“The Lady of the House of Love,” a short story, was first published in Angela Carter’s 1979 collection The Bloody Chamber. Although The Bloody Chamber is composed mainly of retellings of fairy tales, “The Lady of the House” is a gothic vampire tale that contains some conventions usually found in fairy tales, such as the liberating power of love. The story recounts the unenviable, lonely existence of a Transylvanian vampire countess, the “beautiful queen of vampires” (195), a descendant of Vlad the Impaler, who was in actuality a notorious 15th-century Wallachian (Romanian) tyrant who was, according to some noteworthy scholars, the inspiration for the most famous vampire novel of all, Bram Stoker’s Dracula.
As a member of such a distinctly vicious bloodline, presumably the countess would take great pleasure in the vampire’s violent method of feeding, but instead she is a reluctant vampire; there is no enjoyment in feeding for her, it is only a means of survival. Constantly questioning the hand that fate has dealt her, the countess, dressed in her “antique bridal gown” (195), bides her miserable immortality by shuffling through tarot cards, “constructing hypotheses about a future which is irreversible” (197) and, in a taste of bittersweet irony, eternal. As a child, the countess was able to satisfy her hunger by feeding on small animals, but now that she is a woman, only men can provide enough nourishment to sustain her. To survive, the countess employs a governess to assist her; the governess brings young men to the castle, where the countess, outfitted in a “negligee of bloodstained lace” (198), seductively feeds on them. The countess’s desire for a mate who is more than a meal is evidenced by her donning of both a wedding gown and negligee, the hallmarks of married life, or at least of a life shared with another. And one day, as in a fairy tale, fate unexpectedly changes everything. Even though the countess did not foresee the event in her tarot cards, her wish for a mate comes true when the governess brings to the castle a young British soldier who is vastly different from any of the other men with whom the countess has had contact.
The young man possesses all the qualities that would constitute a traditional fairy tale prince or the archetypal knight in shining armor. Since he is a soldier, he is heroic; he is also “rational,” as is illustrated by his sensible mode of transportation: a bicycle. These qualities, combined with his innocence, signified by his virginity, make him “like the boy in the fairy tale, who does not know how to shudder” (205). The inability to be afraid, however, is the magic elixir that releases the countess from vampirism. When she cuts her hand on a shard of broken glass, seeing her own blood for the first time, the young soldier gingerly kisses her wound. His act of kindness grants the countess the ability to feel for another, and because the capacity to feel is one of the virtues of being human, the soldier’s compassion for the countess equips her with the courage and knowledge to become human in her own right
The next morning, the young soldier wakes to find the countess gone, but he has plans for her—plans to fix her teeth, her eyes, and her “nervous hysteria.” In essence he wants to “cure her of all these nightmares” (208). However, with humanity comes mortality, and as the countess was already quite old, death proves to be her true destiny. Nevertheless, as a gothic story, a genre characterized by the irony and contraries, “The Lady of the House of Love” illustrates that death is an escape from the countess’s miserable immortal existence; death frees her from a fate that is, for the countess, worse than death.
Carter, Angela. Burning Your Boats: The Collected Short Stories. New York: Penguin, 1995.
Easton, Alison, ed. Angela Carter: New Casebooks. New York: St. Martin’s, 2000.
Tucker, Lindsey, ed. Critical Essays on Angela Carter. New York: G. K. Hall & Co., 1998