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I saw him watching me in the gilded mirrors with the assessing eye of a connoisseur inspecting horseflesh, or even of a house-wife in the market, inspecting cuts on the slab. I’d never seen, or else had never acknowledged, that regard of his before, the sheer carnal avarice of it; and it was strangely magnified by the monocle lodged in his left eye. When I saw him look at me with lust, I dropped my eyes but, glancing away from him, I caught sight of myself in the mirror. And I saw myself, suddenly, as he saw me, my pale face, the way the muscles in my neck stuck out like thin wire. I saw how much that cruel necklace became me. And, for the first time in my innocent and confined life, I sensed in myself a potentiality for corruption that took my breath away.
The next day, we were married.
I found myself in the unusual position of being scolded by this book’s introduction, written by Helen Simpson. “The Bloody Chamber is often wrongly described as a group of traditional fairy tales given a subversive feminist twist. In fact, these are new stories, not re-tellings.” Well shut my mouth! I have been going around for years saying, oh, I really want to read this book by Angela Carter. It’s like a feminist retelling of fairy tales. Sounds amazing.
Apparently I was wrong.
Well I am happy to take those lumps, but I might argue that bringing to the fore the sexuality of these heroines in Carter’s fairy tales is feminist insofar as it presents their sexuality as relevant to the text.
Consider the title story, which opens with a young woman travelling to meet her fiancé, with due attention paid to the ‘pounding’ of her heart and the ‘thrusting’ pistons of the train bearing her ‘away from girlhood, away from the white, enclosed quietude of my mother’s apartment, into the unguessable country of marriage.’ The story continues in this elegiac style, risking accusations of being overwritten, but Carter is obviously having wicked fun with this tale of a woman who discovers her new husband carries a dark secret. The Bloody Chamber flirts with the divide between sex and death, the marital consummation equated with ritual murder, the narrator unquestioningly pulled this way and that as if by tidal forces between her mother and her husband.
The following stories, The Courtship of Mr Lyon and The Tiger’s Bride both address the same source material, a recurring technique within this collection, namely Beauty and the Beast. The first story appeals to the high romance of the tale, especially in its numeroues retellings. The second riffs on a cruder sense of humour and explores the venality of ‘Belle’s’ father in losing his daughter to the Beast, not to mention her own knowing mockery of his intentions towards her.
The Company of Wolves, most famously adapted by Neil Jordan, The Werewolf and Wolf-Alice, the last story in this collection, are all riffs on different aspects of the Little Red Riding Hood story. A similar separation, as with the previous stories depicting different aspects of Belle, is attempted here. The young heroine appears either as an innocent, a woman who uses the desire of the wolf to survive, or a more lupine creature herself.
Puss-in-Boots is transformed into a bawdy farce about a young lover and his feline valet. ‘So all went right as ninepence and you never saw such boon companions as Puss and his master; until the man must needs go fall in love.’ A rich vein of cynicism is explored in this story, with romance simply another scam, another challenge for the wicked pair.
My favourite of the bunch has to be The Lady of the House of Love. This is an extremely funny take on the traditional vampire myth, with a lonely undead Countess feeding on young men who pass through the abandoned village beneath her castle. Until one day, a cyclist on leave from the war arrives to drink from the fountain and is directed by the castle’s maid to visit. Instead of being seduced by the grandeur and ostentation of the abode, he sees nothing but mould and decaying furniture. Completely devoid of imagination he is immune to the charms of the vampire. I learned on the weekend that this young hero was apparently based on an artist neighbour of Carter’s. Quite the poison pen she had.
Deliciously wicked and very funny.
I have read Bruno Bettelheim on fairy tales, as well as Sigmund Freud’s take on E.T.A. Hoffmann, Jung on mythical archetypes – do you ever suspect that they are missing the point? That on a basic level these are stories to be enjoyed by an audience looking for a little magic and whimsy in their lives, not psychoanalytic metaphors for our unconscious desires. If you ever have the chance, read the original French version of Le Petit Chaperon Rouge. It is a horror story really, taking an almost malicious delight in the tragic fate of Little Red Riding Hood. That feeling of dismay evoked by the final line of the story ‘and gobbled her up’, is the goal of the story. As entertainment it holds greater meaning than a desiccated moral imperative.
This is something that Linda Medley understands. Castle Waiting mixes and matches different fairy tales into a large jumble, a story containing many other stories, without pausing to consider the metaphorical meaning of each symbol, or archetype employed. What I find most interesting is that the title actually identifies the main character of the series (this large and beautifully presented collection is only volume one of an ongoing comic book) – the enchanted castle itself from the Sleeping Beauty story. Characters come and go, but it is the castle itself that remains constant.
Originally the king and queen of the castle ruled over a town known as Putney. They were both wise and fair and the inhabitants of the town were content. Unfortunately no royal heir had yet been produced and so the king travelled to visit a wise woman, who was in fact a white witch. Promising to help the royal couple conceive, the good witch Mother Medora and her dozen or so sisters (who all have names beginning with ‘m’, alliteration is a recurring theme in this book) set about making the necessary arrangements.
Medora had yet another sister, an evil black witch named Mald, who was insulted by the king’s slight. Accompanied by her demon familiar Leeds she sets about avenging herself on the royal family and so the tale of Sleeping Beauty plays out as in the familiar way. The castle of Putney is surrounded by impenetrable vines for a hundred years and the people of the town eventually leave. An handsome prince arrives at the appointed time, wakes the slumbering princess and then, to the dismay of the castle’s surviving inhabitants, she just takes off with her handsome lover!
Bereft of king or queen, the people of the castle try to go about their affairs as best they can. As the years pass they are joined by other adventurers and wanderers, such as Adjutant Rackham (who resembles a stork in a suit), Sir Chess (a well-built knight with the head of a horse), Sister Peace of the Order Solicitine (a most unique nunnery, whose history occupies the latter half of this volume), the plague-obsessed Dr Fell and finally Jain, who escapes from a loveless marriage seeking out the legendary Castle Waiting, known as a place of refuge.
Jain identifies herself as the Countess of Carabas and much of her past remains a mystery, including the parentage of the green-skinned infant she gives birth to at the castle. While the story of a pregnant lady travelling alone across the countryside looking for a place of legend might be thought to have an inevitable bad ending, Medley acknowledges the dangers faced by Jain on the road, while also relating her adventures with gentle humour. This has been described as a feminist retelling of fairy tales, which it obviously is, but it is also quite an affectionate and loving one. The principal characters are mostly women who have faced hard times, yet still laugh at their lot in life.
Slowly but surely Sister Peace becomes the centre of attention, with her stories of life with travelling performers, religious orders of bearded ladies and her flirtatious rivalry with the demon Leeds confirming her as a vivacious and bemused woman of God.
Medley’s art resembles the style of Jeff Smith, whose book Bone is a particular favourite of mine, perfectly accompanying the warm storytelling. Castle Waiting is also comparable to that series due to its use of contemporary dialogue, but Medley goes even further, introducing many aspects of our world into her fantasy concoction. Jain is even shown reading a copy of The Wonderful World of Oz at one point.
A beautifully captured fantasy world.