1) The Transformation of Gothic Libertinism: From Romanticism, Victorianism and Post-Millennial Fiction- Introduction

Ever since I first read the works of Angela Carter in college and found out about the infamous Marquis De Sade, I was immediately entranced by his incredibly terrifying stories of lust, depravity and sin. While I was studying my MA in Gothic Literature at the University of Sheffield, UK, I was admittedly struggling to establish a coherent concept for my dissertation, that hadn’t already been covered by any of my essays I had produced earlier in the academic year.

I knew I held great interest in Marquis De Sade and his contributions towards the concept of libertinism, so I decided to write my dissertation about sexual libertinism from the Romantic period, through to modern day in Gothic literature. My argument posited that literature showcases a repression of sexuality as time progresses, and even though one may think the sexual morals of the twenty-first century are much more liberating than those in Marquis De Sade’s time, Gothic literature of the modern era, in many ways, disputes this.

Certain aspects of this dissertation proved difficult. For one, I was not permitted to discuss books I had already covered on the course, which meant the De Sade book Justine; or the Misfortunes of Virtue, an ideal book for this topic that I knew inside out, could not be discussed. I also didn’t have time to read another one of his novels, as when I began my dissertation I had already received my job offer at Perendale Publishers, and so had one month, rather than the standard three months, to complete my dissertation before moving down south and immediately entering full-time work!

Due to this, the books I discussed in this dissertation weren’t quite the perfect ones I would have chosen, would I have had complete creative freedom, but I am still very proud that I received a high grade for this piece, given everything going on at the time. I enjoyed writing about Zofloya; or, the Moor very much, as well as Sheridan le Fanu’s Carmilla. Unfortunately, another challenge presented itself in needing to write about a novel from the twentieth century that also catered to the essay’s premise of libertinism and sexual freedom diminishing over time, which led me to write about Stephenie Meyer’s The Twilight Saga. This was a series I did not ever expect to be writing about in any serious academic or professional capacity, and it did prove a challenging series to analyse, but I think it still turned out to be a successful dissertation to mark the end of my academic career! (So far, anyway).

So, this will no doubt be very long, but I will post my dissertation here in over several chapters 🙂


Libertine – A person (typically a man) who is not restrained by morality, especially with regard to sexual relations; a person of dissolute or promiscuous habits.

A free-thinker in religion. A non-conformist.’[1]

The etymology of the term libertine has shifted dramatically since its first use in 1384 to describe ‘an emancipated slave, a free man’.[2] In 1547 the term shifted once more to reflect the growing antinomian groups gaining attention in continental Europe, and so the term became associated with those who held unorthodox, and often atheist, religious views. Whilst the term soon followed to also become associated with the sexual deviant, it was not a commonly utilised term for such behaviour until the eighteenth century, at a time where the Gothic novel began to surge in popularity. With the Gothic genre’s unabashed fascination with sexual immorality and monstrosity the libertine soon became a popular and frequently utilised trope of the Gothic genre, as a device with which to raise crucial questions regarding sexuality, morality, and religion. Eighteenth century novels such as Pierre Choderlos de Laclos’s Dangerous Liasons (1782) and Denis Diderot’s The Nun (1781) begun the scandalous revival of the philosophy what spurned contemporary rules and restrictions, and demanded freedom to act as one pleases within a still exceedingly strict era.

Libertinism as a movement grew especially popular in France at this time, due to the infamous Marquis de Sade’s dedication to the libertine philosophy. De Sade’s controversial writings, such as Les 120 Journées de Sodome ou l’école du Libertinage (1785) and La Philosophie dans le Boudoir (1795) emerged to public outcry, with his innovative blend of explicit pornography and socio-political philosophical discourse, leading to his repeated imprisonment. De Sade was unafraid of discussing real life issues, ‘addressing the carnage of the Revolution’, whilst also commenting on the gluttonous sins of the human race through the rape and mistreatment that the characters in his novels seem to enact in a ritualistic cycle.[3] As De Sade continued to write, libertinism grew increasingly more connected with the popular Gothic fiction of the eighteenth century with his publication of Justine; or, the Misfortunes of Virtue in 1791. Justine portrayed the ‘libidinous fantasy’ of a young girl who embodies the very traditional Gothic Radcliffean heroine, virginal and pure, who is remorselessly sodomised by monks, teachers and thieves until her brutal demise.[4] Whilst such heinous acts mirrored De Sade’s own unpleasant hobbies and sexual escapades, his own name being the etymological influence for the term ‘sadist’, they also highlighted the real problems society was facing in a world of religious oppression and male tyranny, topics which the Gothic genre was also discussing, via the metaphorical representations of Satan in Matthew Lewis’s The Monk (1796) and Charlotte Dacre’s Zofloya; or, the Moor (1806).[5]

Gothic literature in the eighteenth century featured a wide range of novels that are clearly influenced by Sadeian libertinism. Horace Walpole’s The Mysterious Mother: A Tragedy (1768) tells the provocative story of a mother knowingly engaging in incestuous relations with her son, whilst Lewis’s The Monk was heavily influenced by De Sade’s Justine, creating moral outcry by depicting a religious monk-turned-rapist under the influence of Satan. When the writer of such a blasphemous text was discovered, who also happened to be a MP, he was forced to leave his job and remain shunned by society, but the messages that Walpole and Lewis had raised for Gothic libertines everywhere were now public, and influenced many writers who wanted to be an advocate for freedom and libertinism. One of Lewis’s readers, Charlotte Dacre, soon established herself within the Gothic canon, with her controversial tale of female sexual desire; Zofloya; or, the Moor. Depicting the tale of a woman who takes ‘sadistic delight’ in killing her husband and a child in order to be able to engage in sexual intercourse with another man, she enters upon a quasi-marriage with Satan himself, who also happens to be a black man, in order to fulfil her desires.[6] Dacre also seems to be heavily influenced by the earlier libertine texts of her time, writing this novel under the pseudonym Rosa Matilda, paying obvious homage to the seductress Matilda who first lulls Lewis’s Ambrosio into a sexual frenzy, whilst the novel’s flaunting of sexual abuse Will Mcmorran ‘parallels with Sade’s Juliette’, in its emphasis on sexuality being inevitably connected with pain, torture and often death.[7] Dacre’s libertine novel, advocating sexual freedom for women in an era that Piya Pal-Lapinski notes only ever ‘attempts to regulate female desire’, as well as depicting interracial sex, boldly discussed issues that De Sade and most libertines had rarely, if ever, before discussed.[8] The eighteenth century was an era of bold, uninhibited libertine writers, who were unapologetic for the impulsive content they were creating and utilised the Gothic genre to argue that the libertine philosophy, with its advocating of freedom for both men and women alike, was a positive change that people should embrace.

As the nineteenth century began and the tension of the French Revolution dissipated, society became tranquil. Gothic literature, and the essence of libertinism, remained prominent but this also changed slightly in order to align with the fears of a new society. The public were now even more subject to repression and censorship than they were in the eighteenth century and sexuality, in particular, was heavily monitored. The majority of the human race, especially women, were expected to remain completely asexual. Angela Carter noted in The Sadeian Woman (1978) that libertine pornography was still ‘produced [underground] in the main by men for an all-male clientele [whilst being] denied to women […] on the specious grounds that women do not find descriptions of the sexual act erotically arousing.’[9] Sex was solely for reproduction, a passionless act between man and woman. Relationships between people became dangerous and prone to scandalous rumours, topics discussed in texts such as Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray (1790). However, this repression of feeling in society also brought forth more Gothic writers who demanded the right to acknowledge their own desires, and libertinism was able to articulate this desire with its ‘gross sexual imagery’ that demanded to be acknowledged and accepted.[10] Homosexuality was one craving which was becoming regularly discussed by Victorian Gothicists, one example being Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1885), portraying the tale of a man wrestling with his two halves; the man who wants to appear socially acceptable, and the sexually depraved homosexual who wants to satiate his desires in the traditionally libertine manner. One text which remained relatively unnoticed, however, was Sheridan Le Fanu’s short story Carmilla (1871), the account of a young woman named Laura and her relationship with a beautiful vampiress. Whilst the tale remains brief, the passionate depictions of two women deeply in love are difficult to ignore, as Le Fanu’s tale tells of a ‘female intervention in the male libertine tradition’ via the use of an exclusive lesbian relationship.[11] As Carmilla’s desire for Laura continues to grow, the delicate, socialised human girl even herself begins to question her own desires, slowly but undeniably transforming into a Gothic libertine who wants to believe in the philosophy of sexual freedom. Yet, whilst these allusions still remain highly suggestive to readers and are difficult to ignore, compared to the eighteenth century libertine, Le Fanu’s text is surprisingly censored and delicate, so as not to offend the sensibilities of the nineteenth century reading public too much. William Veeder notes that ‘what characters [in Carmilla] should want conflicts with what they actually want’, as Laura and Carmilla’s desires transgress the tyrannical rules they are afraid to break.[12] Indeed, many Gothic novels of the era, despite their seemingly unignorably assertive messages of freedom and anti-Christian doctrines, miss a key integral aspect which Romantic Gothic texts contained; that of the unabashedly explicit violence and sexuality prominent in the works of Dacre and Lewis. Although works of the Victorian Gothic remain undeniably violent, such as Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818), the scenes of crisis are never explicitly overt, resulting in a loss of impact when compared to the detailed scenes present in the works of Romantic writers such as De Sade and Lewis. Whilst Dacre’s characters are engaging in sexual relations with devils and demons, Le Fanu’s characters never overtly admit any romantic or sexual desires for one another. Whilst readers can analyse these works themselves and come to justifiable conclusions for what these characters’ motivations and desires are, the Victorian libertine never reaches the level of brazen depravity that the Romantic libertine is so characteristic of embodying, despite Carmilla being, as Nina Auerback states, ‘devoid of authorities’ to kneel to.[13] Whilst some texts towards the end of the nineteenth century were slightly bolder in their libertine associations, such as the infamous Dracula (1897) by Bram Stoker, with its use of heavily sexualised vampire sisters and the awakening of Lucy’s sexual deviancy, Victorian libertines portrayed a society which wanted to be free of government oppression, yet were afraid potential repercussions might severely damage their reputations.

The twentieth century saw a drastic transformation for both the Gothic novel and the libertine. With the introduction of several world wars, society needed no stories of rampaging monsters and ceaseless death, for people were witnessing these first-hand, and needed no reminders of society’s hardships. It was not until the Post-War era that the Gothic novel began to rear its monstrous head once more and discuss issues of sexuality and libertinism, once the world was now longer in imminent peril and was again beginning to focus upon the injustices prevalent in everyday life. Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast (1950) discusses the desires of an Earl to escape the ‘rigid confines’ of his home and explore the world, as well as its women and his own sexuality.[14] Angela Carter was also a key gothic libertine of the twentieth century, writing thought-provoking Gothic short stories with her collection The Bloody Chamber (1979), whilst also advocating De Sade’s work and those of the eighteenth century libertines, in her essay collection The Sadeian Woman. In these texts, Carter portrayed woman who were successfully able to express their sexualities and live libertine lifestyles without the judgement of a religious, oppressive society, whilst also discussing De Sade as a ‘moral pornographer’, a saviour of women due to his pornographic ‘approach [towards] some kind of emblematic truth’.[15] It appeared in this era that the society Gothic libertines of the eighteenth and nineteenth century had yearned for, was finally achievable.

This, however, does not seem the case in modern day twenty-first century society. Although not the case for all modern Gothic novels, many books of this genre, and their formerly libertine roots, were somewhat extinguished with the introduction of the vampire romance novel, aimed primarily at pre-teen girls, tales which ‘more closely resemble a fairy tale’.[16] Gothic vampires, which once connoted some of the most explicitly libertine messages of all, with their gluttonous attitudes and relentless preying upon women, transformed into the ‘sparkly’ and essentially asexual Edward Cullen from Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight saga (2005-2008) and Alyson Noel’s similarly hollow Damen Esposito in The Immortals Series (2009-2011).[17] The Gothic monster, which once served as a social commentary for the flaws of society, religious hypocrisy and sexual freedoms, became instead associated with asexuality, Christian values and how sex before marriage is ‘not an option’, messages which Carmilla and Dracula would certainly disagree with.[18] Meyer’s Twilight saga, in particular, is responsible for this flood of anti-libertine vampire novels, with her creation of Bella Swan, a virginal seventeen year old who falls for the Christian, ‘chivalrous’ vegetarian vampire Edward Cullen.[19] Whilst Dacre and Lewis yearned to portray a world full of sexual deviancy and freedom, the Twilight universe is one of abstinence, social control and unhappiness, reflecting Meyer’s own Mormon beliefs. Karen Backstein notes that ‘whenever someone in Twilight does want sex, or cannot control his desires, he is evil’, a point certainly proven when analysing and comparing the various villains of the series, such as the libertine James and the insatiable Volturi.[20] In contrast, Meyer’s vampires that do conform to human norms frequently allude to possessing depressive and suicidal tendencies, as they choose to remain repressed in order to align with a society that does not require them to behave in such a rigid and restrictive way. Twenty-first century society has finally achieved a relative level of sexual freedom, a freedom Gothic libertines would praise and rejoice from times past, and yet the Gothic fiction of modern-day society has reverted and degenerated, into a voice of passivity and repression which instead echoes the constructs the Gothic genre is meant to be so violently against, leading to it being termed accurately by Catherine Spooner as remarkably ‘anti-gothic’ in form and content.[21]

In this dissertation, I will be discussing these three eras, the eighteenth century, nineteenth century and the twenty-first century, analysing specifically their representations of Gothic libertinism, and how and why they have changed so drastically. I will examine Dacre’s Zofloya; or, the Moor, then progress onto Le Fanu’s Carmilla and finally Meyer’s Twilight series, analysing how the Gothic representation of the libertine has shifted over the course of three centuries. As the world has progressed, to become more accepting and freeing for people of all backgrounds, it is strange that such a vast majority of modern Gothic novels have instead withdrawn and reversed into arguing for the very rules and restraints they fought against several hundred years ago.

Part two

[1] ‘Libertine’ in Oxford Dictionary of English (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), p. 1084.

[2] ‘Libertine’ in Oxford Dictionary of English, p 1084.

[3] Nick, Groom, The Gothic: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), p. 86.

[4] Angela, Carter, The Sadeian Woman: An Exercise in Cultural History (London: Virago, 1990), p. 15.

[5] ‘Sadist’ in Oxford Dictionary of English (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), p. 1768.

[6] Will, Mcmorran, ‘The Marquis De Sade in English, 1800-1850’, The Modern Language Review, 112:3: (2017), 552.

[7] Mcmorran, ‘The Marquis De Sade in English’, p. 552.

[8] Piya, Pal-Lapinski, ‘Dangerous Pleasures: Halian Vampire-Courtesans and Male Odalisques in British Fiction, 1800-1850’ in The Exotic Woman in Nineteenth-Century British Fiction: A Reconsideration (Lebanon: UPNE, 2005), p. 29.

[9] Carter, The Sadeian Woman, p. 15.

[10] Groom, The Gothic: A Very Short Introduction, p. 86.

[11] Pal-Lapinski, ‘Dangerous Pleasures’ in The Exotic Woman in Nineteenth-Century British Fiction and Culture, p. 27.

[12] William, Veeder, ‘Carmilla: The Arts of Repression’, Texas Studies in Literature and Language, 22:2: (1980), 198.

[13] Nina, Auerbach, Our Vampires, Ourselves (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012), p. 45.

[14] Mervyn, Peake, The Gormenghast Trilogy (London: Vintage, 1999), p. 631.

[15]Carter, The Sadeian Woman, pp. 19, 22.

[16] Karen, Backstein, ‘(Un)Safe Sex: Romancing the Vampire’, Cinéaste, 35:1: (2009), 41.

[17] Catherine, Spooner, ‘Gothic Charm School; or, How Vampires Learned to Sparkle’ in Open Graves; Open Minds: Representations of Vampires and the Undead from the Enlightenment to the Present Day (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2013), p. 146.

[18] Carol, Siegel, ‘Chapter Seventeen: The Twilight of Sexual Liberation: Undead Abstinence Ideology’, Counterpoints, 392:1: (2011), 270.

[19] Backstein, ‘(Un)Safe Sex’, p. 38.

[20] Backstein, ‘(Un)Safe Sex’, p. 40.

[21] Spooner, ‘Gothic Charm School; or, How Vampires Learned to Sparkle’ in Open Graves, Open Minds, p. 149.

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