Posts Tagged ‘Angela Carter’

This is the first of my reviews of this year’s CILIP Carnegie Medal nominees. Well, my second. Patrick Ness’ More Than This I read back in August – see here for my review – six months before the shortlist was announced. And to be honest, it will take some beating!

Anyway, this is my first knowing CILIP Carnegie read. 

And I must say I enjoyed it thoroughly! I don’t think it’s a winner but a great read. I mean, fairytales, wolves, witches, werepeople, cross dressing. And a slightly underused hen. What’s not to like? 

   Fairytales and mythology have continued to inspire writers and are enjoying a revival with Neil Gaiman, Angela Carter, Susanna Clarke, Helene Wecker, Ali Smith, Ali Shaw, Erin Morgenstern and the ubiquitous Disney – who would watch Frozen when you could read The Girl With Glass Feet? So, in this environment, expectations are high for Tinder. Heady company, Ms Gardner!

And the opening lines do not disappoint. 

Once in a time of war, when I was a soldier in the Imperial Army, I saw Death walking. He wore upon his skull a withered crown of white bone twisted with green hawthorn. His skeleton was shrouded with a tattered cloak of gold and, in his wake, stood the ghosts of my comrades newly plucked, half-lived, from life. Many I knew by name. 

  Based on the first fairy tale Hans Christian Anderson’s wrote, The Tinderbox, Tinder‘s narrator is Otto Hundebiss, a common soldier drafted into the Imperial Army during the Thirty Years War of 1618-1648. Following the slaughter of his compatriots, Otto drifts into a fairytale world of hidden castles, unruly princesses and fearsome werewolves. Following the structure of the original take, Otto has to face three trials in order to retrieve a mysterious tinderbox, keeping the riches he finds there. Instead of returning it to its owner, he keeps the tinderbox, causing her to be killed. In a nearby town, he discovers that the tinderbox grants him the power to summon monstrous werewolves. 

The language of the novel maintains the sparseness and occasional lyricism of the classic fairytale. There’s not the depth of character or psychology you might expect: Otto never becomes more than a cipher for the traumatised child soldier, the common man struggling against social inequalities, or sexual maturing. He doesn’t work as a character, even though Gardner does toss us flashbacks to the horrors that Otto has experienced. But that’s all okay because this is, at the end of the day, a fairy tale. 

The illustrations in the book by David Roberts are also worth a mention: they are gorgeous! Simply gorgeous. Stylised and unreal but gorgeous. 

   

 The novel certainly holds the imagination with the quality of an hallucination or a dream and a similar logic. Gardner has said that the novel was inspired by the experiences of returned soldiers from Iraq and Afghanistan and of child soldiers in Rwanda as well as the Thirty Years War. For me, these real world parallels were mere echoes – although parents may want to exercise caution as the fate of Otto’s sister becomes clear as well as the fate of the daughter of a neighbouring farm. It is perhaps here that the more modern conflicts and our outrage at the use of rape as a weapon of war become most patent. 

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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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Angela Carter is just bloody brilliant!

I mean bloody brilliant!

Being just a man, lacking in x-chromosomes, I’m sure I’m missing much of her political feminist subtlety but as a writer she blows me away! The balance she holds between the real, the fantastical and the macabre is fantastic.

Take this first eponymous tale in the collection: a re-imagined and post-feminist retelling of Bluebeard. The original tale is broadly retained: an innocent wife marries a sinister bestial man; she is left alone in his castle with a bunch of keys with the invitation to use any of them as she wished save for one; the forbidden key is – inevitably – used and the husband returns unexpectedly.

The journey from Paris to the husband’s castle is a maelstrom of Freudian phalluses in the

“great pistons ceaselessly thrusting the train that bore me through the night”

and the movement from “girlhood” to womanhood as the narrator

“ceased to be her child in becoming his wife.”

. And the husband – the marquis – is gloriously bestially described too! His beard is no longer blue but still as full and luxurious a beard as the most yokel of Devonian farmers: a “mane” which tickles and bristles on the “leonine shape of his head”. In many ways, Carter elides the image if Bluebeard with that of Beauty and the Beast.

This is clearly a tale of a coming-of-age: the discovery of the wife’s capacity for sensuality corresponds with her discovery of the bloody chamber in which the Marquis’ past wives are disposed of which itself is emblematic of the start of menstruation.

What appeals to me most in Carter’s writing is the sensuousness of her prose: the Marquis is masked by

a whiff of the opulent male scent of leather and spices” which “made me think of my father”

and the wife’s nightdress

“slipped over my young girl’s pointed breasts and shoulders, supple as a garment of heavy water and now teasingly caressed me, egregious, insinuating, nudging between my thighs”

and the Marquis’ “fairy castle” with the

“faery solitude of the place; with its turrets of misty blue, its courtyard, its spiked gate, his castle that lay on the very bosom of the sea with seabirds mewing in its attics, the casements opening on to the ocean, cut off by tide from land for half a day … that castle, at home neither on the land nor on the water, a mysterious, amphibious place”

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This is some of the most sensuous and sensual language that I have ever come across!

The biggest alteration made to the original story is the replacement of the wife’s brothers coming to rescue her from the Marquis with a wonderful depiction of her mother performing the same role. The “eagle-featured” mother is practically the personification of the word redoubtable: she had

“gladly, scandalously, defiantly beggared herself for love” in loving a soldier who died; and had “outfaced a junkful of Chibese pirates; nursed a village through a visitation of the plague; and shot a man-eating tiger.”

It is utterly reasonable that she should be the one to come charging across the causeway to her daughter’s rescue, a “wild thing” with

“her hat seized by the winds and blown out to sea so that her hair was her white name, her black lisle legs exposed to the thigh, her skirts tucked round her waist”

as the family of women bond against the predatory male “beast”.

As a man, my gender’s representation is a tad skewed: I can chose between a somewhat romanticised and definitely absent soldier-father; a monstrous and bestial husband; or a good-natured and blind piano tuner.

Not the most inspiring choice!

But with Carter, you kind of know what you’re getting as a man!

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