By Jeff VanderMeer
Angela Carter (1940-1992)
II. The Early Works
III. The Master Works
IV. Wise Children
V. Recognition & Influence
More on Carter
1. A Personal Appreciation
2. Angela Carter Bookstore
3. Offsite Links
The Infernal Desire Machines of Angela Carter
I. An Introduction
Angela Carter was, without question, a 20th Century original. No matter what one thinks of her writing, no one can argue that she was ever less than unique. Magic Realism, Surrealism, Fantasy, Science Fiction, Gothic, Feminism, Postmodernism all of these categories apply, and yet all are one-dimensional in their application to Carter; none of them, with the possible exception of Surrealism, encompass the full spectrum of her accomplishments.
Carter's maiden name was Stalker, perhaps more fitting than the surname of her first husband, which she retained as her own. The daughter of socialists, Carter grew up in South London. All of her immediate female relatives were strong women of striking candor and pragmatism. And yet, paradoxically, Carter fought to overcome teenage anorexia caused by low self-esteem.
Well-off but pro-active, Carter anguished over the closing of mines and the breaking of mining strikes in the 1960s, and over the failures of the socialist revolution in general.(1) While a student at Bristol College, Carter hung out in sidewalk cafes and at smoky backroom poetry readings. In addition to absorbing the bohemian nightlife, Carter studied psychology and anthropology. She also developed a strong liking for Rimbaud and Racine, and for French literature in general.
A devout atheist who first dabbled in poetry and journalism, she metamorphosed into one of the most original writers of the post-World War II period. Her creativity was fed by travels to Japan and Russia that greatly influenced her fiction. When she did finally come to the United States, it was almost as an afterthought, although she captured the essence of the country in The Passion of New Eve (1977).
Lorna Sage makes the excellent observation that Carter seems to have lived her life out of the normal order:
Angela Carter's life the background of social mobility, the teenage anorexia, the education and self-education, the early marriage and divorce, the role-playing and shape-shifting, the travels, the choice of a man much younger, the baby in her forties is the story of someone walking a tightrope. It's all happening "on the edge," in no man's land, among the debris of past convictions. By the end, her life fitted her more or less like a glove, but that's because she'd put it together by trial and error, bricolage, all in the (conventionally) wrong order. Her genius and estrangement came out of a thin-skinned extremity of response to the circumstances of her life and to the signs of the times.(2)
Neither did her work ever fit, as Salman Rushdie pointed out, the definition of "moral fiction" as championed by John Gardner:
Angela Carter was a thumber of noses, a defiler of sacred cows. She loved nothing so much as cussed but also blithe nonconformity. Her books unshackle us, toppling the statues of the pompous, demolishing the temples and commissariats of righteousness. They draw their strength, their vitality, from all that is unrighteous, illegitimate, low.(3)
A literary guerilla and 20th Century Bosch, Carter infused her work with humor and wonderfully profane wisdom. At the heart of her fiction lay a sturdy, non-didactic Feminism. Few writers have as successfully told stories within stories, created dense, baroque prose, and still, in the end, delivered on an emotional level. Carter's untimely death from cancer in 1992 at the age of 51 was a great loss for fiction.
II. The Early Works
Very few originals come to us from any field, whether it be the arts or the sciences. When they do, they rarely drop fully-formed from clear skies, already armed to the teeth with eccentricity and genius. They also rarely find a ready audience for their originality they must struggle for recognition, and in this struggle, this essential opposition to status quo, more fully refine and define themselves. In a sense, the greater the opposition, the more stubborn, the tougher, such originals become . . . if they truly are originals.
Carter wrote her greatest works The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman, The Passion of New Eve, The Bloody Chamber, and Nights at the Circus in the mid-70's to the mid-80's: ground-breaking works that defied easy summation or analysis. But how did Carter come to write these masterpieces? What was the process of her development? She certainly did not fall out of the sky possessed of all the knowledge, all of the technique, necessary to write them. Where did it come from? How did she accumulate it? These questions are best answered by an examination of the strengths and deficiencies of Carter's early work.
The mid-60s to mid-70s would serve as Carter's apprenticeship to literature, for she did not leap out into the three-ring circus of the fantastic without a net. Instead, feet planted firmly on the ground, she sidled in crabwise, three of her first five novels set in a bohemian, hippyish London populated with post-Beat Generation deadbeats and described with grotesque Gothic flourishes: the counter-culture of Shadow Dance (1965), Several Perceptions (1968), and Love (1971). The Magic Topshop (1967), winner of the John Llewellyn Rhys Prize, has much less of this atmosphere, and Heroes and Villains (1969) has none.
Written while she still lived in Bristol, Carter's first novel, Shadow Dance (published as Honeybuzzard in the United States) features the malignant, magnificently bizarre Honeybuzzard, an amoral protagonist who has, before the novel begins, disfigured his gorgeous girlfriend and who, before the novel ends, will commit a murder. Strange events and bizarre characters are commonplace. Most reviewers dismissed Carter as an author who had "read too much Carson McCullers."(4) Puzzled, Carter would later remark, "[the novel] didn't give exactly mimetic copies of people I knew, but it was absolutely as real as the milieu I was familiar with: it was set in provincial bohemia."(5) Carter's bemusement is endearing, even comical, for she seems genuinely unaware of her knack, even early on, for the stylization of familiar elements into symbols both dark and grotesque.
Carter's second novel, The Magic Toyshop, chronicles 16-year-old Melanie's coming of age under the tyrannical thumb of an uncle who runs a decidedly disturbing toyshop. Melanie, her brother, and her little sister live in the country until their parents, lecturing in the United States, are killed in a plane crash, and the children must move to the less elegant digs of London's south end. There Melanie endures her Uncle Phillip's abuse, learns the secret of his toyshop, and eventually runs away with Finn, her uncle's adopted son. The novel fits comfortably within the bounds already circumscribed by other British writers (most significantly Dickens; one can almost imagine cries of "Little Melanie!" much as purveyors of penny dreadfuls cried out, "Little Nell!").
The Magic Toyshop deserves special mention among Carter's early works because many of her "signatures" are already in place, including the evil puppet maker, the grotesquery of the puppets themselves, and her ability to create quick, charming brushstrokes of characterization, such as this description of Melanie's little sister:
Victoria had no sense of guilt. She had no sense at all. She was a round, golden pigeon who cooed. She rolled in the sun and tore butterflies into little pieces when she could catch them.
However, several elements work against the novel, the first being such inexplicable and ill-advised passages as, "...before their eyes, [Victoria's] miserable O spread out into a Happy Sambo melon-wedge grin."
Secondly, when Carter uses symbols, she more often than not either telegraphs or needlessly obscures them.
In particular, the novel's allegorical content proves its undoing. As Carter explained in an interview, "They're escaping like Adam and Eve at the end of Paradise Lost...The intention was that the toyshop itself should be a secularized Eden."(6) As allegory, the book suffers a confusion of images. If the toyshop represents Eden, what is the significance of the garden Melanie escapes from at her country home before she moves to London?
More crucially, the attempt at allegory explains The Magic Toyshop's third flaw: Uncle Phillip's existence as a character so one-dimensional that his very presence undermines the novel's integrity. All the reader knows of him is his brutality and his queer puppet shows. (For one such show, he recreates Zeus-as-swan impregnating Leda/Melanie.) Otherwise, brutish Phillip remains as faceless and gray as when Melanie first meets him: "Blocking the head of the stairway on the kitchen landing was the immense, overwhelming figure of a man. The light was behind him and Melanie could not see his face."
If Uncle Phillip does represent "God the father, a ruthless and heartless man," as Carter puts it, then he is a petty, distant figure and Carter provides no insight into either the flesh-and-bones or the symbolism.
What, then, to make of The Magic Toyshop? Carter's portraits of Melanie and of Finn and especially her examination of Melanie's journey into adulthood provide numerous pleasures, and yet, the book falls short of the visionary quality that would become Carter's trademark. The book is most valuable in its role as a forerunner of Carter's later novels, in which the tapestry of plot, allegory, symbolism, characterization, and description is seamless. Here, the stitches show, and thus the story cannot succeed on multiple levels.
If these books constituted Carter's only works, she would no doubt be remembered today as a disturbing writer of Gothic psychodramas, a minor but interesting talent, along the lines of a Walter de la Mare. However, Carter reinvented herself between 1969 and 1972, a reinvention and a deeper focus brought on by a failed marriage and three years spent in Japan (the trip financed by her Somerset Maugham award for Several Perceptions). In Japan, she "became radicalized and realized what it meant to be a woman."(7) While there, she also met many French surrealists, who had fled their government's 1968 crackdown.
From these cultural, personal, and philosophical contacts, Carter emerged as a much different writer more determined, more of a feminist, and a more accomplished stylist. Between 1972 and 1977, she authored The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman, the uneven but seminal Fireworks, and the incendiary (if under-appreciated) The Passion of New Eve. Ironically, during this time, Carter had less commercial success than at any other time, no doubt because she'd become less accessible to the readers who had enjoyed her earlier work.
Preceding these books came Heroes and Villains (1969). Heroes and Villains may be Carter's worst book, in that, like The Magic Toyshop, it only half-succeeds. A fictional "laboratory" erected to discuss and critique the writings of Rousseau, Heroes and Villains is a didactic, post-cataclysm novel in which characters divided into Savages and Professors say things like, "You're not a human being at all, you're a metaphysical proposition." Despite the novel's failures especially a turgid lack of narrative movement in its middle portion it must be considered one of Carter's two pivotal works (the second being Fireworks), for it crossed the line between that which exists and that which does not exist.
As previously noted, Carter's other novels had been set in a contemporary London, and events occurred within them that, although often outrageous, remained within the realm of possibility. Heroes and Villains represented a significant break with even a semblance of reality. Although Carter would publish one more novel, Love, which fit comfortably into her former canon, she would rarely thereafter be bound by the dictates of the here-and-now, and as a result her work would never again be truly Gothic. For all that she might use Gothic trappings, her style would forever after serve an entirely idiosyncratic muse.
Another way in which Carter began to branch out is through experimentation with the short form. Her first attempts at the short story (1970-1973) were captured in the collection Fireworks. Several of these stories achieve near-perfection and several others are unabashedly awful; but taken as a whole, the collection substantially extended Carter's range.
Fireworks achieves an uneasy balance between the personal and the profanely Other, between stories about loneliness (or the art of being alone) and stories about the impenetrable nature of individuals not ourselves. "The Executioner's Beautiful Daughter" and "The Loves of Lady Purple" are classic Carter in the vein readers would come to expect: postmodern tales in exotic settings, stylized and remote. The distinction between the tale often based on myth or legend, stylized, and featuring intentionally "flat" characters and the short story which is often more realistic, three-dimensional, and psychologically complete is very important. Throughout Carter's career, she would straddle the boundary between "story" and "tale", thus helping to redefine both.
A good example of the folklorish nature of the tale is "The Executioner's Beautiful Daughter," which was, by Carter's own admission, "the first serious short story I ever wrote," the result of "a bet I made with someone I met in a cafe who said that fiction has to be kinetic, it has to move. I thought it was nonsense to say anything so categorical about art."(8) "The Executioner's Beautiful Daughter" concerns not only incest but also the stoppage of time, for indeed nothing happens in the story's real-time. The setting a baleful, almost Mongolian highlands becomes a character in and of itself, but a stagnant character, for this is a people and a place that do not change, "the air choked all day with diffuse moisture tremulously, endlessly on the point of becoming rain." The very fact that nothing happens that the "plot" revolves around the frozen scene of the executioner about to behead his son for committing incest with his daughter adds to a sense of menace, a coiled tension: the reader is a voyeur, spying on an alien culture and time. The movement in the story is derived from character development and has a stationary quality quite unnerving for a flashback. The performers are no less alien by story's end, but the reader understands the logic behind the culture that created them. Elements of the story may well have been influenced by Carter's introduction to Japanese comics, the series of stills "unfolding only in the personal time of the reader" and thus achieving a state of "continuous static convulsion."(9)
"The Loves of Lady Purple," reprinted in anthologies with some frequency, revisits the fascination with puppetry Carter first displayed in The Magic Toyshop, although here, in compressed form, to heightened symbolic effect. The story's sweeping aside of the mystique to reveal the wires and machinations behind the puppetry also reveals Carter's life-long fascination with surface appearances and their symbolic underpinnings. "The Loves of Lady Purple" succeeds not because of the fantasy element but because it deals with the invention of masks, with the way men try to re-invent women in order to control them. Thus, the tale the puppeteer tells his audience about The Lady Purple becomes reality, and the reality devours the puppeteer.
Although the previous two stories are certainly important, the strength of the collection lies in three stories which serve as a trilogy of transition, loss, and isolation "A Souvenir of Japan," "Flesh and the Mirror," and "The Smile of Winter." All three were written in Japan, are set in Japan, and were put down on paper bare months after Carter's divorce from her first husband. Taken as three variations on a theme, of similar mood and subject matter, they form a personal chronicle that approaches autobiography. Never again would Carter commit such a personal account to fiction, certainly not in a manner that would so perfectly mirror her own situation at a particular time: a female, first person narrator coping with loss, with the ironies and inequalities of relationships.
"A Souvenir of Japan" describes a British woman's affair with a Japanese man whose name is Taro, after the Kabuki story of Mamo-taro, "who was born from a peach." Taro too "had the inhuman sweetness of a child born from something other than a mother, a passive, cruel sweetness I did not immediately understand, for it was that of the repressed masochism which, in my country, is usually confined to women..."
The story, in its evocation of culture clash between men and women even more than between Japan and England is deadly. The narrator must objectify her lover before he can objectify her, so as not to lose her own sense of self: "I knew him only in relation to myself," "At times I thought I was inventing him as I went along," "...it is, perhaps, a better thing to be valued only as an object of passion than never to be valued at all." And here she frames the crucial and enervating core of many relationships: that women accept their status as objects in return for their mates' passionate attention, the man's appreciation of the woman as a body which gives him pleasure.
Carter's description of the unabashedly male-dominated Japanese culture ("In the department store there was a rack of dresses labeled 'For young and cute girls only.'") serves as a devastating backdrop to a discussion of a relationship rather than a plotted story in the conventional sense. Nonetheless, Carter manages to drive home such disaffected rage, passion, and sadness that the last lines have the power to reverberate throughout the rest of the collection:
soon we would learn to treat one another with the circumspect tenderness of comrades who are amputees, for we were surrounded by the most moving images of evanescence, fire works, morning glories, the old, children. But the most moving of these images were the intangible reflections of ourselves we saw in one another's eyes, reflections of nothing but appearances, in a city dedicated to seeming, and, try as we might to possess the essence of each other's otherness, we would inevitably fail.
Such stylization, accomplished as much through choice of elements as through the style itself, makes the story a compressed gem. This, Carter's first overtly feminist work, is not a firework for it does not explode; rather, internalized, it implodes.
"Flesh and the Mirror" continues in much the same vein: appearances versus reality, and how appearances can become reality. Alone in Tokyo, her boyfriend absent from the airport when she arrives back from England, the narrator wanders the streets waif-like: "...when I was an intolerable adolescent, I learned to sit with my coat collar turned up in a lonely way, so that people would talk to me." She cannot drop the "predatory habit." She searches for her boyfriend, who has obviously abandoned her, and ponders the sleepwalking dream she has called her life: "There I was, walking up and down, eating meals, having conversations, in love, indifferent, and so on. But all the time I was pulling the strings of my own puppet; it was this puppet who was moving about on the other side of the glass." Distraught, she picks up a stranger and has sex with him in a hotel with mirrors on the ceiling. In these mirrors, she sees herself for the first time in motion, even if it is the meaningless repetition of sexual congress, with a stranger. The mirror is merciless, for it shows her the real condition of her life.
When she finds her boyfriend the next day, they quarrel and she tries to pretend she still loves him, tries to "pull her own strings." She ignores his angry words because they do not fit her image of him, nor of them in love:
In order to create the loved object in this way and to issue it with its certificate of authentication, as beloved, I had also to labor at the idea of myself in love. I watched myself for the signs and, precisely on cue, here they were! Longing, desire, self-abnegation, etc.
As in "Souvenirs of Japan," the woman struggles for control of her own image, but in "Flesh and the Mirror" the struggle is entirely internal, and perhaps more deadly because of it. The narrator of "Flesh and the Mirror" has yet to externalize the implications of her own internal struggle.
"The Smile of Winter" provides an aftermath to "Souvenirs of Japan" and "Flesh and the Mirror": the female narrator has shed her lover and, although still melancholy, has achieved an aura of strength. "Smile" is a more subtle treatise on being alone and recovering from loss. The reader never learns any details about the extent or nature of such loss, but instead gleans clues through the narrator's description of her surroundings on a Japanese beach: "Because there are no seagulls here, the only sound is the resonance of the sea" and "The old houses in the village are each one dedicated to seclusion and count on individual sequestered sadness." The proliferation of images of isolation and desolation evokes an atmosphere of sadness both undermined and strengthened by the narrator's self-conscious recognition of her own condition: "I have read about all the abandoned lovers in their old books eating their hearts out like Mariana in so many moated granges."
The story ends on a note of solitary defiance: "Do not think I do not realize what I am doing." The images that crowd the last few pages mock her own transitory condition. The natural world knows nothing of loneliness and, ultimately, the concrete images with which the narrator weaves her smile of winter are indifferent to her and her plight. This indifference mocks the narrator, mocks the sadness, for she will become indifferent to her own loneliness, and thus escape it.
These three stories mark a definite transition in Carter's work. Where before she was content to show the interplay of men and women in relationships, now she becomes more assertive, more passionate in her own definition of herself as a woman. In Shadow Dance, all of the women are victims. The female protagonist of The Magic Toyshop is acted upon by the men in the book and finds safety on her boyfriend's terms. Love's heroine is fought over by two men, who reduce their lover to an object. However, following Fireworks, especially in The Passion of New Eve, The Bloody Chamber and Nights at the Circus, female characters deal with male counterparts on their own terms, as true equals or superiors, empowered, unafraid, and courageous. This awakening, in terms of a literary chronology, can be traced back to these three very personal stories in Fireworks. In them, the reader discovers a writer waking up, a writer struggling to assimilate a foreign culture and a foreign sex, and in the cross-hatching of the two, finding her own bearings as a woman and as a political entity.
Of the remaining stories in Fireworks, only "Elegy for a Freelance," a return to her bohemian roots, and no doubt inspired by the 1968 student riots in France, is of interest. "Master" is a competently-told South American tale, but suffers in comparison to work by Gabriel García Márquez or Mario Vargas Llosa. Stories like "Penetrating to the Heart of the Forest" and "Reflections" are abstract and formless, and so fail; the former an awful attempt to recreate a tale of the Fall, and the latter perhaps an attempt to fictionalize some of Breton's weaker theories of the supernatural.
However, Carter would rarely hit a false note again, even as she expanded her oeuvre to include Surrealism and Fairy Tales. Carter had always possessed a gift for controlled grotesquery, stylistic flourish, and thematic elegance. She could have remained a quite good, even excellent, Gothic Revival novelist, disturbing and accomplished, but instead chose to evolve into something quite different: an original voice meshed to original subject matter, with the intellect and instincts to become a novelist of the first rank. As Brian Stableford put it at the time:
. . . it is only in her most recent work that a general concern with the existential predicaments of the modern era has been narrowed down to a concentration on the politics of sexual relationships. This narrowing down has given her more recent stories both intimacy and intensity, and has saved her from the remote detachment which characterizes certain other writers who have followed similar lines of development from mild surrealism to wholesale fabulation.(10)
III. The Master Works
The mid-70s to the mid-80's would prove Angela Carter's most ambitious and successful creative period, in part because of her ability to use for her own purposes two different literary traditions. The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman and The Passion of New Eve represent the culmination of her experimentation with Surrealism, while The Bloody Chamber and Nights at the Circus successfully assimilate aspects of myth and folklore.
The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman
While certain elements of the Gothic and Magic Realism traditions can be found in The Infernal Desire Machines and The Passion of New Eve, these aspects are subservient to the overwhelmingly surreal aspects of these books. "Gothic" defines only a type of description when discussing these works, and "Magic Realism," much more "reader-friendly" than surrealism, does not do justice to the intellectual rigor and background of the writing. Magic Realism is very much an ism of emotion and the mystical, usually manifested through unusual events that occur within a realistic setting. But despite the passion of her tales, Carter also displays a hardy intellectualism and a propensity for treating the fictional form as sociology and satire that hardly fits within the narrower confines of Magic Realism. Perhaps Carter's work represents that brand of literature with which surrealists sought to replace the gothic, the "new collective myth appropriate for our era."(11)
There is no doubt that the Surrealist movement interested and captured Carter, as she commented on in her 1978 essay "The Alchemy of the Word":
Surrealist beauty is convulsive. That is, you feel it, you don't see it - it exists as an excitation of the nerves. The experience of the beautiful is, like the experience of desire, an abandonment to vertigo, yet the beautiful does not exist as such. What do exist are images or objects that are enigmatic, marvelously erotic or juxtapositions of objects, or people, or ideas, that arbitrarily extend our notion of the connections it is possible to make. In a way, the beautiful is put at the service of liberty.(12)
Later in the same essay, she writes:
...although I thought [the surrealists] were wonderful, I had to give them up in the end. They were, with a few patronized exceptions, all men and they told me that I was the source of all mystery, beauty, and otherness, because I was a woman and I knew that was not true. I knew I wanted my fair share of the imagination, too. Not an excessive amount, mind; I wasn't greedy. Just an equal share in the right to vision.(13)
The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman not only exercised her "equal share in the right to vision," it went a step beyond and may well be the finest surrealist novel of the past 30 years. It perfectly captures the ideas and ideals of surrealist beauty.
Infernal Desire Machines pits the Minister of Determination, de facto ruler of an anonymous South American city, against Dr. Hoffman, a professor of metaphysics who has besieged the city with the "forces of unreason." Dr. Hoffman recalls the gleefully anarchic Breton, founder of the surrealist movement. The "hero" of the piece is one Desiderio, a half-breed who serves the Minister. Desiderio describes the Minister as "not a man but a theorem, clear, hard, unified and harmonious. I admired him. He reminded me of a string quartet." A man of calm and reason, Desiderio becomes the Minister's prime agent against the good doctor because he is one of the few people unaffected by the onslaught of unreason: "I knew some things were necessarily impossible. I did not believe it when I saw the ghost of my dead mother clutching her rosary." Nor does he believe when agents of Dr. Hoffman change the name plate on his door to the names of his heroes, "Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart" and "Andrew Marvel."
The nature of the conflict becomes clear when the Minister and Desiderio meet with an ambassador for Dr. Hoffman. This effeminate man of whom Desiderio notes, "The skin of the Ambassador's throat was so luminously delicate one could see the glowing shadow of the burgundy trickle down his gullet after he had taken a sip" is actually the good doctor's daughter, Albertina, with whom Desiderio will eventually fall in love. Desiderio records the proceedings, which eventually devolve into recriminations by the Minister over issues such as roads turned suddenly mutinous:
Minister: But ought the roads to rule the city?
Ambassador: Don't you think we should give them a crack at the whip now and then? Poor things, forever oriented by the insensitive feet of those who trample them. Time and space have their own properties, Minister, and these, perhaps, have more value than you customarily allow them. Time and space are the very guts of nature and so, naturally, they undulate in the manner of intestines.
Minister: I see you make a habit of analogies.
Ambassador: An analogy is a signpost..
Minister: You have taken away all the signposts.
Ambassador: But we have populated the city with analogies.
Minister: I should dearly like to know the reason why.
Ambassador: For the sake of liberty, Minister.
Minister: What an exceedingly pretty notion!
"For the sake of liberty" rather closely echoes Carter's statement of "beauty in the service of liberty," and indeed Dr. Hoffman's assault seems philosophically aligned with this ideal. It also mirrors one of Breton's most famous definitions of surrealism:
I hope that it stands as having tried nothing better than laying down a conductor between the far too separated worlds of waking and sleeping, of exterior and interior reality, of reason and madness, of the calm of knowledge and of love, of life for life and the revolution, etc.(14)
At the height of the siege, the city in flux knows no separation of the "worlds of waking and sleeping" and becomes a literal madhouse of metaphors and similes made flesh:
Dead children came calling in nightgowns, rubbing the sleep and grave dust from their eyes...pigeons lolloped from illusory pediment to window ledges like volatile, feathered madmen, chattering vile rhymes and laughing in hoarse, throaty voices, or perched upon chimney stacks shouting quotations from Hegel...I often glanced at my watch only to find its hands had been replaced by a healthy growth of ivy or honeysuckle which while I looked, writhed impudently all over its face, concealing it.
Playfulness alone makes such passages a delight, although Carter's purpose is not merely to provide entertaining surreal set pieces, but to describe what a surrealistic revolution might be like, for as Breton was fond of saying, "Man must be in permanent revolt against limits of all kinds...[to] transform the world."(15) What is Dr. Hoffman's war but the ultimate surrealist revolution? To overthrow the bourgeois, to undermine the traditional and the mundane? As George Hay put it in his Foundation review of the book, "[This novel] is a demonstration of metaphysics, as distinct from being about metaphysics."(16)
Soon the ravages of Dr. Hoffman's "shock troops of the irreal" take their toll, and to preserve the city, Desiderio agrees to accept an undercover mission from the Minister to find and kill Dr. Hoffman. Desiderio poses as an Inspector of Veracity and travels to the seaside resort of S, there to investigate the "proprietor of a certain peep show who had operated his business upon the pier throughout the summer." This proprietor taught Dr. Hoffman physics at one time and the Minister believes that through him Desiderio can find Dr. Hoffman. The proprietor's exhibits include "Exhibit One: I HAVE BEEN HERE BEFORE."
The legs of a woman, raised and open as if ready to admit a lover, formed a curvilinear triumphal arch. The feet were decorated with spike-heeled, black leather pumps. This anatomical section, composed of pinkish wax dimpled at the knee, did not admit the possibility of the existence of a torso. A bristling pubic growth rose to form a kind of coat of arms above the circular proscenium it contained at either side but, although the hairs had been inserted one by one in order to achieve the maximal degree of verisimilitude, the overall effect was one of stunning artifice. The dark red and purple crenellations surrounding the vagina acted as a frame for a perfectly round hole through which the viewer glimpsed the moist, luxuriant landscape of the interior.
An elaborate and clever bit of writing on Carter's part, for not only does the exhibit display the same monstrously erotic qualities of a Dali painting, but it also serves as functional foreshadowing and symbolism. The scene within the "perfectly round hole" contains a far away castle that is very obviously the castle of Dr. Hoffman, as Desiderio discovers by the end of the novel. Furthermore, Desiderio will find this castle only through his desire for that "effeminate man" who is really a woman, Albertina. Carter's bawdy sense of humor delights in making this symbolic gateway a vagina.
After Desiderio's encounter with the proprietor and his exhibits, the novel opens up into a series of surrealist experiments/adventures that serve to test the protagonist's state of mind. Desiderio plods mundanely through this fevered landscape without an appreciable sense of wonder to encompass and understand it, despite a strong emotional commitment to Albertina. The vagueness of Desiderio's past actually plays to the novel's advantage in keeping with the surrealistic contention that only the current state of mind, perception and reaction, is significant.
Carter's imagination had never before worked at such a fever pitch, sustained without effort for the entire novel, and her control of language startles with its opulent clarity. The episodic journey shines with pearls of symbolism and satire for example, the Swiftian centaurs and the subsequent examination of sexual mores, not to mention her manipulation of the Erotic in a chapter entitled "The Acrobats of Desire." Her earlier plots, unwieldy and clunky at times, give way to a seamless series of episodes that lead to a satisfying climax, either because the "quest" form provides her with a ready-made structure, or because of her growing sophistication.
When Desiderio finally manages to restore reality by destroying Dr. Hoffman, and with him Albertina, Carter speaks through him in regret for the fall of the imagination:
...I am so old and sad now, and, without her, condemned to live in a drab, colourless world, as though I were living in a faded daguerreotype. Therefore I, Desiderio, dedicate all my memories to Albertina Hoffman with my insatiable tears.
Reviewers seemed to think that because Desiderio chose reality, this meant that Carter had, ultimately, rejected and refuted chaos, irreality, and surrealism. Nothing could be less true, as her next fiction would prove.
The Passion of New Eve
If there has been a neglected Carter masterpiece, that book would have to be The Passion of New Eve (1977). This novel marks the culmination of her Surrealist period, with the folklore/fairy tale-influenced The Bloody Chamber to follow in 1979. However, with the exception of the early (1968) novel Several Perceptions, Passion is Carter's most overlooked novel.
Compared to The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman, The Passion of New Eve is a crude, ugly book, by measures erudite and pompous, angry and profane. The plot has a streamlined single-mindedness dedicated in part to feminist satirizing of the image of the United States promulgated through its movies, the most obvious and potent of the tactics employed by the agents of cultural/gender imperialism.
Evelyn, an Englishman, who has been offered a job teaching in New York, arrives only to find that the country has gone belly-up. Harlem is a walled city defended by African American extremists, tanks rumble down streets of broken glass, and radical feminists fight it out with the National Guard. The level of breakdown described by Carter is only a few steps beyond the Los Angeles riots and the call for the Guard to patrol Washington, D.C.; it is, however, leavened by black humor, especially as regards the feminists:
They blew up wedding shops and scoured the newspapers for marriage announcements so that they could send brides gifts of well-honed razors...there were rumors of a kamikaze squad of syphilitic whores who donated spirochetal enlightenment for free to their customers out of dedication to the cause.
Evelyn soon finds that his university position has been liquidated and, penniless, he takes up with Leilah, a black woman whom he uses as sex partner. Despite their relationship, he develops no emotional attachment to her; which is hardly unusual for Evelyn, who rarely sees women as anything other than disposable sex toys. He soon impregnates Leilah and forces her to have a disastrous abortion that nearly kills her. With the benefit of hindsight, he muses:
She was a perfect woman; like the moon, she only gave reflected light. She had mimicked me, she had become the thing I wanted of her, so that she could make me love her and yet she had mimicked me so well she had also mimicked the fatal flaw in me that meant I was not able to love her because I myself was so unlovable.
Carter isn't after subtlety or surprise. Passion functions as a sledgehammer, with many secondary agendas and one primary purpose: to expose the inequalities imposed on women by men and, in the laboratory created by the author's imagination, to bring into conflict those elements that will best serve her purpose. If it is propaganda, so be it, but it is transcendent propaganda.
Fleeing his own cruelty, Evelyn wanders into the desert. He is soon captured by a cult of Amazonian-type women and brought to their underground laboratories. There, Evelyn meets the leader, Mother, a former plastic surgeon and geneticist who has made herself into an amalgamation of all the mother goddesses ever given life by worship, fashioning eight breasts for herself. She admonishes Evelyn like a character from Milton's Paradise Lost: "And you've abused women, Evelyn, with this delicate instrument that should have been used for nothing but pleasure. You've made a weapon of it!" Mother rapes Evelyn and reveals her plan to surgically transform him into a woman, and then impregnate this new Eve with his own sperm, that he might escape the source of his corruption and bring forth "the Messiah of the Antithesis." In a brutally ironic scene, Evelyn protests this punishment to one of his women captors, only to be asked, "Is it such a bad thing to be like me?"
Mother completes the transformation, but before the new Eve can be inseminated with his/her own semen, "she" escapes into the desert, where the blind poet Zero captures her. Zero has become a deity in his own right, a cruel Cronos rather than a Zeus, having acquired a harem-cult of seven worshipful women. He repeatedly rapes Eve, thus initiating her into her new womanhood. Zero embodies male machismo and, from his name alone, the reader can guess what Carter thinks of male machismo. Zero may be two-dimensional in his brutality, but Carter isn't writing realism; she is reworking the myths of the United States with frank and obvious symbolism. The symbols in Passion are in-the-flesh symbols as Carter creates human deities with all the tragic stupidities and larger-than-life attributes of Greek gods.
Through Zero's rough ministrations, Eve truly learns her role, for "...although I was a woman, I was now also passing for a woman, but, then, many women born spend their whole lives in just such imitations."
Zero's sole ambition, his sole passion, is to find the reclusive former film icon Tristessa, long retired and living in seclusion in Arizona. By coincidence and there are many coincidences in Passion of New Eve, perhaps the only element that threatens the novel's integrity Tristessa has long been Eve/Evelyn's great mythological love; s/he has suffered with Tristessa through many a tragic movie. In fact, Tristessa has given her a blueprint for womanhood starring in tear-jerker after tear-jerker, playing lepers and widows and any number of emotionally or physically crippled women in the manner of the most masochistic of romantics. (She also played George Sand at one point in her career, but as Eve recounts, this was a "mistake.")
Harem in tow, Zero discovers Tristessa's glass mansion and, finally, Tristessa herself. In Tristessa, Eve sees a certain barren beauty, a beauty that has no interconnectedness with the other, but only with itself:
Tall, pale, attenuated enigma, your face an invitation to necrophilia, face of an angel upon a tombstone, a face that will haunt me forever, a face dominated by hooded eyes whose tears were distillations of the sorrows of the world, eyes that delighted and appalled me since, in their luminous and perplexed depths, I saw all the desolation of America, or of more than that of all estrangement, our loneliness, our abandonment.
This is the beauty of an archetype that, coiled and concentrated, takes on all the symbolism of sorrow, for Tristessa portrayals represent universal, and thus mythic, suffering.
Zero strips Tristessa naked only to find "the rude, red-purple insignia of maleness" beneath his skirts. Carter drives home her point with deadly skill:
That was why he had been the perfect man's woman! He had made himself the shrine of his own desires, had made of himself the only woman he could have loved! If a woman is indeed beautiful only in so far as she incarnates most completely the secret aspirations of man, no wonder Tristessa had been able to become the most beautiful woman in the world.
But beauty is an ephemeral and highly subjective quality. The beauty that men most desire, Carter tells us, is of the female as dependent, as masochist submitting to the male's will; that what men find sexy is their domination of women. Tristessa may have made himself beautiful in the flesh, but it is the tenor and type of roles taken that have established him as a film icon, as the world's "most beautiful woman." The forty pages that describe the assault on Tristessa's mansion contain a finely-tuned satire of Hollywood and of male-female stereotypes.
After various adventures, Eve, alone, travels to the coast, where she finds Leilah. Leilah, who works for Mother now, and who may always have worked for Mother, brings Eve to a cave; inside, she says, is Mother. Thus begins Eve's penultimate journey: as she descends into the cave, it becomes a womb and time flows backwards, so that "...the foal leaps back into its mother's womb; the gravid mare sniffs the air, which smells of entropy, and takes fright, trots briskly back down the sinuous by-ways of evolution." Finally, Eve is expelled back onto the beach.
Leilah, renamed Lilith, waits on the beach and offers Eve Evelyn's old genitals, which have been preserved in ice. Eve "bursts out laughing" and shakes her head. Having transcended the male-based mythologies of the world and her own woman-hating past, Eve, as the novel ends, commandeers a boat and heads out to sea in search of a new Eden.
The Passion of New Eve makes complex demands on the reader, the pages aflame with dangerous ideas and fantastical images. The book requires readers to question the nature of current male-female relationships and gender roles; it requires that they have a thorough understanding of the implications of masochism and the myths of the silver screen; it also assumes an all-encompassing knowledge of world mythology to recognize the intentionally-obvious symbolism.
The grotesqueries of this Greek drama-meets-Candide-meets-Orlando should not work, should be reduced to silliness and thunder. The book is disjointed, awkward, verbose, and relies too much on coincidence. The technology of the women's laboratory is crudely and ridiculously soldered onto the old west of Zero's farm and then appended to the suave decadence of Tristessa's mansion, and finally to the civil war in California. Only Carter could, by the tenacity of her imagination and drive, hold this macrocosm of bastard throw-aways together so that it becomes something more than the sum of its parts: a chemical, rather than physical, reaction. The mixture of mythology and science together with the bleak and barren landscapes, the evocations of the Mother Goddess, inhabit a land where J.G. Ballard and Joanna Russ collide, and presage both the myth-science of Ian MacDonald's Out on Blue Six and the surreal America on display in the visionary novels of Steve Erickson.
If anything, Passion has more relevance today than when it was written, but, unfortunately, only critics of science fiction have attempted a serious exploration of the novel. Readers were put off by the blatant feminism while mainstream reviewers misread the intent and focused almost exclusively on the lack of subtlety in the symbolism. In addition, Paddy Beesley, writing in New Statesman criticized what he deemed "court silliness" (17), while Peter Ackroyd in The Spectator deplored language he believed was so "grandiose and verbose it can only transmit fantasies and visions and no novel can survive for long on such a meagre diet."(18) Today, the book remains criminally neglected; a pity because Passion marks the very limits of Carter's vision. None of her later works could quite recapture the white hot energy of Passion.
Luckily, and to Carter's credit, retrenchment in her case would add further depth and humor to her work.
The Bloody Chamber
This retrenchment marks the second reinvention in Carter's career, a reinvention that would follow a path through the tangled knots of folklore, a bastard genre that must have appealed to her sense of the low and the illegitimate.
Carter's next project, the short story collection The Bloody Chamber (1979), unrepentently sensual and feminist, rewrote, updated, and expanded the fairy tales of Western Europe. Unlike Fireworks, The Bloody Chamber does not derive its strength from semi-autobiographical elements, but from Carter's evocative use of archetypes to recreate original stories. These tales, for better or worse, firmly engrained themselves on the public and critical imagination. The collection won the Cheltenham Festival Award and would prove to be her most popular, exciting interest in the previously oblivious United States. Eventually, it would inspire the Neil Jordan film The Company of Wolves, perhaps the only intelligent werewolf movie ever made. On the strength of The Bloody Chamber, Carter would lecture at many United States universities, teaching at Brown University from 1980 to 1981.
Certainly the use of language in The Bloody Chamber is brilliant, and the thickness, the density, of the prose plays well against unexpectedly subtle, understated endings; but the goals seem less grand, success achieved at a lower plateau than, for example, The Infernal Desire Machines. For her part, Carter disavowed any intent to create "Feminist fairy tales," "adult fairy tales," or "versions," despite reviewers attempts to label the collection those terms:
My intention was not to do "versions" or, as the American edition of the book said, horribly, "adult" fairy tales, but to extract the latent content from the traditional stories. The stories could not have existed the way they are without Isak Dinesen, Djuna Barnes and Jane Bowles especially Isak Dinesen, because in a way they are imitation nineteenth-century stories, like hers.(19)
Carter's invocation of Dinesen et al. speaks volumes regarding her irritation at the simplicity of the critical response. However, this time the critical response had equal validity. Careful readers can see the influence of Dinesen in the style, and many of the stories succeed in spite of their fairy tale origins, but readers will invariably compare and contrast these tales the basic plots to the folklore on which Carter based them. Whether introduced to Little Red Riding Hood through Perrault, the Brothers Grimm, or a Disney cartoon, almost every potential reader of The Bloody Chamber was already familiar with the basic tales. Such tales, once engrained in the popular culture, can never be truly new; at best all any writer can do is renovate them so that they regain some of their original vigor and intensity.
Carter's specific achievements aside from her literary success are to update, twist, and de-bowdlerize the classic fairy tales. By definition of twentieth-century literature and Carter personally, such a salvage job must include redefinition through feminism or strong female characters. Until Perrault and, later, the Brothers Grimm took these tales out of the oral tradition, they had been largely rural and matriarchal in vision and conception. Perrault, a contemporary of nobility at Versailles in the 1600s, first codified most of the tales Carter uses as the foundations for her own pieces, and his versions added morals already explicitly laid out in the fairy tales themselves.(20) The Brothers Grimm, in the early 1800s, preserved many oral traditions that might otherwise have floundered or disappeared entirely, but at the expense of sacrificing the matriarchal content of such tales. In this context, Carter's reinventions restore to the tales the original attitude and point of view while adding the more sophisticated elements of the modern psychological short story. Like Perrault, however, Carter has also included a coda: Beware of men, beware of becoming subservient to men. For example, in the two versions of Little Red Riding Hood, men are cast as sexual predators "the worst wolves are hairy on the inside" a role well in keeping with Perrault's version but, in this case at least, far removed from the actual origins of the tale: a literal warning against going out into the woods at night.
What most intrigues the reader about The Bloody Chamber is the number of versions or spin-offs of various tales: "The Courtship of Mr. Lyon" and "The Tiger's Bride," both variants on the Beauty and the Beast tale first codified by Madame LePrince de Beaumont in 1757, and "The Werewolf" and "The Company of Wolves," both variants on the Little Red Riding Hood tale (with the collection-ending "Wolf-Alice" peripherally connected to "red cap" as well).(21) While the other stories in the collection entertain, they do little more than provide a new gloss on old material. The title story is probably among the most textually complex takes on Bluebeard, but to what effect? Nothing comes of it because, unlike the other stories, it adds nothing new to the original except a rather weak and coincidental rescue for the heroine by her mother.
Not so "The Tiger's Bride," a riff on both the Beauty and the Beast story and the animal groom cycle in general. In fairy tale parlance, the animal groom cycle represents the highest level of sexuality and love. As Bruno Bettelheim explains in The Uses of Enchantment, "...the oedipal love of Beauty for her father, when transferred to her future husband, is wonderfully healing."(22) However, whereas in most of these tales the beast transforms through the love of a woman into a man, usually a prince, Carter, wonderfully perverse as usual, reverses the structure. Here the beast hides behind the mask of man: "...only from a distance would you think The Beast not much different from any other man, although he wears a mask with a man's face painted most beautifully on it."
The narrator is the virginal daughter of a wealthy merchant. Her father soon loses her to The Beast by playing cards in Italy, where "the deathly, sensual lethargy of the sweet South infects the starved brain." The daughter may be virginal and still struggling to define herself, but she is no fool: "You must not think my father valued me at less than a king's ransom; but, at no more than a king's ransom."
She is led to her rooms in The Beast's palazzo, where she is told by his valet that if she will only reveal herself naked to The Beast, she will be restored to her father. As she ponders this offer, she recalls the tales told to her by her nurse about the tiger-man who "if this young lady was not a good little girl...would put on his big black traveling cloak lined with fur, just like your daddy's...and ride through the night straight to the nursery and Yes, my beauty! GOBBLE YOU UP!" The recitation of an oral tradition for the tale is a nice touch, coming as it does within the larger frame of a written version; it also advances the plot by enumerating the narrator's anxieties.
At first, she refuses The Beast and stays in her room, attended to by a mechanical maid of which she notes, "and, if she did not see me...peel down to the cold, white meat of contract...then so much more like the market place, where the eyes that watch you take no account of your existence." And, later, "I was a young girl, a virgin, and therefore men denied me rationality just as they denied it to all those who were not exactly like themselves, in all their unreason." These are the strongest statements on the subject of women's objectification and, yet, no matter how repugnant that objectification, it does signify attention.
In the end, Beauty has the choice of being alone and of remaining sexually repressed, or of meeting The Beast on her own terms, of taming him, and of loving him. Thus, she becomes a beast becomes real, no longer artificial, no longer the double of the artificial woman. A very relevant question: Has she given up her autonomy? Or made the best of a bad situation? Is she now a slave to the beast? No, for The Beast, posing as man, is a sexual predator, but revealed as beast is no longer predator, but pussycat: "...a tremendous throbbing, as of the engine that makes the earth turn, filled the little room; he had begun to purr." The Beast comes to her and begins to lick her: "Each stroke of his tongue ripped off skin after successive skin, all the skins of a life in the world, and left behind a nascent patina of shining hairs...my beautiful fur." Once they both cast off the constraints society puts upon them for The Beast is as much outcast as Beauty ("...all the best religions in the world state categorically that not beasts nor women were equipped with the flimsy, insubstantial things [called souls] when the good Lord opened the gates of Eden and let Eve and her familiars tumble out.") her fears abandon her along with her repression.
More complex are the two (were)wolf stories based on the Little Red Riding Hood tale, for if "The Tiger's Bride" forms the collection's beating heart, the "red cap" stories constitute its soul. The "red cap" tale has a long history, from the Greek myth of Cronos eating his children only to have them miraculously escape from his belly, to a Latin story from 1023 by Egbert of Lieges called Fecunda Ratis, in which a girl is found in the company of wolves. Perrault's serves as strictly cautionary ("Don't talk to strangers") and ends with Red Riding Hood dead in the belly of the wolf. The wolf is an obvious metaphor for the sexual predator, and cannot be believed as a wolf "hairy on the outside." Thus Perrault's version cannot function on the subconscious levels that Bettelheim claims distinguish a fairy tale from other folklore. A genuine fairy tale must work on a non-allegorical level first and must have a happy resolution, in order to achieve therapeutic catharsis in the reader.(23)
The Brothers Grimm version is more widely known: a hunter comes along and cuts open the wolf's belly while it sleeps, freeing Red Riding Hood and her grandmother. The wolf then dies from the stones Red suggests the hunter put into his stomach before he sews it back up.(24) Bettelheim much prefers the Grimm version because it fits with his interpretation of the red riding hood fairy tale, specifically, "crucial problems the school-age girl has to solve if oedipal attachments linger on in the subconscious, which may drive her to expose herself dangerously to the possibility of seduction."(25) The hunter represents the good, fatherly side of men and the wolf the "dangerous seducer." When Red Riding Hood is cut out of the wolf's belly by the hunter, and then suggests the method of the wolf's demise, she has transcended her oedipal anxieties.(26)
In a typical feat of compression, Carter manages to combine the Perrault and Grimm versions and also to combine the hunter/wolf into one motif while also adding a sense of the culture that gave birth to the oral tradition. Perhaps her most brilliant compression is that of combining hunter and wolf by means of the werewolf. Thus, the "hairy on the inside" wolves are symbolically complete people: Red Riding Hood can repudiate the werewolf (wolf) and embrace the werewolf (hunter) dealing with her repression of sexuality, her fear of it both at the same time.
Carter's pacing and sense of context have never worked to better effect. Using a stunning array of authentic details, she slowly establishes the culture of the oral tradition and intertwines it with the legend of the werewolf. Only then does she send Red Riding Hood on her way. In the first story, "The Werewolf," Red Riding Hood finds that the werewolf is actually her grandmother and kills her, thus setting herself free from repression by killing that which would hold her back. The second, and more complex story, "The Company of Wolves," begins with a wonderful description of wolves, making them so real that any metaphor is truly secondary, unlike Perrault's version:
One beast and only one howls in the woods by night. The wolf is carnivore incarnate and he's as cunning as he is ferocious; once he's had a taste of flesh then nothing else will do...if a wolf's eyes reflect only moonlight, then they gleam a cold and unnatural green, a mineral, a piercing color. If the benighted traveller spies those luminous, terrible sequins stitched suddenly on the black thickets, then he knows he must run, if fear has not struck him stock-still.
Red Riding Hood in this story is the youngest of the family and has just begun her "woman's bleeding, the clock within her that will strike, henceforward, once a month." She is "an unbroken egg; she is a sealed vessel...she is a closed system; she does not know how to shiver. She has her knife and she is afraid of nothing." She meets a young man in the woods who bets her he can reach her grandmother's house by a short cut before she can reach it by the trodden path. And if he wins? "A kiss. Commonplaces of a rustic seduction."
The man is a werewolf, and upon reaching the house he devours the grandmother. He waits for Red Riding Hood with eyes "the size of saucers, saucers full of Greek fire, diabolic phosphorescence." When she enters the house, the werewolf doffs his grandmotherly disguise and bars the door. At first afraid, she is a wise child and "since her fear did her no good, she ceased to be afraid."
What big teeth you have, she says.
All the better to eat you with, he replies.
"The girl burst out laughing; she knew she was nobody's meat."
By mastering her fear, the girl overcomes the werewolf, who feeds upon her fear. Thus overcome, he is no longer fearsome, but merely twinned to her in the triumph of libido over repression:
It is Christmas Day, the werewolves' birthday, the door of the solstice stands wide open; let them all sink through. See! sweet and sound she sleeps in granny's bed, between the paws of the tender wolf.
Not all critics thought Carter had done a good enough job of rewriting the tales to a feminist agenda, particularly Patricia Duncker in Literature and History magazine. She argues that "Carter envisages women's sensuality simply as a response to male arousal. She has no conception of women's sexuality as autonomous desire." Carter, Duncker believes, uses the sado-masochistic language of men and does not subvert the symbolism to serve purely female causes:
Carter chooses to inhabit a tiny room of her own in the house of fiction. For women, that space has always been paralyzingly, cripplingly small. I think we need the "multiplying ambiguities of an extended narrative." To imagine ourselves whole...We need the space to carve out our own erotic identities, as free women. And then to rewrite the fairy tales with a bolder hand.(27)
Duncker's argument has merit, in that these tales could have been much more radical. The Carter who wrote The Passion of New Eve could well have written more caustic, feminist versions than the ones included in The Bloody Chamber. But would they have been little more than propaganda? Hasn't she instead created characters who are still bound by the real pressures of a male-dominated society, but have done this much: been made self-aware of their condition of imprisonment. Visionary as Carter could be, she was also a pragmatist. Her stories and novels always examine the ways men treat women; they never form a blueprint for utopia. But who can deny the rage of The Passion of New Eve, or the wisdom of the child who conquers her fears in "The Company of Wolves"? And her characters are forever escaping, socially, mentally, or physically, the traps laid by men. If she deals with established stereotypes in The Bloody Chamber rather than fully-fleshed out characters, then this is because fairy tales clothe themselves in stereotypes and archetypes.
Nights at the Circus
Critics could carp and grouse that The Bloody Chamber was not feminist enough; they could harumpph and snort that Passion of New Eve was mere propaganda in the service of feminism, but they could do nothing but applaud and fashion a revisionist history for Carter with the publication of Nights at the Circus in 1984. Valentine Cunningham gushed in The Observer, "it goes without saying that the Booker Prize Judges want their heads and their critical standards examined for not putting this stunning novel on their shortlist."(28) A decade earlier Cunningham had dismissed The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman as "little [more than] a flux of images."(29) Others began to rewrite history, calling all of her novels "Magic Realism," perhaps because Magic Realism had become trendy and acceptable in ways that surrealism, by definition, could not. Once again, the literati labeled the work "Gothic," but the Gothic was never like this!
It would, for one thing, never had accommodated such a gargantuan, all-encompassing sense of humor. For, in this, Carter's penultimate novel, the characters leap lustily off the page, pirouette and speak in voices so distinctive and sublime, that the babel of dialects and glottal stops alone is a pleasure to the ear. Abandoning the restrictions of the short form, Carter employs a faux eighteenth-century picaresque structure to create a wonderful three-ringed, three-act circus that revolves around the tough but beguiling Fevvers, a six foot two Cockney woman with wings and no navel. Fevvers has just signed on at the "smoldering butt end" of the nineteenth century as an aerialist for the circus of Kentucky native Colonel Kearney, who treats his enterprise as a Ludic Game, and who keeps as his business associate and familiar Sybil the pig. The acquisition of Fevvers is quite a coup for the Colonel and his vision he wants to out-Hannibalize Hannibal by bringing his pachyderms to St. Petersburg and Siberia. For Fevvers is already famous, or infamous: "Everywhere she went, rivers parted for her, wars were threatened...showers of frogs and footwear were reported in the press..." So infamous that an American journalist, Walser, has asked for an interview to bunk or debunk the myth of Fevvers' wings, for his article on the great hoaxes of the world.
The novel is divided into three sections London, St. Petersburg, and Siberia and Carters conducts it all like a circus, complete with sideshows to the main attractions. Every character, down to Sybil the pig, has a story to tell; and we hear them all, in such a riot of voices that it's astonishing that Carter can control them all. But control them she does, from the very first paragraph, as she recounts the particulars of her birth to Walser:
"Lor' love you sir!" Fevvers sang out in a voice that clanged like dustbin lids. "As to my place of birth, why, I first saw light of day right here in smoky old London, didn't I! Not billed the 'Cockney Venus' for nothing, sir, though they could just as well 'ave called me 'Helen of the High Wire,' due to the unusual circumstances in which I come ashore for I never docked via what you might call the normal channels, sir, oh, dear me, no, but just like Helen of Troy, was hatched."
Even Fevver's thick accent comes unstuck after a time and Walser soon drowns in the richness of Fevver's autobiography. She recounts her discovery at the door of a brothel by Lizzie her constant companion and mother figure and her subsequent adoption by Lizzie and, to a lesser extent, the whorehouse madam Ma Nelson. Ma Nelson keeps a Titian above her mantel depicting Leda and the Swan, a myth much referred to in the novel and, previously, in The Magic Toyshop: "When I asked Ma Nelson what this picture meant, she told me it was a demonstration of the blinding access of the grace of flesh." This serves as the only explanation of Fevver's navel-less and winged existence, and one of the novel's strengths is that the reader soon stops caring whether or not Fevvers is a fraud; for Carter herself never blinks, never slows the pace long enough for a failure of nerve.
The question of nerve, and failure of nerve, represents a major chasm between Carter and other, lesser, fabulists. Most genre practioners would discard the idea of a winged woman entirely, unless they could, in some concrete way, justify her existence. Carter simply conjures up Fevvers, makes her flesh-and-blood, and then dares the reader to disbelieve. (For all her disavowal of surrealism, Carter seems in league with a mischievous Breton here.) The reader is then free to disbelieve the wings, but can never disbelieve Fevvers the woman. She is all too real, whether in the brothel, in the freakshow of Madame Scheck, for whom she is merely a grotesque embodiment of perverse fantasy, or in the circus itself. In the arena of the circus, Carter delights in teasing the reader about Fevver's charlatanism:
Indeed, she did defy the laws of projectiles, because a projectile cannot mooch along its trajectory, if it slackens its speed in mid-air, down it falls. But Fevvers, apparently, pottered along the invisible gangway between her trapezes with the portly dignity of a Trafalgar Square pigeon flapping from one proferred handful of corn to another, and then she turned head over heels three times, lazily enough to show off the crack in her bum.
Carter also delights in paralleling the physical act of flight with the mental flight of freedom. Fevvers escapes the burning remains of the whorehouse, Madame Scheck's freakshow, and finally the clutches of nobleman who hopes to sacrifice her in return for eternal youth; only to escape back to Lizzie and finally into fame, where people still gaze upon her, but with admiration rather than fear and loathing. If she must always be spectacle, then it will be to her own profit and on her own terms. And yet this, too, is a trap she must eventually escape. Throughout the novel, her jailers are both male and female, and Carter is often hardest on those, like Madame Scheck, who betray their own sex into submission or slavery.
Fevvers is so real as to be four-dimensional; Walser comes across as two-dimensional, by virtue of his own narrow definition of who he is. Whereas Fevvers is fully complete in her identity, Walser is half-formed, and while Fevvers can love him at first sight, she cannot see in him an equal companion:
He would have called himself a "man of action." He subjected his life to a series of cataclysmic shocks because he loved to hear his bones rattle. That was how he knew he was alive...In all his young life, he had not felt so much as one single quiver of introspection. If he was afraid of nothing, it was not because he was brave; like the boy in the fairy story who does not know how to shiver, Walser did not know how to be afraid.
By the end of the first section, we know Fevvers as well as we know ourselves, but we know Walser only as well as he knows himself. This inverse relationship between Fevvers and Walser, and the sexual tension between them, serves as the thematic frame for the second and third acts.
The plotted tension comes wholly from the travails and politics of the circus itself, which tend to focus lightning rod-style around Walser. Walser, at the start of the second section, "St. Petersburg," has signed on with the circus as a clown, to gather further evidence to debunk Fevvers, or so he has persuaded himself. The Colonel asks Walser, "How does it stand humiliation?" and Walser has no answer, although he soon finds out. In order for Walser to become more than a shell, he must first be broken down into his constituent parts. As John Haffenden pointed out to Carter in his 1985 interview, Walser, for all intents and purposes, becomes an object. Carter's reply:
Yes, he does become an object, and it's amazing how many people find it offensive when you do that to a chap. What happens to him is exactly what happens to another, though a much nastier person who runs away with a music-hall artiste and is forced to personate a rooster in the Blue Angel. But nobody forces Jack Walser to behave as a human chicken. It is systematic humiliation, but it's not Fevvers who does it to him it's life.(30)
Yet the clowns are, in their way, much more tragic and human than Walser, as Walser, a journalist pretending to be a clown. No matter what the humiliation, he can always wash off his mask of wet white and return to America. As if to make up for their tragic status, Carter gives the clowns all the best lines in this second section. Bringing to mind the best of Ray Bradbury and Charles Finney, Buffo the Great, the head clown, initiates Walser into clown philosophy in a ten page section destined to become the definitive statement on clown life and circus literature. Boffo's teachings to Walser and the other clowns befit his position at the table "in the place where Leonardo seats the Christ, reserving to himself the sacramental task of breaking the black bread and dividing it between his disciples." Boffo on clowning:
We are the whores of mirth, for, like a whore, we know what we are; we know we are mere hirelings hard at work and yet those who hire us see us as beings perpetually at play. Our work is their pleasure and so they think our work must be our pleasure, too, so there is always an abyss between their notion of our work as play, and ours, of their leisure as our labor.
The compression and Shakespearean control and rhythms of language in this section beggar the style of most other novelists.
Although the clowns dominate the "St. Petersburg" section, Carter sustains movement and tension as she tells us the stories of Mignon, Europe's bastard child, the lion tamer, the strong man, the intelligent chimps, and a cavalcade of others. Walser manages to become involved in everyone's lives, only to be saved by Fevvers repeatedly. He slowly loses all sense of self, until, wounded by a tiger and almost stabbed to death by Boffo, he can no longer write his journalistic accounts no longer a journalist imitating a clown, but a clown truly, and thus broken down almost completely from his former self.
All these conflicting stories culminate in a cataclysmic final performance in St. Petersburg which results in death, madness, desertions, and Fevvers' near-death at the hands of a Great Duke. The tension is played to perfection, as if Carter had flung the players into orbit and then allowed them to follow their own natural decaying trajectories: come to earth in their own individual, devastating ways.
A much reduced circus trundles aboard the train bound for Siberia and the narrative deliberately splinters into limited third person and first person from omniscient as Walser and Fevvers confront questions of their own identity. In the process, Carter calls into question societal values and ethics, larger questions that form a nice inverse relationship to the landscape now traversed, which is virgin white, virtually untouched by societal institutions.
She describes a peculiar all-women's prison set up by a noblewoman who poisoned her husband and got away with it. This noblewoman, Countess P., "assuaged the conscience that pricked her by becoming, or so she claimed, a kind of conduit for the means of repentance of the other murderesses." The Countess P. exemplifies the masochistic woman who is the enemy of the feminist: although she does not necessarily believe herself guilty, she believes she must suffer as though guilty. All day and night from the center of the circular prison she stares at the prisoners, who feel themselves under the very eye of justice. Except for inmate Olga Alexandrovna, who brings the prison down because she refuses to believe that her innocence should be punished and thus leads a revolt.
There is an intentional parallel here between the woman prisoners and Fevvers, although Fevver's prison is not made of stones and wood. She, too, is in the position of being marked a victim merely for being a woman. She, too, has a decision to make: she must decide if loving Walser means giving up her autonomy.
Finally, outlaws dynamite the train track, Fevvers and Walser become separated, and Walser loses his memory, apprenticing himself to a Siberian shaman in a series of hilarious set pieces. Fevvers and Lizzie, racing to Walser's rescue, engage in a spirited conversation about the nature of relationships, especially the institutionalized slavery of marriage. Lizzie asks Fevvers if she understands the implications of the expected outcome: "Don't you know the customary endings of the old comedies of separated lovers, misfortune overcome, adventures among outlaws and savage tribes? True lovers' reunions always end in a marriage." Fevvers violently disagrees: "But it is not possible that I should give myself...the essence of myself may not be given or taken, or what will there be left of me." "Precisely," says Lizzie. Finally, Fevvers cannot deny her love for Walser and reaches a compromise: she will mold him if necessary.
You said yourself he was unhatched, Lizzie; very well - I'll sit on him, I'll hatch him out, I'll make a new man of him. I'll make him into the New Man, in fact, fitting mate for the New Woman, and onward we'll march hand in hand into the New Century.
It may not be a perfect compromise, but Walser, when found, does prove remarkably changed in nature, ready to love Fevvers on her terms. There will be no marriage; there is no need for it. Walser may still be a weak specimen, but Carter refuses to marginalize him as a character simply because men have marginalized women. She may point out the stupidities, cruelties, and ignorance of men, but she will not deny the individual his "right to vision." Nor will she deny the positive realities of romantic heterosexual relationships even as she skewers the negatives and promotes lesbian liaisons. For this reason Nights at the Circus gently threatens both the traditional man and those feminists who insist on being ideologues rather than individuals.
Nights at the Circus would prove to be Carter's high-water mark. In it, she manages to be both comedic and serious, to maintain a high level of the fantastical along with rounded, believable characters, a sustained and densely plotted structure, and didactic discussion of issues dear to her. In short, she pulls off a series of difficult stunts impossibly well.
IV. Wise Children
Angela Carter left behind a wealth of "wise children" which occupy varying positions of importance in any curious room. Some of these are cast-offs and run-aways, and others minor masterpieces. She followed the aforementioned The Bloody Chamber and Nights at the Circus with three more fictions: the short story collections Saints and Strangers (1986; Black Venus in the U.K.) and American Ghosts and Old World Wonders (1993), and the novel Wise Children (1992), but none of these works broke particularly new ground, although they did refine many of the themes brought out in previous works and are worthy of brief discussion.
Of the two short story collections, Saints and Strangers is the most ambitious, a recasting in fictional form of historical figures. Particularly interesting is "The Fall River Axe Murders," which describes the last days of the Lizzie Borden household. The story takes the form of a bubble of oil rising through water, until, upon reaching the surface, it pops and releases tension all at once, the story ending at the moment Lizzie Borden wakes up on the day of the murders. (The Carter completist may wish to compare the United States and British versions of this story.) Many of the other stories match the best from Fireworks and The Bloody Chamber, a notable exception being "Our Lady of the Massacre," which fails miserably in its attempt to evoke the world of East Coast Native Americans during Jamestown days. The lack of telling detail may be a symptom of her subject matter, as there is so little baroque, surreal, or romantic about the setting that her style fails her completely.
The posthumous American Ghosts and Old World Wonders continues many of the themes in Saints and Strangers, but the collection is very uneven, including as it does several fragments and minor stories. Two noteworthy exceptions are "John Ford's 'Tis Pity She's A Whore" and "Alice in Prague, or The Curious Room."
In "John Ford's 'Tis Pity She's A Whore," Carter imagines an incestuous western love affair between Johnny (Giovanni) and Annie-Belle (Annabella) as if written by John Ford the English dramatist of the Jacobean period, and filmed by John Ford the United States director. Beneath the tragic surface lies undeniable wit, the story occupying territory somewhere between Shakespeare and Cormac McCarthy. Carter adds her own touches by commenting directly to the reader, a technique coupled with startling but effective juxtapositions of dialogue:
ANNIE-BELLE: I count myself fortunate to have found forgiveness.
JOHNNY: What are you going to tell Daddy?
ANNIE-BELLE: I'm going out west.
GIOVANNI: What, chang'd so soon! hath your new sprightly lord
Found out a trick in night-games more than we
Could have known in our simplicity? Ha! is't so?
Self-conscious devices have always been Carter's forte and in "John Ford's 'Tis Pity She's A Whore" these devices enhance the tragic implications while, on another level, lending the story a mischievously operatic feel.
But the best story in American Ghosts is "Alice in Prague, or The Curious Room," which serves as homage to the genius Prague animator Svankmejer. This story defiantly breaks every rule of the conventional short story zero dialogue; didactic lecturing; no plot and yet it is a beautiful and self-contained fiction about the conflict and crosshatching between science/logic and non-sense, with Carter defining the word much as Lewis Carroll might have: "...the world of non-sense...is constructed by logical deduction and is created by language, although language shivers into abstractions within it." To summarize the story is to tell it over again; suffice it to report that Alice, Tycho Brahe, and Carmen Miranda make important cameos in one guise or another. The fructi-fornicating Archduke Randolph with his lively edible loves is a particular treat for those readers who possess both high and low senses of humor.
Wise Children continues in a comic vein. The book is vastly entertaining: a burlesque, vaudevillian extravaganza of surprising depth. Although I enjoyed it immensely believe it will prove to be her most popular book, it has no element of the fantastic the signature in her best work nor does it pretend to be more than a music hall-based comedy; nor does it make near the demands on the reader as do her other novels.
It should be noted that Carter was much taken with the notion of "wise children" the term occurs in The Bloody Chamber and Nights at the Circus. Carter's favorite fairy tale in The Virago Book of Fairy Tales, which she edited, was the Russian riddle story, "The Wise Little Girl," "in which the tsar asks [the heroine] for the impossible and she delivers it without batting an eyelid."(31) Perhaps a good description of Angela Carter as well.
V. Recognition & Influence
Carter's influence on other writers is difficult to gauge. As mentioned, she has had a profound effect on the study and interpretation of folklore, and no one can doubt the extent of influence she has had on children's writers who use fairy tales for raw material.
In addition, as a co-founder of Virago Press with Carmen Calil, Carter is responsible for rescuing from obscurity many excellent works by women. As Lorna Sage writes in "Death of the Author," "From [Carter's] point of view, Virago was meant among many, many other things to make money out of and for women's writing and to rescue it from the slough of passive suffering."(32) In typical blunt fashion, Carter put it another way:
I suppose I am moved towards it by the desire that no daughter of mine should ever be in a position to be able to write BY GRAND CENTRAL STATION I SAT DOWN AND WEPT, exquisite prose though it may contain. (BY GRAND CENTRAL STATION I TORE OFF HIS BALLS would be more like it, I should hope.)(33)
However, this measurable influence is narrow in comparison to such a major talent. It certainly does not address the bulk of her fiction. Despite having produced what are among the greatest fantastical works of this century, Carter appears to have had little influence in the United States. I am woefully ignorant of writers in the United Kingdom whom she has specifically influenced, but in this country, the response to "Do you like Angela Carter?" is still usually, at least in my experience, a resounding "Who?" or "I've heard of her but haven't read her." How can such a diverse, varied, and important novelist be an enigma to the majority of writers in this country?
If I had to take a stab at an answer, I would point to a single but not immediately obvious answer: the majority of writers are, at heart, realists who describe commonplace, contemporary characters pursuing lives in contemporary urban settings. Very few writers dare to plunge the reader right into surrealism; they are, ironically enough, obsessed with replicating reality as the photographer captures it. But I am sick to death of photographers, even trick photographers. Painters interest me much more; if the minimalist calls the surrealist "frivolous," the surrealist calls the minimalist "colorless." I also truly believe that the majority of fiction has become merely product, and product does not acknowledge art. It cannot afford to do so because as soon as it acknowledges art, product can no longer pretend to be art.
How sad, then, that those who should influence the new generations of the Surreal and the fantastic somehow find less favor than those who should best be forgotten and buried among the old piles of Weird Tales some of us still have in our childhood closets.
1. Angela Carter, "The Mother Lode", Nothing Sacred (London: Virago Press, 1982), p. 8.
2. Lorna Sage, "Death of the Author", Granta, No. 41, Autumn 1992, p. 236.
3. Salman Rushdie, "Angela Carter, 1940-92: A Very Good Wizard, a Very Dear Friend", New York Times Book Review, March 1992, p. 3.
4. John Haffenden, Novelists in Interview (New York: Methuen Press, 1985), p. 80.
7. Angela Carter, "Tokyo Pastoral," Nothing Sacred (London: Virago Press, 1982), p. 28.
8. Haffenden, op. cit., p. 90.
9. Angela Carter, "Once More into the Mangle," Nothing Sacred (London: Virago Press, 1982), p. 40.
10. Brian Stableford, "The Passion of New Eve," Survey of Modern Fantasy Literature (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Salem Press, 1983), Vol. III, p. 1215.
11. Mary Ann Caws, Andre Breton (New York: Twayne Publishers, Inc., 1971), p. 62.
12. Angela Carter, "The Alchemy of the Word", Expletives Deleted (London: Picador Press, 1990), p. 73.
14. Mary Ann Caws, op. cit., p. 73.
16. George Hay, "Marionettes within Metaphysics", Foundation (March 1973, No. 3), p. 71.
17. Paddy Beesley, "Be Bad," New Statesman, Vol. 93, No. 2401, March 25, 1977, p. 407.
18. Peter Ackroyd, "Passion Fruit," The Spectator, Vol. 238, No. 7760, March 26, 1977, pp. 2324.
19. Haffenden, op. crit., p. 80.
20. Angela Carter, "About the Stories", Sleeping Beauty and Other Favourite Fairy Tales (New York: Schocken Books, 1984), p. 126.
22. Bruno Bettelheim, The Uses of Enchantment (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1989), p. 303.
23. Ibid, p. 127.
24. Ralph Manheim, Trans., Grimms' Tales for Young and Old (Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Co., 1977), pp. 98-101.
25. Bettelheim, op. cit., p. 170.
26. Ibid, pp. 172, 173.
27. Patricia Duncker, "Re-imagining the Fairy Tales: Angela Carter's Bloody Chambers", Literature and History (Spring 1984, Vol. 10, No. 1), pp. 7, 11, 12.
28. Valentine Cunningham, "High-Wire Fantasy", The Observer (Sept. 30, 1984), p. 20.
29. Valentine Cunningham, "Country Coloureds", The Listener (May 25, 1972, Vol. 87, No. 2252), p. 693.
30. Haffenden, op. cit., pp. 89, 90.
31. Marina Warner, "Heroic Optimism, Fantastic Flights," A Virago Keepsake (London: Virago Press, 1993), p. 112.
32. Sage, op. cit., p. 247.
VII. Angela Carter Bibliography
1965 Shadow Dance (In the U.S. as Honeybuzzard)
1967 The Magic Toyshop
1968 Several Perceptions
1970 Heroes and Villains
1972 The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman (In the U.S. as The War of Dreams)
1973 Fireworks (short story collection)
1977 The Passion of New Eve
1979 The Bloody Chamber (short story collection)
1979 The Sadiean Woman (nonfiction)
1982 Nothing Sacred (nonfiction collection)
1984 Nights at the Circus
1985 Black Venus (In the U.S. as Saints and Strangers; short story collection)
1991 Wise Children
1992 Expletives Deleted (nonfiction collection)
1993 American Ghosts and Old World Wonders (short story collection)
1995 Burning Your Boats (the collected short fiction)
1996 The Curious Room (the collected dramatic works)
1997 Shaking a Leg (the collected nonfiction)
Jeff VanderMeer, 26 October 2001
More on Angela Carter
Jeff VanderMeer wrote an Angela Carter Appreciation shortly after Carter's death.
You may order Carter's works online by visiting the Libyrinth's Angela Carter Bookstore.
Nicoletta Pireddu's "CaRterbury Tales: Romances of Disenchantment in Geoffrey Chaucer and Angela Carter" attempts to reconcile romance with Carter's postmodernism. (PDF)
The Angela Carter Web Page A good place to start for more information about Carter and her works.
ROSAMVNDI's Carter Page Residing on Gothic.net, this nice tribute contains links to various essays and reviews.
The Carter List A Yahoo group devoted to the discussion of Carter's work.
Sweet Despise's Carter Page Sweet Despise, a site for "dark literature," runs a small Carter Page with summaries of her short stories.
New York Times Carter Archive A collection of reviews and features about Angela Carter and her work.
A Very Good Wizard, a Very Dear Friend Salman Rushdie's wonderful retrospective of Carter for the New York Times.
Hazarding Chance An interpretive reading of Angela Carter's Wise Children by S. L. Deefholts. Online at Margin.
Virago Press The homepage for Virago Press, the feminist press that publishes most of Carter's works in the UK.
Yahoo News Search Searched Yahoo for artcles and news related to Carter.
Jeff VanderMeer won the World Fantasy Award in 2000 for his novella The Transformation of Martin Lake. His fiction has appeared in 15 countries and his latest book is City of Saints & Madmen: The Book of Ambergris. VanderMeer's nonfiction has appeared in a variety of publications, including The New York Review of Science Fiction, SF Eye, Magill's Guide to SF & Fantasy Writers, and The St. James Guide to Horror, Ghost, and Gothic Writers. His nonfiction on Angela Carter has received praise from, among others, Pauline Kael, Ellen Datlow, and Nancy Willard. A different version of parts of this essay first appeared in Carnage Hall and the NYR of SF. For more information, visit Vanderworld.
Thanks to Chris Reed, Richard Singer, and Robert K. VanderMeer for providing invaluable primary research materials. Thanks to Ann Kennedy for research assistance. Thanks to Roxanna Bikadoroff for permission to use her imagery in the banner.
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