Postmodernism in the arts notoriously starts from the premise that “anything goes,” but this is no great help if we are trying to find out what sort of fiction today is actually thought and spoken of as postmodernist. The expression has often been used about the books of Angela Carter, and so has the rather more easily definable term “magic realism.” Indeed when she first started to publish in the Sixties her novels were hailed in England as an enterprising native version of the kind of thing that was being done in North America by Thomas Pynchon and in South America by Gabriel García Márquez.
The link between magic realism and the more evasive concept of postmodernism in the novel probably was that everything goes: that the hitherto separable conventions of fantasy and realism, satire and social comment, could be fused together in a single permissive whole. The process was a very self-conscious one; the novelist knew exactly how new and up-to-date he or she was being, while at the same time being careful in an egalitarian way to avoid the more exclusive and old-fashioned label of “experimental”: the rigors of formalism were definitely out. But if this was postmodernism it could still be said to have been around for a long time, for critics were beginning to detect just the same brew of ingredients, even if less deliberately mingled, way back in the history of the novel. Looked at under modern eyes even The Mayor of Casterbridge, say, Hardy’s sturdy down-to-earth survey of the rise and fall in a country town of a man of character, begins to assume a fantastic aspect, with the author’s dreams and fears of failure and success clothing a fairy tale in the sober hues of business and property.
Fantasy, in short, can be seen as the basis of every novel: what matters today is the individual and original use made of it. Angela Carter scored high marks at that, from her first, Shadow Dance (1965), to her last, Wise Children. Although she is an enterprising and versatile writer, always exploring fresh themes, there is about all her novels a strong element of continuity, even communality, which may remind the reader of the claim often made for postmodernist art as “a single ongoing subcultural event” that does not distinguish between intimacy and togetherness, any more than between high art and pop art. Like other very capable modern authors Angela Carter is good at having it both ways, dressing up pop art in academic gear and presenting crude aspects of modern living in a satirically elegant style. In Love, her most effective and memorable novel of the Sixties, she cunningly drew a pair of youthful student hippies as a version of many traditional fraternal prototypes, including Ivan and Alyosha Karamazov. The brief novel is Dostoevskian in other ways, dramatizing a triangle of unbalanced passion and possessiveness and placing it in a squalid urban setting among students of the post–Lucky Jim type. Lee and Buzz are brothers, with an incestuous closeness between them, and Lee is pressured by her parents into marrying Annabel, who is trying to paint, and who already has episodes of madness.
The subsequent explosions leading to Annabel’s suicide as she lies in bed watched over by Buzz, who has fulfilled one of her desires by shrinkingly raping her, are done with a vigor and understanding that remain impressive today, even after such Gothic goingson in the novel have become commonplace. Carter controls the Gothic element, as well as her other literary devices, with characteristic brio, driving it firmly to a polemical end, and not indulging it for its own sake. Among other things Love is a vaudeville version of the Sixties, and of the young people seduced by the heady climate of the revolution seemingly so near at hand, and licensing in a communal setting whatever private violence was haunting them. A thoroughly professional artist, Carter obviously took what the fashions and emphases of an epoch sent her way. In her afterword to the revised edition of Love she imagines with rapid and sardonic precision the later lives of her youthful cast, who were
not quite the children of Marx and Coca-Cola, more the children of Nescafé and the Welfare State…the pure perfect products of those days of social mobility and sexual license.
In the epilogue we learn that Buzz has now come out of the closet and plays in New York punk bands, meanwhile dabbling in real estate “with some success.” Lee stays in dull old England, where he has found a bossy woman to patch him up after the trauma of his wife’s suicide; he teaches school and becomes responsible and respectable on sound socialist lines. He is devoted to his children and severe with them, his wife having little time for them, engrossed as she is with feminist concerns:
They row fiercely. The adolescent daughters in their attic room turn up the volume of the record player to drown the noise. Upstairs, the baby cries. The telephone rings. Rosie springs off to answer. It is the Women’s Refuge. She begins an animated conversation about wife-beating, raising two fingers to her husband in an obscene gesture….
Suddenly the whimpering baby yawns hugely, quiets and sleeps, looking all at once like a blessed infant.
The father kisses her moist meagre hair and lays her down upon her side. The older girls, trained in deference to her tyrannic sleeps, snap off their loud music but, cold-eyed strangers that they have become, continue to discuss in muted whispers their parents’ deficiencies as human beings.
Oh, the pain of it, thought Lee, thinking about his children, oh! the exquisite pain of unrequited love.
Note that the children of the flower children are all girls, preparing in their unillusioned and disenchanted way to lead their own styles of life. In its vigorous way the novel celebrates the Sixties but also moves on from them, questing for new directions. It is also very funny at moments about sex, briskly aware that many happy solutions in this sphere have led to so many yet darker complications. Poor near-psychotic Buzz is excluded from what seem to the young its newly liberated joys.
“Open your legs,” he said. “Let me look.”
…Buzz crouched between her feet, and scrutinised as much as he could see of her perilous interior to find out if all was in order and there were no concealed fangs or guillotines inside her to ruin him. Although he found no visual evidence, he remained too suspicious of her body to wish to meet her eyes.
The notion of the “perilous interior,” with its medieval and literary antecedents in perilous chapels and seas, affords Carter and her readers some subliminal amusement; but although she is sorry for Buzz she sticks even here to the party line: instructing us that female bodies must not be treated as objects. Still less of course as mechanical traps. Indeed if there is a common factor in the elusive category of the postmodern novel it is political correctness: whatever spirited arabesques and feats of descriptive imagination Carter may perform she always comes to rest in the right ideological position.
This was the case with her other dazzling performances in the Sixties’ milieu: The Magic Toyshop, which was made into a film, The Passion of New Eve, Heroes and Villains. She shows great brilliance in updating literary and social stereotypes, and up-ending them as well. She herself invoked Benjamin Constant’s Adolphe as the model for the doomed relationship described in Love. (Adolphe, as it happens, was also made very conscious use of in one of Anita Brookner’s quietly perceptive fictions. Constant would recognize his hero and heroine in her fictional milieu but hardly in that of Carter.) And another bygone French author, Charles Perrault, would be surprised at the use Carter has made of the fairy tales he collected and popularized in his own elegant tongue. The stereotypes of Red Riding Hood and Bluebeard’s wife have had their roles very much reversed in Carter’s lively storybook The Bloody Chamber (1979). Perrault’s tales, like their venerable originals, reveal the cheerful but often chilling matter-of-factness of the implicit horror, the time-honored suspense and relief: “Sister Anne, sister Anne, do you see anyone coming?” and “All the better to eat you with!”
Carter not only switches her narrative into the wholly explicit but turns the passive predicament of the heroine into one in which the convention of female role-playing seems to have no part, only brisk and derisive common sense, the best feminine tactic in a tight corner. Her Red Riding Hood is a slyly confident adolescent, removing her clothes with a sneer to enter the wolf’s bed. When he speaks the hallowed formula, “All the better to eat you with!” “the girl burst out laughing: she knew she was nobody’s meat.” The wolf is not discomfited, but being a politically correct animal at heart he enfolds her in an egalitarian embrace, and they go blissfully to sleep in the eaten-up granny’s bed.
Bluebeard’s latest wife is equally cool-headed in her sexual collusion with the demon lover who is both father and husband. Interestingly, Carter’s new-style heroines have one point in common with many of their prototypes in fairy tales: they could come from any country and belong to any class. Carter’s brand of magic realism is also a democratic magic. In her introduction and arrangement of the stories collected in her anthology, The Old Wives’ Fairy Tale Book, she distinguished between the different traditional feminine categories: natural witches; bad, because resourceful, girls; “good girls and where it gets them.” The same enlightening categorization is to be found in her essays and theoretical writings, Nothing Sacred and The Sadeian Woman: An Exercise in Cultural History, The latter is a sardonic study of the two types who have supplied the mainstay of pornographic literature: the virtuous and therefore helpless girl, and the wicked lady. They are the Justine and Juliette of de Sade’s fiction; and Carter’s arguments emphasize that de Sade performed an important service in drawing attention by pornographic means to the tyranny that such man-made stereotypes imposed on women of the time, and for centuries before and since. As Voltaire satirized in Candide the fate of innocence and optimism in a wicked world, so de Sade revealed the fate of all women, who in a man’s world had no choice but to be what men required. Justine was the stereotype of the abused wife, and Juliette the seductively wicked prostitute mistress.
Carter’s essays are as vigorous as her fiction, but necessarily dated now that such insights have become received wisdom and thus commonplace. However “correct” Carter’s novels may be they all demonstrate the brio and originality of true personal talent, as she showed by excursions into her own style of science fiction—Heroes and Villains and The Infernal Desire Machines of Dr. Hoffman. Although written with all her ebullience these books seem to me less memorable than earlier novels like Love and to be more purely “performance” novels, designed to appeal to a diverse audience.
Another of postmodernism’s purely negative qualifications is that it is not “elitist”: that is to say does not possess the kinds of private and individual distinction which recommend themselves to a small audience. Heroes and Villains is a romp allegory appealing to everyone suspicious of such minority tastes, for the heroine is a professor’s daughter who has to live down that stigma by being captured by a beautiful barbarian and carried away to a paradise of primitivism, sex, and greenery. Carter uses a scenario similar to those of Swift or Orwell but without any apparent irony (irony is necessarily elitist because some may not see the point) although—to be fair—irony comes into her work of science fiction, The Infernal Desire Machines of Dr. Hoffman, in which a war is fought against the diabolic doctor who wants to destroy the “reality principle.” A grotesque embodiment of the male principle, Dr. Hoffman is a mad scientific deconstructionist, part Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, part Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor.
In 1985 Carter’s first experiment in radio drama produced Come Unto These Yellow Sands, based on the unnervingly beautiful fairy paintings of Richard Dadd, the Victorian artist who went mad and killed his father. She even spoke of “re-inventing” the paintings of Jackson Pollock with the same kind of drama performance, remarking in her cheerful way, “That would be a challenge.” Meanwhile she exploited her talent for colorful and rollicking vaudeville plots in Nights at the Circus and in her latest—and, alas, last—novel, Wise Children. Carter’s imagination has always been inspired by a stage ambiance, and the kinds of living that go with it, but Wise Children also associates itself with a new sort of fashion in fiction, one very effectively exemplified by two short and modest English novels recently reviewed by me in these pages: David Lodge’s Paradise News and Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Gate of Angels.* It is well-known that in the novel a good man is hard to find: one of the most convincing appeared a long time back in Saul Bellow’s Mr. Sammler’s Planet. With the two other English novels Wise Children sets out on the same journey, to explore the quality and desirability of virtue, the nature of the honnête homme or the honnête femme.
Carter’s honest narrator in Wise Children is one of a pair of twins who have spent their lives in show business: the London music halls when young, and Hollywood in their later years. Inspired no doubt by the Dolly Sisters, a charming photo of whom decorates the cover, these heroines were conceived and born in unprepossessing circumstances, their mother being a waif of the stage door known as Pretty Kitty. Throughout an eventful lifetime the pair have remained innocents at heart, and virtuous as well, although not, of course, in what used to be the technical sense. Carter sets herself to demonstrate that the jungle law of the casting couch and the tawdry world of stage and screen can nonetheless be pure at heart, peopled not by tigers but by does and fauns, creatures who may be grotesque but are also endearing. It says much for Carter’s literary charm and drive that she makes this seem perfectly possible. Her own brand of magic seems to infect her cast, and to make them believe in the magical reality of the tinsel and trappings in their hard-worked lives.
Literary models lurk as usual in the background. Dickens would at once have seen the point of Wise Children, and might have suggested calling the pub where its characters meet, “The Twelve Jolly Thespians,” after his own Thames-side pub in Our Mutual Friend. Carter has also skillfully taken a leaf out of J.B. Priestley’s best seller of the Twenties, The Good Companions, stripping its romance of sentimentality and giving its hearty fellowship the proper party line. She is also well aware that bewitching foundlings are a sure hit with any audience. Dora and Nora Chance—it is the first named who writes the record—have been on the boards from their tenderest years up to the moment when Nora begins to throw her heart away “as if it were a used bus ticket.”
She had it off first with the pantomime goose, when we were Mother Goose’s goslings that year in Newcastle upon Tyne. The goose was old enough to be her father and Grandma would have plucked him, stuck an apple up his bum and roasted him if she had found out, and so would the goose’s wife, who happened to be principal boy….
The goose had Nora up against the wall in the alley outside the stage door one foggy night, couldn’t see your hand in front of your face, happily for them. You don’t get fogs like that, these days….
Don’t be sad for her. Don’t run away with the idea that it was a squalid, furtive, miserable thing, to make love for the first time on a cold night in a back alley with a married man with strong drink on his breath. He was the one she wanted, warts and all, she would have him…while I stood shivering on the edge like the poor cat in the adage.
But we never found out she was pregnant until she lost it in Nottingham, the Royalty, when she haemorrhaged during a fouetté, we were a pair of spinning tops. Nothing like real blood in the middle of the song-and-dance act. It was long past pantomime, the goose gone off to Glasgow to do a Chu Chin Chow, he never wrote. Nora cried her eyes out but not because she’d lost the goose…. No. She wept the loss of the baby.
Oh, my poor Nora! She was a martyr to fertility.
“Nothing like real blood in the middle of the song-and-dance-act.” Carter has always been keen on blood as a symbol of sexual emancipation. The wolf-girl from her updated fairy stories in The Bloody Chamber is inducted via menstruation into a correct and liberated social and sexual awareness. The title Wise Children is reminiscient of that controversial 1970s study of the subject called The Wise Wound, which equated the feminine cycle with all the female virtues opposing male violence and aggressiveness. But it is only fair to say that in Wise Children the men are as warm-hearted and as essentially humane as the women. Nora and Dora Chance turn out to be the illegitimate children of—who else?—Sir Melchior Hazard, the greatest Shakespearean actor of the day, whose hundredth birthday celebrations lead to the novel’s inevitably hilarious climax. The reader more or less immune to stage charms may have experienced a certain amount of tedium by then, but it has been a gallant show, the cast supported by a producer nicknamed Genghiz Khan, and an elfin Irish alcoholic and scriptwriter who becomes Dora’s boyfriend, possibly even the love of her life.
As she grows older Dora’s mellowing mimetic arts let slip the occasional Wildean epigram such as “Every woman’s tragedy is that after a certain age she looks like a female impersonator.” One of Carter’s chief talents has been to help create a new kind of persona for real women to copy. The Carter girl of the Eighties, with her sound principles, earthy humor, and warm heart, has become a recognizable type: in a sense all too recognizable, for if you are not like that by nature you have to work hard at maintaining the pose. In Carter’s latest writing the show is the thing, and as every pantomime-goer knows, putting on a prodigious warmth of heart for the benefit of the kiddies can look like and even be the real thing. Dora’s solid eighteen-carat whimsy rejoices in “laughter, forgiveness, generosity, reconciliation,” and also in the welltimed wink with which she tells us such things will be “hard to swallow, huh?” Not necessarily. Wise Children is very readable, though it may not appeal to admirers of Carter who prefer her in a more wild and provocative mood.
The stage is the beginning of sincerity, as Oscar Wilde might have said. Carter’s questing intelligence and the theatrical virtuosity of her language have greatly assisted her championing of new ideas and causes. But would her fictions invite a second reading, or does the vitality die in the performance? Would she continue to move us? Love may have the edge there, for its forlorn trio lingers in the mind with the pathos of those abandoned in a former lifestyle, although she sought in her afterword to bring them up to date. The impact of her plots and her prose can nonetheless seem to coincide too exactly with what enthusiasts and publicists say about them. No one who reads the glittering superlatives on a novel’s jacket expects to find them precisely mirrored by the writing inside, and it is a trifle disconcerting to find in a Carter novel just those “stylish, erotic, nightmarish jewels of prose,” and “a colourful embroidery of religion and magic,” which reviews and blurb had promised. A process of inflation seems unavoidable.
In one of her Common Reader essays Virginia Woolf remarked of Jane Austen’s juvenilia that they contained phrases and sentences clearly intended to outlast the Christmas festivities for which they had been written. However effective and well done they may be, few novels today seem aware of the old canonical notion of “good writing”: they can even seem programmed for auto-destruction and replacement by more of the same. In postmodernist terms that is not necessarily a bad thing. It indicates that the job has been done, the point made. Archetypal narrative is founded on what is written but unspoken; modern narrative on what is said and claimed, and therefore can be superseded. Even when transmitted through the warm-hearted wisdom of Dora Chance, Carter’s own message is unmistakable; the same could be said of her rewritten fantasies and fairy stories. Told by Grimm or Perrault, or even by Andrew Lang in his “Fairy Books,” blue, green, and red, those old tales remain free and enigmatic. Retold by Angela Carter, with all her supple and intoxicating bravura, they become committed to the preoccupations and to the fashions of our moment. When Beauty is in the power of the Beast, in his baroque sinister palacé, she cannot help letting out “a raucous guffaw: no young lady laughs like that! my old nurse used to remonstrate.” In Carter’s pages all young ladies do.
A room of one’s own, or a bloody chamber? The new role model for women may seem to deny them the literary gift of privacy. But it is sad that so gifted a writer as Angela Carter, who died of cancer in February at the early age of fifty-one, will not be continuing to explore and define her new worlds in fiction. Her great talents would certainly have come up with new surprises. They say that wise children know their own fathers, and she certainly knew hers, while rejecting any concept of patriarchy. Jane Austen and the Virginia Woolf of Orlando and The Waves would have recognized her as one of themselves and been greatly interested by her books, although they might have missed in them the privacy and individuality, the more secret style of independence, which they valued as much as good writing, and which is the supreme gift to us of their novels. Carter’s achievement shows how a certain style of good writing has politicized itself today, constituting itself as the literary wing of militant orthodoxy.
This was of course not true of an earlier generation of “magical” writers like Nabokov, Borges, or Calvino, who assumed that male experience was central. Margaret Atwood, author of The Handmaid’s Tale, has written movingly of Carter as the fairy godmother who herself so wonderfully looked the part, seeming to offer a talisman which would guide her friends and readers through enchanted forests and charmed doors. For Atwood, Carter was the supreme subversive; but the magic talisman of female subversion, though it could turn even de Sade’s victims into early feminists, was also an ambiguous gift, making imagination itself the obedient handmaid of ideology. That would not worry many in the latest generation of critics, who read literature past and present by the light of political correctness. But Carter’s new woman combines correctness with being a sort of jolly feminine Tom Jones, what Carmen Callil in a loving obituary has called “the vulgarian as heroine.” “Wise Children,” she continued, “is a novel of Thatcher’s Britain, a Britain split in two.” This of course may not be of great interest to Europe or America, but Mrs. Thatcher as the national anti-heroine certainly looms in the background of Carter’s work. She and Angela Carter could be seen as making a new heraldic opposition on the royal crest: the lion and the unicorn still fighting for the crown.
April 23, 1992