Female Friendships in Gothic Literature

With Valentine’s Day coming up, it feels like we’re getting constantly hit in the face with commercialized images of heteronormative romantic love. It’s enough to make anyone feel a little disenchanted, but I’ve always loved the holiday. For me, Valentine’s Day is about more than just purchasing materialistic expressions of affection for your significant other. It’s about celebrating love in all its forms. And, personally, some of the most important relationships in my life are my friendships with other women. Growing up, my female friends and I always took this time of year as an opportunity to send each other flowers, give out chocolate, and be extra vocal with our love and support. That’s why this Valentine’s Day, I want to take a moment to celebrate some of my favorite female friendships in Gothic literature.

Laura and Carmilla—Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu’s Carmilla (1871)

Funeral, illustration by Michael Fitzgerald for Carmilla in The Dark Blue (January 1872)

I think there’s a case to be made that this friendship may be a bit more than friendly, but either way you look at it, there’s no denying the close relationship between the two young women at the heart of Le Fanu’s vampire tale. Laura, the narrator of the story, is the teenage daughter of a wealthy English widower living in a castle in Austria. Though she lives in luxury and is very close with her father, Laura is quite lonely and longs for a friend. It seems that her prayers are answered when a mysterious carriage crashes in front of their castle, and the young woman who emerges is left in their care. Laura and Carmilla immediately bond, and their friendship is marked by frequent shows of physical affection and passionate declarations, particularly on Carmilla’s end. The relationship is undermined a bit by the fact that Carmilla is a murderous vampire who sneaks into Laura’s room at night to drink her blood and ultimately intends to kill her, of course. But I would argue that their friendship is still very real. Carmilla is a complex character, and the first tormented, reluctant vampire to appear in literature. Her love for Laura makes her feel true remorse for her vampiric nature and what it leads her to do.

Jane and Helen—Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre (1847)

Helen and Jane from a film adaptation of Jane Eyre

When you think of Jane Eyre, the relationship that first springs to mind is that between Jane and her romantic interest Mr. Rochester. But Rochester isn’t even mentioned in the text until eleven chapters in! Instead, the novel begins with Jane as a child, and several chapters are spent describing her formative years at Lowood Institution for poor and orphaned girls. It is at this school that, after a lonely and abusive childhood, Jane makes her first friend: Helen Burns. Helen is one of the older students, and it is through her example and support that Jane learns to endure the harsh conditions of the school and the cruelty of its teachers and director. More importantly, Helen teaches Jane how to be a better person, how to take the injustices done to her and rise above them, rather than stooping to the level of her tormentors. When Helen succumbs to typhus and dies in Jane’s arms, it is, in my mind, the most heart-wrenching moment of the book.

Mina and Lucy—Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897)

Lucy and Mina in the 1992 film Bram Stoker’s Dracula

It is the men of Dracula who seem to have left the largest impressions on popular culture—first, the Count himself, whose cinematic portrayal by Bela Legosi cemented his iconic image; and then, Abraham Van Helsing, whose heroics have spawned an entire genre based on vampire hunters and slayers. There’s also Dracula’s servant Renfield, whose insane antics make him one of the most memorable characters in the book; and of course, Jonathan Harker who is framed as the story’s primary narrator. But the actions of these men are in a large part motivated by their relationships to the novel’s central female characters: Mina Murray and Lucy Westenra. What seldom gets talked about, however, is these two women’s relationship to each other.

Mina and Lucy are best friends, yet in many ways stand as foils to each other. Mina is presented as the ideal woman: she is a paragon of propriety, devoted solely to her fiancé Jonathan Harker and prepared to dedicate her life to being of service to him. Lucy, on the other hand, is a bit of a flirt whose sexuality both draws multiple men to her and seems to make her more vulnerable to the vampire’s influence. But despite their differences, the two women are inseparable. We first learn of their friendship through the letters sent back and forth between them, in which they confess their innermost thoughts about their romantic relationships and the plans for the future. After Lucy’s death, it is Mina who assembles and types up the diaries of their friends so that they may unravel the mystery of what happened to her. Mina puts aside her own discomfort and even breaks with Victorian propriety regarding a woman’s proper place in order to join the fight against Dracula and find closure for her friend.

Who are your favorite female friendships in literature? What relationships in your life will you be celebrating this Valentine’s Day? Let me know in the comments!

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