Unfortunately, I am unable to recall the exact moment that Angela Carter entered my life; one moment she was not there, the next she was. Perhaps it is a testament to both her work and my need for it that her words slipped in and permeated my psyche so seamlessly; there was a thirst and a void that needed filling, and the clout of her fiction sated me.
Whilst the pivotal moment may have passed me by, I can recount a day when –aged 18 and trapped in an awkward induction to first-year university – a lecturer passed back copies of the work would be analysing that day. Flicking through the sheets, I recognised Carter’s three variants of ‘Little Red Riding Hood,’ namely ‘The Werewolf,’ ‘Wolf Alice,’ and ‘The Company Of Wolves’. Those unfamiliar with Carter can be forgiven of her solely as a re-interpreter of fairy tales; over her approximate thirty years of publication she wrote nine novels, seven works of short fiction, three poetry collections and three plays as well as children’s books, radio, TV and theoretical writing, whilst also adapting her own work for film. To call her prolific would be an understatement, yet decades on, it is these fairy tales that most strongly persevere.
The Bloody Chamber was – and still is – a shock to the system for the uninitiated, after all in what other capacity does one expect to encounter fantastical interspecies paedophilia or sadist murder in the medium of short story? To describe it as a bonding experience is apt; the discomfort was palpable throughout the lecture hall that day. First came the awkward silence and shifty glances, followed by second-guessing and audible disgust. Accordingly, at the time of publication, a great number of readers would dismiss The Bloody Chamber as scandalous smut for the deviant and block Carter from their minds. I am confident that many in the lecture hall that day did just that, but dig past the surface and you will find such a complex web of sex, social constructs and femininity that you must pause to give Carter’s work the respect it deserves.
As previously stated, The Bloody Chamber – Angela Carter’s most famous and widely read work – is a fantastical re-working of familiar fairy tales. Often wrongly they are branded solely as feminist fiction with an ‘adult’ twist (as the American edition once wrongly described), and whilst there are many markings that dictate it to be so, to presume it as Carter’s primary aim is uncouth. She has never (to my own knowledge) declared her intention as intrinsically feminist, but rather to subvert the societal conformities of gender that are reinforced time and again in fairy tale narrative – we all remember the character functions of the princess as a reward, the damsel in distress, the object. Yet female sexual empowerment and ownership permeates its pages.
At its publication in 1979, it was unheard of. In the manner of science fiction before it, Carter used children’s fairy tales to extrapolate and challenge the realities of which we live and the archetypes to which we are bound, male and female alike. Her subversion is turning the seemingly concrete victimhood of these tales on their head via the conquest of the would-be oppressor. As Carter would once write in The Sadeian Woman – her analytical reading of the work of the Marquis de Sade –
“To be the object of desire is to be defined in the passive case.
To exist in the passive case is to die in the passive case – that is, to be killed.
This is the moral of the fairy tale about perfect women.”
(Carter, The Bloody Chamber (2006). Simpson, Helen, p. xi)
It can be argued then, that Carter went about creating her own version of the ‘perfect’ woman; each of the tales in The Bloody Chamber centres on the wilful feminine, a young woman who removes her fate from the clutches of the masculine figure and reclaims it as her own. The titular tale sees the unnamed protagonist married to a wealthy French Marquis and is whisked away to his isolated castle where she later learns of his sadist tendencies and murderous nature, having discovered the corpses of his three previous wives having given into the temptation of entering his forbidden room in his absence. Her own fate appears sealed, yet her Mother, who shoots the Marquis just as he is about to behead her, rescues her. Her temptation, it seems, almost led her to her demise, yet it is her Mother, an older and wiser woman, who anticipates the outcome and intercepts accordingly.
Carter liberates her women from the constraints of fairy tales and allows them to breathe as characters, giving them ownership of their lives and actions. Perhaps more importantly is that temptation and desire are woven into every tale. These are females who, in recognising their temptation and acting upon their desire, become flawed and un-virtuous. It is the moment that they graduate from being a child to being a woman, choosing to recognise their sexuality and longing for another, acting upon the supposed burden of their virginity and potential sullying by a man.
In recognising the female desire, the males are objectified by default; the Marquis, the varying incarnation of Beauty’s Beast (‘The Tiger’s Bride’/ ‘The Courtship of Mr Leon’), the Erl-King himself and the guise of the werewolf. In traditional male fashion, Carter’s males attempt to control the narrative and subject the female to their wants, yet they are denied consistently by Carter’s prose, for these are not their stories. What results is a struggle of desire and power; neither character is weak or passive in the traditional female sense – both are active, yet only one may prevail, the consequence being violence.
For better or for worse, these women are not passive, and murder by the female protagonist is a recurring theme here: the girl in ‘The Erl-King’ escapes his clutches by strangling him with his own hair; the child in ‘The Werewolf’ stones her grandmother with the help of her neighbours upon discovering she was a werewolf. They take initiative into their own hands to secure their fates and ultimately survive, and none is this observation more intriguing than in ‘The Company of Wolves’. Here, the embodiment of Red Riding Hood flirts with her would-be suitor – a huntsman who later reveals himself as a werewolf. She is surprisingly assured; they bargain that should he arrive at her grandmother’s house before her he would be rewarded with a kiss, yet as submissive as this may appear, at the pivotal moment of her pending demise the young girl takes control of the situation, stripping the huntsman/werewolf, enticing him and placating both of their desire, ultimately subverting her death.
Angela Carter herself died in 1992 from lung cancer. She was 51. At the time of her death she was working on a sequel to Charlotte Bronté’s Jane Eyre, though only a synopsis now survives. For someone whose life was cut short in her prime, Carter’s work has a longevity that was perhaps unprecedented at the time. It goes to say then, that for this to happen, there was a need for her observations and a suitable audience to pass on her work.
In The Bloody Chamber, it is perhaps this notion of transformation that resonates with women the most– myself included. Time and again in widely read literature – especially ‘classics’ found in curriculum – women are denied their resolution, yet Carter’s writing respects their potential and purpose and rewards them with just that. That the outcomes of narrative resolution vary has meaning; there is no ‘happy ending’ for any of the female protagonists, merely a preferable outcome of fate, though if we were to get picky, we could claim that their ‘happy-ending’ be their maturing into their womanhood, which can also be ultimately interpreted as surviving their loss of innocence and embracing their sexual awakening.
At The Bloody Chamber’s time of publication, the idea of Carter’s ‘perfect woman’ was one that already existed but was not outwardly fully realised. The conscious choice of her female characters to liberate themselves from their shackles is what chimed then and what continues to decades on; women want the option to choose who and what they want to be and carve their own path. In that lecture hall one autumn day, I found confirmation of my own liberation within Angela Carter’s work, which was – I’m pretty sure – exactly her intention.