ANGELA CARTER Bottle Blonde; Double Drag
Fairy tales explore the mysteries of love; their earliest forebears are the Greek romances, which were described as erotika pathemata, or stories of love-in-suffering, and followed heroes and heroines through terrible, protracted ordeals until the last moment, of recognition, reconciliation, and union.1 Angela Carter’s quest for eros, her perseverance in the attempt to ensnare its nature in her imagery, her language, her stories, drew her to fairy tales as a form, and she wrote some of the most original reworkings in contemporary literature in her collections the Bloody Chamber (l975), as well as in some of the contributions to Fireworks (l974); the posthumous American Ghosts, which contains a Cinderella story, told with the succinct lyrical poignancy of Carter at her most tender.
In the longer fiction, The Magic Toyshop (1967), Nights at the Circus (1984), and Wise Children (1992), she uses numerous fairy tale motifs: changelings and winged beings, muted heroines, beastly metamorphoses, arduous journeys and improbable encounters, magical rediscoveries and happy endings. Her recuperation of the form has had a widespread influence, palpable not only in the writings of contemporaries like Salman Rushdie, Robert Coover, and Margaret Attwood, but directly on film-making, through The Company of Wolves as well as indirectly, on the visual arts, as well, for numerous young artists have been inspired by Carter’s peculiar blend of romance and cynicism. In his obituary tribute on television, Rushdie called her, a Faerie Queene, and in her vintage of comic romance writings, she was indeed Titania, the enchantress who discovers eros only to find that her beloved is an ass.
But between the early works (among which I would place the great tales of beauty and the beast in The Bloody Chamber) and the later writing - from Nights at the Circus onwards - something occurs in Angela Carter’s sensibility and it is bound up with her change of attitude to fairy tales. In the first edition of Fireworks, she added an Afterword, in which she aligned herself with the Gothic tale tellers, like Poe, like Hoffman of The Sandman and other terrifying wundermarchen:‘cruel tales, tales of wonder, tales of terror, fabulous narratives that deal directly with the imagery of the unconscious - mirrors; the externalized self, forsaken castles, haunted forests; forbidden sexual objects. Formally, the tale differs from the short story in that it makes few pretences at the imitation of life. The tale does not log everyday experience, as the short story does; it interprets everyday experience through a system of imagery derived from subterranean areas behind everyday experience, and therefore the tale cannot betray its readers into a false knowledge of everyday experience.... Characters and events are exaggerated beyond reality, to become symbols, ideas, passions. Its style will tend to be ornate, unnatural - and thus operate against the perennial human desire to believe the word as fact. Its only humour is black humour. It retains a singular moral function - that of provoking unease.’2
Interestingly, this note was removed in subsequent editions of Fireworks, and when it is compared to the Introduction to the Virago Book of Fairy Tales, written sixteen years later, the reasons become clear. Angela Carter changed her mind about what tales were up to in relation to reality; she became very interested in the way they conveyed the materiality of their tellers’ and inventors’ lives. Fairy tales came to represent the literature of the illiterate: the divine Marquis yielded pride of place to the anonymous peasant. In that Introduction, she writes, ‘ So fairy tales, folk tales, stories from the oral tradition, are all of them the most vital connection we have with the imaginations of the ordinary men and women whose labour created our world.’ 3 This new understanding of the origin represents a new placing of the interesting, significant margin: the productive transgressions of fantasy no longer arises from self-elected maverick geniuses, but among the unacknowledged and nameless crowd, and its anarchic energy does not ipso facto constitute revolt against the status quo for reasons of personal realisation, but more pragmatic questions of everyday survival. This change of perception does not entirely cancel the earlier insights into tales’ extravagant fantasising, symbolic landscape, or ‘black humour’; indeed she recognises that all these characteristics of fairy tales relate to the social function of romancing. Many factors, and many writers may have influenced her altered approach: Walter Benjamin’s essay on ‘The Storyteller’, with its emphasis on storytelling as an artisan activity, repairing damage through imagination, and Robert Darnton’s historical and provocative essay, ‘Peasants tell tales’ about the economic and family conditions which are refracted through the stories.4 In an interview for the BBC in l985, Angela once said, ‘ A fairy tale is the kind of story in which one king goes to another king to borrow a cup of sugar.’5 Above all, the work of Jack Zipes, a leading scholar of the Grimm Brothers, and an indefatigable champion of the fairy tale, who has produced thick volumes of translations from the Grimms, the Arabian Nights and the French writers of the l7th and l8th centuries, exercised a tremendous influence on Angela Carter.6 They made friends through corresponding about their mutual interest in fairy tales, and eventually met, around l989. Zipes acknowledges that Angela Carter opened his eyes to the possibilities of fairy tales, and his own theoretic criticism changed direction, from attacking the materialism and coercive conformism he had found inherent in the genre to stressing its utopian possibilities. He has since dedicated his definitive study of Red Riding Hood to her memory.
Zipes has argued with hot-headed eloquence from a huge range of scholarship against the narrow psychoanalytic (largely Jungian) view that fairy tales are deep pools in which eternal wisdom lies like some wonderful fish that will bring about everything one desires. They are, in his view, volatile, adaptive, responsive and instrumental vehicles in which the concerns of both teller and audience are conveyed - hence the coercive misogynist and puritan morality of Disney’s Snow White, for example, and the corresponding volte face made by the same company in response to changing ideas in their recent emancipated Beauty and the Beast.
So how did this changed approach to fairy tale affect Angela Carter’s fiction, and in particular, what bearing does it have on her undeterred quest for the erotic?
The transformation can be seen, I think, reflected most clearly in the pronounced shift in her style of dark humour, from a gorgeous, phantasmagoric eloquence of excess and voluptuousness , rooted in the work of the Symbolists, in Baudelaire and in Poe, Baudelaire’s great inspiration, to a more particularly British savoury brand of bawdy, out of the Wife of Bath and Falstaff to pantomime, music hall, and Spitting Image. Her Gothic decadence turns into comic defiance; no longer unfurling the banner of De Sade, she takes Benjamin’s motto, ‘cunning and high spirits’ for her own , and her most glamorous and bravura evocations of sexual allure, like the opening scene in the dressing room of Fevvers, the winged aeraliste heroine of Nights at the Circus, are constantly punctured by her almost as soon as she has cast the spell. Fevvers herself, an icon of dazzling specular pleasure, keeps moving in and out of focus, by turns angelically radiant, or determinedly farting, winged and glorious, with huge and grimy underpants tumbled among the aromatic stew of powder and other remains in her vicinity. Angela Carter needs to profane her own fabricated marvels, to blow the raspberries of sin in the artificial paradises of her own skilled invention. This characteristic in itself discomfits the reader: like the gorgeous apparition Fevvers letting rip witb a fart, Carter’s own prose keeps dirtying its own hands. Like Fevvers, herself, she’s a bottle blonde, and she wants you to see her roots. The debazzlement, when it happens (in so many tour de force moments of illusion) becomes all the more powerful; and the disillusion all the more bitter. In Nights, the hero Jack Walser becomes a clown to run away with the circus and stay near Fevvers; he too, in this comic disguise, ‘ experienced the freedom that lies behind the mask, within dissimulation, the freedom to juggle with being, and, indeed, with the language which is vital to our being, that lies at the heart of burlesque.’7
Transvestism and female impersonation are staple disguises of burlesque and they recur throughout Angela Carter’s oeuvre. But she is not content with simple disguise - her female impersonators are often in double drag - that is ,as in Shakespeare’s comedies, the boy playing a girl is dressed as a boy, and vice versa. Carter plays with this hall of mirrors to dazzling effect in The Passion of New Eve, and again in Wise Children, in a specifically Shakespearean context. In Nights at the Circus, too, Walser the journalist speculates at the very start that Fevvers, a giantess, might be a male in disguise. But Carter’s crucial insight is that women like Fevvers produce themselves as ‘women’ , and that this is often the result of force majeure, of using what you’ve got to get by. The fairy tale transformations of Cinders into princess represent what a girl has to do to stay alive. Carter’s treatment of travesty moves from pleasure in its dissembling wickedness and disruptiveness of convention, to exploring its function as a means of survival - and a specifically proletarian strategy of advancing, through the construction of self in image and language. In this, many of Angela’s heroines - both in her writing and in life, like Fevvers, like the Chance sisters, like Lulu/Louise Brooks - resemble the literary text of the kind Angela herself was writing: ornate, bejewelled, artificial, highly wrought prose playing hide and seek in Nights and Wise Children, with the chatty, downmarket, vulgar unadorned personae of the characters underneath the greasepaint and the costume.
So there is a dual development,: a new acceptance that the tale ( the fantastic or fairy tale) connects to real life experience, and a change of tone from gaudy near parodies of 19th century pornography to bravura reworkings of Chaucerian and Shakespearean comedy, and this acceptance is enmeshed in - and articulated by - a change in her understanding of self-fabrication. This includes cross-dressing, a ‘perversion’ Carter was tremendously taken by, and her use of it widens her view of the erotic: power and pleasure are coupled in the early work, but in the later, especially Wise Children , their symbiosis is modified.8 Hedonism has its high costs, for Lulu as well as for Dora and Nora; glamour is a girl’s brave stratagem, and Angela Carter’s admiration for it has no bounds. But she does recognise that its magic has limits. With that recognition, her glittering humour grows at the same time broader, darker , and softer.
Because it was not always so, this broadening of her comedy helps the reader decipher the risks and the difficulties she suffered as a writer. The transformation itself forms part of the larger shift that has taken place in recent times, which has made humour the weapon of the dispossessed, the marginal, the response of the victim who feels Punch's stick, not the joyous cries of Mr Punch himself. The iconoclast in Carter goes on breaking up the gorgeous images, but finds that they keep reassembling themselves under her blows like squashy cartoon animals.
There is a group of fairy tales about a silent princess - sometimes a silent prince - whom nothing can move, until someone comes along who does something so funny, or says something so outrageous that at last the curse is lifted and the heroine - or hero - is released from the captivity of muteness. The silent princess embodies the audience of fairy tale as well as taking part in the story itself, because the tale can be said to exist in itself to excite responses, to bring life, to assert vulgar rude health against pale misery and defeat, to stir laughter or wonder or tears or hope.
In one Italian version, of the seventeenth century by the Neapolitan Gianbattista Basile, the silent princess’s first laugh is provoked when an old woman slips on a puddle of oil, falls over and shows her bottom: bawdy and scatology reassert the life principle, literally from below.9
The revolutionary Russian philosopher Alexander Herzen commented, "In church, in the palace, on parade, facing the department head, the police officer , the German administrator, nobody laughs. The serfs are deprived of the right to smile in the presence of the landowners.' ( Wipe that smile off your face, says the bullying teacher.) Herzen concludes, 'Only equals may laugh'.10 So the laughter of the clown, the mockery of the fool, can be the expression of freedom, the gesture that abolishes hierarchy, that cancels authority and faces down fear. Its release can lie in the way it abolishes hierarchy and authority. Riddle books in the eighteenth century, produced for children's amusement, and filled with concealed meanings, knew this function of laughter:
Of Merry books this is the chief,
'Tis as a Purging Pill;
To carry off all heavy Grief,
And make you laugh your Fill.11
The British pantomime tradition has prolonged the life of the medieval diablerie, and a pantomime character, like Mother Goose, irreverently guying her betters, has crossed over from the nursery and the riddle book to flourish on the boards. Significantly, Mother Goose is a drag role; like Widow Twankey or the Wicked Stepmother, she was played by a pantomime dame, in the Christmas dramas and music hall revues. Sex reversals pointed up the magic as well as the absurdity: the name of Pulcinella, Mister Punch's clownish ancestor from Italian masked comedy, ends in the feminine 'a' which retains the memory of his travesty. Mother Goose doubles the inversion: she is played by a man to look like a cross-dressed woman (Pulcinella/Punch).12
In one of the very last pieces she wrote, Angela Carter celebrated the British pantomime tradition, its transvestite roles, its use of heavy innuendo and bawdy banter about sexual oppositions: 'The Dame bends over, whips up her crinolines; she has three pairs of knee-length bloomers... One pair is made out of the Union Jack... The second pair is quartered red and black, in memory of Utopia. The third and vastest pair of bloomers is scarlet, with a target on the seat, centred on the arsehole...'13 The Fool in Dutch painting deals in comic obscenity in this manner; fools can enter where angels fear to tread and thumb their noses (show their bottoms) at convention and authority: tomfoolery includes iconoclasm, disrespect, subversion.
The Dame became one of Angela Carter's adopted voices ( a woman speaking through a man disguised as a woman); this double drag scatters certainty about sexual identity, of course, it puts fixity to the question. But at the same time, it also connects to one form of Carter’s utopianism: her dream of synthesis. For the figure of the female impersonator mirrors the hermaphrodite, and this figure of alchemy, wisdom and magic, also holds a very potent place in Angela Carter’s imagination ( the changeling boy, over whom Titania and Oberon quarrel in Midsummer Night’s Dream becomes a boy-girl in one of her stories).14 The yearning to achieve synthesis does surface intermittently in her journey to discover, or at least to represent, to write the erotic. In Reflections, for example, a metaphysical piece from Fireworks, the male questor/narrator passes through the mirror and actually destroys a god/goddess who perfectly synthesises male and female. She has been ravelling up cosmic order and harmony by knitting away at a long scarf. Every dropped stitch is a broken or missing piece in the world on the other side of the mirror. Though the story is one of Carter’s cloudier tales, the iconoclasm of the protagonist when he desecrates and destroys the hermaphroditic idol does not win the author’s whole-hearted applause. Even though his act rejects the deity’s wholeness as a kind of tyranny, and stands for the energy of sexual difference (I think) and for the shaping of identity achieved by resistance, there is irony and sorrow in the last paragraph, too:
‘Down she tumbled, the bald old crone, upon a pile of wisps of unravelled grey wool as the ormulu furniture splits apart and the paper unfurled from the wall. But I was arrogant; I was undefeated. Had I not killed her? Proud as a man, I once again advanced to meet my image in the mirror. Full of self-confidence, I held out my hands to embrace my self, my anti-self, my self not-self, my assassin, my death, the world’s death.’ 15
Many of Angela Carter’s characters have another self in wonderland, through the mirror, a not-self which defines them and gives them vitality, but which also serves to mark the absence of the true self, and with that absence, the impossibility of that existence.
But where does that leave coupling, and its double source - narcissism, which is precisely self-love, and altruism, the love of another? The difficulty in providing a happy ending in answer to this question pushed Angela Carter towards laughter: Reflections, written in the seventies, remains gothically in earnest; Nights at the Circus, written a decade or more later, erupts in laughter, closing with the end of Fevvers’s long, sustained joke, her heavenly disguise:
‘The spiralling tornado of Fevvers’s laughter began to twist and shudder across the entire globe, as if a spontaneous respnse to the giant comedy that endlessly unfolded beneath it, until everything that lived and breathed everywhere, was laughing...16
In Rabelais and His World, Mikhail Bakhtin traces the survival of the risus paschalis, 'Easter laughter', medieval laughter, blasphemous but permitted, through the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries' rejection: 'laughter... made its unofficial but almost legal nest under the shelter of almost every feast. Therefore, every feast in addition to its official, ecclesiastical part had yet another folk carnival part whose organizing principles were laughter and the material bodily lower stratum...The origin of the various elements of this theme are varied. Doubtless, the Roman Saturnalia continued to live during the entire Middle Ages. The tradition of antique mime also remained alive. But the main source was local folklore...the medieval culture of folk humour actually belonged to all the people. The truth of laughter embraced and carried away everyone; nobody could resist it. '17
The irony is that Angela Carter clowned more and more over the length of her prolific career because she saw, with her sharp-eyed mordancy, that in her struggle for change, she was losing ground, that through Thatcher’s Eighties and in the world they were creating, all too many were able to resist - by turning a deaf ear to ‘the truth of laughter’ and much besides. She knew that humour was a last ditch stratagem, even an admission of defeat: this is the nub of the irony . She understood the limits of merry-making, burlesque and masquerade and she spoke clearly, in an 199 interview with Lorna Sage, the editor of this volume and a close friend, about the power of the carnivalesque to contain rather than to release: 'It's interesting that Bakhtin became very fashionable in the l980s during the demise of the particular kind of theory which would have put all kinds of question marks about the vogue for the carnivalesque. I'm thinking about Marcuse and repressive desublimation, which tells you exactly what carnivals are for. The carnival has to stop. The whole point about the Feast of Fools is that things went on as they did before, after it stopped.'
So Angela Carter’s comic disguise, her performance as a bottle blonde with her slip showing, staged a kind of retreat, a retreat brought about by the climate of the Thatcher hegemony. Wise Children sustains a tone of dashing, irrepressible vitality, even in the worst adversity, from the lips of her narrator, who is herself not quite a pantomime dame, but a chorus girl a music hall artiste, a sometime stripper, to whom life gives a raw deal - or nothing at all, but who keeps up her spirits in spite of it. The very last line of the book is 'What a joy it is to dance and sing!'
The presence of joy, in the work of Angela Carter, signals her hold on 'heroic optimism', the mood she singled out as characteristic of fairy tales, the principle which sustained the idea of a happy ending, whatever the odds.Angela Carter developed Freud's polymorphous perversity with panache, and played with humour in a wide variety of keys, ranging from flamboyantly upfront ribaldry to the quietest, dryest, droll asides. She opened the first of her anthologies of fairy tales with the vision of Semerssuaq, a character of contemporary Eskimo folklore, who was 'so powerful that she could lift a kayak on the tips of three fingers. She could kill a seal merely by drumming on its head with her fists. ...Sometimes this Semerssuaq would show off her clitoris. It was so big that the skin of a fox would not fully cover it. Aja, and she was the mother of nine children, too!'
Angela Carter was invited to moderate this passage, as its inclusion, especially in the heraldic position at the beginning of the book, would prevent teachers using the collection in schools. But she stood firm; she practised through her writing a constant stretching of the permitted, of the permissible. Taboo was her terrain, and comedy was one of her ways of entering it. ( Not for her the humour of control, of convention, of censure.) She clowned , she fooled, because as her much loved (and much teased) Bard says,’ This fellow is wise enough to play the fool,/And do that well deserves a kind of wit...’ Semerssuaq also incidentally symbolised the return of synthesis - the being who manages the ultimate disguise of being both male and female - in a jovial mood.
Angela Carter would have been astonished by the praise in her obituaries, she would certainly have had some caustic phrase for the general enthusiasm. For in England, where she was born, and lived, she and her work were viewed askance while she was alive by some of the same media establishment that gathered in force to praise her in death. Her work sowed discomfort among the British public, which in some ways was all to the good, as she did not seek to be cosy. Her profanity was of the unsettling variety, that made it necessary to examine one's own received ideas. It was so very impolite, with its particular feminism, its blend of the irreverent and the gothic, its dazzling linguistic intricacy and relish for imagery. But it is the humour, its dark and even snaky stabs, that above all, I think, produced the discomfiture people felt at her work - which is of course what she - what Semerssuaq, what the Panto Dame - intend.
1 Arthur Heiserman, The Novel before the Novel ( Chicago and London), pp 3- 6 ; see also B.E. Perry. The Ancient Romances A Literary-Historical Account of Their Origins (Berkeley and Los Angeles, l967); Bryan Reardon, The Form of Ancient Greek Romance in R. Beaton, The Greek Novel (London, l988), pp 205-216.
2Fireworks, London, l974. I am very grateful to Alison Marks for bringing this afterword to my attention.
3 The Virago Book of Fairy Tales (London, l990), p. 1x.
4 Walter Benjamin, ‘The Storyteller: Reflections on the Work of Nikolai Leskov’, in Illuminations, trans. Harry Zohn (New York, l969), pp. 83-109; Robert Darnton
, ‘Peasant Tell Tales: The Meaning of Mother Goose’, in The Great Cat Massacre and Other Episodes in French Cultural History (London, l984), pp. 13-34.
5 Cinderella, Arena, BBC2, directed by Melissa Llewellyn Davies, script by Marina Warner.
6 Jack Zipes, Breaking the Magic Spell ( ); Fairy Tales and the Art of Subversion( ); Idem, ‘ The Rise of the French Fairy Tale and the Decline of France’, in , Beauties, Beasts and Enchantments ; Classic French Fairy Tales (New York, l989); idem, ‘Introduction’ to Spells of Enchantment ; The Wondrous Fairy Tales of Western Culture (New York, l991); idem, ed., The Trials and Tribulations of Little Red Riding Hood (London, 1994, rev. ed.).
7 Angela Carter, Nights at the Circus (London, l984), p. 103.
8 See Marjorie Garber, Vested Interests: Cross-Dressing & Cultural Anxiety (London, l993) for a very fine study of this theme.
9 Gianbattista Basile, Il Pentamerone ossia La Fiaba delle fiabe. Ed.. and trans. Benedetto Croce. 2 vols. (Bari, l9 ), pp. 3-12.
10 Alexander Herzen, On art, (Moscow, l954), p. 223, quoted in Mikhail Bahktin, Rabelais and His World Trans.Helene Iswolsky( Indiana l984), p. 92
12 See Marina Warner, Speaking with Double Tongue: Mother Goose and the Old Wives’ Tale, in Myths of the English, ed. Roy Porter (Oxford, l992), pp. 33-67.
13 ‘In Pantoland’, in American Ghosts & Old World Wonders (London, l993),pp. 98-109.
14 ‘ Overture and Indicental Music for A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ in Black Venus, (London , l985), pp. 63-76.
15 Angela Carter, ‘Reflections’, in Fireworks (london, l987), p 101.
16 Nights at the Circus, p. 295.
17Mikhail Bakhtin, Rabelais and His World . Trans. Helene Iswolsky (Bloomington, l984), p. 82.