Inspiring Older Readers
The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter
When The Bloody Chamber, Angela Carter’s collection of stories based on fairy tales, was published in 1979 it was seen as shocking, erotic and transgressive. In the radical spirit of the times, many saw the stories as offering a feminist twist on the original fairy stories. But Carter herself is on record as saying that her intention was not to offer fairy tales in new modernised feminist versions but rather to “extract the latent content from the traditional stories and to use it as the beginnings of new stories”. I think she’s right to make this distinction for this is the real strength of these stories – Carter took from these frequently sanitised fairy stories their dark, glittering, cruel, sensuous and often gothic tones and wove them into superb new stories.
I was reminded recently of The Bloody Chamber when I watched Jude Ho’s excellent documentary, Angela Carter: Of Wolves and Women, which was shown by the BBC in August 2018. I suddenly realised how long it had been since I had read any Angela Carter at all – and decades since I had last read any of her short stories. I pulled The Bloody Chamber off the shelf with no real recollection at all of what lay between its covers.
Written at various times throughout the 70s and published in a variety of small magazines and national glossies (such as Vogue), one must acknowledge that there is a slight degree of repetition. There are two stories based on Beauty and the Beast (and to my mind, the second in the collection, The Tiger’s Bride, is the stronger), and four based broadly on Nosferatu and werewolves (with a glance to Little Red Riding Hood). Of these, although it was Company of Wolves which was filmed to great acclaim by Neil Jordan in the mid-80s, by far the strongest of these stories is the longer The Lady of the House of Love. If there is any criticism to be made, then, it is that a fractionally tighter edit would have made for an even stronger book of stories.
But that slight weakness aside, the opening The Bloody Chamber (based on Bluebeard), The Tiger’s Bride, the wonderfully funny, charming and raunchy Puss-in-Boots, The Lady of the House of Love and The Company of Wolves are amongst Carter’s finest work. They offer tremendous and beautifully wrought prose and also highlight the fact that Carter was probably at her greatest as a miniaturist.
What I especially love about these stories is that they can be read at a number of different levels. Yes, of course they echo classic fairy stories that the vast majority of us are familiar with to one degree or another, but because they aren’t slavish retellings, they often echo several fairy stories at once or combine elements that seem to be begging to be rolled together – Little Red Riding Hood, wolves and werewolves, for instance. But the best go beyond this, deftly building up additional layers of meaning and resonance. For example, in The Lady of the House of Love, the young man who narrowly avoids becoming yet another victim of Nosferatu’s bride is protected in part by the ‘invisible pentacle’ of his virginity, but also by the fact that ‘he is more than he knows’:
‘…[he] has about him, besides, the special glamour of that generation for whom history has already prepared a special, exemplary fate in the trenches of France.’
Carter’s instinctive handling of these kinds of details adds greater emotional depth to stories which in other hands would remain merely fantastical.
Feminist readings of literature – including myth, legend, fairy and folk tales –are now commonplace but Carter was there first, I believe, and what she does in these stories has stood the test of time because they are not academic literary experiments but genuine works of art. Yes, she effortlessly weaves in gender politics, sexual identity and male power, but never at the expense of imagination, drama, narrative drive, human depth, emotional resonance – the real stuff of short stories. You can find the collection as originally published (The Bloody Chamber & Other Stories) or in the more recent Burning Your Boats, which collects all Carter’s short stories into a single volume.
There are links to other articles about Angela Carter elsewhere on Letterpress: