Essay | On Angela Carter by Sharlene Teo

Angela Carter, 1976; photograph by Fay Godwin

Sharlene Teo

On Angela Carter

I was thirteen when I first encountered The Bloody Chamber, back in the humid and claustrophobic childhood bedroom that I shared with my older sister in Bukit Timah, Singapore. I remember idly scanning my sister’s bookshelf; plywood, festooned with glow-in-the-dark plastic stars. I spotted a bent orange spine on the second shelf.

The cover of the worn thin paperback depicted a distressed woman in a blue blouse screaming from the window of a turret. At the foot of the tower was a sea of blood. Was this an entire book about the discomforts of menstruation, I wondered? I turned to the title story and began to read. The first sentence was a paragraph long, detailing literal and figurative transportation in a manner both breathlessly discursive and emotionally precise. The heroine describes lying awake in a train taking her ‘away from Paris, away from girlhood, away from the white, enclosed quietude of my mother’s apartment, into the unguessable country of marriage.’

To read Angela Carter is to be encased, even smothered, by a vivid sensory experience. Hers is a world of knowing winks and gross violations, carnal pleasures and displeasures, rustles of silk and pungent smells. ‘Bluebeard’ was a fairytale I already knew and feared from my well-thumbed compendium of Grimm’s Fairytales. I was familiar with its dark and cautionary conceits but ‘The Bloody Chamber’ transfigured the horrifically violent components of its source story into something luminous and gritty and entirely new, teeming with eroticism and moral ambiguity. As Jeanette Winterson describes, ‘what Angela Carter did with fairytales was to take the stories that we all know and turn them inside out. Make them into something that gave women back the power.’

In 2019 we are inundated with feminist retellings and female-centric narratives across literature, film and television— from Wonder Woman and Frozen to The Surface Breaks, Louise O’Neill’s lucid reimagining of The Little Mermaid and Madeline Miller’s brilliant Circe. The cultural and capitalistic consensus seems to indicate that strong, empowered female leads currently engage readers and audiences.

In 1979, the year that The Bloody Chamber was first published, Carter was not the first writer to tackle revisionist takes of fairy tales. Others, most notably Isak Dinisen (an acknowledged influence of Carter’s), Robert Coover and Anne Sexton, had published acclaimed retellings. What made The Bloody Chamber groundbreaking and singular, however, was the way it centred female sexuality and selfhood with an unapologetic, robust gusto, back when society wasn’t quite as commercially and critically embracing as it is now of feminist narratives. In a time when second-wave feminists were derided as bra-burning harpies, Carter’s openly gynocentric fiction was revelatory and iconoclastic.

In ‘The Company of Wolves’, Little Red Riding Hood gleefully beds the Big Bad Wolf. This plot-twist was declarative, and shocking, in its carnality and agency: ‘The girl burst out laughing; she knew she was nobody’s meat.’ Such a message of empowerment may seem commonplace in fiction now, but it certainly wasn’t in the 70s through to the late 90s. Carter transgressed the tropes of fairy tales for feminist ends, even if, as Joan Acocella of The New Yorker puts it, ‘her Freudian-influnced “mythic” subject-matter was out of step […] with the more Postmodern […] explorations of language, narrative and representation’ that dominated sales and prize shortlists.

The Bloody Chamber taught me about the liminal and uncanny long before I developed the critical vocabulary to describe such a spooky reading experience. My favourite story in the collection is ‘The Lady of the House of Love’, a doomed macabre romance between ‘the beautiful queen of the vampires’ whose ‘beauty is a synonym of her disorder, of her soullessness’ and a handsome ‘young officer in the British army’. The vampire queen is Mrs Havisham and Estella combined, both temptress and embalmed corpse, both ravishing and pathetic. The tragedy I experienced at the end of that story centred entirely upon the lady’s undoing: the instrument of it, the ‘handsome cyclist’ with a ‘lack of imagination’ is entirely secondary. The sense of creeping unsettlement experienced from reading that story spread into a murky but satisfying feeling of transcendence.

What Sigmund Freud termed ‘that class of frightening which leads back to what is known of old and long familiar’ manifests itself in the curtained interiors and the lurid and decaying mindscapes of Carter’s stories. The rich language seduces you and then pulls the rug from under your feet to reveal a trapdoor into a basement of ‘latent’ nightmares. Carter positioned herself as a ‘demythologising’ writer interested in unearthing the psychoanalytic content of folk and fairytales so as to ‘deal with the shifting structures of reality and sexuality.’  

As an ambivalently Christian schoolgirl growing up in the conservative, sanitised Singapore of the nineties and early 2000s, the sustained and overt sensuality of Carter’s sentences shocked and invigorated me. The stories revealed to me what voodoo language alone could do, shedding light on the dark avenues and madcap detours one could take with well-known narratives sanitised by time and popularity. As a student I produced many embarrassingly overwritten teenaged stories inspired by Carter’s retellings. I tried to take on a few of my favourite Chinese myths: reinterpreting ‘Sisters Island’ and ‘Madame White Snake’ from marginal perspectives; attempting a laughable effort at a queer ‘Sun Wukong’ best left buried in an old hard drive.

As a Chinese Singaporean with a toddler’s grasp of the Chinese language, trying to approach these traditional myths was my way of attempting some form of tentative reckoning with my own ethnic and linguistic heritage. I didn’t feel culturally excluded from the uncanny fictional framework of Carter’s stories even though they are steeped in a sort of Martian Englishness, or rather a recognisably European fairytale aesthetic turned darker and more ominous, yet playful at the same time. For all of their ornate diction, these stories don’t take themselves too seriously; there’s a sense of decadent relish to them, of mirth. I found Carter’s ‘profound sense of strangeness’ less alienating than the cosseted, fusty England I encountered in the novels of Jane Austen or Edith Wharton, a long ago and far away social realism governed by what I felt were imperialistic rituals of manners and decorum.

Only a writer of Carter’s verve and brio can pull off lines such as ‘some dark night of unimaginable lovers whose embraces were annihilation.’ Her rich and dense linguistic style is distinctive and easily identifiable, but it is hard to imitate well. What I find extraordinary about Carter’s literary voice is the confidence, empathy and fine eye she had for the chimerical potential of people, places and things. Thus only she is capable of producing such a syntactically pleasing and unforgettable line as the ending of ‘The Tiger’s Bride’: ‘My earrings turned back to water and trickled down my shoulders; I shrugged the drops off my beautiful fur.’ Her language and register is oftentimes baroque, but her powers to marry wit and shocking image are invoked with razor-sharp precision: ‘I’ll tell you what Jeanne was like. She was like a piano in a country where everybody had their hands cut off.’

After The Bloody Chamber I dove into other titles in Carter’s oeuvre; I was wowed by the farsighted dystopian narratives of The Passion of New Eve and The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman, dazzled by the sequined euphoria and backstage melancholy of Nights at the Circus, The Magic Toyshop and Wise Children. Carter’s aesthetic is one I’ve always envisioned as hazy, lurid and alluring. Hers is a world where the dank forests and sepulchral castles of bedtime stories and old nightmares bristle with erotic and taboo pleasures. Carter’s enduring influence on my tastes in film is undeniable. The sinister surrealism and psychoanalytically inflected sexiness of Belle de Jour and the film adaptation of Valerie and Her Week of Wonders are very Carteresque to me, and so, too, is the winking schlock and masked phantoms of Suspiria and other Giallo films. I’d even venture there is something Carteresque about Spirited Away or Howl’s Moving Castle, with their omniscient crones and magical doors, their psychedelic aesthetics of transformation and consumption.

Forty years since the publication of The Bloody Chamber, Carter’s literary influence continues. Marina Warner describes Carter’s literary impact as rewriting ‘the conventional script formed over centuries of acclimatising girls– and their lovers– to a status quo of captivity and repression, and issues a manifesto for alternative ways of loving, thinking and feeling.’ Writers such as Helen Oyeyemi, Julia Armfield, Intan Paramaditha, Lesley Nneka Arimah and Irenosen Okojie experiment with the tropes of fairytales and mythology to challenge the boundaries of conventional storytelling and cultural constructions of identity and sexuality. The speculative feminism of American writers such as Carmen Maria Machado, Ramona Ausubel, Diane Cook, Kristen Roupenian and Kelly Link evokes what Carter describes as a ‘restructuring of the way we perceive reality’ to open up radical new imaginaries.

In the aftermath of #MeToo, Carter’s subversive and incendiary approach to upending patriarchal myths and systems of power remains as relevant— and prescient— as ever. The sad and horrible accounts constantly emerging from the #MeToo movement signify the ubiquity of violence against women, but also the possibility of reclaiming these imbalances and dismantling the structures that uphold them. Carter once declared: ‘I am all for putting new wine in old bottles, especially if the pressure of the new wine makes the old bottles explode.’ Hers was a singular and dazzling literary voice that will continue to disrupt and ignite the imaginations of writer and readers for years to come.

Words by Sharlene Teo.

                                                  Sharlene Teo was born in Singapore in 1987. She has an LLB in Law from the University of Warwick and an MA in Creative Writing from the University of East Anglia, where she received the Booker Prize Foundation Scholarship and the David TK Wong Creative Writing award. She holds fellowships from the Elizabeth Kostova Foundation and the University of Iowa International Writing Program. In 2016, she won the inaugural Deborah Rogers Writer’s Award for Ponti, her first novel.

Sharlene Teo’s new story ‘The Legend of Bukit Merah (Redhill)’ will be read as part of Once Upon Our Times: Fairy Tales Retold at Southbank Centre’s London Literature Festival on 27 October. The festival runs 17 – 27 October.

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