The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter
Angela Carter, we meet at last. I’ve been getting recommended Carter’s books for years now—during my trip to Ireland with my college, I actually bought a copy of The Night Circus because it was gorgeous and on sale. But I haven’t gotten around to it, because of my habit of holding onto books I own as a sort of stockpile against finding myself without access to a library at any point in my life. But given that my keen interest in the art of adaptation was fired up by my recent viewing of Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby, it was time to finally pick up The Bloody Chamber. Luckily, it was a library book, or I never would have gotten around to it.
The Bloody Chamber is a collection of fairy tale retellings… well, in Carter’s eyes, they’re not retellings, but, rather, attempts “to extract the latent content from the traditional stories”. These decidedly adult extractions include riffs on “Bluebeard”, “Beauty and the Beast”, “Puss in Boots”, “The Snow Child”, and “The Little Red Riding Hood”. Some are set in the modern age; others are decidedly in the medieval past. These female heroines find the forces of darkness at work both within and without them—when the wolves (or the evil husband or the evil father) come nipping at their heels, can they escape? Or is escape really what they want?
The Bloody Chamber’s subtitle, at least on my 1976 copy from the library (I adore checking out old books), is “and other adult tales”, underscored by the almost whimsical but still dark eroticism of the cover. (…it was the seventies. I have a poor grasp on that decade.) I am sure Carter has been accused of sexualizing children’s stories for shock value and titalliation, but, of course, the dark, sexual undercurrent of all of these stories were there in the first place. Fairy tales are cautionary tales (as you can see in my collection, Cautionary Tales!), and policing sexual behavior is one of humanity’s favorite things to do. Particularly, the policing of the sexuality of young women, who almost entirely compose Carter’s cast of protagonists.
Here, Carter not only invests the sexuality of these young women with some agency (there’s still two stories that highlight men practicing necrophilia on the corpses of young women) but also, interestingly enough, their virginity. I’m not trying to construct a virginity/sexuality binary, since “virgin” is such a ambiguous territory, but, whenever I’m reading something that determines to deal frankly with sexuality, virginity is usually only brought up as a state of despair. No virgin remains so in any of these stories, but in “The Company of Wolves”, the second of three riffs on “Little Red Riding Hood”, Red’s virginity is presented as the source of her fearlessness. In “The Lady of the House of Love”, the only story not intentionally based on a fairy tale (although it ends up feeling like a vampiric spin on “Sleeping Beauty”), we meet a male virgin, and the narrator elaborates: “He has the special quality of virginity, most and least ambiguous of states: ignorance, yet at the same time, power in potentia, and, furthermore, unknowingness, which is not the same as ignorance” (123-124). It is not a state of innocence, but a state of potential so powerful it provides its own protection, allowing Red to laugh in the face of the wolf, knowing that she is safe.
This approach remains fresh and novel, which probably says a lot about how we still conceive of female sexuality and the state of virginity for all sexes thirty-odd years on. But there’s also more direct empowerment going on here: the eponymous novellette features the protagonist’s awesome mother riding to her rescue, “The Werewolf” finds a little girl dispatching a werewolf by herself, and “The Courtship of Mr. Lyon” (one of the “Beauty and the Beast” riffs) specifically goes out of its way to address concerns over Beauty’s agency in the story. Given that I had to wait for Toni Braxton to join the cast of the stage version of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast for anything resembling that in the Disney version, it’s very heartening to look back and see a feminist writer fixing it herself.
And what a writer. I’d not encountered any of Carter’s prose before, but there’s something so engaging about her baroque, glamorous prose, never mind her wonderful sense of voice for her characters. Each of her protagonists are different, albeit similar, women, and their voices are unique while still making her voluptuous prose sound natural to them. The existential questions posed to these women as they discover the limitations society puts on them by virtue of being women are rendered lushly, making them all the more heartbreaking. The second riff on “Beauty and the Beast”, “The Tiger’s Bride”, is a perfect example, as is “The Lady of the House of Love”—while the latter boasts the heroine with the least agency in the story, it’s still hellishly beautiful. Both are some of my favorites in the collection. Some stories, such as “The Erlking” dissolve into disheveled, gorgeous prose for the sake of itself. But even there, her eye for detail, a quality I value highly in a writer, is impeccable, and her style unmistakably hers. Short story collections are inherently uneven, but Carter manages to keep steady more than most.
Bottom line: The Bloody Chamber, as Carter intends, extracts the dark sexuality from fairy tales and shows us their beating hearts. Dark sexuality is the watchword here, as young women discover their agency through their sexuality (both virginity and active sexuality), as well as through more traditional means. Carter’s prose is lush and gorgeous, even when the short stories dissolve. Well worth a read.
I rented this book from the public library.