Luella Miller: A Marxist Feminist Vampire Story
A while ago a friend lent me an excellent anthology: The Darker Sex: Tales of the Supernatural and Macabre by Victorian Women Writers. It sounded so far up my street I expected to find it waiting for me on the doorstep as I scurried home to read it.
As you might imagine, it includes a lot of creepy old mansions, brave governesses, and ghostly women wandering around in white gowns. I love that stuff. But towards the back I was delighted to discover something unusual: a Marxist Feminist vampire story.
The story was Luella Miller, published in Mary Wilkins Freeman‘s 1903 short story collection The Wind In The Rose Bush. While the events are definitely supernatural, Luella is more of a metaphorical than literal vampire, mesmerising and leeching the life force from her victims by draining their energy rather than their blood.
Her fellow townsfolk, men and women, old and young, literally work themselves to death in her service. One after another they become obsessed with caring for her, doing her washing and sewing, cooking her meals, making her coffee, working until they become ill and eventually die, when they are replaced by another willing servant.
The story is narrated several decades on by Lydia Anderson, the last person alive who knew Luella; she didn’t succumb to her mysterious power. As Lydia puts it: “There was somethin’ about Luella Miller seemed to draw the heart right out of you, but she didn’t draw it out of me.” She tells the story of all the people whom Luella drained of life, including her sister-in-law Lily:
This Lily Miller had been hardly past her first youth, and a most robust and blooming woman, rosy-cheeked, with curls of strong, black hair overshadowing round, candid temples and bright dark eyes. It was not six months after she had taken up her residence with her sister-in-law that her rosy colour faded and her pretty curves became wan hollows. White shadows began to show in the black rings of her hair, and the light died out of her eyes, her features sharpened, and there were pathetic lines at her mouth, which yet wore always an expression of utter sweetness and even happiness. She was devoted to her sister; there was no doubt that she loved her with her whole heart, and was perfectly content in her service. It was her sole anxiety lest she should die and leave her alone…
…all the time Luella wa’n’t liftin’ her finger and poor Lily didn’t get any care except what the neighbours gave her, and Luella eat up everythin’ that was carried in for Lily. I had it real straight that she did. Luella used to just sit and cry and do nothin’. She did act real fond of Lily, and she pined away considerable, too. There was those that thought she’d go into a decline herself. But after Lily died, her Aunt, Abby Mixter came, and then Luella picked up and grew as fat and rosy as ever.
Unlike many fictional vampires, Luella does not seem to intend any harm against her victims. She is indifferent, almost oblivious. Her supernatural ability to enslave her neighbours does not seem to be within her control; instead, it is more like a poisonous vapour that surrounds her, simultaneously enchanting and slowly destroying them.
Another interesting aspect of the story is the emphasis on Luella’s infantile need. It is not simply that she will not care for herself, forcing others to look after her, but that she cannot. She is entirely helpless, so that when the town finally begins to keep its distance, she herself begins to weaken.
In her article Dreadful Yet Irresistible Luella Miller: Horror in the Absence of Self (PDF), Chiho Nakagawa sees Luella Miller as a feminist parable about the suppression of agency and independence in the feminine ideal taken to it’s logical, monstrous, conclusion:
By spreading her dependency and helplessness into others, Luella makes others experience her dreadful state… Functioning as an addictive substance, Luella Miller lets us see how fearful it is to be a feminine woman without her own self.
I think this is an interesting take, as if Luella exists only as an object of others’ self destructive love, with no subjective self, no agency or control. It is this that makes her state “dreadful”. She is parasitic, overwhelming and consuming her host, but unable to survive without them.
Without the contrasting courage, agency and practicality of “hale and hearty” 87 year old narrator Lydia Anderson, the story could seem to be a misogynist attack on wealthy women.
But I agree with Lynda L. Hinkle and her paper Bloodsucking Structures: American Female Vampires as Class Structure Critique, when she describes the story as: “a stinging critique of a declining but still prevalent social class structure that churned out a large, useless upper class of women whose job it was to be beautiful and consume.”
I read the story as a comment on the economic and social structures which manufactured useless creatures like Luella, wealthy women who were prevented from acquiring ideas, skills, purpose or independence. The same structures, while fetishising helplessness as the supreme feminine virtue on the one hand, forced countless other women (and men) to work themselves into an early grave in the service of their betters.