Angela Carter, Unicorn: The poetry of Angela Carter With an essay by Rosemary Hill; Christopher Frayling, Inside the Bloody Chamber: On Angela Carter, the Gothic, and other weird tales – TLS
In the “pubescent years” of the twentieth century, a young Englishman, handsome and virginal, bicycles into Transylvania. He meets an old crone who leads him to a castle, feeds him bread and stew, then ushers him to the darkened boudoir of an ageless vampire, hungry for her own dinner. But our reasonable Hero (for that is his only name) dismisses his foreboding, deciding what he sees before him is a beautiful girl whose photophobia and pointed teeth might soon be cured by an eye doctor and good dentist. That night something unexpected happens: the innocent boy awakens unprecedented feelings of love in the vampire and she leaves him unmolested. The following morning Hero discovers that his companion – now older and infinitely more human – is dead. Saved from his fate by rationalism, coupled with a chronic lack of imagination, Hero cycles away to the First World War, where the unsusceptible boy who could not shiver finally becomes a man who can.
Angela Carter’s story, “The Lady of the House of Love”, from her 1979 collection The Bloody Chamber, is one of her most brilliant deconstructions of the Gothic, historicizing both rationalism and the imagination (bicycle meets vampire) in a way that is typical of her oeuvre. “Sex comes to us out of history”, as she reminded us in The Sadeian Woman, which was published in the same year, while her good friend, the critic Lorna Sage described the combination of fantasy and materialism in her fiction as “monsters marinated in being”. Today Carter is well known, widely taught in schools and universities, and much of what she presaged – in terms of recycling and updating (“old wine in new bottles”, she called it), or gender role play and reversal – has become commonplace in the culture. Despite this, many critics find it difficult to situate her work properly. This is partly because Carter is so sui generis (she has literary offspring but few antecedents), and partly because many struggle with the relationship of politics and aesthetics in her writing.
The “reality” in this Nosferatu revamp was something of a private joke for Carter, who was inspired to write by another friend, Christopher Frayling, who did indeed journey into Transylvania – but in the early 1970s, undertaking research for Vampyres: Lord Byron to Count Dracula (1978). It is this friendship, and with it Frayling’s claim of mutual influence (“we shared a lot of conversations, ideas and inspirations”), on which his new book, Inside the Bloody Chamber: On Angela Carter, the Gothic, and other weird tales, rests. Readers may be disappointed to find, however, that of the nine pieces in his collection, only the first essay, “Angela and me – a literary friendship” is about Carter.
The remainder are selected from his writing over the past thirty or so years – rich and entertaining fare that, like the best cultural studies, looks for links, unearths back stories, investigates a tale’s reimagining and examines its reception, legacy and mythologizing. In this manner, Frayling tracks Freud and Fuseli, Hitchcock and Gounod, Jack the Ripper, Hammer Horror, Disney’s and Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast, Conan Doyle’s Hound, the origins of Peter and the Wolf, and the state of the Gothic. Many of his tracks end up at the cinema (the fate of much art in the twentieth century), often newly minted with a happy ending. As stories pass from hand to hand, and from one kind of art to another, we find many strange bedfellows: there is Walt Disney, for instance, so proud ofFantasia’s cartoons that he announces to Leopold Stokowski: “this thing will make Beethoven”. For the purposes of Inside the Bloody Chamber, Frayling has added a brief introduction to each of these essays pointing to his and Carter’s shared interests (a joint visit to a Fuseli exhibition, a ramble together on Dartmoor) and to Carter’s own writing that relates to his subject. But the essays themselves make only occasional reference to her, and it is hard not to feel that in order to have earned his title, and the book’s selling point, Frayling might at least have rounded out his collection with a concluding essay on Carter, more gallantly giving her the spotlight rather than making her a player in his own show.
“Angela and me”, the essay in which she does feature, is an odd one. Frayling’s friendship with her in Bath in the 1970s gives us a valuable portrait of Carter during the middle years of her career which few others could offer: tracing the sources of her interest in vampires, werewolves and feral children (particularly as they fed into the stories, plays and filmscripts associated with The Bloody Chamber), her fascination with all kinds of automata, and redressing a critical legacy which has underestimated her socialism. His memories are fleshed out with the liberal use of her notebook-journals and published writing (though these are not always ascribed). And he finds in their dialogues the seeds of many of Carter’s ideas. Verdi’s Falstaff prompts a conversation where they “fantasised about Falstaff as a liberal education for Prince Hal” – an idea that crops up in Wise Children (1991); a trip to a Weber opera finds them in discussion about a Satanic western, something which “eventually turned into Angela’s play Gun for the Devil”; a conversation they had after viewing Murnau’s Nosferatu “led indirectly to Vampirella”; while stories in The Bloody Chamber were “inspired by” books and catalogues that he lent her.
This familiarity with Carter’s thinking, and their mutual reading and watching, means that Frayling is able to suggest many unexpected influences: they attend a screening of Miklós Jancsó’s Private Vices, Public Pleasures, featuring a “full-frontal Welsh hermaphrodite”, much to Carter’s amusement, just as she was transforming Evelyn into Eve in The Passion of New Eve (1977). He is also a persuasive judge of Carter’s sensibility: “her imagination was certainly more Jacobean than Shakespearian”; and in his hands her wit comes alive: “Angela relished the thought of a Good Food Guide for vampires”. But for all his excavation of their many conversations about vampirism (the impact of the First World War on the political geography of the vampire lands, Marx’s use of the vampire metaphor, and “whether human relationships are sometimes about ‘asset stripping’”), there is an odd lack of self-awareness about the terms in which Frayling frames his essay, none of the self-deprecation one might expect from someone claiming so great an intimacy with the generation of another writer’s work.
Something similar happens in a recent book from the historian Rosemary Hill, Unicorn: The poetry of Angela Carter. The origin of this book lay in Hill’s review of Susannah Clapp’s postcard-led memoir of Carter for the London Review of Books in 2012. Encouraged by the Editor, Hill extended her article into a longer essay which she packages here with fourteen of the poems that can be found in Carter’s archives. (The archives, which also include the journals Frayling makes use of, were bought by the British Library in January 2006; in May this year some of their contents were digitalized for a public website, “Discovering Literature: 20th century”). Carter wrote most of her poems during the early part of her career and those presented in Unicorn were published originally in small magazines and anthologies between 1963 and 1966, with three more from 1971, which she later incorporated into Fireworks: Nine profane pieces (1974). Hill’s essay is in three parts beginning with an analysis of the poetry, especially as it prefigures her later writing. This is followed by a sketch of the literary landscape of the 1950s and early 60s from which Carter started to write – a decade before Frayling crossed her path. Like Frayling, Hill emphasizes her rejection of the Leavisite school, with what Carter called their “eat up your broccoli” approach. She also discusses her embrace of the French avant-garde and bohemianism; and her ambivalent relationship to the Angry Young Men and the school of suffering of young women writers whom Hill identifies. A final evaluation of the prose pays particular attention to Carter’s first novel Shadow Dance (1966), written in the same years that produced much of the poetry.
The first delight of Carter’s poetry is just how recognizable it is: as Hill says, “at the age of twenty-three, she arrived as it were, in a single bound in the middle of the mysterious forest that was to keep her supplied with ideas for the rest of her life”. Most obvious is that from the outset Carter is set on rebalancing the books. She begins with a theatrical flourish – “Lights, action”, writing in quotation – “(bend the tab, slit in slot marked ‘x’)”, coming to rescue the virgin-heroine from victimhood, suffering and, above all, unknowing, by placing her on an equal footing with her hunter-seducer – a figure who was to turn up later in Carter’s fictions in the guise of devil, prankster, puppet-master or wolf. Here, he is the unicorn: “Q: What have virgins and unicorns got in common? A: They are both fabulous beasts”. The interrogatory joke remained one of Carter’s favourite forms; she opened her last novel in the same manner.
We must be grateful to Hill for publishing Carter’s poems, for rounding out the picture we have of her life as a young writer. Hill describes in the first part of her essay how Carter found her footing among the writers she was then studying at the University of Bristol, coming into her voice by reshaping, translating or borrowing from authors who at the time were deemed non-canonical, such as Thomas Browne (“hardly considered to be an author at all”) and William Dunbar: “writers of the Middle Ages and early modern period [who] inhabited the literary badlands, beyond the well-trodden path of Leavis’s Great Tradition”.
Hill writes particularly well about Carter’s love of bathos – “The iconography slithers down from illuminated manuscript to strip cartoon” – but can become pedantic, even unintentionally comic, when disturbed by Carter’s similes or confounded by her intentions: “‘Breasts like carrier bags’ is not the happiest of images. Carrier bags, after all, are often square, and even if round it isn’t clear whether these are full or empty”. And there is the odd slip: Hill asserts that Carter’s first five novels are “tethered . . . precisely to material reality in time and place”, but the fourth, Heroes and Villains (1969), is set in some apocalyptic, post-bomb future. Nor was Carter’s relationship to bohemia so straightforward; she is often at pains to show how tricky it can be for women.
More significantly, much of the middle part of Hill’s essay is oddly tendentious, at a stretch from Carter herself, who once again seems as if she is being shoehorned into someone else’s story. Hill reserves a large part of the limelight for her own husband, the late Christopher Logue, and friends such as Nell Dunn – and though much of this is interesting, it can leave Carter seeming like a bit-part player who failed to perform in the approved manner. Carter was “not always the most perceptive critic of her contemporaries”, Hill comments waspishly, when she neglected to respond with the right degree of sympathy to Edna O’Brien’s “heartstruck, tearful heroines, so different from Carter’s own protagonists”.
Because many women of this period suffered for their art (often this meant divorce, violent husbands, or suicide), Hill argues that Carter should have had more time for the downtrodden women represented in their novels. But from the outset – the girl in Unicorn tunelessly singing “I love the game, I love the chase”; and the bawdy, opinionated women in her other poems – Carter showed just what she thought of the spectacle of the suffering, submissive woman. In Shadow Dance, “rotten, phoney” Ghislaine is not as Hill thinks “a bit of a bore”, but the embodiment of female bad faith whom Carter disfigures and then crucifies. It is a stunningly combative debut, exhuming the worn-out plot of the martyred girl, in order, finally, to lay it to rest. She refused to stay dead for long, of course, and Carter found herself repeatedly battling her spectre, writing in her notebooks that she was sick to death of the female victim. In her critical writing, too, she observes how Jane Eyre swoons whenever she calls Rochester “Master”, and chastizes O’Brien and Jean Rhys for being writers “whose scars glorify the sex that wounded them”. After meeting Elizabeth Smart at a party, Carter wrote in fury to Sage saying she hoped no daughter of hers would ever be in a position to write a book like Smart’s: “BY GRAND CENTRAL STATION I TORE OFF HIS BALLS would be more like it”.
It wasn’t a lack of sympathy that Carter was expressing, but sheer indignation at being stuck in a rehashed tale, where the meanings are played out, the symbols used up. And she had no truck with women who were still perpetrating these kinds of victims in their own stories. “Never again. Never”, Carter vows in Shadow Dance, a hugely innovative novel unlike anything her contemporaries were writing, about a world where nothing is original and life is constantly “imitating rotten old art”.
My review of two books about Angela Carter was published in the TLS as ‘Monsters Marinated in Being’ on 7.7.2016: http://www.the-tls.co.uk/articles/public/monsters-marinated-in-being/