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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.
She had been prepared to love it, but there was not very much to love. She had never seen a baby so thin and wizened. Its face was just creases, thick with down. It had the finest, darkest, sourest lips, disapproving anciently, godlikely, distantly. It had the look of a lamb born badly, of a baby bird fallen from the nest – that doomed look, holy and lifeless, swollen-eyed, retreated too far into itself to be awakened.
I have a confession to make. I have been running scared of this book for years now. Neil Gaiman’s jacket quote – “One of my favourite books in ages…powerful and moving”, – screamed at me from the shop shelves, but I kept on walking. See when Tender Morsels was first published, I read a review which described the opening chapters of this book. Margo Lanagan is a fearless writer, who does not shy away from disturbing material, in this instance rape and incest.
I cannot remember the newspaper in question, but I recall putting it down shuddering and making myself a promise never to read this book. I have said it here before, but as a child I read The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, which left me deeply distressed. Even as an adult I did not want to revisit such matters in my reading.
My confession is that I was very wrong to avoid this book for so long.
Ever since Liga’s mother died, she has been trapped in a small hut with her drunken abusive father. Terrorised and humiliated by him, made to think that she is worthless, stupid and wanton, her father’s cruel taunting breaks her will as he repeatedly rapes her, convincing the teenage girl that his actions are her fault entirely. Longfield keeps his child in ignorance even of the children he begets on her, employing local witch Muddy Annie to supply different kinds of potions and treatments designed to abort them. When her father abruptly dies, Liga is left alone and vulnerable, delivering the one child he failed to kill. She continues to live in the family home, tries to keep to herself, but isolated in the forest she soon falls victim to more brutal outrages.
At her lowest hour, Liga is visited by a strange being, who transports her to another world that in appearance is not that different, and yet those whom she hates are not party to this private heaven. There is plenty of food to eat and comfort to be had. Liga raises two daughters, Branza and Urdda, in this realm where innocence is not punished and childhood is preserved in a permanent state of grace.
As the years pass, others find their way into Liga’s world. The borders between the real world – cruel, callous and full of pain – and this lifelike fantasy realm – where kindness is everywhere and the welfare of Liga’s family prized by both people and animals alike – erode. These strangers seek to exploit the fairy-tale world and threaten the innocence of Branza and Urdda. The two girls react differently to the temptations offered by the ‘real world’, and it is left to Liga to decide whether she will let her daughters return, or whether she will face the horrors buried in her past.
I cannot state this strongly enough – this book is marvellous. Lanagan’s Grimm Fairy Tale is a masterpiece of repressed sexuality and symbolism. Magic is shown to be a means not only to escape the pain of this world, but a tool to be employed to improve it. There are even conniving dwarves and bear-men, although they are quite different from the standards of fairy tales.
Reminiscent of Angela Carter‘s equally revisionist The Bloody Chamber, Tender Morsels is no mere parody. The dialogue is delivered in an unusual pidgin English, that can seem at times childlike, yet at other points deeply threatening. Time and space are rendered fluid by the border between the two worlds and some who cross over assume their actions in Liga’s world are little more than drunken visions, excusing them of any responsibility. Lovers parted by the divide age at different speeds.
For me though the most beautiful scene is Liga refusing the fantasy offered to her by the entity, insisting that she does not deserve it, only to realize that her daughter does and more.
Rich in symbolism and incisive psychological detail, a modern day fairy tale with incredible punch from a visionary Australian author.