Belle Dame Sans Merci: On Angela Carter

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Angela Carter




Belle Dame Sans Merci: On Angela Carter by Amy Weldon

September 20th, 2013 reset - +

WHAT IF Little Red Riding Hood seduced the wolf? What if one of Bluebeard’s wives turned the tables on her murderous husband, and lived to tell the tale? What if Beauty’s father lost her to the Beast at cards? The English writer Angela Carter (1940-1992) answered these questions in The Bloody Chamber (1979), a story collection that changed literary fiction for good. Tilting the fairy tale to refract new light from its facets of sex, wonder, and grief has become a welcome strategy for writers in the last decade, from Tin House’s “Fantastic Women” issue to Kate Bernheimer’s anthology My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me to the work of Karen Russell, Aimee Bender, and Kelly Link, and gems like Lorrie Moore’s “The Juniper Tree.” But Angela Carter marked this path for all of us. Rooted in literature, folklore, and history — alive to their enchantments and general bloodiness — she was able to metabolize them into a new kind of fruit, borne on a profuse and fascinating tree.

Of her large body of work — including nine novels, six story collections, three collections of essays and criticism, screenplays, edited collections and translations, and children’s books — The Bloody Chamber is the best introduction to Carter’s particular magic. In her hands, Puss in Boots becomes a Mozartean comic opera, with the cat as Figaro to a con artist in love with a rich old man’s young wife. The Erlking becomes a fatal, fascinating lover, a male woodland-god version of Keats’s belle dame sans merci. A sad female vampire spares her young victim only to lose him to World War I; her roses, of course, prefigure the red poppies of Flanders Fields. And in “The Company of Wolves,” Little Red Riding Hood faces her werewolf lover/killer: “She closed the window on the wolves’ threnody and took off her scarlet shawl, the colour of poppies, the colour of sacrifices, the colour of her menses, and, since her fear did her no good, she ceased to be afraid.” Yet when the wolf growls “All the better to eat you with,” this heroine “burst out laughing; she knew she was nobody’s meat.”

Feminist, fabulist, and provocateur, Angela Carter nudges readers — especially women — to look upon the world, however fantastical or frightening it may be, and let it teach us courage, and common sense. And laughter.

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Angela Carter was born in May 1940 (the month of the Battle of Dunkirk) to loving middle-aged parents whose eccentricities — particularly her father’s — she describes in her essays. (“When we all lived in London [...] he would come home on the last tube and walk, chirruping, down the street, accompanied by an ever-increasing procession of cats, to whom he would say good night at the front door.”) He was a Scot; Carter’s mother was from south Yorkshire; both places and sets of ancestors provided young Angela with a stock of stern, witchy childhood images. (“[A]mong the tips where we kids used to play were strange pools of oleaginous, clay-streaked water,” she writes. “A neighbor’s child drowned in one of them.”) A teenage bout of anorexia (“attempted suicide by narcissism”) preceded her matriculation to the University of Bristol and her entry into journalism, encouraged by her father. “It took me twenty years more of living,” she later wrote, “and an involvement with the women’s movement, to appreciate he was unusual in wanting this for his baby girl.” Starting with her first pieces for the student magazine at Bristol University in 1964, she built a full-time writing career that came to include essays and criticism for such publications as The London Review of Books, The Times Literary Supplement, The Guardian, and The New York Times, and writer-in-residence positions at universities in England, Australia, and America. Two years living and writing in Japan (with a “very good-looking bastard” of a Japanese boyfriend) marked the end of her first marriage: “I became a feminist,” she remarked, “when I realised I could have been having all this instead of being married.” In 1977, she married her second husband, Mark Pearce, with whom she had one son, Alexander, and settled with them in London, where she lived for the rest of her life. In 1992, she died of lung cancer, aged 51.

For Carter, writing and life moved forward, intertwined; observing became living became writing about it and back again. “[W]e live in very confused, confusing and dangerous times, and fiction, which is a kind of log of these times,” she wrote in 1982, “changes its nature and expands and sucks in material from all manner of places and from all manner of styles and genres to be able to adequately describe ourselves to ourselves at all kinds of levels.” Although she didn’t often write memoir, her vivid, sardonic sensibility colors all her essays. About the Thatcherism/Reaganism of the 1980s, Carter was scathing:

Perhaps it was inevitable that in our post-imperial anomie, the hangover after the 200-year spree, Britain should throw up the apparatus to create a twopenny-halfpenny demagogue of the kind known and feared throughout the Third World. Should release the madwoman who’d always been gibbering in the Tory attic, with its lugubrious lumber of Union Jack-draped gallows, the personification of the Tory lady who’d grounded successive Tory Party conventions in a morass of meanness and cruelty. And should give this symbolic entity the keys to the whole asylum.

Coincidentally, The Bloody Chamber was published the year of Thatcher’s election — but also of Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar’s The Madwoman in the Attic. About confused punk “pariah chic,” Carter wrote:

It produces ambiguities of which a girl with an anarcho-feminist lapel badge and a ring through her nose — the kind of ring with which animals are traditionally led to slaughter — is but the innocent victim.

In a controversial review of books by Elizabeth David and Alice Waters, she wrote, “This mincing and finicking obsession with food opens up whole new areas of potential social shame. No wonder the British find it irresistible.” On literature, she wrote:

This past, for me, has important decorative, ornamental functions; further, it is a vast repository of outmoded lies, where you can check out what lies used to be à la mode and find the old lies on which new lies have been based.

Carter’s iconoclasm marked her teaching, too. Carter’s former student Rick Moody has written in Tin House about her year at Brown University in 1980-1981: “You sort of couldn’t articulate the nature of the Carter revolution in your life. You had to live it.” He depicts her as serious about student work, and shattering when she needed to be. When a smug boy asked her, at the beginning of the semester, “So what’s your work like, anyway?” Carter “paused for a minute, and then in her mild way, she remarked: ‘My work cuts like a blade at the base of a man’s penis.’” Yet she gently chivvied Moody away from his drug use and toward what would become his adult voice: “full of praise” for a realistic story he wasn’t sure about, she wrote him that “she herself was unable to write a story in this idiom, couldn’t even if she’d wanted to.” And,

in response to some carping from me about the global literary situation in the multinational fin de siècle, Angela responded with her usual upbeat appraisal of things, “As for the survival of literature, laddy, remember — it’s not up to publishers; the survival of literature is up to chaps like us!

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Being brave means making mistakes. A writer with as much energy as Angela Carter can produce lots of writing, and lots of writing can produce unevenness. As her friend Salman Rushdie observes in his preface to her collected stories:

Sometimes, at novel length, the distinctive Carter voice, those smoky, opium-eater’s cadences interrupted by harsh or comic discords, that moonstone-and-rhinestone mix of opulence and flim-flam, can be exhausting. In her stories, she can dazzle and swoop, and quit while she’s ahead.

This seems fair to me; of her novels, The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman (1972) gets lost in metaphysical alternate-time-world diagramming (and some weird rape scenes), while her first novel, Shadow Dance (1966), seems like a short story stretched out too long. The Passion of New Eve (1977) stitches together feminism, science fiction, the movies, and Carter’s fantastical take on America, but the seams show, and sometimes unravel.

However, Carter’s work never lacks a world-rebuilding imaginative scope that’s palpable from the sentence level on up. Like Dickens (just to name one), her sentences physically enact their versions of reality on her reader. Here’s the first sentence of The Bloody Chamber:

I remember how, that night, I lay awake in the wagon-lit in a tender, delicious ecstasy of excitement, my burning cheek pressed against the impeccable linen of the pillow and the pounding of my heart mimicking that of the great pistons ceaselessly thrusting the train that bore me through the night, away from Paris, away from girlhood, away from the white, enclosed quietude of my mother’s apartment, into the unguessable country of marriage.

Flirting with fairy tale-ish over-ripeness (to let you know she knows this is a fairy tale, and it is about sex, as fairy tales are, and she is going there), the sentence chugs onward, like the train, only to swerve down to a somber point that stops us before we realize it. Aren’t we all, like Bluebeard’s new bride, drawn forward by desire into unpredictable lives, and selves? Isn’t marriage an “unguessable country,” even if our new husband is not a mysterious billionaire with three ex-wives and a castle by the sea? Aren’t we all, on the border of that country, as self-conscious as this fourth wife, with her “mouse-colored hair,” “bony hips,” and “nervous, pianist’s fingers”? Suddenly we find ourselves implicated in the strange, dark realm of archetype, recognizable even through the Carterian scrim of wagon-lits and sables and words like “parure” and heavy bunches of keys.

Saints and Strangers (1985) reworks history as a similar dream, in stories that take on Edgar Allan Poe, Baudelaire’s black mistress Jeanne Duval, a Moll Flanders-like Indian captive in colonial America, and a female killer. “The Fall River Axe Murders” (researched, Moody says, during Carter’s time at Brown), links Lizzie Borden with William Blake and both with New England’s Puritan soul:

Even though it is early in the morning, well before the factory whistle issues its peremptory summons from the dark, satanic mills to which the city owes its present pre-eminence in the cotton trade, the white, furious sun already shimmers and quivers high in the still air.

The sun’s static energy — both fury and resistance, pain and the rising above pain — is then embodied in ferocious heat and the clothes that trap her characters inside it, raising the stakes of the story:

On this burning morning, when, after breakfast and the performance of a few household duties, Lizzie Borden will murder her parents, she will, on rising, don a simple cotton frock that, if worn by itself, might be right for the weather. But, underneath, has gone a long, starched cotton petticoat; another starched cotton petticoat, a short one; long drawers; woolen stockings; a chemise; and a whalebone corset that takes her viscera in an unkind hand and squeezes them very tightly.

A paragraph break, and then a deceptively offhand addition: “There is also a heavy linen napkin strapped between her legs because she is menstruating.” Something’s going to explode, and we know what it is: Lizzie Borden took an axe / And gave her mother 40 whacks… Yet the murder itself takes place almost as an afterthought — no need to dwell on it, Carter implies, everybody knows what Lizzie Borden did. Instead, she throws deft, sideways spotlights of detail on that near-unspeakable crime: the fat stepmother, the Irish servant girl with all her things in one tin trunk, the father’s slaughter of Lizzie’s pet pigeons, that stifling house with all its locked doors. In one of her last stories, “Lizzie's Tiger,” in American Ghosts and Old World Wonders (1993), Carter revisited Borden as a four-year-old runaway to the circus, unnamed until the story's last line, and fascinated by the tiger, “its eyes like yellow coins of a foreign currency; its round, innocent, toy-like ears; the stiff whiskers sticking out with an artificial look; the red mouth from which the bright noise came.” It's lovely, and eerily premonitory, even without the spectator who finally shouts, "Well, if it ain't Andrew Borden's little girl!"

Carter traveled a lot, in life and writing, but my favorite novel of hers — Nights at the Circus (1984) — shows how deeply rooted in England she was, and how deeply she was, as she once said about her fellow writer Michael Moorcock, “English in the great tradition of music hall and penny dreadful, seaside pierrot show and pantomime, of radical dissent and continuous questioning.” Its heroine, Sophie Fevvers, is a six-feet two-inch Victorian trapeze artist with two yards of blonde hair, an eye for a good business deal, and a very big heart. She escapes evil madams, villainous dukes, and jealous fellow aerialists. She travels with a circus of waltzing tigers, blasphemous clowns, and a sapient pig across Russia, into a land of bandits, shamans, and escapees from a lesbian panopticon. And did I mention that Sophie has wings? — “a polychromatic unfolding fully six feet across, spread of an eagle, a condor, an albatross fed to excess on the same diet that makes flamingoes pink.” But her quick instincts and fondness for eel pie remain as sturdy as the little London house where she was raised, “tucked away behind the howling of the Ratcliffe Highway, like the germ of sense left in a drunkard’s mind.”

Nights at the Circus won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize for fiction on its release, but — bafflingly — Carter never won the Booker. So, before her death, writes her literary executor Susannah Clapp, she “concocted” a satirical plan to write “a long novel featuring a philosophy don, his mistress and time travelling. It would be called ‘The Owl of Minerva’ — and she knew it would win.”

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Last year I got to see an early draft of Nights at the Circus on legal-pad paper at the British Library. Carter’s handwriting was all rounded capitals and quick lowercases, not too concerned about staying within the lines. I copied down its first sentence: “‘Lor’ love you, sir!’ cried the young woman magnificent female seated before the mirror.” In the published novel, everything about this first sentence (and first paragraph) has changed except that Cockney exclamation, as thoroughly London as its heroine — whose name, of course, is spelled like she’d pronounce “feathers.” Watching a writer I admire work through her voice on the page thrilled me.

And it reminded me of all there is to learn from her. Like PJ Harvey or Iain Sinclair, Carter draws propulsive energy from the big clanking madhouse of the English past. She loves circuses, crumbling mansions, toyshops, trains, horses, and prisons. She echoes Keats, Blake, Browning, the Brontës, and Milton. Like Hilary Mantel (“the wars unfought, the injuries and deaths that, like seeds, the soil of England is keeping warm” in Bring Up the Bodies) or Alan Garner (the Roman legions — or are they Cromwell’s soldiers? — in Red Shift), Carter is alive to the technical possibilities of history, the way war and murder and intrigue transcend time and bend backward to repeat themselves. She sees a lot and wants to get it all in. Yes, sometimes she overreaches. But in men’s writing, this kind of ambition and scope seldom gets called “too much,” even when it is. Women writers struggling to shake off the mind-forg’d manacles of good-girl self-policing and literary-industrial pigeonholing can take heart from her. She blows out the hesitancies and the self-sabotaging that silt up inside us. She makes us want to shake off the clinging of "have to" and "ought to" and get our own bloody work done before it’s too late. She makes us want to be as bold as she is, in ways that suit our own materials. And she helps us see how that might look.

I love to give my students The Bloody Chamber. After they read it, their eyes shine. The girls hold the book tightly. And when their writing comes back to me, I see something bold and vulnerable that wasn’t there before. As flowery as Carter can be, she’s adult and smart — particularly about sex and love — in a way our Twilight-reared students welcome and need. She teaches them. She teaches me. “I want to make images that are personal, sensuous, tender, and funny,” Carter wrote in her 20s. “I may not be very good yet but I’m young and I work very hard — or fairly hard.” This is as good a guide for my students and me as any I know.

The images in Carter’s beloved fairy tales freed her imagination, and her lively feminist skepticism. And in a time of Todd Akin, sexy-baby vocal virus, and the thousand other infantilizations that (female) flesh is heir to, we need her. In The Sadeian Woman and the Ideology of Pornography (1978), Carter links the virtuous, passive Justine (“She is at the mercy of any master, because that is the nature of her own definition of goodness”) to her cinematic descendant, Marilyn Monroe, in whom “a visible capacity for suffering provokes further suffering.” Ironically, that suffering is invoked by a “childlike charm” deployed to “reassure both men and herself that her own sexuality will not reveal to them their own inadequacy.” Over and over, Carter keeps us standing tall, as winged Sophie Fevvers, in a world that wants to whittle us down.

Among Carter’s papers after her death was a synopsis for a never-written sequel to Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, in which Jane’s stepdaughter Adele would “fall in love with a schoolteacher, seduce her own father and watch her mother being guillotined,” according to Clapp. The novel, Carter wrote, would play "some tricks with history... But then it is a novel.” Oh, how I would love to be able to read that book. But, after Angela Carter, I also feel eager to imagine it for myself. After all, as she wrote:

Reading is just as creative an activity as writing and most intellectual development depends upon new readings of old texts. I am all for putting new wine in old bottles, especially if the pressure of the new wine makes the old bottles explode.

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Amy Weldon is a writer and teacher living in Decorah, Iowa.

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