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Form and Cruciform: Reflections on Angela Carter’s Shadow Dance

25/04/2010

Tonight the BBC is airing the first of a trio of dramas about the murder of five women in Ipswich in the winter of 2006. Some of the victim’s families assisted the production, hoping to redress the portraits of their daughters that appeared in the press at the time. Others have questioned the wisdom of dramatising events already so sensationally reported by the media. During the trial, the Queen’s Counsel, Peter Wright, described how the women were killed, stripped and dumped in out of the way places. The third and fourth victims, Wright told the court, were also “posed in a cruciform shape”. Looking for headlines, journalists seized on these remarks and soon just about every report included that word, “cruciform”.  The effect was titillating, but few seemed interested in speculating on the source of the word’s power or its underlying meaning.

However well-intentioned the BBC dramas, I doubt there’ll be much in these renderings – beyond emphasising the women’s drug addiction as the cause of their vulnerability, driving them onto the streets – that adds to our understanding of what happened. For that, I suggest taking a step back from the events and looking at a book published over forty years ago, Angela Carter’s debut, Shadow Dance, in which she exhumes the plot of the crucified woman or martyred girl, in order, finally, to lay it to rest. In the novel a young woman is found dead in a derelict house. She, too, has been undressed, murdered and laid out in the form of a crucifix. Carter’s purpose in writing was the opposite of sensationalism: what she wanted, was to defuse those myths and mystifications holding us in their grip, particularly the narrative of Christian martyrdom.

She did not, of course, in any sense ‘foresee’ the Ipswich murders, but Carter grasped what an endlessly repeating scenario, what recurrent violence taking age-old forms, might tell us: just how deeply embedded and affective some stories are. This explains the coincidence of her narrative with these real murders many years later. And it explains, too, the particular feeling of nausea they engendered. What happened in Ipswich, after all, can hardly be considered an isolated incident. Indeed, when I think back it seems much of my adult life has been accompanied by similar headlines: somewhere on the edge of town a man is killing women. Just a few years before the deaths in Ipswich, two girls working the streets – they were 16 and 22 – were murdered in Norwich about a mile from where I was living. Further back still, I recall how visits to my sister in Leeds were over-shadowed by the knowledge that another killer was at large (the man was Peter Sutcliffe, known in the popular press as the Yorkshire Ripper), his threat close-by, especially at night when we walked to the pub across an unlit park.

And here was the feeling again: we are caught in a nightmare and can’t wake up. The Ipswich murders were as familiar to us as a grim fairy tale. We knew all too well the lone wolf (a truck driver); the isolated path (“disused stretches of trunk roads”); and the victim, Little Red (prostitutes, drug addicts, the young). We also knew, from the outset, how the story would end: badly. For women, even forty years on from the sexual revolution, what this latest in a long line of chilling re-enactments tells us, is that it is still going to end badly. And for that reason, accompanying the horror is incredulity: why are women, even today, trapped in these same dead-end plots?

In the early Sixties, Carter, then a young woman, was living as a student in a rundown area of Bristol. This “provincial bohemia” provided the setting for Shadow Dance. For all its permissiveness, however, she felt unfree (she later wrote about how tricky bohemia can be for women), so Carter plotted to desert her husband and escape – running, eventually, as far as Japan. One factor in her flight was the behaviour of women around her, in her notebooks she wrote that she was sick to death of the female victim. To counter this, she developed a different strategy, a flight of fancy, in which she would nail and then eliminate the victim. She executed her plan in a novel incandescent with anger at the waste of women’s lives. “Never again. Never”, Carter declared in Shadow Dance.

When faced with a news ‘story’ such as the Ipswich killings we find it hard to react, it leaves us stunned and ashamed, we turn away. The repetition of that word “cruciform”, the descriptions of the state of the women’s bodies, the effect is to frighten us out of our wits. Reading Carter, I’d suggest, can return us to our senses and help us think more coolly about these unthinkable things. It may be vulgar to read from imaginary lives and deaths the meaning contained in real ones. But the alternative to contemplating what happened, and finding new ways to think about it, is not to. And that pretty much leaves us back at the beginning, uncomprehending, in an endlessly replaying story of victim and beast.

It was this feeling of being stuck in a rehashed, but lethal tale, where the meanings are played-out, the symbols used up, that led Carter to write Shadow Dance, a novel in which nothing is original and life is constantly “imitating rotten old art”. She was, of course, not alone in her disenchantment with postwar Britain, the sense of living in aftermath – a whole generation felt the need to break the mould and begin again. And in Shadow Dance this is precisely what Carter attempts: to rescue her readers from a moribund story. It is the power of this story over her characters, not just their seamy living conditions, that keeps them so bowed down and explains their nostalgic, sepia-tinted world.

There is guilt-ridden Morris who looks like an “an El Greco Christ”, an impotent junk man fit only for scavenging in the past; Pre-Raphaelite Edna, his endlessly suffering and, hence, insufferable wife, who longs for kiddies or kitties or something to fill the void; and a whole chorus of disapproval, bit-part players whose tenuous identities threaten at any moment to harden into a mob. But worst of the lot is Ghislaine, once the neighbourhood’s baby doll, now sporting the “disgusting” flesh of a Francis Bacon. We find her, in the beginning, a young, promiscuous girl out on the town, haunting pubs and parks, hooking up with any man who’ll have her; insatiable and unstoppable, even after she has been raped and knifed and left in the bushes to die.

Shadow Dance, 1966 (UK)

Honeybuzzard, 1967 (US)

The assault on Ghislaine is the result of an unholy pact between Morris and his alter-ego, Honeybuzzard: too much of a coward to act on his own behalf, one night Morris dares his comrade and shadow-self to “teach her a lesson”. But though Honey is happy to oblige, killing her off will not prove easy. Because the girl in Carter’s story has been around a long time: that is the point. We know her of old, this undead Lolita, all curls and smiles, sugar and ice-cream. Here she comes, the embarrassing Bride of Frankenstein; and here she is again, Dracula’s nauseating wife. By the end, however, Carter has achieved her objective: Ghislaine is written, terminally, out of the script, crucified on trestle tables in the basement of an abandoned house, dead as a doornail. This, after all, is what the girl had been asking for: as Honeybuzzard brags, the lamb was begging to be slaughtered.

Here, Carter takes a leaf out of Jane Eyre (where Bronte cut her hero down to size, laming, burning, amputating and blinding him), but goes one further: she cuts her ‘heroine’ right out of the plot, finishes her off once and for all so that this masquerade of femininity, this embodimentof bad faith will no longer be available for further use. Or that was the idea, the brutal lesson Carter was trying to teach us. But the similarity to these recent murders, Carter’s anticipation of their grisly fate, suggests very little has been learned.

Precisely because it is a rotten plot – then as now – we should not be fooled into thinking there is anything uncanny in the way Carter, forty years before the event, imagined real deaths. She understood exactly what she was doing, and continued to do throughout her writing life: exploring the deadening impact of well-worn narratives (be they myths, tales, or religious stories) upon poor readers: those who are credulous or those who fail to recognise the plot in which they are caught up.

From the outset, Carter took as her subject the intimate relation of the material and the imaginary. As a feminist she said she was not so worried about the effects of the way women were represented, even in pornography, but thought much more important the conditions of women’s lives: equal pay, access to contraception and abortion, racism, these were the things that needed to change. As a writer what she tells us is that the disconnect between the imaginary and the real can be lethal.

Time and again she shows how the images, characters and stories that make up the ‘shadow’ world cannot be consigned to a separate sphere, but are present and busily at work even in our daily bread, kitchen sink lives. If we fail to recognise these shadows, we will be prey not only to the consolatory fictions that subdue and distort us, but also to those patriarchal superstitions that are, quite literally, out to get us. It is not by accident that Ghislaine is the daughter of a clergyman.

So Carter’s project for Year One was to wake up her audience to the archetypal stories that programme our lives. She wanted us to stop treating the products of our imagination as if they had nothing to do with us, as if they – God forbid! – came from another world. She thought it was only by taking responsibility for their meaning (the monstrous things that gods and monsters do), that we could begin to understand ourselves. And start, if needs be, to re-write the script.

It is not just the plot of her novel that finds an echo in what happened in Ipswich, there are also character resemblances. Peter Wright, the QC, said the murderer was a divided man, killing when his girlfriend worked the nightshift, stopping when she was sick at home, and resuming when she got better. In Shadow Dance, Morris and Honey also function like a split personality, one that Carter tries to sew back together, where Morris inhabits the ‘real’ world – the inexorable domestic daytime; and Honey, the ‘shadow’ – the brilliant insane night.

Honeybuzzard is brother, mirror and id to Morris. He is devoid of guilt and unrestrained by history or feeling. But in his madness there is a kind of truth: his freedom to endlessly recreate himself, his dressing-up box clothes, his wigs and false nose, his greedily swinging sexuality all give the lie to what Carter was later to identify in a review of Christina Stead’s work, as the “socially determined fiction” of the “private self”. We contain multitudes Honey reminds us, and the past is dead, so why not play around in it: “be somebody different each morning. Me and not-me…have a cupboard bulging with all different bodies and faces…”

It is this realisation, finally, that helps Morris to throw off his blanket of Christian guilt, and act. Action doesn’t make him authentic, of course, turning him into that ‘autonomous bourgeois individual’ queried by Carter, but with Honey’s example before him, he sees he can at least slip out of his straight-jacket and into someone else’s shoes. Throughout, Morris’s refrain has been, “How could I be so thoughtless?” He says this to his wife with her perpetual, admonishing headache, but he also says it because he is quite literally thoughtless, unable to grasp the narratives in which his life abounds.

By the end, though, Morris has learned this much: he can make myth work for him. Wondering, “am I brave enough to walk into the ruins?”, he adopts the mantle of Orpheus to help him descend into the underworld-basement where Ghislaine lies murdered, in order to retrieve his Honey-Eurydice. As Carter faced her fears in this book (the eternal female victim), so Morris must look the fearful Honeybuzzard in the eye and find out what he has goaded into existence, discover the full extent of what has been done in his name.

If there is something important to be learned from the freeform Honey (a descendent of Milton’s Satan if ever I saw one), the character in Shadow Dance with the greatest potential (precisely because she is without antecedence), is his girlfriend, the pragmatic and insouciant Emily. She is the novel’s news from nowhere, arriving as if without gestation or fingerprints, her only baggage a self-cleaning cat. Self-possessed and prepossessing, Emily is the first of Carter’s New Women, and if there is something odd and unnatural about her, then her unheimlich disposition has the exact opposite meaning to Ghislaine’s.

Where Ghislaine is ghastly, ghostly, and embarrassingly blatant – stuffed with ready-made meaning, Emily is uncoded and mysterious, calling to mind a surrealist painting, a big empty room with as yet very little furniture in it. Indeed, if she hails at all from the house of fiction then the contents have all been swept away: Emily’s form may be recognisable – the innocent in peril – but her reactions are entirely novel. This means when Honey’s side-show stops amusing, becoming savage and ghoulish, she reacts promptly but without alarm: scrubbing the house, showering herself down, and building a bonfire of his fetishes and curiosities (foetuses in jam-jars). Having abandoned him with no more thought than last season’s coat, she is emotionally emptied, licked clean as her cat and ready to move on; without any sign of psychic damage, “Her affections [a]re to let again.”

Emily is also connected to the canny grannies of Carter’s later fiction, not wise (that is for children only), but equipped with street smarts and a puncturing common sense. When Morris, aghast at Honey’s macabre activities, feels they have “fallen through a hole in time into a dimension of pure horror”, Emily thinks, “so what ?” So what if she’s carrying a murderer’s baby? It’s hers, not his, and she will love it without foreboding.

Emily’s ability to remain splendidly unfazed by the shadows engulfing her is helped by her ability to read her surroundings. She picks out the resemblance between the colourful Honeybuzzard and Bluebeard, sensing that to be forewarned is to be forearmed. It’s a theme Carter returns to again and again, perhaps nowhere more effectively than in her rewriting of the Bluebeard tale, ‘The Bloody Chamber’, where her ingénue protagonist must confront her husband’s library of cruelty, his pornographic “prayerbooks”, if she is to escape the fate of his earlier wives, all of them entombed in his torture chamber. The key to this hell – and to her survival of it – is that she become a good reader.

It is a skill Carter is keen for everyone to acquire, but the women in her audience most particularly. Because for us, taking the imaginary seriously, she thinks, knowing or not knowing where the story comes from, how it ends and what it means – all this may be a matter of life and death. “I have learned my lesson, master”, Ghislaine announces when she prostrates herself before Honey. (Another nod to Jane Eyre who, Carter noted, for all her bird-talk of flight and freedom, addresses Rochester “habitually, in masochistic ecstasy” as “my Master”.) But Ghislaine, the ultimate femme fatale, has learned nothing. Without a thought to call her own, she knows only this: how lethal it is to be a woman and how much she wants to die.

So what is the link between Ghislaine-the-Victim, laid out on a makeshift cross, and the Ipswich women, “posed in cruciform”? The answer, perhaps, can be found in one of Carter’s last pieces of work, The Holy Family Album, a short film scripted for Channel Four not long before her own premature death in 1992. Using a collage of art devoted to Christ’s life and death by crucifixion, Carter launched an attack on the dysfunctional Holy family asking, what kind of a father does that to his son?

In God’s book, the Bible, it is a man who is crucified, who must be seen to suffer for the sins of the world. But in Carter’s, she argues, while men like Morris enact parodies of filial obedience, clinging to the past to avoid the trouble of making the future, in our society it is women who are made to pay, and who, because they carry the imprint of centuries of powerlessness, are most susceptible to the drama of martyrdom.

Perhaps this is why, although women have achieved greater freedom since Carter wrote Shadow Dance, the spectacle of female anguish shows no sign of abating. And why the Ipswich murders present such thorny questions: do we, in fact, judge these to be the actions of an isolated, violent individual, or part of a broader, on-going story? And if the latter, how much responsibility do we bear collectively for what happened? Because the more visible power women gain (the closer we get to the Oval Office), it seems, the more ubiquitous is the story of the woman in pain.

It has got to the point now where it is the one we tell ourselves most consistently, infecting all forms of public discourse: the endless parade of Dianas and Britneys and Amys – all the hounded young women heading for destruction, and all of them so poorly equipped to turn the plot around. (As Amy sings, ruefully, “I didn’t get a lot in class”.) I just wonder what impact this daily resurrection of female suffering has on the people exposed to it, on the runaway girls, on the violent men, on all of us reading and hearing it, come to that. Perhaps the very least we can do in memory of those five young Ipswich women is, as Carter demanded in Shadow Dance, stop telling ourselves this lacerating story.

In her later fiction, when she had worked her way through some of her anger at the violence done to women – and the harm, in turn, we do to ourselves (though it never entirely went away: “I understand why men hate women and they are right, yes, right” she told her friend, Lorna Sage), more and more of Carter’s characters are equipped for the journey, able to recognise the world’s plots and save themselves from them by putting their reading to good use.

In Nights at the Circus an understanding of Frances Yates helps Fevvers escape the clutches of a ‘collector’ hell-bent on achieving immortality through her death; and in Wise Children, Tiffany, sensing herself slide towards Ophelia’s watery end, picks herself up and runs off in the opposite direction. So by her last book, perhaps what is most characteristic in Carter’s writing is this: women reading their way out of trouble by recognising well-trodden plots and refusing to go down them.

I am not, of course, trying to suggest anything as crass as: if the Ipswich women had opened a book by Carter they would now be alive. But I do think reading her carefully can help the rest of us go some way to comprehending deaths the press reported as “beyond understanding”. Carter makes a truer guide, her writing, in the end, is designed to help and works like a talisman. As Margaret Atwood saw, she is the one bestowing the “magic token you need to get through the dark forest.”

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