Archive for June, 2013

Fantasy is my (not so) secret (not so) guilty pleasure in reading. Fantasy introduced me to reading through The Hobbit and Tolkien. Fantasy was my escape from teenage tedium … my family was far too middle class to have angst!

And I still enjoy a healthy dollop of fantasy, as readers of this blog will realise. It’s comforting and secure to read; a familiar cast of characters whose joy is not hindered by their being clichés but rather derived from their being clichés. The dark mages drawing sinister powers; the green warlocks and Druids steeped in nature lore; white healing clerics; a dark focus of malevolence seeking to subdue the world; wise old men; gifted young disciples; innocent maidens. The quest. The Force, the Dark Side, Jedis, Obi-Wan Kenobi, Luke, Emperors… formulaic and predictable but comfortable.

Nowadays the fantasy world is dominated by giants: Brandon Sanderson, George R. R. Martin (is it possible for anyone with an alliterative double-R. middle name not to write fantasy in a post-Tolkien world?), Steven Erikson, Robert Jordan… Even J. K. Rowling and Stephanie Meyer.

And where in this world does Clarke fit?

Off to one side I think.

She does not simply shake the dice of fantasy writing elements (no doubt dice hewn from the bones of some chthonic beast whose ribs even now tower over the city of New Crobuzon) and roll to see what combinations appear. Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell is utterly unique and enthralling.

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The first thing Clarke tells us is that magicians exist in England and, specifically, in Yorkshire. Not just one but an entire Society of magicians. Note: the Learned Society of York Magicians. No coven, no cabal, no caste. Not even a fellowship. A “Society”. Because these “magicians” perform no magic but study magic. Magic has died out centuries before.

What Clarke gives us is in fact a rather authentic sounding Austenesque pastiche of social satire. Even when Mr Gilbert Norrell is discovered as a practising magician he is neither the Dark Lord nor the Wise Mentor nor the precocious Apprentice. He feels as if he has stepped from the pages of Dickens: a

a tight-fisted hand at the grindstone… a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner! Hard and sharp as flint, from which no steel had ever struck out generous fire; secret, and self-contained, and solitary as an oyster. The cold within him froze his old features, nipped his pointed nose, shrivelled his cheek, stiffened his gait; made his eyes red, his thin lips blue; and spoke out shrewdly in his grating voice. A frosty rime was on his head, and on his eyebrows, and his wiry chin. He carried his own low temperature always about with him; he iced his office in the dog-days; and didn’t thaw it one degree at Christmas.

These words of Dickens describing Scrooge could just as easily be applied to Norrell in his Regency powdered wig, his jealous covetousness of all things magical – especially books and knowledge – and his tendency to tire his listeners with long, tedious and not-terribly interesting historical accounts.

And Strange? Strange, on something of a whim after hearing a prophecy to do with magic, decides to become a magician too. Strange is perhaps the closest to the clichéd Precocious Apprentice. Norrell teaches him but, whereas Norrell’s knowledge come from books, Strange has a more intuitive and perhaps more innate magical touch. He is younger, more dashing, more daring in his exploits in the Napoleonic Wars, more charismatic. More Byronic. Whom he meets and doesn’t terribly like in the latter part of the book.

These two eponymous gentlemen meet, bicker, admire, fall out with, fear and reconcile throughout the novel and their relationship is fascinating. And they surround themselves with a vibrant cast of supporting characters: Lasselles and Drawlight, the disreputable gentleman-friends of Norrell; Arabella Strange, Jonathan’s wife; Lady Pole; Vinculus, the ambiguous street magician and vagabond; Stephen Black; the Johns Childermass and Secundus; Flora Greysteele. Even the shopkeeper who is in love with Stephen Black and plays absolutely no part in the drama is beautifully written and wholly credible.

The heart of the novel, though, lies in neither them nor their relationship but in their work: English Magic. And the noun is preceded by the adjective almost exclusively. Divisions and antitheses abound in the novel: north and south; master and servant; Christian and Faery; Norrellite and Strangeite; reality and fantasy; sanity and madness; black and white; day and night. At its heart, however, is a core of Englishness.

An Englishness represented by an utterly key character: John Uskglass, The Raven King, The King of the North, The Nameless Slave. Uskglass, stolen to faery as a babe and returning as a youth to conquer and rule Yorkshire and Northern England for centuries through magic is spoken of, sought, sworn by, denigrated and discussed so much in the text that he feels ubiquitous. He is a legendary figure. Arthurian. Not quite trusted.

He does appear as a character. I think twice. Possibly for a total of three or four of the thousand or so pages of the book. I struggle to recall a character who is so monumental in a novel but so (almost) entirely absent from it. Even when he does appear, his presence is ambiguous: he is no returning saviour, no hero; he does not defeat the enemy nor aid either Strange or Norrell.

But then, is he absent? The trees and birds and hills and snow and (inevitably) rain of England are woven into the fabric of Uskglass as they are parts of the fabric of English magic and the very landscape of England and landscape of Englishmen is a character in its own right. It is this which defeats the enemy in the end: the country of England. Not its magicians nor its politicians but its own self. There is no pseudo-scientific system of magic here as some (more often American) writers tend to labour – and I’m not knocking that, Sanderson, Rothfuss et al, there’s a clear and genuine pleasure in your creation of and our exploration of your systems – but here the magic is so much more effective for remaining mysterious, mythical, not always even useful. It is so English that the final defeat of the threat is achieved by a combination of mistakes, misnomers and misconceptions.

And Clarke’s antagonist, the Gentleman With The Thistledown Hair is remarkable. She manages to create a genuinely creepy and potent antagonist, clearly extraordinarily powerful and dangerous, without making him evil. He is just himself: avaricious, capricious, self-centred, fearful and utterly lacking in empathy but also generous and to an extent loyal. He is faery and possibly mad by human standards and wholly amoral with no conscience. But he is as astounding a character in his self-centred loquaciousness as Uskglass is in his self-effacing quietude.

One of Clarke’s stylistic features which I loved but many have been irked by us her use of copious footnotes. Every chapter bears up to a dozen, which by the end of the novel become self-referencing. They also reference folklore (which is where a lot of the depiction of John Uskglass derives), historio-magical texts, collections of letters and articles and even future biographies of the main characters. I can understand why there was a danger of them becoming tedious and gimmicky but, for me, they worked extremely well and created the illusion of a massively extended, immersive and patently English universe.

And I have to say that listening to this was a pleasure with the dulcet tones of the wholly apt Simon Prebble! Extremely good casting from Audible!

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Continuing through The Bloody Chamber, we come upon The Tiger’s Bride, a second re-imagining of the Beauty and The Beast fairytale.

Here, we are even further away from the traditional or Disneyfied incarnations of the story and it strikes the reader as a much darker tale than The Courtship of Mr Lyon with which it begs to be compared.

The passage of the young girl from daughter to wife is similar albeit in a first rather than third person narrative. But, here, the transformation is far more clearly a transaction as the opening lines make clear:

“My father lost me to The Beast at cards.”

Unlike Beauty’s father who brings her to the Beast because of his wish to give her a simple gift of a rose, the Bride’s father brings her to La Bestia because of his own avarice and greed. He literally reduces her to a chattel to be traded and gambled.

And, as is the nature of a trade, that attitude is reciprocated: La Bestia treats her as a chattel in his acceptance of her as a gambling stake just as much as her father does in offering her. La Bestia may growl that

“If you are so careless of your treasures, you should expect them to be taken from you”

but that reflects on his more astute ability to value the Bride’s worth rather than any recognition that she is more than a valued “treasure”.

Of course, the objectification of women is a centuries old tradition in which marriage was used to cement alliances and secure fortunes: Juliet is told by her father

“an you are mine, I will give you to my friend,
An you are not, hang, beg, starve in the street”.

Carter here takes this tradition to its most extreme degree: not only is the Bride a piece of property; she is an undervalued piece of property squandered as her father fritters her away in a selfish gamble. Even the Bride accepts that

“my own skin was my sole capital in the world and today I’d make my first investment”

And then we see the most appalling extremity of the objectification of women: the Bride’s “clockwork twin”, the automaton

“soubrette from an operetta, with glossy, nut brown curls, rosy cheeks, blue rolling eyes… and there is a musical box where her heart should be; she tinkles as she rolls towards me on her tiny wheels.
My maid halted, bowed; from a split seam at the side of her bodice protrudes the handle of a key. She is a marvellous machine, the most delicately balanced system of cords and pulleys in the world.”

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This soubrette echoes the clothing and mask worn by La Bestia: the too perfect too symmetrical mask behind which he hides his true bestial form. In his he is again very similar to the Beast of The Courtship of Mr Lyon whose leonine appearance is offset by his “smoking jacket of dull red brocade”. The similarities between the two – their restraint of their animal natures, their shame at their animal natures – is unsurprising. Shaved, there is no difference at all between a lion and a tiger save that the tiger’s skin is striped as its fur is.

There is something painfully artificial and repulsive in the image of both the mask and the soubrette: imitations of a socially imposed set of rules and appearances. And doesn’t that apply to us all? No one is ever entirely themselves: the identity we present to the world at anyone time is only ever a mask of the most socially acceptable part of ourselves, or of those aspects of our personalities which we believe will be accepted most readily or be most advantageous to ourselves. And that mask in Carter’s tale does not simply include the physical mask of La Bestia but also the clothes, the make up and even the face and flesh of the Bride.

For that reason, my interpretation of the final transformation as La Bestia licks the flesh from his Bride’s true form is not negative. He is not a predatory or domineering male enforcing his image onto his wife; he is allowing her to escape exactly that fate which society would have imposed upon her. The nudity he wishes from her is not the sexual negotiation that she – and the reader – imagine but the honesty of revealing her true nature beneath her skin; her father’s possessions are returned to him; and the final transformation is given readily and voluntarily.

For me, this makes the final transformation a release.

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Beauty and the Beast has to be one of my favourite fairy tales! Ever!

It’s a deliciously evocative tale exploring the male and the female and, even in the Disney film version, Beauty is a strikingly self-assured and confidant woman.

Carter’s version is very pared down: there is very little detail of anything except for the Beast’s castle. There are no sisters, no villagers, no magic ring or mirror. The focus is the Beast, Beauty, and her father and Beauty’s relationship with both those men and herself.

Let’s look at Beauty herself first: she is a “lovely girl” whose

“skin possesses that same, inner light so you would have thought she, too, was made all of snow”

The image of the snow is pervasive in the tale and associated with both Beauty and Beast. Here, the snow has obvious connotations of beauty, innocence and purity which Carter emphasises when she compares the snow to “bolt of bridal satin”. There is a further corollary here though: snow has the capacity to melt and reveal the earth beneath; the bridal dress suggests a future sexuality as much as a past virginity. Both images are a precursor to the fertility and fecundity of the spring time and of marriage. This image suggests that Beauty is on the cusp of adulthood.

As a child still, her father is her only male relationship and his first thought of her is that she is

“his Beauty, his girl-child, his pet”

which reveals much of their relationship. There’s a possessiveness and protectiveness implicit in the tripled third person possessive pronouns. There’s also a tendency to infantilise her as his “girl-child” and perhaps to indulge her as a pet which prefigures Beauty’s later transformation into a “petulant” and “spoiled” child in London, a city that “melts the snow”.

The snow is a crucial image of Beast’s castle too: it is first seen

“behind snow-laden skirts of an antique cypress”

and

“wreaths of snow now precariously curded the rose trees” from which the father stole Beauty’s rose.

When Beauty belatedly returns to the castle, she finds that “December still possessed his garden” as if time had refused to move on for him and that for Beast the snow represents a frozen quality not dissimilar to that of Dickens’ Miss Havisham. Similarly, time’s progression is corrupted in London for Beauty: the

“flowers in the shop window were the same all the year round, nothing in the window could tell her that winter had almost gone.”

It is as if, once separated, neither is able to grow or progress. Beast is frozen whilst Beauty becomes trapoed in an artificial socially constructed version if femininity: she acquires

“instead of beauty, a lacquer of the invincible prettiness that characterises certain pampered, exquisite, expensive cats.”

The comparison of Beauty to a pampered cat recalls Beast who Carter describes as massively leonine, with a “great bulk” and a “quality of being more there than most of us are.” The nature of his bestiality is significant: lions are undoubtedly powerful and vicious but also “more beautiful by far than we are, yet they belong to a different order of beauty”. His bestiality is of an explicitly majestic and beautiful one rather than repulsive or abhorrent.

There is therefore more in common and more shared between Beauty and Beast than the traditional dichotomy – and there are lots of dichotomies here between male and female, city and country, beast and man – between them: there is a hint of the beast in Beauty as there is a touch of dangerous beauty in Beast; a yin and yang echo of each other rather than a diametric opposition. And it is only when they are together that they are able to walk together in the springtime garden. As such, personally, the adoption by Beauty of the name Mrs Lyon in the final sentence does not strike me as an anti-feminist subjugation of the female but a true recognition of the leonine nature that had always resided in Beauty and continues to reside in them both in their shared name as well as the residual leonine echoes in Beast’s appearance.

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