Friday, November 4, 2011

Sweet Mother Goose in Her Bordello

I'm halfway through Angela Carter's short collection of revised fairy tales, The Bloody Chamber. For a while, after a startling paragraph in the title story, I was worried that the collection would go off into The Story of O territory, but Carter followed the premises and characters and let the eroticism simmer in the background rather than boil over as the primary design.

A couple of things about these tales (which, by the way, I recommend):

1. You can see how people like Kate Bernheimer build on Carter's work, unless there was already a tradition of fairy tale detournement, if I'm spelling that correctly and I see that I am. Take that, Situationists Internationale! Where?

2. The first three stories in the collection concern virginal young girls being sold off or otherwise traded like commodities. Each time, however, the young girl takes control of the situation and comes out happier in the end.

3. Carter's language is constantly surprising, even at this late date. My favorite phrase right now is "tintinabulation of cut-glass chandeliers." It works just as well for tinkling glass as it does for bells bells bells. You'd think nobody could get away with "tintinabulation" after Edgar, but you'd be wrong.

4. These stories are more about the promise of violence than about actual violence. Carter isn't out to shock you so much as to twist you up in tension and then let you go, a little careworn and exhausted and maybe more wary than you were. But there's not so much blood in The Bloody Chamber. Though perhaps why these are considered to be feminist stories is that the promises of violence are made about young women, and the voice promising sexual violence is the loudest voice in the room. There is actually a lot to be said about the threat of rape in this collection, but others have addressed that with more intelligence and patience than I've got. And then, see point Number 2.

5. Also regarding point Number 2, I have to say that each of the stories I've read so far ends pretty sweetly for the protagonist and her allies. They are clearly more the tales of Perrault charged with sexuality, than they are the tales of the Brothers Grimm. Mother Goose as madame in a swank Parisian bordello. There is almost, I dare say, a gentleness to these tales: below the blood, below the threat of violence, below the sexuality, below the threat of sexual violence. A layer of honey that Carter gradually exposes is possibly a weak metaphor I can use here. Yes, I seem to have done.

It's fine that I don't find these stories shocking, and that once I saw what Carter was doing I found the stories pretty and sweet. I didn't come to Angela Carter to be shocked or to be taught a lesson in the power of women over the hoary old tropes of male-dominated culture or for titillation. I picked up the book because I had heard that Ms Carter was a good writer, and I'd been peripherally aware of the collection for a good while and it seemed like it was time to read it. And I'm happy I am. Angela Carter is a good writer. Her sentences are gorgeous pieces of ornate jewelry, brilliant and hard and glittering away, and no matter how bizarre the sets and costumes in the tales, no matter how many beasts and perverts, you see after a short while that Carter is writing about humanity and vulnerability and how good it is, after all, to be good and brave and pure at heart. Which is, come to think of it, exactly what Mother Goose was trying to tell us in the first place.


  1. I think you summed up her stories beautifully. Thanks!

  2. I've said barely anything; I have to admit that I was prepared for these stories to be pretty lightweight and over-rated and I'm happy that didn't turn out to be the case. There's a lot going on in them that a single reading isn't going to reveal, so anything I say about Angela Carter is going to concern itself with the surface, the easy-to-see elements. But that's okay; I don't read in order to analyze the text so much as I read in order to have my awareness expanded. I'm a very selfish reader.

    I also read like a writer: as a gluttonous thief of technique. Imagine how pleased I am that there is so much good stuff out there to steal!