank, yet more positive light, as it called attention to the notion that women had been confined in their intellect, and thus, in their potential, and consequently by no fault of their own were limited in the scope and quality of their success. Woolf proves with her own work of fiction, A Room of One’s Own, that women could write with stunning eloquence and adroitness, thus adding her voice to these other “nasty” women that have contested this misogynistic culture in society, (re)claiming a space and a language for women in literary culture, and assisting in redefining and building women’s literary tradition.

4. Conclusions: Time’s Up, Misogyny

“Feminism isn’t about making women strong. Women are already strong. It’s about changing the way the world perceives that strength.” – G.D. Anderson

Ultimately, the primary question remains: how do we as advocates of and for women fight misogyny in the “Trump and Weinstein” era, a period in which misogyny seems to be becoming more normalized and circulated by powerful men than objected to and denied? By looking at these texts, I believe that the common thread of thought among all these equally “nasty” women is that women’s most powerful weapon against misogyny is language, and how she can use it to her advantage. This skillful use of language to counter misogynistic attacks, to reclaim men’s slurs against women into powerful agents, or by redefining the very social mores and codes that limit our potentials and abilities comes from necessarily educating women. Educating people delivers them from the servitude of ignorance and engenders progress, allowing them to perceive the world in new ways and empathize with one another, while literature specifically allows one to put their mind in relation with and to another human beings’. Thus, women’s ability to tell and write their stories, to voice their opinions and beliefs in logical and articulate ways, to renegotiate the gender contracts of our culture and to enter into these conversations with men who attempt to silence and belittle women into submission requires that women have a working knowledge of the rhetoric that confines them. Through the written word, through creation, through imagination, through oratory storytelling, etc. women can pave new pathways and ideologies to further advance women’s literature and women’s equality.

Each of the texts explored in this paper—the Wife of Bath’s Prologue and Tale, The Book of the City of Ladies, “The Introduction,” “Preface to “The Lucky Chance,” “The Fair Jilt,” Fantomina, and A Room of One’s Own –directly internalize, reinterpret, and then interact with language and formulate responses to misogynistic literature, stereotypes, and expectations, creating a powerful conglomeration of women’s voices each using similar, though often different and profoundly unique, techniques to achieve the same ends – that is, reclaiming women’s agency, reappropriating defamatory and maliciously intended labels to be emboldening and enlightening, and redefining women’s history and women’s place in literary culture. By continuing to educate women, we can provide them the creativity and the ability to imagine new truths for themselves, new realities, and new ways of defending themselves through the very rhetoric that attempts to imprison them. Thus, women can fashion new opportunities for themselves, along with new visions of better and more egalitarian lives. In this way, we can hopefully prompt a culture of tolerance and equality rather than a culture that validates the oppression of women’s voices, that hates, shames, violates, and harms women, and that turns a blind eye to the struggles of countless women around the world. As Oprah Winfrey exquisitely put it in her 2018 speech at the Golden Globes while discussing the “#TimesUp” movement, “I want all of the girls… to know, that a new day is on the horizon. And when that new day finally dawns, it will be because of a lot of magnificent women… fighting hard to make sure that they become the leaders who take us to the time when nobody ever has to say ‘me too’ again.” Therefore, by educating women—and all people—about how to define misogyny, how to identify it, and how to not only cope with but actively combat it, the “nasty” women of contemporary culture can continue to wear this name proudly, as they will triumph over the imposing male intimidators that threaten to drown them out.

Did you hear that, misogyny?

Looks like your time is just about up.  


PDF Version



Behn, Aphra. “The Fair Jilt.” Oroonoko, The Rover, and Other Works. Edited by Janet Maclean Todd, Penguin, 2003, pp. 27-71.

Behn, Aphra “The Lucky Chance, or, The Alderman’s Bargain.” Edited by Fidelis Morgan. Methuen in association with the Royal Court Theatre London, 1984.

Bloch, R. Howard. “Medieval Misogyny.” Representations, vol. 20, 1987, pp. 1–24.

Bowers, Toni O’Shaughnessy. “Sex, Lies, and Invisibility: Amatory Fiction from the Restoration to Mid- Century.” The Columbia History of the British Novel. Edited by John Richetti. Columbia University Press, 1994, pp. 50-72.

Chaucer, Geoffrey. Chaucer: The Wife of Bath’s Prologue and Tale: An Interlinear Translation.” Edited by L.D. Benson, 8 Apr. 2008, https://sites.fas.harvard.edu/~chaucer/teachslf/wbt-par.htm. Accessed 26 Nov 2017.

Finch, Anne, Countess of Winchilsea. “The Introduction.” Poetry Foundation. https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/50564/the-introduction. Accessed 2 June 2018.

Haywood, Eliza. “Fantomina, or, Love in a Maze.” Popular Fiction by Women, 1660-1730. Edited by Paula Backschider and John Richetti, 1996, pp. 42-50.  

Lozada, Carlos. “How to Define, Survive and Fight Misogyny in the Trump and Weinstein Era,” The Washington Post, 1 Dec. 2017. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/book-party/wp/2017/12/01/how-to-define-survive-and-fight-misogyny-in-the-trump-and-weinstein-era/?noredirect=on&utm_term=.ffd537a9c0fe. Accessed 2 June 2018.

McTaggart, Anne. “What Women Want? Mimesis and Gender in Chaucer’s Wife of Bath’s Prologue and Tale.” Contagion: Journal of Violence, Mimesis, and Culture, vol. 19, 2012, pp. 41-67.

OED Online. Oxford University Press, March 2016. Web. 26 September 2017.

De Pizan, Christine. The Book of the City of Ladies. Translated by Earl Jeffrey Richards, Foreword by Marina Warner. Persea Books, 1982.

Dinshaw, Carolyn. “Medieval Feminist Criticism.” A History of Feminist Literary Criticism. Edited by Gill Plain and Susan Sellers, Cambridge University Press, 2009.

Goldman, Jane. “The Feminist Criticism of Virginia Woolf.” A History of Feminist Literary Criticism. Edited by Gill Plain and Susan Seller, Cambridge University Press, 2009.

Treharne, Elaine. “The Stereotype Confirmed? Chaucer’s Wife of Bath.” Essays and Studies, 2002: Writing Gender and Genre in Medieval Literature: Approaches to Old and Middle English Texts, edited by Elaine Treharne and Greg Walker. D. S. Brewer, 2002, pp. 93-115.

Woolf, Virginia. Women & Fiction: The Manuscript Versions of A Room of One’s Own. Edited by S. P. Rosenbaum. Published for the Shakespeare Head Press by Blackwell Publishers, 1992.

La Petit Mort: Female Vampirism, the Abject, and Sexuality

By Nadia Saleh

While the origins of the vampire in literature can be found in early Biblical texts on Lilith, the outpouring of literature on the vampire during the 19th century reflects a renewed interest in the vampire’s link with sex, power, and death. Especially prominent in these texts are female vampires, often portrayed using major female archetypes: the female predator; the mother of evil; and the fallen woman. But why do these tropes persist even now, into the 21st century? Where did these depictions come from? And what is it about the female vampire that strikes fear into the hearts especially of men, a fear that seems tied to confrontation with abjection? The link between this fear and the female vampire seems to be female sexuality, and fear of its overt expression. Female vampires are portrayed as lustful, defiling creatures, in a far more sexualized manner than their male counterparts. This portrayal uncovers fear of that shadowy world just outside the boundaries of society where the female body is powerful, women have agency, and they continually violate the boundaries that are crucial to civilized existence.

Monstrosity, and monster theory itself, deals with the idea of boundaries and the us/them dichotomy that they work to uphold. As Barbara Creed writes in her book The Monstrous Feminine, definitions of the monstrous are grounded in “ancient religious and historical notions of abjection” with a specific emphasis on religious “abominations”: sexual immorality and perversion; corporeal alteration, decay, and death; human sacrifice; murder; the corpse; bodily wastes; the feminine body and incest” (Creed 8-9). These various practices often deal with things that humans find repulsive and unsavory, or things that counter religious and societal ideals. The monster serves to “demarcate the bonds that hold together that system of relations we call culture, to call horrid attention to the borders that cannot–must not–be crossed” (Cohen 13). These strict borders are primarily in place to control the traffic in women and to maintain the ties between heterosexual men that keep a patriarchal society together (Cohen 14). As the boundary marker for society, the monster cordons off the “social space through which cultural bodies may move”; for example, the culturally acceptable expressions of female sexuality. Under this logic, monstrosity and sexuality go hand in hand, as many of the rejected societal practices (incest, sexual perversion, homosexuality) reflect the fear of deviant sexuality. The monster “embodies those sexual practices that must not be committed, or that may be committed only through the body of the monster” (Cohen 14). The monster’s deviant sexuality is linked to its “outlaw” status, the out-group shunned by proper society. The fact that these unacceptable practices are embodied by monsters makes them obvious targets and examples of how not to behave.

Julia Kristeva’s work on abjection, The Powers of Horror, defines abjection as having “only one quality of the object: that of being opposed to I” (Kristeva 1). The abject is something that a person does not recognize either as a subject or an object, an in-between condition linked to both thingness and nothingness. The term literally means “the state of being cast off.” What is being cast off is anything that repulses a human: blood, pus, or even simple things like the skin on top of milk (Kristeva 3). The abject signifies that which humans “permanently thrust aside in order to live,” the ultimate form of the abject being the human corpse (Kristeva 3). The human corpse, “the most sickening of wastes,” is a border that has “encroached upon everything” (Kristeva 5). To see a human corpse is to see mortality and accept it for what it is.

The vampire takes the already abjected human corpse to another level. Dead, but not dead, the vampire marks an even further encroachment upon the borders between life and death. Coupled then with the insatiable need for blood, abjection is intensified. Human blood, something carefully kept internal, must be made external for the vampire to survive. The externality of blood causes fear amongst humans because blood is supposed to remain inside the body. Any sign of blood outside the body is typically a warning of grievous injury or menstrual blood; the former is perceived as alarming, the latter as disgusting. Thus, the extraction of blood and externalization of blood by the not-living, not-dead body of the vampire crosses multiple borders, causing the vampire to be the ultimate abjection. At the core of the vampire lies an affinity for “rupture, change, and mutation,” because all vampires share one trait: the power to move between and undo borders otherwise holding identities in place (Butler 1). The female vampire, however, further increases this abjection. She is abject because she disrupts “identity and order”; her blood lust drives her and thus she does not respect “the dictates of the law which set down the rules of proper sexual conduct” (Creed 61).

The original female vampire, Lilith, appears in several ancient traditions, from the Talmud to ancient Babylonian bowls inscribed with magic texts. The version of Lilith that is most important in the context of the female vampire comes from the Talmud. In this tradition, Lilith is Adam’s first wife, created out of dust by God. Their marriage was not happy; when Adam tried to have sex with her, Lilith refused to lie beneath him: “Why should I lie beneath you, when I am your equal, since both of us were created from dust?” (Patai 296). Adam did not respect her wishes and when Lilith saw that he was determined to “overpower her,” she spoke the magical name of God and flew away to the Red Sea, a “place of ill repute, full of lascivious demons” (Patai 296). It is important to note the choice of words in “overpower.” Adam, Lilith’s male counterpart, wanted power over Lilith. When she refused to acknowledge this power, she flew away to a place full of demons, where she engaged in “unbridled promiscuity” and birthed more than one hundred demons a day (Patai 296).

The legend then continues that three angels, sent by God to retrieve her, were unable to get her to come back with them. Met with Lilith’s disobedience, the angels threatened to drown her in the sea. She argued that she was “created in order to weaken the babes,” and ordered the angels to leave her alone (Patai 296-297). In claiming her identity and worth in injuring babies, Lilith rejects the identity given to her by God and Adam as the submissive wife and forms the archetype for the female vampire. She is a female predator, seeking out babies to feed her blood lust. She is the mother of evil, birthing hundreds of demons a day. And she is the fallen woman, having descended into “unbridled promiscuity” by lying with demons. The fear of Lilith, the archaic mother, turns out to be “essentially fear of her generative power” (Kristeva 77). As Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu puts it in Carmilla, “it is the nature of vampires to increase and multiply” (95). Lilith’s power and influence stretch throughout the literary tradition, coloring the way female vampires are portrayed by other authors.

My study seeks to explore the variety and persistence of Lilith’s traits through focus on vampire texts produced in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.  It focuses on literary, filmic, and televisual texts, namely, Charles Baudelaire’s “Sed Non Satatia” and “The Vampire” (1857); Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu’s Carmilla (1872); Angela Carter’s short story, “The Lady of the House of Love,” (1979); Francis Ford Coppola’s film Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992); and the HBO series Penny Dreadful (2014-2016). All of these works explore the crossing of the boundaries of life and death and of good and evil, and some deal specifically with the boundaries of the body, of virginity, and even of marriage vows. Penny Dreadful gives a name to this shadowy place of blurred boundaries, what Vanessa Ives calls the demimonde, “a half world between what we know and what we fear…a place in the shadows, rarely seen, but deeply felt” (“Night Work”). This place between what is known and what is feared, also called a borderland and a no-man’s-land, is where monsters walk and female agency takes command. In what follows I trace how this expression of female power is portrayed, managed, enjoyed, and punished so that social life can continue to proceed.

Girls Just Wanna Have Blood: The Female Predator

The female predator is a particularly terrifying figure for patriarchal society: the woman who stalks through the night and lures in her prey with her sexual wiles. The vampire, unlike a monster such as a werewolf or a zombie, enfolds the victim in an apparent, or real, erotic embrace. The idea of a woman not only crossing the boundaries of proper sexual conduct but also penetrating the boundaries of blood and the body is terrifying, and yet it continually appears in literature.  So is the idea that she feeds on rather than nourishes other persons. As Bram Dijkstra suggests in Idols of Perversity, “woman, having been consumed in the marriage market, then having become consumptive as a wife through lack of respect, exercise, and freedom, took her revenge by becoming a voracious consumer” (Stephanou 74). Her voracious consumption of blood is a revenge against the voracious consumption of her body and crosses the boundary of proper behavior. Every female predator that exists in the literary canon is a reaction against women’s objectification and commodification in the marriage market. But why is she always so sexualized? And what purpose does it serve to keep telling these stories of female predators over and over again?

Charles Baudelaire touched on the theme of the female predator multiple times in his poetry collection Les Fleurs du Mal, first published in 1857. In the first poem, “Sed Non Satatia,” or “but never satisfied,” the speaker is enslaved to a “daughter of darkness, slattern deity” (Baudelaire 32). The object of his affections is a female predator, a prostitute goddess, a daughter of “filthy covens” of witches. The speaker claims that “to wine, to opium even, I prefer the elixir of your lips on which love flaunts itself” (Baudelaire 32). With the reference to lips, the reader is reminded of the comparison between a woman’s mouth and the sexually aroused female genitals. The woman is drawing him in with both an addictive kiss and the sexual wiles that are present even in her facial features. The speaker then makes comparisons about being trapped in the wasteland of her eyes, where hellfire rains from her soul and he is trapped forever (Baudelaire 33). The speaker is “no Styx, to cradle you nine times”; the river Styx is one of the five rivers of the Greek underworld, known as the river of hate. The number nine refers to completion and fulfillment (Bruce-Mitford and Wilkinson 295). The speaker cannot find fulfillment and completion with her, perhaps reflecting a pseudo-sexual relationship where the speaker wants to have sex with the woman, but can never reach completion despite her sucking the life out of him. “Sed Non Satatia” has one final lamentation: “Alas, and cannot with some Fury’s lust/to break your spirit and your heart, become/in your bed’s inferno…Persephone” (Baudelaire 33). Without some supernatural power, the speaker cannot break the woman’s spirit and, in doing so, turn her hellish bed into the bed of Persephone, the goddess of flowers. It is worth noting that in the myth of Persephone and Hades, Persephone was unwillingly kidnapped, as the woman in this poem would be unwillingly made into something other than she is.

The second poem in Les Fleurs Du Mal to speak about female predators is aptly named “The Vampire.” In this poem, the speaker has been enslaved to a woman, who has made in his corrupted mind “your bed and bedlam there/Beast who bind me to you close/As convict to his chains” (Baudelaire 37). The Devil has given the woman the power to hold the speaker to her, where she will “make her bed,” which can be interpreted either as a form of sexual slavery, or as the place where she can rest and drink what she needs to survive. The speaker curses her, “as a gambler to his winning streak/As drunkard to his wine” (Baudelaire 37). He, too, is suffering from an addiction to the vampiric woman; as much as he hates her and curses her, he cannot leave her behind. There appears to be no release for the speaker, as he begs “both poison and steel” to set him free, but both “as with one voice/contemptuously refused/”You are not worthy to be free/Of your enslavement, fool!” (Baudelaire 37). The reasoning is simple: the speaker is so addicted to the woman that even if she was killed, the speaker’s kisses “would resuscitate/Your vampire’s waiting corpse” (Baudelaire 38). The speaker would be so desperate to regain his lost tormentor that he would immediately resurrect her, continuing the cycle of addiction and degradation.

Both poems deal with themes of addiction and dependency on women, and both reflect societal fears of the demimonde, the shadowy world beyond the edge of society. The woman to whom each speaker is addicted is, at least to them, obviously demonic and sucking the very life out of them, and yet they cannot escape from her charms. Even success in killing the vampress, as the poison and sword in “The Vampire” suggest, would be pointless, because the speaker would only resuscitate her, desperate to have her back. There are other poems in Les Fleurs du Mal that deal with similar themes, even if they are not explicitly on female vampires. Baudelaire seems to be making a comment on the addictive properties of women, using the familiar image of the vampire to further illustrate his point. After all, what is more dangerous to a mortal man than a demonically powerful, sexually powerful vampire? If even opium, a highly addictive substance and a drug that was commonly looked down upon in 19th century society, is said to be preferable to the woman, then something must be very wrong with her. In this case, it is not so much the woman who is breeching boundaries, as she is forcing the man to do so. A man should not be subservient to a woman in patriarchal society, and he certainly should not be so addicted to her that he cannot live without her.

Carmilla, written in 1871 by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu, is another example of the female predator. Predating Bram Stoker’s Dracula by 28 years, the novella articulates anxieties surrounding female sexuality, with its female predator, Carmilla, and its virginal protagonist, Laura, by showing not only woman’s capacity to captivate but also her possible erotic disinterest in men. Not only is she a predator, but specifically of women. The lesbian vampire is an especially frightening instance of boundary crossing, not only because of the taboo against homosexuality but also because essentially she is invisible to general society until she strikes. In the nineteenth century, close female relationships were societally acceptable, even necessary if one was to move easily among high society (Weiss 87). Wealthy women had governesses, handmaids, and close friends of similar status. All of these relationships potentially could disguise a homosexual relationship. The lesbian woman is already a crossing of the boundary of societally accepted sexuality; that is, any sex that is non-procreative is deviant and abhorred, in order for Christian-organized society to continue. The lesbian vampire, a creature that cannot procreate in general and seeks to feed on virginal, innocent women, is a doubly frightening figure.

The lesbian vampire merges two kinds of “sexual outlaws,” because she is not simply a negative stereotype, but a figure that is at once “an image of death and an object of desire,” drawing on subconscious fears of the living toward the dead, and of men toward women (Weiss 84). In an era where women were encouraged to “lie back and think of England” during intercourse, any interest in sex that a woman might show was considered dangerous and disruptive. A female vampire interested in female victims essentially operates in the sexual rather than the supernatural realm, because her feeding is hypersexualized. The physical closeness of the vampire and her victim becomes inherently sexual, an embrace of love and passion alongside the felt necessity to suck another’s blood. The specter of this possibility makes a female friendship something to be avoided and further draws the boundary between societally accepted sexuality (i.e. married, procreative heterosexual sexuality) and deviant sexuality (non-procreative, unmarried, homosexual).

Carmilla is set in Styria, a small state in Austria, in a Gothic mansion in the heart of a forest. Laura’s father is English, but Laura has lived all her life in this borderland between the civilized West and the uncivilized East. Despite this obviously sinister location, Laura claims to be “one of those happy children who are studiously kept in ignorance of ghost stories, of fairy tales, and of all such lore as makes us cover up our heads when the door cracks suddenly” (Le Fanu 4). Because she has not been taught to fear darkness and the things that come in it, Laura is not alarmed one evening to see a “solemn, but very pretty face” looking at her from the side of her bed. Nor is she frightened when the pretty stranger lies down in bed with her and caresses her. It is not until Laura is awakened by “a sensation as if two needles ran into [her] breast very deep at the same time” that she is at all scared (Le Fanu 4). The phantom girl disappears and all is dismissed as a nightmare, because there are no marks on Laura’s chest. The initial bite on her breast is significant, because it codes the vampire’s attacks on Laura as homosexual, even from a young age.

This phantom girl is none other than Carmilla, the girl who suddenly arrives at the family mansion in an unexplained carriage crash. One of Laura’s governesses claims that when the “moon shone with a light so intense it was well known that it indicated a special spiritual activity” (10). It is no surprise that the mysterious Carmilla and her mother, who requires Laura’s father to take in Carmilla for three months in order to handle some urgent business, arrive under the light of such a moon. When Carmilla and Laura come face to face that night, Laura recognizes her as the face that had visited her, which she had “for so many years so often ruminated [on] with horror” (Le Fanu 19). This horror swiftly disappears, as Laura finds gone whatever she had “fancied strange” in Carmilla’s face, and her “dimpling cheeks” were now “delightfully pretty and intelligent” (Le Fanu 20). Laura welcomes her with open arms, happy to have a companion close to her own age after the sudden and mysterious death of Bertha Rheinfoldt, a friend who was supposed to have joined Laura at the estate.

Carmilla immediately expresses a sexual interest in Laura. The strange girl claims that it was Laura’s looks that won her, and Laura feels “rather accountably towards the beautiful stranger,” drawn to her, but also feeling “something of repulsion” towards Carmilla (Le Fanu 21). This repulsion suggests that Laura finds something abject in Carmilla and her attraction to her, as such feelings disrupt Laura’s identity as a virtuous, heterosexual maiden. While she is drawn to Carmilla, her repulsion may lay not only in Carmilla’s secrecy but also in her homosexual overtures. Laura is unable to learn anything about her house guest, except that Carmilla’s family was “very ancient and noble, and her home lay in the direction of the west” (Le Fanu 25). The direction of the west, the orientation of the setting sun, is also a typical site for mortuaries and cemeteries, the first clue into Carmilla’s deathly nature (Rickels 161). Laura constantly pesters Carmilla for information on her background and family, because the secrecy between the two of them angers her. Her idea of a close female relationship involves a blurring of boundaries where all things are open between the two. Carmilla’s thwarting of friendship is one of the first occasions where she is both “attracted to the vampire and also . . . quite turned off by her” (Rickels 161). Carmilla’s responses to these repeated interrogations use romantic and morbid language, an unfamiliar language in the context of friends:

If your dear heart is wounded, my wild heart bleeds with yours. In the rapture of my enormous humiliation I live in your warm life, and you shall die—sweetly die—into mine. I cannot help it; as I draw near to you, you, in your turn, will draw near to others and learn the rapture that is cruelty, which is yet love; so, for a while, seek to no more of me and mine, but trust me with all your loving spirit. (Le Fanu 26)

The beginning of this passage, where Carmilla professes her pain at hurting Laura, is the only part of this speech that seems like a normal interaction between two friends. Carmilla is living in Laura’s “warm life,” her living world, but intends to have Laura “sweetly die” into her own, a world of walking death. Carmilla appears to be obsessed with Laura and wants to kill her before Laura can fall in love with someone else.

Immediately following this speech, Laura is pressed closely into Carmilla’s “trembling embrace” and Carmilla kisses her several times on the cheek (Le Fanu 26). Laura dislikes these embraces, and suffers them only because Carmilla seems to be hypnotizing her: “her murmured words sounded like a lullaby in my ear, and soothed my resistance into a trance, from which I only seemed to recover myself when she withdrew her arms” (Le Fanu 26). Laura experiences “a strange tumultuous excitement,” reflecting her “love growing into adoration,” but these feelings are mingled with “a vague sense of fear and disgust,” stemming from her abhorrence of these homosexual embraces (Le Fanu 26). In another episode, Laura is trapped in an embrace and kissed by Carmilla as the other girl whispers “You are mine, you shall be mine, you and I are one forever” (Le Fanu 27). The desire for companionship of one’s equal is not strange; the desire to kill one’s friend in order to keep them forever and prevent them from ever loving someone else is. It crosses the boundary of acceptable female friendship and moves into obsessive, all-consuming homosexual love. The desire to destroy the boundary between Carmilla and Laura is to destroy both of their identities as separate people, and bring them together as one, single object in the ultimate form of consumption.

At the end of the novella, the reader is informed of certain facts about vampires, collected by an unknown narrator. The first is that the vampire is “prone to be fascinated with an engrossing vehemence, resembling the passion of love, by particular persons” (Le Fanu 94). This  fits with the depiction of Carmilla’s growing obsession over Laura, feeling a kind of love towards her that could only be satiated when she had “drained the very life of her coveted victim” (Le Fanu 94). Strangely enough, when it comes to these victims of the vampire’s passion, the vampire desires “something like sympathy and consent” (Le Fanu 94). Carmilla could not kill Laura without being loved by her, without gaining her consent to drain her blood.  This point is stressed in the text when Carmilla kills without courting other victims, like the swineherd’s wife and various village women, who are killed “often at a single feast,” overpowered by violence (Le Fanu 95). Carmilla, despite her mesmeric powers, perverts the act of human love by hoping for consent, rather than outright controlling her partner. However, as Carmilla tells Laura, she does not require that consent: “You must come with me, loving me, to death; or else hate me and still come with me and hating me through death and after” (Le Fanu 42). No matter what Laura decides, Carmilla owns her and controls her, and she will be killed whether or not she accepts it.

Debating whether or not Carmilla truly loved Laura is unnecessary, and unknowable, because the point of the novel does not hinge on that particular fact. What does matter is the various levels at which this novel operates. On the most obvious level, Carmilla is about the dangers posed by unnatural creatures to virginal heroines, a typical Gothic plot. But beneath the obvious plot line are other themes, interconnecting like strands in a spider web. Carmilla does not seek out male victims; every recorded death attributed to her is of a young woman. Her conflicting impulses “towards narcissistic love and annihilation compel her to seek out victims of her own age and sex, reflections of herself” (Silver, Ursini 103). In other words, Carmilla is a self-fetishizing predator; by killing reflections of herself, she acts out her own murder, over and over, while feeding her lust for blood. As a distant relation of the Karnsteins, Laura is an obvious victim for Carmilla, given that she resembles her by age, appearance, and blood. They share a bloodline, adding another dimension to Carmilla’s consumption of Laura. While she drinks Laura’s blood and consumes her life force, Carmilla also consumes herself, her own bloodline and ancestry.

The question remains why Carmilla, an obviously powerful and ancient vampire, has to be depicted as a lesbian. She could simply seek out those who are her mirrors without seducing them first; after all, she exhibits a mesmeric power that would pacify any victim, allowing her to feed without much fuss, and she does kill several women this way in the village. But Bertha Rheinfoldt and Laura both are given special treatment, an extended hunt that utilizes the mesmeric power but does not rely solely on it. Le Fanu purposefully characterizes Carmilla as a hunter whose favorite prey is women of her own age and likeness. By depicting her as such, as a “vampire rapist who violates and destroys her victim,” the male readers of the novella are soothed of their fear that “lesbian love could create an alternate model” to heterosexuality (Creed 61). If the female vampire, the female predator, only preys on unwilling victims who actively dislike her attentions, and would resist them if they were physically capable, then readers are assured that the female vampire is a true monster. She preys on virginal, pure victims who are violated by her mere presence. In a society that values virginity and chastity, the story serves as a warning towards women to beware of homosexuality and its deadly consequences, and as a way to alleviate male fears that homosexuality could become an alternative model of love that would detract from heterosexual relationships. This hypothesis is sanctioned by the end of the novella, in a scene that can only be described as revenge pornography:

The body, in accordance with the ancient practice, was raised, and a sharp stake driven through the heart of the vampire, who uttered a piercing shriek at the moment, in all respects such as might escape from a living person in the last agony. Then the head was struck off, and a torrent of blood flowed from the severed neck. The body and head was next placed upon a pile of wood, and reduced to ashes, which were thrown upon the river and borne away. (Le Fanu 92)

Carmilla’s death scene involves gratuitous violence. The descriptions of her death and the state of her body are unnecessarily violent and graphic. In vampire lore, the burning of the body and the scattering of the ashes are not a requirement. If anything, this scene appears to be Laura’s father and General Spielsdorf’s revenge on Carmilla for her attacks on their daughters. By acting out this male fantasy of vengeance, Le Fanu gives a not-so-subtle warning as to what happens to women who cross the boundaries of accepted sexuality: complete and utter destruction by the patriarchal structure.

While the other female vampires of this archetype appear willing and hungry for blood, the female predator of Angela Carter’s short story, “The Lady of the House of Love,” is an unwilling one. Described as “the last bud of the poison tree that sprang from the loins of Vlad the Impaler,” Countess Nosferatu is the last in a long line of vampires occupying her ancestral chateau. The village below is abandoned, as “all shun the village…in which the beautiful somnambulist helplessly perpetuates her ancestral crimes” (Carter 93). Carter portrays the Countess as someone who cannot help but feed, someone who is bound by her ancestry to feed on the blood of humans. The Countess is “a system of repetitions…a closed circuit” (Carter 93). She perpetually lays out the Tarot to predict her future “as if the random fall of the cards…could obliterate the perennial sadness of a girl who is both death and the maiden” (Carter 93). No matter how many times she deals the Tarot, which by all accounts should be a random combination of cards drawn from the stack, she receives the same three, over and over: La Papesse, La Mort, La Tour Abolie (Carter 95). The High Priestess represents either wisdom, or the inability to make good judgement. The card of Death represents transformation and change, or lethargy and an inability to move on. Finally, the Tower, a card typically depicted as a tower being struck by lightning, is a sign of radical change, or a resistance to that change (Bruce-Mitford and Wilkinson 199-198). In a literal rut of continually drawing the same Tarot cards, the Countess’s fate as foretold by those cards reflects her inability to change and move on from her condition.

That she is an unwilling predator is made apparent in an early comment that the Countess loathes the food that she eats: “she would have liked to take the rabbits home with her, feed them on lettuce….but hunger always overcomes her” (Carter 96). Even the small creatures she ate as a young girl disturb her, but she has no other means of feeding herself. And now that she is a woman, she must have men. Any man who ventures to the fountain in the village will be led to the Countess’s chateau by her mute keeper. The men “can scarcely believe their luck” when the Countess leads them to her bedroom, where they will be consumed and then buried in the garden. The Countess is a perpetual virgin, dressed in her mother’s wedding gown. Every night would be her wedding night, where she would like to stroke her victim’s “lean brown cheeks and their ragged hair,” but she must eat. Every wedding night ends only in blood and the continuing of her miserable, repetitive existence, as she “only knows one kind of consummation” (Carter 103). Rather than allow herself to be consumed in the marriage bed, the Countess must constantly consume and reject the possibility of change.

The unnamed hero of the story is described thusly: English, virginal, and rational. He is “a being rooted in change and time,” riding a bicycle on a collision course with “the timeless Gothic eternity of the vampires” (Carter 97). The night he arrives in her village, the Countess pulls a card she has never turned before: Les Amoureux (Carter 97). The Lovers card is symbolic of affairs of the heart, inner harmony, and temptation or separation. Already the cycle has been broken. The Countess has always desired a fate that involved love. Patricia Duncker argues that the Countess longs for the finale of a snuff film, in which she is sexually used and then ritually killed. By doing so, “she can abandon her predatory sexuality, the unnatural force, as her own blood flows, the symbolic breaking of the virgin hymen, the initiation into sexual maturity and then into death” (Duncker 9). Her cyclical, repetitive life hinges on the one thing she cannot rid herself of: her virginity. And when the unnamed hero arrives, he rescues her like a maiden from a tower, a knight in an old fairy tale. The rational young man takes pity on her, thinking she needs psychiatric help, and in doing so, breaks the cycle forever. He refuses to be a victim or a meal, and thus “denies the complicity essential to the maintenance of a vampiric relationship” (Sceats 11). The Countess does not take unwilling prey, it seems. Every man on whom she has fed has walked willingly to his doom. By refusing to submit to her desires and treating her with compassion, the unnamed hero provides her with a cure: he renders her human, adult, but mortal and then dead.

By “completing” the Countess, by showing her compassion and a kind of love, the unnamed hero releases her from her condemnation to “solitude and dark” (Carter 97). He plans to “cure her of all her nightmares,” a heroic notion, if a slightly misogynistic one that assumes she needs him to save her. But his compassion, rationality, and unwillingness to follow the well-trodden path to her bed and to destruction releases her from the cycle of predation and consumption. The hero then takes his bicycle and pedals off, sad to see her gone, but none the more affected. The defining moment of the Countess’s life is nothing more than a blip for a man with “the special glamour of that generation for whom history has already prepared a special, exemplary fate in the trenches of France” (Carter 97).  The unnamed hero has a fate far beyond the Countess and her dilapidated mansion.

“The Lady of the House of Love” is a retelling of “The Sleeping Beauty of the Wood,” and twists the fairytale trope of the power of the prince’s kiss as well as the hedge of roses that surrounds the princess. As the virginal hero approaches the mansion, he is immediately struck by a “blast of rich, faintly corrupt sweetness strong enough, almost, to fell him” (Carter 98). The roses that surround the mansion strike him immediately as something wrong, something repulsive:

Too many roses. Too many roses bloomed on enormous thickets that lined the path, thickets bristling with thorns, and the flowers themselves were almost too luxuriant, their huge congregations of plush petals somehow obscene in their excess, their whorls, tightly budded cores outrageous in their implications (Carter 98).

The roses that seem repulsive, extravagant, and excessive, resemble the engorged, sexually aroused female genitals. With the addition of the “bristling thorns,” the roses become a symbol of the vagina dentata, one of man’s greatest fears. The myth of woman as castrator clearly points to male fears about the female genitals as a trap, or a black hole. Combining the already frightening female genitals with teeth creates the mouth of hell, a terrifying symbol of women as the devil’s gateway (Creed 71).  The Countess’s roses are a manifestation of her sexuality, which is outrageous in its flamboyancy, but also threatening to the man who dares to have sex with her.

The unnamed hero makes a connection between the roses outside, and the Countess’s lips almost immediately. He describes it as an “extraordinarily fleshy mouth, a mouth with wide, full prominent lips of a vibrant purplish-crimson” (Carter 101). Once again, her engorged lips are a metaphor for the female genitals with their red color and swollen appearance. The hero even goes so far as to think of her mouth as a “morbid mouth, even a whore’s mouth” (Carter 101). Her sexuality is so strong that it manifests itself physically in her face and mouth, the very mouth that contains her sharp teeth. The roses have developed their appearance from a different source; when the Countess finishes with her victims, her keeper buries their bodies under the rose hedges. This man-fertilizer gives the roses “their rich color, their swooning odor that breathes lasciviously of forbidden pleasures” (Carter 105). As such, the roses have become a part of the Countess’s closed circuit. The roses entice the men entering the mansion, filling their heads with the scent of forbidden pleasures. Their bodies feed the roses, giving them more power and allowing them to lure more men to feed the Countess.

The final rose of the piece is the rose that the hero takes back with him to his regiment. In the Countess’s narration, she says that she leaves him the “dark, fanged rose I plucked from between my thighs, like a flower laid on a grave” (Carter 107). She has given him the gift of her virginity as a souvenir. Trapped in her virginal state, she could not give that rose to anyone, except the man who set her free and allowed her to die. The rose he takes appears to be an extraordinary one, as it survives the journey from Romania to Bucharest, and then seemingly revives itself when the hero places it in water. The “heavy fragrance” of the rose fills the barracks and he sees it as a “glowing, velvet, monstrous flower whose petals had regained all their former bloom and elasticity, their corrupt, brilliant, baleful splendor” (Carter 108). The Countess’s roses, fed on the lifeblood of young men, are repulsive even in their beauty, and can survive long trips and spread their powerful, lustful scent even when separated from the rest of the bush. The rose also serves as an omen of consequences that the hero has not considered: he consumed the Countess’s blood when he kissed her cut finger. He, like the rose, may bear some attributes of the Countess that he does not know yet.

As a tale of a female predator, “The Lady of the House of Love” invokes sympathy for the Countess, who does not want to be a killer and seducer of men. She wishes only for love and humanity, but cannot fight the primal state she inherited from her ancestors. The rational hero, protected by his “power in potentia” of virginity, is the wild card in the Tarot deck that can set her free (Carter 97). Carter is probably not making a commentary on the power of virgins, but rather on the rationality of the hero. He does not believe in vampires, does not believe that she is anything other than an anorexic, nearly-blind noble lady who needs his help. It is his rationality and desire to help that frees her. By not believing in her power, the hero renders the Countess powerless, mortal, and dead. But her power is greater than even he knows; her dark, fanged rose lives on with him, and her blood is in his veins. He may not believe in the power, but a dark cloud hangs on his horizon, from the trenches and from the bloodline of the Nosferatu.

The female predator is a voracious consumer, a woman who feasts on blood and enslaves her victims, and reflects a deep-seated fear of boundary crossings in society. These female vampires ignore social convention and reject values of female purity and chastity in favor of feeding their own lust for blood. Their unbridled sexual powers draw in unsuspecting victims, male and female alike, and drain them of their blood, or enslave them and keep them as food sources. The lesbian vampire is the mirror that society holds up to its members as a warning of what sexual deviancy leads to: destruction. The female predator cannot survive in a society that needs her dead in order to continue. Carmilla is brutally murdered in a scene of violence; Countess Nosferatu dies to allow for the future to roll forward. Baudelaire’s vampires exist to decimate the male population, enslaving them and addicting them to their feminine wiles. Their victims are painted as weak, deviant addicts whom society must cull from the herd in order for society to grow stronger. In the end, it comes down to a very simple choice: predatory women, or patriarchal society. And in the literary canon, the predatory woman loses every time.

The Blood is the Wife: The Fallen Woman in Dracula

The concept of the “fallen woman” reigns supreme in many works of 19th century literature. According to The Oxford English Dictionary, the word “fallen” “ascribes a moral connotation to the verb, fall, meaning that the fallen person has lost their purity or innocence. A fallen woman is one who has surrendered her chastity; whether this occurs through prostitution, rape, or a sexual encounter, the term still applies. While Lilith is the most obvious candidate for the first fallen woman, Eve seems to be the more common choice for embodying the archetype. While admittedly Eve did not surrender her chastity, she lost her purity and innocence by eating from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. She was the one to cause humanity’s fall from grace, an act that still reverberates in the collective psyche of society. The long line of neo-Eves who appear in literature reflect the “neurosis of a culture that feared female sexuality and aggression”; why else recycle the character of the fallen woman over and over? (Auerbach 31) By doing so, society enshrines a “respectably sadistic cautionary tale,” punishing female sexuality as a constant reminder of the constraints of appropriate female sexuality and chastity (Auerbach 31).

The novel Dracula was originally published in 1897 and has been remade into a film an estimated 217 times. Some feature only the character Dracula in otherwise unrelated stories; others, like the 1992 Bram Stoker’s Dracula directed by Francis Ford Coppola, reshape the original story for their own purposes. In the case of the Coppola film, Dracula gains an origin story, a quest, and something that could pass for a redemption story. We learn that although Dracula defeats the Turks in a battle, his beloved wife commits suicide after getting false news of his death. Upon learning that she is damned for killing herself, Dracula desecrates his chapel, renounces God, and stabs the cross with his sword. By then drinking the blood leaking from the cross, he becomes a vampire. While giving the Count a three-dimensional character, Coppola and screenwriter James V. Hart also expanded upon the five female characters that appear in the film: Lucy Westenra, Mina Murray, and the three brides. For our purposes, it is significant that each of these women fall or has already fallen in the film, and that each woman takes a separate path to her loss of innocence.

Dracula’s brides, referred to as “the sisters” in the novel but as “the devils of the pit” in the film, have already experienced their fall.  When Jonathan Harker first encounters them in the bowels of Dracula’s castle, they appear as specters. Feminine laughter, the tinkling of bells, and then a voice that sounds eerily like Mina’s calls to Jonathan to “lay back into my arms”. Behind him, but visible to the viewer, the bed is moving from underneath the covers. A bride suddenly appears between his legs and the other two appear as if birthed from the bed itself. Because of the way the camera is angled and the positions of the brides, the cavity from which they emerge resembles a vagina, or perhaps even a mouth. If a mouth, it mirrors both the mouth of the vampire, and the mouth of hell. As Aspasia Stephanou states in her book Reading Vampire Gothic Through Blood, “it is not accidental that “mors” (death) is derived from bite (morsus)” (116). Thus, the vampire is not only a fanged death, but an embodiment of the mouth of hell. If the shape is viewed as a vagina, then these fanged women are birthed out of the mouth of hell and a vagina dentata, reflecting the male fear of the castrating female.

Their costumes make it quickly apparent that these are no ordinary women: one bride is wearing an Oriental or Russian style headdress; another has live snakes coiled in her hair. All of them are bare-breasted, their lower halves swathed in loose, sheer cloth. With bells around their ankles, they seem more at home in a harem or belly-dancing in a brothel. Such costuming exoticizes them while it eroticizes them, distancing them from Western civilization. By doing so, the brides become more monstrous and less humanized. The encounter seems like a fever dream, the camera moving too quickly to really get a sense of the action besides its erotic nature, which is intense.  The brides are moaning as they kiss and stroke the prone Jonathan Harker, until they bare their fangs and sink their teeth into him in a cannibalistic frenzy. One bride bites from the pulse point at his wrist, an easy source of blood. Another cuts his nipple, allowing the blood to pour out like milk and making the act of drinking blood into a perversion of breast-feeding. The third bride drinks from between Jonathan’s legs, close to his genitals, making the feeding into a sexual act. It is probable that they would have consumed Jonathan completely had Dracula not entered and given them a baby to eat instead. That an infant is their chosen meal further codes them as monstrous women; because they eat the baby instead of breast-feeding it, they pervert the association of women with nurturance.

Highly seductive and barely clothed, the brides essentially are presented as prostitutes, one of the more common depictions of fallen women in the literary canon. But other features go beyond this characterization, as when they kiss each other’s bloody mouths over Jonathan’s prone body. Here the fallen woman converges with the monstrous woman, who combines features of cannibalism with lesbianism. That the brides express sexual desire for each other intensifies their fallenness. They are meant to be seen as villains, first for making Jonathan unfaithful to Mina (as Van Helsing later puts it) and secondly for nearly killing him. But beyond their obvious role as villain-antagonists, the brides serve another, deeper purpose. They show where the “fall” ends. It does not end simply with being thrown out of Eden, or out of the family home, as other fallen women narratives end. Instead, they become “the whores of Satan,” their bodies available for use by the Devil, feeding on the blood of the living in a perversion of “normal” female behaviors like marital sex or breastfeeding. If the question is whether the brides take after Lilith or Eve, the answer is Lilith.

Lucy Westenra, on the other hand, takes after Eve. From the beginning of the film, Lucy is portrayed as a rather spoiled, rich young woman interested primarily in fashion and flirtation. Her costumes typically are off-the-shoulder, flowing dresses framed by the loose tendrils of her red hair. The dress she wears the night that her three suitors are introduced is referred to as her “snake dress”: indeed, it is tight, green, and decorated with embroidered snakes. The allusion to the serpent, coupled with her red hair, which was often associated with Mary Magdalene and viewed as a sign of her sexual impropriety, clues in the viewer about the role that Lucy is going to play: that of the sexually loose woman (Bruce-Mitford and Wilkinson 108). Mina claims that “Lucy is a pure and virtuous girl,” even though her actions seem to suggest the opposite. Lucy claims to know what men desire and proceeds to make a sexually explicit joke to Quincey Morris about the size of his Bowie knife: “Please, Quincey, let me touch it. It’s so big.” This, coupled with Lucy’s dreams about sex, show that she thinks about sex quite a bit more than would be appropriate for a woman of her age and class, and is willing to openly express it without fear of the consequences. Her aristocratic status probably offers her more leeway and protects her from bourgeois judgments, but she is expected to get married and give up this sexual agency soon.

Nothing in the film implies that Dracula is aware of Lucy’s flirtatious nature when he chooses her for his first victim after he lands in England. But for some reason, Lucy is drawn by Dracula’s call out in her garden and leaves her room during a violent storm caused by the Demeter’s arrival at port. Perhaps her sexualized nature makes her more susceptible to his call, or perhaps Dracula did not want to feed on Mina until he had begun to woo her. In any case, Lucy’s “nightgown” resembles red lingerie more than anything else, and is made up mainly of red gauze and a reddish scarf that mixes with her hair in the wind. The use of red in Lucy’s costumes has sexual implications; red, of course, being the color of love, passion, and blood-lust (Bruce-Mitford and Wilkinson 280). Dracula rapes and feeds from Lucy on top of a stone bench; when he vanishes, she is left on top of it like a used sacrifice. As Mina brings her back inside, Lucy describes the encounter, believing it to be a nightmare, and reveals that Dracula had also fed her his blood.

The arrival of Dr. Abraham Van Helsing, “the metaphysician philosopher,” sheds light on Lucy’s predicament. Her regular doctor, Dr. Seward, calls in Van Helsing because Lucy had been complaining of nightmares and other “changes,” like being able to hear the maids whispering from across the house. Ultimately, Van Helsing is able to diagnose Lucy’s attacker as the “vampyre”:

We are dealing with forces beyond all human experience and enormous power. Guard her well, or your beloved Lucy will become a bitch of the Devil. A whore of darkness. Lucy is not a random victim attacked by mere accident. No, she is a willing recruit, a breathless follower, a wanton follower, I dare say a devoted disciple. She is the devil’s concubine.

Van Helsing’s words, although cautioning, also imply that Lucy has drawn Dracula to herself with her perceived promiscuity. In the doctor’s understanding, Lucy is not innocent, but instead is responsible for drawing Dracula to her and desires to be turned into a vampire as well, and thus must be protected from her desires by the men around her. Lucy’s sexual agency is frightening and must be curbed in order to save her soul. It is no wonder that Van Helsing makes the connection between her illness and sexual desire; when the telegraph calling him to London arrives, he is lecturing on sexuality: “The very name venereal diseases, the diseases of Venus, imputes to them divine origin. And they are involved in that sex problem that which the ethics and ideals of Christian civilization [sic] are concerned”. The idea of sexually transmitted diseases being the diseases of Venus gives them not only a divine origin, but also a feminine origin. In this, Van Helsing places the blame for venereal diseases on women, which ties in with his belief that Lucy’s illness is her own fault. The feminine origin of these venereal diseases has caused the “sex problem” that Christian society is focused on: in order to keep society safe, men must curb the sexual desires of women to prevent the spread of these diseases.

The night that Mina leaves the Count to marry Jonathan in Romania, Dracula kills Lucy in a fit of rage. Just before ripping out her throat, he exclaims, “Your impotent men and their foolish spells cannot protect you from my power. I condemn you to living death, to eternal hunger for living blood”. In calling the three suitors and Van Helsing “impotent,” Dracula not only asserts his power over mortal men, but conflates power with sexual prowess. In a way, if mortal men were not impotent, they would be able to protect Lucy from unlawful desire by keeping her sexuality within the bounds of societal norms. Because they cannot, Lucy is buried in her wedding gown. This dress signifies that Lucy was about to perform femininity “properly” by getting married, but was diverted from that path by her vampiric death.

Despite the film’s emphasis on her sexuality, Lucy, it turns out, does not seek out men on which to feed, but instead prefers babies. Whereas in the novel, multiple reports of a “bloofer lady” signal Lucy’s change into a vampire, the film presents the transition differently. The night of her funeral is when Lucy “makes her big comeback” and kidnaps a child to eat; the men refer to her as a “nightmare of Lucy,” although she is still recognizably Lucy, and also a vampire (Rickels 33). Once again, her costuming accentuates her characterization.  Her wedding gown is pure white with a ruff so wide that Lucy resembles a frill-necked lizard. This was a deliberate choice by the film’s costume designer, Eiko Ishioka, who wanted Lucy to look like a predatory reptile. As with the brides, the costume choices link vampirism with predation, in which women use sexual wiles and vampiric mesmerism to catch their prey. This notion of being captivated is illustrated when Lucy’s fiancé, Arthur Holmwood, falls under her spell as she calls for him, and refers to him as her husband. This implies that Lucy has received the holy sacrament of marriage, along with the unholy sacrament of baptism of the blood. By attempting to seduce her “husband” so that she can drink his blood, Lucy perverts “normal” female sexuality. Her desire to indulge in “lawful” sex is not for procreation, but rather to satisfy her own bloodlust. In the event, Van Helsing saves Holmwood from this fate and they kill Lucy’s vampiric self. Lucy’s bloody mouth and “wildly contorted body under Holmwood’s vigorous thrusts form a terrible parody of a wedding night,” and marks an ending of her fall (Butler 116).  She returns to her marital bed and is freed from her fate as a “concubine of the Devil.”

Out of the female characters, Mina appears to participate most willingly in her fall, and yet she is the one who achieves redemption. At the beginning of the film, Mina identifies herself as “only a school-mistress” and seems repulsed by sexuality, even as she peeks at Richard F. Burton’s A Thousand Nights and a Night, considered a work of pornography in the 19th century. Her costumes are typically sage green, green being the color of nature, harmony, and freshness, and having a strong emotional correspondence with safety (Bruce-Mitford and Wilkinson 282). In fact, Ishioka stated that Mina’s costumes were to be “very strict, tight, conservative costume [sic]…really like virginity, or modesty.” This costuming establishes Mina as the paragon of virtue. However, when she becomes the reincarnation of Dracula’s lost wife, Elisabeta, she embodies the prey in Dracula’s hunt in London. In her first meeting with Dracula, Mina is sharp with him, and calls upon the laws that protect virtuous women to get rid of him: “Do I know you sir? Are you acquainted with my husband? Shall I call the police?” By invoking the safety of marriage, Mina discourages Dracula’s advances and stays well within societal bounds. Still, she accompanies Dracula to the cinematograph, where Dracula attempts to bite her but is unable to go through with it. Whether his restraint is out of vestigial love for Elisabeta preventing him from harming her, or a realization that the time isn’t right, Dracula lets Mina go and pursues a more gentle approach in wooing her. Despite his ability to overpower Mina, Dracula seems to want Mina’s consent to change her, as if he wants her to remember him first. Mina’s recognition of Dracula as her husband would also prevent her from “falling”; after all, then she would only be performing her duties as a good wife by being with him.

Mina is drawn to Dracula from the beginning, and manifests her memories of life as Elisabeta more than once. But Dracula is able to carry on his courtship of Mina only so long as Jonathan is trapped in the castle with the brides. Once Jonathan escapes, Mina rejects Dracula and goes to Romania to marry Jonathan. On the ship to Romania, Mina destroys her diary that describes her infidelity with Dracula, and muses upon her own nature: “perhaps though I try to be good, I am bad. A bad, inconstant woman”. With the fallen woman appearing often in Victorian literature and art, Mina would have been familiar with the whore/virgin anxiety surrounding female sexuality. Despite her best efforts, something in her is wrong, the original sin of Eve coming to the forefront.  Now that she is married, and has presumably consummated her marriage to Jonathan, Mina “understands the nature” of her feelings for Dracula, recognizing them as desire and love. Dominant views make female sexuality black and white, proper behavior separated from improper by clear boundaries. Mina would prefer to be firmly in the “white” area, in love and faithful to her husband, but is unable to keep herself from wavering towards wanting an extramarital affair with Dracula.

When offered the choice, Mina does not fall so much as jump. While the men consecrate Carfax Abbey, Mina retreats to the asylum, where Dracula appears first as green mist, and then as his young self. Dracula is dressed in blue, the color of emptiness; Mina, in white, the color of purity (Bruce-Mitford and Wilkinson 282). During this encounter, Dracula admits to his true nature as a vampire, and to killing Lucy. Although Mina is obviously upset by the murder of her friend, she weeps, “I love you! Oh, God, forgive me, I do.” Despite her wedding vows, despite the terrifying nature of the man she loves, Mina makes an active choice to be with Dracula: “I want to be what you are, see what you see, love what you love.” In order to make her a vampire, Dracula drinks from her neck in an erotic embrace, and then perverts the act of breastfeeding by cutting open his chest and feeding her his blood. Even when he tries to back out of the conversion, not wanting to curse Mina to “walk in the shadow of death for all eternity,” Mina begs him to take her away from death. At this moment, Elisabeta seems to have taken control, and Dracula and his bride are reunited, four hundred years after Elisabeta leapt into the river.

However, when the men burst in and frighten Dracula away, Mina’s first words are “unclean,” signaling the struggle within her between her love for Dracula and her need to be a good wife to Jonathan. She mourns for what she has done to Jonathan on the train back to Romania; yet once at the Borgo Pass, she calls up a storm to protect Dracula. Her double nature as Mina and Elisabeta keeps her in a constant tug-of-war. Despite her best efforts, Jonathan slits Dracula’s throat, and Quincey stabs him through the heart with a Bowie knife. Mina then takes the dying Dracula into the chapel he desecrated, bringing the story full circle. As Mina professes her love for Dracula, the candles light and the cross heals itself. Her narration says simply, “There in the presence of God, I realized how my love could release all of us from the powers of darkness. Our love is stronger than death.” In some way, Mina’s love, as a proxy for Elisabeta’s, repairs the damage done to Dracula’s soul and to the chapel itself, and redeems both of them. The burn from the communion wafer on Mina’s forehead vanishes as Dracula dies, signaling her cleansing from the unholy baptism of Dracula’s blood. The ending of the film implies that Dracula and Elisabeta both ascend to Heaven, freed not by God but by Mina’s love.

Mina is the only woman who is seen to choose vampirism on screen, and yet she is the only one to find any redemption. The brides and Lucy are beheaded and freed from vampirism, but the fate of their souls is unknown. It can be assumed that Mina, despite eating the apple, is allowed to return to Eden with Jonathan rather than be cast out like the other fallen women of the film. The question is, why is Mina different? In the film, it seems that because Mina received the sacrament of marriage, the unholy communion she has taken is rendered void with the death of Dracula, and she is capable of giving salvation even as she receives her own. Without Jonathan’s continuing love for her, Mina would have been cast out as one of many fallen women, discarded for their infidelity. Jonathan seems capable of understanding Mina’s duality as both Elisabeta and Mina, and her honesty about her attraction to Dracula contributes to her salvation. Her lack of monstrosity also seems to protect her. Unlike the brides or Lucy, Mina had never ingested blood besides Dracula’s, and lacks the foreign object inside her that would have sealed her fate. She becomes the monster, but never monstrous.

Bram Stoker’s Dracula is not intentionally about the concept of the fallen woman, or Victorian ideals for feminine chastity. But as a text set in the Victorian era, when the fallen woman was appearing frequently in literature and art, the historical context is important in reading the film. The film presents a spectrum of falls: the brides, their fall unknown; Lucy, the fall of assumed choice; and Mina, the chosen fall. The brides are the end point, the final piece of the triptych that shows the degradation of the woman who chooses sexuality over societal values. Their callous, vengeful beheading by Van Helsing is their punishment. Lucy, who is flirtatious and woos three men at once, is the symbol of overt female sexuality. Her fiancé’s role in her murder reflects man’s position in keeping female sexuality contained: by killing her vampiric self, Holmwood protects society at large from her. Finally, Mina is the “saved” woman. Her loving, benevolent husband takes her back, saving her from the fate of the fallen woman. In this sense, Jonathan is able to decide Mina’s fate, reflecting the patriarchal power of the husband in Victorian society. As much as Mina’s narrative reshapes the fallen woman archetype, reflecting a new understanding between husband and wife, the film itself is still troubling. The brides, Lucy, and Mina are set up as a continuum. Mina’s narrative is advanced, but the other women in the film are still sexualized and murdered horribly. Every fallen woman’s punishment is delivered by a man; their vampirism is what makes their punishment a physical death, rather than a societal death.

Queen of the Damned: Penny Dreadful and the New Lilith

As discussed previously in this work, the Mother of Evil archetype originates with Lilith, Adam’s first disobedient wife. It is important to note why Lilith argues for her freedom, and how she does it. In a different translation of the text, she uses Biblical jurisdiction, calling on Deuteronomy 24:4: “Her former husband, who sent her away, may not take her again to be his wife; after that she is defiled” (Patai and Bar-Itzhak 333). Twice, Lilith called upon God to free her from her subservience to Adam: first, when she used His name to flee Eden, and second when she used His law to protect herself. The next part of this translation is phrased in an interesting manner: “Lilith accepts her punishment, in return for her freedom, and agrees that 100 of her children will die every day” (333). Lilith preferred the death of her children over having to return to and obey Adam; her freedom meant more to her. The folklorist Haya Bar-Itzhak construes this story as a myth that serves a narrative purpose:

It does so in a sophisticated manner and rules out any possible challenge to that order. The first woman’s equal status in creation bodes disaster because it leads her to demand equal status. When this is denied, she rebels against man. Her rebellion leads her to betray man and couple with a demon. But this is not the end of the chain that leads from equality and satisfaction of erotic needs to rebellion and betrayal. The culmination is when she is made into the archetypal anti-mother. (Patai and Bar-Itzhak 333)

The patriarchal narrative requires that rebellious women not be allowed to take part in any normal feminine behaviors, especially not motherhood. To be a mother is to have power over one’s children; a rebellious woman cannot be a mother, because children were meant to be the property of the father. So women cannot be created equal, or they follow Lilith’s path straight to rebellion and damnation. This reading of the myth creates a false equivalence, however. Because Lilith is a woman, and a mother, it is assumed that she has maternal feelings for her children and is suffering as a result of their daily deaths. Nothing in the myth suggests that she feels anything about her demonic children, which are not birthed as much as spawned.

Showtime’s three-season long series, Penny Dreadful, constructs its narrative around the Lilith myth and follows in the tradition of the penny dreadful, a sensationalist comic or magazine much like our contemporary National Enquirer. These pamphlets often contained Gothic thrillers, like Sweeney Todd, or Varney the Vampire. The series itself is not cheap or sensationalist, but combines the supernatural and Gothic elements of the penny dreadful with the myth of Lilith, incarnated in its main protagonist, Vanessa Ives. Penny Dreadful traces the path of a woman who struggles to be good, despite the duality of her nature and the fierce struggle she wages to keep her dark side at bay rather than become the new Mother of Evil. From early life, Vanessa has been haunted by the other side, “things not of this world” (“Night Work”). She has been marked and tormented by demons and supernatural abilities, which constantly war against her own moral code and her devout Catholicism.

It is not until the episode that Vanessa encounters the Night Comers, dark witches who appear naked, bald, and scarred with the Devil’s claws, that she truly understands why she has been marked. The Night Comers speak the Verbis Diablo, the language of the Devil, which is a corruption of angelic speech (“Verbis Diablo”). Vanessa and her hunter companions considered it to be a dead language, or a made up one at least, but Ferdinand Lyle, an Egyptologist at the British Museum, proves otherwise, producing a collection of odds and ends with the Verbis Diablo written across them. He explains how a Carthusian monk named Brother Gregory began to lose his mind and believed he was possessed “by a demon or the Demon” (“Verbis Diablo”). He wrote down everything he heard on anything that he had on hand: shards of pottery, a chest, even a dead bird. After careful arrangement of the different puzzle pieces, the group is able to decipher the Verbis Diablo, and the story it tells:

At the Great War for the heavenly throne we were vanquished. So God looked down on his defeated Angels and found us to be evil angels so he cast us out. He took us by our winged backs and raised us over his head. Thence did he fling us from his heavenly throne and cast us down to Earth and to hell. So we were cleaved apart, two brothers cast out two realms. One brother to earth and the other brother to hell. And thus were we set in eternal enmity, my brother on Earth to feed on the blood of the living by night, and myself in Hell to feed on the souls of the dead. Both in an eternal quest for the Mother of Evil who will release us from our bondage and allow one of us to reconquer Heaven and topple God from his bloody throne. And so will Darkness reign on Earth, in Heaven, everlasting, and so comes the Apocalypse. (“Memento Mori”)

The Verbis Diablo tells of Lucifer and Dracula, two brothers cast to different realms, one to the realm of spirit (Hell) and the other to the realm of flesh (Earth) and held captive there, waiting for the Mother of Evil to release them. The Mother of Evil, of course, directly correlates to the myth of Lilith and her demonic spawn. Earlier in the series, Vanessa was identified as Amunet, an Egyptian goddess known as “The Hidden One” who could never be shown with her consort because their union would cause the Apocalypse (“Séance”). Comparing the two stories reveals several similarities: Vanessa, as a powerful female, must not copulate with a powerful male figure, or they will cause the destruction of the world. Not only does this associate her femininity with inherent danger, but also it stipulates that she must be carefully policed or else risk her starting the Apocalypse through having sexual intercourse.

It is no accident that Vanessa is the only woman in her group of hunters: the other members are her adoptive father, Sir Malcolm Murray; her love interest, Ethan Chandler; Ferdinand Lyle, the Egyptologist; and Dr. Victor Frankenstein. Although the constant presence of the men would assumedly give her opportunities galore to have sex, Vanessa and Ethan never do, because it could prompt a possession, as it did when she slept with Dorian Gray (“Possession”). When asked why Vanessa is the particular target of the fallen angels, Lyle comments on the various “chosen ministers of evil”: “Amunet from Egyptian religion, Lilith from the Talmud, Nordic Hella, the Celtic Macha, Mara from the Hindus, all variations of deities or demigods who are destined to unleash annihilation on the world” (“Memento Mori”). All of these deities are female, because there was “something thought unholy [sic] in the erotic power they held over men” (“Memento Mori”). Female sexuality, unconstrained by societal norms and proper behavior, could be so powerful that it could cause the Apocalypse, simply because of the sexual power they held over men. After all, it was Lilith’s demand for sexual equality that robbed Adam of his wife, and caused a proliferation of demons on earth.

The viewer learns that Vanessa has met both Lucifer and Dracula, in “the white room, just you and he and that other” (“Good and Evil Braided Be”). The white room refers to the institution that Vanessa spent months in, the Banning Clinic, where she was taken after an “inexplicable illness” (“Closer than Sisters”). After committing a sexual transgression by having sex with her best friend’s fiancé, Vanessa falls into a nearly-comatose spell broken up by seizures. At a loss for any natural explanation, she is taken to a women’s clinic where she is treated with hydrotherapy and an experimental brain surgery for “hysteria of a psychosexual nature” (“Closer than Sisters”). Vanessa’s demonic possession (she speaks in tongues and attempts to tear out her treating physician’s throat with her teeth) is mistaken for female hysteria, a word the root of which comes from the Greek word for uterus, hystera. This dismal dismissal of her condition as a “woman’s disease” prevents Vanessa from seeking appropriate treatment and part of her memory is erased as a result of the trephining. With the help of her alienist, Dr. Seward, Vanessa undergoes hypnotism and retrieves her memories of the Banning Clinic.

During this time Vanessa manifests the pull she feels toward the two brothers that she experiences as the Mother of Evil. She cannot resist either Dracula or Lucifer, but responds to each in kind as they try to seduce her. Lucifer appears first, taking the form of her guard in a hallucination. He calls to Vanessa, saying “let us be as we were. Before there was time, there was thee and me” (“A Blade of Grass”). Lucifer wants Vanessa’s soul, and wants it to be freely given, so that she can be what she is and always was: the Mother of Evil, and his bride. Once Lucifer has taken possession of her, he states that they will “turn their eyes heavenward” and “smite the Heavenly Father from his Heavenly Throne” (“A Blade of Grass”). During this speech, Vanessa and Lucifer slide across the floor of her padded cell on their bellies like snakes, eyes fixed on each other. Despite the animalistic actions, Lucifer is calling for Vanessa to give up her earthly form, the flesh that she has inhabited.

But for the appearance of Dracula, Vanessa may have given in at that exact moment. The other brother appears first as a shadow, and then manifests physically, also taking the form of Vanessa’s guard. The physical doubling of the brothers makes them seem almost identical, which makes sense given that the outcome for the world (Apocalypse) is the same whether Vanessa chooses Dracula or Lucifer. Their methods of seduction draw the contrast between their personalities that their illusory appearances do not give. Dracula does not want Vanessa’s soul, but her blood, because she is not “a thing of the spirit,” like Lucifer, but “a thing of the flesh,” like Dracula himself (“A Blade of Grass”). Dracula calls upon Vanessa’s power, telling her to feel it “coiling” within her, giving it a serpentine quality. While Lucifer focuses on destroying God and Heaven, Dracula is more concerned with the earth: “be my bride and then all light will end and the world will live in darkness…the very air will be pestilence to mankind” (“Blade of Grass”). In this context, pestilence has something of a generative quality, as if Vanessa herself will spawn the disease that rids the world of humanity. It follows the Lilith myth of the ever-generative mother; as Lilith sets her demonic children on the world, Vanessa will spread an epidemic to kill mankind.

Dracula concludes his speech by reminding Vanessa of where she is, and how she got there: “in this mortal world you’ll always be shunned for your uniqueness, but not with me. They will lock you away in rooms like this. They’ll brand you a freak and a sorceress but I won’t” (“Blade of Grass”). Dracula references the constraints of society, the very boundaries that forced Vanessa into the clinic where she is tormented daily, to draw on Vanessa’s hatred of “normal” society. It seems as if Vanessa has chosen the brother she wants, until she rejects them both, saying that she sees them clearly, for who they are, “the spirit and the animal” (“A Blade of Grass”). Both assert their claim on her, but Vanessa has already promised herself to another: “He who vanquished you, He who is my protector and even now stands with me” (“A Blade of Grass”). God, not Dracula or Lucifer, is her choice, as she casts aside her identity as the Mother of Evil, exercising her free will.

Vanessa finds herself balancing carefully between the divine and the animal; a tip in either direction could deliver her into the hands of one of the brothers. If humanity is conceived as flesh, then flesh dictates earthly needs, lusts, and desires, more animal-like than human. The question of the flesh also draws upon the Lilith myth: Lilith was made from the same earth as Adam, but after her flight from Eden, claims arose that she had been made of tainted earth. Adam’s second wife was made of his body as an attempt to avoid that same mistake. Eve’s role as the originator of sin raises the question whether it was the earth that was tainted or Adam was simply a bad husband, but also whether flesh can ever truly be “clean.” If humanity is spirit, then the human soul is the most powerful object in the world, a splintered piece of God and the divine, and can be used as a weapon. Lucifer, the brother who feeds upon human souls to gain his power, wants to use Vanessa’s soul as his sword to remove God from Heaven. Both brothers threaten to unleash unholy terror upon Vanessa when she rejects them, but in the end, it is Dracula who wins.

Dracula initially appears as Dr. Alexander Sweet, the head of the Natural History Museum. He is a tall, tanned man of unknown age and unknown nationality, with no discernable accent to indicate where he came from or when (“The Day Tennyson Died”). He arrives when Vanessa is at her weakest, when Malcolm Murray and Ethan Chandler both have seemingly abandoned her, and her faith in God is the most tenuous. As Dr. Sweet, Dracula seduces her, but Vanessa soon learns of his true identity, and goes to the House of the Night Creatures, his lair, to kill him (“Ebb Tide”). He convinces her otherwise with simple words: “I don’t want to make you good, I don’t want to make you normal. I don’t need you to be anything but who you truly are” (“Ebb Tide”). Dracula, the Beast, king of the animals, does not require a perfect wife bound by the confines of society. He does not need her to be anything but who she is, Amunet, flesh and blood and animal. This same choice was one that Lilith faced: to choose God, and return to Eden, in this case the Murray mansion; or to turn toward flesh, toward the dark, and choose freedom. Dracula then asks if she accepts him; as he takes her into his arms, she says, “I accept myself” (“Ebb Tide”). After spending so much time fighting evil and trying to deny her dual nature, Vanessa has decided to accept herself the way she was made, and accept the pull she feels toward Dracula. And thus, she becomes the Mother of Evil, the Lilith who walks in the 19th century.

Even in her new role as the Mother of Evil, Vanessa does not eschew the boundary between good and evil. A devout Catholic for most of her life and a strong, independent spirit, she quickly grows to hate the plague that she unleashed upon London. Whereas Lilith made an agreement to allow 100 of her children to die each day, Vanessa made no such agreement for her freedom, and the plague that is claiming thousands of Londoners a day troubles the spirit that clings to the flesh. When Ethan Chandler finally makes his way to her, Vanessa pleads with him to kill her. “They will hunt me till the end of days. My battle must end, or there will never be peace on earth. Let it end” (“The Blessed Dark”). Ethan, revealed to be a werewolf earlier in the series, is Dracula and Lucifer’s only natural foe: Lupus Dei, the Wolf of God. His role in the divine play depicted in the Verbis Diablo was unclear, given that “Lupus Dei” appeared only as a refrain with no other context. As he and Vanessa recite the Lord’s Prayer together, his role becomes clear: to kill the Mother of Evil. With a kiss, he shoots Vanessa in the abdomen and kills her. The plague disappears almost as soon as Vanessa dies, and Dracula vanishes upon seeing her body. Lupus Dei, God’s chosen warrior, was victorious, reflecting the need for a male, religious figure to save the world.

Placing a moral judgment on Vanessa’s decision is not the point of the series. Vanessa is not evil; Vanessa was formed in a certain way that dictated her decision even before she was Vanessa Ives. Nowhere in the Verbis Diablo does it say that the Mother of Evil is anything other than that, or that she has any other option besides Lucifer and Dracula. Vanessa made the choice to die rather than allow the plague on earth to continue, a fairly noble choice for someone who had only been searching for peace and freedom. In a way, this is her Lilith punishment. For choosing evil, Vanessa has to die, in the same way that Lilith had to give up 100 of her children a day for her freedom. While Lilith appears not to suffer as a result of this choice, Vanessa must suffer, a return to typical endings of stories that deal with female agency and vampires. On the surface level, this series deals with supernatural entities and a battle between good and evil. On a deeper level, Penny Dreadful is about the search for freedom in a society that does not celebrate female sexuality or choice, and the double-bind that women find themselves in. They yearn for freedom, for choice, but in seeking it out, they become evil and hunted. Rather than kill Dracula, the series writers chose to kill Vanessa, a move that reinforces conventional heteronormativity. As much as the series allowed for Vanessa to be strong and independent and an equally fierce warrior as her male counterparts, in the end she is the sacrificial lamb. Feminine evil must be killed off, or the world will end.

The Re-Vamp: Why Vampires?

With so many vampires in the literary canon, and so many continuing to rise from the grave and join their undead brethren, the question remains: why vampires? Why are we so fascinated by their narratives? First, as my study shows, they embody horror, making them frightening to the reader, which is often a source of pleasure, but this horror retains a seductive quality. The abject is at play in the consumption of vampire narratives, with the push-pull of desire and repulsion keeping the reader interested. Second, an author can kill off a vampire woman in various graphic and gratuitous ways without that murder being overly-upsetting, because the vampire woman is not a human, or a good woman in most contexts. Finally, the vampire allows the author to explore various forms of boundary crossing without the work being flagged as controversial or subversive. Because the monstrous body by definition embodies boundary crossing, authors can examine homosexuality or voracious female sexuality from a safe distance, a safety usually maintained by killing off that character.

Authors and readers enjoy vampire characters because the surreal aspects of the vampire allow them to say things about human women that make for good entertainment, but must be policed in reality. This policing keeps the consumer and the creator safe from the abject. At the core of the abject is humanity’s need to reject lust, or bloodlust. Facing those aspects head-on requires us to accept ourselves as creatures that bleed and die. As a society, we must open the coffin and see how deviance and unreality go together, and how we ingest different archetypes about women without thinking about them too deeply. For instance, the vampire bite, typically portrayed as two small, neat holes, defies all reality. Long canine teeth would rend flesh and leave a gaping wound, not the tiny pinpricks popular in film and television. Instead, the feared teeth of the vampire resemble a snakebite, injecting poison into the victim’s neck. Adam’s second wife, Eve, the woman who was supposed to replace Lilith and be obedient, was tricked out of Eden by a serpent. Perhaps the depiction of the neat, snake-like bites is a commentary on the fall from Eden, and the fall that women take when they become vampires, intentionally crossing the boundaries that society depends on to survive.

The line of neo-Liliths in the literary canon is more extensive than this work has covered, but their sheer number and formulaic stories are what prompts further study of female vampirism, and why their stories are so compelling to us. And that is what lies at the heart of monster theory:

These monsters ask us how we perceive the world, and how we have misrepresented what we have attempted to place. They ask us to reevaluate our cultural assumptions about race, gender, sexuality, our perception of difference, our tolerance towards its expression. They ask us why we have created them. (Cohen 20)

The vampire holds up a mirror and shows us everything we want to deny and thrust aside. We become abject when we deny ourselves the full range of emotion that we are capable of, and we abject women when we deny them the full scope of motivation that they are capable of.

Some important steps forward are evident in current media representations of female vampires.  For example, there is no longer such a strict division between human and monster, and the vampire has begun to inhabit regular society rather than stay in the borderlands. This is most obvious in True Blood, the HBO series based on Charlaine Harris’s The Southern Vampire Mysteries. The series takes place two years after vampires “came out of the coffin” and revealed their presence to the world at large. While the vampires become less monstrous as they begin to “mainstream,” Pamela Swynford De Beaufort, one of the main characters, is still portrayed as a lusty, voracious bisexual. As a former brothel owner, her vampiric change stems from her desire to not die as a pariah and a whore, even though being a vampire would make her a different kind of pariah. Her sexuality comes into play in the series more than once, with different characters offering her sexual favors in return for her help. Sophie-Anne, the vampire queen of Louisiana, is also a bisexual vampire, but she is portrayed as a spoiled child with little to no power, and is forced into an arranged marriage and used as a pawn by a stronger, male vampire. Lorena Krasiki epitomizes the female predator, pretending to be a lonely widow to lure men into her bed so she can feed on them. Even in a contemporary setting, and in a world where vampires are commonly accepted, the same tropes still appear; the women are weaker than their male counterparts, they are hyper-sexualized, and they tend to end up dead.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer did not deal with vampires being a part of open society, but because of the content of the show, vampire characters were a constant fixture. The two most prominent female vampires were Drusilla and Darla.  Drusilla was insane and almost completely dependent on her lover Spike, but her sexuality has an uncomfortable quality for the viewer. The discomfort stems from her childishness, as she spends most of her time playing with her dolls. Her insanity may contribute to her ruthlessness, but it may have had more to do with her lack of a soul. She is also offered up as a mere token of Spike’s love for Buffy when he offers to kill Drusilla to prove himself, marking Drusilla as disposable. Drusilla then disappears from the series, no longer useful in her role as Spike’s lover. As for Darla, she was another former prostitute-turned-vampire that used her sexual wiles to lure her prey, even going so far as to dress in a schoolgirl’s uniform to project innocence. Both characters are villains and follow in the footsteps of their Victorian counterparts. They are sexual, they are dangerous, and they do not live to the end of the narrative. Their narratives are a contrast to Spike’s, who begins as a villain and later, through his love for Buffy, redeems himself and gains a soul by going through the demon trials. There is no analogous redemption arc for any other Buffy character, and such redemption arcs rarely exist for women.

Twilight seems to be the outlier of the vampire narratives in the 21st century. Most of the vampires central to the series are “vegetarian,” meaning that they only feed on animal blood. This may be because the author, Stephenie Meyer, is a Mormon, and some of her religious beliefs made their way into the novels. In an interview with The Times, Meyer says that she does not consciously intend her novels to be Mormon-influenced, or to promote the virtues of sexual abstinence and spiritual purity, but admits that her writing is shaped by her values (Mills). This seems to have saved the female vampires in the novel from being overly sexual and killed off at the end. At the same time, this apparent restraint creates an atmosphere in which Bella’s sexuality is controlled by Edward’s refusal to have sex with her until they are married, and then not again until she is made into a vampire. Meyer is not the only author to project her religious beliefs into her works, but while others have used their religious beliefs to portray the vampire negatively, Meyer uses her beliefs to “keep it light” (Mills). The damsel in distress is always rescued by her prince, and every danger is quickly vanquished.

Penny Dreadful, one of the works discussed in this thesis, is a contemporary series, but does not have the same ”progressive” features of vampire assimilation and trendiness as these others. This is because while the show was written in 2014, it is set in the Victorian era. The series stays true to other Victorian depictions of vampires, which treat the vampire as monstrous and abject. In today’s culture, we seem to have made friends with the monsters in the shadows, even as we hobble them with the same archetypes that have always existed. While some steps were made to re-vamp the female vampire narrative in the earlier texts that this thesis examines, for example, Mina’s rescue at the end of Bram Stoker’s Dracula or Vanessa’s agency in Penny Dreadful, the problems remain. Too often, the female vampire is depicted as sexy, bloodthirsty, and disposable. My point is not that writers should stop portraying female vampires as villainous characters altogether, since erasing acknowledgment of women’s capacity for evil is more regressive than progressive. But portraying all female vampires as evil is reductive and destroys the complexity of desire and motivation that exists in any viable characterization. My exploration perhaps should not be read as a call for gender equality on behalf of female vampires but for better endings. Rather than relying on cheap devices and turning women into bloodthirsty harem girls into whom the male hero can thrust his stake without remorse or a second thought, it would be refreshing to see more tales of redemption or even tales where the vampire wins. Better storytelling and better endings might lead to better acceptance of female sexuality and less phobic treatment of the things that society wants to sanitize. The formulaic retellings of Lilith’s “sins” have haunted the literary canon as much as Eve’s: the predatory woman, the archaic mother, the fallen woman. We arm them with teeth and then defang them by cutting off their heads in the end. Give them a fighting chance to show their so-called deviance, their homosexuality, their lustfulness, to let the reader examine them for what they really are: women exhibiting behaviors that society must thrust aside to maintain order.


This thesis could not have happened without so many important people in my life. I’d like to take the time to thank some of them for their love, support, and advice, and dedicate this work to them.

To Professor Julie Carlson, my beloved thesis advisor. Without your advice, direction, and enthusiasm, I could never have finished this. Thank you for giving me a love of the Romantics and for embarking on this journey with me.

To Alanna Bartolini, for taking the time to tear apart my thesis with me, word by word, until I was able to give it blood and life. Thank you for all of your encouragement and support, and for pushing me to be better.

To my parents, for not batting a lash when I told them I wanted to write a thesis on vampires, and for supporting me throughout the writing process.

To James McFeely and Danielle Greer, for your unending love and support.

To Amy Chase and Matthew Santos; thanks for coming on this crazy journey with me. We’re officially thesis writers, and I wouldn’t have picked anyone else to do this with me.

To Professor Christopher Newfield and Baron Haber, for brow-beating me into the thesis program and helping me make one of the best decisions of my college career.

To Brian Ernst, John Arnhold, Scott Kneece, and the rest of the English department, for their support of the Honors Program and the Arnhold Research Fellowship.

To Libba Bray, for being the novelist you are and inspiring young women to write, and to Laurence Rickels, for showing that humor and high academia can mix.

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Patai, Raphael, and Haya Bar-Itzhak. Encyclopedia Of Jewish Folklore And Traditions. Armonk: Routledge, 2013. eBook Collection (EBSCOhost), search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=nlebk&AN=552331&site=ehost-live. Accessed 31 Jan. 2017.

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Sceats, Sarah. “Oral Sex: Vampiric Transgression and the Writing of Angela Carter.” Tulsa Studies in Women’s Literature, vol. 20, no. 1, 2001, pp. 107–121.

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