BOOKS: Angela Carter – ‘The Bloody Chamber’

“She herself is a haunted house. She does not possess herself; her ancestors sometimes come and peer out of the windows of her eyes”

After picking through stories in this collection online in the past few years since discovering that the band Wolf Alice took their name from one of them, I finally sat down and read the whole thing for the purpose of my dissertation… (EXCITING!!!) Wolf-Alice and Wise Children were my gateways into the astounding works of Angela Carter, through whom I’m now engrossed for life in un-realism and everything postmodern. I’m ironically at a loss to articulate the incredible vision she creates with words, and I’m certain if only she were here she could so accurately and succinctly find the ones I’m looking for. I’ve long since studying Wise Children in a Modernism & Postmodernism unit last year conceived the idea of writing a kind of magical realist creative non-fiction about growing up in a place that lends itself entirely to being rendered a surreal microcosmic experiment, but that’s for another day. Back to The Chamber – this short story collection consists of ten twisted fairytales across 150 pages, which is of course easily broken down and read in chunks for those who, like me, are eternally daunted by full novels even when it is their full-time ‘job’ to study them.

The collection begins with The Bloody Chamber from which the book takes its title: this is the longest, but still beautifully bite-sized, story at 43 pages. It’s also the most useful story for my dissertation idea which is pleasing, as it’s definitely one of my favourites. The story recounts a poor young girl, who is preyed on by a much older nobleman, and who is taken for his fourth wife. She is swiftly moved into his grand floating castle where it transpires that she does not actually end up spending much time. The tale marks the beginning of a running theme throughout the book of ‘rags to riches’ young women who come from modest backgrounds, come into money (mostly through men – husbands or fathers) but eventually come to learn that wealth does not equal richness. This goes hand-in-hand with explicit characterisations linking poverty with goodness and wealth with evil. The influence of various incarnations of Little Red Riding Hood is easily detected in many of the stories, as each contain one or more of mentions of forests, wolves, and young girls as ‘prey’ figures. The collection is revered for its strong feminist subversions of classic fairytales, though I was reading from a Marxist/anti-Capitalist angle in accordance with my studies – a viewpoint that Carter threads throughout her works but is largely overlooked in her criticisms.

The Courtship of Mr Lyon continues in this vein, unfolding with the idea that Mr Lyon’s riches do not make him happy, and when Beauty comes into money too, nor does it make her. It concludes that Beauty was more contented with the gift of a single white rose, while Lyon required love and companionship over his golden fixtures and crystal chandeliers to feel complete. The story also forewarns of the misery of forfeiting what you love for the sake of greed, after Lyon demands the company of his daughter when Beauty’s father loses everything they have while gambling. The father worries he will lose his daughter forever and Beauty worries for her safety due to this risk; though thankfully the story culminates in an unexpectedly happy ending.

The Erl-King is possibly the story which most intrigued me. I theorised at the end when the King is killed that the narrator is Mother Nature and the story symbolised the destruction and death of nature, which is represented by both the King and the narrator. As in – Mother Nature created humans who are killing the earth. Whether this be the case or not, it’s disconcerting that the King refers to the narrator as ‘Mother’ when they have a sexual relationship… Next up, the shortest story at less than three pages, The Snow Child, is the most compact and loaded tale about jealousy, fantasy and fidelity in marriage; and possibly, forgiveness and learning from mistakes. It sets a precedent for the forthcoming tales which present themes of female rivalry and its consequences.

The last three stories of the collection are stories of wolves: The Werewolf, The Company of Wolves, and Wolf-Alice. The Werewolf combines the traditional ‘Wolf’ and ‘Grandma’ characters of Little Red Riding Hood to create one supernatural-inspired being which intends harm to the young girl character, who through being in-touch with her senses and environment, outwits the beast. The story is interesting in that Carter presents not only a woman as the danger to the girl, but also her own relative. The idea of female rivalry dominates and it leads only to death and loss – nothing good can come of jealousy and ill-intentions. The girl uses knowledge, cunning and limited resources to overcome her obstacles without remorse to become a successful independent woman; colluding with the book’s feminist and anti-Bourgeois overtones.

As in The Werewolf, The Company of Wolves is set in a desolate, cold and poverty-stricken mountainous region where wolves present a serious threat to the inhabitants. Again, there is the absence of any care from the girl towards her grandmother’s death, who again meets an untimely end though this time at the hands of the male werewolf who has seduced her granddaughter. Carter is clearly criticising the overarching female rivalry she saw in common culture; still perpetuated today by the likes of the Kardashians (perfectly demonstrating how it’s done between even blood relatives) and reality TV on the whole (see: Real Housewives, Made in Chelsea, TOWIE…). Here, however, it is not success or the desire to be the most beautiful or young that motivates the child’s ambivalence toward her fellow woman and own grandmother’s death but the affections of a man; an old rhetoric of sisterly rivalry that we are all well-versed in.

Finally, Wolf-Alice concludes the ‘Wolf’ trilogy with an altogether different twist, depicting a girl who is raised by wolves and taken into human care after her adoptive wolf mother is killed. The nuns at the convent where she is sent to be civilised soon grow tired of her wild antics and their inability to humanise her, and dispatch her to live with a mysterious reclusive Duke who transpires to be a werewolf, but features many conventions of a classic vampire (no reflection, feeding on humans). Unlike the traditional werewolf or vampire, he has no reaction to holy water or crucifixes. The story borrows the notion of ‘stepping through the looking glass’ as in Lewis Carroll’s Alice Through the Looking Glass: the girl eventually realises her humanity through recognising that her mirror reflection is in fact herself and not another being. This opens up a whole new world to her, in which she is able to help the Duke regain his own sense of humanity and self, leading to the riddance of his beastliness. Wolf-Alice realises her own potential and power through coming to understand herself, and it is then that she is able to help others.

I’m greatly excited to read and analyse the rest of Carter’s works! The Bloody Chamber is a beautiful introduction to her stories for beginners: they are both thoughtful and thought-provoking with effortless articulation of all the tiny overlooked details of everyday life, picked up and placed in the magical as if they ARE. Already in my limited reading of Carter I’ve developed a bad habit of trying to locate Reality in Magical Reality and so often succeed (by my terms) that I now find it extremely difficult to differentiate the two…