Chamber of Secrets: The Sorcery of Angela Carter



Illustration by Igor Karash

Fairy tales were reviled in the first stirrings of post-war liberation movements as part and parcel of the propaganda that kept women down. The American poet Anne Sexton, in a caustic sequence of poems called Transformations, scathingly evokes the corpselike helplessness of Sleeping Beauty and Snow White, and scorns, with fine irony, the Cinderella dream of bourgeois marriage and living happily ever after: boredom, torment, incest, death to the soul followed. Literary and social theorists joined in the battle against the Disney vision of female virtue (and desirability); Cinderella became a darker villain than her sisters, and for Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar, in their landmark study The Madwoman in the Attic, the evil stepmother in “Snow White” at least possesses mobility, will, and power—for which she is loathed and condemned. In the late sixties and early seventies, it wasn’t enough to rebel, and young writers and artists were dreaming of reshaping the world in the image of their desires. Simone de Beauvoir and Betty Friedan had done the work of analysis and exposure, but action—creative energy—was as necessary to build on the demolition site of the traditional values and definitions of gender.

In this context, Angela Carter made an inspired, marvelous move, for which so many other writers as well as readers will always be indebted to her: she refused to join in rejecting or denouncing fairy tales, but instead embraced the whole stigmatized genre, its stock characters and well-known plots, and with wonderful verve and invention, perverse grace and wicked fun, soaked them in a new fiery liquor that brought them leaping back to life. From her childhood, through her English degree at the University of Bristol where she specialised in Medieval Literature, and her experiences as a young woman on the folk-music circuit in the West Country, Angela Carter was steeped in English and Celtic faerie, in romances of chivalry and the grail, Chaucerian storytelling and Spenserian allegory, and she was to become fairy tale’s rescuer, the form’s own knight errant, who seized hold of it in its moribund state and plunged it into the fontaine de jouvence itself. Her first collection of tales, Fireworks: Nine Profane Pieces (1974), was followed, five years later, by The Bloody Chamber, which has now become a classic of English literature, far beyond the moment and historical circumstances of its origins.

Yet these stories provided a powerful catalyst. Irreverence and anarchy, skepticism and nonconformity were qualities Carter shared with fellow Londoners in the reverberating force field around the Beatles, the Stones, satirists like Lenny Bruce and the founders of Oz magazine. Curiosity about possible sexualities was a central theme, reflected in the cult status of Jean-Luc Godard’s films of that time. “The Company of Wolves” first appeared in Bananas, the literary magazine that the novelist Emma Tennant began and edited from 1975 to 1979, where several reworkings of myths and fairy tales by other writers—Sara Maitland, Michelene Wandor, and Tennant herself—also appeared. The methods of attacking the genre’s deathly conformity were multiple: inverting them was one strategy, and Angela Carter does so, again and again—especially in the enthralling close of “The Tiger’s Bride.” Reclaiming abuse was another (Carmen Callil, Angela Carter’s close friend and, later, publisher, named her publishing house Virago, where neglected women’s fiction was brought out again; in America, there was another, called Shameless Hussy Press); Carter’s fairy-tale heroines reclaim the night. She rewrites the conventional script formed over centuries of acclimatizing girls—and their lovers—to a status quo of captivity and repression, and issues a manifesto for alternative ways of loving, thinking and feeling. Another American poet and champion of women’s liberties, Adrienne Rich, coined the term ”revisioning” for such writings; Carter herself sometimes called them ”reformulations.”

In this collection, first published in 1979, the title story was directly inspired by Charles Perrault’s fairy tales of 1697: his “Barbe bleue” (“Bluebeard”) shapes Angela Carter’s retelling, as she lingers voluptuously on its sexual inferences, and springs a happy surprise in a masterly comic twist on the traditional happy ending. Within a spirited exposé of marriage as sadistic ritual, she shapes a bright parable of maternal love. Another tale from Perrault’s canonical collection, “Le Petit Chaperon rouge”(“Little Red Riding Hood”), is unforgettably transfigured in “The Company of Wolves” and returns in “The Werewolf,” again with a fine twist, this time startlingly Gothic. Carter’s version of “Puss-in-Boots” also takes off from Perrault, spliced and spiced with opera and pantomime and commedia dell’arte motifs to create a far more exuberant, amorous and freewheeling tale than its source. The fairy tale of “La Belle et la bête”(“Beauty and the Beast”), first composed by Mme de Villeneuve and later reshaped by Mme Leprince de Beaumont, was roundly condemned by Carter: Beaumont was a French governess working in England, and she was bent only on “house-training the id.” But Angela also loved the theme of Beauty meeting Beast, and Jean Cocteau’s La Belle et la bête (1946) remained one of her favorite films. The grace, shimmer and seductive innuendoes of Cocteau’s vision suffuse two of Carter’s tales, “The Courtship of Mr Lyon” and “The Tiger’s Bride,” yet with a difference, because Carter wants us to feel what it is like to be Beauty from the inside. She warns of the greater danger of wolves who are “hairy on the inside,” but the knowledge of what it is like to be there, to be on the inside, was her goal and her achievement, and it has enthralled her readers, discovering themselves to themselves.

Alongside the aristocratic fairy-tale tradition, Gothic gives the stories in The Bloody Chamber their particular flavor. The beast of the courtly south meets the ravenous wolf of more northerly folklore in “Wolf-Alice” and “The Lady of the House of Love,” as well as “The Company of Wolves.” Many of these figures and motifs appear in the Grimms’ collection of Children’s and Household Tales (1812–57), and Carter sharpened the laconic chill of the Brothers’ cruel fairy tales like “Snow White” with her splintering fable of jealousy and incest, “The Snow Child.” But she also cast nursery fairy tale on the warp of American horror—Edgar Allan Poe, whom she admired greatly, also conjured landscapes of ice and snow. They made her shiver, and shiveriness was always a mysterious pleasure, captured by her in an early, unpublished poem:

My cat is a snow queen …
White as starlight, twice
As cold.
She eats
For breakfast, hearts;
For supper, northern lights.

Concurrently with writing these fairy tales, Angela Carter was making a translation of Perrault; she followed both books with her most contrary and uncompromising essay, The Sadeian Woman (1979), which forms a diptych with The Bloody Chamber. Carter once remarked, “For me, a narrative is an argument stated in fictional terms,” and her writing fulfils that unexpected definition. In this counterblast to the virtuous claims of feminism, Carter identifies the Marquis de Sade as an honest witness to the conditions of bourgeois marriage, the economics of sexual relations, and the collusion of women with their own enslavement and subjugation. While as a writer she clothes herself in sparkling ornament and sensuous fantasy, she continues to operate surgically, with Enlightenment fury against hypocrisy and accommodations. The Sadeian Woman makes a Swiftian “modest proposal” about pornography, and it provides a valuable gloss on themes in The Bloody Chamber: “In his diabolic solitude,” she writes, “only the possibility of love could awake the libertine to perfect, immaculate terror. It is this holy terror of love that we find, in both men and women themselves, the source of all opposition to the emancipation of women.” The essay still has a starkly clarifying ethical force today, but it cost Angela Carter many friends and supporters, especially among U.S. feminists, and marked her out as someone for whom nothing is sacred (echoed in the title of her 1982 selected essays), who never toed the party line, not even the party line of her natural allies. Like her friend J. G. Ballard, and her own Red Riding Hood, she was nobody’s meat. Yet the same readers who are shocked by her acclaim of Sade’s “moral pornography” are enthralled by the way her stories explore similar themes, for The Bloody Chamber also quests for emancipatory erotics, beyond subjugation, beyond prejudice: Red Riding Hood finds bliss with the wolf; Beauty is transformed into a fabulous Beast.

This classic decalogue—ten stories, none of them very long, and some of them microfictions, haiku-like in their compression—was assembled for publication from disparate writings, and the perfection of the sequence as they follow one from the other happened by chance, chance created by the logic of Angela Carter’s quest for a new, contemporary romance literature fired by erotic imagination. “The Lady of the House of Love,” eighteen pages of enthralling, seductive frissons, began as a radio play, Vampirella, for BBC Radio 3 in the summer of 1976. It included lots of material about the nature of vampires and their literary history and sources; this has been cut from the tale on the page, in order to release the full, sweetly perverse melodrama without the containing frame of the meta-commentary. But the story’s origin in radio reveals a crucial element in Angela Carter’s writing: its acoustic weave of voice and sound effects. In her writings, her voice speaks from the page, addressing you, talking to you: “See! sweet and sound she sleeps in granny’s bed, between the paws of the tender wolf.” Very few writers use the imperative as she does—conspiratorially. Carter wanted to practise the atavistic lure, the atavistic power, of voices in the dark. “The writer who gives the words to those voices,” she wrote, “retains some of the authority of the most antique tellers of tales.”

The voice isn’t on its own, ringing in a hollow space. Open any page and a full score rises from its word-notes, of winds howling, teardrops falling, diamond earrings tinkling, snapping teeth, sneezing, and wheezing. Storytelling for Angela Carter was an island full of noises and sweet airs, and like Caliban, who heard a thousand twangling instruments hum about his ears, she was tuned to an ethereal universe packed with sensations, to which she was alive with every organ. Acoustics are not the only means, however, that she draws on to convey the lucid dreams she creates in her fiction. Her imagination is spatial, an architect’s axonometric vision, as she moves us through palaces and castles, forests and tundras, dungeons and attics, tracking with us down pathways towards her various sealed depositories of secrets, those bloody chambers. What reader does not explore with her these passages and woodland tracks? Who does not feel the Beast’s dark carriage like a hearse rumbling towards his eerily uninhabited domain? And who does not sense, through her powerful evocations, the pricking of thorns, the jaw-cracking stringiness of granny, the jangling of bed springs, the licking of a big cat’s tongue, the soft luxurious furs and velvets and skin, and the piercing contrasts with ice, glass, metal? Cognitive theorists of language have identified such travelling movements and embodied presences in narrative as prime conductors of readerly empathy, replicating the motions of thought itself as it models scenes and experiences in the mind’s eye. Carter’s mastery of these effects brings about a quality of hallucinatory reality, dreamlike in its close-up intensity, that wraps the products of her unleashed fantasy. She knew what word power could do in this regard: “No werewolf make-up in the world can equal the werewolf you see in your mind’s eye,” she wrote.

Her highly wrought prose, especially in these fairy tales, gorgeously elaborates on states of desire and discovery, but it skirts the perils of overblown romance through its poise, always on the edge of a delicious humour. The last Christmas before she died, Angela Carter wrote the script for a television film, The Holy Family Album; it is a characteristically mischievous piece, flagrant in its quiet way, the author’s dry sallies underlaid with serious intent to create a shapely fable. The first and last shot zooms in on a tiny golden key turning in the lock of a tooled, embossed Victorian scrapbook or photograph album, to reveal inside the dark secret at the heart of the life of Jesus: that the Oedipal complex has the facts of the matter topsy-turvy, that it is the father who wants to kill the son, because (here Angela Carter’s voice drops to a whisper) he knows that he is the one she—mother, wife, Virgin Mary—loves “best of all.” The Holy Family Album is a Pythonesque montage of images and music, comically, fiendishly blaspheming to a degree unimaginable today, especially in the festive season: Jesus is a conjuror and solemnly turns a baguette into a gigot d’agneau inside his top hat. Angela narrated the film herself in voice-over, a confiding quiet storyteller’s murmur that draws you into complicity with the speaker’s viewpoint and keeps promising to break into ironic laughter, to cackle at the transgressiveness of what it is daring to say. She had a famous laugh, and in her fiction many of her huge characters, such as Fevvers the giant aërialiste from Nights at the Circus, explode with laughter.

The scale of her extraordinary achievement has been recognised by the thousands of readers who find in her writing something they know inside themselves but have never encountered expressed in that way before. Often these readers are counterparts of the writer herself at the age she was when she was writing these stories—my students, for example, have to be restricted to writing one essay on her a year, otherwise they would spend their entire English Literature degree working on early Carter. For a while after her death, she became the subject of more Ph.D. theses than any other English author. But not all of her readers are young women—her work bridges frontiers, gender and, above all, eras. She seemed to be writing for her generation out of concerns that dominated children brought up in post-war Britain, but her influence has grown, and grown stronger year on year, with a wide-ranging following among singers, artists, filmmakers, dramatists, producers, graphic novelists, all drawing inspiration from her work, especially the fairy tales. She would be astonished at her success and her fame now, since such acclaim eluded her during her lifetime (scandalously, no Booker Prize nomination, for example).

The Bloody Chamber resuscitated fairy tales for today and picked up a dropped thread of English literature of enchantment, as visible in the work of Salman Rushdie and Jeanette Winterson (both openly pay homage to Carter) and, since then, in the creations of myriad others in every medium—Carteresque fabulism has become part of the artistic and literary weather. Recognition from readers at this pitch of intensity has the quality of one of the many enchanted mirrors that appear in Angela Carter’s stories: it makes palpable a face, a state of being previously obscured and inchoate, in the same way that Wolf-Alice returns the Duke to his human form by the light of the moon striking his reflection in her rational glass, a glass which is love and knowledge, faith and doubt all combined.

Excerpted from Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber: And Other Stories. The book, with illustrations by Igor Karash, is available from The Folio Society.

Marina Warner, cultural historian and critic, is Professor of Literature, Film, and Theatre Studies at the University of Essex, UK. Her latest book is Stranger Magic: Charmed States and the Arabian Nights.