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The Infernal Desires of Angela Carter: Fiction, Femininity, Feminism

Table of contents :
Half Title
Notes on Contributors
Preface and Acknowledgements
Publisher's Acknowledgements
1. Gender as performance in the fiction of Angela Carter and Margaret Atwood
2. Angela Carter’s fetishism
3. ‘The red dawn breaking over Clapham’: Carter and the limits of artifice
4. ‘But elsewhere?’: the future of fantasy in Heroes and Villains
5. The fragile frames of The Bloody Chamber
6. The infernal appetites of Angela Carter
7. Revenge of the living doll: Angela Carter’s horror writing
8. Angela Carter’s The Sadeian Woman: feminism as treason
9. Sexual and textual aggression in The Sadeian Woman and The Passion of New Eve
10. Unexpected geometries: transgressive symbolism and the transsexual subject in Angela Carter’s The Passion of New Eve
11. Boys keep swinging: Angela Carter and the subject of men
12. Auto/biographical souvenirs in Nights at the Circus

Citation preview

The Infernal Desires of Angela Carter: Fiction, Femininity, Feminism

Studies in Twentieth-Century Literature

Series Editor.

Stan Smith, Professor of English, University of Dundee Published Titles: Peter Brooker, New York Fictions Rainer Emig, Modernism in Poetry: Motivation, Structures and Limits Lee Horsley, Fictions of Power in English Literature: 1900—1950 Richard Kirkland, Literature and Culture in Northern Ireland Since 1965: Moments of Danger

Joseph Bristow and Trev Lynn Broughton, The Infernal Desires of Angela Carter: Fiction, Femininity, Feminism

The Infernal Desires of Angela Carter: Fiction, Femininity, Feminism Edited and introduced by Joseph Bristow and Trev Lynn Broughton

First published 1997 by Addison Wesley Longman Limited Published 2014 by Routledge 2 Park Square, Milton Park, Abingdon, Oxon 0X14 4RN 711 Third Avenue, New York, NY 10017, USA Routledge is an imprint of the Taylor & Francis Group, an informa business

Copyright © 1997, Taylor & Francis. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reprinted or reproduced or utilised in any form or by any electronic, mechanical, or other means, now known or hereafter invented, including photocopying and recording, or in any information storage or retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publishers. Notices Knowledge and best practice in this field are constantly changing. As new research and experience broaden our understanding, changes in research methods, professional practices, or medical treatment may become necessary. Practitioners and researchers must always rely on their own experience and knowledge in evaluating and using any information, methods, compounds, or experiments described herein. In using such information or methods they should be mindful of their own safety and the safety of others, including parties for whom they have a professional responsibility. To the fullest extent of the law, neither the Publisher nor the authors, contributors, or editors, assume any liability for any injury and/or damage to persons or property as a matter of products liability, negligence or otherwise, or from any use or operation of any methods, products, instructions, or ideas contained in the material herein. ISBN 13: 978-0-582-29191-1 (pbk) British Library Cataloguing-in-Publication Data A catalogue record of this book is available from the British Library Library o f Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data A catalog entry for this title is available from the Library of Congress Set by 35 in 10/12pt Bembo


Notes on Contributors Preface and Acknowledgements Publisher's Acknowledgements

Introduction Joseph Bristow and Trev Lynn Broughton 1. Gender as performance in the fiction of Angela Carter and Margaret Atwood Paulina Palmer 2. Angela Carter’s fetishism Christina Britzolakis 3. ‘The red dawn breaking over Clapham’: Carter and the limits of artifice Clare Hanson 4. ‘But elsewhere?’: the future of fantasy in Heroes and Villains Elisabeth Mahoney

5. The fragile frames of The Bloody Chamber Lucie Armitt 6. The infernal appetites of Angela Carter Sarah Sceats 7. Revenge of the living doll: Angela Carter’s horror writing Gina Wisker

8. Angela Carter’s The Sadeian Woman: feminism as treason Sally Keenan

9. Sexual and textual aggression in The Sadeian Woman and The Passion of New Eve Merja Makinen

10. Unexpected geometries: transgressive symbolism and the transsexual subject in Angela Carter’s The Passion of New Eve Heather L. Johnson

vii x xii 1 24 43 59 73 88 100 116 132 149 166 V

The Infernal Desires of Angela Carter

11. Boys keep swinging: Angela Carter and the subject of men Paul Magrs

12. Auto/biographical souvenirs in Nights at the Circus Sarah Bannock

Afterword Elaine Jordan Index


184 198 216 221

Notes on Contributors

Lucie Armitt is a Lecturer in English at the University of Wales, Bangor. She is the editor of Where No Man Has Gone Before: Women and Science Fiction (Routledge, 1991) and the author of Theorizing the Fantastic (Edward Arnold, 1996). Current research projects focus upon contemporary women’s fiction, feminist theory, the Gothic and the ghost story. Sarah Bannock is a Fellow of the British Studies Centre at Abo Akademi University, Finland. Joseph Bristow is Professor of English at the University of California, Los Angeles. He was previously Senior Lecturer in English at the University of York, England. His recent books include Effeminate England: Homoerotic Writing after 1885 (Open University Press and Colombia, 1995) and Sexuality (New Critical Idiom, Routledge, 1997). He is the joint editor (with Isobel Armstrong and Cath Sharrock) of Nineteenth-Century Women Poets (Oxford University Press, 1996). He is completing a study of Victorian poetry and sexual desire for Cambridge University Press. Christina Britzolakis is a Lecturer in the Department of English and Com­ parative Literary Studies at the University of Warwick. She has published essays on modernist poetry, fiction and drama, and is the author of Sylvia Plath and the Theatre of Mourning (forthcoming, Clarendon Press). Trev Lynn Broughton is currently Director of the Centre for W omen’s Studies at the University of York, England. She is completing a monograph on Victorian literary masculinities for Routledge, and publishes on feminist pedagogy, women’s autobiography, and nineteenth-century prose. Her most recent work has appeared in Victorian Studies and Carlyle Studies Annual She also regularly reviews for the Times Literary Supplement. V ll

The Infernal Desires of Angela Carter

Clare Hanson is Reader in English at the University of Leicester. She is the author of Katherine Mansfield (with Andrew Gurr), Short Stories and Short Fictions, 1880—1920, The Critical Writings of Katherine Mansfield (ed.), Re­ reading the Short Story (ed.), and Virginia Woolf (Macmillan Women Writers). She has published essays on a range of feminist topics, and is a regular reviewer of feminist criticism. She is currently working on a study of ‘the woman’s novel’ in the twentieth century. Heather L. Johnson has been a tutor at Edinburgh University for three years and is director of the Scottish Universities International Summer School. She is a member of the editorial board of Gothic Studies and publishes on Carter and on aspects of the contemporary Gothic. She is currently planning a book-length study of the surrealist painter Dorothea Tanning. Elaine Jordan is Reader in Literature at the University of Essex, where she directs the MA in Women Writing. Her major interests are in questions of gender and feminism, and in colonial/post-colonial writing in English. She is author o f Alfred Tennyson (Cambridge University Press), editor of the New Casebook on Conrad (Macmillan), and has published essays on Austen and Gaskell, as well as on twentieth-century women writers, Carter, Toni Morrison and Christa Wolf. Sally Keenan is Lecturer in English at LSU College of Higher Education, Southampton. Her research interests include contemporary women’s writ­ ing, feminist and post-colonial theory. She has published several essays on the work of Toni Morrison. Paul Magrs has published two novels, Marked for Life and Does it Show?, along with a collection of stories, Playing Out. He was recently awarded a doctorate by the University of Lancaster for his thesis on Angela Carter, fiction and the subject at the fin de siècle’. Elisabeth Mahoney is a Lecturer in English at the University of Aberdeen. She is currently completing a book on the twentieth-century city in film, photography and literature, with particular interest in the representation of sexual difference in the cityscape. Other projects include work on contem­ porary Irish women poets and on Kristeva’s theory of abjection. She has edited an edition of Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey (Everyman, 1994) and Thomas Hardy’s A Pair of Blue Eyes (forthcoming, Everyman). Meija Makinen is a Principal Lecturer in English, Cultural and Commun­ ication Studies at Middlesex University. She primarily teaches courses in


Notes on contributors

women’s writing and women in genre fiction. She is joint author (with Lorraine Gamman) of Female Fetishism: A New Look (Lawrence and Wishart, 1994), and, with the assistance of Kevin Harris, of Joyce Cary: A Descriptive Bibliography (Mansell, 1989). Her recent essays include ‘Embodying the neg­ ated: contemporary images of the female erotic’, in Sarah Sceats and Gail Cunningham (eds), Image and Power: Women in Fiction in the Twentieth Century (Longman, 1996), and ‘Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber and the decol­ onization of female sexuality’ in Feminist Review (1992). Her current re­ search focuses on Carter. Paulina Palmer lectures in English Literature and W omen’s Studies at the University of Warwick. Her publications include Contemporary Women's Fiction: Narrative Practice and Feminist Theory (Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1989) and Contemporary Lesbian Fiction: Dreamsf Desire, Difference (Open University Press, 1993). She is currently working on a book for Cassell on lesbian genre fiction, discussing Gothic narratives. Sarah Sceats lectures in English Literature at Kingston University. She took her first and Master’s degrees as a mature student and was recently awarded a doctorate (QMW, University of London) on the literary and cultural significance of food and eating in contemporary fiction by women. She is joint editor (with Gail Cunningham) of Image and Power: Women in Fiction in the Twentieth Century (Longman, 1996). She has written on the work of Angela Carter and Doris Lessing, and has published a book (which she also illustrated) on the restoration of a wooden sailing boat (Batsford, 1983). Gina Wisker is Principal Lecturer in English and Staff Development Adviser at Anglia Polytechnic University in Cambridge, where she mainly teaches contemporary women’s writing. She has edited Insights into Black Women's Writing (Macmillan, 1993) and It's M y Party: Reading Twentieth-Century Women’s Writing (Pluto, 1994), and has published essays on Angela Carter in the journals Literature Teaching Politics and Ideas and Production and in Creepers, a collection on horror writing (Pluto, 1994). Gina is currently editing Guns, Roses and Fatal Attractions: Subverting Romantic Fictions, also for Pluto.


Preface and Acknowledgements

The fiction of Angela Carter appeared in many editions on both sides of the Atlantic, and it is important to note that her novels were sometimes published under different titles in Britain and in the United States. Through­ out this volume, we have presented the titles of each work according to its first British publication, and contributors have taken their quotations from British paperback imprints for the sake of consistency. The retitling of British works of fiction for audiences in the United States is not altogether unusual, given the cultural differences between the two countries. Yet it is noticeable that the titles to two of Carter’s works were altered in ways that eliminate their sexual implications. The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman , published in London by Rupert Hart-Davis in 1972, appeared two years later in the United States as The War of Dreams, issued by Harcourt Brace and Jovanovich. Carter’s third collection of short stories, Black Venus, was published in London by Chatto and Windus in 1985. Perhaps because of the racial and erotic provocations of this title, the contents of this col­ lection were reordered and renamed Saints and Strangers (issued by the New York office of Viking in 1986). In Black Venus the collection opens with the title story about Jeanne Duval, the mistress of French poet Charles Bau­ delaire. By comparison, Saints and Strangers begins with ‘The Fall River Axe Murders’, featuring the American child parricide, Lizzie Borden, and places ‘Black Venus’ at the end. It is often remarked by Carter’s friends that, if her handling of language was supreme, her spelling was erratic. On occasions, it appears that some of her editors have not always corrected her mistakes. So we have silently emended one or two misspelt words. All the essays in this volume developed out of ‘Fireworks: Angela Carter and the Futures of Writing’, a conference held at the University of York, UK, 30 September—2 October 1994. Many colleagues and graduate students X

Preface and Acknowledgements

helped with the organization of this event, and we would like to thank in particular Christopher Bryant, Victoria Howell, Rosalind Jennings, Nicole Ward Jouve, Peter Knight, Ann Kaloski, Hermione Lee, Cath Stowers and Ruth Symes. Hugh Haughton and Geoffrey Wall offered generous advice at the planning stage. At York, the staffs of both the Centre for W omen’s Stud­ ies and the Department of English and Related Literature offered a great deal of support during the extremely busy months before the conference. A number of people kindly alerted us to contacts and contexts that would throw important critical light on Carter’s writing, including Paul Barker, Faith Evans, Lennie Goodings, Elaine Jordan, Michèle Roberts, Deborah Rogers, Lorna Sage, Marina Warner and Simon Watney. Joseph Bristow would like to thank the Stanford Humanities Center, where he held a Senior External Research Fellowship in 1995—96, for pro­ viding excellent facilities for drawing his part of the editing to a close. The staffs of the Cecil H. Green and J. Henry Meyer Memorial Libraries at Stanford University were unfailing in their assistance. Trev Broughton would like to thank Robin Hart, Christien Franken and Roy Wallington for their support and encouragement. Our thanks, above all, go to all the contributors who took time from their hectic schedules to answer numerous editorial queries. Liz Mann at Longman has been both encouraging and patient, and we are grateful to her for bear­ ing with us when we needed longer than anticipated to complete all our editorial tasks. All quotations from the works of Angela Carter are reproduced by kind permission of the Estate of Angela Carter, c/o Rogers, Coleridge & White Ltd, 20 Powis Mews, London W ll 1JN. ‘Angela Carter’s fetishism’ by Christina Britzolakis first appeared in Textual Practice 9:3 (1995), and is reprinted here by kind permission of Routledge. Stanford and York, July 1996


Publisher's Acknowledgements

We are grateful to the following for permission to reproduce copyright material: The Author’s Agent on behalf of the Estate of Angela Carter and Virago Press Ltd for extracts from The Passion of New Eve Copyright © 1982 Angela Carter; Routledge for the essay Angela Carter’s Fetishism’ by Christina Britzolakis in Textual Practice 9 (3) 1995; Virago Press Ltd for extracts from The Saedian Woman: A n Exercise in Cultural History by Angela Carter.


Introduction Joseph Bristow and Treu Lynn Broughton

I In The Guardian on 17 February 1992, the English critic Lorna Sage wrote: ‘Angela Carter died yesterday aged 51 and at the height of her powers as a novelist/1 After a highly distinguished career lasting almost 30 years, Carter was undoubtedly at the forefront of contemporary English writing. She was an unorthodox figure. According to Margaret Atwood, Carter was a ‘born subversive, in the sense of the original root: to overturn .2 Celebrated for her uncompromising fiction, Carter delved into the most unsettling depths of Western culture, only to transmogrify its myths and unleash its monsters. The author of nine extraordinary novels, three memorable collections of short stories, and countless additional works (including reviews, essays and radio plays), Carter was from the outset a contentious writer who took a great many risks. All her works demonstrate her formidable imaginative gifts, her irreverent wit, and her zeal for challenging convention. But perhaps the most intriguing aspect of her writing is its polemical fascination with eroticism. Little wonder she was eventually labelled ‘the high priestess of post-graduate pom ’.3 Even if the phrase is a mocking one, it nicely cap­ tures the elements of enchantment, sexuality and academic sophistication on which Carter built her reputation. These features are clearly evident in both The Bloody Chamber and Other Stones (1979) and Nights at the Circus (1984), the works that at last found her a large, enthusiastic audience in Britain and many other parts of Eur­ ope. Particularly among students, these books have achieved canonical status, encouraging a notable number of would-be university teachers to pursue research on her writings at graduate level.4 And since the early 1980s Carter’s work has enjoyed a growing following elsewhere in the English-speaking


The Infernal Desires of Angela Carter

world. In Australia, Canada and the United States, almost all her fiction remains in print. It is undoubtedly a sign of her cultural significance, cer­ tainly within the academy, that the present collection developed out of a well-attended conference held in 1994 to honour Carter’s achievement. There Marina Warner remarked that what struck her most when she first encountered Carter’s fiction was its amazing ‘sexual knowledge’. At the end of the twentieth century, Carter’s insights into the volatile condition of desire retain their power both to delight and disturb. To be sure, Carter’s diverse writings address many issues that extend well beyond the realm of eroticism —from her contradictory engagement with conservative myths of Englishness to her ambivalent response to the repub­ lican spirit of the New World. But since sexuality —in all its violent and sensual forms - appears emphatically throughout her work, much of the criticism published to date on Carter’s fiction has grappled with her unapologetic interest in how and why desire remains central to Western culture. What, then, were the circumstances in which Carter’s contentious fictions of desire arose? And why should her work have provoked such passionate responses? This collection seeks to answer these questions. It is not a particularly English trait, nor a conventionally feminine one, for a writer to be brazenly concerned with sexuality. So it is unsurprising that Carter was not always favoured by a literary establishment that some­ times found her message and her methods troubling. Her fictions of desire were not only subversive but also avant-garde in ways we are only begin­ ning to understand. Indeed, her work anticipated by several years two of the most urgent feminist debates to develop in the 1980s and 1990s: first, the role of pornography as either liberatory or oppressive; and second, the construction of gender as a scripted performance. Few contemporary writers have looked as long and hard as Carter into the cultural construction of male and female sexuality. Her thinking on this topic began in the radical heyday of the Swinging Sixties, though her dynamic approach to sexuality has had renewed appeal to a generation of readers exhausted by the reac­ tionary politics of the Thatcherite Eighties. Among her large readership, she won many friends, and made some enemies. This Introduction shows why.

II As Sage suggests, Carter’s untimely death occurred when she was in her literary prime. She had rather varied fortunes as a writer, however, and her



changing reputation has much to say about transformations in English liter­ ary culture over three decades. Given her exceptional status today, it is sur­ prising to think that for most of the 1970s, when she was in her thirties, Carter felt she had become ‘a deep unsuccess’.5 At that time, hardly anyone seemed to understand what she was trying to prove in her increasingly experimental work. Her marginality during that era —when she migrated from one publisher to another6 - perhaps indicates the narrowing market for fiction that refused to comply with prevailing realist models. Her relat­ ive obscurity in this period is all the more striking because Carter could not have accomplished more in her earliest years as a young novelist. At the age of 26, Carter carried off the first of a quick succession of notable literary prizes with the highly successful Shadow Dance. Featuring a seductive but homicidal young man (who has probably disfigured his beau­ tiful, masochistic girlfriend), the novel was greeted enthusiastically on both sides of the Atlantic. Anthony Burgess remarked that this work showed ‘remarkable descriptive gifts, a powerful imagination and . . . a capacity for looking at the mess of contemporary experience without flinching’.7 This unnerving narrative made her, as she observed in 1972, ‘quite a lot of money’.8 The following year Carter received the John Llewellyn Rhys Prize for Tlte Magic Toyshop. This was the first of her works that would in the 1980s become associated with the label ‘magic realism’, and it is widely regarded as the finest of the fictions she completed before she was 30. Hav­ ing stacked up these two accolades, Carter was honoured for a third time with the W. Somerset Maugham award for Several Perceptions (1968) - now perhaps her least-known novel. Equipped with what was in 1968 the lavish sum of £500, she left England (and her first marriage) for Japan, where for three years she supported herself by writing journalism, publishing fiction, and working in bars. It was during her time in Japan that Carter’s fiction became more specu­ lative, intellectually more demanding, and increasingly absorbed with sexual perversity. In 1969, she published her ambitious post-apocalyptic novel, Heroes and Villains, which like its predecessors features much sexual viol­ ence. Two years later, she brought out Love, the last — and arguably the best —of her searing naturalist fictions set in the unnamed English city also depicted in Shadow Dance and Several Perceptions. On returning from the East, Carter produced what is probably her most philosophically complex novel, The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman (1972), which reveals her deep acquaintance with Freudian thought, Lévi-Strauss’s anthropolo­ gical research, and the surrealism of André Breton (1896-1966). In 1974, Fireworks, a short collection of ‘nine profane pieces’, glimpsed the begin­ nings of her re visionary inquiries into folklore, legend and fairy-tale. By this point, Carter had moved energetically across a whole gamut of literary


The Infernal Desires of Angela Carter

genres - fantasy, the picaresque, horror writing, naturalism, the Gothic. In all probability, her restless shifting through and between differing literary styles made her fiction almost impossible to classify. And that is no doubt because Carter tended to think ahead of the culture in which she found herself writing. As Carter gradually divorced herself from realist conventions, her specu­ lative narratives of the early 1970s pushed her towards the outskirts of the literary establishment. It is true that Carter was the subject of an illuminat­ ing profile by Sage published in the New Review in 1977. Sage remarked how Carter’s ‘fictions prowl around the fringes of the proper English novel like dream-monsters —nasty, exotic, brilliant creatures that feed off cultural crisis’. Sensitive to the texture of Carter’s work, Sage observed how these ‘dream-monsters’ extracted a wealth of cultural knowledge from debased cultural forms: ‘She has taken over the sub-genres (romance, spies, porn, crime, gothic, science fiction) and turned their grubby stereotypes into soph­ isticated mythology.’9 But apart from this notable essay, few showed critical interest in her work. Carter’s experiments with genre came at a price. Had it not been for the support she received from two inspired editors - Liz Calder at Victor Gollancz (historically a left-wing publisher) and Carmen Callil at Virago Press (a newly established feminist company) - one wonders if Carter’s career might have survived much longer intact. Gollancz brought out The Passion of New Eve (1977), an astute narrative that explores how transsexuality holds the clue to the constructedness of all gendered identities. Maintaining her faith in Carter’s great abilities, Calder wisely commissioned The Bloody Chamber. Issued two years later, these stories have never ceased to engage — and enrage - their readers, who continue to debate whether Carter’s revisionary handling of European legends contests or colludes with patriarchal values. In the meantime, Callil invited Carter onto Virago’s first advisory board. This would prove to be an extremely fruitful publishing relationship, giv­ ing Carter the opportunity to edit three well-received collections of short stories.10 In 1979 —the year that saw a significant revival of interest in Carter - Virago issued The Sadeian Woman: A n Exercise in Cultural History, an inquiry into the antithetical types of femininity that the Marquis de Sade (1740— 1814) explores in his libertine narratives, Justine (1791—97) and Juliette (1797). By refusing to read Sade’s work as purely misogynistic, this provocative book displayed a pioneering feminist interest in the role of the ‘moral pornographer’ (a figure, perhaps like Carter herself, who ‘might use porno­ graphy as a critique of the current relations between the sexes’).11 The Sadeian Woman helped set the agenda for the anti-censorship wing of the ‘sex wars’ that divided much feminist campaigning around pornography in the 1980s. Hereafter, Carter would follow Callil to Chatto & Windus, which published



all her next four volumes of fiction, as well as her posthumous writings. Such is Carter's standing that Chatto & Windus is currently issuing collected volumes of her short stories, essays and journalism. The move to Chatto & Windus was propitious. Supported by an effective publicity campaign, the tour deforce of Nights at the Circus displayed Carter’s imaginative powers as never before.12 To some readers this sparkling picar­ esque, featuring the unforgettable rise of an 1890s lusus naturae, the Cock­ ney aerialiste Fewers, suggested a shift in Carter’s method. Writing in The Guardian, Robert Nye felt that Nights at the Circus would not, unlike her earlier fictions, be lost on her audience: Angela Carter goes from strength to strength. She has made something of a speciality of novels and stories in which rusty Gothic weapons are repolished and then employed to open up some pretty modem wounds, finding new and intelligent uses for fantasy. The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman (1972), The Passion of New Eve (1977), and the shorter fairy-tale fictions collected in The Bloody Chamber (1979) were all interesting, amusing, irritating, and impressive in about equal degrees. They could only be called successful, however, if their author’s aim was merely to intrigue, and it is impossible to believe that Carter is that crude. Nights at the Circus, her new and most ambitious novel to date, breaks fresh ground for her both in content and style, and is without doubt her finest achievement so far, and a remarkable book by any standards.13

Carter, who was always the first to reflect on her reputation, felt that Nye failed to grasp how Nights at the Circus did not mark a resolute break with her previous work but extended a project she had been pursuing for many years. In an interview with John HafFenden, Carter emphasized how she had remained more or less alone in exploring an anti-realist speculative type of writing — until, that is, more general trends in literary fiction changed in the early 1980s: Nye’s review in The Guardian was very nice . . . but grudging, I think; he seemed rather reluctant to concede that there had been anything more than a lot of high-falutin bluster in my earlier work. But this is bound to happen: I haven’t had a novel out for a long time [i.e. seven years]. And also everybody is doing it now. I am older than Salman Rushdie and I’ve been around longer, but memories are short.14

By what ‘everybody is doing’, Carter means the type of ‘magic realist’ fic­ tion that had won favour with the reading public in 1981 when Salman Rushdie —a close friend of Carter’s —won the Booker prize for Midnightfs Children. It is not immodest of Carter to imply that her own writing from the 1970s set a precedent for a younger generation of writers such as Rush­ die. So it may have irked her to find Nights at the Circus attributed to a new ‘magic realist’ trend when her work had long partaken of a tradition


The Infernal Desires of Angela Carter

of ‘non-naturalistic writing’ by authors such as Isak Dinesen (1885-1962), Jean Cocteau (1889-1963) and Ronald Firbank (1886-1926): writers who, she remarked, were ‘very much around’ in the 1960s but whom ‘nobody seemed to be reading’.15 Carter informed Haffenden that she preferred ‘man­ nerist’ rather than ‘magic realist’ to describe this style. Originally used to describe the stylish maniera of cinquecento painting, mannerism perhaps pro­ vides a more precise definition of Carter’s distinctive interest in anti-realist forms. Carter’s early decision to become a ‘mannerist’ sometimes appeared eccentric in a writer whose radical political interests were both feminist and socialist. Undeniably, her ‘mannerist’ method stood in serious opposition to the austerity of social realism, the traditional genre for representing the grinding oppression of women, workers and minorities. At times, it seemed as if all her work offered was stylish panache. Commenting in 1983 on The Passion of New Eve , Tom Paulin felt that her fascination with fantasy res­ ulted in an ‘easy fluency and soft stylishness’ that was ‘won at the expense of form and mimesis’. Such writing, Paulin observed, produced ‘an expans­ ive territory without boundaries or horizons, a kind of permanent and infinite vanishing’.16 Style, it seemed, prevailed over substance. Asked whether it was true that she ‘embrace[d] opportunities for overwriting’, Carter declared: ‘I would say that I half-suffocate them with the enthusiasm with which I wrap my arms and legs around them.’ ‘I do\ she observed, ‘like plain, trans­ parent prose. I wish I could do it.’17 Never wavering in her commitment to ‘non-naturalistic’ genres, Carter instantly seized on every opportunity to describe her mythical worlds in a sensuous, opulent, even decadent style. But it would be a mistake to believe that she indulged in overwriting for its own sake. The political advantages of her methods emerge most clearly in her final novel, Wise Children (1991), which ebulliently shows the resilience, wit and creative energy of workingclass lives. Featuring a riotous upside-down world in which ‘the unrighteous prospered’,18 this exuberant work traces the lives and loves of two ageing theatrical hoofers, Dora and Nora Chance. Their careers, spanning the 1920s to the 1980s, take them on an uproarious odyssey from the music-halls of London to the glamorous trompe Voeil sets of Hollywood. Everywhere Wise Children was lauded in the press (it ‘deserves many prizes and, better than that, the affection of generations of readers’, wrote Edmund White in the Times Literary Supplement),19 But just at the point when Carter’s writing seemed an obvious candidate for the Booker Prize (regarded as the most prestigious of all British literary awards for fiction), it did not even reach the shortlist.20 Whereas Nights at the Circus was a serious contender for the Booker Prize in 1984 (the award went that year to a distinctly realist writer, Anita Brookner, for Hotel du Lac),21 this final novel - which was given a



central feature in the London Sunday Times — failed to make the running. What was wrong? Some important clues emerge from two appraisals that took her death as an occasion for faint praise. Each of these documents reveals how her often subversive tone could affront and offend. In the obituary published in the London Times, the anonymous writer misses the point of her experi­ mentation with non-realist literary forms and her undaunted approach to human sexuality: Angela Carter was an unashamed fantasist, a fabulist of daemonic energy. She dwelt naturally in the world of myth, dream and fairy tale. Above all, in writing about sex she confronted the question of whether a woman can realistically cross the barrier between her natural masochism to inhabit the sadistic terrain of the male, with a seriousness which is wholly absent from the novels of her contemporaries. She squarely faced the possibility that sex is ultimately a violent business and that women can acquiesce in that.22

Here squeamish praise for Carter as an ‘unashamed fantasist’ (as if a shade more shame would not have gone amiss) is backed up by the rather ludic­ rous suggestion that Carter approved of violence against women’s ‘natural’ masochism. The obituarist goes on to argue that Carter’s chosen literary methods for representing the volatile condition of sexual desire ‘sometimes led her into vulgarity’: She, too evidently and too often, leaned for information on reading which ranged from the scholarly to the crudest pulp fantasy. Sometimes even her admirers might pause to wonder whether she cared about the answers to the questions she set herself. So wholeheartedly did she engage herself with sexual themes which have so long been the preserve of male novelists that a truly independent standpoint by women is very difficult to formulate without becoming strident and therefore ceasing to be literature. But she remained true to herself and emerged from this process of immersion with an uncorrupted imagination.23

It is clear that Carter’s writings exasperated those who felt that modesty, grace and dignity were prerequisites of proper ‘literature’. At home in the worlds of ‘high’ and ‘popular’ culture, her work refuses hierarchies between differing genres and forms. Perhaps to a more exorbitant degree than her other novels, Wise Children constantly transgresses cultural divisions between high and low, paying equal attention to day-time television and the refined realism of Henry James (1843-1916). At the centre of this unruly novel is no less a cultural icon than William Shakespeare, whose dramas have for centuries been both a source of lofty inspiration and an object of farcical bastardization. Throughout Wise Children, Carter delights in showing the many vulgar uses to which this most noble figurehead of English ‘literature’ has been put.24


The Infernal Desires of Angela Carter

Carter would probably have been amused to discover that - despite all her ‘vulgarity’ - her imagination remained ‘uncorrupted’. But even more surprising is the suggestion that she did not care about answers to the ques­ tions posed by her work - especially in relation to eroticism. The Times obituarist implies that Carter was a highly imaginative but reckless writer who did not have the power to discriminate between right and wrong. Yet the carnivalesque fun, the mordant wit, the biting irony that turn Shake­ speare into a burlesque and bring Sade into the feminist bedroom were very much a part of a serious intellectual stand that Carter took on Western culture. ‘I’m in the demythologizing business’, she wrote in 1983.25 And in creating ‘dream-monsters’ that undermined the timelessness oppressively ac­ corded to myth, she frequently put herself in danger of being misunderstood. Carter’s affront to a literary establishment that abhorred populist ‘vulgar­ ity’, recoiled from feminist stridency and demanded respect for great ‘lit­ erature’ comes sharply into focus in an essay that appeared in the New York Review of Books two months after her death. It is perhaps because he finds himself so averse to Carter’s work that John Bayley remains in an unmatched position to reveal precisely where her subversiveness lies. Bayley, an Oxford professor, categorizes her writing as at once loosely ‘postmodern’ and ‘magic realist’. He believes that the most ‘negative’ quality of this style is its resist­ ance to elitism.26 (Presumably, in his view, the best ‘literature’ appeals to small, erudite audiences.) Her eagerness to combine ‘high art and pop art’ strikes Bayley as a typical, if lamentable, trend in the work of many ‘capable modem authors’. ‘Angela Carter’, he writes, ‘is good at having it both ways, dressing up pop art in academic gear and presenting crude aspects of mod­ ern living in a satirically elegant style.’ This approach, he feels, has great shortcomings because ‘if there is a common factor in the elusive category of the postmodern novel it is political correctness’.27 As Hermione Lee rightly observes, ‘Political correctness’ was ‘identified as a tyranny born out of sixties radicalism’, and Carter is ‘traduced by that association’.28 Bayley charges Carter with ‘political correctness’ to straitjacket some of her more iconoclastic moves. He deplores how Carter —no matter how ‘spirited’ in her ‘arabesques and feats of descriptive imagination’ ‘always comes to rest in the right ideological position’.29 He believes this tendency is most evident in ‘The Company of Wolves’ (1979). In this clever rewriting of Little Red Riding Hood, the young girl is said to be ‘nobody’s meat’ when she fearlessly lies down with the wolf at the end of the story.30 But Bayley not only thinks that such endings wrongly make ‘imagination the obedient handmaid of ideology’ - he also believes that Carter is far too dazzled by the trashy glitziness of theatrical performance to create unfeigned art. For him, therefore, her work performs a type of ideological legerdemain: ‘In Carter’s writing, the show is the thing, and as every pantomime-goer 8


knows, putting on a prodigious warmth of heart for the benefit of the kiddies can look like and even be the real thing.’31 Once again, the charge of ‘vulgarity’ haunts the verdict, suggesting that there is something infantile, unseemly and not properly English about Carter’s love affair with the pop­ ular stage. ‘I don’t feel particularly English’, remarks Carter in response to a ques­ tion put by Lisa Appignanesi in 1987.32 Given the aloofness of commentators such as Bayley, one can see why. Although she admits she is ‘impeccably middle-class’, Carter distances herself from the English nationalism that elevated the Bard to ridiculous heights.33 These sentiments are plain in the section of Nothing Sacred: Selected Writings (1982) titled ‘England, Whose England?’ Introducing an essay on the years she spent in Bath, written for New Society in 1975, she comments: ‘Bath was a lovely place in which to live. Yet it is England at its most foreign to me; as self-conscious a perfor­ mance as Miss Cox’s “Empire Day.’” 34 Her cultural roots lay far from the Regency city frequented in the novels of Jane Austen, which she detested. ‘The territorial niggling about my origins’, she informed Appignanesi, ‘comes from the whole tendency of the English novel to be about the middle class.’35 It obviously irritated Carter to think how much English fiction was taken up with the lives of wealthy university graduates. Indeed, she herself had benefited from a privileged education. Carter attended a grammar school in suburban South London, and in 1960 she went to the University of Bris­ tol to read English (with a focus on medieval studies) after working for two years as a journalist on a local newspaper. But from an early age, she was acutely aware —unlike some of her middle-class contemporaries from pro­ fessional backgrounds and Oxbridge elites - that she was the ‘pure product of an advanced, industrialized, post-imperialist culture in decline’.36 Like many intellectuals hailing from the lower middle class, she had contact with a very broad span of cultural products. She omnivorously consumed Freud as well as ‘pulp fiction’, and she was an aficionado of both Hollywood film noir and French art-house cinema. The epigraphs to her early novels range from Jean-Luc Godard’s Alphaville (1965) to John Locke’s Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690). By the time she published The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman , the allusiveness of her writing was so broad that one can only commiserate with the task facing future annotators of the novel. All her subsequent fiction - right through to Wise Children and the stories posthumously collected in American Ghosts and Old World Wonders (1992) - displays an astonishing range of cultural reference. Yet because these works reach allusively into a great many spheres of culture, they hold something for everyone. Carter’s is a distinctly democratic aesthetic. Politically, too, Carter was certainly not an insider to the elitism of the professional bourgeoisie. The radicalism of her mother’s family —Yorkshire


The Infernal Desires of Angela Carter

labourers involved in the Independent Labour Party - strongly influenced her thinking, and many of the writings contained in Nothing Sacred show her deep concern with a country riven by class. Her critical approach to this divided nation takes a typically unEnglish turn by invoking Freud: ‘if the British bourgeoisie thinks of itself as superego, the working class is happy to identify itself with id’.37 Carter’s interest in psychoanalysis was under­ standably linked to her preoccupation with sexual politics. On returning from Japan, she became involved in the resurgent W omen’s Movement. In an important retrospect on her career, ‘Notes from the Front Line’ (1983), Carter declares: ‘I’m a feminist in everything and one can’t compartmentalize these things in one’s life.’38 And it is from a feminist perspective that she looked back on herself as a young woman of the 1960s. Here she identifies the major shaping influences of that decade on her creative and intellectual development: it felt like Year One, that all was holy was in the process of being profaned and we were attempting to grapple with the real relations between human beings. So writers like [the Marxist Frankfurt School theorists, Herbert] Marcuse [1898-1979] and [Theodor] Adorno [1903—1969] were as much part of my personal process of maturing into feminism as experiments with my sexual and emotional life and with various intellectual adventures in anarcho-surrealism. Furthermore, at a very unpretentious level, we were truly asking ourselves questions about the nature of reality. Most of us may not have come up with very startling answers and some of us scared ourselves good and proper and retreated into cul-de-sacs of infantile mysticism; false prophets, loonies and charlatans freely roamed the streets. But even so, I can date to that time and to some of those debates and to that sense of heightened awareness of the society around me in the summer of 1968, my own questioning of the nature of my reality as a woman. How that social fiction of my ‘femininity’ was created, by means outside my control, and palmed off on me as the real thing.39

Marked by the rise of the Civil Rights Movement in the United States and the student protests in France, 1968 was certainly a year when it felt as if an established cultural order was being turned on its head. By this time, the W omen’s Movement was transforming how people thought about the relations between the sexes. In this turbulent era, Carter’s fiction had already begun to represent how women have a conflicted relationship with their production as ‘feminine’ subjects. One only has to look at the very first sentence of The Magic Toyshop: ‘The summer she was fifteen, Melanie discovered she was made of flesh and blood.’40 For Melanie - together with Carter’s later female protagonists —becoming ‘feminine’ entails both pleas­ ure and danger, and the conflict between the two absorbed Carter to the last. Yet in some sections of the W omen’s Movement, Carter’s interest in the complications that beset the ‘social fiction of “femininity” ’ caused a



furore. So even if Bayley believes that Carter’s work ‘always comes to rest in the right ideological position’, he might be interested to learn that several of Carter’s earliest feminist readers hardly thought she was toeing a correct party line.


Even if Carter claimed that she was ‘a feminist in everything’, she did not refrain from swiping at prominent tendencies within the W omen’s Move­ ment, and much of The Passion of New Eve is given over to travestying the radical feminism of the 1970s.41 In many ways, her resistance to realism put her at odds with both contemporary feminist fiction and politics. Although she felt that her non-naturalistic works such as Nights at the Circus made ‘space for certain kinds of discussion’, Carter was adamant that she was not writing tracts to advance a political cause: ‘It’s not possible for me to write agit-prop.’42 Always inclined to read texts against their ideological grain, she was sceptical of work which suggested, in a literal-minded way, that women were only the downtrodden victims of patriarchal oppression: I just don’t know, for example, what Marilyn French meant The Women's Room [1977] to do: I thought Norm, the ex-husband in that novel, was such a wonderful man. I finished the book with every sympathy for the men: they seemed to have awful lives surrounded by such dreadful women. I came out of it with an immensely enhanced admiration for American men, which surprised me very much indeed. I wouldn’t see the point of writing that novel; I thought the premises of her idea of emancipation were pretty ropey. I don’t think it’s good art, good fiction or good propaganda — if propaganda is what you want. I do what I do, but I have to stay aware of the area from which I’m coming, as they say.43

Carter insisted that literary forms were not transparent mediums for polit­ ical point-scoring. But this was not the only kind of women’s writing she disliked. She held in equal contempt fictions that painted delicate scenes of lonely bourgeois women —the kind of narrative one might associate per­ haps with Anita Brookner and Joanna Trollope. In 1982, John Mortimer observed that when he asked Carter about ‘a notable lady novelist’, she ‘grew more testy than she had at any mention of the Divine Marquis’ (that is, Sade): ‘ “I can’t do with her”, she said. “Her books are all about pre­ paring elaborate meals for men, of standing looking sadly out of the window as she scrapes the uneaten food into the tidy bin when they fail to turn up. I’d like to slap her little bottom for her.’” 44 Carter certainly could not bear


The Infernal Desires of Angela Carter

to see women rendered powerless in fiction. Yet it was precisely that charge that was made against her own work by a number of feminist readers. ‘Fem­ inists’, she told Mortimer, ‘accuse me of being an “Uncle Tom ” but I don’t think I’d be the person I am if it weren’t for the women’s movement in the Sixties.’45 Having produced both The Bloody Chamber and The Sadeian Woman by this time, Carter was keenly aware of the mounting feminist hostility to her writing. In 1984, one of the most influential feminist essays ever written on her fiction appeared in Literature and History, and it presented a far from glowing picture of Carter’s feminism. There Patricia Duncker sets out to examine the political limits to Carter’s use of the fairy-tale. Although she finds the style of The Bloody Chamber ‘genuinely original’, Duncker believes Carter falls into ‘the infernal trap inherent in the fairy tale’.46 Why? Because the fairy-tale, no matter how much one tries to revise it from a feminist per­ spective, remains ‘the carrier of ideology’: Carter is rewriting the tales within the strait-jacket of their original structures. The characters she re-creates must[,] to some extent, continue to exist as abstractions. Identity continues to be defined by role, so that shifting the perspective from the impersonal voice to the inner confessional narrative as she does in several of the tales, merely explains, amplifies and reproduces rather than alters the original, deeply, rigidly sexist psychology of the erotic . . . Red Riding Hood sees that rape is inevitable — ‘The W olf is carnivore incarnate’ — and decides to strip off, lie back and enjoy it. She wants it really. They all do. The message spelt out.47

In this thought-provoking critique, Duncker makes several related claims. Not only does she feel that Carter’s stories remain trapped by the sexism of the fairy-tale, she also believes this is a symptom of heterosexual femin­ ists’ inability to imagine ‘women’s sexuality as autonomous desire’.48 And it is not just the sexism of the fairy-tale that, to Duncker’s mind, makes The Bloody Chamber an unacceptable piece of work. She states that, by putting Little Red Riding Hood into the arms of the flesh-eating wolf, Carter con­ verts the little girl into ‘the willing victim of pornography’.49 Here Duncker is following Andrea Dworkin’s contentious view that pornography enacts violence against women.50 As a consequence, she argues that the female prot­ agonists of Carter’s tales choose the worst imaginable option by remaining erotically attracted to the patriarchal enemy. Unlike Dworkin, who has cam­ paigned for years against the imputed harms of pornography, Carter felt that Sade —for all his sexual violence —‘put pornography in the service of women’.51 So it is hardly surprising that Duncker’s approach is unsympathetic. Duncker’s essay has been the major point of reference for much subsequent criticism of Carter’s work. More recently, there have been several



feminist responses made in Carter’s favour, and they explain why she has been misconstrued as a treacherous ‘Uncle Tom’. Rewriting the fairy-tale, they argue, does not necessarily mean that the ‘carrier of ideology’ remains uncontested. Meija Makinen insists that all genres are affected by contending ideological forces from which Carter’s writing is not exempt. But that does not mean that Carter’s stories in The Bloody Chamber are trapped by the generic conventions they revise: Narrative genres clearly do inscribe ideologies (though that can never fix the readings), but later rewritings that take the genre and adapt it will not necessarily encode the same ideological assumptions. Otherwise, one would have to argue that the African novels that have sought to decolonize the European cultural stereotypes of themselves, must always fail. One would need to argue that Ngugi’s or Achebe’s novels, for example, reinforce the colonial legacy because they use the novel format. This is clearly not true. W hen the form is used to critique ideology, I would argue, then the form is subtly adapted to a new set of assumptions. Carter argued that The Bloody Chamber was ‘a book of stories about fairy stories’ (my emphasis) and this ironic strategy needs to be acknowledged.52 In other words, if we lose sight of the critical force of irony involved in

reimagining the fairy-tale, then Carter’s works really do little more than ‘depict willing victims of pornography’. As Makinen says, when Little Red Riding Hood leaps into bed with the carnivorous beast in Carter’s ‘The Company of Wolves’, the tables are turned because it has ‘the original story encoded within it, so that one reads both texts, aware of how the new one refers back to and implicitly critiques the old’.53 The process of rewriting does not preserve Little Red Riding Hood as a ‘willing victim’ but makes her into a sexually defiant young woman. Yet the sticking-point, if we choose to follow Duncker, is the degree to which the revised version remains free from the system of power relations embedded in the original tale. Yet Carter herself was all too aware of this dilemma, and if she was an anti-realist in terms of technique, she also rejected naive utopianism. She did not turn to myth, legend, fairy-tale and the Gothic simply to explore worlds that could be magicked out of nothing. Instead, she worked within and against the conventions of these genres because they contained a significant cultural knowledge about the power that narratives of many dif­ ferent kinds exert on historical processes. Several critics have noticed this. Elaine Jordan observes how a ‘persistent typology of characters in Angela Carter’s writing links societies dominated by some absolute ideal of scient­ ific reason, with societies dominated by magic ritual and theosophy (divine wisdom)’. She remarks that Carter populates her fictions with scientific manipulators and shamanistic myth-makers who are ‘akin in their will to experiment with people and their consciousness’.54 In every case, fantasy


The Infernal Desires of Angela Carter

embodies a power to influence, distort, but also reconstruct the world. So by wresting myths and legends from their originators, Carter creates a power­ ful dialectic. Throughout her writing, she maintains that the possibility of creating new desires cannot be dissociated from the cultural forces that have moulded them over time.

IV Carter insists that ‘our flesh arrives to us out of history, like everything else’.55 But in making that claim, she does not mean our flesh cannot be changed. The triumph of her work is to show how Western culture has shaped limiting concepts of gender and sexuality which it is the business of feminism to transform; yet in many ways, feminist thought is only now catching up with her insights. It is almost impossible to read Carter’s novels and short stories in the 1990s without noticing how uncannily they antici­ pate certain strands of current feminist theory, how importunately they seem to invite comparison with such influential work as that of Luce Irigaray and Judith Butler. The most insistent feature of current Carter studies, and one never far from the present collection, is her interest in that bundle of tropes —theatricality, spectacle and play-acting —now commonly associated with the theory and (cultural) politics of ‘gender as performance’. This body of research, usefully outlined here by Paulina Palmer and elaborated by Clare Hanson, has recently come under critical scrutiny both for its adequacy as explanation and its effectiveness as a basis for feminist politics. Many femin­ ists would claim that ‘gender as performance’ provides a valuable corrective to those essentializing fictions of femininity (and, as Paul Magrs argues, masculinity) that have stymied second-wave thinking about sexual differ­ ence. But how might this insight be translated into a workable political tool? Palmer contends that we need, among much else, a more complex model of the psychological dynamics of performativity, a subtler awareness of the role of intersubjectivity and the gaze in the rituals of gender, and a consciousness, built into the performative text itself, that theatricality can be and often is simply a ‘sell-out to society’s current obsession with image and the erotic’. These attributes she finds, not in Carter’s drag queens and prima donnas, but in the novels of Margaret Atwood: a fact suggestive, perhaps, of Carter’s theoretical horizon.56 In her contribution to this volume, Christina Britzolakis detects a shift in Carter’s fiction between the early heroines, who are often ‘puppets of



male-controlled scripts’, and the later ones who ‘use theatricality and mas­ querade to invent and advance themselves’ (p. 51). For Britzolakis, however, the emancipatory progress implied by this narrative may be more apparent than real. She explains her reservations in terms of the economy within which ‘gender as performance’ makes sense. Seen as fetishized product rather than idealized masquerade (definitions which, she argues, are in any case two sides of the same cultural coin), Carter’s spectacle of femininity discloses ambiguous antecedents and dubious debts. It is, Britzolakis claims, ‘partly mortgaged to the heritage it travesties’ (pp. 53-4). Britzolakis relates this fetishizing of femininity to Carter’s socio-economic and political context - to the hopes of the 1960s, the enthusiasms and disappointments of the 1970s, and the exorbitant ironies of Thatcher’s Britain. She also points to Carter’s necessarily compromised and commodified history as a profes­ sional writer, and as a self-made woman with leftist credentials and feminist aspirations.57 Clare Hanson, too, is sceptical of the triumphalist note that often creeps into feminist accounts of Carter’s late fiction, particularly those authorized by Butlerian performance theory and Bakhtinian models of the camivalesque. Among the comedy and burlesque of Nights at the Circus and Wise Children, Hanson finds a ‘rueful’ distrust of ‘deconstructive’ tactics in the face of the practical realities of power (p. 70).58 She proposes that Michel Foucault is a more pervasive and persuasive presence in Carter’s writing than has hitherto been acknowledged. ‘Rueful’ is not a word often associated with the creator of the effervescent Fewers of Nights at the Circus or of the irrepress­ ible Chance family of Wise Children. But if Carter glories in the capacity of artifice to disrupt ontological and political boundaries, she knows, unlike some of her more fantastic creations, that she cannot wish them away. Boundaries and their permeability preoccupy a number of our contrib­ utors. Boundaries - social, generic, cultural - at once proscribe and invite transgression, informing both where we think we are and where we think we would like to be. Hence the vital role they play in psychoanalytic ac­ counts of subjectivity, and of the relationship between identity and desire. Hence, too, the paradoxical role boundaries play in critical discourses, struc­ turing the dialectic between analysis and critique on the one hand, and imagination and fantasy on the other. For Elisabeth Mahoney and Lucie Armitt, Carter’s highly stylized, formal fictions - her use, for instance, of the conventions of the dystopia, the Gothic and the fairy-tale - enable her to play with the paradox of the boundary, negotiating a space from which ‘new representational spaces for sexual identity’ can be articulated (p. 77). To explain this issue, Mahoney draws on psychoanalytic accounts of fantasy, arguing that fantasy is a mode of perception which blurs the boundaries between subject and object, and hence between the ‘real’ and the ‘fictional’.


The Infernal Desires of Angela Carter

As a fantasy of a fantasy, Mahoney claims, Carter’s Heroes and Villains affords a space in which feminine desire, classically on the ‘other’ side of all theories of the subject and its representation, can emerge. ‘You, you’re nothing but the furious invention of my virgin nights’, Marianne tells Jewel, her Barbarian lover (p. 80).59 Armitt likewise adopts a psychoanalytic approach to Carter’s work. At­ tending to the frames and boundaries surrounding The Bloody Chamber, she asks us to move beyond that reductive, generic mode of reading the tales which attempts to map them neatly on to a supposedly ‘closed’ fairy-tale structure. The claustrophobic themes and metaphors, the Gothic narratives and settings of the stories so draw attention to their own overdetermined ‘frames’ as to suggest seepage, invasion and transgression. If they do not finally offer ‘escape’, still they draw the reader, compulsively and repeat­ edly, to ‘the precarious site . . . between overspill and containment’ (p. 95). For Armitt, then, the Bloody Chambers fairy-tale quality lies in the way the stories bring us back, time and again, to this dangerous, in-between place. Like children poring over familiar legends, we return to them with a sense of unquenched desire and —more importantly perhaps —‘unfinished busi­ ness’. Carter’s consistent refusal to allow her readers either the consolation of enclosure or the illusory satisfaction of escape suggests to Armitt an oral dynamic: it is, as she puts it, like ‘a sequence of (albeit beautifully arranged) mouthfuls of nouvelle cuisine’ (p. 91). In other words, The Bloody Chamber is appetizing, in the sense both of inciting desire and of declining to fulfil it. Sarah Sceats, in contrast, finds a great deal more than nouvelle cuisine to relish in Carter’s literary pantry. In her essay, Sceats brings together for the first time Carter’s neglected cookery-book reviews, reprinted in Explet­ ives Deleted, and her fictional feasts. ‘Having her cake and eating it’ certainly seems to describe Carter’s attitude to cookery books, a genre she at once condemns as ‘genuinely decadent’ and applauds as ‘truly civilized’. As a chubby schoolgirl turned teenage anorexic60 who eventually became, among much else, a foodwriter, Carter maintained a relationship to eating that was as charged as, and certainly more harshly moralized than, her writing about sex. In extending the notion of Carter’s ‘infernal desires’ to encompass the gustatory as well as the sexual in her fiction, Sceats proposes what she calls ‘a politics of appetite’ (p. 113): a carnal imperative at work in the novels that is obliquely, but emphatically, implicated in the realities of social life. Tracking Carter’s motifs of feasting, cannibalism and cookery through se­ lected short stories, as well as The Magic Toyshop and The Wise Children, Sceats finds an ethics and a politics more complex and ambivalent than can be accounted for by Bakhtinian notions of the carnivalesque. Indeed, like Hanson, Sceats appeals to Foucault’s theory of power to interpret the pol­ itics of Carter’s interest in haute (and not so haute) cuisine.



Once one starts to look, metaphors of cooking and feasting emerge every­ where in Carter’s writing. Introducing her readers to the communal history of the stories collected in The Virago Book of Fairy Tales (1991), she in­ structed them to ‘[t]hink in terms of the domestic arts’. One would not ask who invented meatballs or potato soup; rather one would simply say, ‘This is how I make potato soup.’61 Here the kitchen seems to provide her with one link between her mythopoetic imagination and her sense of history and agency. This finding is confirmed by Gina Wisker’s investigation of Carter as a horror writer. Wisker argues that Carter’s main innovations in this most misogynistic of genres are in the area of ‘domestic horror’. She notes that Carter’s favourite rhetorical figure was the oxymoron, the yoking together of opposites. Evident at the levels of imagery, narrative, characterization and genre, Carter’s masterly control of the deconstructive energies of the oxymoron is most startlingly manifest in this unleashing of horror into the apparent sanctity of ‘home’. Readers who have applauded Carter’s eroticism on the one hand, and her debunking of myths on the other, have found themselves nonplussed —even scandalized - by this advocacy of genres at the misogynistic end of the literary spectrum. This has been particularly true of her apparent glori­ fication of sexual violence, especially in her controversial essay on Sade. One of the first Virago imprints of the so-called second wave of modern feminism,62 The Sadeian Woman launched a blistering attack on the ‘womancentred’ orthodoxy that saw women as passive and nurturant: as would-be carers, will-be victims who were nevertheless immune from the porno­ graphic regime. For reasons explored by Sally Keenan, Carter’s attempt to ransack the pornographic imagination from within was deeply unfashionable at the time, and remained so throughout the 1980s. Two chapters in this volume suggest that this might be changing. Merja Makinen points to the success of Helen Zahavi’s novel Dirty Weekend (1991) and to recent empirical evidence about women as audiences to suggest that, within a narrative of systematic male exploitation, the representation of female retributive violence may have a positive, cathartic effect. This is not to celebrate female sexual aggression per se, she argues, but to contextualize it. Keenan’s searching analysis of The Sadeian Woman focuses on Carter’s critique of two kinds of complicity: women readers’ complicity in the por­ nographic scenario, and feminists’ complicity in the mystification of femin­ inity this involves. Yet, as Keenan is careful to remind us, Carter’s essay is deliberately strewn with counterarguments, caveats and devil’s advocacy. According to this view, The Sadeian Woman has more to do with treason than reason, and Carter’s aim, ultimately, is not to persuade but to provoke. If the existence of an essentializing tendency within 1970s feminism clarifies Carter’s thornier views on female sexuality, another concurrent


The Infernal Desires of Angela Carter

development helps us understand her experiments with the concept of gender itself. Heather L. Johnson situates The Passion of New Eve in the context of advances in the treatment of so-called gender dysphoria. Drawing on highprofile autobiographies by post-operative transsexuals, Johnson demonstrates how Carter weaves together the challenges of transgender with two ‘pion­ eer’ discourses from the past: the philosophy of alchemy and the symbolism of the New World. Furthermore, Carter’s use of first-person narrative to explore contradictions and disjunctions in the experience of gender places her, Johnson argues, in the vanguard of transgender theory. Are we witnessing the emergence of a ‘queer’ (as distinct from a femin­ ist) Carter? In interview, as Paul Magrs points out in this volume, Carter was prone to assert similarities between femininity and male homosexuality. Both women and gay men, she suggested, have to contend with a know­ ledge of their own marginality and an active sense of their own constructedness: a homology anticipating current theoretical traffic between feminism and queer politics. It has often been pointed out that Carter’s heroines are ‘self-made’ beings, triumphantly inventive of their own identities. In so far as she offers us heroes, Magrs notes, they too are consciously precarious, contingent, self-improvising creatures. Magrs goes further, however, arguing that Carter’s fiction forcibly and systematically ‘outs’ straight men, exposing the effort, the wilful nescience and the outright violence needed to sustain the delusion of ‘natural’ masculinity. In fact, his analysis of Carter’s gender artistes leads full circle to the question of performativity. For while Carter’s characterology may owe more to drag and to early Hollywood than to the realist novel, and while her emphasis may be on performance rather than ‘experience’ (always a loaded term in Carter’s lexicon), this is not neces­ sarily at the expense of psychological insight or realistic observation. Life in Carter’s existential circus may be glamorous and vital and knowing. But it is also grubby and cramped and weary and penurious. The toils and compromises of the performative life are underlined by our last contributor, Sarah Bannock, who reads Nights at the Circus alongside three ‘auto/biographical souvenirs’. Carter’s preface to the Oxford Univer­ sity Press edition of Walter de la Mare’s Memoirs of a Midget (1982), Simone Berteaut’s Piaf (1969) and Carter’s own auto/biographical essay ‘The Mother Lode’ (1976): all these works feature thwarted or struggling artistes of various kinds, whose treatment at the hands of the ‘real world’ renders them sceptical of its most cherished nostrums. Their cynicism extends at times to the very evidence of their senses - to the laws of physics, nature and reason. This is a characteristic they share with the cast of Carter’s show-stopping novel. Bannock suggests, unfashionably perhaps but none­ theless persuasively, that this most theatrical of Carter’s fictions may also be her most poignantly personal.



Given the enormous, and belated, respect Carter commands within the English avant-garde of the late twentieth century, it is perhaps inevitable that recent studies of her work, the present volume included, should wish to commemorate her achievement rather than dwell on her limitations. It is equally inevitable - and quite proper - that dissenting voices will be heard, as the precise contours of that achievement come, with the benefit of dis­ tance, more crisply into view. Already much work on Carter is disrupting what Britzolakis, in this volume, calls the ‘celebratory symbiosis between fiction and theory’ (p. 44). Just as Carter seemed about to ascend to the postmodern feminist pantheon, her socialism, her ambivalent but insistent Englishness, her unruly but equally insistent heterosexuality - characteristics which have perhaps passed without notice for too long —are re-emerging to stall her apotheosis.63 But this is just as well. Carter was suspicious of canons, and would probably not have welcomed unseasoned praise. The work of evaluating and historicizing Carter’s achievement has now begun.64 Even so, as Elaine Jordan points out in her suggestive Afterword, many aspects of Carter’s work remain to be broached in a systematic way: her irony, her poetics and above all her cultural criticism and its relation­ ship to her politics and milieu. Several of our contributors have found themselves confronted by Carter’s contrapuntal relationship to the history of feminism, and by what Keenan calls her ‘capacity to tap into crucial crit­ ical debates . . . long before those debates had been fully staged’ (p. 132). Her early preoccupations, many of them deeply unfashionable at their inception, are now acclaimed as ‘anticipating’ postmodern feminists such as Judith Butler and Donna Haraway in a way it tests the resources of gram­ mar to describe. What does this posthumous recognition, this after-the-fact ‘Butlerification’ of Carter mean for literary history, for feminist histori­ ography, and for Carter’s own project? This volume shows how we might start to answer these pressing questions. NOTES 1. Loma Sage, ‘The soaring imagination’, The Guardian, 17 February 1992, p. 37. 2. Margaret Atwood, ‘Magic token through the dark forest’, The Observer, 23 February 1992, p. 61. 3. This phrase recurs in a number of commentaries on Carter’s writing. It was coined by Amanda Sebestyen, ‘The mannerist marketplace’, New Socialist 47 (March 1987), p. 38. 4. Lorna Sage remarks: ‘W e’re told by the President of the British Academy, Sir Keith Thomas, that last year alone — 1992-93 - there were more than forty


The Infernal Desires of Angela Carter

5. 6. 7. 8. 9. 10.

11. 12. 13. 14. 15. 16. 17. 18. 19. 20.



applicants wanting to do doctorates on Carter, making her by far the most fashionable twentieth-century topic’: ‘Introduction’, in Sage, ed., Flesh and the Mirror: Essays on the Art of Angela Carter (London: Virago Press, 1994), p. 3. The British Academy has responsibility for making state awards to students who wish to pursue graduate research in the humanities. Peter Kemp, ‘Magical history tour’, Sunday Times, 9 June 1991, Section 6, p. 7. Carter published her first four novels with Heinemann. Love (1971) and The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman (1972) were issued by Rupert HartDavis. Fireworks: Nine Profane Pieces (1974) was published by Quartet. Anthony Burgess, cited in Loma Sage, ‘The savage sideshow: a profile of Angela Carter’, New Review 39/40 (1977), p. 51. Catherine Stott, ‘Runaway to the land of promise’, The Guardian, 10 August 1972, p. 9. Sage, ‘The savage sideshow’, p. 51. Virago Press commissioned Carter to edit the following volumes: Wayward Girls and Wicked Women (1986); The Virago Book of Fairy Tales (1990); The Second Virago Book of Fairy Tales (1992). In addition, Virago Press was responsible for issuing British paperback editions of Shadow Dance, Several Perceptions, The Passion of New Eve and Fireworks, as well as bringing together the journalism Carter had published between 1966 and 1982 in Nothing Sacred: Selected Writings (1982). A second edition of Nothing Sacred was issued in 1992. Angela Carter, The Sadeian Woman: An Exercise in Cultural History (London: Virago, 1979), p. 19. Some reviewers found their lexicon of praise tested to the limit. ‘The narrative has a splendid ripe momentum, and each descriptive touch contributes a pang of vividness’, gushed Adam Mars-Jones in ‘From wonders to prodigies’, Times Literary Supplement, 24 September 1984, p. 1083. Robert Nye, ‘Daring young woman’, The Guardian, 25 September 1984, p. 10. John Haffenden, ‘Angela Carter’, in Haffenden, Novelists in Interview (London: Methuen, 1985), p. 81. Ibid., p. 80. Tom Paulin, ‘In an English market’, London Review of Books, 3-17 March 1983, p. 19. Haffenden, ‘Angela Carter’, p. 91. Angela Carter, Wise Children (London: Vintage, 1992), p. 180. Edmund White, ‘Grand, buffoonish and tender’, Times Literary Supplement, 1 June 1991, p. 22. Wise Children reached the longlist of 27 out of 109 novels published in 1991 that were read and evaluated by the judges of the Booker Prize. It is worth noting that the longlist contained only five women writers, and that the shortlist of six novels featured only male writers: Martin Amis, Time's Arrow, Roddy Doyle, The Van; Rohinton Mistry, Such a Long Journey; Timothy Mo, The Redundancy of Courage; Ben Okri, The Famished Road; and William Trevor, Reading Turgenev. Okri carried off the prize. Jeremy Treglown, the chairman of the Booker judges, and Penelope Fitzgerald, a Booker judge that year, com­ mented publicly about the divided opinions among the team of judges, which led to the resignation of novelist Nicholas Mosley when he found all the shortlisted titles unacceptable: ‘Why we chose Famished Road’, The Times, 23 October 1991, p. 14. Isobel Armstrong compares and contrasts Nights at the Circus with Hotel du Lac

Introduction in ‘W oolf by the lake, W oolf at the circus: Carter and tradition’, in Sage, ed., Flesh and the Mirror, pp. 257-78. 22. Anonymous, ‘Angela Carter’, Tfte Times, 17 February 1992, p. 15. 23. Ibid. 24. Kate Chedgzoy’s Shakespeare’s Queer Children (Manchester: Manchester Univer­ sity Press, 1994) sees Carter as a key figure in the cultural history of Shakespeare. 25. Angela Carter, ‘Notes from the Front Line’, in Michelene Wandor, ed., On Gender and Writing (London: Pandora Press, 1983), p. 71. 26. John Bayley, ‘Fighting for the crown’, New York Review of Books, 23 April 1992, p. 10. 27. Ibid., p. 9. 28. Hermione Lee, ‘ “A Room of O ne’s Own, or a Bloody Chamber”: Angela Carter and political correctness’, in Sage, ed., Flesh and the Mirror, pp. 311-13. 29. Bayley, ‘Fighting for the crown’, p. 9. 30. Angela Carter, ‘The Company of Wolves’, in idem, The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1981), p. 118. 31. Bayley, ‘Fighting for the crown’, p. 11. 32. Writers in Conversation: Angela Carter, video (London: Institute of Contempor­ ary Arts, 1987). 33. Carter’s ambivalence towards England and its cultural icons was taken up by Carmen Callil, who found in Wise Children ‘a novel of Thatcher’s Britain, a Britain split in two’. ‘Flying jewellery’, Sunday Times, 23 February 1992, Sec­ tion 7, p. 6. 34. Angela Carter, Nothing Sacred: Selected Writings (London: Virago, 1992), p. 70. 35. Carter, Writers in Conversation. 36. Carter, ‘Notes from the Front Line’, p. 73. 37. Carter, ‘Love in a Cold Climate’, in idem, Nothing Sacred, p. 167.‘Love in a Cold Climate’ was first delivered as a paper atthe University of Pisa in 1990. 38. Carter, ‘Notes from the Front Line’, p. 69. 39. Ibid., p. 70. 40. Angela Carter, The Magic Toyshop (London: Virago, 1981), p. 1. 41. On Carter’s unsympathetic response to radical feminism, see Merja Makinen, ‘Sexual/textual aggression in The Sadeian Woman and The Passion of New Eve\ Chapter 9 in this volume, and Paulina Palmer, ‘Gender as performance in the fiction of Angela Carter and Margaret Atwood’, Chapter 1 in this volume. 42. Haffenden, ‘Angela Carter’, p. 93. 43. Ibid., pp. 93-4. 44. John Mortimer, ‘The stylish prime of Miss Carter’, Sunday Times, 24 January 1982, p. 36. 45. Ibid. 46. Patricia Duncker, ‘Re-imagining the fairy tales: Angela Carter’s bloody cham­ bers’, Literature and History 10:1 (1984), p. 6. There are at least two further essays that adopt a similar critical line to Duncker’s discussion: Robert Clark, ‘Angela Carter’s desire machine’, Women’s Studies 14 (1987), pp. 147—61; and Avis Lewallen, ‘Wayward girls but wicked women? Female sexuality in Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber’, in Gary Day and Clive Bloom, eds, Perspectives on Pornography: Sexuality in Film and Literature (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1988), pp. 144—58. In a more recent essay, Duncker scrutinizes the limits to Carter’s distinctly heterosexual outlook on desire: ‘She uses the themes, the icono­ graphy, the methods of Gothic, she gives us the marvellous, the monstrous and


The Infernal Desires of Angela Carter

47. 48. 49. 50. 51. 52.

53. 54. 55. 56. 57. 58.


the nakedly (hetero)sexual, tough mercenary women and Oedipal passions. But she constructs heterosexuality as the maze, the labyrinth within which we must find answers to the questions: what is man? what is a woman? what is a bird? what are the shapes of desire?’ Duncker’s point is that the Gothic is tradition­ ally a far more queer genre than Carter’s rewritings would ever suggest: ‘Queer Gothic: Angela Carter and the lost narratives of sexual subversion’, Critical Survey 8:1 (1996), p. 65. Duncker, ‘Re-imagining the fairy tales’, pp. 6-7. The quotation from ‘The Company of Wolves’ is from The Bloody Chamber, p. 110. Duncker, ‘Re-imagining the fairy tales’, p. 7. Ibid. See Andrea Dworkin, Pornography: Men Possessing Women (London: W omen’s Press, 1981). Carter, The Sadeian Woman, p. 37. Merja Makinen, ‘Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber and the decolonization of feminine sexuality’, Feminist Review 42 (1992), pp. 4—5. There are several essays whose affirmative readings of Carter’s fiction bear comparison with Makinen’s important discussion, including most of the contributions to Sage, ed., Flesh and the Mirror. See, in particular, Elaine Jordan, ‘The dangers of Angela Carter’, in Isobel Armstrong, ed., New Feminist Discourses: Critical Essays on Theories and Texts (London: Routledge, 1992), pp. 119-31; Loma Sage, Angela Carter, Writers and Their Work (Plymouth: Northcote House, 1994); and Robin Ann Sheets, ‘Pornography, fairy tales, and feminism: Angela Carter’s “The Bloody Chamber” ’, Journal of the History of Sexuality 1:4 (1991), pp. 633-57. A more sceptical approach to Carter’s writing, which claims that her later work is much more liberatory than her earlier fictions, is to be found in Paulina Palmer, ‘From “coded mannequin” to bird woman: Angela Carter’s magic flight’, in Sue Roe, ed., Women Reading Women's Writing (Brighton: Harvester Press, 1987), pp. 179-205. Makinen, ‘Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber and the decolonization of fem­ inine sexuality’, p. 5. Elaine Jordan, ‘Enthralment: Angela Carter’s speculative fictions’, in Linda Anderson, ed., Plotting Change: Contemporary Women's Fiction (London: Edward Arnold, 1990), p. 35. Carter, The Sadeian Woman, p. 9. Here Palmer echoes Patricia Duncker’s suggestion that performativity alone does not add up to radical politics: ‘Femininity is performance. W omen are men’s creations. But it’s been said before. Many times’: Duncker, ‘Queer Gothic’, p. 66. Paul Barker’s account of Carter’s career as an essayist fleshes out this picture of a freelance working life spent on the outer rim of artistic, and often physical, safety: ‘The return of the magic story-teller’, Independent on Sunday, 8 January 1995, Review Section, pp. 14-15. Robert Rawdon Wilson has noted the danger of reading Carter as a postmodern stylist at the expense of her equally postmodern sense of historicity: of celebrat­ ing her craftiness, her plays on language, genre and intertext, and her somer­ saults over national and temporal boundaries, while neglecting those aspects of her work that are grittily localized and precisely timed. To ignore the context of Carter’s fiction - either its setting or its moment of production - may be to miss her concern for ‘human deprivation, what has not found fulfilment in history’.


59. 60. 61. 62. 63.


Attention to context, in other words, may foreground a fiercer Carter: Carter as social critic rather than as whimsical bricoleuse: ‘SLIP PAGE: Angela Carter, in/out/in the post-modern nexus’, in Ian Adam and Helen Tiffin, eds, Past the Last Post: Theorizing Post-Colonialism and Post-Modernism (Hemel Hempstead: Harvester-Wheatsheaf, 1991), p. 120. Angela Carter, Heroes and Villains (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1986), p. 137. Paul Barker, ‘Return of the magic story-teller’, p. 14. Angela Carter, ed., The Virago Book of Fairy Tales (London: Virago, 1991), p. x. As Sally Keenan points out, The Sadeian Woman was commissioned by Virago Press to launch its ground-breaking feminist publishing house in 1977. It did not appear, however, until 1979. See, for instance, Patricia Duncker’s comment: ‘Carter never attempts to ima­ gine queer subjectivity, although male subjectivity presents no problems. She was not interested in doing so. Fair enough. Why should she be interested? But if your subject is sex and sexuality in all its forms, and if you are anxious to present your writing as subversive, transgressive, radical, and if queer Gothic is one of your sources; then the silence begins to speak.’ (‘Queer Gothic’, p. 67.) As well as the contributions to this volume, we would cite Elaine Jordan’s ‘Down the road, or history rehearsed’, in Francis Barker, Peter Hulme and Mar­ garet Iversen, eds, Postmodernism and the Re-reading of Modernity (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1992), pp. 159—79.



Gender as performance in the fiction of Angela Carter and Margaret Atwood Paulina Palmer


Gender as performance, a concept which in the 1990s has achieved prom­ inence in theoretical writing in psychoanalysis and gender studies, is generally employed to analyse constructs of femininity and masculinity in society and to discuss forms of role-play in the lesbian and gay community. However, as I hope to demonstrate in this chapter, since gender and sexuality are important themes in contemporary literature, it also furnishes a useful tool in interpreting works of fiction. Its significance in this respect is illustrated by the fact that certain aspects of the fiction of two writers as different as Angela Carter and Margaret Atwood respond fruitfully to an analysis of this kind. Before turning to their texts, I will define the key features of the concept and summarize some of the different versions that have recently emerged. The theorization of gender and performativity is chiefly associated with the writing of Judith Butler. Although Butler is by no means its first or only proponent, she gives the most detailed and complex account. Gender, she argues, rather than reflecting an essence, is constituted through a set of ‘discursively constrained performative acts that produce the body through and within the categories of sex’.1 This has a bearing on sexual politics. It provides us with a means to denaturalize and deconstruct the conventional view of reality as interior essence and the belief, related to it, that hetero­ sexual gender roles are ‘normal’ and ‘natural’. As Butler observes, ‘Reality is fabricated as an interior essence . . . Acts and gestures, articulated and enacted desires create the illusion of an interior and organising gender core’. The


Gender as performance in the fiction of Carter and Atwood

fabrication of this illusion is, she maintains, by no means innocent but is ‘discursively maintained for the purposes of the regulation of sexuality within the obligatory frame of reproductive heterosexuality’.2 Emphasizing the rel­ evance of these ideas to the understanding of lesbian and gay roles, Butler argues that: The ‘presence’ of so-called heterosexual conventions within homosexual contexts as well as the proliferation of specifically gay discourses of sexual difference, as in the case of ‘butch’ and ‘femme’ as historical identities of sexual style, cannot be explained as chimerical representations of originally heterosexual identities. And neither can they be understood as the pernicious insistence of heterosexual constructs within gay sexuality and identity.3

Rather than passively reproducing heterosexual identities, lesbian and gay roles, in Butler’s view, serve a deconstructive purpose. As she points out, The repetition of heterosexual constructs within sexual cultures both gay and straight may well be the inevitable site of the denaturalization and mobilisation of gender categories. The replication of heterosexual constructs in non heterosexual frames brings into relief the utterly constructed status of the so-called heterosexual original.4

Thus, butch/femme and drag roles, instead of reflecting original hetero­ sexual identities, have the effect, Butler argues, of exposing and highlighting their constructed aspect. They achieve this by means of the element of par­ ody and ‘excess’ they display. Butler’s ideas about the performative aspects of gender are relevant to the interpretation of the lesbian role-play of the 1950s, encouraging us, as Clare Whatling suggests, to re-evaluate it and regard it from a fresh perspective. Whatling claims: The butch/femme stance of the 1950s, instead of figuring as a rigid imitation of heterosexual roles, in fact plays with visual assumptions about gender and sexuality, taking the limited erotic categories available to lesbians at the time and transforming them into something very different and highly subversive . . .3

Whatling’s interpretation of the 1950s lesbian social scene is, of course, controversial. Certain women who participated in the role-play of the period, such as Julia Penelope and Noretta Koertge, have a different viewpoint.6 They remember it not as subversive but as oppressive and psychologically damaging.7 However, Whatling’s comments are of interest since, conten­ tious though they are, they illustrate the kind of re-evaluation of roles and identities that Butler’s analysis of the performative aspects of gender promotes. Butler concludes her discussion, in fact, by observing that ‘gay is to straight


The Infernal Desires of Angela Carter not as copy is to original, but, rather, as copy is to copy. The parodie repe­ tition of the “original” . . . reveals it to be nothing other than a parody of the idea of the natural and the original’.8 Butler’s is not the only version of ‘gender as performance’ that has achieved currency in recent years. The French theorist Luce Irigaray pro­ poses an alternative one. Irigaray’s version, which predates Butler’s and has exerted an influence on it, concentrates attention not on lesbian and gay roles but on femininity and its construction. Basing her analysis on the con­ cept of feminine masquerade, associated in psychoanalysis with Joan Riviere,9 Irigaray describes the masquerade as the acting out on the part of the female subject of a set of male-defined roles and scripts. She comments: I think that the masquerade has to be understood as what women do in order to recuperate some element of desire, to participate in man’s desire, but at the price of renouncing their own. In the masquerade, they submit to the dominant [male] economy of desire in an attempt to remain ‘on the market’ in spite of everything.10

Irigaray, however, does not leave the matter there, with woman releg­ ated to the position of passive victim of male scripting. She recommends a strategy of resistance which women can employ to challenge and elude maledefined identities. She calls this ‘playing with mimesis’.11 Woman, Irigaray argues, by parodically mimicking conventional images of femininity, can expose their artifice and inauthenticity. In this way, she can avoid being subject to male control and achieve a degree of agency. An advantage of the theory of mimesis, as Carole-Anne Tyler remarks, is that it ‘provides an alternative to adopting a masculine (and masculinist) point of view, without necessitating a naive idealist or essentialist belief in the ability to access a “genuine” femininity beyond patriarchal féminisation and the social con­ struction of gender’.12 There are obvious similarities between Irigaray’s theory of mimesis and Butler’s concept of gender as performance. This is understandable, as the ideas of the two reflect a similar source. Both are influenced by, and revise, the psychoanalytic theory of Jacques Lacan. Their accounts of gender, as a result, are similarly anti-essentialist in emphasis and foreground the in­ authenticity of gender roles. They argue that the performance of a parodie version of femininity, or, in Butler’s case, of drag or butch/femme roles, has the effect of deconstructing hetero-patriarchal gender roles and identities, thus exposing their very constructedness. Challenging though these theories are, they do share certain shortcomings. From a practical point of view, mimesis and ‘gender as performance’ are admittedly problematic. How can we differentiate a woman who is passively enacting a male-defined image of femininity from one who is subversively


Gender as performance in the fiction of Carter and Atwood

‘playing with mimesis’? How can we distinguish between a male-identified lesbian who regards the butch role as innate, and a lesbian who employs it playfully and subversively? And what about the femme role? How, unless she is accompanied by her butch partner, can one distinguish a femme les­ bian from a feminine heterosexual woman? Is not a poststructuralist posi­ tion easily confused with an essentialist? Moreover, as Tyler points out, ‘If all identities are alienated and fictional [as Lacanian-based psychoanalysis claims], then the distinction between parody, mimicry or camp, or playing it straight is no longer self-evident. What makes the one credible and the other incredible, when both are fictions?’13 Our ability to answer this question, Tyler suggests, depends, first, on the intention of the performer, since, she argues, ‘Parody is legible in the drama of gender performance if someone meant to script it, intending it to be there’.14 Secondly, it depends on her/his ability to introduce a note ofparodic excess and incongruity into the gender performance to prevent the viewer from regarding it as straight. As Tyler emphasizes, it is this element of excess that prevents the mimetic and parodic performance of gender being misinterpreted and seen in an essentialist light. Despite the attraction they hold for students of queer theory and gender studies, both ‘playing with mimesis’ and ‘gender as performance’ remain con­ cepts that are, in my view, problematic. An obvious difficulty is that the challenge they direct at the hetero-patriarchal system takes place not in the daylight realm of overt political resistance but in the shadowy, slippery world of image, appearance and ‘surface’. Can a strategy of this kind be politically effective? Or is the idea of gender as performance, as critics such as Sheila Jeffreys claim,15 superficial politically as well as literally —a sell-out to soci­ ety’s current obsession with stylizing the body and the erotic? Carter and Atwood are primarily creative writers, and, as a result, they employ the ideas of performativity and mimesis discussed above imaginat­ ively rather than discursively. Their treatment of them is, as we shall see, varied, involving a range of different emphases and contexts. Rather than discussing Carter’s approach in isolation, I have chosen to compare it with that of her Canadian contemporary Atwood. This strategy has the advant­ age of casting into relief the distinctive features of Carter’s texts, highlighting their limitations as well as their strengths. A comparison of the two writers’ treatment of motifs of theatricality and ‘gender as performance’, as well as revealing points of connection and alerting attention to the interests they share, also exposes points of difference in terms of perspective and horizon. The theories of Butler and Irigaray provide an appropriate frame for dis­ cussing Carter’s and Atwood’s writings, since they offer an insight into their representation of gender and relations between the sexes, as well as their manipulation of male-defined images of femininity.


The Infernal Desires of Angela Carter

C A R T E R : T H E M A G IC T O Y S H O P , N IG H T S A T T H E C IR C U S A N D W IS E C H IL D R E N A focus on the construction of femininity and its links with performance is, in fact, central to Carter’s writing. To start with, her novels frequently introduce themes, and employ locations, relating to theatre. Some of the most important episodes in The Magic Toyshop (1967) take place in the theatre where Melanie’s tyrannical Uncle Philip manipulates puppets and, when he has the opportunity, human beings into performing scenarios of his own invention. These frequently represent themes of a sexual kind, as in his dra­ matic enactment of the mythological topos of the rape of Leda by the swan, in which Melanie is forced to participate. Carter’s passion for the theatrical is even more evident in Nights at the Circus (1984), since the protagonist Fevvers is a music-hall artiste. As I have illustrated elsewhere,16 in the latter novel Carter inventively exploits the camivalesque connotations of the circus ring. Buffo, the leading clown in the circus troupe, is described as ‘the Lord of Misrule’;17 indeed, his feats of self-deconstruction in the ring, wearing ‘his insides on his outside’ (p. 116), recall Mikhail Bakhtin’s vision of car­ nival: a world in which ‘objects are turned inside out’ in accordance with the symbolic ‘destruction of the old and the birth of the new’ that carnival celebrates.18 However, rather than employing Bakhtinian ideas of carnival unquestioningly, Carter exposes their misogynistic aspect. The brutal slap­ stick in which the clowns engage is by no means funny but verges, at times, on the murderous. The dance they perform is described as ‘cheerless arab­ esques as of the damned’ (p. 243), and, as the narrative progresses, the circus ring, with its hierarchy of male performers and ‘camivalesque proceedings’ (p. 146), becomes a potent image for the patriarchal social order. Carter’s last novel, Wise Children (1991), in exploring the fortunes of two theatrical families, the Chances and the Hazards, focuses even more prom­ inently on theatre. It introduces parodic versions of the plays of Shakespeare and explores the contradictions inherent in the concept of performance, both on stage and off. Acting is in the Chance family’s blood. Describing the antecedents of herself and her twin Nora, Dora Chance comments: Sometime in or around the year 1870 (her date of birth, like that of so many actresses, a movable feast) our paternal grandmother was bom in a trunk and trod the boards from toddler-hood as fairy, phantom, goblin, eventually, an old stager of eight (give or take a year or two) making her London debut as Mamilius in The Winter’s Tale at the Theatre Royal, Haymarket.19

The twins likewise devote themselves to theatre and the new medium of film, acting in numerous productions of Shakespeare and experiencing the


Gender as performance in the fiction of Carter and Atwood

pleasures and hardships of a theatrical lifestyle. The personal dimension of their lives, reflected in their relations with men, as well as their public per­ formances on stage, focus emphatically on the concept of ‘theatre’. In addition to introducing a variety of theatrical motifs and locations, Carter also associates gender with performativity. As early as 1977, in The Passion of New Eve , she indicates her interest in the motif by interrogating the construction of the feminine role and foregrounding its artifice. It is ambigu­ ous, in my opinion, whether, at this stage of her career, she regards all roles and identities as constructs or whether she accepts an ‘onion’ view of sub­ jectivity, with the subject peeling off layers of unauthentic roles to reveal ‘the true self’. While seeking to demonstrate that gender and identity are constructs, she sometimes slips inadvertently into an essentialist position, as in the episode where she portrays the freedom-fighter Leilah in terms of an authentic feminist ‘self\ The Passion of New Eve is, in the words of Carter, an ‘anti-mythic novel’, illustrating her conviction that ‘all myths are products of the human mind and reflect only aspects of material human practice’. She describes the novel as ‘a feminist tract about the social creation of fem­ ininity’.20 As the title signals, the myth she chooses to deconstruct and rewrite on this occasion is the biblical story of the creation of Eve. The eponymous protagonist Evelyn, a male chauvinist of the worst kind, wearies of city life and, on leaving the urban environment where he resides, becomes lost in the surrounding desert. Here he is captured by a band of feminist guerrilla fighters who deliver him to their leader Mother, a parodic portrayal of a matriarchal superwoman. Mother is currently engaged in an experiment to create the perfect woman and, on meeting Evelyn, decides that he represents suitable material. The portrayal of Mother and the radical feminist community she rules is an anti-feminist caricature, illustrating the misogyny and hetero­ sexism to which Carter, in her wish to challenge the reader’s preconceptions about gender and create sexually provocative images, sometimes descends. The novel introduces, in fact, three different examples of the performat­ ive aspects of gender. The first hinges on the figure of the male-to-female transsexual Evelyn/Eve. His enforced metamorphosis into a woman involves, Carter emphasizes, two separate stages. The sex operation he undergoes serves merely to transform him biologically. It is the subsequent inculcation of the attributes of dependence and passivity that women are expected to display, and his enactment of them, that make him truly feminine. Another example of the construction of femininity in the novel is Leilah, the black prostitute with whom, in the opening chapters, Evelyn has an affair. Towards the close of the narrative, Leilah casts off the roles of sex object and vamp, which she has performed up to now, and unexpectedly reveals herself as a feminist fighter. This identity, Carter implies, represents her ‘true self’; the former is dismissed as mere play-acting.


The Infernal Desires of Angela Carter

However, the most interesting example of gender as performance in the novel, and the one that most clearly anticipates the theories of Irigaray and Butler, is the film star Tristessa. Tristessa, modelled on Greta Garbo, is, in the opening stages of the text, the object of Evelyn’s obsessive infatuation. Subsequently, however, this alluring figure, the epitome of female narcissism and glamour, is discovered to be not a woman at all but a man mas­ querading in drag. The interesting fact about Tristessa is that, in achieving a sex change, she employs neither surgery nor psychological conditioning. Her willed performance of femininity, combined with her audience’s belief that she is a woman, are sufficient, Carter suggests, to make her one. In the episodes centring on her, Carter, as well as poking fun at the gullibility of the general public, highlights the connections between gender and fan­ tasy, gender and illusion. Evelyn/Eve, the reader notes, far from being disappointed by the discovery that his goddess of the silver screen is a man, is impressed by the revelation. He/she expresses admiration for Tristessa’s powers of self-invention and goes so far as to admit that he prefers her per­ formance of femininity to the real thing. As he provocatively remarks, ‘Tristessa, the sensuous fabrication of the mythology of the flea-pits. How could a real woman ever have been so much a woman as you?’21 This re­ mark is ambiguous in significance. In equating femininity with artifice and rejecting an essentialist approach to gender in favour of a constructionist one, it is avant-garde and looks forward to the poststructuralist approach to gender current in the 1980s and 1990s. However, in celebrating Tristessa’s artificial performance of femininity and questioning whether 4a real woman’ can compete with it, it misogynistically implies that ‘real’ biological women are inferior and redundant. The fear that an uncritical acceptance of maleto-female transsexualism/transvestism will generate a new breed of woman embodying patriarchal codes of ornamental, passive femininity that will usurp the place of biological women and make them de trop is expressed by the theorist Janice Raymond in The Transsexual Empire (1979), a work popular with feminists in the early 1980s. It is noticeable that, rather than adopting a radical feminist approach to the topic as Raymond does, Carter takes an anti-feminist line. The representation of Tristessa is, in fact, distinctly anti-feminist. Until the advent o f ‘queer’ theory, and the ascendancy of Butlerian perspectives, feminists tended to look askance at the phenomenon of drag and male trans­ vestism, accusing the transvestite of mocking women by advertising, in his performance, the lack that, in a phallocentric culture, femininity conven­ tionally signifies.22 The terms in which Evelyn/Eve celebrates Tristessa are, from this point of view, notably suspect. Tristessa is portrayed as ‘the per­ fect man’s woman’ who, while exemplifying, on the one hand, the Irigarayan feminine masquerade in which woman enacts a male script, represents, on


Gender as performance in the fiction of Carter and Atwood

the other, the phallic woman who unites masculinity and femininity, sub­ ject and object, within a single body. As Evelyn/Eve comments: That was why he [Tristessa] had been the perfect man’s woman! He had made himself the shrine of his own desires, had made of himself the only woman he could have loved! If a woman is indeed beautiful only in so far as she incarnates most completely the secret aspirations of man, no wonder Tristessa had been able to become the most beautiful woman in the world, an unbegotten woman who made no concessions to humanity. (pp. 128-9)

In general terms, the representation of femininity in Carter’s fiction re­ flects two contrary approaches. One we might call ‘femininity as entrapment’, the other ‘femininity as self-invention and role mobilization’. Her trajectory as a writer displays, I would argue, a shift from the former to the latter. Irigaray’s theories of masquerade and mimesis furnish a basis for the inter­ pretation of both. Irigaray defines masquerade, as we have seen, as the female enactment of male-orchestrated scripts and roles, which results in women ‘submitting to the dominant economy of desire’.23 This is the position Carter assigns to the female characters in her early texts. Here, she represents woman as a puppet, performing scripts assigned to her by a male-supremacist culture. The Infernal Desire Machines of Dr Hoffman (1972) introduces the surreal image of the mutant prostitutes, part woman, part vegetable, pro­ viding entertainment for men and furnishing a spectacle for the male gaze. In The Magic Toyshop the protagonist Melanie becomes, metaphorically speak­ ing, another puppet for her uncle to manipulate and control. The roles she performs at his instigation include the conventionally feminine ones of wood nymph, bride and (the reverse side of the coin to these romantic, decorat­ ive personae) victim of rape. Subsequently, however, from the publication of Nights at the Circus on­ wards, Carter’s fiction undergoes a change of focus. An emphasis on woman entrapped in masquerade is replaced by the portrayal of her subversively playing with mimesis. Mimesis, according to Irigaray, represents a strategy to elude male scripting; as she observes: ‘To play with mimesis is, for a woman, to try to recover the place of her exploitation by discourse, without allow­ ing herself to be simply reduced to it.’ It enables her to expose and ‘make visible, by an effect of playful repetition, what was supposed to remain invis­ ible: the cover up of a possible operation of the feminine in language’.24 The concept of ‘playing with mimesis’ is, in fact, very much to the fore in Carter’s later works. Fewers, in Nights at the Circus, engages in an exuberant version of it. She playfully mobilizes and parodies the images of womanhood available in nineteenth-century culture, assuming at different periods of her life the roles of music-hall artiste, femme fatale and proto­ feminist. In order to highlight the oppressive nature of the misogynistic


The Infernal Desires of Angela Carter

stereotypes that Fewers has to negotiate, Carter concentrates attention on the attempts made by her male admirers and acquaintances to confine her within conventional definitions. ‘Angel of death’, ‘queen of ambiguities’, ‘spectacle’ and ‘freak’ are some of the titles imposed on her by men. How­ ever, the typecasting of her in these roles does not prevent Fewers from achieving a strong degree of agency and self-determination. In her perform­ ances, off stage as well as on, she strives - often precariously - to elude male control, and remains, in general, triumphantly in charge of her own pro­ duction. Whether her marriage to Walser, with which the novel concludes, has the effect of curbing her freedom or whether she succeeds in preserving a degree of independence is a question that Carter leaves open. A focus on gender as ‘playing with mimesis’ is even more prominent in Wise Children. On stage, the twins’ performance of male roles, including Hamlet, entertains audiences and wins applause. The female enactment of this classic male role is significant in terms of sexual politics, exposing the fact that masculinity is a construct. In her discussion of female theatrical cross-dressing Kristina Straub remarks that the actress who masquerades in male dress ‘gestures towards the performative nature of male sexuality, ques­ tioning its “naturalness” through strategic mimicry’.25 In their private life the twins likewise manipulate gender roles, playfully subverting conventional expectations of ladylike behaviour. They praise the spunky and imaginative way Grandma Chance has ‘invented herself’ (p. 28) and mischievously play around with their identical appearance for personal amusement — and to make fools of men. Nora, as an unusual birthday present, allows Dora to impersonate her in bed with her boyfriend. Conventional gender roles, in this instance, are reversed. The two women control the situation, while the man is relegated to the subordinate position of sex-object and toy boy. Instead of woman cementing bonds between men, as is generally the case under patriarchy, man cements the tie of affection between two women. This episode, in keeping with the novel’s theatrical focus, also parodies the conventional theatrical device of the ‘bed-trick’, employed by Shakespeare in Measure for Measure and A ll’s Well That Ends Well, where one woman takes the place of another in a man’s bed. Carter’s treatment of gender and performativity, as my discussion of her texts illustrates, is multi-faceted, involving a range of different contexts and points of view. The representation of woman entrapped in male-scripted forms of masquerade in her early writings is replaced in her later works by images of woman subversively ‘playing with mimesis’. However, diverse though her treatment is, it reveals limitations, since she makes little attempt in either set of texts to interrogate the concept of ‘gender as performance’ or to explore its problematic aspects. If, as Christina Britzolakis suggests, critics interpret Carter’s focus on theatricality and ‘gender as performance’


Gender as performance in the fiction of Carter and Atwood

as liberatory per se - ‘synonymous’, as Britzolakis puts it, ‘with her selfproclaimed project of “investigating” femininity as one of “the social fictions that regulate our lives” ’26 - this is because Carter herself depicts it in this light. For a more complex and critical treatment of ideas of gender and performativity, we need to turn to the fiction of Carter’s contemporary, Atwood. The Robber Bride (1993), one of Atwood’s most recent novels, far from reproducing such ideas uncritically, in my view questions and problematizes them. The Robber Bride can be read, I shall argue, as inter­ rogating the idea of mimesis and exposing the problems it poses for women - feminists in particular.

A T W O O D : T H E H A N D M A ID ’S T A L E , T H E E D IB L E W O M A N A N D T H E R O B B E R B R ID E Theories of masquerade and mimesis, and the performative approach to gender that they reflect, are pertinent to the representation of femininity in Atwood’s fiction. Femininity as entrapment, with the female subject enact­ ing male-scripted masquerades, is a recurrent theme in Atwood’s novels. The Edible Woman (1969) and Surfacing (1972) portray characters who are manipulated by the male gaze into enacting male-defined roles. In both texts Atwood employs the camera lens as a symbolic extension of the gaze. The control that the gaze exerts on women is a theme that clearly interests her. It runs like a thread through her novels and stories, linking the different periods of her writing. In recent years, her analysis of the way the gaze func­ tions has become more detailed, involving a greater debt to psychoanalysis. Simultaneously, her representation of the difficulty that women encounter in liberating themselves from its control has become more pessimistic. Em­ phasis is increasingly placed on the unconscious workings of fantasy, on the way women involuntarily internalize a phallocentric viewpoint, and on their inability to escape the gaze’s controlling power. To exist constantly as a target of voyeurism, objectified either by other people’s eyes or by one’s own, is represented, in her fiction, as an ineluctable fact of female existence. In The Robber Bride, for example, Atwood takes pains to remind the reader in an authorial aside that ‘You are a woman with a man inside watching a woman. You are your own voyeur.’27 Exposing the double bind in which women are trapped, she remarks with grim irony: Even pretending you aren’t catering for male fantasies is a male fantasy: pretending you’re unseen, pretending you have a life of your own, that


The Infernal Desires of Angela Carter you can wash your feet and comb your hair unconscious of the ever-present watcher peering through the key hole in your head, if no where else. (P- 392)

In addition to the mechanics of the gaze and the influence it exerts on women, Atwood’s fiction deploys the performative aspects of gender in other ways. The Handmaid's Tale (1985), a dystopian account of the totalit­ arian theocracy of Gilead and its misogynistic policies, takes as its theme the oppressive scripts and identities that patriarchal culture assigns to women. In depicting the punitive treatment to which Gilead law subjects women, Atwood creates a series of elaborate and perverse variations on the feminine masquerade. Women are forced to wear restrictive clothing and are slotted into a set of repressive roles that reflect highly formalized versions of tra­ ditional stereotypes of femininity. These include Handmaids, Marthas and, at the bottom of the pile, Unwomen. It is not only women’s appearance that is subject to male control but also their bodies and psyches. Influenced by the emphasis on procreation that characterizes the society of Gilead, Offred internalizes the perspectives of her oppressors and ceases to see her body as a vehicle for personal agency and pleasure. She starts to envisage herself as a mere ‘container’, ‘a two-legged womb’.28 Her lack of control over her own life and the mental isolation she endures as a prisoner in the Commander’s house are accentuated by her poignant memories of the selfdetermination and fulfilling relationships she enjoyed in the past, before the state of Gilead was established. A significant feature of Atwood’s delineation of the performative aspects of gender, one that is foregrounded in The Handmaid's Tale, is the emphasis placed on ritual. Her focus on the oppressive aspects of ritual in this novel reveals links with that of Carter who, in The Magic Toyshop, portrays Melanie being forced by her uncle to perform ritualized versions of femininity in his puppet theatre. However, Atwood’s treatment of the topic is more intel­ lectually coherent than Carter’s and makes reference not only to the private sphere of the family but also to the public realm of civic government. Like the feminist theorist Mary Daly, Atwood in The Handmaid’s Tale represents patriarchal culture as enforcing domination of women through a series of ‘Sado-Rituals’. These, as Daly comments, have the effect of ‘legitimating the fact that the women who are the primary victims of the rites are erased physically as well as spiritually’. They successfully silence women and, in addition, ensure that they are ‘physically and psychically maimed’.29 The life of the citizens of Gilead abounds with public rituals with mystificatory names, such as Salvagings (executions) (p. 287) and Prayvaganzas (communal rejoi­ cings) (p. 232). Offred’s personal life revolves around a ritual, too - the act of sexual penetration by the Commander, ironically entitled ‘the Ceremony’.


Gender as performance in the fiction of Carter and Atwood

Despite its dignified name, the Ceremony is the performance of institutional­ ized rape, it enacts and symbolically denotes male domination of women. Up to now I have focused attention on Atwood’s representation of women entrapped in male-defined roles. Yet the numerous cast of female characters portrayed in her fiction includes survivors as well as victims. Even in her early novels she succeeds in maintaining a tension between the re­ presentation of woman as subject to male scripting, and the portrayal of her as autonomous agent, capable of negotiating and eluding patriarchal control. She recognized earlier than Carter (and earlier than the rest of us!) the prin­ ciples of ‘playing with mimesis’, and their value as a strategy to resist male dominance. In 1969, before Irigaray had in fact coined the term, Atwood, in the portrayal of Marian in The Edible Woman, created a protagonist who employs performative tactics of this kind to resist male power. In order to liberate herself from the control of the male gaze, exemplified by the inex­ orable lens of her fiancé Peter’s camera, and to escape the syndrome of anorexia in which she is entrapped, Marian parodically manipulates the male fantasy of woman as edible commodity. She bakes a cake in the shape of a woman and, in a symbolic gesture, offers it as a gift (an ironically appropriate one!) to Peter. Atwood highlights the ritualistic nature of her performance: She went into the kitchen and returned bearing the platter with the cake in front of her, carefully and with reverence, as though she was carrying something sacred in a procession, an icon or the crown on a cushion in a play. She knelt, setting the platter on the coffee-table in front of Peter. Y o u ’ve been trying to destroy me, haven’t you,’ she said. Y o u ’ve been trying to assimilate me. But I’ve made you a substitute, something you’ll like much better. This is what you really wanted all along, isn’t it? I’ll get you a fork,’ she added somewhat prosaically. Peter stared from the cake to her face and back again. She wasn’t smiling. His eyes widened in alarm. Apparently he didn’t find her silly.30

Peter is, understandably, rattled by her behaviour and scuttles off, non­ plussed. The cake, however, is not wasted since Marian tucks into it her­ self. Atwood describes how, after his departure, ‘Suddenly she was hungry. Extremely hungry. The cake after all was only a cake. She picked up the platter, carried it to the kitchen table and located a fork. “I’ll start with the feet,” she decided.’31 The mimetic performance in which she has engaged has proved successful - and she finds herself able to eat again. Atwood’s representation of femininity in The Robber Bride, a particularly rich and psychologically intricate text, also responds fruitfully to a reading in terms of gender as performance. The novel teems with examples of the motif, some of them disconcertingly violent. Consider, for example, R oz’s account of her victimization at the hands of her womanizing husband


The Infernal Desires of Angela Carter

Mitch. Looking back on her relationship with him after he has deserted her, she recalls how: She’d kept on playing the knife-thrower’s assistant, in her sparkly costume, with her arms and legs splayed out, standing still and smiling while the knives thudded into the wall, tracing the outline of her body. Flinch and you’re dead. It was inevitable that one day, by accident or on purpose, she’d get hit. (p. 374)

The circus imagery of the knife-thrower and his female assistant is employed to powerful effect in this passage. It vividly expresses the masochistic thrill, and the exciting sense of playing with danger and submitting to someone stronger, in a position of power, which make sexual involvements of this kind so attractive —and so addictive —to the women who become enmeshed in them. This imagery can be fruitfully compared with certain passages from Carter’s Nights at the Circus. Both writers employ circus and fairground motifs to represent and explore the performative aspects of gender. How­ ever, Atwood’s use of them is, in my view, more analytic than Carter’s. In its recognition of the pleasure women can take in enacting perverse sexual scenarios, along with their masochistic propensity to cast themselves in the role of victim and derive enjoyment from the experience, it is also more disquieting. The note of melodrama and excess that characterizes the pas­ sage admirably suits the emotions Atwood seeks to convey. It functions, in addition, as a distancing device and alerts our attention to the stereotypical nature of the role that Roz, in her relations with her husband, has been enacting. Atwood brilliantly pinpoints the fascination that a masochistic posi­ tion holds for women, and the promise of emotional intimacy it appears to offer, as well as the inextricable mingling of pleasure and pain it involves.32 The Robber Bride, seen as a whole, can perhaps be interpreted as a parodie version of mimesis: a critical exposé of what happens when the strategy of mimesis gets into the wrong hands - when a woman like Zenia, the witch­ like megalomaniac figure with a thirst for power who dominates the novel, unscrupulously manipulates male fantasies and images of femininity in order to control and exploit people. Zenia, Atwood emphasizes, is a type rather than an individual. Commenting on her activities and her ability to exploit male projections of women, she warns the reader: Meanwhile the Zenias of this world are abroad in the land, plying their trade cleaning out male pockets, catering to male fantasies. Male fantasies, male fantasies, is everything run by male fantasies? Up on a pedestal, down on your knees, it’s all a male fantasy: that you’re strong enough to take what they dish out, or else too weak to do anything about i t . . . The Zenias of this world have studied this situation and turned it


Gender as performance in the fiction of Carter and Atwood to their own advantage; they haven’t let themselves be moulded into male fantasies, they’ve done it themselves. (P- 392)

The most dangerous of Zenia’s attributes, and one that she utilizes with particularly devastating effect, is her expertise in the art of performance and self-invention. She produces herself in a series of different roles, continually recycling her persona and appearance to suit the circumstances and fantasylife of the victim whom she seeks to manipulate. To lend conviction to her performance, she invents a series of different pasts, each of them carefully constructed and, as her victims discover to their cost, extremely feasible. In the battle of wills on which the novel centres, Zenia is pitted, it is interesting to note, against an adversary of a very different kind - the prag­ matic and hard-headed Tony. Tony is a university teacher who adopts a boy’s name, specializes in the unfeminine topic of military history, and voices the related observation, T he personal is not political but military.’ Tony is an individual of notable integrity. Her abilities are rational and pragmatic rather than performative, though she is, in fact, capable of acting a part when circumstances require. However, in general she disdains to trade in fictions and buy into male fantasies of femininity. Unlike Zenia, she values substance, not surface. What precisely is Atwood doing, the reader wonders, in cre­ ating a confrontation between these two very different women? She is, I would suggest, contrasting the postmodern, 1990s representation of femin­ ism, exemplified in the character of Zenia, with the equal rights concept of the 1970s. She is critiquing the poststructuralist emphasis on ‘surface’ and ‘performance’, and advocating, perhaps, a return to a different kind of feminist politics, one that is less slippery and more direct. One, in fact, that is less open to appropriation and exploitation by ego-ridden women who, while claiming a commitment to ‘sisterhood’, are intent only on achieving personal power. Zenia, as a character, exists on several different levels. As well as rep­ resenting a type, she is also portrayed as a fantasy projection — one, it is interesting to observe, that haunts women’s imaginations as well as men’s. Employing imagery that emphasizes the importance of the unconscious, Atwood describes how ‘the Zenias of this world . . . have slipped sideways into dreams; the dreams of women too, because women are fantasies for other women, just as they are for men. But fantasies of a different kind’ (p. 392). Thus, in fighting Zenia, Tony and her two friends are combatting not only an external adversary but also an aspect of themselves and their own fantasylife. The interest that Atwood displays in women’s perceptions of each other and the fantasy projections they construct of other women is a relatively new feature of her writing. It illustrates her increasing preoccupation with female attachment and animosities. Although she seldom focuses directly on


The Infernal Desires of Angela Carter

lesbian relationships, the insight she displays into the intricacy and intensity of women’s involvements, combined with her uniquely sensitive ability to depict their multi-faceted nature, the different planes on which they exist and the contradictions they display, give her writing a strongly womanidentified perspective. Irigarayan themes of ‘dereliction’, the adverse effects of the loss of the maternal presence, and the cruelties which, on account of their emotional deprivation, women frequently inflict on one another, have become, in recent years, central to her work.33 They receive perceptive analysis in both Cat’s Eye (1989) and The Robber Bride. Reference to the performative aspects of gender, as is illustrated by the portrayal of Zenia’s manipulative treatment of other women, plays a key role in Atwood’s treat­ ment of female friendships and hostilities.

C A R T E R , A T W O O D A N D LESBIAN G E N R E F IC T IO N The treatment of gender and performativity in the fiction of Carter and Atwood is of interest not just in its own right, for the insight it gives into the two writers’ approach to the construction of femininity and their parodic revisions of male-defined stereotypes of womanhood, but is also relevant to contemporary women’s fiction in general, since it has created an intellectual base on which other writers can build. In the past ten years, in fact, a focus on ‘gender as performance’ has become increasingly popular in British and American novels and stories. As might be expected from the emphasis it places on the deconstruction of conventional notions of gender, it is particularly in evidence in lesbian fiction, where writers employ it to illustrate the mobility of gender roles and to explore the interaction between butch/femme positions. It achieves prominence in the lesbian thriller, a genre developed in the 1980s by writers such as Barbara Wilson and Mary Wings.34 A focus on the performative aspect of gender, far from being out of place in the thriller, develops certain themes traditionally associated with it. It creates a variation on the topics of role-play and disguise, which are, of course, standard motifs in the crime fiction of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Agatha Christie and Raymond Chandler. Writers of lesbian crime fiction, such as Wings, inventively bring together and superimpose themes of disguise and sexual role-play. In Wings’s She Came Too Late (1986), examples of mimesis, in which the sleuth Emma Victor parodically reworks male-scripted roles and forms of masquerade, are to the fore. Although Emma generally dresses in the


Gender as performance in the fiction of Carter and Atwood

androgynous or butch style that has become the accepted image for women who identify as lesbian in the Western world,35 she is perfectly capable of playing a feminine role when her investigative activities so require. Having decked herself in the seductive ensemble of black dress, black stockings and stiletto heels, Wings’s new Eve, irreverently parodying the divine act of creation, humorously remarks, T saw it was good. I was a girl.’36 This witty reference to the creation of Eve foregrounds twentieth-century woman’s ability to usurp divine power, achieve independence and define her own role. Like Grandma Chance in Wise Children, Emma has successfully ‘in­ vented herself’ (p. 28). A key theme in Carter’s and Atwood’s treatment of ‘playing with mimesis’ is the way that images and motifs conventionally associated with femininity can be subversively manipulated, and their significance inverted, by means of parody and playful revision. We have seen how the two writers employ scenarios such as the circus and contexts involving masquerade and ritual as a stage on which to enact the performative dimension of femininity. Another arena that they employ in this respect is the brothel and sex club, one which also appears in Wings’s She Came Too Late. An analysis of the three writers’ representation of the motif furnishes an interesting point of comparison, indicating that they share a similarly transgressive approach to gender and, in revising male-defmed stereotypes of femininity, effectively challenge the traditional view of woman as unresisting victim. It also illus­ trates the way that the deconstructive impulse central to the texts of Carter and Atwood is developed in the fiction of a more recently established writer such as Wings. The brothel has, of course, strong associations with femininity - fem­ ininity of a disreputable kind. In fiction it is generally depicted as the loca­ tion of ‘bad girls’ or is represented as a context of female exploitation and oppression. However, in Atwood’s and Carter’s novels, brothels are more complex in meaning than they initially appear. Ma Nelson’s establishment in Nights at the Circus, where Fevvers spends her youth and first tries out her celebrated wings, functions as a house of ill-repute by night — and a women’s centre by day. Jezebel’s, the brothel-cum-club where the Com­ mander, in search of a night of illicit pleasure, escorts Offred in The Hand­ maid's Tale, also displays an element of ambiguity. Although the place is frequented by the rulers of Gilead, there is something seedy and slightly comic about it. The decor and costumes, as Offred herself perceives, are tacky and old-fashioned, a memento to a bygone age of sexual liberalism. And, while serving as a place of entertainment for men, it is also, surreptitiously, a centre of female reunion and feminist resistance. It houses the lesbian fem­ inist Moira, Offred’s longstanding friend who has been coerced by the Gilead regime into working as a prostitute. Here Offred eventually succeeds in


The Infernal Desires of Angela Carter

meeting up with her, achieving the encounter she long desired during her incarceration in the Commander’s house. In both novels, in fact, brothels are not merely represented as houses of ill-repute where women are sexually exploited but are associated with female friendship and community. In Wings’s She Came Too Late, it is a strip club that is the target of post­ modern strategies of parody and inversion. In the concluding stages of the novel, Emma Victor, seeking a respite from her sleuthing, enters a club in Boston. The strip show she witnesses there provokes thoughts about the female body that give her a clue to solving the crime she is currently in­ vestigating. As is the case in Carter’s and Atwood’s treatment of the motif, the protagonist’s entry into the club temporarily transforms it from a place of male entertainment to a female rendezvous where women meet and exchange confidences/glances. The look of complicity that Emma and the stripper momentarily share has the effect of subverting the heterosexual character of the show and transforming it into an erotic encounter between two women. The episode humorously parodies the motif o f ‘the look’, by replacing the male gaze with the female. Emma describes how: While the men were busy with her [the stripper’s] back, she was looking me squarely in the face. Her eyes gave away her surprise at seeing a woman, sitting alone directly in front of her. Our two faces glowed, but she had all her moves down for the johns behind her and I watched her decide what to do with me. Our mutual realisation was making me fall into a well growing between my legs. She kept going with her routine, putting the feather boa between her legs for the guys behind her, turning around and looking me in the eyes as she drew it through her crotch. (p. 180)

The concept of gender as performance is treated inventively here and, cliched though the motif of the striptease is, Wings succeeds in giving it an original slant. In unexpectedly transforming it into the occasion for an erotic encounter between two women, she raises a number of interesting questions. Does the gaze that Emma directs at the stripper differ from the men’s - the ‘j ohns’ in the audience? If so, how? And who holds the power? Who, precisely, is manipulating whom? Emma plays the role of voyeur and controls the gaze and, as a result, appears to be in the dominant position. Or is she? The stripper, Wings tells us, returns Emma’s gaze; turning around, she looks her boldly in the eye. In keeping with recent feminist discussion of the position of sex-workers,37 the stripper is not portrayed as a mere pass­ ive object of male voyeurism. She appears to manipulate the audience as much as it manipulates her. Her performance is, in fact, notably active. In parodically reworking stereotypes of femininity and introducing motifs relating to gender and performativity, Carter and Atwood, in addition to giving an insight into the complexities of femininity and its construction,


Gender as performance in the fiction of Carter and Atwood

create a cluster of images and ideas available for other writers to develop. Their treatment of ‘playing with mimesis’ and their portrayal of woman as active agent construct the foundation for future perceptions about the female condition and carry resonances that continue to reverberate in the fiction of their contemporaries and successors.

NOTES 1. Judith Butler, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (London: Routledge, 1990), p. x. 2. Ibid., p. 136. 3. Ibid., p. 31. 4. Ibid. 5. Clare Whatling, ‘Reading awry: Joan Nestle and the recontextualization of heterosexuality’, in Joseph Bristow, ed., Sexual Sameness: Textual Differences in Lesbian and Gay Writing (London: Routledge, 1992), p. 218. 6. Sue-Ellen Case, ‘Toward a butch-femme aesthetic’, in Lynda Hart, ed., Making a Spectacle: Feminist Essays on Women's Theatre (Ann Arbor, Mich.: University of Michigan Press, 1989), pp. 282—97. 7. Julia Penelope, ‘Whose past are we reclaiming?’, in Common Lives, Lesbian Lives 13 (1984), p. 42; Noretta Koertge, ‘Butch images 1956—86’, in Lesbian Ethics 2:2 (1986), p. 103. 8. Butler, Gender Trouble, p. 31. 9. Joan Riviere, ‘Womanliness as masquerade’, in Victor Burgin, James Donald and Cora Kaplan, eds, Formations of Fantasy (London: Methuen, 1986), pp. 35-61. 10. Luce Irigaray, This Sex Which Is Not One, trans. Catherine Porter with Carolyn Burke (New York: Cornell University Press, 1985), p. 133. (Ce Sexe qui n’en est pas un, Paris: Minuit, 1977.) 11. Irigaray, This Sex , p. 76. 12. Carole-Anne Tyler, ‘Boys will be girls: the politics of gay drag’, in Diana Fuss, ed., Inside/Out: Lesbian Theories, Gay Theories (London: Routledge, 1991), p. 52. 13. Ibid., p. 54. 14. Ibid. 15. See Sheila Jeffreys, The Lesbian Heresy: A Feminist Perspective on the Lesbian Sexual Revolution (London: W omen’s Press, 1994), pp. 97-120. 16. Paulina Palmer, ‘From “coded mannequin” to bird woman: Angela Carter’s magic flight’, in Sue Roe, ed., Women Reading Women's Writing (Brighton: Harvester, 1989), pp. 179-205. 17. Angela Carter, Nights at the Circus (London: Chatto & Windus, 1985), p. 117. Subsequent page references to this edition are given in the text. 18. Mikhail Bakhtin, Rabelais and his World, trans. Helene Iswolsky (Cambridge, Mass.: M.I.T. Press, 1992), p. 13. 19. Angela Carter, Wise Children (1991; London: Virago, 1992), p. 13. Subsequent page references given in the text are to this edition.


The Infernal Desires of Angela Carter 20. ‘Notes from the Front Line’, in Michelene Wandor, ed., On Writing and Gender (London: Pandora, 1983), p. 71. 21. Angela Carter, The Passion of New Eve (1977; London: Virago, 1982), pp. 128— 9. Subsequent page references given in the text are to this edition. 22. For a discussion of male transvestitism and drag, see Tyler, ‘Boys will be girls’, pp. 40-6. 23. Irigaray, This Sex , p. 133. 24. Ibid., p. 76. 25. Kristina Straub, ‘The guilty pleasures of female theatrical cross-dressing and the autobiography of Charlotte Charke’, in Julia Epstein and Kristina Straub, eds, Body Guards: The Cultural Politics of Gender Ambiguity (London: Routledge, 1991), pp. 142-66. 26. Christina Britzolakis, ‘Angela Carter’s fetishism’, Textual Practice 9:3 (1995), pp. 459—460, reprinted as Chapter 2 of this volume. 27. Margaret Atwood, The Robber Bride (London: Bloomsbury, 1993), p. 392. Subsequent page references are to this edition and are given in the text. 28. Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid's Tale (1985; London: Jonathan Cape, 1986), pp. 107, 146. Subsequent references are to this edition and are given in the text. 29. Mary Daly, Gyn/Ecology: The Metaethics of Radical Feminism (1978; London: W om en’s Press, 1979), p. 131. 30. Margaret Atwood, The Edible Woman (1969; London: Virago, 1990), p. 271. 31. Ibid., pp. 271-2. 32. See my reference to the representation of female sado-masochism in the fiction of Sarah Schulman in ‘The lesbian thriller: crimes, clues and contradictions’, in Gabriele Griffm, ed., Outwrite: Lesbianism and Popular Culture (London: Pluto, 1993), p. 102. 33. For a perceptive discussion of Atwood’s treatment of these topics, see Charlotte Beyer, The Writing of Margaret Atwood: Postcolonialism, Feminism, Narrative (un­ published Ph.D. dissertation, University of Warwick, 1995). 34. I discuss the lesbian thriller in Contemporary Lesbian Writing: Dreams, Desire, Dif­ ference (Buckingham: Open University Press, 1993), pp. 63-77. 35. See Inge Blackman and Kathryn Perry, ‘Skirting the issue: lesbian fashion for the 1990s’, Feminist Review 34 (Spring 1990), p. 68. 36. Mary Wings, She Came Too Late (London: W om en’s Press, 1986), p. 90. Subsequent references are to this edition and are given in the text. 37. See the different analyses of prostitution in Barbara Wilson’s thriller Sisters of the Road (London: W om en’s Press, 1987), which centres on the experiences of prostitutes in contemporary urban America.



Angela Carter’s fetishism Christina Britzolakis

Like so many girls, I passionately wanted to be an actress when I was in my early teens and I turn this (balked, unachieved and now totally unregretted) ambition over in my mind from time to time. Why did it seem so pressing, the need to demonstrate in public a total control and transformation of roles other people had conceived? Rum , that.1 It is understandable, I suppose, that someone could approach the fantastic and exotic surface of your fictions and not be able to bridge the gap to the central point that your theatricality is meant to heighten real social attitudes and myths of femininity.2 Her two favourite periodical publications were Vogue and The New Statesman.3

If there is a single theme that appears central to criticism of Carter’s writing, that theme must surely be theatricality. This is not surprising, since dramatic performance in all its varieties —masquerade, carnival, burlesque, travesty, cross-dressing, drag —leaps out at the reader from the pages of Carter’s texts as both style and subject. In Nights at the Circus (1984) she writes of ‘the freedom that lies behind the mask, within dissimulation, the freedom to juggle with being, and, indeed, with the language which is vital to our being, that lies at the heart of burlesque’.4 The current interest in Carter’s writing is not unconnected with the fact that such metaphors also govern areas of contemporary feminist theory, where the concept o f ‘gender performance’, based on a history of appropriations of Joan Riviere’s 1929 essay ‘Woman­ liness as masquerade’, has become de rigueur.5 For many of Carter’s most recent critics, her theatricalism, which dates back to her earliest work, has emerged, often by way of this body of ‘gender performance’ theory, as syn­ onymous with her self-proclaimed, ‘demythologizing’ project, the project of ‘investigating’ femininity as one of ‘the social fictions that regulate our lives’.6


The Infernal Desires of Angela Carter

If Carter’s texts seem to lend themselves in an exemplary manner to the ongoing dialogue between psychoanalysis and feminism, this is in part because they increasingly and self-consciously engage with a wide range of post-1968 theoretical debates, and with a distinctively semiological con­ ception of culture. Carter consistently inscribes herself as an intellectual, a ‘culture-worker’,7 and marks her texts with associations from both high and low culture. If she is, as she states, ‘in the demythologizing business’, she also describes herself, elsewhere, as ‘in the entertainment business’.8 She sees herself, moreover, as an allegorist: ‘I do put everything in a novel to be read —read the way allegory was intended to be read, the way you are supposed to read Sir Gawayne and the Grene Knight - on as many levels as you can comfortably cope with at the time.’9 Political enlightenment and entertainment - to bring these two roles together in fiction is a difficult act to pull off, and Carter’s claims have not always met with a sympathetic reception. For a certain purist tradition of Marxism, as much as for liberal humanist criticism, Carter is a deeply embarrassing figure, adopting as she does a postmodern aesthetic which, it has been argued, privileges style over substance, eroticizes the fragment and parasitically colludes with consumer capitalism.10 Feminist criticism has, however, with few exceptions, embraced Carter’s postmodern aesthetics as inseparable from her commitment to social­ ism and to feminism. A rift between politics and pleasure, between allegory and fantasy, thus comes to inhabit Carter criticism, as indeed, I will argue, it inhabits Carter’s writing. Although I am far from wishing to discount the usefulness of poststructuralist theory in reading her texts, or to deny their fruitful engagement with poststructuralism, I would like to ask some ques­ tions about the function of spectacle in these texts, and about its relation to fashion, questions which complicate the celebratory symbiosis between fiction and theory in much Carter criticism. Can the staging of femininity as spectacle indeed be linked with a liberatory feminist project, and why does this particular formation emerge as the code for Carter’s identity as a writer? Carter’s abiding fascination with femininity as spectacle has hitherto been understood predominantly in terms of a feminist critical project which iden­ tifies and rejects male-constructed images of women as a form of false consciousness. The early novels represent women who are in danger of being turned into fetishized, puppet-like objects by a male master - what Carter calls the mad scientist/shaman/toymaker figure.11 These women tend to seek out or actively embrace the role of the spectacularly suffering victim of male cruelty. The earliest example is Ghislaine in Shadow Dance (1966), who is mutilated and finally murdered by Honeybuzzard. In the later novels, the seductions of self-immolating femininity are rejected, or at least qualified. Paulina Palmer notes the shift from ‘coded mannequin’ to


Angela Carter’s fetishism

‘bird-woman’ as marking a shift from a determinist to a more utopian, celebratory vision of femininity.12 Fewers in Nights at the Circus (1984) and the Chances in Wise Children (1991) are exemplary postmodern heroines who take control of their own performances and manipulate their self­ stagings for their own advantage. But the celebration of femininity remains, in both cases, linked to what Lizzie in Nights at the Circus calls ‘the disci­ pline of an audience’ (p. 280). It seems to me far from clear whether these characters, in exploiting the creative possibilities of illusion, do indeed escape objectification or whether they end up colluding in their own objectification. Is the spectacle of femininity a form of freedom or neces­ sity? Moreover, how does it inflect the language of Carter’s novels, which is saturated with sensuous detail, with coruscating surfaces and ornate façades?

M AD GIRLS A N D R E V O L U T IO N S I would like to begin by examining what could be described as an iconic moment in one of Carter’s early novels, Love (1970), a moment in which the spectacle of femininity is still clearly linked with self-immolation. The passage turns on a brief moment of confrontation, between Lee Collins and his wife Annabel, who has prepared herself for suicide by having an elabor­ ate ‘makeover’: He was so struck by the newly adamantine brilliance of her eyes he did not see they no longer reflected anything. With her glittering hair and unfathomable face, streaked with synthetic red, white and black, she looked like nothing so much as one of those strange and splendid figures with which the connoisseurs of the baroque loved to decorate their artificial caves, those atalantes composés fabricated from rare marbles and semi-precious stones. She had become a marvellous crystallization, retaining nothing of the remembered woman but her form, for all the elements of which this new structure were composed had suffered a change, the eyes put out by zircons or spinels, the hair respun from threads of gold and the mouth enamelled scarlet. No longer vulnerable flesh and blood, she was altered to inflexible material. She could have stepped up into the jungle on the walls and looked not out of place beside the tree with the breasts or the carnivorous flowers for now she was her own, omnipotent white queen and could move to any position on the board. ‘Go away,’ she said to Lee. ‘Leave me alone.’ ‘Dear God,’ said Lee, ‘Le jour de gloire est arrive.’ Inevitably, he began to laugh at such a reversal for the revolution which he both feared and longed for had arrived at last and he was


The Infernal Desires of Angela Carter reduced to bankruptcy for there was nothing left to love for him in this magnificent creature. All would not, now, continue in the old style for she dismissed him without a blessing.13 The apparition of Annabel provides the occasion for a tour deforce of meta­

phoric display; this is the kind of virtuoso passage, characteristic of Carter’s writing, that foregrounds its own spectacular stylistic effects. The transfor­ mation of woman into objet dyart is enacted as a phantasmagoria which, like much of the action of Love, tilts unstably between mimesis and hallucination. In an echo of Ariel’s song in The Tempest, Annabel has ‘suffered a change’, in which Vulnerable flesh and blood’ has been ‘altered to inflexible material’. This process is coded, for both Annabel and for the reader, as a symbolic anticipation of the ‘perfection’ that death will visit upon her. The fabrica­ tion of the masquerade of femininity is seen as an aesthetic process which exchanges the organic for the inorganic or ‘adamantine’, exemplified by pre­ cious and semi-precious gemstones and metals: ‘gold’, ‘zircons’ and ‘spinels’. It is both an addition of value and a subtraction of life, at once idealizing and death-dealing. The logic of this exchange is completed by the last men­ tion of her in the novel as ‘a painted doll, bluish at the extremities’ and a ‘bedizened corpse’ (p. 112). An intensely specular figurative energy turns language into a matter of collecting, hoarding, displaying, fondling, possessing and continually look­ ing, an activity at once clinical and museological. In this poetics of specularity, the narrator is at least partially identified with those ‘connoisseurs of the baroque’ who ‘loved to decorate their artificial caves’ with ‘strange and splen­ did figures’. The sumptuous materiality and theatricality of the narrator’s ‘bejewelled’ language therefore mimes Annabel’s ‘marvellous crystallization’ and turns in upon itself Words are flaunted as objects; discrete images are isolated from their context. Although Carter describes herself as an allegorist, here, as elsewhere, she writes as an unabashed female fetishist; and it is the conjunction, as well as the disjunction, between these two terms, fetishism and allegory, that requires closer scrutiny. Carter’s description of Annabel as ‘a marvellous crystallization, retaining nothing of the remembered woman but her form’ recalls Marx’s famous analysis at the beginning of Capital of the commodity form as fetish. In com­ modity fetishism, Marx argues, the social character of the product of labour assumes, through the abstraction of exchange, an ‘enigmatical’ or ‘mystical’ character which masks its use-value.14 Annabel has turned herself into an idol or eidolon, an act presented as the culmination of her superstitious and obsessional behaviour throughout the narrative. At the same time, her act is enmeshed in a network of images of prostitution and signals a prevailing (and perverse) economic rationality. In her transformation, Annabel is linked with Lee’s mother, who in an apocalyptic access of insanity painted her


Angela Carter's fetishism

body with cabbalistic signs and transformed herself into ‘the whore of Baby­ lon’. She is also emulating the ‘photographic whore’ who features in the pictures given to her by Buzz in the first part of the novel, and whose ‘bland, white, motionless face’ (also ‘painted’) she desires for herself. The work of Walter Benjamin, who explored the links between Marx’s conceptualization of the commodity form and the status of the aesthetic within commodity culture, is of foundational importance for this area of study. Benjamin writes that fashion ‘prostitutes the living body to the in­ organic world. In relation to the living it represents the rights of the corpse. Fetishism, which succumbs to the sex-appeal of the inorganic, is its vital nerve; and the cult of the commodity recruits this to its service.’15 Benjamin arrived, by way of a Marxist appropriation of Freud, at the key concept of the phantasmagoria. The commodified environment of nineteenth-century Paris becomes a spectral theatre, where commodities disport themselves as fetishes on display. The chief emblem and embodiment of this phantasma­ goric landscape, which appears as allegory in the poetry of Baudelaire, is the prostitute. In the prostitute, Benjamin argues, the female body has lost its aura of natural femininity and has become a commodity, made up of dead and petrified fragments, while its beauty has become a matter of cosmetic disguise (make-up and fashion). Love follows the precedent of Baudelaire (and of Surrealism, an equally important model for Benjamin) in making a fetishized femininity serve as the figure for, and displacement of, socio-historical crisis, at the level both of figurative language and of narrative perspective. In an afterword to the 1987 edition of the novel, Carter criticizes Love for its ‘almost sinister feat of male impersonation’, ‘icy treatment of the mad girl’ and ‘ornate formalism of style’, and describes the text as ‘Annabel’s coffin’ (p. 113). Annabel is indeed less of a desiring and acting subject than an object in plots constructed for her by others. As one corner of the erotic triangle whose other points are formed by Lee and Buzz, she intrudes into their homoerotic dyad and is finally sacrificed to it. What Carter refers to as the novel’s ‘ornate formalism of style’, and what I would describe as a fetishism of the signifier, or disjunction of the signifier from the signified, is accompanied by an insistent allegorical overdetermination at the level of the overall narrative. Settings, events and characters serve as emblems of larger social and cultural narratives. Despite its claustrophobic concentra­ tion on the erotic triangle, the novel is concerned with the 1960s, and with the failure of the emancipatory hopes Carter associated with that decade. The characters, Carter writes, are ‘not quite the children of Marx and CocaCola, more the children of Nescafe and the Welfare state’, and ‘the pure, perfect products of those days of social mobility and sexual licence’ (p. 113). When Lee hails Annabel’s transformation as a revolutionary denouement (‘Le


The Infernal Desires of Angela Carter

jour de gloire est arrive’) he makes explicit the status of Annabel’s suicide as a parodic pseudo-solution to a plot riven by social and sexual contradiction. The Gothic staging of the mad girl as spectacle in Love is the corollary of a certain kind of narrative stance - the psychiatric stance of the clinical ‘case-study’, beloved of late nineteenth-century French novelists.16 Carter incorporates a parodic version of this narrative perspective into the text through the figure of a female psychiatrist with whom Lee discusses Annabel’s illness. In this episode, Lee ‘found himself confronted by the woman’s high, brown boots in such unnatural perspective that the feet were enormous and the uppers soared above him like mill chimneys. The boots were so beautifully polished they appeared irradiated from within’ (p. 55). The hal­ lucinatory vision of the shiny boots inaugurates a (possibly fantasized) sexual approach to the woman psychiatrist. The whole episode, suspended between fantasy and allegory, reads as a send-up of the more comical aspects of Freud’s 1927 account of fetishism.17 But at the same time it thematizes the text’s own processes. The fetish-object —standing in metonymically for the desired but absent maternal phallus - is associated with a particular style, an ‘unnatural perspective’ which deviates from realism, and which Lee calls ‘a kind of Expressionist effect’ (p. 55). In Love, the clinical stance of the female psychiatrist is constantly infected by the alternative narrative logic represented by Annabel’s tendency to attri­ bute magical powers to inanimate objects. The autistic private language of the ‘mad girl’ marks the absence from the novel of a feminist analysis that cannot yet be articulated (though class, which sets the bourgeois Annabel apart from the proletarian Collinses, evidently enters into the equation). At the same time the text is preoccupied with representations, fantasies and icons of female madness, a point underscored when Lee buys Annabel a print of Millais’s ‘Ophelia’. But the script of the numb and passionless ‘beautiful hysteric’ who haunts male subjectivity with the spectre of disorder cannot contain Annabel’s complaint without a great deal of mess.18 Carter’s later novels leave behind the Ophelia plot (though it is worth noticing that Wise Children resurrects it in the figure of Tiffany). The death of the mad girl announces the need for a mutation of style, from a residual if Gothicized social realism into full-blown metafiction and the playful deconstruction of narrative conventions; a mutation which, at least for Carter’s hostile critics, involves a transmutation of politics into style. What connects Love with the later novels is a preoccupation with the power of images. If the 1960s was the moment of the counter-culture, it was also, as Marc O ’Day has argued in his essay on Carter’s ‘Bristol Trilogy’, the period in which the rapid turnover in ideas, images and styles ‘be­ came fully institutionalized as an objective feature of social and economic life’.19 While the other characters see themselves in terms of manipulable


Angela Carter's fetishism

self-representations, Annabel literalizes the deadly logic of the fetish and becomes embodied masquerade. It is possible to argue that Carter practises not merely an aesthetic but also an analytic of fetishism, which links the ideas of Marx and Freud in a politically ambiguous, perpetually self-cancelling allegorical loop of image and idea. Can one write as a demythologizer in the Enlightenment tradition, which attacks the ‘idols of the mind’ (an out­ standing example of which is Marx’s analysis of commodity fetishism), and at the same time embrace the verbal fetish at the level of style? As a cate­ gory of cultural analysis, fetishism, as various analysts of Marx’s essay have argued, has an uncanny ability to turn against those who deploy it, turning iconoclasts into their obverse, idolaters.20 Carter’s work, then, raises the question of the role of fetishism in both a feminist and in a broader socialist praxis. One of a number of recent at­ tempts to draw parallels between the Marxist and the Freudian theories of the fetish by Laura Mulvey points out that ‘for Freud, the body that is the source of fetishism is the mother’s body, uncanny and archaic. For Marx, the source of fetishism is in the erasure of the worker’s labour as value. Both become the unspeakable, and the unrepresentable, in commodity culture.’21 Carter’s fiction generates homologies and substitutions between these two different (and possibly irreconcilable) scenarios of fetishism. The major evalu­ ative problem facing her interpreters is that of separating critique from the logic of consumerism; a problem which, in the wake of 1968, it could be argued, comes to define the field of left cultural politics in general.


Carter has characterized her stylistic excesses as a species of decadence: ‘It’s mannerist, you see: closing time in the gardens of the West.’22 This com­ ment sits uneasily with her oft-expressed belief in her fiction as an instrument of social change and intervention.23 But it does resonate with the attraction in her work towards the rhetoric and iconography of a prominent, largely male-authored strand of European literary history, which runs from the mid-nineteenth century through Baudelaire, Poe, Sade, much of French Symbolism, the Decadent writing of the^m de siècle and Surrealism. Carter’s readings of these texts unerringly focus on their metaphorization of fem­ ininity in its most fetishized and spectacular forms. The image of the female performer, for example, is a staple of maleauthored fin-de-siècle literature, where it is often aligned with the figure of


The Infernal Desires of Angela Carter

the prostitute and that of the mechanical woman. These figures crystallize an ambivalent response to the rationalizing, technological forces of capital­ ism, and figure the crisis-ridden birth of modernity.24 It is in the context of this weight of prior symbolizations of femininity that I believe Carter’s textual masquerades need to be placed. Her attraction to the male-authored texts of the Decadence suggests a distinctively magpie-like relation to literary history, and one which frequently involves a cross-dressed or masculine narrative perspective: witness Lee’s vision of Annabel. Carter characteristic­ ally writes in the postmodern mode of pastiche, mixing high and low culture. She produces a reworking of myth and literature which treats Western European culture as £a great scrap-yard from which you can assemble all sorts of new vehicles. . ,’.25 The period of her apprenticeship, during the 1960s, coincides with the canonization and institutionalization of Modernism within the academy. The voracious and often dizzying intertextuality of her writing needs to be seen not only as a reaction against this development but also as its product. Unlike some of the Decadent or proto-Decadent authors (Poe, Baudelaire, Huysmans) who fascinate her, Carter is no enemy of the forces of technology and progress, which she celebrates for having liberated women from the bondage of reproduction. Her attempts to imagine ‘a new kind of being, unburdened by the past’,26 in the absence of any con­ temporary realization of this vision, have to work upon the pre-feminist myths, allegories and iconographies of the past. Nowhere is this more clearly illustrated than in The Passion of New Eve (1977), apparently Carter’s most anti-essentialist text, which sets out, in her words, ‘to say some quite specific things about the production of feminin­ ity .. . there is quite a careful and elaborate discussion of femininity as a commodity, of Hollywood producing illusions as tangible commodities’.27 The book is an early example of what Elaine Jordan calls Carter’s ‘specu­ lative fictions’.28 As Jordan points out, ‘Excitement about demythologizing was historically specific, a thing of the 70s.’29 The Passion of New Eve is in­ formed by Barthes’s analysis of myth as the coded product of history, made not found, and perhaps not a little by his essay on Garbo in Mythologies (1972). Fetishism and the masquerade were also part of the excitement about demythologizing. They were key concepts within the film theory of the 1970s, which arose from a confluence of semiotics, psychoanalysis and Althusserian ‘ideology critique’. Tristessa is recognizably a spectacle in the sense identified by film theorists: herself a commodity, she is also a phantasmatic space which sustains the cinematic production of commodities. Her shadowy, enigmatic, suffering femininity is revealed as ‘a piece of pure mys­ tification’ (p. 6) when she turns out to be a transvestite. But if The Passion of New Eve alludes to the cinematic fetishization of the female body, the extent to which it can be aligned with a ‘demythologizing’ cultural analysis


Angela Carter's fetishism

is uncertain. This figure of Tristessa resolves itself, when Tristessa and Eve are united, into the mythic figure of the Platonic androgyne. The Passion of New Eve is, at the same time, locked into a regressive circulation of literary metaphors of fatal, apparitional and mechanical femin­ inity, from Poe and Baudelaire to the Symbolists (the technological creation of Eve alludes to Villiers de L’Isle Adam’s L'Eve Future, 1886). The figure upon which I wish to focus is Leilah, the naked dancer, who is transformed into Lilith, the revolutionary guerilla leader. The representation of Leilah in the novel parodies the ‘Jeanne Duval’ cycle of poems in the Fleurs du mal. She first appears as a hallucinatory embodiment of the city and its laby­ rinthine corruptions; her femininity is seen as the expression of a decadent, narcotic culture. Leilah, of whom Evelyn claims, ‘I never knew a girl more a slave to style’, is part prostitute, part female performer, obligingly trans­ forming herself every evening under his gaze into an exotic and fetishized objet d’art. Lilith, her alter ego, explains to Evelyn near the end of the novel that his seduction formed part of an apocalyptic purging. Are we, then, to read Lilith the activist as the revelation of Leilah’s true self? Leilah and Lilith represent the sundered halves of Carter’s project - her baroque, eclectic appropriation of the Western cultural heritage and her commitment to demythologizing it in the cause of political transformation. Carter’s attempt to bridge the gap between these two projects in the later novels leads her to create heroines who are no longer the puppets of male-controlled scripts but who use theatricality and masquerade to invent and advance themselves. I wonder, however, whether the shift from the one to the other is as clearcut or as decisive as has sometimes been assumed. It is instructive to compare the treatment of Leilah/Lilith in The Passion of New Eve with the later reworking of Baudelaire’s so-called ‘Black Venus’ cycle in Carter’s short story of that name (1980). This text enacts with great skill the ambiguities of Carter’s relation to one of her major literary models, Baudelaire, and to the fetishistic economy of the feminine, which forms the very substance of his aesthetic. In a mixture of parody, transla­ tion, interpretation and historical reconstruction, Carter borrows metaphors and phrases from the poems to summon up in loving detail the vaporous, nostalgic and melancholy atmospherics of the Fleurs du mah Sad, so sad, those smoky-rose, smoky-mauve evenings of late Autumn, sad enough to pierce the heart. The sun departs the sky in winding sheets of gaudy cloud; anguish enters the city, a sense of the bitterest regret, a nostalgia for things we never knew, anguish of the turn of the year, the time of impotent yearning, the inconsolable season.30

Carter’s language turns Baudelaire into a decor, a gesture that is part tribute to ‘the greatest poet of alienation’ (p. 18), and part critique of the ‘exoticism’ with which he invests the figure of Jeanne Duval, described as ‘an ambulant


The Infernal Desires of Angela Carter

fetish, savage, obscene, terrifying’ (p. 20). Baudelaire’s nostalgia is seen as one aspect of a broader Western colonial imaginary which linked blackness, degeneration and prostituted female sexuality in a multitude of late nine­ teenth- and early twentieth-century representations.31 Style presents Carter with a problem here: the problem of re-representing Baudelaire’s icon without colluding with the Baudelairean eloquence which denies her language. Her stratagem is to construct a narrative voice which moves in and out of Jeanne Duval’s subjectivity, and which moves between documentary and figurative registers. Sometimes this narratorial perspective identifies with the poet and embraces the fetishistic imaginary in which Jeanne figures; at others it identifies with Jeanne and exposes the banal character of the poet’s fantasies. Carter’s narrative perspective enacts an oscillation of identification and desire in which the permeability of fantasy (including its literary, male-authored inscriptions) across the boundaries of gender plays a large part. In Carter’s fictional completion of the known facts of Jeanne’s life, she not only survives Baudelaire but returns to the West Indies to become a successful businesswoman in her own right. Yet Carter’s stylistic investment in Baudelaire’s text cannot help but reinscribe her, at least partially, within the iconic framework of the Fleurs du mal. Carter’s reading of symbolismmodernism involves her in a double drag, since, as she shows, it turns on an imaginary identification with or impersonation of femininity. At the same time, Carter’s story shows how Baudelaire’s fetishizing of Jeanne marks the limits of modernist subversion. The albatross, the aerialiste who 'dares death upon the high trapeze’ before an audience of ‘phlegmatic, monochrome, flightless birds’ (p. 19), figures the self-lacerating irony generated by an op­ positional yet dependent relation to the bourgeoisie, a theme which, as I shall now argue, is of keen interest to Carter.


To assimilate Carter’s work, through the mediation of poststructuralist semi­ ology, to a revisionary feminist aesthetic, runs the risk of hypostatizing, indeed o f ‘fetishizing’, a complex trajectory. For these formations of spec­ tacular femininity trace Carter’s ambiguous relation to the literary climate of 1960s and 1970s Britain, and her self-conscious invention of herself as a professional woman writer and woman of letters within it. In ‘Notes from the Front Line’ (1983), where Carter attempts to summarize the importance


Angela Carter's fetishism

of feminism to her as a writer, she writes of her sense of herself as ‘a new kind of being, unburdened with a past’. This new woman, Carter argues, has been freed by contraception to combine a career as a professional writer with a life as a sexually active woman. At the same time, running through the essay is an autobiographical reflection on the difficulty of acquiring this affirmative (not to say Utopian) political self-consciousness. Carter returns more than once to her early propensity to use charm as a defensive strategy, ‘especially when, however unconsciously, I was going straight for the test­ icles’.32 One might note that the audience is gendered as male. The founding text o f ‘gender performance’, Joan Riviere’s famous essay ‘Womanliness as masquerade’ (1929), argues that the woman with profes­ sional ambitions often uses an exaggerated femininity in order to mask her identification with a supposedly masculine intellectual or creative power. Exaggeratedly feminine behaviour is a display of guiltlessness, an act of res­ titution to the father whose phallic power the woman desires, and a defence against the threat of symbolic castration. The transgressive wish or fantasy enacted behind the screen of placatory womanliness is the theft of the pater­ nal phallus; thus the masquerade is a strategy for survival in a man’s world. The spectre of this regressive tactic haunts even Carter’s most avowedly and joyfully affirmative feminist texts. As John Fletcher points out, ‘The masquerade generates images and stories of a doubled female subject which may be retold from the position of the curious, suspicious, fascinated, masculine subject. The masquerade tells the story of the fetish from the other side of the screen.’33 ‘Gender perform­ ance’ is therefore, I would argue, a double-edged sword in the analysis of Carter’s work. It enables us to argue that Carter deploys masquerade-like tactics in order to expose the fictional and inessential character of feminin­ ity. But it also enables us to argue that she is at least equally engaged by the male scenario of fetishism which lies behind, and is required by, the female scenario of the masquerade. The facts of social and intellectual mobility can give some historical content to the role of masquerade in Carter’s work. In a recent collection of essays on Carter’s work, Marina Warner refers to ‘a specifically prolet­ arian strategy of advancing, through the construction of self in image and language’.34 Although I agree that Carter’s style answers to a pattern of social and intellectual mobility, her strategy is surely not so much proletarian as petit-bourgeois, the mode of the newly enfranchised, post-war intellectual, whom Carter links, in her essay on the 1960s, with the post-war expansion of educational opportunities within the welfare state.35 Theatricalism is the language of the female ‘parvenue’ whose critique of the establishment must always be conducted in the mode of a greedy and more or less fetishistic tak­ ing possession of its cultural properties, and which remains partly mortgaged


The Infernal Desires of Angela Carter

to the heritage it travesties. The psychoanalytical scenario of fetishism, like the Marxist scenario of commodity fetishism, opens up the problem of complicity with the structures of domination against which these texts are often ranged.


Carter continuously reinvented herself as a writer. The ‘sinister feats of male impersonation’ give way to the cocky, camivalesque and Cockney female impersonations of the last two novels. In Nights at the Circus, published in 1984 but set in 1899, the fin-de-siecle heroine, Fewers, is a circus artiste, and a figure for the deployment of a self-conscious fictionality which also dares to attempt the suspension of disbelief. Fewers’s byline - ‘Is she fact or is she fiction?’ - suggests that, as John Stokes points out, ‘Carter’s thoroughgoing intertextuality turns the structuring of history into a confid­ ence trick’.36 Fewers’s larger-than-life music-hall persona as the Cockney Venus also allegorizes the ‘vulgarity’ of Carter’s writing - not only the ‘over­ writing’, or stylistic excess, the agitated baroque display of the surface of the texts, but their self-consciously allegorical quality, the use of the nar­ rative as a device for the patent exposition and exploration of ideas (such as the reworking of Foucault’s Discipline and Punish in Part Three of the novel). Fewers makes a virtue out of her specular objectification and positively demands to be looked at: Look at me! W ith a grand, proud, ironic grace, she exhibited herself before the eyes of the audience as if she were a marvellous present too good to be played with. Look, not touch. She was twice as large as life and as succinctly finite as any object that is intended to be seen, not handled. Look! Hands off! LOOK AT ME! (P- 15)

If the deployment of female spectacle/masquerade/transvestism starts out as part of Carter’s demythologizing project - to demonstrate that femininity is culturally produced - how does Carter arrive at a point, in her later career, where she can be read by contemporary feminist critics as celebrating spec­ tacle as a viable means of self-empowerment for women? Carter stressed the allegorical nature of Fewers, but the multiple overdeterminations of her heroine sit uneasily with one another, even by Carter’s own account. Fewers starts out as ‘a metaphor come to life . . . the Winged Victory’, but she is also ‘Mae West with wings’ and emulates ‘the way Mae West con­


Angela Carter’s fetishism

trols the audience response towards herself in her movies’.37 Like Leilah in The Passion of New Eve , Fewers has a revolutionary antitype in the shape of her foster-mother Lizzie, who provides a severe Marxist and Foucauldian counterpoint and corrective to Fewers’s dreams of having it all - free­ dom, heterosexual love and money. For Lizzie, Fewers is the New Woman heralding a New Century in which women will no longer be shackled by the bondage of nature and reproduction; but Fewers is both more senti­ mental and more mercenary than her foster-mother; for her, self-display is a means of power, and especially financial power. When the circus is derailed and the performances are halted, Fewers loses her looks and becomes the Feathered Frump; her vitality is seen to be dependent on the presence of an audience (p. 280), and in particular of her lover, Jack Walser. Fewers may be the avatar of the 1890s New Woman, but she is also a construct that reveals the ambivalent alignments of women with both consumer and commodity, a pressing theme in Thatcher’s Britain. Carnivalesque is Carter’s way of puncturing the commodifying link be­ tween the spectator and the specular female object; Fewers is a farting, lumbering, down-to-earth creature. It also dominates the representation of the Chance sisters, spectacular crones for whom ‘The habit of applying war­ paint outlasts the battle’.38 In Wise Children (1990) music-hall is the carnival­ esque deflator of the bombast of ‘high culture’, epitomized in the myth of Shakespeare’s genius as ‘national treasure’ (p. 38). Music-hall is the illegit­ imate and unacknowledged child of the Shakespearian stage. But it could be argued that the novel ends up reinforcing this myth, notably in the scene at the end of the novel in which Dora and Nora achieve their heart’s desire when they are publicly reconciled with Melchior Hazard. A self-conscious and camp sentimentality licenses a reconstitution of the family under the sign of Shakespeare. The Cockney comedy of the last two novels, and particularly of Wise Children, can be read in two very different ways: either in terms of evolu­ tionary metaphors which see these novels as announcing reconciliation, maturity and synthesis, or, in a quite different way, as a strategy for making the best of a bad job - namely, the failed millenial hopes of the 1960s.39 The vernacular, salt-of-the-earth idiom of Wise Children seems to me as fabricated, as much of an impersonation, as anything else in Carter’s writ­ ing. It is worth noting that both of the last novels find their inspiration and point of reference in pre-electronic forms of entertainment - the circus, the music-hall —a celebration which in some ways sidesteps the more troubling implications of the way in which subjectivity might be inflected by spec­ tacle in a culture of consumption. The carnivalesque philosophy of Wise Children, of ‘Let’s face the music and dance’, seems profoundly inadequate to meet the challenges of the 1990s.


The Infernal Desires of Angela Carter

Carter’s astute comment on the vogue for Bakhtin and carnival as a sign for the defeated political hopes associated with other kinds of revolution provides a timely counterbalance to the tendency to celebrate the carnivalesque energies of her work under the banner of ‘gender performance’ theory, without examining the ambivalences and tensions that these energies mediate.40 One of the reasons why Carter seems such a significant figure for women’s writing is because her career is so clearly a map of the disappoint­ ments as well as the triumphs of feminism.

NOTES 1. Angela Carter, ‘Notes from the Front Line’, in Michelene Wandor,e Gender and Writing (London: Pandora, 1983), p. 74. 2. John Haffenden, Angela Carter’, in John Haffenden, Novelists in Interview (Lon­ don: Methuen, 1985), p. 91. 3. This comment on Angela Carter was made by Loma Sage at a recent confer­ ence on Carter’s work, ‘Fireworks: Angela Carter and the Futures of W riting’, at the University of York, 1994. I would like to thank the conference organizer, Joseph Bristow, for his insight and encouragement. 4. Angela Carter, Nights at the Circus (London: Picador, 1985),p.103.Subse references are to this edition and are given in the text. 5. Joan Riviere, ‘Womanliness as masquerade’, The International Journal of Psycho­ analysis 10 (1929), reprinted in Formations of Fantasy, ed. Victor Burgin, James Donald and Cora Kaplan (London: Routledge, 1989), pp. 35—44. The contem­ porary influence of Riviere has been heavily mediated through the work of Jacques Lacan and Luce Irigaray, especially Lacan’s essay, ‘The signification of the Phallus’, in Ecrits: A Selection, trans. Alan Sheridan (London: Tavistock, 1977), pp. 281-91, and Irigaray, This Sex Which Is Not One, trans. Carolyn Porter (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1985), pp. 132-4. One of the most influential contemporary appropriations is that of Judith Butler, who argues in Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (London: Routledge, 1990) that gender is a matter not of ‘core’ identity but of discursively con­ strained performative acts. At the ‘Fireworks’ conference on Carter’s work, a large number of the papers drew on psychoanalytical conceptions of masquer­ ade and mimicry. 6. Carter, ‘Notes from the Front Line’, p. 70. 7. Ibid., p. 71. 8. Haffenden, ‘Angela Carter’, p. 82. 9. Ibid., p. 86. 10. For representative examples of these two positions, see Robert Clark, ‘Angela Carter’s desire machine’, Women’s Studies 14 (1987), pp. 147-61, and John Bayley, ‘Fighting for the crown’, New York Review of Books, 23 April 1992, pp. 9-11.


Angela Carter’s fetishism 11. Haffenden, ‘Angela Carter’, p. 88. 12. Paulina Palmer, ‘From “coded mannequin” to “bird woman”; Angela Carter’s magic flight’, in Women Reading Women’s Writing, ed. Sue Roe (Brighton: Har­ vester, 1987), pp. 179-205. 13. Angela Carter, Love (London: Chatto & Windus, 1987), p. 104. Subsequent references are to this edition and are given in the text. 14. Karl Marx, ‘The fetishism of commodities and the secret thereof’, in Jon Elster, ed., Karl Marx: A Reader (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986), pp. 63-75. 15. Walter Benjamin, ‘Paris - the capital of the nineteenth century’, in Charles Baudelaire: a Lyric Poet in the Era of High Capitalism, trans. Harry Zohn (London: Verso, 1983), p. 166. 16. For a suggestive discussion of the ‘medicalized literariness’ of the ftn-de-siecle ‘pathography’ as a fetishistic discourse, see Emily Apter, Feminizing the Fetish: Psychoanalysis and Narrative Obsession in Turn-of the-Century France (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1991). 17. Sigmund Freud, ‘Fetishism’, in Angela Richards and Albert Dickson, eds, Pelican Freud Library (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1953—77), Vol. 7, pp. 345—57. Freud adduces the foot or shoe as a prime example of the fetish, which is ‘a substitute for the woman’s (the mother’s) penis that the little boy once believed in . . . and does not want to give up’ (p. 352). The fetish is a memorial of the male castration complex as articulated around a primal act of looking: the boychild’s traumatic discovery of a phallic lack in the opposite sex. 18. Carter hints at Annabel’s genealogy as a phantasm of the Romantic imagination when she refers in the Preface to Benjamin Constant’s novel of sensibility, Adolphe, as a model. See also Sue Roe, ‘The disorder of Love: Angela Carter’s surrealist collage’, in Lorna Sage, ed., Flesh and the Mirror: Essays on the Art of Angela Carter (London: Virago, 1994), pp. 60-97. 19. Marc O ’Day, ‘“Mutability is having a field day”: the sixties aura of Angela Carter’s Bristol Trilogy’, in Sage, ed., Flesh and the Mirror, pp. 24—59. 20. See, for example, Jean Baudrillard, For a Critique of the Political Economy of the Sign, trans. Charles Levin (St Louis: Telos Press, 1981), and W. J. T. Mitchell, Iconology: Image, Text, Ideology (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986), pp. 151-208. 21. Laura Mulvey, ‘Some thoughts on theories of fetishism in the context of con­ temporary culture’, October 65 (Summer 1993), p. 19. For Freud, fetishism is a paradigmatically male perversion, the normal component of which structures sexual difference around the castration complex. Recently, a number of fem­ inist critics have attempted to appropriate Freudian fetishism for feminism. See Naomi Schor, ‘Female fetishism: the case of George Sand’, in Susan Rubin Suleiman, ed., The Female Body in Western Culture (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1986), pp. 363—72; Apter, Feminizing the Fetish; and Lorraine Gamman and Meija Makinen, Female Fetishism: A New Look (London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1994). For an argument against such appropriations as collusive with the norms of heterosexuality, see Marjorie Garber, ‘Fetish envy’, October 54 (Fall 1990), pp. 45-56, reprinted in Vested Interests: Cross-Dressing and Cultural Anxiety (London: Routledge, 1992), pp. 118-27. 22. Haffenden, ‘Angela Carter’, p. 91. 23. See, for example, Carter, ‘Notes from the Front Line’, p. 71; Haffenden, ‘Angela Carter’, p. 86.


77ie Infernal Desires of Angela Carter 24. See Rita Felski, ‘The counter-discourse of the feminine in three texts by Wilde, Huysmans and Sacher-Masoch’, PMLA 106:5 (1991), pp. 1094-105, and ‘The gender of modernity’, in Sally Ledger, Josephine McDonagh and Jane Spencer, eds, Political Gender: Texts and Contexts (Hemel Hempstead: Harvester, 1994), pp. 144-55. 25. HafFenden, ‘Angela Carter’, p. 92. 26. Carter, ‘Notes from the Front Line’, p. 73. 27. Haffenden, ‘Angela Carter’, p. 86. 28. Elaine Jordan, ‘Enthralment: Angela Carter’s speculative fictions’, in Linda Anderson, ed., Plotting Change: Contemporary Women’s Fiction (London: Edward Arnold, 1990), pp. 19-40. 29. Jordan, ‘Enthralment’, p. 23. 30. Angela Carter, Black Venus (London: Picador, 1985), p. 9. Subsequent refer­ ences are to this edition and are in the text. 31. See Jill Matus, ‘Blonde, black and Hottentot Venus: context and critique in Angela Carter’s “Black Venus’” , Studies in Short Fiction 28:4 (Fall 1991), pp. 467-76. 32. Carter, ‘Notes from the Front Line’, pp. 75, 71. 33. John Fletcher, ‘Versions of masquerade’, Screen 29:3 (Summer 1988), pp. 43 70. Fletcher argues that the specificity of Riviere’s concept of the masquerade, along with its potential for critique, is lost in its frequent conflation with the Lacanian formula of the ‘woman-as-phallus’ and with the Freudian concept of fetishism. My reading of Carter’s texts supports this argument, although an exegesis of the theoretical literature on fetishism and masquerade, much of which has been produced in the context of film theory, is outside the scope of my discussion. 34. Marina Warner, ‘Angela Carter: bottle blonde, double drag’, in Sage, ed., Flesh and the Mirror, p. 248. 35. Angela Carter, ‘Truly, it felt like Year One’, in Sara Maitland, ed., Very Heaven: Looking Back on the Sixties (London: Virago, 1988), pp. 209-16. 36. John Stokes, ‘Introduction’, in John Stokes, ed., Fin-de-Siecle/Fin du Globe: Fears and Fantasies of the Late Nineteenth Century (New York: St Martin’s, 1992), p. 7. 37. Haffenden, ‘Angela Carter’, pp. 92-3, 88. 38. Angela Carter, Wise Children (London: Chatto & Windus, 1991), p. 6. 39. Marina Warner also makes this point. See Sage, ed., Flesh and the Mirror, p. 253. 40. Angela Carter, interview with Loma Sage, cited by Marina Warner in Sage, ed., Flesh and the Mirror, p. 254.



‘The red dawn breaking over C la p h a m C a rter and the limits of artifice

Clare Hanson 1

In a letter to Lorna Sage, Angela Carter wrote that ‘the notion that one day the red dawn will indeed break over Clapham is the one thing that keeps me going’.2 This is an extremely revealing remark, suggesting a tension which runs throughout Carter’s work. On the one hand is a socialist commitment and belief in the possibility of a revolution which will overturn restrictive and repressive social practices; on the other is an underlying sense of pess­ imism, even despair (‘the one thing that keeps me going') which puts pressure on any firm faith in the possibility of social change. It is this tension in Carter’s work —between a radical will and a sceptical pessimism —that I want to explore in this essay, thus offering a critique of the celebratory tend­ ency in Carter criticism, a tendency that tends to obscure the depth and complexity of her later work. I am thinking here of the ways in which Nights at the Circus (1984), especially, has been read in terms of construc­ tionism, and has been seen as a novel which, in exposing the discursive construction of ‘essences’ such as femininity and masculinity, suggests ways in which these essences can be reconfigured through an exuberant reappro­ priation of dominant discourses. Elaine Jordan, for example, in a stimulating (and pioneering) essay from 1990, describes Nights at the Circus as Carter’s ‘most optimistic revolutionary novel’, and reads it as a ‘carnival of writing’ with ‘directly positive elements’ which (borrowing a phrase from Roland Barthes) can ‘[found] prospective history’. Jordan argues that the central char­ acter, Fewers, in ‘putting on’ one variety of femininity with a vengeance, necessarily suggests ‘the power of taking it off’.3 Meija Makinen, in an influential 1992 essay, writes with specific reference to Nights at the Circus and Wise Children (1991) that ‘the violence in the events depicted in the earlier novels. . . and the aggression implicit in the representations, are no


The Infernal Desires of Angela Carter

longer foregrounded. While similar events may occur in these last two texts, the focus is on mocking and exploding the constrictive cultural stereotypes.’4 This emphasis on positive change accords, of course, with Carter’s own essay ‘Notes from the Front Line’, in which she describes the extraordinary sense of optimism and of possibility which influenced her in the 1960s. She writes: There is a tendency to underplay, even to completely devalue, the experience of the 1960s, especially for women, but towards the end of that decade there was a brief period of public philosophical awareness that occurs only very occasionally in human history; when, truly, it felt like Year One . . . I can date to that time and to some of those debates and to that sense of heightened awareness of the society around me in the summer of 1968, my own questioning of the nature of my reality as a woman.5

A celebratory reading of Carter’s work also fits in well with the strand in contemporary feminist thought that sees poststructuralism, and decon­ struction in particular, as helpful and liberating for feminism. According to such a view, poststructuralism ‘enables the feminist reader to uncover the discursive production of all meanings, to pinpoint whose interests they sup­ port, and to locate the contradictions which render them fundamentally unstable and open to change’.6 The implication is that once we see, on the metaphysical level, that no meanings are fixed, given or natural, we become able actively to engage in political struggle. Deconstruction is linked with that questioning of the ‘grand narratives’ of Western thought thatjeanFran^ois Lyotard identifies as the characteristic of the postmodern condi­ tion; it thus shades into the unmasking or ‘delegitimation’ of the dominant narratives of patriarchy and imperialism.7 To deconstruct is to oppose or contest these narratives, and Carter’s later work is often thought of as ‘deconstructive’ in this sense. More recently, the work of Judith Butler has focused intensively on the question of whether and how it is possible to contest the existing struc­ tures of discourse/power. Drawing on the work of Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault and Luce Irigaray, Butler has developed her influential account of gender as performance. For Butler, gender is never original but always ‘a kind of persistent impersonation that passes as the real’.8 Butler is particularly concerned with the ways in which the parodic ‘quoting’ of gender binaries can decentre defining discourses. She argues that ‘gender is an “act,” as it were, that is open to splittings, self-parody, self-criticism, and those hyper­ bolic exhibitions of “the natural” that, in their very exaggeration, reveal its fundamentally phantasmatic status’ (i.e., its connection with unconscious desire rather than empirical reality).9 For Butler, drag is the pre-eminently instructive example of gender as performance in this sense. It is not difficult


Carter and the limits of artifice

to see how these ideas might illuminate Carter’s fiction, which teems with figures such as the drag artists Tristessa in The Passion of New Eve (1977) and Melchior in the late story ‘The Merchant of Shadows’ (1989). For Butler, parody or mimicry thus opens up a position from which we can challenge or contest regulatory discourses of gender. In Bodies That Matter: On the Discursive Limits of'Sex' (1993), she argues that gender acquires its naturalized effect as a ‘sedimented effect of a reiterative or ritual practice’, but that it is by virtue of this reiteration that ‘gaps and fissures are opened up as the constitutive instabilities in such constructions, as that which escapes or exceeds the norm’.10 Bodies come to matter (that is, both materialize and have meaning) in the context of a heterosexual symbolic which neces­ sarily institutes its own ‘outside’. Butler explains her concept of the ‘outside’ in the following terms: There is an ‘outside’ to what is constructed by discourse, but this is not an absolute ‘outside’, an ontological thereness that exceeds or counters the boundaries of discourse; as a constitutive ‘outside’, it is that which can only be thought — when it can - in relation to that discourse, at and as its most tenuous borders.11

The ‘constitutive outside’ is a zone which reinforces normative boundaries. It is the zone of that which the subject must exclude in order to constitute itself: in psychoanalytic terms, it is the zone of psychosis and abjection. We are constituted as human beings through a series of exclusions and erasures, but for Butler the zone of exclusion offers a vantage point from which the heterosexual symbolic can be challenged: ‘These excluded sites come to bound the “human” as its constitutive outside, and to haunt those boundaries as the persistent possibility of their disruption and rearticulation.’12 Butler argues that a resignification of the domain of the abject/excluded will force ‘a radical rearticulation of the symbolic horizon in which bodies come to matter at all’.13 I would like to explore these ideas of performance and resignification in relation to Carter’s later fiction, and I would like to test them first against a short story from the brilliant (and neglected) 1985 collection Black Venus. ‘The Cabinet of Edgar Allan Poe’ explores the construction of the nineteenthcentury American writer’s particular sensibility through an imaginative recon­ struction of his childhood. It is significant that Carter focuses on Poe, who was much admired by Charles Baudelaire and the French Symbolists, and who anticipated the late-nineteenth-century Decadents’ interest in the con­ struction/performance of the self. Appropriately enough, Carter’s story shows the impact on Poe of his mother’s acting career. Like Carter’s later Hazards and Chances in Wise Children, Elizabeth Poe was ‘born in a trunk, grease­ paint in her bloodstream’. Poe’s earliest memories are of her seemingly endless changes of identity:


The Infernal Desires of Angela Carter Something like this . . . Edgar would lie in prop-baskets on heaps of artificial finery and watch her while she painted her face. The candles made a profane altar of the mirror in which her vague face swam like a magic fish. If you caught hold of it, it would make your dreams come true but Mama slithered through all the nets which desire set out to catch her. She stuck glass jewels in her ears, pinned back her nut-brown hair and tied a muslin bandage round her head, looking like a corpse for a minute. Then on went the yellow wig. Now you see her, now you don’t; brunette turns blonde in the wink of an eye. Mama turns round to show how she has changed into the lovely lady he glimpsed in the mirror.14

Performing gender as she continually does, we might expect Elizabeth Poe to expose some of its constraints and to intuit a freedom ‘beyond’ it. The most startling aspect of this story, however, is the way in which the young, cross-dressing Mrs Poe moves not towards freedom but towards a death which seems to be inextricably linked with her maternal function. So while ‘The Cabinet of Edgar Allan Poe’ looks like a promising candidate for a reading drawing on Butler’s ideas about performance, and focusing on the contestation of gender stereotypes, what actually happens within the story is a return of the repressed archetype of the maternal-feminine linked with death. And while the zone of abjection is clearly present, signalled most strikingly by Poe’s desire for his corpse-like young wife, it forces no rearticu­ lation o f ‘what qualifies as bodies that matter’. On the contrary: at the end of the story the abject Poe, like his father before him, simply ¿^materializes: ‘His dust blows away on the wind’ (p. 62). If ‘The Cabinet of Edgar Allan Poe’ moves towards stasis rather than contestation, then might this also be true of Carter’s later novels? I want to explore this issue first in relation to Nights at the Circus, a novel that is much concerned with borders or boundaries and the ways in which such borders can be disclosed or revealed as sites of exclusion and force. Nights at the Circus engages directly with the abject through the book’s central meta­ phor of the freak. The central character, Fewers, is a ‘bird-woman’, a giantess who claims to have wings, which she deploys in her act as a circus aerialiste. The novel offers a picaresque account of her adventures as a theatrical/circus performer in England and Russia at the close of the nine­ teenth century. Much of the time we see Fewers through the eyes of Jack Walser, a young journalist who starts out as a sceptical observer of Fewers but who is during the course of the novel broken apart and remade into a ‘New Man’ fit to love Fewers as a representative New Woman. (The novel is set in that fin-de-siècle period of exploration and experiment when the emancipated ‘New Woman’ became a major feature of social and artistic life.) Fewers herself is from the beginning of the book a dazzling spectacle


Carter and the limits of artifice

whose ontological status cannot be determined. Depending on your in­ formation and/or your point of view, she is either wonder or freak: the borderline between the acceptable and the unacceptable is almost literally figured by her body. But this is, the narrative suggests, a border which we all know intimately: it is for us all an internal as much as an external bound­ ary, fragile and shifting. Fewers herself points this out, when she recalls the manservant Toussaint’s views on the shifting category of the acceptably human. Toussaint is another of the ‘freaks’ in the novel, a black man born without a mouth. In naming him after Toussaint L’Ouverture, the Haitian who led the only successful slave revolt in history, Carter points to the need to contest oppression by race as well as gender. Toussaint, according to Fewers, always maintained it was those fine gentlemen who paid down their sovereigns to poke and pry at us who were the unnatural ones, not we. For what is ‘natural’ and ‘unnatural’, sir? The mould in which the human form is cast is exceedingly fragile. Give it the slightest tap with your fingers and it breaks.15

Nights at the Circus underscores, too, the way in which we become accept­

able or ‘natural’ by virtue of being interpellated by language and culture. Fewers, presenting a body which cannot be readily interpreted, has, signi­ ficantly, not been acculturated in the normal manner. She has, she claims, been hatched from an egg and been brought up exclusively by women, and has avoided all conventional rites of passage —‘I never docked via what you might call the normal channels, sir’, she tells Walser (p. 7). The other female freaks in the novel tend also to have been orphaned or abandoned by pat­ riarchal culture, and their deformities speak metaphorically of challenges or interruptions to the conventional narrative of femininity. The Sleeping Beauty, for example, in a variant on the fairy-tale, falls asleep when she begins to menstruate, but is awakened by no kiss, and her ‘female flow’ gradually dries up altogether, while Fanny Four Eyes develops eyes instead of nipples — which see ‘too much of the world altogether’ (p. 69). Near the beginning of Fewers’s narrative, she and the other female freaks are outcast and abjected, punished because they have not produced, in Butler’s phrase, ‘bodies that matter’. During the course of the novel, however, it is suggested that Fewers, initially categorized as a freak, has the capacity to force a reading of herself as wonder rather than freak, and thus to alter the boundaries of what is considered acceptable, or ‘feminine’. From a position inside/outside femininity, she is able to critique it and extend its possibilities. The rhetoric of Carter’s text seems to chime in here with Butler’s positive view of the ‘outsider position’ as able to challenge hege­ mony, forcing ‘a radical rearticulation of what qualifies as bodies that matter’.


The Infernal Desires of Angela Carter

Carter seems to go further, for Lizzie at one point completely suspends his­ tory for Fewers, claiming for her infinite possibilities of self-defmition: ‘You never existed before. There’s nobody to say what you should do or how to do it. You are Year One. You haven’t any history and there are no expectations of you except the ones you yourself create.’ (p. 198) This particular speech has been quoted in support of the reading of Nights at the Circus as a positive constructionist text.16 It is interesting that it echoes

so closely Carter’s description of that ‘brief period . . . when, truly, it felt like Year One’ in her account of the 1960s in ‘Notes from the Front Line’. But it is also interesting that at the very point when she is stressing freedom in that essay she should also write: ‘I simply could not have existed, as I am, in any other preceding time or place. I am the pure product of an advanced, industrialised, post-imperialist country in decline.’17 The sense of freedom is compromised by a sense of historical determinism, and I think that this is true also in the novel. Lizzie is blinded by love when she makes the speech quoted above, but at all other points in the novel, she is the representative of history, balancing Fewers’s rhetorical flights with dry Marxist-historical analysis. Lizzie constantly emphasizes the need to change ‘the anvil of history’, and to this end, we discover at the end of the novel, has been sending regular dispatches to none other than Marx himself while she and Fewers are in Russia. (Marx is, of course, the ‘spry little gent with a ’tache’ Lizzie meets in the Reading Room of the British Museum, Nights at the Circus, p. 292). And in the last section of the novel, in dialogue with the dreamy young ‘Escapee’, Lizzie presents us with a Foucauldian analysis of the institutions and practices which shape us: T d certainly agree with you that this present which we contempo­ raneously inhabit is imperfect to a degree. But this grievous condition has nothing to do with the soul, or, as you might also call it, removing the theological connotation, “human nature”. It isn’t in that Grand Duke’s nature to be a bastard, hard though it may be to believe; nor does it lie in those of his employees to be slaves. What we have to contend with, here, my boy, is the long shadow of the past historic (reverting back to the grammatical analogy, for a moment), that forged the institutions which create the human nature of the present in the first place. ‘It’s not the human “soul” that must be forged on the anvil of history but the anvil itself must be changed in order to change humanity.’ (p. 240)

O r as Foucault himself puts it: One doesn’t have here a power which is wholly in the hands of one person who can exercise it alone and totally over the others. It’s a


Carter and the limits of artifice machine in which everyone is caught, those who exercise power just as much as those over whom it is exercised.18

Lizzie’s speech (like the novel as a whole) contains echoes of both Marx and Foucault, who can, I think, be yoked together in this context. Although Foucault sought to distance himself from what he saw as Marx’s determin­ istic, ‘top-down’ model of power relations, it can be argued that he himself presents a similarly deterministic view of power, especially in the early work which we know Carter to have read.19 History (or the ‘shadow of the past’, its legacy of oppressive and exclu­ sionary structures) is further represented in Nights at the Circus through the clowns, who are connected with death and disintegration from the moment they first appear in the kitchen in St Petersburg to mug ‘pain, resentment, despair, agony, death’ for Walser (p. 123). The clowns act as a powerful counterweight in this novel to the optimism of Fevvers, and through them Carter offers a view quite opposite to the feminist-deconstructionist view that political change can ensue from an understanding of the instability of language. The clowns offer a philosophical account of their own condition which comes close to a deconstructive analysis - Buffo, for example, de­ scribes his own attachment to a fixed identity, and Grik and Grok present themselves as a semi-comic literalization of the binary oppositions on which, according to Derrida, language and meaning depend: ‘But, as for us, old comrades that we are, old stagers that we are,’ said Grik, ‘why, do I need a mirror when I put my make-up on? No, sir! All I need to do is to look in my old pal’s face, for, when we made our face together, we created out of nothing each other’s Siamese twin, our nearest and dearest, bound by a tie as strong as shared liver and lights. W ithout Grik, Grok is a lost syllable, a typo on a programme, a sign-painter’s hiccup on a billboard - ’ and so is he sans me.’ (p. 123)

Yet this analysis leads not towards action, empowerment or freedom, but to nihilism and the perception of the abyss. (‘Nothing will come of nothing’, whisper the clowns, echoing King Lear.) Self-analysis leads to despair, which can only be dealt with in the text through a mysterious disappearance, as the clowns, with their weight of knowledge, dance their last dance and are blown off the face of the earth. At this point, all Carter’s powers seem to be engaged in the evocation of a hell which cuts right across the surface optimism of the text: This dance was the dance of death, and they danced it for George Buffins, that they might be as him. They danced it for thewretched of the earth, that they might witness their own wretchedness. They danced the dance of the outcasts for the outcasts who watched them, amid the louring trees, with a blizzard coming on. And, one by one, the outcast


The Infernal Desires of Angela Carter outlaws raised their heads to watch and all indeed broke out in laughter but it was a laughter without joy. It was the bitter laugh one gives when one sees there is no triumph over fate . . . They danced the whirling apart of everything, the end of love, the end of hope; they danced tomorrows into yesterdays; they danced the exhaustion of the implacable present; they danced the deadly dance of the past perfect which fixes everything fast so it can’t move again; they danced the dance of Old Adam who destroys the world because we believe he lives forever. (pp. 242-3)

At the very moment when she asserts the power of belief, Carter in­ troduces too the concept of ‘fate’, and thus implicitly questions the extent to which our ‘beliefs’ are under our control. There is a sense of helplessness and stasis in this passage (‘exhaustion’, ‘deadly’, ‘fixes. . . so it can’t move’) which goes against the kind of cheery belief in a self-help radical politics with which Carter has been associated. Rather, there is a sense in Nights at the Circus that while the boundaries of what constitutes a legitimate or acceptable subject may, once in a while, be redrawn (as in the case of the gains made by women at the time when the novel is set, with the Married W omen’s Property Act, for example), there is ultimately no change in the general sum of human happiness, for the rise of one individual or group will always be at the expense of another. The relationship between Fewers and Walser offers a vivid demonstration of this, the rise of Fewers being partly at the expense of Walser. The relation between the New Woman and the New Man at the end of the novel thus offers a reversal rather than a deconstruction of existing power relations, Fewers being in every sense ‘on top’. In the last scene, Fewers adopts the ‘woman on top’ position for love-making, and this mirrors the dominance of her ego and desires over those of Jack Walser. It is also true that Fewers’s power and success are throughout the novel shown to depend on her capacity to ‘work’ the star system in close association with the arch-capitalist Colonel Kearney (who comes from Kentucky —an allusion, perhaps, to another successful Amer­ ican product, Colonel Saunders’ Kentucky Fried Chicken). The freedom she has is contingent on her earning capacity, a truth that Fewers, at least, never forgets: ‘You’d never think she dreamed, at nights, of bank accounts, or that, to her, the music of the spheres was the jingling of cash registers. Even Walser did not guess that’ (p. 12). It could be argued, then, that through Fewers Carter underscores the limited nature of the freedoms gained by the New Women of the 1880s and 1890s. This was a period of great optimism about women’s capacity to change themselves and the world, but Carter’s text shows the difficulty —for any revolutionary —of escaping from Foucault’s ‘machine of power’. Fewers doesn’t so much destabilize the machine as improve her position within it. This sense of the difficulty of


Carter and the limits of artifice

effecting any real social change is reinforced for the contemporary feminist reader of Nights at the Circus, who will be only too well aware of the dis­ crepancy between Fewers’s extravagant claims for the future and the actual extent of the changes in women’s lives over the last hundred years. Reading Nights at the Circus with Butler’s ideas in mind can help to alert us to key issues in Carter’s novel, issues which are resolved, however, in such a way as to offer an implicit critique of some of Butler’s arguments. Like all Carter’s fiction, Nights at the Circus is centrally concerned with the possibility of social change, but it offers no positive ‘celebratory’ answers. Most notably, while Butler repeatedly suggests that the ‘abject’ position (the position of the ‘freak’, the not properly human) offers a critical resource which can lead to a ‘radical rearticulation’ of social structures, Nights at the Circus seems rather to suggest that a re-articulation of borders such as Fevvers engages in does little either to dissolve such borders or to modify the operation of power. Fevvers, after all, imposes her vision of herself on Walser, reversing, rather than dissolving, existing power structures. If Nights at the Circus is ambivalent about the possibility of social change, I would argue that Wise Children shares this ambivalence, translated in this novel into the terms of art and artifice. In Wise Children, Carter switches her attention from the realm of abjection and the question of borders and focuses instead on an indictment of (or melancholy acceptance of?) the binary oppositions that structure social existence. As in Nights at the Circus, Carter is especially interested in the split or disjunction between philosoph­ ical deconstruction and the practical deconstruction, or dismantling, of the hierarchies of value that structure society. The novel is built around a series of overlapping oppositions: between masculine and feminine, legitimate and illegitimate, tragedy and comedy. The novel itself, Carter asserts, is a com­ edy, in the tradition of Shakespearian comedy and romance. Dora Chance, the narrator, uses the metaphor of the pause button on the video recorder to convey her understanding of the ‘happy ending’ she purveys to us: ‘[TJruthfully, these glorious pauses do, sometimes, occur in the discordant but complementary narratives of our lives and if you choose to stop the story there, at such a pause, and refuse to take it any further, then you can call it a happy ending.’ In other words, the happy ending is associated with selection, editing and the willing suspension of disbelief To create it, the narrator tells us, she edits out facts which ‘do not belong to the world of comedy’, and the freeze-frame cuts off the awkward unravellings of history, so that for a moment, all is ‘laughter, forgiveness, generosity, reconciliation’.20 The comic spirit is associated too with both legal and artistic illegitim­ acy. Dora Chance is the illegitimate daughter of Melchior Hazard, last in a long line of Shakespearian actors: her legal illegitimacy is compounded by the fact that she and her twin sister Nora are affiliated not to high culture


The Infernal Desires of Angela Carter

but to the popular form of the music-hall: ‘our father was a pillar of the legit, theatre and we girls are illegitimate in every way - not only born out of wedlock, but we went on the halls, didn’t we!’ (p. 11). Comedy is thus associated with improper art, and is also connected with degraded feminin­ ity, most notably through the person of Grandma Chance. Grandma Chance, who runs a boarding house which caters for theatricals (not of the wellheeled variety), is the point of origin for a distinctively feminine line of development in this narrative. She puts together a female family that has nothing to do with legitimacy or the ties of blood, and everything to do with her own improvisatory gifts: 4“Family,” I say. Grandma invented this family. She put it together out of whatever came to hand —a stray pair of orphaned babes, a ragamuffin in a flat cap. She created it by sheer force of personality’ (p. 35). In Wise Children comedy, the improper and the feminine are thus linked to resistance, to the spirit o f‘making do’ and ‘making the best of it’. Tragedy, on the other hand, is linked with automatic (unthinking) authority, with legitimacy and, of course, with masculinity. Tragedy is the mainstay of the legitimate theatre and it is here personified by Melchior, Dora’s father, who has made his living out of playing Shakespeare’s patriarchal tragic heroes. Tragedy is also associated in the text with history and with war. Dora explains that: A broken heart is never a tragedy. Only untimely death is a tragedy. And war, which, before we knew it, would be upon us; replace the comic mask with the one whose mouth turns down and close the theatre, because I refuse point-blank to play in tragedy. (pp. 153-4)

Through the complex network of associations in the text, war is thus identified, via tragedy, with masculinity. Grandma Chance has her own bastardized anthropological explanation of this: Grandma said it then, she said it again in 1939: ‘Every twenty years, it’s bound to happen. It’s to do with generations. The old men get so they can’t stand the competition and they kill off all the young men they can lay their hands on. They daren’t be seen to do it themselves, that would give the game away, the mothers wouldn’t stand for it, so all the men all over the world get together and make a deal: you kill off our boys and we’ll kill off yours . . . . . . W hen the bombardments began, Grandma would go outside and shake her fist at the old men in the sky. (p. 29)

Later on in the novel, Dora explicitly opposes carnival to war when she writes, ‘Suffice it to say it was no carnival, not the hostilities. No carnival’ (p. 163). 68

Carter and the limits of artifice

Following up these overlapping associations, it is possible to read Wise Children as interweaving two opposing strands: on the one hand, comedy,

illegitimacy, the feminine and the camivalesque; on the other, tragedy, legit­ imacy, the masculine and a history punctuated by war. Given the existence of these oppositions, it would obviously be possible to argue that the novel accomplishes a feminist, camivalesque subversion of the symbolic order of patriarchy. This is to some extent the reading Gerardine Meaney offers in her interesting discussion of the novel. She reads Wise Children through the theory of Julia Kristeva, arguing that the novel represents a ‘comic approach to the thetic boundary’ - in other words, that it moves towards the bound­ ary or threshold between semiotic and symbolic modes. She also argues that the novel draws on and deploys Bakhtinian notions of the carnival in which conventional rules of behaviour are suspended, hierarchies are over­ turned and opposites mingle. Through her use of Bakhtin, she suggests, Carter has found ‘a mode of celebrating difference, releasing its subversive potential’.21 I would argue, however, that Meaney’s own desire to celebrate subversive potential leads her to misunderstand Carter’s view of the ultimate purpose and efficacy of carnival, and to misread what is ultimately an elegiac text. Although Wise Children offers moods of celebration and reconciliation which are not only stated, as it were, but enacted through the generous rhythms of the prose, the novel is also marked by constant reminders of war and death - the facts we cannot laugh away. Any mood of celebration is further undercut by Dora’s sharp reminder that tragedy always upstages comedy: O f course, we didn’t know, then, how the Hazards would always upstage us. Tragedy, eternally more class than comedy. How could mere songand-dance girls aspire so high? We were destined, from birth, to be the lovely ephemera of the theatre, we’d rise and shine like birthday candles, then blow out. (P- 58)

Dora also points out that ‘there are limits to the power of laughter’, thus offering an implicit critique of the optimistic ending of Nights at the Circus. Wise Children emphasizes instead the implacability and inescapability of the operation of power. This is most vividly illustrated in this novel by the dif­ ference in the ultimate fates of Melchior Hazard and Grandma Chance. Grandma Chance, point of origin for an ‘alternative’ female genealogy in the text, the one who attempts to ‘write’ a different history, is presented in the end as attaining the status only of a comic version of Lear. A naturist, she continues in later life to do the housework naked, and is laughed at by her daughters. After she dies, Dora makes the connection with Lear, telling us that ‘when we remembered how we’d mocked her nakedness in her old age we were ashamed’ (p. 164). Grandma Chance has not a chance of making


The Infernal Desires of Angela Carter

the real narrative, the ‘tragic’ narrative, and is accordingly and appropriately taken out by a flying bomb in the Second World War. Melchior, on the other hand, representative of patriarchal genealogy and the law, is connected with the sublime Lear, a role he plays to acclaim both in ‘real’ life and on the stage. Knighted and honoured, he never loses either status or patri­ archal power, but survives to his 100th birthday, on which occasion he looks ‘regal, but festive’, with rings on his fingers ‘like a king, or pope’ (p. 198). To associate femininity with comedy is thus, ultimately, to stress its power­ lessness. In a sense, the true tragedy in Wise Children is that of Grandma Chance, and perhaps that of Carter, too —what could be called the radical tragedy of a disappointed will-to-change. Official ‘tragedy’ in this novel simply represents the dominant cultural (patriarchal) narrative. Through the figures of Melchior and Grandma Chance, Carter stresses, respectively, the power of power and the vulnerability of those who attempt to subvert or circumvent it. In this respect, Wise Children continues and intensifies the Foucauldian strain which, I would argue, runs right through Carter’s work. For if Nights at the Circus is concerned with ways of contest­ ing the symbolic order, then Wise Children emphasizes much more strongly the persistence and pervasiveness of power itself It is a novel in which the principles of legitimacy and legitimation may be questioned, but in which the structures of both remain intact. It is also a novel in which the power of art itself is called into question. In ‘Notes from the Front Line’, Carter writes that language is ‘power, life and the instrument of culture, the instru­ ment of domination and liberation’.22 The implication is that, by intervening in the symbolic order, art can help to redefine that order. In Wise Children, published eight years later, there is a more pessimistic view of the role and utility of art. In this novel, we see Shakespeare being used as a commodity to shore up an economy and culture that are in decline. The implication is surely not that this is a misuse of Shakespeare, but that there was always, as Carter might have put it, something pretty dodgy about Shakespeare, hence his enduring popularity.23 The artists from ‘the other side of the tracks’ in this novel are doomed to be no more than ‘lovely ephemera’ who will leave no enduring mark on culture: even Dora Chance is characterized at the end of the novel as little more than a pub bore. In this novel, Carter thus comes rudely up against the limits of artifice, specifically her artifice. The melancholy subtext of the novel is that it will take more than artifice, and art, to bring the red dawn to Clapham. In making this point, I’m not in any way questioning Carter’s committed social­ ism, but I am suggesting that her radical will was, increasingly, counterbal­ anced by a rueful scepticism both about the possibility of social change and about the effectiveness of art in bringing about that change. To present Carter’s fiction as unproblematically ‘constructive’ is thus, I’d argue, both


Carter and the limits of artifice

to underestimate and to underread her. One of the most important things that Carter’s speculative fiction does is to document and exemplify the ten­ sion between a radical will and a sceptical Nietzchean pessimism that is such a central feature of the postmodern condition.24 So it is entirely fitting that Carter’s last novel, ending with the words ‘What a joy it is to dance and sing’, should be one in which the limitations of (its own) camivalesque art have been so thoroughly canvassed.


1. I would like to thank the editors, and Catherine Burgass and Phil Shaw, for their helpful comments on this essay. 2. Lorna Sage, ‘Death of the author’, in Granta 41 (Autumn 1992), p. 241. 3. Elaine Jordan, ‘Enthralment: Angela Carter’s speculative fictions’, in Linda Anderson, ed., Plotting Change (London: Edward Arnold, 1990), pp. 38-9. 4. Merja Makinen, ‘Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber and the decolonization of feminine sexuality’, Feminist Review 42 (Autumn 1992), p. 3. 5. Angela Carter, ‘Notes from the Front Line’, in Michelene Wandor, ed., On Gender and Writing (London: Pandora Press, 1983), p. 70. 6. Catherine Belsey and Jane Moore, ‘Introduction: the story so far, in Belsey and Moore, eds, The Feminist Reader: Essays in Gender and the Politics of Literary Criticism (London: Macmillan, 1989), p. 18. 7. See Jean-Fran^ois Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge (1979), trans. Geoff Bennington and Brian Massumi (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1984). For Lyotard, ‘grand narratives’ are those such as Chris­ tianity or Marxism, which attempt to find a framework for everything. He argues that the postmodern world-view is characterized by ‘little narratives’, which present local explanations but do not claim to explain everything. 8. Judith Butler, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (London: Routledge, 1990), p. viii. 9. Ibid., pp. 146-7. 10. Judith Butler, Bodies That Matter: On the Discursive Limits of ‘Sex’ (London: Routledge, 1993), p. 10. 11. Ibid., p. 8. 12. Ibid., my italics. 13. Ibid., p. 23. 14. Angela Carter, Black Venus (London: Chatto & W indus/The Hogarth Press, 1985), p. 55. Subsequent references are to this edition and are given in the text. 15. Angela Carter, Nights at the Circus (London: Chatto & W indus/The Hogarth Press, 1984), p. 61. Subsequent references are to this edition and are given in the text. 16. See Pam Morris, Literature and Feminism: A n Introduction (Oxford: Blackwell, 1993), p. 157.


The Infernal Desires of Angela Carter 17. Carter, ‘Notes from the Front Line’, p. 73. 18. Michel Foucault, Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writings, 1972— 77, ed. Colin Gordon (Brighton: Harvester Press, 1980), p, 156. 19. Foucault’s Madness and Civilisation: A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason (1965) is listed in the bibliography for Carter’s The Sadeian Woman: An Exercise in Cultural History (London: Virago, 1979). The panopticon, or prison for women, described in Section Three of Nights at the Circus corresponds exactly to Jeremy Bentham’s plan for a panopticon as analysed by Foucault in Discipline and Punish: the Birth of the Prison (1977). it is worth noting that the relationship between Foucault and feminism has been a fraught one. Foucault’s theory of power and its relationship to the body has proved helpful in explaining certain aspects of women’s oppression. How­ ever, his stress on the effects of power on the body can seem to reduce social beings to passive bodies, incapable of autonomous action. Resisting this strain in his work, feminists have recently turned to his final writings — The Use of Pleasure (1985) and The Care of the Self (1986) - for a more positive account of the ways in which individuals may fashion their own identities. See Lois McNay, Feminism and Foucault (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1992), and Elspeth Probyn, Sexing the Self: Gendered Positions in Cultural Studies (London: Routledge, 1993). 20. Angela Carter, Wise Children (London: Chatto & Windus, 1991), p. 227. Sub­ sequent references are to this edition and are given in the text. 21. Gerardine Meaney, (Un)Like Subjects: Women, Theory, Fiction (London: Roudedge, 1993), pp. 139-40. 22. Carter, ‘Notes from the Front Line’, p. 77. 23. Compare Carter’s deft debunking of the Shakespeare myth in the Omnibus interview recorded in 1991. 24. See Jordan, ‘Enthralment', for a discussion of the speculative qualities of Carter’s fiction.



‘But elsewhere?’: the future of fantasy in Heroes and Villains Elisabeth Mahoney

In the eyes of this society, such a posture casts her as a victim. But elsewhere? Julia Kristeva, About Chinese Women1 . . . limits are . . . what fantasy loves most. Judith Butler, ‘The Force of Fantasy’2

Representational limits are what Angela Carter’s fictions consistently test, especially those associated with questions of sexual difference and identity. In this chapter, my focus is on Carter’s specific challenge to the representa­ tional limits surrounding feminine desire in her post-apocalyptic dystopia, Heroes and Villains (1969), an ambitious and unsettling novel that has re­ ceived far less critical attention than one might expect. This fiction, which examines the relations between gender, power and sexual fantasy, undermines conventional codings of feminine sexuality as silent, dependent, passive or masochistic. In order to demonstrate the subversive potential of this com­ bination of fantastic literary narrative and sexual fantasy, I shall compare the dystopian vision of Heroes and Villains and the earlier, more obviously realist The Magic Toyshop (1967). While the latter novel certainly works to fore­ ground the relationship between power and fantasy, it remains, ultimately, compromised by the realist framework of the Bildungsroman — within, as Kristeva says, ‘the eyes of this society’.3 Breaking with the realist tradition, the speculative dystopia - literally, the ‘bad place’ —mapped out in Heroes and Villains interrogates feminine sexuality from ‘elsewhere’ in terms of time, space and place. In this non-realist realm - this dystopian elsewhere - Carter calls into question a number of conventional binary oppositions involved in the maintenance of gendered relations of sexual power: subject and object; masculine and feminine; master and victim.


The Infernal Desires of Angela Carter

It should already be clear that I am claiming the dystopia - specifically, the feminist dystopia —as a potentially radical representational space. ‘Specu­ lative’ is used here as an umbrella term to incorporate a wide range of some­ times overlapping categories of narrative: fantasy, science fiction, utopian and dystopian (including post-apocalyptic) writing. These genres and sub­ genres are linked by their implicit or explicit articulation of ‘what if. . as a narrative starting point, and by their occupying a liminal space between realism and non-realism.4 Dystopian fictions have until recently been crit­ ically disregarded, dismissed as derivative popular fiction; women’s experi­ mentation with the genre has been doubly marginalized.5 This may go some way to explain the relative lack of interest in Heroes and Villains compared to some of Carter’s other texts.6 But there is more to it than that, not least because other texts by Carter also reproduce and subvert culturally marginal genres, most obviously the fairy-tale. There are two further aspects of the dystopian genre which make Heroes and Villains a perplexing and disturbing text. It is these aspects that concern me here. First, speculative fiction flaunts its in-between status: it challenges the conventional relationship between the distinct and discrete categories o f‘real’ and ‘fantastic’ and, particularly in utopian, dystopian and science fiction, uses estrangement (of time and/or place) to critique the ‘real’ through the fantastic. It is because of this in-between status that speculative fiction has been feted as potentially radical. Tom Moylan argues that in this kind of writing, social and political conflict ‘is displaced onto the terrain of an other­ worldly locus so that the reader, consciously or unconsciously, can see her or his society and its contradictions in a fresh and perhaps motivating light’.7 Second, especially in utopian and dystopian fiction, displacement to ‘an other-worldly locus’ can produce a view from elsewhere in extremis. These good or bad place fantasies present an urgent, insistent critique of existing social relations by representing either a positive, alternative vision or a nightmarish vision of a future society. While women’s utopian writing has been extensively investigated by contemporary feminist critics and the­ orists, they have neglected the radicalism of much dystopian writing by women.8 This neglect may be partly connected to the genre’s often reac­ tionary politics: many dystopian fictions have been ‘knee-jerk’ reactions to perceived threats and crises, usually in the form of socialism or Soviet communism.9 For my purposes, however, its value lies in its extremity, its capacity to push representation to the limits to portray the ‘bad place’. In Heroes and Villains, as in other contemporary feminist dystopias such as Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid's Tale (1985) and Rebecca Brown’s The Terrible Girls (1990), we are presented both with a negative projection of existing social relations (as we expect in the dystopia), but also with some challenges to contemporary feminist politics. This double gesture is a crucial


‘But elsewhere?’: the future of fantasy in Heroes and Villains

aspect of the genre’s radical potential. In addition to representing patriarchy in extremis, the dystopia asks difficult questions about, for example, women’s complicity in oppressive systems and how to challenge such systems most effectively. This potential for a dual critique has been noted by critics but has not been pursued. Moylan, for example, describes the dystopia as ‘the more radical critique that the genre [the utopia] is capable of. By comparison, Frances Bartkowski — in a study which noticeably marginalizes women’s dystopian fiction —remarks: ‘Dystopian novels are crucial to a full engagement with the problematics of utopian thought.’10 I want to suggest that Heroes and Villains, with its explicit representation of sexual violence and desire, encourages us to confront the ‘bad place’ that heterosexual desire might be and to consider, specifically, women’s location within that ‘bad place’.11 To challenge the ‘bad place’ of heterosexuality, Carter characteristically focuses upon the power of erotic fantasy. Although this emphasis appears in many of her early writings - most obviously in the short story collection Fireworks (1974) and The Magic Toyshop - in the dystopian milieu of Heroes and Villains she presents this power as part of the bad place, both in terms of how women emerge as objects of sexual fantasy and exist as subjects empowered through fantasy. This distinctive combination of speculative narrative and feminist politics produces a fiction which directly questions the dominant cultural coding of feminine sexuality as lack. This coding has been most explicit in Freudian and Lacanian psychoanalytic theories of fem­ ininity. Through different paradigms, both Freud and Lacan posit feminine desire as enigmatic: purely relational (for Freud through penis envy; for Lacan through the lack of the phallus, the universal signifier), and silent (for Freud through passivity; for Lacan, through women’s problematic relation­ ship to language).12 Such models suggest that women are unable to articulate their own desires and remain trapped as objects of masculine desire, as the ‘other’ of the male gaze. Such influential psychoanalytic perspectives on fem­ inine desire have prompted feminist theorists and cultural practitioners to rethink, if not altogether repudiate, these paradigms. To gauge the radicalism of Carter’s fictions, it is useful to examine two feminist responses to the psychoanalytic view of feminine sexuality. In an article on the American photographer Robert Mapplethorpe and the controversy staged by the Moral Right against his sexually explicit work, Judith Butler insists that fantasy is the terrain to be privileged in any con­ testation of conventional configurations of identity, gender and the repres­ entation of desire. Butler contrasts two differing theories of fantasy. The first of these models suggests that what is represented in fantasy will have a ‘readable’, if not wholly palpable, effect on the real world. Butler argues that feminist anti-pomographic discourse subscribes to this version of fantasy, since it assumes that representations have real effects. The second model,


The Infernal Desires of Angela Carter

by contrast, emerges in non-realist writings such as utopias and dystopias. Such works, she notes, belong ‘to a different version of the real’, from which we do not infer that the fantasy has a direct impact on real conditions.13 In making this crucial distinction between these two paradigms of fantasy, Butler begins by foregrounding their differing ontological status. She reveals how the meaning of fantasy cannot be fixed or claimed by one group over another precisely because of the in-between status of fantasy - that is, be­ tween worlds that are seemingly antithetical: the private, psychic world of the subject and the public, physical world. Butler argues that we need a ‘proliferation and deregulation’ of images of desiring subjects and this pro­ liferation can only come through confrontation with texts which disturb the spectator because of their unclassifiable status: It is the incommensurability of the phantasmatic and the real that requires at this political juncture to be safeguarded: the task, then, is to make that rift, that insistent rifting, into the persistently ungrounded ground from which feminist discourse emerges.14

It is thus in the ‘rift’, the space between the phantasmic and the real, that a radical discourse might emerge. Since subject positions can only be tem­ porary, there is no essence or monolithic system of difference which can assign an unchallengeable status of ‘other’, ‘object’ or ‘victim’ to subjects. Because this discourse is at once grounded and ungrounded in this textual fissure, it remains unstable, always under ‘insistent’ and ‘persistent’ threat from ‘a chaotic multiplicity of representations’.15 With this model of the fantasy narrative in mind, I would claim that Heroes and Villains self-consciously occupies this indeterminate and chaotic cultural space, making it possible to realize a feminine sexual subject. Within such multiplicity, such chaos, Butler suggests, there lies the possibility of representing new articulations of desire. Thus she states: ‘it is important to risk losing control’ by surren­ dering ourselves to the instability of this space.16 If we do not, then we risk remaining locked into disempowering discourses of sexual identity. Across the whole range of Carter’s fiction, we certainly see this ‘multi­ plicity’. But two trends are particularly noticeable. There is a marked oscilla­ tion in her writing between uncovering repressive discourses (commonly through the revelation and/or reversal of the objectification of women within structures of masculine, heterosexual desire) and representational risk-taking (the writing in of new spaces of fantasy; the confrontation of taboo and silence). I would argue that the former project shapes both The Bloody Cham­ ber (1979) and The Magic Toyshop . Both of these texts focus on the unravel­ ling of the workings of masculine heterosexual desire through appropriation of narrative form: the fairy-tale and the Bildungsroman. While both contain the beginnings of the articulation of a new feminine sexual subject who


‘But elsewhereV: the future of fantasy in Heroes and Villains

refutes lack and silence (for example, in Carter’s rewriting of ‘Little Red Riding Hood’: ‘The girl burst out laughing; she knew she was nobody’s meat’),17 these fictions are more concerned to display structures of sexual objectification and fantasy. They remain, as their titles suggest, within hetero­ sexual, masculine spaces of desire: Bluebeard’s chamber and Uncle Philip’s toyshop, in which play is forbidden (‘I don’t like people playing with my toys’, he says).18 Heroes and Villains, however, signals the opening up of new representational spaces for sexual identity, ones that can accommodate new fantasies from autonomous feminine subjects. If Butler’s work helps to explain how feminist dystopian fiction opens up a space for a feminine subject of desire, then Teresa de Lauretis provides an equally useful perspective on how feminist cultural practice can counter psychoanalytic paradigms that designate women’s desire as lack. In ‘R e­ thinking women’s cinema: aesthetics and feminist theory’, de Lauretis provides a comprehensive overview of developments in feminist film theory.19 De Lauretis’s essay is suggestive for my reading of Heroes and Villains in two ways: first, she shows in great detail how and why feminist film theory is an area in which significant research into the sexual subject has emerged (particularly around questions of gender and spectatorship);20 and, second, the two stages of such work described by de Lauretis mirror Carter’s strategies for interrogating the relations between femininity and desire. De Lauretis suggests that the first stage of feminist film theory (and film-making) set about ‘destroying or disrupting man-centred vision by representing its blind spots, its gaps, or its repressed’.21 The second stage highlighted by de Lauretis concentrates not so much on cultural objectification as on the rep­ resentation of woman-as-subject: ‘The effort and challenge now are how to effect another vision: to construct other objects and subjects of vision, to formulate the conditions of representability of another social subject,’22 These ‘conditions of representability’ must include the possibility o f ‘the spectator as female’, as part of the construction of ‘another vision’.23 This spectator would then see differently, both in terms of ways of seeing and what is seen. De Lauretis’s overview has a wider applicability for feminist theory and narrative beyond film studies. In terms of Carter’s writing, these two ‘stages’ account for the differences between those texts in Carter’s oeuvre which reveal structures of sexual objectification (such as The Magic Toyshop and The Bloody Chamber) and those which move beyond such structures (Nights at the Circus, for example). Heroes and Villains can clearly be aligned with the second stage described by de Lauretis: in its focus upon womanas-object and sexual subject, it is more radical in its representation of fem­ inine desire than Carter’s other pr t-Bloody Chamber writing. This is, as I have suggested, because of its dystopian structure, which allows Carter to produce a fantastic narrative about sexual fantasy.


The Infernal Desires of Angela Carter

By contrast, The Magic Toyshop cannot ‘effect another vision’. Instead it concentrates on Melanie’s moves towards subjectivity — especially the expression of her sexuality —through what de Lauretis terms ‘man-centred vision’. The novel opens with a dressing-up scene in which Melanie ex­ plores ‘the whole of herself. . . behind a locked door in her pastel, innocent bedroom’ (pp. 1-2). The fifteen-year-old’s sense of self is shown to be constructed entirely through and by masculine representations of sexualized women: A la Toulouse Lautrec, she dragged her hair sluttishly across her face and sat down in a chair with her legs apart and a bowl of water and a towel at her feet. She always felt particularly wicked when she posed for Lautrec . . . She was too thin for a Titian or a Renoir . . . After she read Lady Chatterley’s Lover, she secretly picked forget-me-nots and stuck them in her pubic hair. (pp. 1-2)

The novel emphasizes that Melanie’s way of reading others is also through image and construction (‘It was easier, for example, to face the fact of Uncle Philip if she saw him as a character in a film . . p. 76), and it foregrounds the woman as voyeuristic spectacle within masculine desire. During the performance of ‘Leda and the Swan’ in Uncle Philip’s theatre, the swanpuppet enacts the rape of Leda (‘played’ by Melanie). The violent perform­ ance of masculine fantasy clearly emphasizes the cancelling out or silencing of the possibility of feminine desire: She felt herself not herself, wrenched from her own personality . . . the mocked up swan, might assume reality itself and rape this girl in a blizzard of white feathers . . . looking up, she could see Uncle Philip directing its movements. His mouth gaped open with concentration. (p. 166)

Carter stresses the antithetical positionality of subject and object with regards to the fantasy here: Melanie, as object, has no way of reading the scene (she cannot tell ‘real’ from fantasy here) and suffers dissolution of the self (‘not herself’, ‘this girl’). Uncle Philip, by contrast, has a stronger presence here than at any other time (he is ‘directing’, he gapes ‘with concentration’). Butler’s description of the narration of fantasy is strikingly apposite to Uncle Philip’s role: The narrator of the fantasy is always already ‘in’ the fantasy. The T both contributes to and is the frame, the complex of perspectives, the temporal and grammatical sequencing, the particular dramatic tempo and conclusion that constitutes the very action of the fantasy. Hence, the T is dissimulated into the entire scene, even as it appears that the ‘I’ merely watches on as an epistemological observer to the event.24


‘But elsewhere?’: the future of fantasy in Heroes and Villains The Magic Toyshop thus represents ‘man-centred vision’ and reveals fem­ inine desire and fantasy as textual gaps. Melanie, after all, cannot construct her own fantasies but must learn to read those of other people. She learns to do this by discovering how to look at how she is looked at. It is crucial that Melanie sees Philip looking at her, as this complicates the distinction between real and fantastic: ‘a trapdoor in the swan’s side might open and an armed host of pigmy Uncle Philips, all clockwork, might rush out and savage her’ (p. 166). What we see of Melanie, then, is what the spectators see of her; we see through ‘a subject who has a fantasy as a kind of interior and visual projection and possession .25 Questions of how we look and the power invested in such a position are thus aligned with similar questions about the act of reading a fantasy scene. By blurring the boundaries be­ tween what might be ‘real’ and what might be fantastic, the reading subject is denied a comfortable or stable place from which to view the text. In their influential psychoanalytic essay on fantasy, Jean Laplanche and JeanBertrand Pontalis theorize this experience in the following terms: In fantasy the subject . . . appears caught up himself in the sequence of images. He forms no representation of the desired object, but is himself represented as participating in the scene . . . As a result, the subject, although always present in the fantasy, may be so in a desubjectivised form, that is to say, in the very syntax of the sequence in question.26

The ‘desubjectivized’ sexual subject here takes us back to the radical po­ tential of fantasy in Butler’s argument; the bringing together in narrative of both the subject’s presence and absence, its proliferation and its potential erasure, allows for a questioning of precisely how sexual subjectivities are constructed. The Magic Toyshop certainly interrogates how feminine subjectivities are constructed, but, for a challenge to that construction, and for another fant­ asy of fantasy, we need to look to Heroes and Villains. The novel is set in a post-apocalyptic world inhabited by three groups: the Professors (who live in dystopian replicas of ‘communities’, in university-like enclosures sur­ rounded by barbed wire); the Barbarians (a tribal, ‘phallic cult’)27 and the ‘Out People’ (amongst whom ‘the human form acquired fantastic shapes’, p. 110). The protagonist, Marianne, is a Professor’s daughter, but leaves her community with Jewel, leader of the Barbarians. On one level, the narrative is a fairy-tale romance between them, between ‘the only rational woman left in the whole world’ (p. 55) and ‘probably the most beautiful man left in the world’ (p. 61). This description of them signals a reversal of con­ ventional representations of gender (masculine equated with mind; fem­ inine with body), and reversal is an important element in Carter’s subversion of such repressive ideologies. Within her rewriting of the fantastic text she attempts to ‘decolonize’ the representation of women’s bodies and feminine


The Infernal Desires of Angela Carter

desire,28 and within that attempt she risks losing control in the very way that Judith Butler advocates by working at the limits of representation. From the opening of the novel it is clear that Carter is representing a different way of looking at femininity from The Magic Toyshop: ‘Marianne had sharp, cold eyes and she was spiteful but her father loved her’ (p. 1). The focus is immediately on the ‘eyes’ through which we see the entire narrative; the detail of this specifically gendered spectator (not the one we might expect in the post-apocalyptic text) foregrounds the presence of a new ‘way of seeing’ and shows Carter bringing a new spectator not only to the text (as de Lauretis suggests) but into the text. This type of gaze is referred to throughout the narrative —‘she was the audience again’ (p. 16) —and the power connected with the act of looking suggested in The Magic Toyshop is confirmed here. Marianne is always aware of the distinction be­ tween fantasy and the ‘real’, acutely so when it comes to her own desires, to an extent unimaginable for Melanie whose ‘real’ is transformed into other’s fantasies. Marianne displays this insight into the construction of desire throughout the text and through a self-awareness of her part in this process is able to claim both distance from and involvement in sexual fantasies. She says to Jewel: What I’d like best would be to keep you in preserving fluid in a huge jar on the mantelpiece of my peaceful room, where I could look at you and imagine you . . . You, you’re nothing but the furious invention of my virgin nights. (P- 137)

Here Marianne displays not only perception about the process by which her desires are constructed (‘the furious invention’), but also of her desire for desire (‘to keep you in a huge jar’): a fantasy of her power within the sexual fantasy (‘What I’d like best. . .’). The power contained within these imaginings is confirmed by Jewel’s acknowledgement of his own transforma­ tion through those ‘sharp, cold eyes’: ‘She converted me into something else by seeing me’ (p. 122). Marianne is also able to reject the Barbarians’ images of femininity; she refuses to accept the role they have in mind for her as ‘our little holy image’, ‘Our lady of the wilderness’, ‘the virgin of the swamp’ (p. 50). This refusal is made clear when Jewel tries to assert his authority over her: ‘You’ll go in the cart with Mrs Green, like a bloody lady.’ ‘I’ll go wherever you go.’ An expression of terror briefly crossed his face; she could not fail to recognise it, printed as it was on her memory. ‘Oh, no, you won’t, you’ll do as I say.’ ‘Oh, no, I won’t, I’ll do as I want.’ (P- 97)


*But elsewhere?’: the future of fantasy in Heroes and Villains

As in The Magic Toyshop, issues of fantasy and sexual identity are brought together in Heroes and Villains through a rape scene. The threat of rape or state decriminalization of sexual violence against women is a recurrent trope in the feminist dystopia. It is used as a sign of the extremity of oppression for women in the imagined future and in most texts is only represented implicitly (through details of changes in legislation, for example).29 Carter, however, risks using this most frightening dystopian ‘reality’ to expose the misogynistic fantasy behind the act and suggests that because it is a fantasy — a narrative — it can be contested and disrupted. Marianne experiences the threat of rape twice, employing different strat­ egies of resistance in each case. First, while Jewel laughs ‘with apparently pure pleasure’, his brothers move towards her en masse: Marianne discovered she was not in the least frightened, only very angry indeed, and began to struggle and shout; at this the brothers laughed but did not cease to crowd in on her. So she closed her eyes and pretended she did not exist. (P- 49)

Marianne knows exactly what’s happening here and has a strategy for dealing with the prospect of violation, which is in complete contrast to Melanie, pushed to the point of dissolution of her self. Rather than the reader’s attention focusing on the erotic fantasy of the violator, such as Uncle Philip in The Magic Toyshop, we see only Marianne’s anger, her struggle and, once again, her refusal to accept the stereotype of feminine desire upon which their fantasy depends. Her act of self-effacement, a ‘desperate device for self­ protection’ (p. 49), masquerades as ultimate passivity —feminine sexuality as a ‘gap’ - but is in fact a subversion of the meaning of their fantasy. If she does not see them, ‘does not exist’, the ontological status of their fant­ asy changes. Indeed, this resistance is shown to be effective: ‘silent, the men fell away from her’ (p. 49). A few pages later, however, Jewel does rape her. Again, the narrative focuses on the woman: ‘You’re nothing but a murderer,’ she said, determined to maintain her superior status at all costs. ‘You’ll find me the gentlest of assassins,’ he replied with too much irony for she did not find him gentle at all. Feeling between her legs to ascertain the entrance, he thrust his fingers into the wet hole so roughly she knew what the pain would be like; it was scalding, she felt split to the core but she did not make a single sound for her only strength was her impassivity and she never closed her cold eyes. (p. 55)

The reference here to her cold eyes reminds us of both the power orches­ trated by her gaze and that this is how we see the narrative. Thus her


The Infernal Desires of Angela Carter

‘superior status’ in the narrative is not questioned: we get her reaction to Jewel’s comment and both a physical and emotional response to the viola­ tion: ‘she felt split to the core’. This representation of the rape of Marianne is obviously quite different from The Magic Toyshop, in which any response is either filtered through Melanie’s bodily terror (‘She screamed, hardly real­ ising she was screaming’, p. 167) or, in fact, is the voyeuristic, erotic re­ sponse of the onlooker (‘his mouth gaped open’). Here Marianne employs a different strategy: she keeps her eyes open and, despite the ritualistic rape taking place, she is able to retain ‘her strength’: ‘It was the very worst thing that happened to me since I came away with you,’ she said. ‘It hurt far worse than the snakebite, because it was intentional. Why did you do it to me?’ He appeared to consider this question seriously. ‘There’s the matter of our traditional hatred. And, besides, I’m very frightened of you.’ ‘I have the advantage of you there,’ said Marianne, pushing him away and endeavouring to cover herself. (pp. 55-6)

The rape fantasy is disrupted by Marianne’s ‘superior status’, which allows her a questioning and insistent voice (‘Why did you do it?’) - a voice which uncovers his fear. This voice also allows repressed feminine desire (as in The Magic Toyshop) to be articulated: She pulled the night-dress over her head and threw it away, so she could be still closer to him or, rather, to the magic source of attraction constituted by his brown flesh. And, if anything else but this existed, then she was sure it was not real. . . . There was no pain this time. The mysterious glide of planes of flesh within her bore no relation to anything she had heard, read or experienced. She never expected such extreme intimations of pleasure or despair. (p. 83)

Marianne translates fantasy into the real —from what she has ‘read’ to what she experiences. This is the same process as Uncle Philip watching the ‘play’, but here the pleasure is not appropriated or assimilated by a controlling spectator. Rather, it is a ‘mysterious’ and paradoxical experience (the ‘magic source of attraction’ of her violator) but one which Marianne can take pleasure in all the same: ‘Night came; that confusion between need and desire against which she had been warned consumed her’ (p. 134). When Jewel dies, Marianne takes control of the Barbarians and thus of the fantasy narrative: ‘I’ll be the tiger lady and rule them with a rod of iron’ (p. 150). Central to the process of empowerment is a rejection of her fant­ asy of Jewel:


‘But elsewhere?’: the future of fantasy in Heroes and Villains She thought: ‘I have destroyed him’ and felt a warm sense of selfsatisfaction, for quite dissolved was the marvellous, defiant construction of textures and colours she first glimpsed marauding her tranquil village; it had vanished as if an illusion which could not sustain itself. . . She got up and threw the pots of paint he left behind him into the weedy cleft between the station platforms. She threw the mirror after them, in case she saw his face in it, his former extraordinary face left behind there, for it must remain somewhere; she watched the mirror break with pleasure. (p. 147)

By foregrounding the female subject’s ‘warm sense of self-satisfaction’ as she dissolves the fantasy that has kept her in thrall, Carter goes beyond a reversal of conventional representation of feminine desire. The ‘female spec­ tator’ is able to articulate her own fantasies and, in so doing, to objectify the masculine object of desire (‘the furious invention of my virgin nights’). But here, as Marianne breaks the mirror, even that new way of looking is rejected, the construction is ‘dissolved’. In its place Carter sketches a fantasy of a new narrative, and it is this that renders the novel more complex than a re-presentation of conventional sexual images of women. The end of Heroes and Villains suggests that, once empowered (‘She felt the beginnings of a sense of power’, p. 144), this new feminine spectator might be able to see her way to an innovative form of fantasy, which incorporates a multi­ plicity of desires, the very ‘deregulation’ that Butler recommends. This possibility is incorporated into the narrative. After we are told about Marianne’s eyes, the opening of the text continues with details of her father: He was a Professor of History; he owned a clock which he wound every morning and kept in the family dining-room upon a sideboard fullof heirlooms of stainless steel such as dishes and cutlery. (P- 1)

Although it is a condition of the fantasy, and particularly the postapocalyptic narrative, that time should be disrupted - its meanings and status must change —the Professor here obsessively clings to a sense of the ‘real’, through time and heirlooms. Time, Marianne realizes, is ‘frozen . . . and the busy clock carved the hours into sculptures of ice’, and she is ‘not im­ pressed’ by the clock (p. 1). By the end of the novel, the clock is, however, in different hands: Prominent among the minarets, spires and helmets of wrought iron which protruded from the waters was an enormous clock whose hands stood still at the hour of ten though, it was, of course, no longer possible to tell whether this signified ten in the morning or ten at night. This clock was held in the arms and supported on the forward-jutting stomach of a monstrous figure in some kind of plasterwork . . . It was the figure of a


The Infernal Desires of Angela Carter luxuriously endowed woman scantily clad in a one-piece bathing costume which, at the top, scarcely contained the rising swell of mountainous breasts in the shadowy cleft of which sea birds nested . . . The head, equipped with exuberant, shoulder-length curls, was thrown back in erotic ecstasy and, though partially worn away by the salty winds, the face clearly displayed a gigantic pair of lips twisted in a wide, joyous smile . . . (p. 138)

I have quoted this passage at length as it brings together the various prob­ lematics and possibilities of representing feminine desire that Carter’s novel suggests. Thus we have another ‘construction’, a fantasy in sculpture of an eroticized, feminine figure, ‘luxuriously endowed’ with ‘mountainous breasts’ and ‘exuberant’ hair. This is not, however, passive, ‘unspeakable’ sexuality or the construction of the feminine sexual self by others that we see in The Magic Toyshop. Rather, it is an aggressive (‘forward-jutting’), powerful, ‘j oyous’ feminine sexuality, a sexuality which flaunts itself. That it should be this figure left holding the clock, holding ‘time’, suggests a displacement which is crucial both in Carter’s narrative and in any progression towards a new representation of desire.30 We have moved on from the Father/Professor obsessively ‘holding time’ and clinging to an outmoded version of the ‘real’, to a new construction of a feminine subject, taking pleasure in a new textual space. Marianne’s mother dies early in the narrative (‘. . . when she ate some poison fruit she took sick almost gladly and made no resist­ ance to death’, p. 7) and forms an absence which is only countered at the moment Marianne sees the statue. For this figure is the maternal body sig­ nifying a subversive, ‘monstrous’ version of feminine desire.31 The displace­ ment, then, is from the realm of the Father, of time and of the ‘real’, to a maternal, desiring, fantasy space. This space is symbolized by the sea, out of which the statue rises and which Marianne sees for the first time when she sees the statue (‘Marianne had never seen the sea’, p. 2). This sea has the power to effect change: The grey sea horses which now looked so quiescent would grow violent in the equinoctial storms; they would assault the cliffs not merely with their own impetus but also with missiles concealed inside them, boulders, pebbles and abrasive sand . . . The waves would in this way undermine the cliffs until the upper part finally collapsed. (pp. 138-9)

The sea symbolizes where we are, in terms of the representation of fem­ inine desire, by the end of Heroes and Villains. It incorporates an empowered feminine subject (‘missiles concealed’, ‘abrasive sand’), and once this subject has been brought into the narrative, and particularly the fantasy narrative, the novel begins to undermine the structures and conventions of representing


‘But elsewhere?’: the future of fantasy in Heroes and Villains

feminine desire. In The Magic Toyshop, such structures are uncovered and critiqued, but in Heroes and Villains, gendered positions of subject and object are reversed then jettisoned, as Marianne destroys the mirror ‘with pleas­ ure’. Carter’s dystopia signals the possibility of new narratives of sexual subjectivity which are not grounded in the victim/master dyad. Instead they reveal that opposition to be one way of looking at desire, one fantasy to be rewritten.


1. Julia Kristeva, About Chinese Women, in Toril Moi, ed., The Kristeva Reader (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1989), p. 158. 2. Judith Butler, ‘The force of fantasy: feminism, Mapplethorpe,and discursive excess’, differences 2 (Summer 1990), p. 111. 3. Kristeva, About Chinese Women, p. 158. 4. Krishan Kumar’s Utopia and Anti-Utopia in Modem Times (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1987) gives a useful historical overview of these genres. 5. W omen’s experimentation with the dystopia has recently begun to receive critical attention. See: Lucie Armitt, ed., Where No Man Has Gone Before: Women and Science Fiction (London: Routledge, 1991); Frances Bartkowski, Feminist Utopias (London: University of Nebraska Press, 1991); Sarah Lefanu, In the Chinks of the World Machine: Feminism and Science Fiction (London: W omen’s Press, 1988); Elisabeth Mahoney, ‘Writing so to speak: the feminist dystopia’, in S. Sceats and G. Cunningham, eds, Image and Power: Women in Fiction in the Twentieth Century (London: Longman, 1996), pp. 28-40; Jenny Wolmark, Aliens and Others: Science Fiction, Feminism and Postmodernism (Hemel Flempstead: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1993). Marleen Barr’s work focuses on women’s speculative fiction, looking at the connections between the fictions and contemporary feminist theory: see Alien to Femininity: Speculative Fiction and Feminist Theory (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1987). 6. For example, within feminist work on Carter, the novel is rarely discussed. An important exception to this is Gerardine Meaney’s reading of the novel in (Un)like Subjects: Women, Theory, Fiction (London: Routledge, 1993). 7. Tom Moylan, Demand the Impossible: Science Fiction and the Utopian Imagination (London; Methuen, 1986), p. 32. Sarah Lefanu argues that fantastic narrative gives us ‘a language for the narration of dreams . . . for the interrogation of cul­ tural order’. Lefanu, Chinks of the World Machine, p. 23. 8. For an historical overview of women’s experimentation with utopian writing, see Nan Bowman Albinski, Women*s Utopias in British and American Fiction (London: Routledge, 1988); Marleen Barr, ed., Future Females: A Critical Anthology (Bowling Green: Bowling Green University Popular Press, 1981); and Bartkowski, Fem­ inist Utopias. The radicalism - both political and in terms of literary form - is the focus of my study of the feminist dystopia: ‘W riting so to speak: the fem­ inist dystopia’ (unpublished Ph.D. thesis, University of Glasgow, 1995).


The Infernal Desires of Angela Carter 9. Examples of such writing include Bertha Thomas, ‘A vision of communism’, in Comhill Magazine, September 1873, pp. 300-10; Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We (1924); and Ayn Rand’s Anthem (1946). 10. Moylan, Demand the Impossible, p. 9; Bartkowski, Feminist Utopias, p. 15. 11. The Handmaid’s Tale works in much the same way. It presents a terrifying vision of a (near) future in which a right-wing religious regime has taken control of North America and in which women have no public or legal status, being defined entirely by their reproductive function. Equally terrifying is the novel’s portrayal of women’s complicity in this totalitarian state and, in some cases, their very vocal support of the regime (e.g. the Aunts’ who run ‘train­ ing’ centres for the handmaids). Rebecca Brown’s collection of short stories, The Terrible Girls, uses a dystopian backdrop (a post-apocalyptic cityscape) to represent the flip-side of conventional femininity: the ‘girls’ are obsessive, vengeful, violent. 12. Useful starting points for the vexed relationship between feminism and psy­ choanalysis include: Teresa Brennan, The Interpretation of the Flesh: Freud and Femininity (London: Routledge, 1992), especially Ch. 2; Jane Gallop, Feminism and Psychoanalysis: the Daughter’s Seduction (London: Macmillan, 1982); Eliza­ beth Grosz, Jacques Lacan: A Feminist Introduction (London: Routledge, 1990); and Jaqueline Rose, Sexuality in the Field of Vision (London: Verso, 1986). 13. Butler, ‘The force of fantasy’, p. 105. See also Susan Rubin Suleiman, Subversive Intent: Gender, Politics and the Avant Garde (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1990), p. 136, where she suggests that for a radical ‘shake up’ of gender and desire in narrative we need to look at feminist speculative fiction. 14. Butler, ‘The force of fantasy’, p. 121, my italics. 15. Ibid. 16. Ibid. Butler is obviously privileging instability and chaos within the social formation. While her rhetoric may sound idealistic or utopian here, it is im­ portant to place her comments in the context of debates about pornography and censorship in the United States (her article is at one level a response to feminist — and other - calls for censorship of sexually explicit images). I find her argument useful in reading all of Carter’s work but particularly the novels which foreground the ‘persistently ungrounded ground’ - to quote Butler between reality and fantasy, the world of rational thought and the realm of dream or mystery. 17. Angela Carter, The Bloody Chamber (London: Vintage, 1995), p. 118. 18. Angela Carter, The Magic Toyshop (London: Virago, 1994), p. 86. Subsequent references are to this edition and are given in the text. 19. Teresa de Lauretis, Technologies of Gender. Essays on Theory, Film and Fiction (London: Macmillan, 1987), pp. 127—48. 20. Laura Mulvey’s article ‘Visual pleasure and narrative cinema’, Screen 16 (Au­ tumn, 1975), was crucial as a starting point for debates around gender and spectatorship; Mulvey formulates the notion of a ‘male gaze’ which, she argues, is constructed by identificatory structures within mainstream film texts. See also Mulvey’s Afterthoughts on “Visual pleasure and narrative cinema” inspired by Duel in the Sun, Framework 15—17 (1981). Both are reproduced in Constance Penley, ed., Feminism and Film Theory (London: Routledge, 1988). 21. De Lauretis, Technologies, p. 135. Mulvey’s article best represents this approach, in which disruption of such ‘man-centred vision’ is the explicit aim: ‘It is said that analysing pleasure, or beauty, destroys it. That is the intention of this


'B ut elsewhere?}: the future of fantasy in Heroes and Villains

22. 23. 24. 25. 26. 27. 28.

29. 30.


article.’ This approach has subsequently been critiqued for assuming a singular spectatorial position for both men and women; Mulvey’s early work on the male gaze was unable to deal with shifting or multiple subject positions in spectatorship. De Lauretis, Technologies, p. 135, my italics. Ibid. Butler, ‘The force of fantasy’, p. 109. Ibid., my italics. Jean Laplanche and Jean-Bertrand Pontalis, ‘Fantasy and the origins of sexu­ ality’, in Victor Burgin, James Donald and Cora Kaplan, eds, Formations of Fantasy (London: Routledge, 1986), p. 26. Angela Carter, Heroes and Villains (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1986), p. 29. Subsequent references are to this edition and are given in the text. See Angela Carter, ‘Notes from the Front Line’, in Michelene Wandor, ed., On Gender and Writing (London: Pandora Press, 1983), pp. 69-77. Here, Carter writes that ‘it is enormously important for women to write fiction as women — it is part of the slow process of decolonialising our language and our basic habits of thought’ (p. 75). State decriminalization of sexual violence against women is part of the bad place in much dystopian writing by women. See, for example, Katharine Burdekin, Swastika Night (1937); Suzy McKee Chamas, Walk to the End of the World (1974); Zoe Fairbaims, Benefits (1979); and Rebecca Brown, The Terrible Girls (1990). Gerardine Meaney focuses upon the relations between gender, time, space and history in her reading of Heroes and Villains. Through a discussion of Kristeva’s categories of time (‘cyclical’ and ‘monumental’), she argues that in Heroes and Villains Carter ‘attempted to “wind back” the clock of history, perhaps to uncover something undetermined’. In other words, if history is interrogated from a gender perspective (wound back on itself), oppressive myths of origin - here, psychoanalytic ‘myths’ of feminine sexuality — can be uncovered and subverted. Meaney, (Un)like Subjects, p. 217. ‘Monstrous’ is used here to signal an unruly, powerful and threatening presence contained in the representation of the feminine body. Mary Russo’s article ‘Female grotesques: carnival and theory’ re-reads Bakhtin’s theory of the carnival to argue that the woman’s body which is coded as ‘monstrous’ has the potential power to disrupt not only limits of representation, but wider social formations. See Teresa de Lauretis, ed., Feminist Studies/ Critical Studies (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1988), pp. 213-29.



The fragile frames of

The Bloody Chamber Lucie Armiti

When critics respond in a hostile manner to the work of Angela Carter it is often because of their mistrust of or disappointment in her treatment of the domestic, its scenarios and its motifs. For she is undoubtedly a writer preoccupied by the enclosing effects of domesticity and the negative impact these have upon her female characters. The resulting difficulty, as Paulina Palmer claims, is that patriarchy and its constraints can be made to appear inescapable.1 Add to this Carter’s evident fascination with the exploration of female sexuality through images of passivity, violence, bestiality and sado­ masochism, and the controversial nature of her preoccupation soon becomes clear. The Bloody Chamber (1979) attracts the lion’s share of such disquiet. So Robert Clark disparages T he Company of Wolves’ as ‘Old chauvinism, new clothing’, while Patricia Duncker expresses profound reservations about Carter’s decision to rework the fairy-tale at all, perceiving this to fuel what she believes to be the author’s passive entrapment within heterosexist para­ digms: ‘Carter envisages women’s sensuality simply as a response to male arousal. She has no conception of women’s sexuality as autonomous desire.’2 But these viewpoints fail to come to terms with an unresolved question. If Tlte Bloody Chamber is such a difficult text, then why does it exercise such a fascination over its readers, even as it angers and irritates them? Feminist critics such as Elaine Jordan and Meija Makinen have not only defended but welcomed Carter’s resistance to what would become known, in the early 1990s, as ‘political correctness’.3 They acknowledge the role these tales fulfil as textual explorations of the genuine complexities that confront even the most assertive of heterosexual women under patriarchy. I agree with them. Carter is too important a writer to be dismissed simply for her problematic feminism. But although Jordan and Makinen present full and intelligent arguments detailing the ways in which Carter’s repres­ entation of female sexuality ‘playjs] with and upon (if not preyfs] upon) the 88

The fragile frames of The Bloody Chamber

earlier misogynistic version’ of the fairy-tale,4 neither engages with the way in which her chosen narrative form and structure contribute to this ideological reorientation. It is not simply the characters themselves (and the trans­ formative potential of their bodily metamorphoses) that free up new and anti-conventional readings of women’s pleasure. The stories comprising The Bloody Chamber are also (inter) textual metamorphoses of both the fairy-tale and each other. According to Duncker, the fairy-tale itself is so entrenched in patriarchally restrictive kinship systems that no amount of revision can free it up for pos­ itive feminist aims. But in firmly situating these texts within a predetermined formulaic inheritance it is actually Duncker, rather than Carter, who remains ensnared. Perhaps we either need to accept that these stories are not fairy­ tales at all, or radically rethink what a fairy-tale is. After all, while Carter’s two Virago Book[s] of Fairy Tales (1991 and 1993) are self-evidently collec­ tions of revisionary fairy-stories, can the same so easily be said of a collection called The Bloody Chamber? Quite clearly, rather than being fairy-tales which contain a few Gothic elements, these are actually Gothic tales that prey upon the restrictive enclosures of fairy-story formulae in a manner that threatens to become ‘masochistically’ self-destructive. In order to comprehend this point fully, we need to elaborate upon what characterizes the structural conventions of a fairy-tale, namely the interrelationship between play, space and narrative consolation in the never-never world of the happy ever after. The conventional fairy-tale operates as a seemingly safe site of play, some­ thing it has in common with all formulaic fictions. This is the way Bruno Bettelheim insists not simply on reading, but also defining, the fairy-tale form. Fairy-tales, he argues, playfully enable children to resolve real-life dilemmas through controlled textual means. But just as Clark and Duncker are mis­ guided in their desire to play safe in their reading of Carter on female sexu­ ality, so Bettelheim is wrong to stick so rigidly to consolatory mechanisms in his reading of the fairy-tale. If the fairy-tale only exists as the literature of consolation, then what happens to such a tale when it refuses to console? Or, to put it another way, if ‘ “The Three Little Pigs” is a fairy tale because . . . the wolf gets what he deserves’,5 then what happens in the case o f ‘The Company of Wolves’, where ‘what the wolf deserves’ is neither here nor there? And what if a child reader is actually horrified by reading about a witch who dances to death in red-hot iron shoes, or one who is roasted alive in her oven? Does this mean s/he is reading a different text? Readings such as Bettelheim’s condescendingly situate safety within a play-pen environment, where protection is really a disguise for restraint. Such approaches are not unusual. Many critics of fantasy fictions still tend to define genre in terms of rigid spatial demarcations which segregate the inner consensus of the formulaic from the amorphous ‘outside world’ of


The Infernal Desires of Angela Carter

general fiction.6 One simply cannot do this with The Bloody Chamber. When Carter’s collection is simply viewed as a rereading, reworking or revision of the fairy-tale mode, it inevitably has to function within a generic strangle­ hold that will always (however reluctantly) reduce its stories to closed dreamtexts. Bettelheim’s readings are enlightening in many ways, but like his own definition of the fairy-tale they are always constrained by the limitations of a consolation that pushes towards narrative (en)closure. One thing remains clear: if Carter’s reading of sexuality is positively problematic, then her usage of the fairy-tale form is even more so. In agreeing that the form of play Carter favours in The Bloody Chamber bears precious little relationship to Bettelheim’s over-protective play-pen, we must start to loosen our grip on the formulaic fairy-tale structures and open this collection up to the vagar­ ies of narrative free play. Nevertheless, one characteristic The Bloody Chamber undoubtedly shares with the fairy-tale form is the compulsive fascination it holds for Carter’s critics. We return to it again and again, revising and refining our readings of it, trying to get it to do what we desperately want it to do. If nothing else, such an obsession must convince us that consolations are alien to the pleasures of this text. Indeed, we appear driven by what Leo Bersani calls the masochistic pleasure of unpleasure, a dynamic functioning akin to ‘an itch that seeks nothing better than its own prolongation’.7 It is perhaps this masochistic dynamic that takes us to the world of the Gothic, a form less easily encompassed by formulaic convention, for although it flirts with the fairy-tale genre’s own spatial trappings, it usually transcends their protective bounds. In this sense, the interrelationship between the Gothic narrative and our cultural conceptualizations of space frames our understanding of what Carter is doing with ideological symbols of enclosure. Like play, it is conventional to read space in terms of the enclosures that define it and the world beyond those enclosures in terms of the inside from which it differs. Gothic narratives are particularly preoccupied by such con­ siderations. So the space surrounded by the four walls of the Gothic mansion is determined as an interior dream- (or rather nightmare-) space, while it is the space beyond that functions as the outer world of daylight order. But such three-dimensional constraints are by no means inviolable, for a Gothic text becomes a Gothic text only when such fixed demarcations are called into question by the presence of an interloper who interrogates the exist­ ence of such boundary demarcations. In the process this character forces the night-dream into a daylight interaction with the so-called world of rational order. We are, of course, familiar with the idea that the overarching structure of the Gothic mansion is sub-divided up into a series of three-dimensional worlds within worlds: rooms containing closets, closets containing locked chests, locked chests containing secret drawers, secret drawers containing


The fragile frames of The Bloody Chamber

trinket boxes. Carter’s titular story ‘The Bloody Chamber’ illustrates this admirably, its enclosures progressively narrowing down to reach their claus­ trophobic extremity in a torturous coffin, ‘the metal shell of [which] emitted a ghostly twang; my feverish imagination might have guessed its occupant was trying to clamber out, though, even in the midst of my rising hysteria, I knew she must be dead to find a home there’.8 Gothic chambers rarely succeed in fully constraining their hideous secrets, and in this scene the con­ tainer is only most precariously in control of its contents. Such tension, as we shall see later, is woven through the entire narrative structure of this collection, as well as being the basis of the relationship between all the various metamorphic characters and their own, rather fragile, anatomical limits. The expansive dynamic underlying The Bloody Chamber derives its focus from Carter’s fascination with appetite. In the process we find what can only be understood as a typically oral compulsion to repeat. This gives the lie to Norman Holland’s assertion that ‘Literature creates a hunger in us and then gratifies us’,9 because rather than satisfying our voracious desires, Carter’s stories of excess only promise us a gargantuan banquet, in fact pre­ senting us with a sequence of (albeit beautifully arranged) mouthfuls of nouvelle cuisine. In these terms orality becomes self-consuming. Thus, in ‘The Snow Child’, we are confronted with the image of a young woman who exists as the fantasy creation of a King. In keeping with the fairy-tale’s own oral traditions, it is enough to speak aloud the fantasy formula for the word to become flesh: ‘As soon as he completed his description, there she stood’ (p. 91). Like a voracious good read, or a delicious meal, the child whom the King desires is merely created to be consumed. Pricking her finger on the thorn of a rose, she ‘bleeds; screams; falls’ and then is sexually violated by the King. At this point, her body melts into nothing more than a bloodstain on the surface of the snow-covered ground, and the King’s jealous Queen retrieves the rose. As she touches it, the Queen immediately lets it drop to the ground and utters the exclamation ‘It bites!’ (p. 92). This so-called passive victim clearly has a voracious appetite of her own —one, in true vampiric tradition, that reminds us of the fragile limitations of cor­ poreality. This story is immediately followed by ‘The Lady of the House of Love’, a variation on a similar theme. Set within the domestic arena, the lady of this story not only inhabits but is, in herself, ‘a haunted house’ (p. 103). She is also, in this sense, a bloody chamber, for although the phrase has little bearing on the fairy-tale, it is fully in keeping with (one might even say it holds the key to) the precarious relationship between narrative overspill and narrative containment that we will continue to trace throughout this collection. A semantic deliberation over the title of the collection reveals its applica­ tion to female sexuality. ‘Chamber’ carries two differing connotations. On


The Infernal Desires of Angela Carter

one level, it is a room (usually a bedroom) and therefore suggestive of two related behaviour patterns: the activities of the erotic and the inactivities of sleep. Herein lies the crux of the debate over female sexuality in these stories: are the women active or passive, erotic or inert? The violence inherent in the world ‘bloody’ leads us to expect the chamber to be the location for hideous and violent sexual excess. But what if we read the word ‘chamber’ not as a room, but as a vase or a vessel for carrying liquid? In this case the blood is the liquid with which the vessel is filled (indeed the substance that gives the vase its definition). The associated excesses are those of overspill, not those which threaten containment. In this case it is not the chamber that contains and thus constrains the woman (who then becomes a terrified victim), but the woman herself who takes control as the body of excess. In the stories concerned with nocturnal or diurnal vampiric emissions, we find Carter wrenching the fairy-tale away from what Duncker sees as its cultural position as Vessel of false knowledge’.10 Instead, she rather more opportunely stamps the text with what JuHa Kristeva would perceive as the mark of abjection. Abjection is a particularly useful concept to apply to any metamorphic narrative, and especially to a mode of writing which, like these tales, prides itself on the interrogation of apparently impenetrable limits. For our purposes it is best illustrated through Kristeva’s application of this concept to the human body. Our physical selves are held in place through the excretion of substances, formerly intrinsic to and necessary for the maintenance of our well-being, but now transformed into something unwanted or even dangerous. Abjection is also essential to the substances we take in: Food loathing is perhaps the most elementary and most archaic form of abjection. W hen the eyes see or the lips touch that skin on the surface of milk - harmless, thin as a sheet of cigarette paper, pitiful as a nail paring - I experience a gagging sensation and, still farther down, spasms in the stomach, the belly.11

We are therefore dealing with an interrogation of boundary demarcations particularly relevant to corporeal (re)definitions. Metamorphosis depends upon this, while life and death likewise hang in the balance: There, I am at the border of my condition as a living being. My body extricates itself, as being alive, from that border. Such wastes drop that I might live, until, from loss to loss, nothing remains in me and my entire body falls beyond the limit . . . If dung signifies the other side of the border, the place where I am not and which permits me to be, the corpse, the most sickening of wasters, is a border that has encroached upon everything.

Few writers are quite as willing to situate their concerns ‘beyond the scope of the possible, the tolerable, the thinkable’ as Carter. In doing so she


The fragile frames of The Bloody Chamber

illustrates how, as Kristeva asserts, this ‘vortex of summons and repulsion places the one haunted by it literally beside [her] self.12 Nonetheless, because abjection enables the cesspool of self-destructive excess to spill over into the uncontainable wet-dreams of the Gothic night-world, the presence of even bloody fluid excess is not necessarily evidence that women are victims rather than predators. It can equally signify their menstrual flow, which con­ tinues to threaten to breach the limits of restrictively enclosing patriarchal representations (including its taboos, its silences and its secrets). Hence Carter’s utilization of enclosure imagery need not deny positive assertions of female sexuality or autonomy. The unsuspecting interloper of ‘The Lady of the House of Love’ enters another version of Carter’s bloody chamber of female sexual depravity: He was surprised to find how ruinous the interior of the house was cobwebs, worm-eaten beams, crumbling plaster. . . endless corridors . . . where the painted eyes of family portraits briefly flickered as they passed . . . [evoking] a quite memorable beastliness. (p. 100)

We notice that it is not the solidity of the three-dimensional chamber or mansion that is important here, but the seemingly more precarious twodimensional enclosure of the frame of the ancestral portrait. Perhaps second only to the locked room, the portrait motif lies at the heart of the Gothic. To that extent it comes as no surprise that Elisabeth Bronfen, writing about the aesthetics of portraiture, draws upon the discourse of the uncanny in arguing that ‘the good portrait [is a] . . . ghost hovering in a liminal zone’.13 Despite the apparent fixity of the frame that encloses it, the good (life)likeness of the human frame that is enclosed reminds us that the presence of the uncanny manifests itself most clearly at the point at which that fixity becomes destabilized. This manifestation is never more evident that in the clichéd motif of the portrait’s moving eyes. In her tale, Carter rejuvenates this cliché by means of what only appears to be an allusion to fairy-tale pas­ sivity: her reiterated comparison of the lady with the figure of the ‘Sleeping Beauty in the W ood’ (p. 97). Far more interesting than its function as fairystory reformulation, this phrase embodies the Gothic paradox of the ances­ tral portrait in which a ‘sleeping beauty’ (objectified and apparently inanimate) is only partly encased by the wooden enclosure of the frame. In reality, as in the case of the snow child’s ‘bite’, these eyes can devour from beyond the grave. Resonances of this trope can be found elsewhere in The Bloody Chamber. In ‘The Erl-King’, the narrator tells us: ‘The woods [may] enclose . . . [but] the wood swallows you up’ (p. 84). This is a piece of linguistic play that sends tendrils out in defiance of the frames which segregate these stories.


The Infernal Desires of Angela Carter

While it reminds us that the forest (the woods) may contain lurking pred­ ators, it is the wood of the frame which, rather more successfully than the fragile bloody chamber of the coffin, may well ‘bury the woman alive’ by killing her into art. I deliberately use the cautionary ‘may’, however, for such burial depends as much upon the reader’s inanimation for its success as it does on the inertia of the female protagonist, and the intervention of ‘A single kiss’ (p. 97), Carter tells us, will suffice to wake this sleeping form. It is here that Clark’s reading of the collection once again becomes relev­ ant. One of the potential strengths of his approach is that he situates his interpretation within an explicit acknowledgement of variable reading posi­ tions, fully acknowledging that ‘[t]his territory is evidently one in which boundaries are unclear and where to introduce a notional reader may be to mask a strategy of simplification, producing a verdict either/or where no such judgment is possible’. Despite this promising opening, however, his conclusion reasserts that readers not thoroughly versed in a feminist know­ ledge will leave the text as ‘distraught witnesses of depravity . . . encouraged to get what pleasure they can from their own sickness’.14 This is, at best, a disappointing capitulation that fails to ring true for readers of the Gothic. In contrast, Holland’s approach reminds us that the reader is the crucial inter­ loper in any text and it is up to her/him to breathe life into these inert forms.15 Witness the intricacies of a point that Carter herself affirms in ‘The Erl-King’: A young girl would go into the wood as trustingly as Red Riding Hood . . . [but] she will be trapped in her own illusion because everything in the wood is exactly as it seems. The woods enclose and then enclose again, like a system of Chinese boxes opening one into another; the intimate perspectives of the wood changed endlessly around the interloper, the imaginary traveller walking towards an invented distance that perpetually receded before me. It is easy to lose yourself in these woods. (p. 85)

As we saw in the case of ‘The Snow Child’, it is common for Carter’s female characters to become victims of their own illusory existence, but just how trusting is the girl in this case? If the narrator is drawing a comparison with the conventional Little Red Riding Hood of the child’s tale, then we may well infer that Carter’s protagonist is equally naive, obedient and thus a victim. But her own version of Little Red Riding Hood in ‘The Com­ pany of Wolves’ is far more worldly-wise than this. A girl ‘as trusting as her’ would be wily, adventurous, but never gullible. Further evidence favours the second of these two readings. A strange and rather uncomfortable shift in tense and pronoun midway through the passage signals a shift in narrat­ ive voice. The first paragraph is written in the third person, suggestive of


The fragile frames of The Bloody Chamber

somebody else speaking on behalf of the girl. Once we enter the enclosures of the forest, however, that voice is replaced by the girl’s own. This shift immediately transforms the otherwise cautionary note of the final sentence into a welcome anticipation of future events. The girl takes on the role of Gothic interloper, whereas the reader becomes the ‘imaginary traveller’. And the woods endlessly change around us too, our interaction projecting us into their labyrinth, stirring up the fixity of the frame to find endless vistas of opportunity for this girl. After all, these frames only appear to close off all the options. No sooner have they closed down than they open up ‘one into another’ again, even if they remain defined by the wood. Despite her own words here, nothing in Carter’s work is ever ‘exactly as it seems’ —let alone women’s relationship with these wooden frames. Like the melted pools that leave only a trace, the framed portrait, we remember, denotes a presence dependent upon the absence of the woman. So the real power of the portrait is that it lives on after the death of both creator and ‘subject’ (who is really, of course, the object of desire). Similarly, in a Gothic narrative there is always a complex trickery inherent in the representation of the image as revealing and as reveiling. In Carter’s case, Duncker effectively charges her with producing revelations which serve to re-encode terrible secrets, locking women away within a closeted existence as hideous corpses, sexless puppets, or those who fall foul of self-destructive excess. Certainly, in the case of the fairy-tale tradition, literary genealogies themselves depend upon passivity in the sense of formulaic conformity, and this is the legacy of The Bloody Chamber. But Carter takes issue with this genealogy, she does not simply accept it lying down. In ‘The Lady of the House of Love’, for example, the portrait’s concern with the inheritance of familial characteristics is shown to be the cause of the protagonist’s enslave­ ment. Thus we are told that the lady’s ‘ancestors sometimes peer out of the windows of her eyes’ in ‘a perpetual repetition of their passions’ (p. 103). She has, so to speak, been ‘framed’ by her own genealogy, the deliberate choice of the term ‘peer’ as opposed to ‘stare’ or ‘gaze’ reinforcing this awareness. Behind that glassy face, just as the eyes of the apparently inert portrait move, so her eyes encapsulate the conflict which exists on the pre­ carious site of abjection between overspill and containment. The reader must positively engage with this conflict. Frames do not simply encase portraits in this short story collection. In overall structural terms they also strive to contain the free play of the indi­ vidual tales in a manner that is highly unusual. Conventionally, the Gothic narrative sets the frame up in terms of a retrospective storytelling technique which shackles the night-dream world and situates the narrator safely bey­ ond its limits. ‘The Bloody Chamber’ itself follows this dynamic, luring us into a false sense of narrative security in which the precise boundaries


The Infernal Desires of Angela Carter

between the internal (present) and external (retrospective) time sequences remain clear. But as we progress through the tales as a whole, the apparent limitations imposed upon each as discrete spatio-temporal (and even textual) entities are breached by the type of narrative overspill already witnessed between ‘The Lady of the House of Love’ and ‘The Erl-King’. In other words, images, symbols and motifs from one story turn up in another in a way that reiterates and reworks the concerns of a previous vignette. As a whole, this multiplicity of interconnecting frames is, like the contents of the coffin, only precariously encased within the larger frame of the whole. The motif of the portrait should have prepared us for this dynamic. Just as the word ‘form’ synonymously refers to the anatomy inscribed on canvas and the mode of representation, so the word ‘frame’ can likewise define the skeletal content (the human frame) as much as it does the boundary marker. Undeniably, the central male protagonist of the story of ‘The Bloody Chamber’ and the vampiric central female protagonist of ‘The Lady of the House of Love’ are depicted as metamorphic figures oscillating along the boundaries between the human and the bestial, because they are anatomical representations (perhaps even portrait manifestations) of the transgressive and untamed excess of their own sexual practices. But since The Bloody Chamber functions less as a collection of individual short stories and more as a single narrative which uses the short story medium to work and rework compuls­ ive repetitions, it should also come as no surprise that both these narrative metamorphoses and the metamorphic forms they depict work to destabilize each other from within. It is not simply that the eponymous Lady of the House is a metamorphic character within the frame of her own text but that, beyond the limits of that frame, she crops up in the guise of the eponym­ ous Tiger’s Bride and/or the wolf’s lover in ‘The Company of Wolves’. Similarly, it seems that there is really only one central male protagonist who, beginning as a lion, passes through a variety of predatory masculine meta­ morphoses before ending up as a wolf who is simultaneously both man and woman. This ongoing metamorphic structure culminates in the final por­ trait manifestation of the book: The lucidity of the moonlight lit the mirror . . . impartially recorded the crooning girl. . . Little by little, there appeared within it, like the image on photographic paper . . . first, a formless web of tracery . . . then in firmer yet still shadowed outline until at last as vivid as real life itself, as if brought into being by her soft, moist, gende tongue, finally, the face of the Duke. (p. 126)

Throughout the collection, such oscillating figures perpetually appear and disappear before our very eyes, which gives them a disorientatingly ephem­ eral quality. Once we consider how this is mirrored by the narratives within which they are only partially contained, it is unsurprising that, with the


The fragile frames of The Bloody Chamber

exception of perhaps ‘The Bloody Chamber’, ‘The Company of Wolves’ and ‘The Lady of the House of Love’, one of the major problems facing the reader of these ten stories is that they seem always to be dissolving into each other. Neil Jordan’s film version of The Company of Wolves (1984)16 offers an additional perspective on this dissolution. Simultaneously implicated by and yet distinct from Carter’s own textual metamorphoses, this film also deals centrally with the image of the frame. Narrative point of view rests with the main storyteller who is a female dreamer in her own bed. She is not only a sleeping beauty but one who takes up her position, again, in relation to the wood. At first this interpretation seems inaccurate, for it is her sister, not herself, whom she despatches to take her chances with the wolves that roam outside in that forest. And yet to reiterate: ‘The woods [may] enclose . . . [but] the wood swallows you up’ (p. 84). The dreamer is inert and ‘at home’ in her chamber, and our belief in the sturdiness of the boundaries between the inside and the outside remains as firm here as it is encouraged to be by ‘The Bloody Chamber’. Then the camera angle shifts, turning through ninety degrees to face the open window, beckoning the viewer through and out into the night-world beyond. Once again, it is this twodimensional frame that has the real textual significance and the greater power to effect destruction. In a narrative which tells its own story by setting up a series of interlocking tales, this is the first of many such frames. We, the viewers, hold on to these boundary demarcations, hoping to use them to retrace our steps back to the chamber, just as Hansel hopes his trail of bread­ crumbs will lead him home. But here the wolves arrive before us. As the final sequence of the film unwinds, we see a pack of wolves enter in by the open door of the house, run up the stairs and dive through the face/ canvas of a Gothic portrait before congregating outside the door of the dreamer’s bedchamber. And yet these are only a subordinate grouping, whose function is simply to bar the girl’s passage. It is by the wood of the windowframe that she will be engulfed and, as the final scene fades, our gaze is aligned with that of the newly awoken, terrified dreamer, confronted by a snarling wolf leaping through the window, knocking her toys onto the bed. Carter’s depictions of toys and puppets are always sinister. Here they become horrifying accomplices in a cautionary tale, warning us that mon­ sters are not to be toyed with. Jean Laplanche and Jean-Bertrand Pontalis, theorizing the relationship between dreams and desires, further our under­ standing of this world of play: ‘The daydream is a shadow play, utilizing its kaleidoscopic material. . . whose dramatis personae, the court cards, receive their notation from a family legend which is mutilated, disordered and mis­ understood’.17 Laplanche and Pontalis’s terminology is entirely in keeping with The Bloody Chamber, where the aristocratic protagonists (‘court cards’) are undoubtedly in conflict with the inheritances of the fairy-tale form as


The Infernal Desires of Angela Carter

family legend. Mutilation, disorder and incomprehension are, inevitably, at the core of the collection. But it is their reference to the kaleidoscope that is most applicable to the narrative form of the collection, particularly when we note that Laplanche and Pontalis continue by perceiving it as a perfect metaphor for what they see as the ‘typical and repetitive scenarios beneath the varying clusters of fable’.18 Kaleidoscopes, giving pleasure through pro­ viding ever-shifting, compulsive repetitions of interconnecting images, epi­ tomize more than anything else the manner in which The Bloody Chamber utilizes intertextuality inside and outside its frames. In this way, both Carter’s stories and The Company of Wolves provide an endlessly destabilizing series of images which encode the metamorphoses that are their thematic con­ cerns into the very fibre of both works. Therefore the wolf’s entry into the bedchamber, at the end of the film, functions as a crucial disruptive device. Just as bodies cannot retain their abject fluids, so the limits set up by and within this narrative are infiltrated by fantasy creations from a world beyond. But this beyond lurks within the environs of the text. Portraits share these intertextual concerns, depending themselves upon a textual repetition that is also a compulsive reminiscence. We have seen that the Gothic portrait, despite its embodiment of inherited repetitions, para­ doxically utilizes those repetitive drives in order to sever its own frame and, in the process, the far more restrictive frame of formulaic fictional enclosure. Carter pushes frameworks to their very limits. In ‘The Company of Wolves’, the protagonist, desiring to become ‘nobody’s meat’ (p. 118), frees herself from her passive genealogical inheritance by banishing all authority from her parents (‘Her father . . . is away in the forest . . . and her mother cannot deny her’ (p. 114)), and by permitting the wolf to dispense with her grand­ mother, so giving herself every licence to trespass. Carter does much the same in banishing the formulaic fairy-foremother from her own literary in­ heritance. In the end, the oral dimensions of this compulsion to repeat inspire in adult readers of The Bloody Chamber much the same sense of unfinished business and untamed desires that take children endlessly back to their fairy­ tale dreams. Taking a leaf out of her own protagonist’s book, Carter flirts with textual danger on her own untamed terms, refusing to give us clearly defined answers. For her readers such flirtation proves all to the good. NOTES

1. Paulina Palmer, ‘From “coded mannequin” to bird woman: Angela Carter’s magic flight’, in Sue Roe, ed., Women Reading Women’s Writing (Brighton: Harvester, 1987), pp. 179-205.


The fragile frames of The Bloody Chamber 2. Robert Clark, ‘Angela Carter’s desire machine’, Women's Studies 14 (1987), p. 49; Patricia Duncker, ‘Re-imagining the fairy tale: Angela Carter’s bloody chambers’, in Peter Humm, Paul Stigant and Peter Widdowson, eds, Popular Fictions: Essays in Literature and History (London: Methuen, 1986), p. 228. 3. Elaine Jordan, ‘The dangers of Angela Carter, in Isobel Armstrong, ed., New Feminist Discourses: Critical Essays on Theories and Texts (London: Routledge, 1992), pp. 119-31; Meija Makinen, ‘Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber and the decolonization of feminine sexuality’, Feminist Review 42 (1992), pp. 2—15. 4. Makinen, ‘Decolonization of feminine sexuality’, p. 5. 5. This point is argued in Bruno Bettelheim, The Uses of Enchantment: The Mean­ ing and Importance of Fairy Tales (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1991), p. 44. 6. In other words, genre fiction is perceived to inhabit a safe site of play of its own, shored up by internal rulings and protected at all costs from the far less clear-cut demands of non-formulaic fictional writing. This is often considered to be a desirable state of affairs by critics of fantasy, who place great stress on the importance of distinguishing between folk and fairy/faerie, or the fabulous and the marvellous, losing sight, in the process, of the (perhaps dangerous) pleasures of reading beyond such constraints. 7. Leo Bersani, The Freudian Body: Psychoanalysis and Art (New York: Columbia University Press, 1986), p. 34. 8. Angela Carter, The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1981), p. 29. All further page references are to this edition and are given in the text. 9. Norman Holland, The Dynamics of Literary Response (New York: Oxford Uni­ versity Press, 1968), p. 286. 10. Duncker, ‘Re-imagining the fairy tale’, p. 223. 11. Julia Kristeva, Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection, trans. Leon S. Roudiez (New York: Columbia University Press, 1982), pp. 2-3. 12. Ibid., pp. 3,1. 13. Elisabeth Bronfen, Over Her Dead Body: Death> Femininity and the Aesthetic (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1992), p. 116. 14. Clark, ‘Angela Carter’s desire machine’, pp. 147-8,159. 15. Holland, Dynamics, passim. This point constitutes the thesis of his book. 16. The Company of Wolves (dir. Neil Jordan, screenplay Angela Carter), 1984. 17. Jean Laplanche and Jean-Bertrand Pontalis, ‘Fantasy and the origins of sexuality’, in Victor Burgin, James Donald and Cora Kaplan, eds, Formations of Fantasy (London: Roudedge, 1989), p. 22. 18. Ibid.



The infernal appetites of Angela Carter Sarah Sceats

My chapter is about food. To be strictly accurate, it is about eating as well, and about cooking, feeding, appetite and hunger - and desire. So central, one way or another, in my own life, food and eating only became apparent as a subject of study when, as an undergraduate student, I read an essay by Barbara Hardy (‘The Dickensian feast’) on the moral significance of eating in Great Expectations (1860-1). Meals, Hardy claims, ‘underline and explain motivation and development . . . almost all characters and groups are given moral and social definition by their attitudes to food and hospitality.’1 I read this fine essay greedily and savoured it, I have to admit, unquestioningly, taking for granted - product as I was of a particular critical and edu­ cational tradition - the moral dimension of literature. Here was somebody making the connection I didn’t know I had been waiting for, a connection between food and literature, identifying and exploring the fascinating, re­ vealing detail of literary representations of eating, bringing together indeed two of my favourite subjects. My appetite was whetted. What occurred to me only later is how well that essay illustrates the value-laden place that food, and ways of talking about it, occupy in Western culture. Angela Carter’s writing is, of course, embedded in this culture, and she both endorses and exploits the fact, and pulls against it. In several of her novels duty and benevolence are manifested, albeit ambiguously, in the regular provision of food. In The Magic Toyshop (1967), for example, Mrs Rundle the housekeeper routinely feeds the children, herself and her cat (albeit with an excess of bread pudding), and Aunt Margaret cooks as an act of love and defiance; while in Heroes and Villains (1969) Mrs Green’s cooking is a way of keeping chaos at bay. Generosity and largesse are also evident, in Fewers’s sharing quantities of champagne, tea and bacon sand­ wiches at the beginning of Nights at the Circus (1984). But selfish and highly carnivorous greed are also sketched, for example in the youthful Saskia’s 100

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devouring of a swan carcase while her mother’s house burns down in Wise Children (1991). All of these instances are, I need hardly add, more complex than their broad outlines suggest - but I’ll come to that in a while. The point I’m making here is that the cultural context of Carter’s writing about food and eating assumes a shared set of values and sets up certain expectations. In her idiosyncratic reviews of cookery and ‘food’ books, Carter con­ trives to have things both ways, endorsing a moral view and mocking its sanctimoniousness.2 Her mildly irreverent 1987 review of Elizabeth David’s English Bread and Yeast Cookery identifies a supposed link between factorymade bread and lack of moral fibre, £. . . as if moral fibre is somehow related to roughage in the diet. The British, the real bread lobby implies, are rapidly going, if they have not already gone, all soft, bland, and flabby, just like their staple food.’3 More significant, perhaps, is the heavy cultural load bread has had to bear in a culture whose religion has at its heart the sacramental centrepiece of the last supper. If the symbolic resonances of bread are fairly constant, its material function, as Carter points out, depends to a large extent on personal circumstance; put simply, bread is the staple diet of the poor, but for the rich it is a mere accessory, the decorative margin to a meal, or else . . the material . for a small but inessential meal, that very ‘afternoon tea’ beloved of the English upper classes, with which they used to stuff their faces in that desert of oral gratification between their vast lunches and their gargantuan dinners.4

Although the language Carter is apt to use in her non-fiction writing on food is characteristically spirited (can absolute concentration on the frivolous . . . can, on occasion, aspire to the heroic’), there is generally a serious point (‘some of the heartless innocence of style . . . of a leisured class that took its leisure as a right and not as a privilege’) and even a distinct sting: ‘One can only conclude that a varied diet of junk food is, in the final analysis, considerably more nutritious than a diet of not very much food at all.’5 Her review of three cookbooks in the London Review of Books at the beginning of 1985 ruffled several people’s feathers by its combination of mockery and censoriousness, particularly in juxtaposing famine in Ethiopia with the ‘rapt, bug-eyed concern with the small print not even of life but of gluttony’, which she labels ‘genuinely decadent’.6 Why review food books, the critics seemed to say, if you don’t enjoy eating?7 They have, perhaps, a point, for all the trappings of civilized life are thrown into disarray in the face of starvation and death - though some of the indignation, it must be said, seems to relate rather to Carter’s having treated Elizabeth David, ‘the high priestess of postwar English cookery’, with less than total reverence. Yet she describes Elizabeth David as ‘holistic’ and ‘truly civilized’, good food being as much part of civilization as ‘the 101

The Infernal Desires of Angela Carter

sensuous appreciation of poetry, art or music’. She goes on to assert that in ‘the value system of the person who is “civilised” in this way, the word carries the same connotation as “moral” does in the value system of Dr F. R. Leavis’. We are back, it seems, in the territory of Barbara Hardy’s essay on Dickens. The point Carter makes about 'foodies’ in her LR B review is that they shift food out of the moral into the aesthetic realm: ‘Art has a morality of its own, and the aesthetics of cooking and eating aspire, in “foodism”, towards the heights of food-for-food’s sake.’ Put together with her recognition of ‘piggery triumphant’ and her observation that gluttony is ‘the mark of a class on the rise’, this judgement suggests it is not the love of food but the complacency and frivolity of a ‘mincing and finicking obsession’ with food that attract her contempt.8 The debate here centres upon the assumption of a connection between food and morality. Culturally speaking, morality inheres - to a variable extent and more or less reasonably — in the provision of food, the manner and extent of consumption, the sharing or withholding of food and even in the nature of the food in question. So far, so good. But, as Carter herself might have said, so what? Carter goes, I think, much further than simply using or reacting against conventional values associated with food and eating, and what this chapter sets out to examine is how her fiction discloses what might be called a politics of appetite — rather as her contextualizing of ‘foodie’ books within a world of deprivation exposes them as exploitative.9 In The Sadeian Woman (1979), she radicalizes sexual desire, proposing the pomographer as terrorist; in revealing appetite and eating as a locus of vigorously exercised power relations, she similarly uncovers the processes, forces a (re-) examination of them and disallows the perception of eating as simply an autonomous, politically neutral activity.10 While hunger may be physically dictated, appetite comes not simply from inside; it is as much culturally constructed and as subject to external constraints and forces as is sexuality. The functioning of these constraints and forces, however, is far from straightforward, and operates through the most slippery of power relations, necessarily privileging neither the provider nor the consumer. The obvious place to begin, perhaps, is with the provision of food. In psychoanalytic and archetypal terms, this activity is associated with the mother, the first dis­ penser of nourishment and source of love. Unsurprisingly, the mother is seen in this framework as the most important figure in an infant’s world, able to give (or withhold) everything that sustains, nourishes, fulfils, com­ pletes. Carter offers a helpless, infant-eye view of an almost monstrously all-powerful maternal figure in the multi-nippled Mother of The Passion of New Eve (1977), whom the truncated Eve(lyn), newly ‘born’ as a woman, is wholly unable to resist. Such an overwhelming Mother gives credence to Maud Ellmann’s provocative claim that all feeding is force feeding, though 102

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as Nicole Ward Jouve points out, mothers do tend to get short shrift in Carter’s writing, and even grandmothers have a distressing tendency to get blown up or eaten by wolves.11 The absence of mothers, of course, has a long and honourable literary history: think of all those maternally deprived children in Dickens, Austen, Eliot, the Brontes. A lack of maternal sup­ port is almost a requirement of the Bildungsroman, and greatly facilitates the achievement of autonomy, though, curiously enough, the absence of posit­ ive maternal images does not preclude the expression of what are arguably deep and archaic hungers for an unseparated pre-oedipal union with the mother.12 Motherw^, on the other hand, does feature considerably in Carter's work, in both its nurturing aspect and as an indicator of disempowerment. In The Magic Toyshop, for example, Aunt Margaret, economically dependent, enslaved, rendered mute and controlled by patriarchy in the person of Uncle Philip, is given eloquent means of expression through her cooking and caring. The appetite she is required to cater for is Uncle Philip’s, but the food’s savour is directed towards her brothers and the children. When Melanie and her siblings first arrive, in the absence of Uncle Philip, Aunt Margaret produces a magically welcoming meal with a steaming savoury pie; here she is nobody’s servant, but benignly in command of the meal: It was as good as a ballet to watch Finn eat but Francie mopped gravy with bread and chewed bones from his fingers. Fie was also a noisy eater, as if providing an orchestral accompaniment for his brother. The food was abundant and delicious. There was both white bread and brown bread, yellow curls of the best butter, two kinds of jam (strawberry and apricot) on the table and currant cake on the sideboard ready for when they had dealt with the pie. Aunt Margaret poured fresh tea from a brown earthenware, Sundayschool treat pot that was so heavy she had to lift it with both hands. They drank their tea very dark and all put much sugar into it. Aunt Margaret presided over the table with placid contentment, urging them to eat with eloquent movements of the eyes and hands. The children ate hungrily, relaxing over the meal; she must, thought Melanie, be nice if she cooks so well.13

The description has overtones of a story told to children, with its rhythms and wide-eyed vocabulary reminiscent of Beatrix Potter’s tales and in the bright picture it paints and the satisfaction and comfort it evokes. It is as though the food in its abundance speaks for all the feelings that cannot be displayed. Just after this supper, when the girls go to bed, Aunt Margaret writes hungrily on her notepad of Victoria, ‘What a fine, plump litde girl!’ - a sentence that completes the scene with distinctly Hansel and Gretel resonances. But she gives Melanie a ‘desperate’ stiff embrace, as though ‘making an anguished plea for affection’ (p. 49).


The Infernal Desires of Angela Carter

The balance of power is unstable and shifts throughout this scene: Aunt Margaret serves the food, an ambiguous role combining submission, nurtur­ ing and control; she ‘presides’ at the table; the food she has cooked soothes and delights, rendering her emotionally powerful; she and her brothers produce an atmosphere of relaxation, suggesting balance and equality; her brooding appreciation of the child Victoria betokens both the power of the witch/cannibal and the impotent desolation of the barren woman. All this occurs in the absence of Uncle Philip, whose later presence reduces all ex­ changes to an apparently one-way flow of power and oppression. But before considering Philip, there is more to be said about mothering. If New Eve's ‘Mother’ figures the oppressive maternal, then Aunt Margaret represents the disempowered nurturer, and Mrs Green, the barbarian Jewel’s foster mother in Heroes and Villains, the archetypal mother- or grannyprovider, smelling of baking with her sleeves rolled up over muscular fore­ arms, wearing a spotless white apron, with coiled grey hair and a face like a bun. Her primary function is to cook, and she looks after Marianne, but she is also protective of the existing order, such as it is, among Jewel’s family, and produces a stream of saws and commonplaces in its support. In this she bears a number of similarities to the fairy-tale ‘grandmother’ archetypes. Marianne quickly identifies her, in fact, as ‘some kind of domestic matriarch’, which is to say she is defined by her role.14 Here again, however, the power situation is fluid, not to say volatile, because the Barbarians live under con­ stant threat of attack from outside, on account of internecine strife within the ‘family’, and because Mrs Green, despite her fierce protectiveness, is always, in the end, resigned. Her ‘maternal’ position is essentially that of cook, housekeeper, even servant —albeit a once-educated and in some ways rebellious one —and she uses her food to sustain, cure and protect her charges and to maintain the status quo, but never to charm or influence or harm (this being Dr Donally’s prerogative). The role of cook is potentially powerful in Carter’s wnting, though she never spells this out quite so explicitly as Alice Thomas Ellis, who speculates in several of her novels about the cook’s murderous capa­ city to add tigers’ whiskers or deathly mushrooms or putrefied catfood to a meal.15 The essence of a cook’s power is that it is exercised covertly. The cook in Carter’s short story ‘The Kitchen Child’ (1985), for example, wields her influence through the creation of lobster soufflés. The cooking of the first is interrupted by seduction - and both the cook’s impregnation and her sad anniversary cooking of a lobster souffle might be seen as indicative of total disempowerment - but the reprise, in which the cook hits her would-be seducer with a wooden spoon to prevent the soufflé being spoiled, shows her thoroughly in command. Her single-mindedness is rewarded, and she takes from the oven ‘the veritable queen of all the soufflés, that spreads


The infernal appetites of Angela Carter

its archangelic wings over the entire kitchen as it leaps upwards from the dish in which the force of gravity alone confines it’, a tumescence suggest­ ing not only sexuality, culinary perfection and social rise (since she marries the due) but a peculiarly female triumph.16 The caring, motherly archetype is overlaid here and in the description of the cook’s ‘ample hips’ with a bountiful eroticism that has its own kind of strength. The power that may be manifested by a sexual cook is taken to a less benign extreme in the case of Saskia in Wise Children, a novel which also encapsulates the most thoroughly benevolent, protective, strong —and fiercely vegetarian —figure of the maternal in Grandma Chance. It is Grandma, I would say, who embodies a response to the lacks and excesses of New Eves oppressive ‘Mother’, of Aunt Margaret’s disempowerment and of the domestic sham revealed in Mrs Green’s ineffectual platitudes. Not only does Grandma provide the twins with physical, emotional, political and spiritual nourishment, she also tactfully exits, with the aid of a flying bomb, so as to allow them, as they reach maturity, to achieve proper separa­ tion and autonomous development without having to move house. Saskia, by contrast with Grandma, is the negative epitome of woman as cook/ carer/creator. Her power is not so much maternal as professional, and vindictive. When the occasion serves her interests, she liberally adul­ terates the food she offers: with aphrodisiacs for nephew Tristram, whom she seduces; with laxatives for his girlfriend; with poison for her resented father. Her power here is invisible, unrecognized, but irresistible. As a mem­ ber of a theatrical dynasty and a professional cook, she is also a performer, enacting her manipulation and coercion by means of self-conscious charm and the exploitation of her sexuality. Like a witch, she cooks and schemes, using food as a material reinforcement of the magic she has already woven. Dora’s description of the television food programme in which Saskia jugs a hare is worth quoting at length: She cut the thing up with slow, voluptuous strokes. ‘Make sure your blade is up to it!’ she husked, running her finger up and down the edge . . . Next, she lovingly prepared a bath for the hare, she minced up shallots, garlic, onions, added a bouquet garni and a pint of claret and sat the poor dismembered beast in that for a day and a half. Then she condescended to sauté the parts briskly in a hot pan over a high flame until they singed. Then it all went into the oven for the best part of another day. She sealed the lid of the pot with a flour-and-water paste. ‘Don’t be a naughty thing and peek!’ she warned with a teasing wink. Time to decant at last! The hare had been half-rotted, then cremated, then consumed . . . ‘Delicious,’ she moaned, dipping her finger in the juice and sucking. She licked her lips, letting her pink tongue-tip linger.17

The combination of control, seductiveness and cruelty is manifest - and revealing. Saskia is, of course, a ‘foodie’, and one whose carnally macabre


The Infernal Desires of Angela Carter

tastes are emphasized by Dora’s description, with its privileging of associ­ ations of death and decay over those of sensual delight. Saskia’s control, here and elsewhere, combines sexual domination and parodically maternal food provision. Since she has no motives but revenge and self-interest, her cooking activities are wholly subversive; she attempts only to place herself alone in the position of power. Food and sex, associ­ ated with what is life-enhancing and procreative in ‘The Kitchen Child’, relate in Saskia’s case not so much to benevolent power as to megalomania, not to Eros but Thanatos.18 Her sexuality is portrayed as illegitimate and devouring, and her business feeds on greed and corruption of the bug-eyed foodie variety that Carter was so scathing about in that LR B review. While ostensibly providing food (such a maternal role), she is in fact indulging her own appetite for revenge and power. And if paradoxical, this is not alto­ gether surprising, for - notwithstanding the ability of the cook to doctor the ingredients —in much of Carter’s writing power is exercised through appetite. Appetite, both sexual and alimentary, makes demands upon the world. It is the active counterpart to hunger and yearning, and Carter exploits its importunate and urgent characteristics in representing those who will not be denied. Foremost among the ravenous is Melanie’s Uncle Philip in The Magic Toyshop, a man whose ‘omnivorous egocentricity’ suggests him as an embodiment of the late twentieth-century capitalist world.19 He is characterized as a domestic tyrant, a patriarchal monster in the mould of a Victorian pit-owner, who insists upon absolute rule of the household and its members. His command is manifested through physical bullying, uncon­ ditional control of the budget and most vividly by his behaviour at mealtimes. Uncle Philip’s eating capacity is remarkable, though his oppressive presence drains all pleasure from the others’ meals. His appetite seems most whetted at Sunday tea-time, by the fact that Aunt Margaret cannot eat, due to the discomfort of the ornate silver choker he made for her wedding present and which he obliges her to wear at this time. She is dehumanized, deprived of both speech and sustenance, her mouth unable either to take in or give out. A silenced woman, it seems, becomes a starved woman. Uncle Philip, meanwhile, tucks into a ‘pink battalion’ of shrimps, a whole loaf of bread with half a pound of butter and most of a large cake, before going on to satisfy his sexual appetite. Aunt Margaret’s hunger is quite simply disallowed. What happens, of course, is the same as what happens wherever control is imposed purely by force: subversion. Aunt Margaret’s sexual appetite is secretly satisfied by her brother Francie (thus negating Uncle Philip’s marital ‘rights’) and her pleasures, satisfactions and nourishment are focused in what the patriarch would undoubtedly see as the margins of the household’s life. She is able to relax and eat only when Uncle Philip is not present, and then


The infernal appetites of Angela Carter

they all take their time to eat lavishly and festively. Their appetites for life —reflected not only in their eating and sexual appetites, but in Margaret’s and her brothers’ fiery hair, their music and dancing, the paintings - are expressed only within their close-knit relationship. W hether Uncle Philip has a sense of his own exclusion is never made specific, but his rage of con­ trol and possession certainly suggests as much. In this as in other qualities, Uncle Philip has some similarity with Albert Spica, the ‘thief in Peter Greenaway’s 1989 film, The Cook, The Thief His Wife and Her Lover. Both men’s power is primarily economic, and imple­ mented through degradation and brutality, those powerful tools in the service of tyranny (as Carter notes in The Sadeian Woman) which appear to allow little scope for any shifting in power relations. Both men might be seen to represent an oppressive or corrupt political reality which has some­ thing to do with patriarchy, something with capitalism (and in Greenaway’s case Thatcherism) and something to say, perhaps, about the corruption of power itself20 Both men are capable of murder, and in both cases murder is linked with eating. Albert’s gang kill his wife’s lover Michael by forcefeeding him books, and Albert is himself forced at gunpoint to eat Michael’s cooked body. In Uncle Philip’s case, murder is initially sketched as a pos­ sibility when he carves the Christmas goose: He attacked the defenceless goose so savagely he seemed to want to kill it all over again, perhaps feeling the butcher had been incompetent in the first place . . . The reeking knife in his hand, he gazed reflectively at Finn . . . (The Magic Toyshop, p. 160)

And when he finally sets fire to the house to burn them all to death, it is the kitchen he smashes up first, adding even the table, with its tablecloth and the remains of their meal, to the barricade at the foot of the stairs. Both men, I want to suggest, are powered by a cannibalistic appetite which is externally unrestrained because driven by an insatiable emptiness. This explanation holds good whether considered in the light of politics or psychoanalysis. I will suggest a psychoanalytic approach to cannibalism, but first I want to offer a broadly political interpretation. In the film, the emptiness of cannibalistic appetite is spelled out in Albert Spica’s failure to conquer his wife and his pathetic dependence when she tries to leave, and in her ultimately naming him ‘Cannibal’. The crushing of Aunt Margaret and her brothers in The Magic Toyshop, together with the sheer size Uncle Philip attains, suggests he is in some sense feeding off them. His desire for control, and Melanie’s perceptions of him as Bluebeard, Saturn, the Beast of the Apocalypse, show him as monstrous and colonializing; indeed, he moves to bring the children into the same condition as the rest of the household:


The Infernal Desires of Angela Carter

dirty, ill-clothed, uncomfortable, totally dependent and wholly in the service of the puppet theatre, itself a metaphor for vested control and manipula­ tion. Notwithstanding the fairy-tale qualities of the novel, it has what Carter herself refers to as ‘a system of signification’, and it is not difficult to read as a parable of political oppression.21 Michel Foucault writes of ‘the limitless presumption of the appetite’;22 in Uncle Philip appetite may be seen as a reductio ad absurdum of patriarchal licence and capitalist greed. In psychoanalytic terms, Uncle Philip (or indeed Albert) could be said to be stuck in the oral or oral-cannibalistic stage of development, longing for the sense of wholeness which is associated with the blissful sensations of the tiny infant at the breast, as yet unaware of itself as being distinct from the rest of world.23 The infant’s satisfaction in wholeness or completion is symbolized by the breast, the mother, the ‘primary love object’, so that am­ bivalent and even aggressive feelings are generated when the infant becomes aware that the breast is sometimes removed and that gratification is neither constant nor necessarily available on demand. According to the theory, the infant may sometimes wish to suck the breast dry (and thereby destroy it), while also fearing that the reverse will happen - a paradoxical relation illus­ trated by the negative desires and fears of the Count in The Infernal Desire Machines of Dr Hoffman (1972). Adult nostalgia for this sense of oneness is a nostalgia for something mythical which never existed, and which is cer­ tainly unobtainable, for the whole point of infantile bliss is its quiescence, while adult cannibalistic characters are nothing if not self-conscious. There is, it seems to me, a clear contradiction between the apparent power of men like Albert Spica and Uncle Philip and the driving emptiness that lies inside, whether we see this as psychic or political lack of substance. It may, of course, be this very contradiction, the subversion of ostensibly inexorable force by its own interior, that is Carter’s main point. The ex­ ternal force is subverted both by the insatiability of the monster/cannibal’s hunger and in the attempted, wholly self-referential resolution - take, for example, Uncle Philip’s love for his puppets, which suggests both the empti­ ness and the solipsism. In The Passion of New Eve Carter likens the arid self­ completion of Tristessa (who, incidentally, is literally empty, anorexic) to the uroborus, the snake formed into a circle with its tail in its mouth: ‘the uroborus, the perfect circle, the vicious circle, the dead end’, an image that seems equally applicable to the ravening tyrant whose negating hollowness threatens implosion.24 The description applies to Uncle Philip and to Zero, the Nietzschean poet of negation in New Eve , but I have in mind particu­ larly the Count and his correlative the Cannibal Chief in The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman.

The Count, more apparently vampire than cannibal, has the most voracious appetites imaginable, both gustatory and sexual. Yet despite his


The infernal appetites of Angela Carter

depraved behaviour he is more deathly than libidinous, a figure of absolute negation, ‘the hideous antithesis in person’.25 His utter self-absorption, fan­ tasies of omnipotence and relish for catastrophe and torture render him, he believes, invulnerable, but he is sabotaged by a driving sense of lack, a longing for ‘the homely sensation of pain’ (p. 125).26 It is this central lack which drives the Count’s narrative, his fear and will together propelling him towards what he most dreads and longs for: ‘That man — if man he be - is my retribution,’ said the Count. ‘He is my twin. He is my shadow. Such a terrible reversal; I, the hunger, have become my own prey. Hold me or I will run into his arms.’ (p. 139)

The ‘man’, the ‘shadow’, his other self, whom the Count both fears and desires, is embodied in the figure of the African Cannibal Chief who, in true comic book fashion, provides the solution to the Count’s riddle by having him boiled in a cauldron. The Count is finally able to feel, to name his pain, but as he boils he expires. Since the entire incident has probably been called up by the Count’s own negating desire, it is clear he has willed his completion and destruction —in both guises, since the Cannibal Chief is also promptly despatched. The Count here is both the potential consumer (T wish to taste myself’, says the Cannibal Chief) and the food. What is more, he engineers this. Interestingly, both power and the pursuit of satisfaction in this novel relate not only to the provider and the eater but also to the eaten, which com­ plicates the power relations. Cannibalism in general suggests the absolute supremacy of the consumer, and is presumably experienced as pretty well absolute by the victim - the dinner is, after all, hardly on equal terms with the diner. As Carter herself puts it, cannibalism is ‘the most elementary act of exploitation, that of turning the other directly into a comestible; of see­ ing the other in the most primitive terms of use’.27 Yet even here, power is not concentrated wholly in one place. There is the effect of the eaten on the eater, as in the case of food poisoning, or as illustrated by the end of The Cook, the Thief when it is Albert who is degraded by being made to eat his wife’s lover. Equally, some satisfaction or partial control may be wrested from the subjection, even if only temporarily, for a victim’s agenda wields its own kind of power. The Count, as food, achieves a fleeting consummation before he dies. Elsewhere in Dr Hoffman , the narrating hero Desiderio also experiences cannibalistic desire as a potential victim - until, that is, he realizes the literal truth of what is going on. Desiderio longs to be consumed, metaphorically absorbed into the community of river people. Unfortunately for him they have more literal ideas about his consumption, preparing him at once for


The Infernal Desires of Angela Carter

the roles of bridegroom and wedding breakfast.28 His temporary and partial incorporation suggests engulfment and regression. (This metaphorical incor­ poration is similar to that experienced by Joseph, the protagonist of Several Perceptions (1968), when he dreams that his friend’s mother is an ice-cream which grows larger and larger as he eats it, finally engulfing him in an ava­ lanche.)29 Desiderio’s period of refuge on the boat is like a return to the womb (something Joseph also desires), the revisiting of an ultimately stifling pre-symbolic world from which his timely escape overboard resembles a rebirth. For, however much he might desire the completion promised by incorporation, as the Count’s experience illustrates, it is fleeting if not illus­ ory, and the net result is death. As Freud pointed out, eating the love object can only destroy it. All this suggests a profoundly negative estimation of appetite and its satisfaction. But this can only be a partial view, for appetite comes in many guises. Uncle Philip, the Count, the Cannibal Chief and even Desiderio are, like Saskia, motivated to a large extent by a negative, life-denying appetite that can have little to do with pleasure. Their hunger is monstrously insati­ able because only satisfiable by an arid completion, stasis, death. They are powerful because ruthless politically, and in psychoanalytic terms because impelled by one of the two main drives: Thanatos, the death drive. There is, however, another drive, Eros, which is just as unappeasable, but focused on life. Equally, there is an alternative to institutionalized power, and this can be seen in the Foucauldian model of unstable power relations where dominant and subordinate positions are not fixed.30 This flexible model reflects the frequent shifts of emphasis where food and eating are concerned, for hunger is continually renewed, acts of eating are perpetually recreated, and appetite is neither constant nor more than temporarily satisfied. ‘The Kitchen Child’ provides a clear and obvious example. First, the cook is seduced, her cooking disparaged by the housekeeper, her status as fallen woman only redeemed by the esteem of her fellow servants. Subsequently, she gains power through her skill and single-mindedness as the ‘great artist’ of the soufflé. The shift towards Eros makes explicit the connection between eating and desire. For appetite in Carter’s writing - even excluding the specifically sexual —is manifested as much in connection with desire as with the need for sustenance. In Kim Evans’s Omnibus film, posthumously broadcast on BBC Television, Carter speaks poignantly o f ‘the inextinguishable, the un­ appeasable nature of the world, of appetite, of desire’.31 This, certainly, is Eros, the libidinous undercurrent that works so disturbingly and then bubbles so irrepressibly into Carter’s later work. Here is the force, the fuel, the power that drives. Even in Dr Hoffman, when Desiderio kills the Doctor and his daughter and thus puts an end to the institutionalized release of desire, it 110

The infernal appetites of Angela Carter

is desire itself, the irrepressible, which is in the end victorious, because the formerly passive Desiderio, the desired one, a man ‘without passion’, con­ tinues to yearn for Albertina for fifty years. I am cheating a bit here, perhaps, in shifting both the definition and the grounds of power - but there is a serious point in suggesting that the libido has not only an internal influence in the ‘construction' of appetite but that it therefore constitutes a force to be reckoned with in the play of external power relations. Just as Uncle Philip’s and the Count/Cannibal Chiefs neg­ ative hollowness combine with external factors to lend them an oppressive power, so their later comic equivalents prevail through an appetite for life that is profoundly erotic. My earlier claim that Saskia is driven by Thanatos rather than Eros might seem bizarre, given her sexuality. Compare her with Fewers, how­ ever, rising orgasmically like the cook’s soufflé, and I hope you will see what I mean. To state it in the most oppositional of terms: where Saskia’s appetite is a function of a negative, deathly sense of betrayal and the desire for revenge, Fewers’s appetite is, like the aerialiste herself, bom of erotic power and the rejection of external constructions.32 She is not the inven­ tion and refuses to be the victim of a male-created ideology; she carves out for herself (with a little help from her friends) an active, even —literally superior role. The signs of her appetite are abundant and often sexual (the sight of her open mouth gives Walser a ‘seismic disturbance’), and Carter teasingly inverts the oppressiveness of cannibalism, showing Walser luxuri­ ating in the imagined impression that ‘her teeth closed on his flesh with the most voluptuous lack of harm’.33 Fewers’s appetite is quite opposed to the extinguishing gluttony of the despot, and yet it too is powerful. She is as much an object of desire as Desiderio, but where he is essentially passive, a potential cannibal feast (twice), Fewers is very much an active subject — and indeed a hearty eater. Fewers, like Uncle Peregrine in Wise Children (an immense antithetical version of Uncle Philip), is a character who embodies much that accords with the Bakhtinian idea of carnival, including association with popular cul­ ture, the subversion or reversal of the expected, overblown bodily function and, above all, an inclusive, ‘profoundly universal laughter’.34 Carter herself had apparently not read Bakhtin, at least until after she wrote Nights at the Circus, but her feeling for the traditional, subversive and affirmative aspects of carnival is undeniable.35 As The Magic Toyshop draws towards its climax, for example, breakfast in Uncle Philip’s absence turns into a mini-carnival of its own: there was such festivity in the kitchen . . . The very bacon bounced and crackled in the pan for joy because Uncle Philip was not there. Toast caught fire and burned with a merry flame and it was not disaster, as he 111

The Infernal Desires of Angela Carter would have made it, but a joke . . . They sat around the table and mopped up egg-yolk with breadcrusts. Uncle Philip’s ominous chair stood empty, the shell of a threat, the Siege Perilous. ‘Sod it,’ said Finn. ‘I’m going to sit in his chair.’ Aunt Margaret’s hand flew to her aghast mouth. ‘D on’t fret, Maggie. It can’t engulf me.’ He sat at the head of the table like the Lord of Misrule, feeding the dog marmalade sandwiches, which it appeared to relish. Soon it seemed quite normal for Finn to be seated there. (p. 183, my emphasis)

Not surprisingly, this is the one occasion on which they eat the most lavish breakfast in the most leisurely fashion. After breakfast, the clock is smashed (‘There goes the time’, says Finn, Mad Hatter-like), andeverybody dresses up, the holiday mood prevailing until the return of the dreadful Uncle Philip. If appetite is not so much innate as socially constructed, then carnival might perhaps be said to deconstruct it, resulting in something like a free play of appetites. The size and ostentation of Fewers and Uncle Peregrine indicate large appetite, but appetite for what? Nothing Uncle Philip-like, and nothing limiting, certainly. Their power - since they unmistakably prevail - is manifested rather in exuberance, largesse and lust for life than insatiable hunger or greed. Each employs both sexuality and a touch of the super-normal against the status quo: Fewers’s confounding of the (male) establishment is aided by the magic in feminist/communist Lizzie’s handbag; Uncle Peregrine, ‘not so much a man, more of a travelling carnival’ (IVise Children, p. 169), in his championing of the illegitimate branch of the family and the furthering of pleasure manifests a life-drive which so con­ founds the passage of time that he remains a potent redhead at 100 years of age. The positive appetites of the camivalesque are, it seems, as powerful as those of the life-denying cannibal. But I must add a caveat. The work of Mikhail Bakhtin is sometimes used to support an argument that carnival’s overthrowing of the existing order endorses subversion as a desirable end in itself. However, as Carter reminds us, ‘The essence of the carnival, the festival, the Feast of Fools, is transience. It is here today and gone tomorrow, a release of tension not a reconstitution of order, a refreshment. . . after which everything can go on again exactly as if nothing had happened’, though her assertion that every­ thing goes on exactly the same is, I think, an overstatement.36 From this conservative perspective, however, the camivalesque in Carter may be seen as rather less subversive than her other writing, for the sting of the aberrant is drawn by legitimation or acceptance by the powers that be, and a sanc­ tioned feast of fools has no real potency. Carnival embraces plurality and its very inclusiveness is affirmatory rather than subversive. Thus Wise Children, 112

The infernal appetites of Angela Carter

through the gigantic figure of Uncle Peregrine, is able to embrace all ap­ petites: murder, incest, poisoning, cruelty, gourmandism, as well as ‘laughter, forgiveness, generosity, reconciliation’ (p. 227). Where, then, does this leave the politics of appetite? To say that Carter’s work as a whole is carnivalesque because it embraces both negation and affirmation is not to say very much. Yet it is only if we privilege carnival as an interpretative strategy - or indeed insist upon psychoanalytic exegesis — that we diminish her writing. ‘Flesh comes to us out of history’, she writes in The Sadeian Woman , and this is worth remembering, whether the flesh is sexual or dietary. If sexuality is not ‘an irreducible human universal’, then neither is appetite, whether driven by Eros or Thanatos, and the morality of eating and attitudes to food can only be considered within a social and political system.37 The fact that such systems are expressed obliquely in Carter’s surreal and energetic writing is no reason to disregard their actuality. Those who feed, those who eat, those who hunger are real enough, both inside and outside the pure and infernal world of Carter’s fiction.


1. Barbara Hardy, £The Dickensian feast’, from The Moral Art of Dickens (London: Athlone Press, 1970), pp. 139-55. 2. This is not true of all Carter’s reviews, many of which demonstrate a fascina­ tion with the history of diet in all its detail. See, for example, the reviews in the ‘Tomato W oman’ section of Expletives Deleted (London: Chatto & Windus, 1992). 3. Carter, Expletives Deleted, p. 94. 4. Ibid., p. 98. 5. Ibid., pp. 92, 98, 97. 6. ‘Noovs’ hoovs in the trough’, London Review of Books (24 January 1985), also reprinted under the title A n Omelette and a Glass of Wine and other Dishes’ in Expletives Deleted, pp. 77-82. 7. A selection of letters, including one from Christopher Driver, the disgrunded editor of the Guardian's food and drink page, is reproduced in Expletives Deleted, pp. 82-4. 8. All the quotations in this paragraph come from Expletives Deleted, pp. 98 and 80. 9. She rarely lets an opportunity slip; even in an otherwise laudatory review, she takes Patience Gray to task for a ‘sloppy’ reference to poverty: ‘W hen Mrs Gray opines, “Poverty rather than wealth gives the good things of life their true significance”, it is tempting to suggest it is other people’s poverty, always a source of the picturesque, that does that.’ Expletives Deleted, p. 102.


The Infernal Desires of Angela Carter 10. Angela Carter, 77re Sadeian Woman: An Exercise in Cultural History (London: Virago, 1979). By power relations I mean verbal or physical transactions in which one party wields power over another. Every transaction contains the possibility of the exertion or subversion of power, but - especially where food and eating are concerned — I am inclined to agree with Michel Foucault that such relations are by no means fixed or stable, though power may be culturally invested in one particular party (e.g. a mother). See also Michel Foucault, Madness and Civilisation: A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason, trans. Richard Howard (London: Tavistock Publications, 1965). 11. Maud Ellmann, The Hunger Artists: Starnng Writing & Imprisonment (London: Virago, 1994), p. 36; Nicole Ward Jouve, ‘Mother is a figure of speech . . in Loma Sage, ed., Flesh and the Mirror (London: Virago, 1994), p. 156. 12. The point about such an ideal union being pre-oedipal is that there is as yet no sense of separation or difference from the mother, and thus no unappeased hunger. 13. Angela Carter, The Magic Toyshop (London: Virago, 1981) p. 47. Subsequent page references are to this edition and are given in the text. 14. Angela Carter, Heroes and Villains (London: Penguin, 1981), p. 43. 15. See especially Alice Thomas Ellis, The 27th Kingdom (London: Penguin, 1982), p. 104, and The Skeleton in the Cupboard (London: Penguin, 1988), pp. 68, 89. 16. ‘The Kitchen Child’ is in the collection Black Venus (London: Pan, 1985). This quotation is from p. 99. 17. Angela Carter, Wise Children (London: Vintage, 1992), pp. 180-1. Subsequent references are to this edition and are given in the text. 18. I am referring here to the two ‘drives’ suggested by Freud: Eros comprises the group of instincts, including the libido, which tend towards the enjoyment of life, and Thanatos refers to a universal death instinct. 19. In The Sadeian Woman, Carter says it is Sade, via the Romantics, who is re­ sponsible for ‘shaping aspects of the modem sensibility; its paranoia, its despair, its sexual terrors, its omnivorous egocentricity, its tolerance of massacre, holocaust, annihilation’ (p. 32, my emphasis). 20. In interview, Greenaway said that the film represented ‘my anger and passion about the current British political situation’. See Gavin Smith, ‘Food for thought’, Film Comment 26:3 (1990), pp. 54-60. 21. In an interview with John Haffenden, she maintains that her novels are in­ tended to be read ‘on as many levels as you can comfortably cope with at the time’, although from this novel onwards she also aims to offer an ‘entertaining surface’. See Tohn Haffenden, Novelists in Interview (London: Methuen, 1985), pp. 86-7. 22. See Foucault, Madness and Civilisation. 23. I am referring here to ideas put forward by Freud and developed by Melanie Klein and others. The idea of the first painful stage of psychic development being connected to a sense of loss or lack has been more recently developed by Lacan, but I have drawn largely on Klein because of her emphasis on the breast, which makes an explicit connection with food, and also because Carter herself draws on Klein in The Sadeian Woman. 24. Angela Carter, The Passion of New Eve (London: Virago, 1982), p. 173. 25. Angela Carter, The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman (London: Penguin, 1982), p. 124. Subsequent page references are to this edition and are given in the text.


The infernal appetites of Angela Carter 26. The Count’s anguish in shipboard captivity indicates the fragility of his socalled invulnerability: he suffers the terror of a disempowered monster. His fear may also be regarded, psychoanalytically, as tantamount to the infant fantasy that the love object s/he desires and wants to incorporate will, in fact, eat her or him. 27. Carter, The Sadeian Woman, p. 140. ‘Primitive’ here is problematic: it suggests something crude, uncivilized and exploitative, yet anthropologists stress that literal cannibalism is generally more hedged about with taboos, rules and rituals than any other form of eating. See, for example, Peggy Reeves Sanday, Divine Hunger (Cambridge: CUP, 1986). For an extensive (structural) analysis of primit­ ive food-related behaviour see Claude Lévi-Strauss, Structural Anthropology, The Raw and the Cooked; Introduction to a Science of Mythology, Vol. I (London: Jonathan Cape, 1970) and The Origin of Table Manners: Introduction to a Science of Mythologyy Vol. Ill (London: Jonathan Cape, 1978). 28. At a ‘realist’ level the narrative draws on tribal beliefs that privilege the ‘eaten’: Desiderio possesses an ability to read, that the people want; the way to obtain this is by literally incorporating it; by eating him they will effortlessly receive his knowledge and skill. 29. Angela Carter, Several Perceptions (London: Virago, 1995), p. 76. 30. See Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality, Volume i: An Introduction, trans. Robert Hurley (London: Allen Lane/Penguin, 1979). 31. Angela Carter’s Curious Room, Director Kim Evans, Omnibus (BBC Television, 15 September 1992). 32. Carter writes of herself ‘questioning . . . the nature of my reality as a woman. How that social fiction of my “femininity” was created, by means outside my control, and palmed off on me as the real thing.’ See ‘Notes from the Front Line’, in Michelene Wandor, ed., On Gender and Writing (London: Pandora, 1983), p. 70. 33. Angela Carter, Nights at the Circus (London: Pan Books, 1985), p. 204. 34. Mikhail Bakhtin, The Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics, ed. and trans. Caryl Emerson (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1984), p. 127. Fewers’s laughter at the end of Nights at the Circus reaches across the whole world until everyone and everything laughs ‘as if a spontaneous response to the giant comedy that endlessly unfolded . . .’. For a more extensive discussion of carnival, eating and the body, see Mikhail Bakhtin, Rabelais and His World (1965), trans. Hélène Iswolsky (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1984). 35. ‘Propp and structuralist theory in general were certainly part of her own early reading. After Nights at the Circus people assumed that Bakhtin on the carnivalesque was too, but not so: she eventually read him because he was invoked so often by readers.’ Loma Sage in Malcolm Bradbury, ed., New Writing (London: Minerva, 1992), p. 188. 36. ‘In Pantoland’, in Angela Carter, American Ghosts and Old World Wonders (Lon­ don: Virago, 1994), p. 109. 37. Carter, The Sadeian Woman, pp. 11, 10.



Revenge of the living doll: Angela Carter’s horror writing Gina Wisker


Angela Carter was, among much else, in the vanguard of a popular feminist onslaught against the conventions of horror writing. Along with a whole generation of writers, she addresses a genre dominated not only by male practitioners, but also male fears of female sexuality and female subjectivity. This chapter illustrates her adaptations of the horror genre, and suggests that this project of revision resurfaces wherever her work uses fantasy and macabre humour to critique both patriarchal power relations and the stereo­ typical representation of women. Her sustained interest in subverting horror writing is certainly connected with her well-known, and polemical, reworking of fairy-tales in The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories (1979). By rereading traditional sexual scripts featuring monstrous witches and golden­ haired heroines of the fairy-tale genre, she exposes the conservative mean­ ings implicit in these narratives. The same is true of her approach to horror writing. Carter discloses that, by figuring women as either malevolent femmes fatales or idealized, doll-like icons, conventional horror disempowers fem­ ininity. But rather than simply reveal the limiting ways in which horror writing makes women into either bloodthirsty vampires or quaking violets, Carter’s fiction sets out to redefine the genre altogether. To understand precisely how Carter turns conventional horror against itself, we need first of all to look at how the reactionary politics of this type of writing contains the seeds of its own subversion. If conventional horror creates plots that invariably work against wo­ men’s liberation, other characteristics of the genre turn out to be equally conservative. Although horror writing unleashes anxieties and fantasies about


Revenge of the living doll: Angela Carter's horror writing

forbidden areas of our lives, it carefully holds in check those disturbing aspects of everyday experience we do our utmost to control. Even if bringing unspeakable forces into focus, this genre - like most literary genres - fre­ quently features closural devices that return us to safety and order, and such devices habitually reinforce the status quo. Lisa Tuttle, a contemporary fem­ inist practitioner of this genre, points out that conventional horror not only explores and embodies terror but also - through its comfortable closures and resolutions - returns us to a patriarchal order that devalues women: There is no reason why men should not explore their own fears and fantasies, but when they lose sight of the existence of an encultured male bias and mistake it for universal ‘human nature’; when they forget there are other ways of being and feeling; when they confuse patriarchal social structures with natural law; when they perpetuate stereotypes and mistake their own fantasies for objective reality - then we’re all imprisoned by their limitations, and horror becomes another kind of pornography.1

Tuttle is right. But horror has its radical edge as well. In so far as the genre embodies and dramatizes the rejected Other (the monstrous, unsafe self that dwells within), horror writing certainly encourages us to confront our worst fears —fears that can bring about the hope of imagining change. It permits, as Freud would put it, the return of the repressed, and it is precisely this aspect which attracts Carter. In her hands, horror writing becomes a power­ ful vehicle through which she can critique established philosophical, pol­ itical and sexual norms. Pursuing some of the most familiar scenarios of conventional horror with ironic paraphrase, Carter quickly discloses its down­ right sexism. Yet her work goes much further than simply condemning the patriarchal biases of the genre. Her interventions in horror writing supplant dehumanizing and oppressive social constructions, and offer an enthralling vision of permanent liberation from them. How? By insisting that we re­ cognize the feared Other in ourselves, in all its cruelty as well as its beauty. Carter’s reworking of the unsettling potential that abides in horror writing comes into much sharper focus when we look more closely at the genea­ logy from which this genre descends. Contemporary women’s horror is the subversive granddaughter of eighteenth-century Gothic fiction, as well as the dark twin of fantasy writing, since like the Gothic it chooses terror and liberates repressed desire. It is widely recognized that the Gothic and its heirs - fantasy and horror - all shape the substance of the unconscious, the world of dreams, the realm of repressed wishes and desires. The Gothic came into its own with Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto (1765) and Ann Radcliffe’s Mysteries of Udolpho (1794). Another generic touchstone is James Hogg’s The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a fustified Sinner (1824), which concentrates on the trope of the split self, a feature which recurs in several later Gothic works, such as Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange


The Infernal Desires of Angela Carter Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1883). Both of these novels present a polar­ ization of the conformist self and the dark Other that lurks in the uncon­ scious. Coundess Hollywood films have taken up this Gothic motif, including The Fly (1958). Similar in construction are films featuring werewolves, and the fear of the beast inhabiting the self emerges forcefully in the three popular Alien films starring Sigourney Weaver. But in destroying the evil twin, the alternative creature self, the terrifying Other, these novels and films gen­ erally restore order by disavowing the inevitable and continuing presence of that alter ego. A parallel conservative strain in the Gothic focuses on male sexual viol­ ence and features virginal women pursued through dark dungeons and along dank corridors by powerful, predatory men. Radcliffe’s novels feature this type of plot, and it recurs in different guises in many nineteenthcentury fictions, from Charlotte Bronte’s Villette (1853) to Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897). Since numerous Gothic tales feature cavernous dungeons and labyrinthine corridors, they seem to represent male anxieties about both female sexuality and the domestic sphere. In his illuminating introduction to The Oxford Book of Gothic Tales, Chris Baldick emphasizes the distinctly sexual fears evident in the incarcerating designs of the genre. ‘The im­ prisoning house of Gothic fiction’, he writes, ‘has from the very beginning been that of patriarchy.’2 And the imprisonments of the Gothic house are certainly a symptom of considerable cultural unease with the family home and the women who inhabit it. Baldick identifies two temporal and spatial pressures that make domestic space extremely threatening in this genre: ‘for the Gothic effect to be attained, a tale should combine a sense of fearful inheritance in time with a claustrophobic sense of enclosure in space, these two dimensions reinforcing one another to produce an effect of sickening descent into disintegration’.3 But to produce this pronounced sense of ‘dis­ integration’, the Gothic appropriates old narrative materials, subverts them, and puts them to new use. ‘Gothic writers’, Baldick observes, ‘have bor­ rowed fables and nightmares from a past age in order to repudiate their authority.’4 So even if in conventional Gothic tales women often escape from the clutches of one monstrous patriarch into the arms of a more friendly and familiar one, the genre is driven by an impulse to transform its ‘fearful inheritance’, since it alters the status of the stories on which it bases its plots. Extending this subversive potential, contemporary women Gothic and horror writers engage with the frightening cultural legacy and claustrophobic spaces characteristic of this enduringly popular form, only to devise ways of com­ bating the sexist fears endemic to the genre and find ingenious means of escape from its domestic prisons. What, then, of fantasy, the Gothic twin of horror writing? Fantasy dif­ fers from the Gothic by dramatizing both fears and desires, liberating the


Revenge of the living doll: Angela Carter's horror umting

repressed, and restoring order. In this particular descendant of the Gothic, what seems impossibly attractive is in fact enacted, what seems safe is made dangerous, and what has been hidden is ultimately revealed. Fantasy hollows out the real world and shows it is a tenuous construct. Rosemary Jackson recognizes that, in eroding the presumed stability of the real world, fantasy expresses a desire that is elsewhere disavowed in culture: Far from construing this attempt at erosion as a mere embrace of barbarism or chaos, it is possible to discern it as a desire for something excluded from the cultural order - more specifically, for all that is in opposition to the capitalist and patriarchal order which has been dominant in Western society over the last two centuries.’'

Jackson observes that the modern fantastic — the form of literary fantasy within the secularized culture produced by capitalism —scrutinizes and erodes the real by unleashing celebratory energies. Conventional horror follows the ‘erosion’ enabled in fantasy by bringing to light the sexual terrors lurking within the unconscious. But its methods are much more unsettling. Here the very worst nightmares are enacted. Disempowerment, dismemberment, dehumanization - these are the pro­ cesses that distinguish the horror genre. In the world of horror writing, the Gothic ‘disintegration’ that Baldick identifies is taken to terrifying extremes. People turn into animals. Floors, walls, homes, family, friends - all lose their stability. Structures of law and order rapidly dissolve, or worse still are exposed as flawed, founded upon mere dreams and hopes. Mark Jankovich sums up these tendencies: ‘Throughout its history, horror has been concerned with forces that threaten individuals, groups, or even “life as we know it.” It has been concerned with the workings of power and repression in rela­ tionship to the body, the personality, or to social life in general.’6 But such remarks need a feminist caveat, one which reminds us of how frequently horror writing has been used to keep women in their traditional place. So how does Carter counter the patriarchal impulses of the horror genre? In part, her work reinvests horror writing with liberating, often comic, energies of fantasy, and in doing so yokes horror with carnival, that equally subversive celebratory mode. A number of writers have observed that the Gothic and its related genres contain an explosive force that is fuelled with comic energy. Roald Dahl, for example, remarks: ‘good horror is essen­ tially funny, in fiction I mean’.7 And in his classic study of the American novel, Leslie Fiedler comments: ‘The Gothic mode is essentially a form of parody, a way of assailing cliches by exaggerating them to the limits of grotesqueness.’8 Carter knows only too well that carnival uses the grotesque and the parodic to provide a transformative vision of the world. A number of commentators have seen connections between the horror genre and this aspect of carnival. Building on Soviet theorist Mikhail Bakhtin’s pioneering


The Infernal Desires of Angela Carter

work, James Donald defines the camivalesque power of vampire films as a ‘feast of becoming, change and renewal which is hostile to that which is immortalized and completed’.9 Carnival, according to Donald, revels in ‘the noise of negotiation and dialogue’.10 Typically turning the world upside down, carnival creates a cathartic alternative to established values and mean­ ings, and as such it enables dialogue between beliefs and behaviours, rather than insisting on one right way. Above all, carnival recognizes the vital relationship between opposites. And it is in the spirit of carnival that Carter seizes on each and every opportunity to yoke opposites together. Her characteristic format for exploring the camivalesque potential of the genre is domestic horror. Carter’s work closes in on the family home as the locus of patriarchal tyrannies, large and small, putting the spotlight on the werewolf in the kitchen (‘The Company of Wolves’, 1979) and on the blood and feathers on the dinner table (‘The Fall River Axe Murders’, 1985). Throughout, Carter fastens on signifiers of male power, the small print of ‘to obey’ in the traditional homely partnership. She looks at hus­ bands whose desire for total control renders their wives and relatives either silenced puppets (The Magic Toyshop, 1967) or victims for consumption (‘The Bloody Chamber’, 1979). And she empowers the women caught in these imprisoning plots to escape from or destroy oppression. Domestic entrapment erupts into carnage in ‘The Fall River Axe Murders’. Bloodied hands lurk in kitchen drawers in The Magic Toyshop. Romantic lies about eternal love are exposed in the violent (but thwarted) intentions of a good-looking, rich, art-collecting Bluebeard (‘The Bloody Chamber’). In making the familiar domestic realm such a horrifying place, Carter’s work explores ideas similar to those discussed in French feminist theorist Julia Kristeva’s Powers of Horror: A n Essay on Abjection. In this book, Kristeva defines the abject as those substances which the body needs to reject, or make other, in order for the subject to be able to recognize itself as sep­ arate, and thus create an autonomous space for itself. The first object of rejected abjection is the mother. In Kristeva’s view, the painful rejection of the maternal body prefigures the extradition of women from predominandy male social territory to the borders of the imagination. The main cultural consequence of abjecting the maternal body is that women —whether idealized or demonized — remain definitely so ‘other’ that they must be restrained or destroyed. ‘Fear of the archaic mother’, writes Kristeva, ‘turns out essentially to be a fear of her generative power. It is this power, a dreaded one, that patriarchal filiation has the burden of subduing.’11 In Kristeva’s model of abjection, the mother remains for every subject - male and female - a terrifying source of generative power. As a result, the sexually aware woman is a threat to the patriarchal order. And women’s bodies are thus a focus of cultural fear and loathing for the forces they might release. 120

Revenge of the living doll: Angela Carter’s horror writing

In a noteworthy essay, Victor Burgin clarifies this point about Kristevan abjection. Otherness, he argues, produces idealization, rejection and mar­ ginalization at one and the same time: This peripheral and ambivalent position allocated to woman, says Kristeva, has led to that familiar division of the field of representations in which women are viewed as either saintly or demonic - according to whether they are seen as bringing the darkness, or as keeping it out.12

He adds: What is abject is not my correlative, which providing me with someone or something else as support, would allow me to be more or less detached and autonomous. The abject has only one quality of the object - that of being opposed to I.13

Similarly, Luce Irigaray - who has a very different sense of the psychic from Kristeva - throws important light on our understanding of the rela­ tion between women and the Other when she writes: ‘In this proliferating desire of the same, death will be the only representative of an outside, of a heterogeneity, of an other: women will assume the function of repre­ senting death.’14 In other words, the desire to overcome the monstrous in horror, to render the terrifying and menacing female vulnerable, stems from a wish to control the most frightening threat —death. But the women in the house of Carter’s horror fiction refuse to die. In fact, on occasions they actually rise up from the dead, since they are absolutely determined to go on living - and, what is more, on their own terms. In what follows, I give some detailed examples that show how Carter discovers in the horror genre resources of subversion that defiantly resist its sexually repressive endings.


If one subversive figure contests conventional horror in her fiction, then it is surely the living doll. The living doll that British pop idol Cliff Richard sang of in the late 1950s, and wThich American poet Sylvia Plath deconstructs in T he Applicant’ (1962), marks the threshold of horror and camivalesque comedy in Carter’s work. The living doll is the central conceit of The Magic Toyshop, blurring the boundaries of performance and experience, of effect and affect. Uncle Philip aims to turn his hapless extended family into pup­ pets, and in particular to control Melanie’s sexuality. The high art resonances 121

The Infernal Desires of Angela Carter

of the Leda and the Swan myth - celebrated in W. B. Yeats’s poem of 1917 - permeate the narrative. Melanie designs herself according to the male gaze to fulfil her interpretations of various fantasies of women produced by male artists, writers of romantic fictions, and popular genres such as horror itself. The pyrotechnic display of her mother’s wedding dress equates her with the swan with whom she is forced to perform Uncle Philip’s little patriarchal puppet scenario. Uncle Philip figures himself as a god, one who tries to enforce his phallocentric will upon the household. Melanie’s identity is snuffed out in the farcical, horrible rape scene as she is literally transformed into the doll of Uncle Philip’s imaginings. As in some of the more bizarre scenes of Jacobean drama, farce and horror are played out in equal measure. Farce is used to expose force, and force legitimizes farce: Well I must he down, she thought, and kicking aside shells, went down on her knees. Like fate or the clock, on came the swan, its feet going splat, splat, splat. . . all her laughter was snuffed out. She was hallucinated. She felt herself not herself, wrenched from her own personality . . . and in this staged fantasy anything was possible. Even that the swan, the mocked up swan, might assume reality itself and rape this girl in a blizzard of white feathers.13

Here the description of the mechanical movements of the swan emphasize both Uncle Philip’s ruthless control and the potential reification of Melanie in the stage act. ‘She felt herself not herself: this sentence clearly points to her disempowerment, and her loss of identity. This is certainly a drama enacting Uncle Philip’s perverse sexual fantasies, and it is a scene of utmost horror for Melanie. The swan may be phoney but the terror is real. Yet Carter also makes the scene ridiculous - depicting the swan’s ‘feet going splat, splat, splat’. So while the genuine danger and horror are not reduced, the comic style debunks Uncle Philip’s arrogant manipulativeness, and thus points to how carnivalesque excess can refute the psychological hold patri­ archal power can have over women and their sexuality. Perhaps the cardinal example of Carter’s domestic horror featuring entrap­ ment and reification is ‘The Bloody Chamber’, a rewriting of the Bluebeard legend, the archetypal fantasy of male control over women. This version of the traditional story features an art connoisseur who treats his new wife purely as a commodity, an ornament, and a sexual feast for the eyes: ‘Rapt, he intoned: “O f her apparel she retains only her sonorous jewellery” . . . A dozen husbands impaled a dozen brides while the mewing gulls swung on invisible trapezes in the empty air outside.’16 Threats of violence simultan­ eously attract and repel the new bride, who recognizes how his ‘connois­ seur’s look’ scrutinizes her: ‘I saw him watching me in the gilded mirrors with the assessing eye of a connoisseur inspecting horseflesh, or even of a housewife in the market, inspecting cuts on the slab.’17 But she is eventually 122

Revenge of the living doll: Angela Carter's horror miting

overwhelmed by his attention and the undying love he offers. Poor and innocent - like the celebrated female protagonists in Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre (1847) and Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca (1936) —the young girl is flattered by his gifts, his wooing, his financial security. Precisely because she is treated like meat, frissons of cannibalism (the ultimate act of abjection) pervade the story. Sexual relations are thus reduced merely to carnal know­ ledge, which is here also carnivorous knowledge: the roots of the two words are deliberately emphasized. In ‘The Bloody Chamber’, the monstrous hus­ band figuratively devours his bride as he ravishes her, attempting to govern her imagination and her quest for knowledge. The close connections between sexual oppression, cannibalism and horror are spelt out clearly in The Sadeian Woman: A n Exercise in Cultural History (1979), the controversial essay Carter published in the same year as ‘The Bloody Chamber’. ‘Sexuality, stripped of the idea of free exchange’, she writes, ‘is not in any way humane: it is nothing but pure cruelty. Carnal knowledge is in the infernal knowledge of the flesh as meat.’18 In the same book, Carter frequently underscores the Sadeian sexual impulse to consume the flesh: ‘The strong abuse, exploit and meatify the weak, says Sade.’19 It is in this Sadeian spirit that the patriarch of ‘The Bloody Chamber’ desires total ownership and control, needing to test his powers by leaving suddenly, entrusting the household keys to his new wife. Not surprisingly, when the girl seeks knowledge, figured in the key she finds to the locked and forbid­ den room, she falls foul of his need for complete domination. In opening up the room, it looks as if she shall be the next in the series of dismem­ bered wives. But her warrior mother, in a moment that comically mocks traditional chivalry (as well as reminding us of the legendary figure of Joan of Arc), races to the rescue, aided by the singularly non-heroic blind piano tuner. So the patriarchal myth is undermined and neutralized when the girl escapes from the casde. Here the carnivalesque assuredly overcomes the re­ pressive closures of conventional horror. She and her distinctly untraditional warrior mother (together with her male accomplice) cross the forbidden boundaries established in this myth, and thus refuse the reification and engulfment historically legitimated for Bluebeard. The girl neither becomes a victim nor forfeits her sexuality. The same is true of the child parricide Lizzie Borden (1860-1927) in Carter’s ‘The Fall River Axe Murders’ (1985), where domestic entrapment exemplifies the repressive nature of the Puritan neighbourhood in New England and its effect on the young girl’s claustrophobic family. She, too, inhabits a confining domestic space: ‘A house full of locked doors that open only into other rooms with other locked doors, for, upstairs and down­ stairs, all the rooms lead in and out of one another like a maze in a bad dream.’20 In this story, the only response to such repression and incarceration


The Infernal Desires of Angela Carter

is eruption. For many pages, Carter’s narrative holds us in a terrifying stasis, awaiting Lizzie Borden’s violent explosion into the ostensibly calm domestic interior. She is the product of a strict religious upbringing, the undertaker father’s capitalist insensitivities, and a shuttered existence that promises only a dead-end future. Here Carter both dramatizes the paradigmatic urban horror tale of the disruptive and destructive female and enables us to inter­ pret its causes from a woman’s point of view. Lizzie Borden finally explodes when her pigeons are cruelly killed. She carves her family up with the axe used to convert the beloved birds into a pie for her stepmother. Like much good horror writing, the lurking threat to the calm suburban neighbourhood reminds us all how close we sail to the wind of a normality that itself perpetrates inequalities, repressions, stag­ nations. Lizzie’s earlier life, charted in ‘Lizzie’s Tiger’ (1993), gave plenty of warning that she would erupt from a domestic world described in im­ agery echoing the well-known fairy-tales of the Brothers Grimm. Standing among ‘the old wooden homes’ which looked ‘like an upset cookie jar of broken gingerbread houses lurching’,21 Lizzie equates herself with the cir­ cus tiger she has been forbidden to see. Likewise, in ‘The Fall River Axe Murders’, when Lizzie is denied the spirit of carnival, her repression shrieks from her silences because ‘outside, above, already in the burning air, see! the angel of death roosts in the roof-tree’.22 The time has come for Lizzie to hack her parents to pieces.


The Magic Toyshop, ‘The Bloody Chamber’ and ‘The Fall River Axe Murders’ all show how Carter’s horror writing refuses to succumb to the source of the repression from which the horror arose in the first place. Glittering, contradictory, terrifying and funny, her interventions in this genre collapse conventional boundaries between internal and external, animate and inan­ imate, the acceptable and the taboo. Exploiting the liberatory mode of carnival, her horror writing points gleefully to the necessary artifice of any type of narrative closure. Hence The Magic Toyshop highlights the factitious­ ness of its ending as Finn and Melanie stand in the garden like Adam and Eve, the house of patriarchal tyranny burning behind them, for they are on the threshold of a whole new world. Likewise, Carter gives us a whorish puppet which comes to life and stalks off to enact erotic fantasies (‘The Loves


Revenge of the living doll: Angela Carter’s horror writing

of Lady Purple’, 1974). Exactly the same is true of her unorthodox rep­ resentation of Little Red Riding Hood, a little girl who fearlessly rips off her clothes and jumps into bed with the wolf (‘The Company of Wolves’, 1979). Any restoration of the established male-dominated order is ironized, as this passage from the end o f ‘The Company of Wolves’ makes perfectly clear: Every wolf in the world now howled a prothalamium outside the window as she freely gave him the kiss she owed him. What big teeth you have! She saw how his jaw began to slaver and the room was full of the forest’s Liebestod but the wise child never flinched, even when he answered: All the better to eat you with. The girl burst out laughing; she knew she was nobody’s meat. She laughed at him full in the face, she ripped off his shirt for him and flung it full in the fire, in the fiery wake of her own discarded clothing.23

Carter’s renowned reinterpretation of this fairy-tale overturns the conven­ tional generic formulae that consistently cast women in negative roles as victims or predators. Carter’s self-aware and sexually active young woman defuses the nightmarish situation by recognizing the beast in herself and the man in the beast. In this story, Little Red Riding Hood does not find the werewolf - the customary figure of sexualized horror - either terrifying or potentially engulfing. Together, both her sense of sexual power and her fine sense of humour undercut his status as a mythic figure of horror. This episode highlights Carter’s favourite rhetorical trope - the oxymoron, which involves the paradoxical twinning of opposites. In yoking opposites together —such as self/Other, good/evil —her work declines to privilege one version of identity and its exclusive values over another. At the same time, her fictional techniques - which often involve balancing document­ ary and historical realism with speculative, magical and fantastic narrative - dramatize the oxymorons conspicuous at the level of character and theme. Combining opposites both in the content and the form of her texts, Carter’s horror writing enacts a structure of fear and fascination, attraction and re­ pulsion - as this passage from ‘The Company of Wolves’ reveals: At night, the eyes of wolves shine like candle flames, yellowish, reddish, but that is because the pupils of their eyes fatten on darkness and catch the light from your lantern to flash it back to you — red for danger; if a w olf’s eyes reflect only moonlight, then they gleam a cold and unnatural green, a mineral, a piercing colour. If the benighted traveller spies those luminous, terrible sequins stitched suddenly on the black thickets, then he knows he must run, if fear has not struck him stock-still.24

Here the narrator starts with a vibrant simile before moving into the realm of oxymoronic beauty and pain - focused in the ‘luminous, terrible sequins’.


The Infernal Desires of Angela Carter

Benighted travellers, we are told to run but realize we cannot. For this description locks us in the terrifying stasis of nightmare. Held still, we know from the verb ‘fatten’ that the wolves long to devour us. And the flashing of the lantern to the eye indicates an uncomfortably close and inevitable relation between traveller and wolf Through such techniques, ‘The Com­ pany of Wolves’ shows us not only that horror is disturbingly near to us, but also that we ourselves produce what we most fear. Such writing allows us to see our dark side —the side that must, Carter insists, be acknowledged. This, too, is Kristeva’s point. By recognizing the Other and the abject as part of ourselves, we can, she argues, overcome the need to find victims, scapegoats and enemies. In Strangers to Ourselves, a political exploration of the way the West treats foreigners, Kristeva develops the claims made in Powers of Horror, linking the need to expose the abjected boundaries of Western patriarchy with the need for racial and political equality: our disturbing otherness, for that indeed is what bursts in to confront the ‘demons’, that threat, that apprehension generated by the projective apparition of the other at the heart of what we persist in maintaining as a proper, solid ‘us’. By recognizing our uncanny strangeness we shall neither suffer from nor enjoy it from the outside. The foreigner is within me, hence we are all foreigners. If I am a foreigner, then there are no foreigners."3


If in Carter’s horror writing the wolf represents the abjected beast within, then her vampires focus the insurgent power of female sexuality that pat­ riarchal culture does everything it can to repress. Vampires traditionally invade the space of the home and the body, and so they represent our fears of invasion by Otherness. Male vampires, including Dracula, frequently epitom­ ize threats to men’s ownership of women’s sexuality. Similarly, female vampires often represent male anxieties of sexually voracious women. That Carter became increasingly absorbed by the parodie potential of this stock figure from the horror genre can be seen in numerous reworkings of the vampire myth. Her Gothic antecedents include Isak Dinesen (1885-1962), whose interests lay in the perversions and power of decayed aristocracy, as well as the heavily Jacobean, nightmarish, lesbian Gothic of Nightwood (1936) by Djuna Barnes (1892-1982). The focus of much lesbian Gothic is on questions of sexuality and normality raised by such borderline creatures as


Revenge of the living doll: Angela Carter's horror writing

werewolves and vampires. In an essay on the homoeroticism associated with vampires, Richard Dyer remarks: ‘the vampire seems especially to represent sexuality . . . s/he bites them, with a bite that is just as often described as a kiss’.26 This is precisely what happens in Carter’s ‘The Lady of the House of Love’ (1979), which features a female protagonist who is the last relative of Vlad the Impaler. She sits in a castle coated in dust and moth-ravaged velvet —a place o f‘disintegration’ where she ‘notices nothing’.27 Her beauty is intense, ideal, unnatural. She feasts reluctantly each night on woodland creatures, using her mandarin-long nail to gouge her prey, and she carries out the traditional vampiric routine: ‘All day, she lies in her coffin in her négligé of blood-stained lace’ (p. 96). Powerful scents intoxicate and over­ whelm the potential victim. The flowers that line the path to her home are as voluptuous and vaginal as any depicted by Georgia O ’Keeffe: ‘almost too luxuriant, their huge congregation of plush petals somehow obscene in their excess, their whorled, tightly budded cores outrageous in their implica­ tions’ (p. 98). The lady is thin, waiflike and lost, with a ‘lovely death’s head’ (p. 101). A living contradiction of death and sensuality, she never sees her reflection returned in the mirror. Unnaturally beautiful, she has ‘an extra­ ordinarily fleshy mouth, a mouth wide, wide, full, prominent lips of vibrant purplish-crimson, a morbid mouth’ (p. 101). But her destiny as a vampire changes unexpectedly. Seen by the young, respectable First World War soldier peddling away on his bicycle through the Carpathians, she appears to have ‘a whore’s mouth’ — ‘but’, being the good young man he is, ‘he put the thought away immediately’ (p. 101). On his accidental visit to the vampiric Countess, he shows that he cannot avoid patriarchal constructions of women. He can only compare her to flowers and whores. But, significantly, she also strikes him as doll-like, en­ caged like her pet bird, helplessly fulfilling age-old roles: she is like a doll, he thought, a ventriloquist’s doll, or, more, like a great ingenious piece of clockwork. For she seemed inadequately powered by some slow energy of which she was not in control; as if she had been wound up years ago, when she was bom, and the mechanism was inexorably running down and would leave her lifeless. The idea that she might be an automaton . . . deeply moved his heart. (p. 102)

Noble though the soldier might be in appearance, he is erotically turned on by her marionette-like demeanour. Not only that, but the Countess responds to his advances, and romantic love proves to be her undoing. For she falls victim to her own vampire’s promise of eternal love when she feels the lips of the soldier on her skin. One kiss from this young man helps heal her wounded hand, and she becomes human. In this encounter, several


The Infernal Desires of Angela Carter

other unforeseen reversals occur. Ironically, instead of conforming to the stereotype of the sexually aggressive suitor, the hero is celibate. His distinct lack of sexuality corresponds more closely with the virginity that protects countless heroines in folklore as a magic talisman against evil. Likewise, the approaching historical moment of great blood loss is the corollary of the eternity promised by vampire loves. What is more, the First World War —a 'bloodbath where millions lost their lives - represents the apotheosis of all military conflict. And, in this context, war itself stands as the violent outcome of a masculinist logic involving mechanical control that moves relentlessly in one fatal direction. Perched on his bicycle, the young soldier is, with great precision, pedalling his way towards disaster, and the meagre geometry of his machine implies the brutally rigid logic that has produced the bombs that will blast him (‘the bicycle is the product of pure reason applied to motion’, p. 97). His logical challenge to the Carpathians’ super­ stitions cannot protect him from death in the trenches. And, misguidedly logical to the last, he misses the grand passion of the Countess herself. An upstanding English hero who wants to take her ‘to an eye specialist, for her photophobia, and to a dentist to put her teeth into better shape’, he is far too unimaginative to understand the nature of her desires (p. 107). Finally, the vampire’s rose he revives back in his quarters - in all its ‘corrupt, bril­ liant, baleful splendour’ (p. 108) - ironically prefigures the approaching carnage of the Great War. All these details show how the story thrives on contraries. The Lady her­ self lives a contradictory existence, in a kind of waking dream: ‘She herself is haunted house. She does not possess herself. . . sleeping and waking, behind the hedge of spiked flowers, Nosferatu’s sanguinary rosebud’ (p. 103). Hovering between life and death, the Countess inhabits a half-way exist­ ence. She both occupies the traditional vampiric role of uniting opposites (life/death; human/animal) and exposes the destructive antitheses between logic/superstition and male/female which produce wars and romantic lies. Carter reworked the story for a radio play, Vampirella, first broadcast on BBC Radio 3 in 1978. Radio was a medium that Carter felt better enabled the vital mix of irony, comedy and horror, encouraging both enjoyment and critique. ‘In radio’, observes Carter, ‘it is possible to sustain a knifeedge tension between black comedy and bizarre pathos.’28 The dexterities and subtleties of radio, she feels, allow ambiguities that do not emerge in the short story: ‘ “The Lady of the House of Love” is a Gothic tale about a reluctant vampire; the radio play Vampirella is about vampirism as meta­ phor.’29 In the radio play, Count Dracula and the insane, wicked waste of the First World War provide both a context and a set of parameters against which we can measure the life, loves and ultimate decay of the lady vam­ pire. Here Henri Blot goes further than the young soldier in the short story.


Revenge of the living doll: Angela Carter’s horror writing

Blot is not just attracted to the doll-like quality of the lady vampire, he desires her because she resembles a corpse: Corpses don’t nag and never want new dresses. They never waste all day at the hairdressers, nor do they talk for hours to their girlfriends on the telephone. They never complain if you stay out at your club; the dinner won’t get cold if it’s never been put in the oven. Chaste, thrifty - why, they never spend a penny on themselves! and endlessly accommodating. They never want to come themselves, nor demand of a man any of those beastly sophistications - blowing in the ears, nibbling at the nipples, tickling of the clit — that are so onerous to a man of passion. Doesn’t it make your mouth water? Husbands, let me recommend the last word in conjugal bliss — a corpse.30

Blot indicts bourgeois husbands who fail to see that their preferences are also for corpse-like women. Their living, ostensibly respectable wives, he suggests, suck these men dry while they (the predatory husbands) ‘per­ petrate infamies’.31 He implies that women, safer as dolls, are even more tractable as corpses. The marionette, the living doll —the main focus of Carter’s use of hor­ ror as a form of social and sexual critique —is central to the final story I shall discuss, ‘The Loves of Lady Purple’ (1974).32 This tale of male fantasy, power and lust features woman as a controllable automaton. The story brings together several familiar motifs from the horror genre: the vampire; the flesh-eating zombie; the Pygmalion icon; and the predatory puppet. Lady Purple herself is a compendium of all these effigies. She is the ‘Queen of the Night’ (p. 26), the ‘undead’ (p. 23) created from the perverse sexual longings of her male creator. In the hands of the Asiatic Professor (who ‘knew only his native tongue’, p. 24), together with his deaf apprentice and mute assistant, Lady Purple - 'the famous prostitute and wonder of the East (p. 28) - appears on stage to perform her ‘Notorious Amours' (p. 29). Her act consists of playing out the sexual excesses which supposedly precipitated her fall from humanity into puppet, and her perversities in turn objectify her own lovers who come beneath her reifying spell: ‘In the iconography of the melodrama, Lady Purple stood for passion and all her movements were calculations in an angular geometry of sexuality’ (p. 29). Enacting these stories, she fills the silences of the men who manipulate her limbs, while she herself is literally voiceless. A sideshow presenting unnatural desires, Lady Purple is hung up life­ less after each performance. Hers is the female body onto which her male manipulators write their hidden fears and fantasies. She is the ‘petrification of a universal whore’ (p. 28), both the ‘nameless essence of the idea of woman’ (p. 30) and yet, once brought to life in her performance, ‘the image of irresistible evil’ (p. 32). The archetypal horror figure, she embodies all


The Infernal Desires of Angela Carter

that attracts and repulses her audience, and yet can be conveniently tidied away out of sight for future use. But this is the case only until she seizes the initiative, comes to life, and writes her own tale. One night the Pro­ fessor, enamoured of his creation, kisses her. Time freezes as the tableau turns the doll into a living being. Lady Purple awakens, vampirically drains him of blood, and walks off to wreak havoc in a nearby brothel, vivifying the stories she was constructed to enact. Lady Purple is both vampire and automaton - but certainly not in terms of conventional horror. In the horror genre, desires are exposed, enacted and discarded. But Carter takes this scenario to its ironic and logical extreme. Lady Purple, the embodiment and repository of the punters’ horror, cannot be packed away. This monster of their own making will finally neither lie down nor be hung up: even if she could not perceive it, she could not escape the tautological paradox in which she was trapped; had the marionette all the time parodied the living or was she, now living, to parody her own performance as a marionette? Although she was now manifestly a woman, young and beautiful, the leprous whiteness of her face gave her the appearance of a corpse animated solely by demonic will. (pp. 38-9)

Here Carter uses paradox and irony to show how Lady Purple represents male fears of the vampiric femme fatale and patriarchy’s necrophilic desire to make women into inanimate dolls. Lady Purple embodies both the venge­ ful vampire and the lifeless marionette. Yet in her determination to stalk into the village, she ultimately returns the horror genre to its own sick source. Brought alive, the living doll at last has her revenge. Weaving together the literary and the popular, the creepy and the comic, the mythic and the mundane, Carter’s horror writing is ultimately both entertaining and disquieting: magical realism with a healthy dose of sexual politics. Her fictional world is bizarre, unnerving, highly charged, power­ fully erotic, and yet it is also domestic and everyday. She offers us the werewolf in the kitchen, the living doll in the bedroom - all that we abject from home sweet home.


1. Lisa Tuttle, ed., Skin of the Soul (London: W om en’s Press, 1990), p. 6. 2. Chris Baldick, ed., The Oxford Book of Gothic Tales (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993), pp. xiii-xiv.


Revenge of the living doll: Angela Carter’s horror writing 3. Ibid., pp. xii-xiv. 4. Ibid. 5. Rosemary Jackson, Fantasy: The Literature of Subversion (London: Methuen, 1981), p. 176. 6. Mark Jankovich, Horror (London: Batsford, 1992), p. 118. 7. Roald Dahl, ‘Interview’, Twilight Zone, January-February 1983 (no page number available). 8. Leslie Fiedler, Love and Death in the American Novel (New York: Stein & Day, 1960), p. 452. 9. James Donald, Sentimental Education: Schooling, Popular Culture and the Regulation of Liberty (London: Verso, 1992), p. 16. 10. Ibid., p. 17. 11. Julia Kristeva, Powers of Horror: A n Essay on Abjection, trans. Leon S. Roudiez (New York: Columbia University Press, 1982), p. 77. 12. Victor Burgin, ‘Geometry and abjection’, in John Fletcher and Andrew Benjamin, eds, Abjection, Melancholia and Love: Essays on the Work of Julia Kristeva (London: Routledge, 1990), p. 116. 13. Ibid. 14. Luce Irigaray, Speculum of the Other Woman, trans. Carolyn G. Gill (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press), p. 27. 15. Angela Carter, The Magic Toyshop (London: Virago Press, 1981), p. 166. 16. Angela Carter, ‘The Bloody Chamber’, in Carter, The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1981), p. 17. 17. Ibid. 18. Angela Carter, The Sadeian Woman: A n Exercise in Cultural History (London: Virago Press, 1979), p. 141. 19. Ibid., p. 140. 20. Angela Carter, ‘The Fall River Axe Murders’, in Carter, Black Venus (London: Picador, 1986), p. 107. 21. Angela Carter, ‘Lizzie’s Tiger’, in Carter, American Ghosts and Old World Wonders (London: Vintage, 1994), p. 4. 22. Carter, ‘The Fall River Axe Murders’, p. 121. 23. Angela Carter, ‘The Company of Wolves’, in Carter, The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories, p. 118. 24. Ibid., p. 110. 25. Julia Kristeva, Strangers to Ourselves, trans. Leon S. Roudiez (Hemel Hempstead: Harvester-Wheatsheaf, 1992), p. 192. 26. Richard Dyer, ‘Children of the night: vampirism as homosexuality’, in Susannah Radstone, ed., Sweet Dreams: Sexuality, Gender and Popular Fiction (London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1988), p. 54. 27. Angela Carter, ‘The Lady of the House of Love’, in Carter, The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories, p. 84. Subsequent references to this story are from this edition and are given as page numbers in the text. 28. Angela Carter, Vampirella, in Carter, Come Unto These Yellow Sands (Newcastleupon-Tyne: Bloodaxe Books, 1985), p. 10. 29. Carter, Come unto These Yellow Sands, p. 10. 30. Carter, Vampirella, p. 108. 31. Ibid., p. 109. 32. Angela Carter, ‘The Loves of Lady Purple’, in Carter, Fireworks (London: Virago Press, 1987). Subsequent references to this story are from this edition and are given as page numbers in the text.



Angela Carter's The Sadeian Woman: feminism as treason Sally Keenan

Critical discussion of Angela Carter’s The Sadeian Woman has tended to be oblique, focusing mainly on its relationship to her fiction, and the ways in which she worked through the theoretical issues it raises in fictional form. In particular, attention has been directed at her deconstruction of cultural myths of femininity and the repression of women’s sexuality that those myths reinforce. Such studies give the impression that The Sadeian Woman has been read for the most part unproblematically, as a powerful feminist treatise, its attack on pornography constituting an attack on the porno­ graphic representation of women in much cultural production past and present. Yet when it was first published in 1979, the book was widely reviewed in the press and received contradictory and in many cases ambi­ valent critical responses. The plenary discussion at the conference held in honour of Carter’s work in 1994 at York University, ‘Fireworks: Angela Carter and the Futures of Writing’, suggested to me that many Carter enthusiasts still felt a considerable degree of ambivalence about The Sadeian Woman that was not evident in evaluations of her later work. What a retrospective reading of the text from the perspective of the mid-1990s reveals, however, is Carter’s extraordinary capacity to tap into crucial crit­ ical debates relevant to feminism and cultural politics, long before those debates had been fully staged. If some of the book’s reviewers in 1979 were either provoked or mystified by Carter’s linking of Sade’s work with the feminist project to promote women’s sexual freedom, none of them could have anticipated how pornography was to become a key issue in feminist debates during the 1980s. It seems uncanny now that The Sadeian Woman was originally commissioned by Virago to launch the press in 1977 (although it did not finally appear until two years later). A controversial yet appropriate choice it proved to be, since it offered a prophetic intervention into the battle that was to ensue, writ most starkly between feminists campaigning


Angela Carter’s The Sadeian Woman: feminism as treason

against pornography and the counter-arguments put forward by feminists opposed to censorship. Although the book has received no detailed critical treatment, two well-known feminist critiques of pornography, Susanne Kappeler’s The Pornography of Representation (1986) and Linda Williams’s Hard Core (1990), addressed The Sadeian Woman , albeit briefly, in strongly antithetical terms. As we shall see, Kappeler accused Carter of validating the pornographic - in the name of equal opportunity - by appealing to the literary. Williams, on the other hand, employed Carter’s text in an argument which attempted to claim a positive value for women in pornography. Situated on opposite sides of the feminist controversy about pornography, Kappeler’s and Williams’s responses are symptomatic, and illustrate the significant role Carter’s work has played in that debate. However, neither of their arguments, in my view, does justice to the complex way in which Carter negotiated this difficult terrain. I will begin this chapter by giving some consideration to where I place The Sadeian Woman in Carter’s work as a whole, in particular its relationship to The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories, which appeared in the same year (1979). I will also review some of the critical reactions to the book when it was first published and subsequently. In thinking about the source of Carter’s interest in Sade, I will return to those antithetical responses by feminist critics, which will provide a context within which to examine the role of Carter’s work in the controversies about pornography. Where are we to place Carter in that apparently intractable binary of anti-pornography/anti­ censorship? And to what extent is Carter successful in her daring attempt to appropriate Sade, the arch misogynist, for her own project of ‘demythologizing’ — that is, the demystification of those persistent, essentializing conceptions of women in our culture, especially regarding female sexuality and motherhood? The Sadeian Woman may not have received the detailed and serious treat­ ment it deserves because of the ways in which Carter reworked or worked out some of the issues it touches on in her fiction, notably in The Bloody Chamber, The Passion of New Eve (1977), and later in Nights at the Circus (1984). In Nights at the Circus, it might be argued, she finally laid the ghost of Sade to rest in her presentation of the circus as a parody of some Sadeian orgastic nightmare. The figure of the circus clown, Buffo, whose mask is described as ‘a fingerprint of authentic dissimilarity, a genuine expression of [his] own autonomy’, is perhaps an avatar of the libertine in his ultimate Sadeian form, Sovereign Man, splendid in his isolation, detached even from his own pleasure.1 And Fewers herself can be read as the image of Sade’s Juliette transformed. Like Juliette, Fewers is bold and transgressive, bearing not a trace of passivity, but humanized, invoking wonder rather than hor­ ror. She does not play the victimizer, only attempting to use her sexuality


The Infernal Desires of Angela Carter

to dupe the master at his own game. More endangered than dangerous, she nearly loses. Although I do not read Carter’s oeuvre as a neat chronological progres­ sion towards a more utopian feminist perspective, it is possible to see The Sadeian Woman as a watershed moment in her thinking about feminism, a moment when her fictional narratives became increasingly bound up with theoretical considerations. Returning to examine The Sadeian Woman in the light of the later fiction and its reception, one is brought face to face with the radical nature of Carter’s work: its complex paradoxes, its theoretical seriousness, and that characteristic refusal to settle in one fixed place. Per­ haps, above all, what a retrospective examination of the text highlights is its almost heretical disagreement with certain aspects of feminist thinking current in the 1970s. First, her suggestion that women too readily identify with images of themselves as victims of patriarchal oppression, that in effect they are frequently complicit with that oppression, was a distinctly unfash­ ionable notion in the mid-1970s. Her savage indictment of the figure of Sade’s Justine as an extreme embodiment of this complicity made her argu­ ment the more treasonable since she was using the arch misogynist in support of it. Second, there was the attack she launched on the idealization of motherhood in its various forms. The wide spectrum of that idealization manifested in much 1970s feminist theorizing is rejected in The Sadeian Woman , either explicitly or implicitly: the recreation of mother goddesses or the eco-feminists’ reassertion of Nature as Mother, for instance.2 Third, there is her challenge, albeit an oblique one, to the revisionary psychoana­ lytic theories of the French feminists, especially Hélène Cixous and Julia Kristeva, in whose work during the 1970s, motherhood and the maternal body assume crucial significance in a whole variety of ways.3 If The Sadeian Woman was a response to certain assumptions current in feminist thinking in the 1970s, what was the critical reaction to the book? How was Carter’s provocative intervention into debates about female sexu­ ality received in 1979? What is most striking is the wide range of the media giving it review space - both tabloids and broadsheet papers in the main­ stream press as well as the alternative press. That diversity of coverage is matched by a diversity of critical responses: the anticipation of sexual titil­ lation (from a clearly disappointed reviewer in The Birmingham Sun); an interesting failure with little relevance to modem women (The Financial Times); a serious contribution to contemporary cultural politics (Gay News). The book was clearly controversial, and with some notable exceptions, many of the reviewers expressed puzzlement as to the main thrust of its argu­ ment. Several feminist reviewers, while conceding Carter’s claim that Sade may be useful for women in that he separates women’s sexuality from their reproductive function, nevertheless expressed qualms about ‘the ethics of


Angela Carter’s The Sadeian Woman: feminism as treason

the connection’ (Ann Oakley) between Sade and feminism, an imaginative leap they could not make. A repeated point was that Carter failed to sustain her argument in support of Sade and was forced to throw him over in an abrupt and unsatisfactory conclusion (Sara Maidand, Julia O ’Faolain, Women’s Report), and that she had led her readers on a ‘wild goose chase’, as Maitland called it.4 The implicit desire for a clear conclusion that could be slotted into a feminist agenda fails to acknowledge certain characteristic features of Carter’s writing: an intention to provoke questions rather than to provide answers, to engage with contradictions without seeking necessarily to resolve them. In the ‘Polemical Preface’ where Carter sets out her thesis, it is clear that the use of Sade is paradoxical. This is the point and challenge of the book: an attempt to jolt the reader out of customary associations and habits of thought. Carter was not looking to Sade for a model, but rather to pro­ vide a speculative starting point. The most positive reactions to the book in 1979 came from those who acknowledged Carter’s understanding of Sade’s work as a founding moment for our modern sensibility regarding sexual matters. Marsaili Cameron, writing in Gay News, made the valid point that This book is not primarily a study of de Sade himself either as a writer or as an historical figure . . . Ranging from pornography and mythology to psychoanalysis to points west, it is mainly concerned with the elucidation of our own tortured ideas of sexuality inherited from the past.

In thinking of Carter’s work as a complete body of work, as we now must, I am interested in the location of this text in that body of writing, and even more perhaps in the place I sense that it has occupied in many women’s reading of Carter, and in the formation of their feminist politics. In thinking about this chapter, I asked Carter readers of my acquaintance about their responses on first encountering The Sadeian Woman, and also crucially at what point in time they had read it. I was interested to learn that for several it had not only been the book of Carter’s that had first engendered their interest in her work, but that it had played a significant role in forming or reformulating their feminism. For some, it presented a puzzling mix of the fascinating and disturbing which prompted them to think through questions about their own sexuality and their attitudes to pornography in new ways. Yet for others, it provided a turning point that caused them to dispel previously unchallenged assumptions about being on the side o f ‘innocence’. One woman described her first reading as a shock of recognition, of how Carter had crystallized her own not fully formulated ideas about the issue of women’s complicity with their sexual oppression. It is more than coincidental that 1979 marked the publication of both The Sadeian Woman and The Bloody Chamber. Carter’s revisionary fairy-tales brilliantly display how the discursive structures we inherit are not inevitably


The Infernal Desires of Angela Carter

monolithic, or resistant to recasting. Through them, she wittily presents the relationship between cultural structuration and human agency as dynamic and malleable. Simultaneously exposing the structures of power manifest in our most conventional narratives of gender relations, she transforms those stories into images of erotic experience from the perspective of heterosexual women, reimagining the heroines as active agents in their own sexual devel­ opment. However, the route she takes towards that revision constitutes what could be called a scandalous liaison with the book on Sade. Taken together, her revisionary fairy-tales (traditional literature for children) and her analysis of Sade’s work (considered adult reading - that euphemism for pornographic literature) are deeply implicated in one another; they are, it could be said, contrasting sides of the same genre. That year, 1979, also saw the publication of several works of feminist revision in which an analysis of fairy-tales played a part, most notably of course Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar’s The Madwoman in the Attic. Thinking about the conjunction of The Madwoman in the Attic and The Bloody Chamber draws attention to Carter’s capacity to tap into the Zeitgeist. At the same time, in measuring the distance between the two works one can gauge the extent to which Carter resisted being pulled into prevailing ways of thinking. In their introduction, Gilbert and Gubar map those fem­ inine stereotypes of the nineteenth-century cultural imagination, the angel in the house and the whore in the street, on to the fairy-tale of Snow White and her counterpart the wicked queen, just as Carter does in her story, ‘The Snow Child’. If the Victorian domestic angel, an avatar of the divine virgin of Christian mythology, represented an eternal feminine whose purity rendered her virtually lifeless (an angel of death), her antithetical mirror image was to be found in the monstrous whore, who constituted, in Gil­ bert and Gubar’s reading, an embodiment of female autonomy, threatening to the social status quo. The only escape from the prison of the glass coffin, according to Gilbert and Gubar, is not through the prince’s kiss, which will only enclose her in the mirror of his own desires, but through the wicked queen’s ‘ “badness,” through plots and stories, duplicitous schemes, wild dreams, fierce fictions, mad impersonations’.5 Carter’s revision of the same story focuses on the older of the two women just as Gilbert and Gubar do, but emphasizes her recognition that neither position is desirable: each still represents the reverse side of the same coin. In ‘The Snow Child’, the wicked queen’s vindictiveness is not regarded as subversive, nor an escape from her patriarchal inscription. Witnessing the fate of the compliant pure virgin enables her to acknowledge that her story is also mapped out by the king’s authority. For Carter, rebellious rage at her victim status is not enough to release the female heroine from her powerlessness.6


Angela Carter’s The Sadeian Woman: feminism as treason

The countess (queen) in Carter’s story is clad in a manner befitting a brothel, echoing Sade’s Juliette, just as the innocent but deathly snow child is an avatar of Sade’s Justine. Justine, writes Carter in The Sadeian Woman , is ‘a good woman according to the rules for women laid down by men and her reward is rape, humiliation and incessant beatings . . . a beautiful pen­ niless orphan, the living image of a fairy-tale princess in disguise but a Cinderella for whom the ashes with which she is covered have become part of her skin’.7Juliette’s story is ‘Justine-through-the-looking-glass, an inver­ sion of an inversion . . . in a world governed by god, the king and the law, the trifold masculine symbolism of authority, Juliette knows better than her sister how useless it is to rebel against fate’ (p. 80). While Justine martyrs herself to the pursuit of virtue, Juliette responds to the same assaults on her honour by turning herself into the perfect whore. If Carter’s analysis of Sade’s texts emphasizes their fairy-tale-like abstrac­ tion, then her revision of traditional fairy-tales serves to highlight the porno­ graphic nature of the stereotypes of women that they have recirculated. Both texts stress the connections between sexual and economic relations in a patriarchal society. The archetypes of both the pornographic and fairy­ tale worlds confuse the ‘historical fact of the economic dependence of women upon men’. Although, as she points out, this is largely a fact of the past, its effect lives on as a ‘believed fiction and is assumed to imply an emo­ tional dependence that is taken for granted as a condition inherent in the natural order of things’ (p. 7). Both pornography and fairy-tales are typically anonymous, a feature which contributes to the sense that they are products of a universal experience. Lorna Sage points out that Carter takes advantage of the ‘anonymous’ voice from our communal oral culture, ‘multivoiced, dialogic, hybrid’, capturing part of that old fluid power that seems to blend together author and com­ munity.8 But there are dangers in that anonymity, too. It is after all the very quality that enables an interpreter of fairy-stories like Bruno Bettelheim to assign them a fixed meaning.9 Far from asking who authored them, he assumes they emerge out of some primordial cultural unconscious. The producer of pornographic literature is likewise usually ‘invisible’, his very anonymity lending power to the suggestion that the pornographic scenario is invoking universal fantasies. But as Susanne Kappeler emphasizes, this assumption of anonymity disguises the actual structure of the pornographic scenario which is always tripartite: the master/producer, the object (typically the woman/victim), and the onlooker (the producer’s guest). What makes Sade different and useful for Carter is that he is the least invisible of pornographers, his name having become synonymous with the sexual practices he describes (although he actively denied writing his most infamous texts). In his own life, long years of imprisonment could not bury the subversive


The Infernal Desires of Angela Carter

potential of his writing, or the infamy of his name which 200 years later still has the power to discompose, provoking cries for its suppression. The source of Carter’s fascination with Sade is his potency as a satirist of his times, in particular his understanding and exposure of the central role of sexuality in the maintenance of the social status quo: ‘since he is not a religious man but a political man, he treats the facts of female sexuality not as a moral dilemma but as a political reality’ (p. 27). ‘[T]he prophet of the age of dissolution, of our own time, the time of the assassins’, she calls him, the man whose danger lay in naming as his ‘pleasure’ what society sanctioned only as licensed legal crimes to be exercised as punishment by institutional authority (p. 32). Furthermore, Carter argues, unlike all other pornographers, Sade claimed the ‘rights of free sexuality for women’, and created ‘women as beings of power in his imaginary worlds’ (p. 36). In her fairy-stories, she seeks to expose a truth that those old tales have only thinly disguised (just as Sade did in his black fairy-tales): that female virginity is the precious jewel of the ruling classes, token and guarantor of their property rights. This is some­ thing the Sadeian libertines understood, since it was the virgin daughters of the aristocracy who received the most vile treatment at their hands. The only real difference between pornographic and mythic archetypes, Carter sug­ gests, is in the artful beauty with which sexual encounters are represented in the latter. Carter claims that Sade is different from all other pornographers in that he discloses rather than hides the actuality of sexual relations: He creates, not an artificial paradise of gratified sexuality but a model of hell, in which the gratification of sexuality involves the infliction and the tolerance of extreme pain. He describes sexual relations in the context of an unfree society as the expression of pure tyranny. (p. 24)

The provocation in Carter’s use of Sade is not her supposed validation of pornography, but her employment of his work to expose her female readers to their own complicity with the fictional representations of themselves as mythic archetypes. Such mystification of femininity amounts, in her view, to a complicity with the pornographic scenario on which the unequal gen­ der relations of our society are founded. The figure of the innocent Justine —the ‘repository of the type of sensibility we call “feminine” ’ (p. 47), ‘the broken heart, the stabbed dove, the violated sepulchre, the persecuted maiden whose virginity is perpetually refreshed by rape’ (p. 49) — embodies the dangerous idealization of the passive victim. She is a figure of repression, ‘repression of sex, of anger, and of her own violence; the repression de­ manded of Christian virtue, in fact’ (pp. 48-9). Most provocatively of all,


Angela Carter’s The Sadeian Woman; feminism as treason

Carter says: ‘In the looking-glass of Sade’s misanthropy, women may see themselves as they have been and it is an uncomfortable sight’ (p. 36). It is important to remember that the vilification of Justine is part of Carter’s reaction to a mythicization of female virtue that infiltrated aspects of radical feminist discourse in the 1970s. Writers such as Mary Daly and Susan Griffin popularized notions of femininity as having innate qualities arising from women’s reproductive function: virtuous, nurturing and peaceenhancing. Such ideas inevitably reinforced a conception of women as the passive victims of male victimizers. Carter does not deny that women are frequently victims of male violence and exploitation, but she is arguing force­ fully against the danger of turning that victimization into a virtue, of becoming enthralled by it. In doing so she runs the risk of seeming to blame the victim for ‘choosing’ to ‘collaborate’, as Kappeler puts it. But it needs pointing out that in The Sadeian Woman she is careful to say: ‘let us not make too much of this apparent complicity. There is no defence at all against absolute tyranny’ (p. 139).10 On the whole, contemporaneous and subsequent critical responses to The Sadeian Woman reveal a profound unease, especially on the part of feminist critics, about Carter’s precise intentions. In Heroes and Villains (1969), The Infernal Desires of Dr. Hoffman (1972) and The Passion of New Eve , she had already displayed her strong nerves in representing vivid scenes of sexual violence. Several radical feminist critics in the decade following the publica­ tion of The Sadeian Woman took Carter to task, accusing her of reinforcing patriarchial representations of women that degraded them.11 Even worse was Kappeler’s accusation that she implies women can liberate themselves through exercising violence, that they should behave just as men do. This attention to Carter’s work coincided with a moment when debates among feminists were increasingly focused on the issue of pornography and viol­ ence against women. In the context of those debates, Carter was seen by these critics to be running with the enemy. In examining the reasons why pornography became such a central issue for feminists, Lynne Segal points to the overriding emphasis given to sexu­ ality in much feminist thinking, that it ‘was the primary, overriding, source of man’s oppression of women, rather than the existing sexual division of labour, organization of the state or diverse ideological structures’. Secondly, she says, pornography came to be regarded by many as ‘the cause of men’s sexual practices, now identified within a continuum of male violence’. Such views, she adds, were commensurate with another shift in feminist thinking in the late 1970s and 1980s, from a celebration of sexual pleasure and a belief in ‘the similarity between men’s and women’s sexuality’ that marked the earlier stages of the women’s movement in the 1960s, to an emphasis on ‘a fundamental difference between women’s sexuality and men’s, with


The Infernal Desires of Angela Carter

women’s sexuality once again the inverse of men’s: gentle, diffuse and, above all, egalitarian’.12 With her decidedly materialist conception of human sexu­ ality and sexual practices, Carter staunchly opposed the implicit essentialism and ahistorical implications of such views. What was so controversial about Carter’s response to these issues was not simply that she would reject the censorship of all pornography, but her argument that in examining the porno­ graphic scenario we can learn as much about the cultural conditions that help to determine women’s sexuality as we can about men’s sexuality. The potency of Carter’s writing is indicated by the fact that nearly a decade later The Sadeian Woman was used by feminist critiques of pornography when the debate was at its most intense. Her work was cited to reinforce the arguments of those situated on either side of the divide: those who viewed pornography as a central problem for women, and those who regarded the anti-pornography campaign as posing another danger, the policing and proscribing of women’s sexual desires. Kappeler’s The Pornography of Representation offers a powerful indictment not simply of pornography itself, but of how the pornographic scenario, seen as the objectification and brutálization of women, underpins much cultural production in Western societies. For Kappeler, the problem is not so much pornography as a distinct mode of representation or set of practices, but rather that it is ubiquitous, endemic to contemporary culture. Kappeler offers a complex thesis, and she certainly does not fall into the trap of naturalizing women’s difference from men. For Kappeler as for Carter, the pornographic scenario holds a mirror up to heterosexual relations, and yet Kappeler rejects Carter’s conclusions and especially her use of Sade, accusing her of ‘playing in the literary sanctuary’ by vindicating Sade’s work ‘in the service of women’ and of falling into the trap of claiming equal opportunities by proclaiming that women should ‘“cause suffering”, just as men do’.13 In fact, Carter’s analysis of the antithesis Justine/Juliette, sacrificial victim and female libertine, is not fundamentally at variance with Kappeler’s for­ mulation of what she calls the ‘cultural archeplot’ of patriarchal power in which the female participants have two alternatives: willing victim or unwill­ ing victim. Carter makes it clear that no matter how much control Juliette appears to assume over herself in the relendess pursuit of pleasure and the transgression of every social boundary, the king, master of the game, is still in place: ‘her triumph is just as ambivalent as is Justine’s disaster’ (p. 79). But Carter cannot help betraying a preference for Juliette, the Nietzschean superwoman, because she is the female rebel, transgressor of the laws that conventionally control women’s sexual behaviour. Juliette understands the master’s game and plays it according to his rules. ‘Since she specialises in realpolitik, it is not surprising that she is more like a real woman than Justine could ever be’ (p. 101). Here Carter is on the verge of trying to have it both ways, subverting the binary of good/bad woman, and reinforcing it.


Angela Carter’s The Sadeian Woman: feminism as treason

The attraction to the bold, transgressive sister, the one who at least has her political analysis correct, over the submissive sister who clings to the fake myth of virginity as a woman’s most valuable treasure, is understandable, but it almost betrays her purpose, and provides Kappeler with a space to make her accusation. Nevertheless, Kappeler fails to acknowlege Carter’s conclusion, which finally throws over the whole Sadeian scene as ‘this holy terror of love . . . the source of all opposition to the emancipation of women’ (p. 150), and insists on the necessity of reciprocity between the sexes. Since the early 1990s, Kappeler’s own work has been severely criticized for, among other things, a somewhat totalizing view of men. ‘W ith lovers like men,’ she asks, ‘who needs torturers?14 This provocative question sug­ gests that the pornographic scenario is an inevitable element in heterosexual relationships. Lynne Segal makes explicit the connection between a suspi­ cion of heterosexuality on the part of many feminists since the late 1970s and the reduction of feminist discussion about sexuality to the issue of porno­ graphy. Faced with Kappeler’s belief that ‘“sexual liberation” is not the liberation of women, but the liberation of the female sex-object, which is now expected to orgasm (in response)’,15 Segal argues that many feminists ‘who criticize pornography today mostly see themselves as rejecting the heritage of the sexual revolution’.16 This point is crucial to understanding Kappeler’s critique of Carter’s thesis in The Sadeian Woman , with its asser­ tion that women can gain pleasure in heterosexual relations, and its utopian conclusion that looks towards sexual reciprocity between men and women. Carter was as aware as anyone of the limitations of the sexual revolution. The Infernal Desires of Dr. Hoffman can be read as a critique of 1960s notions of sexual liberation and their potential for exploiting women. But one of the most significant aspects of Carter’s work, and which The Sadeian Woman exemplifies so profoundly, is its insistence on the empowerment of hetero­ sexual women in a climate of opinion that suggested its impossibility. The questions that Segal places at the crux of the pornography debate within feminism - ‘Is it, or is it not, possible for women to conceive of and enjoy, an active pleasurable engagement in sex with men? Is it, or is it not, possible to see women as empowered agents of heterosexual desire?’ — are precisely the same ques­

tions that Carter addresses here and in her fiction.17 The figure of Juliette is the key to understanding Carter’s use of Sade in rethinking female heterosexuality. She represents a heterosexual woman who uses her sexuality to explode the mythicization of femininity that has kept women trapped and enthralled for centuries: She is a little blasphemous guerilla of demystification in the Chapel She lobs her sex at men and women as if it were a hand grenade; it will always blow up in their faces.

(p. 105) 141

The Infernal Desires of Angela Carter

As such, Juliette can be read as a figure of Bataillean excess, triumphing ‘over the barriers of pain, shame, disgust and morality until her behaviour reverts to the polymorphous perversity of the child . . .’ (p. 148). Through Juliette, Sade claims this transgressive excess for women, but, Carter stresses, she is a figure of satire, not a role model. Nevertheless, it is a hazardous claim, as misreadings of the nuances of Carter’s text testify. Opposing Kappeler in the feminist pornography debate is Linda Williams, who in her book Hard Core states that Carter ‘argues for pornography on the grounds of Sade’s politicisation of sexuality, and his insistence on the right of women to fuck as aggressively, tyrannically, and cruelly as men’.18 Careful examination of the relevant passage from The Sadeian Woman , however, reveals that Carter’s Sade does not actually say this at all. Carter says that he implies that it may be inevitable since ‘[a] free woman in an unfree society will be a monster’. But the point she is stressing here is that Sade ‘urges women to fuck as actively as they are able . . . to fuck their way into history and, in doing so, change it’ (p. 27). That said, Williams is right to see in Carter an ally in her attempt to think beyond the binary of pornography or censorship that has polarized the debate. Williams’s Hard Core played an important role in opening up the arguments through its exploration of the subversive and pleasurable possibilities of some pornography for women, and in moving away from the tendency in some feminist rhetoric to proscribe multiple, even ‘perverse’, expressions of female desire. As an embodiment of a woman claiming responsibility for her own sexual behaviour, Juliette infiltrates many of the female protagonists of Carter’s fiction: the rebellious heroines of the stories in The Bloody Chamber, and most explicitly Fewers in Nights at the Circus. As Carter points out, if Apollinaire, at the turn of the century, could call Juliette the New Woman, to us she is only ‘a New Woman in the mode of irony’ (p. 79). But reflecting on current media images of sexually free, ‘post-feminist’ women - Madonna, Camille Paglia and the like - Nicole Ward Jouve asks if Juliette has never­ theless won, suggesting that Carter provided us in 1979 with an uncanny prophecy. But Ward Jouve’s answer to her own question is a firm negative. These figures ‘only seem to be the flesh-and-blood fulfilment of what The Sadeian Woman praised in Juliette’, and like Lady Purple and other such figures in Carter’s fiction, they serve to ‘embody media fantasies’. Carter, she adds, ‘unpicks the fabrication process: never promotes the illusion’.19 In Fewers, Carter creates a mediated version of this New Woman/sexual ter­ rorist, who uses her sexuality as a device for survival, but who grows to understand that the price to be paid for playing the game according to the master’s rules is ultimately annihilation. The figure of Juliette carries one more resonance for Carter. She and the other female libertines in the Sadeian world ‘like Scheherazade . . . know how


Angela Carter’s The Sadeian Woman: feminism as treason

to utilize the power of the word, of narrative, to save their lives’ (p. 81). So for Carter she becomes a metaphor for the woman writer as rebel, the woman story-teller who tells the tales that do not quite fit into the social order of things. This analogy between the power of narration and survival - a significant theme in the whole feminist literary-critical enterprise of the last thirty years and more —recurs in her subsequent fiction. The successful heroines of the fairy-tales are the ones who become the authors of their own stories, inscribing their own desire into those old narrative frames. Fewers constitutes a revision of Juliette, breaking out of that victim/victimizer frame by controlling the narration of her own story through a mixture of flagrant self-display and subterfuge. The transformations of Juliette aside, and despite the rejection of Sade’s binary of victim and victimizer, there remains the question of Carter’s desig­ nation of Sade as a prototype of the ‘moral pomographer’, who might use pornography as a critique of current relations between the sexes. His business would be the total demystification of the flesh and the subsequent revelation, through the infinite modulations of the sexual act, of the real relations of man and his kind. (p. 19)

As Kappeler argues, if the pornographer as producer/director of the scene is an inherent element in the repressive and exploitative structures of rep­ resentation in our culture, of which the pornographic scenario is simply an explicit case, how can pornography be invested with a different ideology, one aimed at exposing its own assumptions and exploitations? Both Carter’s and Kappeler’s texts provide critiques of prevailing modes of representation and of the political realities that produce them. Kappeler insists that ‘[t]he history of representation is the history of the male gender representing itself to itself — the power of naming is men’s. . . . Culture, as we know it, is patriarchy’s self-image.’20 This is an argument that Carter has elaborated in fictional terms in The Passion of New Eve. And in The Sadeian Woman she is as explicit as Kappeler about the relationship between pornography and other modes of representation, describing the literary as ‘the imaginary brothel where ideas of women are sold’ (p. 101). Yet Kappeler’s point that ‘the root problem behind the reality of men’s relations with women, is the way men see women, is Seeing’21 draws attention to a structural feature of pornographic representation that Carter’s discussion elides. Kappeler claims that women are objectified twice over, ‘once as object of the action in the scenario, and once as object of the representation, the object of viewing’:22 that is to say, a collusion between producer and viewer is an essential element in the representation itself. Kappeler quotes Luce Irigaray, who, like Carter, has argued for the advan­ tages of a ‘Sadeian showing forth’:


The Infernal Desires of Angela Carter Perhaps if the phallocracy that reigns everywhere is put unblushingly on display, a different sexual economy may become possible? Pornography as ‘catharsis’ of the phallic empire? As the unmasking of women’s sexual subjection?23

Kappeler’s rejoinder to this is to stress thè statement’s uncertainty as to its address: who will see with her, and who will, on the basis of what they see, want “another sexual economy” ’. This is a question that Carter, like Irigaray, does not confront. It is not a more egalitarian economy of desire that the Sadeian libertines hope to achieve ‘but profit from the one that institutionalizes their advantage’. But Kappeler concedes that Trigaray’s criticism tries at least to break through the boundaries and asks beyond the sanctuary’s own terms’;24 and so, I would suggest, does Carter’s. She points out, just as Georges Bataille does, that the Sadeian libertine, Sovereign Man, remains isolated and alone, because he does not wish to relinquish one bit of his profit by sharing his pleasures with anyone else, even with his fellow libertines. Kappeler’s accusation that Carter is ‘playing in the literary sanctuary’ suggests a refusal to accept that some pornographic writing may be subvers­ ive of the social status quo. Susan Rubin Suleiman’s analysis of Carter’s elaborate intertextual engagement with Surrealism provides a convincing rejoinder to Kappeler’s assumption. In Subversive Intent, Suleiman examines the tradition of pornographic writing that begins with Sade and continues through to Lautreamont, Dada, the Surrealists and Bataille, and explores convincingly how contemporary feminist writers like Carter have used that tradition in an attempt to rethink and rewrite the female body and female sexuality. But Suleiman stresses the critical use they have made of that tra­ dition, refusing to regard the female body as simply a figure in the text as the Surrealists and Bataille customarily do. She characterizes Carter’s work, along with some other postmodern feminist writing, as informed by ‘a double allegiance’: ‘on the one hand to the formal experiments and some of the cultural aspirations of the historical male avant-gardes; on the other hand, to the feminist critique of dominant sexual ideologies, including those of the very same avant-gardes’. It is that double perspective, so much a feature of The Sadeian Woman , that has provoked such critical uncertainty. Suleiman describes this feature as possibly ‘the most innovative as well as the most specifically “feminine” characteristic of contemporary experimental work by women artists’.25 In The Sadeian Woman , Carter acknowledges the play of forces at work in Sade’s writing, between its revolutionary subversion and conservative reaction, its power and its danger. It is her fearless con­ frontation of those contradictions that makes her contribution to contem­ porary feminist discourse so valuable. In Suleiman’s words, she ‘expands our notions of wThat it is possible to dream in the domain of sexuality, criticiz­ ing all dreams that are too narrow’.26


Angela Carter’s The Sadeian Woman: feminism as treason

In quoting Emma Goldman at the conclusion of The Sadeian Woman , Carter deconstructs her own claims for Sade: History tells us that every oppressed class gained true liberation from its masters through its own efforts. It is necessary that woman learn that lesson, that she realise that her freedom will reach as far as her power to achieve her freedom reaches. (p. 151)

Carter’s analysis of Sade finally reveals that he is in allegiance with the very assumptions he is endeavouring to transgress. If she regards his demysti­ fication of the maternal function as a contribution to the emancipation of women, it is in this area that she also locates a central contradiction in his position. The theory of maternal superiority, she argues, is one of the most damaging of all consolatory fictions and women themselves cannot leave it alone, although it springs from the timeless, placeless, fantasy land of archetypes where all the embodiments of biological supremacy live. (p. 106)

She regards the flagrant abuse and denial of the mothering function by Sade’s female libertines as the key to this demystification, the most extreme instance of which is the abuse of Mme de Mistival by her own daughter, Eugenie, in Philosophy in the Boudoir. The mother is raped by the daughter with the aid of a dildo, the daughter’s revenge against the mother’s in­ hibition of the free expression of her sexuality. Before she reaches climax, however, the mother faints, and so, like Justine, experiences sexuality only ‘as a theft from herself’. In one of those moments of searing clarity, Carter concludes from this that Sade has scared himself so badly at this prospect of the sexualized mother that he performs an act of self-censorship to pre­ vent it: Sade, the prisoner who created freedom in the model of his prison, would have put himself out of business; he is as much afraid of freedom as the next man. So he makes her faint. (p. 132)

The eroticized mother is dangerous, signalling as she does a transgression of the ultimate taboo because she implies change, a shift away from the moral absolutes of vice and virtue on which the Sadeian system depends. Carter speculates on the source of Sade’s fear of the mother, locating it in two places: in the Freudian castration complex, the son’s simultaneous horror at and denial of the mother’s apparent castration, and his fear of being engulfed in the dark abyss between her legs, an insatiable hole that he can never close. But Carter also sees the attack on the mother in terms of Kleinian anger and envy at the good breast, the child’s fury at the delusory


The Infernal Desires of Angela Carter

promise of perpetual satisfaction that it offers, which in the libertine’s frenzy turns into ‘a helpless rage at the organs of generation that bore us into a world of pain where the enjoyment of the senses is all that can alleviate the daily horror of living’ (p. 135). These ambiguous interpretations are per­ haps indicative of Sade’s own ambivalence, having brought himself to the boundaries where desire, fear and hate meet. But, more to the point, can we accept the claim that Sade demystifies the maternal function when his hatred of it is based on the very mystification she is talking about? The veneration of motherhood in Western culture is derived precisely from fear of that specifically female function, two sides of the same coin, and amounts to an attempt to keep the mother in her proper place. Carter is right to suggest that the sexualization of the mother would inevitably unravel the straitjacket of myths surrounding her, but Sadeian anger, founded on that old fear and loathing, can hardly provide the means to that demystification. It is this aspect of Carter’s writing, especially in The Sadeian Woman , that most troubles Ward Jouve. She writes that having ‘hunted the maternal archetype down to extinction’ in The Passion of New Eve, Carter continues to reject the mother’s body even in her more utopian fictions that follow. Ward Jouve asks if paradoxically this ‘downgrading and refusal of mother­ hood was the ultimate phallocracy, the perpetuation of women’s subjection? Does she, in her rejection of the mother, produce another form of suppres­ sion?’27 Perhaps. Yet the argument Carter makes linking the demythicization of motherhood and the emancipation of women remains as potent as when she first made it. Surely the surrogate mothers of Nights at the Circus and Wise Children (1991) are figures that speak very much to our times, when notions of mothering and fathering are so much a part of political agendas. In Carter’s last two novels the threat of the perpetuation of an essentialized, naturalized concept of motherhood, employed for political purposes as it always has been, confronts us yet again. Once more Angela Carter catches the prevailing mood of her times and offers a challenge to it. Bataille says that ‘[t]he truth of eroticism is treason’.28 Carter’s text can be read as an attempt to transform a Sadeian treason into a feminist one. Bataille also writes that ‘admiration’ of de Sade ‘exalts his victims and transforms them from the world of physical horror to a realm of wild, unreal, sheerly glittering ideas.’29 I would suggest that to seek to assimilate Carter’s reworking of Sade into some feminist orthodoxy would be to diminish the force of her attempts to extend the limits of feminist thought. The Sadeian Woman aims to provoke and discompose as much as it seeks to convince. Ward Jouve, in plotting with such clarity the history of her own readings of Carter’s work, her ambivalent responses to it and her wariness that in celebrating Carter we somehow diminish her power to provoke, touches on the very aspect of The Sadeian Woman that I believe


Angela Carter’s The Sadeian Woman; feminism as treason

takes it beyond its moment of publication and continues to speak to present readers. NOTES 1. Angela Carter, Nights at the Circus (London: Vintage, 1994), p. 122. 2. Mary Daly’s Gyn/ecology: The Metaethics of Radical Feminism (London: W omen’s Press, 1979) and Susan Griffin’s Women and Nature: The Roaring Inside Her (London: W omen’s Press, 1984, first pub. 1978), for instance, were two widely read texts which tended to reinforce notions of women’s moral superiority as derived from their reproductive capacity and their supposed closeness to nature. 3. See Hélène Cixous’s use of maternal metaphors to represent écriture feminine (the practice of a specifically feminine writing) in ‘The Laugh of the Medusa’ (1975), and Julia Kristeva’s conception of maternity as a potential challenge to phallogocentricism in ‘Héréthique de l’amour’ (1977). I believe that Carter makes explicit reference to the maternal theories of Cixous and Kristeva in The Passion of New Eve , and an implicit criticism of them underpins her attack on the mythicization of motherhood in The Sadeian Woman. ‘The Laugh of the Medusa’ appears in Elaine Marks and Isabelle de Courtivron, eds, New French Feminisms: A n Anthology (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1980), trans. Keith Cohen and Paula Cohen, pp. 245—64. ‘Héréthique de l’amour’ appears as ‘Stabat Mater’ in Toril Moi, éd., The Kristeva Reader, trans. Léon S. Roudiez (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1986), pp. 161—86. 4. I would like to thank Lisa Day of Virago Press for access to the following cuttings from the Virago library: Jan Tomc 2yk, review of The Sadeian Woman in The Birmingham Sun, 29 May 1979; Rachel Billington, ‘Beware women’, in The Financial Times, 31 March 1979; Marsaili Cameron, ‘Whip hand’, in Gay News, March 1979; Ann Oakley, review in British Book News , August 1979; Julia O ’Faolain, ‘Chamber music’, in London Magazine, August/September 1979; Sara Maidand, review in Time Out, 4 May 1979; anonymous review in Women’s Report, June 1979. Page numbers are not available. 5. Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar, The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1980), p. 42. 6. Loma Sage makes the point that Carter’s writing is ‘in an oblique and some­ times mocking relation to the kind of model of female fantasy deployed by Gilbert and Gubar in The Mad Woman in the Attic, where fantasy is a matter of writing against the patriarchal grain’. In Carter’s fictional worlds female madness, marginality and anger are not automatically equated with subversion. Neither, as Sage also points out, are Carter’s heroines ever simply the innocent victims of their entrapment. In her fiction ‘the structures of power (literary and otherwise) are a lot less obvious’. Loma Sage, Women in the House of Fiction (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1992), p. 168. 7. Angela Carter, The Sadeian Woman: An Exercise in Cultural History (London: Virago, 1979), pp. 38-9. Further page references to this edition are given in the text. 8. Lorna Sage, ed., Flesh and the Mirror: Essays on the Art of Angela Carter (London: Virago, 1994), p. 3.


The Infernal Desires of Angela Carter 9. Bruno Bettelheim, The Uses of Enchantment (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1975). In some of the stories in The Bloody Chamber, Carter was clearly countering Bettelheim’s classically Freudian readings of fairy-tales. 10. It might be argued that these days we have finally left Justine behind us. And, what is more, that the old misogynist pomographer has been dethroned by female-authored erotic writing. O n the other hand, perhaps things have not moved so far after all. Reviewing recent erotic fiction by women, Rebecca Abrams writes: ‘W omen are writing about sex, oh yes! But what they are describing is not the joyous burgeoning of sexual possibility, but the burden of sexual misery, of deeply rooted collective memories, of degradation, subjection, and victimisation’: The Guardian, 19 July 1994, p. 10. 11. In an article on The Bloody Chamber, Patricia Duncker attacked Carter’s rep­ resentation of female sexuality, arguing that she reinforced the pornographic scenario of the woman as willing victim. What also disturbed Duncker was Carter’s apparent emphasis on ‘the animal aspects of sexuality’. Duncker fails to take into account the references to surrealism and to Bataille’s writing in Carter’s language of eroticism. In Eroticism, Bataille wrote: ‘Sexuality, thought of as filthy or beastly, is still the greatest barrier to the reduction of man to the level of the thing’: trans. Mary Dalwood (London: Marion Boyars, 1962), p. 158. Carter’s story ‘The Tiger’s Bride’, in particular, is imbued with this Bataillean sense of the erotic, but she reworks it, investing it with the mark of gender. Paulina Palmer also expressed reservations about Carter’s use of animal motifs with reference to female sexuality in Contemporary Women’s Fiction: Narrative Practice and Feminist Theory (Brighton: Harvester, 1989), p. 26, 12. Lynne Segal, ‘Introduction’, in Segal and Mary McIntosh, eds, Sex Exposed: Sexuality and the Pornography Debate (London: Virago, 1992), pp. 3-4. 13. Susanne Kappeler, The Pornography of Representation (Cambridge: Polity, 1986), p. 134. 14. Ibid., p. 214. 15. Ibid., p. 160. 16. Lynne Segal, ‘Sweet sorrows, painful pleasures: pornography and the perils of heterosexual desire’, in Segal and McIntosh, eds, Sex Exposed, p. 78. 17. Ibid., p. 79. 18. Linda Williams, Hard Core: Power, Pleasure and ‘The Frenzy of the Visible* (London: Pandora, 1990), p. 11. 19. Nicole Ward Jouve, ‘Mother is a figure of speech’, in Sage, ed., Flesh and the Mirror, pp. 147-8. 20. Kappeler, The Pornography of Representation, pp. 52—3. 21. Ibid., p. 61. 22. Ibid., p. 52. 23. Luce Irigaray, This Sex Which Is Not One, trans. Catherine Porter (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1977), p. 203. 24. Kappeler, The Pornography of Representation, p. 210. 25. Susan Robin Suleiman, Subversive Intent: Gender, Politics and the Avant-Garde (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1990), pp. 162-3. 26. Ibid., pp. 139-40. 27. Ward Jouve, ‘Mother is a figure of speech’, p. 163. 28. Bataille, Eroticism, trans. Mary Dalwood (London: Marion Boyars, 1962), p. 171. Bataille’s study was first published in French in 1957. 29. Ibid., p. 179.



Sexual and textual aggression in The Sadeian Woman and

The Passion of New Eve

Merja Makinen


In the past decade, several notable works of feminist fiction have raised the contentious issue of female violators and sexual violence, and caused a stir - from Sarah Schulman’s vengeful protagonist in After Delores (1988) and Jeanette Winterson’s monstrous dog-woman in Sexing the Cherry (1989) to Helen Zahavi’s serial killer in Dirty Weekend (1991). But Angela Carter had long been interested in sexual and textual aggression from her very first novel, Shadow Dance (1966), and this fascination persisted right to the end of her career. Although the main focus of Carter’s writing is on male power over women, especially sexual violence against women, two of her works - her most expressly feminist ones, The Passion of New Eve (1977) and The Sadeian Woman: A n Exercise in Cultural History (1979) - explore violence and violation by women, and both highlight the difficulties feminist writers face when seeking to challenge conventional ideals of femininity. Before she died in early 1992, Carter was contemplating writing a book-length study about the American child axe-murderer, Lizzie Borden (1860—1927), who had already featured in two of her stories.1 In this chapter, I examine the thought-provoking consequences of Carter’s interest in women as agents of both sexual and textual aggression. Before looking at Carter’s writings in detail, however, let me outline why it might prove useful to argue for feminist writers’ interest in sexually violent women, given that so much research on sexual violence condemns it and presents women as casualties of patriarchal oppression. Traditionally, most feminist criticism, like most critical explorations of violence in liter­ ature, deals more or less exclusively with male violation of women, where


The Infernal Desires of Angela Carter

men appear as aggressors, and women are seen as victims. In almost every case, the violence is condemned as heinous. Andrea Dworkin and Catharine A. MacKinnon, notable radical feminists who have jointly campaigned against the supposedly harmful effects of violent pornography, devoted a great deal of energy in the early 1980s to presenting the most condemnatory views on this issue. In their innumerable writings on graphic sexual imagery, they state that pornography does not represent violence but instead em­ bodies its reality.2 Even more recent feminist research, such as Women and Violence in Literature (1990) edited by Katherine Ackley, places a clear emphasis on women as victims. In ‘Re-thinking the seventies: women writers and violence’, dating from 1981, Elaine Showalter claims that ‘[literature and film offer women little support for fighting back and not much emotional catharsis’.3 Carter’s work in the 1970s, however, shows images of women aggressively ‘fighting back’. As the novels by Schulman, Winterson and Zahavi show, there is now a substantial genre of contemporary feminist fic­ tion that utilizes violence exuberantly to represent female aggressors in a positive light. By assaulting the reader with upfront aggression, such fictions overturn conventional expectations of how ‘women’s writing’ responds to violence. Carter has certainly had some influence on this widely publicized shift in feminist fiction because her work in the 1970s gained notoriety for going against the grain of the widespread contemporary feminist belief that violence emanated from an exclusively male source. By putting forward affirmative representations of sexually violent women, both The Passion of New Eve and The Sadeian Woman deliberately critique what was the dominant Anglo-American feminist dichotomy of male aggressors and female victims. Such a strategy, of course, is not without its complications. Whenever we encounter a feminist interest in sexual violence, troubling questions arise, since any form of violence - especially in relation to sexuality —brings with it a great many vexed issues concerning exploitation, voyeur­ ism and censorship. But rather than assume that representations of sexual violence must always be understood in these terms, it is perhaps wiser to begin by asking if textual violence in a sexual context is invariably bad. One of the few works to research in depth the reaction of women audiences to the representation of violence - if in relation to the media rather than books - is the BFI volume Women Viewing Violence (1992), a study that examines groups of women watching specific television pro­ grammes and films chosen for their violent content, including scenes of rape. In this detailed inquiry, the authors argue that when they examined quantitative studies of women viewing media violence, audience reaction split along lines of class, gender and ethnicity, as well as personal experience of violence. As a consequence, they warn against creating any simplistic


Sexual and textual aggression in The Sadeian Woman and New Eve

belief that the viewer occupies a fixed position. This is a necessary point to make when much discussion of the media assumes that the viewer is indeed a fixed entity. That said, the authors reach some tentative and general con­ clusions about these findings, noting that ‘the importance attributed to what was viewed was not in terms of pleasure, escape or fantasy but in terms of relevance and social importance’.4 They argue that if women are frequently depicted as victims of violence and subject to abuse, then this pattern inev­ itably makes women ‘feel less safe or less valued members of society’.5 If such a conclusion is valid, then what potential cathartic effect might come from shifting the gender bias in the portrayal of violence, whereby women wield power and men are vulnerable to violation? I would claim that the subversion of such roles can indeed be cathartic because it is transgressive. In her essay entitled ‘So long as it’s not sex and violence’, Harriett Gilbert makes a similar point in her witty discussion of how Dworkin’s novel Mercy (1990) is ironically just as pornographic in its violent depiction of rape as the magazines, films and books that Dworkin herself would like to see outlawed, and which Mercy ostensibly seeks to condemn. Gilbert closes her essay with an important plea: [I]s it not possible that women’s need for literature in which sex and violence, love and death, can wrestle with one another is as great as — perhaps even greater than - men’s? This is not to deny that we also have need for sexual literature of pleasure, fun, satire, self-confirmation, information, masturbation; it is simply to ask that the doors of violence, power and ‘subordination’ not be padlocked and zealously guarded.6

This is a plea I would heartily endorse. For if there is one thing we need to agree upon, then it is that textual violence is very different from actual violence, both in terms of the delin­ eation of violence and the often aggressive assaults on the readers’ expecta­ tions. Most of us who have read Helen Zahavi’s Dirty Weekend glory in how the female protagonist Bella takes revenge on her male oppressors, especially when she comes across the three rich louts about to torch a bagwoman for fun. When Bella tries to interfere, the bullies turn on her, unaware that their presumed victim is in fact a female serial killer: He felt her push right into his belly. He felt her try to push him away. She pressed what he thought was her bitch-hard finger into the flesh of his baby-soft belly. He pulled the bag away from her shoulder. He let it slide and fall to the ground. He kept on smiling. H e’d have the bitch. He was going to have her first, before the others. H e’d make her bend. He’d bend her right over the bonnet. H e’d bend her, then he’d bugger her. The stuck up bitch. The stinking, stuck up bitch, who thought she was too good for him. By the time he’d finished, she’d know a bit better. She’d know that she wasn’t too good for anyone.


The Infernal Desires of Angela Carter But she kept pushing right into his belly. She was pushing her finger right into his belly. It felt like a rod, like a cold piece of pipe. He quickly glanced down, and he saw what it was that she’d pushed into his belly. He might have said £oh\ He might have said ‘ah’. Whatever it was, it was lost in the wind. They were standing so close. Indecendy close. Her finger on the trigger, and the barrel in his belly. She gave . . . [him] a second or two. A second or two, to let him look up. She let him look up and lock eyes with her.7 As with the audiences viewing the film Thelma and Louise (dir. Ridley Scott,

1991) who cheer when the women protagonists set fire to a truck, we are encouraged to applaud when Zahavi’s female aggressor pulls the trigger on her male assailants. In each case, women's violence is carefully contextualized as a meaningful retaliation to a whole string of abusive male treatment, both sexual and social. By placing such violence in narrative context, these works justify it to an audience now at liberty to enjoy its cathartic effects. Clearly, I am not saying we are all potential cheerleaders for real serial killers. Instead, it is that our pleasure as readers and viewers stems from two sources: first, from the bad guy getting his come-uppance (the usual justi­ fication for the hero’s violence), and second, from the way that literary conventions are being played with, subverted, overturned. In Dirty Weekend, after all, we see an initially delicate female character who has put up with a whole string of abuses from men turn mad and bad. Here the violent depictions authenticate the ‘serial killer’ genre, while the unconventional gender-swapping (dainty female turned aggressor, monied yob turned victim) gives it a delightful twist. You do not have to be Valerie Solanas - who gained notoriety when she published The S.C .U .M . Manifesto (1968),8 hav­ ing earlier fired shots that seriously wounded pop artist Andy Warhol - to enjoy Zahavi’s novel, because Dirty Weekend is hardly asking us to take pleas­ ure in the idea of actual men being spattered to bits by gun-fire. Rather, the novel encourages us to enjoy a literary tuming-of-the-tables where the traditional gender of the aggressor and the victim is suddenly inverted. So this type of textual violence presents a literary code that we quickly recog­ nize, and when this code —as in Zahavi’s novel - is tied to overt feminist arguments about the ways in which women’s lives are limited by women’s fears of male violence, we cheer the turned worm. Since ours is a culture that wants us to learn by heart that women are victims, just as women are supposed to be sexual objects, it is liberating to see such assumptions chal­ lenged. That is why it is exhilarating to come across a novel like Zahavi’s that illustrates the male bullies - with their ‘baby-soft’ bellies - as utterly vulnerable victims. Now it needs to be said that I have some critical problems with Dirty Weekend. Simple role reversal, as many feminist critics have noted, is only


Sexual and textual aggression in The Sadeian Woman and New Eve

a partially successful tactic. Allowing one ‘special’ woman to step into the masculine role may challenge essentialist beliefs about what women are like, but it leaves the phallocentric structures intact. And the narrative never raises questions about the way in which it revels in the brutality Bella adopts. What I think the book does show is that textual violence can be engaging, inclusive and cathartic. But to have a woman masquerading in a male role is not, in the end, a particularly feminist strategy. Carter is much more questioning of the way she utilizes female textual violence.


If ever there was a writer who would draw Carter by his potent mix of sex and violence, then it was the Marquis de Sade (1740—1814). It was by chance that Carter happened on his work in a Tokyo bookshop and fell on it with no more complicated intention than ‘a quick thrill’.9 Only later did the seriousness of her response to his writings emerge, resulting in her highly controversial essay, The Sadeian Woman. Undoubtedly, Carter’s per­ spective on Sadeian sexual violence is decidedly ambivalent. But one thing is for sure. Carter uses two Sadeian characters —the sisters Juliette and Justine — to explore polar opposites: Justine represents the female victim, while Juliette represents the female aggressor. Observing that pornography tends to reinforce a sexual essentialism - where men are defined by their erect dicks, and women by their fringed holes — Carter claims that Sade’s use­ fulness lies in how he provides an historical context that unveils the power politics at work in heterosexual fucking. Through the character of Justine, argues Carter, Sade demystifies the eighteenth-century Roman Catholic ideal of virtuous femininity by accentuating the very real limitations to chastity and obedience. Carter claims that in presenting Justine as a victim, Sade reveals the profound misogyny of the age —since Justine is ceaselessly pun­ ished for being a conventional woman, and hence remains weak. Sade’s three versions of Justine (1791-97) make one lesson clear: in such a cruel, ego­ centric world made and mastered by men, sexual pleasure frequently devolves upon the pain of women. Consequendy, Justine’s docility and obsessive concern for virtue do her no good at all: they simply allow her to be continuously victimized and abused. Sade’s strength, argues Carter, is to dem­ onstrate that Justine’s goodness - ‘a good woman according to the rules for women laid down by men’10 — only harms her. Various characters argue


The Infernal Desires of Angela Carter

plausibly that Justine should transgress —because ‘the callousness of the rich justifies the crimes of the poor’ and because ‘virtue does not necessarily depend on the greater or lesser diameter of her vagina’ (p. 41). Justine’s complete inability to grasp these ideas demonstrates the severe constraints on women who uphold the ideal of the madonna. Certainly, one main argu­ ment for Carter’s championing of Sade lies in how his work pushes the contrasting stereotypes of the madonna (Justine) and the whore (Juliette) to the absolute limit, and in doing so subverts them by revealing how Juliette is a possibly more successful and desirable model. By comparison, Justine’s miserable martyrdom discloses the appalling victimization that results from the madonna’s virtuous passivity: That is why there have been so few notoriously wicked women in comparison to the number of notoriously wicked men; our victim status ensures that we rarely have the opportunity. Virtue is thrust upon us. (p. 56)

In making this materialist argument, Carter does not suggest that women are inherently better than men but simply that women are given far less chance in this world to transgress. So in The Sadeian Woman Justine is shown to have misguidedly accepted the ideology that claims she is virtuous only when she is submissive and chaste, and thus she is condemned for her inability to see past the damaging consequences of such conformity to male ideals. Much, however, is at stake in Carter’s repudiation of Justine as a role model because it allows her to gloss over the element of sadistic pleasure in women’s pain that marks Sade’s writings. As Paulina Palmer observes: ‘the attitude she adopts to the atro­ cities which he depicts in his fiction raises problems for the feminist reader. It is one of detached interest and intellectual curiosity, not indignation.’11 This detachment, according to Palmer, implies that Carter actually condones the violence against Justine. Unquestionably, this is a matter of critical im­ portance, since Carter not only fails to express indignation at the violation of Justine’s body, she also castigates Justine for not having the strength of mind to learn from these experiences that her body is a commodity in a bourgeois world: a commodity that could be turned to Justine’s advantage. In the case of Justine, therefore, Carter is not celebrating violence because it is transgressive. Much more disturbingly, Carter is countenancing such violence against Justine precisely because this female figure fails to trans­ gress: ‘Her beauty, her submissiveness and the false expectations that these qualities will do her some good are what make her obscene’ (p. 57). By comparison, the feminist credentials of what Carter says about Sade’s Juliette (1797) are more obvious. She condemns the successful whorish sis­ ter as a monster while acknowledging that Sade uses Juliette to demystify


Sexual and textual aggression in The Sadeian Woman and New Eve

dangerous myths of femininity. Critics who argue that Carter upholds Juliette as a feminist model can never have read further than the Preface —where Carter is at first ambivalent.12 ‘A free woman in an unfree society will be a monster’ (p. 27): this will be read differently depending upon whether the emphasis is upon ‘free’ or upon ‘monster’. By the time we reach the chapter on Juliette, Carter is less equivocal. The chapter opens with the following statement: ‘Apollinaire could equate Juliette with the New Woman, it is not so easy to do so today’ (p. 79). And she sums up her view of this Sadeian character with these words: ‘[W]ith apologies to Apollinaire, I do not think that I want Juliette to renew my world; but her work of destruction complete, she w ill. . . have removed a repressive and authoritarian superstructure that has prevented a good deal of the work of renewal’ (p. 111). This remark reveals how, while Carter acknowledges that Juliette has dehumanized herself and is a monster, the transgression she effects is alluring. It is exactly this problematizing of violence that Dirty Weekend lacks. Where Justine is submissive and sentimental, Juliette is aggressive and rational. Juliette whores, thieves, betrays, murders, seduces, then kills her father, and finally commits infanticide on her only daughter. ‘Justine is the thesis, Juliette is the antithesis’, writes Carter (p. 79). Both are extremes, and she looks to a synthesis of the two for an adequate model of femininity. In Carter’s view, Juliette and the other monstrous women of Sade’s inven­ tion have not triumphed over patriarchal power. Rather, they embrace it wholeheartedly: ‘She is a woman who acts according to the precepts and also the practice of a man’s world and so she does not suffer. Instead she causes suffering’ (p. 79). On this view, Juliette becomes a phallocentric woman, and her characterization and career further demystify the myths of female passivity by allowing women an active sexual pleasure divorced from procreation. Her enthusiasm for buggery - a capital crime at the time — is a subversive use of her own reproductive organs and a denial of what Carter in her Preface calls the entrancing rhetoric of the womb, a rhetoric that allies women to Nature through motherhood. Carter writes: ‘Juliette lobs her sex at men and women like a handgrenade’ (p. 105) because sexual activity inevitably leads to death or destruction, rather than life and birth. Juliette’s sexuality is thus interpreted as a terrorist activity that usefully ex­ poses the dangerous myths of Mother Nature which men have often used to flatter women into passive behaviour. Furthermore, since Juliette’s sexu­ ality satirically expresses the spirit of free enterprise, it brings the marketvalue of women into the representation of sex. So Sade explodes the myth of suffering and succouring madonnas by presenting an antithetical myth that of the aggressive phallic woman who is supremely successful and ends her days in wealth and happiness.


The Infernal Desires of Angela Carter

Even though one cannot discount its problematic acceptance of violence against women, Carter’s The Sadeian Woman none the less explores the con­ trasting fates of Justine and Juliette to question the radical feminist ortho­ doxy prevalent in the mid-1970s that the natural order comprised aggressive men and victimized women. From Carter’s distinctive feminist viewpoint, the roles of aggressor and victim are both open to women, and she claims that it is only women who have allowed themselves to be flattered into the belief in their moral superiority —those women who cling to an egocentric view of themselves as virtuous — who are prey to victimization. That is why Carter is in many ways drawn to Sade’s woman aggressor, not because Juliette is an emulatory figure, but because Juliette undermines the virtue of passive female suffering. Yet such a perspective still raises qualms, for it remains the case that Carter implicitly approves of textual violence against victimized women like Justine, rather than turning violence against the men who oppress them. This tension certainly lies at the centre of The Passion of New Eve . But in this work of fiction, Carter shows the attractions of sexual aggression for feminists in a possibly more productive light.


Although The Sadeian Woman was published two years after The Passion of New Eve , this study of Justine and Juliette was some five years in its gesta­ tion, and it undoubtedly shares many of the novel’s vexed preoccupations with sexual violence. In this polemical novel a powerful, retributive, radical feminist leader named Mother rapes, castrates and surgically transforms a man into a woman - precisely because of his repeated abuse of the female sex. But Carter’s novel complicates matters by revealing that the man’s sys­ tematic mistreatment of his lovers is not an innate sexual drive but is instead the result of how he has been culturally taught to view femininity. Raised on a diet of Hollywood films featuring his favourite star, Tristessa, the male protagonist Evelyn has learnt to disparage women and treat them as victims. Like the screen goddesses of 1940s film noir, Tristessa embodies for Evelyn the essence of idealized femininity —passive, suffering, tortured. The cinema industry’s persistent representation of women as unresisting objects made solely for men’s erotic pleasure becomes a bleak reality. The unnamed girl who accompanies Evelyn to a film show gets down on her knees and sucks him off among the debris of cigarette ends and empty cans. Although Evelyn is faintly embarrassed to discover that the girl will miss him when he travels to America, he takes it for granted that women are disposable beings made


Sexual and textual aggression in The Sadeian Woman and New Eve

only to suffer. After all, has not Tristessa said that a woman’s life is simply ‘solitude and misery’? Later, in New York City, Evelyn’s violent treatment of Leilah is sim­ ilarly selfish and dismissive. Evelyn defines Leilah as a temptress, dressed in the paraphernalia of fetishistic pornography - black-mesh stockings, high stiletto heels, sensuous fur coat, and crotchless knickers. His reaction is arousal. He becomes ‘nothing but cock’,13 and the narrative reveals how his erotic consciousness rapidly dehumanizes Leilah, first by depicting her through a litany of animalistic images — ‘little fox’; ‘creature of this undergrowth’; ‘bird-like creature’; a creature who exudes a ‘hot, animal perfume’ —before mystifying her in terms of various archetypes of female innocence —‘shep­ herdess in a pastoral’; ‘mermaid’; ‘lorelei of the gleaming river’ (pp. 20-2). Later, she evokes for him more demanding types of femininity, like ‘the myth of the succubus, the devils in female form who come by night to seduce the saints’ (p. 27). Never once does Evelyn cut through these myths and acknowledge the specific individual that is Leilah. She is simply an object to be possessed. To Evelyn, Leilah is an alluring confusion of contradictory myths, ‘the crucible of chaos delivered her for my pleasure’. He describes her as ‘limp, passive and obedient’ and - significantly —‘a perfect woman’ (p. 34). Since to Evelyn she has no subjectivity, he is embarrassed when he discovers Leilah is pregnant. That is why he abandons her in the hospital, leaving her mutilated and bleeding from a botched abortion. Evelyn now recoils from what had previously drawn him to Leilah, what he sees as ‘the slow delirious sickness of femininity, its passivity, its narcissism’; these aspects of Leilah’s womanhood, he declares, ‘have infected me because of her’ (p. 37). So The Passion of New Eve opens with a composite picture of Evelyn’s abusive masculinity, its sadistic and reductive sexual exploitation of women, implying that such denigrating behaviour has been absorbed from countless Hollywood films, particularly those featuring Tristessa. This focus on the masculine view of women is developed even further when it is revealed that Tristessa is in fact a male cross-dresser who has no experience what­ soever of being a real woman. Not only that, Tristessa has little sexual experience of women, until he meets the figure named Eve —who turns out to be the woman Evelyn has become. When he has sex with the woman who was once a man, Tristessa is taken aback by the actuality of both the female genitals and female orgasm. The Passion of New Eve clearly reveals that passive femininity is nothing but a male creation. Tristessa, a screen goddess, has made himself into a suffering icon of mournful femininity —‘Our Lady of the Sorrows’. Dressed to pass as a female star, he presents himself as a spectacle for the audience’s adoring gaze. Such a representation certainly has many connections with


The Infernal Desires of Angela Carter

Carter’s blistering analysis of Sade’s Justine as the ultimate emblem of myth­ ical femininity. Tristessa firmly believes that femininity involves ‘Passivity’ and ‘Inaction’ (p. 137) - a view uttered, pointedly, when Betty Louella arouses his first erection for years. ‘I was’, he says, ‘seduced by the notion of a woman’s being, which is negativity . . . To be everything and nothing. To be the pane the sun shines through’ (p. 137). Obviously, he sees fem­ ininity as the complete opposite of the active male. In his eyes, femininity defines the ‘other’ that Simone de Beauvoir was the first to discuss in detail in The Second Sex (1949), where she makes it plain that only a phallocratic culture could believe that women occupied such an ‘other’ role. Through Eve’s narrative voice, Carter ironically exposes the construction of the fem­ inine ‘otherness’ staged by Tristessa’s manipulative cross-dressing: That was why he had been the perfect man’s woman! He had made himself the shrine of his own desires, had made of himself the only woman he could have loved! If a woman is indeed beautiful only in so far as she incarnates most completely the secret aspirations of man, no wonder Tristessa had been able to become the most beautiful woman in the world, an unbegotten woman who made no concessions to humanity. Tristessa, the sensuous fabrication of the mythology of the flea-pits. How could a real woman ever have been so much a woman as you? (pp. 128-9)

In an interview with John Haffenden, Carter makes a similar point about the screen goddess Rita Hayworth. Only a man, she claims, would wonder how a real woman could ever have become ‘so much a woman’: I created this person in order to say some quite specific things about the cultural production of femininity. The promotion slogan for the film Gilda [Dir. Charles Vidor, 1946], starring Rita Hayworth, was ‘There was never a woman like Gilda’, and that may have been one of the reasons why I made my Hollywood star a transvestite, a man, because only a man could think of femininity in terms of that slogan.14

Seen as a specific ‘cultural production’ of a mythical gender identity, Tristessa’s characterization reminds us of Joan Riviere’s well-known thesis that femininity is a masquerade that women may choose to don so that they can enter society, even though this mask has been designed by men.15 Understood as masquerade, Tristessa’s cross-dressing is a male appropriation of femininity, not a radical form of gender-bending. Viewed from this perspective, Carter’s novel is putting forward what now may appear to offer a somewhat conservative attitude towards cross-dressing, given the recent critical focus on the playfulness and performative aspect of gender identit­ ies.16 That said, Carter’s narrative constantly questions the essential basis of gender. Eve, a transsexual, raises this issue when she has sex with Tristessa: ‘what the nature of masculine and the nature of feminine might be, whether they involve male and female . . . that I do not know’ (pp. 149-50).17 Eve,


Sexual and textual aggression in The Sadeian Woman and New Eve

therefore, becomes the critical voice that scrutinizes Tristessa’s feminine mas­ querade. As ‘a man who has elected to become a woman in appearance’,18 Tristessa certainly embodies Carter’s dislike of Hollywood’s cultural imperialism and its misogynistic representation of femininity. But, as Eve observes, there is a perpetual fascination with such appalling myth-making: ‘he must have both loved and hated women, to let Tristessa be so beautiful and make her suffer so!’ (p. 144). This point emerges in a well-known and influential critical essay on Hollywood film that is contemporaneous with Carter’s novel. In ‘Visual pleasure and narrative cinema’ (1975), Laura Mulvey adopts a psychoanalytic perspective to argue that classic Hollywood films (such as Gilda) give pleas­ ure when the viewers situate themselves in the position of a ‘male viewer’ (that is, within the dominant scopic regime).19 Mulvey claims that such pleasure comes from a specific fetishistic male gaze on women characters as objects of desire. Since, however, Freudian theory suggests that the female body is a site of castration, Mulvey claims that great anxiety emerges from this scopophilia. The anxiety can only be resolved, argues Mulvey, by see­ ing the woman sadistically punished in the storyline. Carter seems to be echoing Mulvey’s critical position at the moment when Evelyn gets an erec­ tion in the cinema while watching Tristessa playing a starring role where the woman character dies from brain fever. Similarly, the figure of Mother - the radical feminist surgeon who has already made Evelyn into Eve points to the misogyny inherent in Hollywood’s appropriation of feminin­ ity when she refuses to reassign Tristessa’s gender because he is ineradicably male. In Mother’s world, Tristessa is ‘too much of a woman already for the good of the sex’, a comment that clearly illustrates the harm inflicted on women who conform to such a negative sense of self. Carter clarified this point in her essay ‘Notes from the Front Line’, which appeared in 1983: I am interested in myths . . .just because they are extraordinary lies designed to make people unfree . . . I wrote one anti-mythic novel in 1977, The Passion of New Eve - I conceived it as a feminist tract about the social creation of femininity, amongst other things.20

Carter’s ‘anti-mythic’ impulse emerges most vividly when Evelyn is surgically changed into Eve, only to suffer the same degradation and abuse Evelyn meted out to Leilah when he believed only in the suffering fem­ ininity represented by Tristessa. Later, at the brutal hands of Zero, Eve her­ self becomes the object of male abuse. As Carter observes in her essay ‘Love in a Cold Climate’, the ‘passion’ of the novel’s title refers not only to sexual desire but also to ‘the process of physical pain and denigration that Eve undergoes in her apprenticeship as a woman’.21 Exploited by Zero, Eve has to learn that there is nothing inevitable, natural, or right about the sexual abuse of women. Adopting a narrative strategy similar to Zahavi’s Dirty


The Infernal Desires of Angela Carter Weekend , Carter’s novel begins by presenting a repugnant version of ruthless male behaviour towards women that is overturned by violent retribution. But The Passion of New Eve, unlike Zahavi’s narrative, produces a much more complex cultural analysis of how men like Evelyn have been led to believe that the cruel treatment of women is natural. For Eve has not only become the victim of male violence. It is women who violate Evelyn, making him into Eve. Evelyn is captured by the band of Women and dragged bound and kicking to Beulah where his genitalia are removed with one fell swoop of a knife. The figure who performs this sacrificial act, Mother, stands as Carter’s ironic negation of Tristessa’s punishing definition of femininity. Huge, phenomenally active, a professional surgeon who has created her own feminist separatist world of Beulah through the clever use of science and technology, Mother is the one who takes aggressive retributive action against Evelyn for his appalling abuse of women, including her own daughter, Leilah. Mother first rapes and then mutilates Evelyn for her own megalo­ maniac satisfaction. As Nicole Ward Jouve observes: ‘she behaves like the Freudian little boy’s worst nightmare’.22 Led by Mother, the inhabitants of Beulah are a radical feminist sect who have renounced not only men but also phallic time. They seek to engender a feminine space outside history, creating a new era, the Year One, when the virgin Eve, having been parthenogenetically impregnated with Evelyn’s sperm, shall bring forth the new Messiah. With the aid of organ transplant surgery, Mother has turned herself into a mythic four-breasted figure. The two-page incantatory list of mythical figures —Cybele, Carridwen, maizequeen, com-queen, among coundess others (pp. 61-2) - links her to mother goddesses and nature goddesses around the world. Readers o f The Sadeian Woman will know that Carter saw the radical feminist romanticization of Mother Nature through such goddess-worship as ‘silly’ - nothing but ‘con­ solatory nonsense’: ‘This theory of maternal superiority is one of the most damaging of all consolatory fictions . . . it puts women in voluntary exile from the historical world, this world’ (p. 63). But, significantly, that is not exactly the effect of this episode in Carter’s novel. The text gives Mother awesome characteristics, ones that certainly overwhelm Evelyn, and which in turn may exert control over our response: Her ponderous feet were heavy enough to serve as illustrations of gravity, her hands, the shape of giant fig leaves, lay at rest on the bolsters of her knees. Her skin, wrinkled like the skin of a black olive, rucked like a Greek peasant’s goatskin bottle, looked as rich as though it might contain within itself the source of a marvellous, dark, revivifying river, as if she herself were the only oasis in this desert and her crack the source of all the life-giving water in the world. (The Passion of New Eve, p. 59)


Sexual and textual aggression in The Sadeian Woman and New Eve

Since the largeness and the weightiness invoked by this passage are never undercut elsewhere (even though much of the mystification is), the grand­ eur remains, partly because of Evelyn’s (soon to be Eve’s) continued awe of Mother, and partly because of the detailed complexity of characterization. In an interview with Lisa Appignanesi, Carter implies that one of the ways she was trying to deride the radical feminist adoption of mother-goddess archetypes and nurturing fructification was to remind us of the opposing element embodied by the Hindu goddess Kali, the goddess who enshrines the death-dealing indifference of real Nature: We split them [aspects of motherhood] up by pretending the wicked stepmother isn’t the real mother but that’s a particularly long, hard thing to think through because the women’s movement has concentrated on mothering a lot and it’s tended to romanticize it a bit.23

But does The Passion of New Eve deromanticize Mother? Carter’s creation of the mythic ‘Great Parricide’ and the ‘Grand Emasculator’ (p. 49) is so powerful that its vitality undermines the writer’s overt concern to mock radical feminist idealizations of the Earth Mother. So this passage does not so much deconstruct the archetypal myths of motherhood that radical fem­ inism readily embraced in the 1970s as shift them to a conventional and misogynistic - but perhaps, for Carter, absorbing - image of the castratory femme fatale. Unlike the Medusa-like ogre that the influential French feminist Hélène Cixous in the mid-1970s argued was patriarchy’s negative representa­ tion of strong women,24 Mother’s power and aggression are represented here as an overwhelming and enthralling force. Even though Mother is shown to be violent when she first rapes and then castrates Evelyn, and even though she may be supposed to embody a ‘consolatory nonsense’, the complexity of her characterization turns her into an enormously enjoyable and awe-inspiring violator. Certainly, The Passion of New Eve constantly stresses the unnaturalness of the technology needed to create cultural myths in Beulah. But making the extraordinary inventions that support Mother’s separatist universe kitsch and exaggerated is not necessarily an alienating device. Indeed, the intriguing unnaturalness of her domain may well inspire admiration for the huge will­ power and conviction that has forced such a strange world into being. For all his cynicism towards the political aims of Beulah, Evelyn none the less declares: ‘in spite of myself, in spite of the blatant spuriosity of my sur­ roundings, they sucked me down, crudely seduced me into a form of belief’ (p. 57). To be sure, the two-tiered breasts are often the subject of low comedy, to puncture the Mother’s awesomeness. But at the same time, her additional breasts add to her complexity. Here is Evelyn’s perception of Mother when she rapes him: ‘Her nipples leaped about like the bobbles on


The Infernal Desires of Angela Carter

the fringe of an old-fashioned, red plush curtain at a french window open on a storm’ (p. 64). The same impression is made when Mother castrates him: ‘I lay ill at ease on the operating table and saw that dark, serrated fringe of breast bob above me’ (p. 70). Here the mythic and the ordinary surely rein­ force, rather than deconstruct, each other. In a narrative that mixes the fant­ astic with the mundane, such hybridization adds further depth and resonance to the characterization of Mother, whose mythical substance - even i f ‘silly’ - constantly gains in power. Obviously, the novel shows that Mother’s views are completely wrong - since history overtakes her mythical world, makes it obsolete, and leads an uncomprehending Mother to a nervous breakdown. Her daughter Leilah, now the cool leader of a terrorist group fighting within the historical world for access to political power, clearly states that the feminist myths en­ gineered at Beulah are downright silly in the twentieth century. But the narrative curiously does not end on this note. Instead, it concludes with Eve’s magical experiences, again orchestrated by Mother, in the cave by the sea. Admittedly, Mother’s absence from this closing episode may be interpreted in diverse ways: as evidence of her moral and political bankruptcy; as Mother Nature’s mere indifference to humans; as the adult Eve’s need to assume her own destiny; or —in the words of the novel —as Mother’s ‘arcane theo­ logy that has gone undergound’ (p. 181). Mother’s absence from this scene, however, does not necessarily invalidate her enduring influence. Rather, her absence can simply make her seem more enigmatic and hence more like a mysterious archetype of femininity. Carter may have called The Passion of New Eve an ‘anti-mythic novel’. But in demystifying archetypes of femininity it invokes myths in a number of contradictory ways - ones that are pulled towards yet push against both feminism and patriarchy. Undeniably, the invocation of Mother problematizes the iconoclastic intentions of the novel, but, I would stress, it is precisely this that adds to the intricacy of Carter’s dynamic debate about the cultural production of femininity. At the start of The Sadeian Woman , Carter argues that the archetype of femininity that enshrines the ‘richness and fecundity of the earth’ is culturally so attractive that she admits: ‘I have almost seduced myself with it’ (p. 8). In the novel, the seductiveness of that same mysti­ fication in M other’s characterization can surely sway the reader. And the most seductive aspect - that which challenges the Hollywood construction of femininity as passive and suffering, on the one hand, and Beulah’s radical feminist creation of it as nurturing and fructifying, on the other - lies in the very violence and power that Mother wields. Mother stands as the engrossing, larger-than-life aggressor who rapes and then castrates Evelyn against his will - and such sexual violence is fit retri­ bution for his terrible abuse of women. Her aggression commands a seductive


Sexual and textual aggression in The Sadeian Woman and New Eve

power, and it seduces us to the last. Her final vindication comes when the newly born Eve is offered Evelyn’s genitals in a miniature refrigerator. Now experienced enough to know the full reality of being a woman, she rejects the precious phallus. Eve ‘laughs and shakes her head’ as Evelyn’s genitals ‘are sent skimming into the sea’ (p. 187). Thereafter, she can set out into a future where her child —the fruit of a transsexual and a transvestite —will grow up with entirely new concepts of masculinity and femininity, since the old ones have proved redundant. The novel, therefore, closes with Mother’s actions, if not her views, being upheld. Even if The Passion of New Eve makes Mother into a monster, split between radical feminist ‘consolatory nonsense’ and patriarchal misogyny, in the end the mighty female violator’s actions are shown to be a source of political enlightenment for both Eve and the reader. Both The Sadeian Woman and The Passion of New Eve engage in extremely complex ways with feminist debates about femininity that were very much of the time. They represent violent women for positive ends, shifting myths of femininity away from passive stereotypes that uphold suffering and eroticize victimization, suggesting instead that there are alternatives. Both works reveal that men are not by nature locked into misogynistic behaviour, nor are women condemned to be masochists at the hands of brutal men. In making this point, I am not arguing that all men and women of all classes, ethnicities and varied life experiences will invariably enjoy Carter’s fascination with violence. In fact, one of the experiences that led me to explore this issue in the first place was the reaction of a male colleague who was deeply dis­ turbed by The Passion of New Eve , deeming it an ‘appalling and obscene book’. (Interestingly, in the light of Carter’s argument in the Preface to The Sadeian Woman, what most troubled him was not the castration scenes but those involving Mother and her surgically added four breasts, an image that assaulted his fondness for the myth of the Earth Mother.) What I am saying is that for a range of feminist readers, the confrontation with female viol­ ence creates a productive opportunity to transgress cultural codes. Depictions of women wielding violence can be both demystifying and cathartic. In the 1970s, Carter took the initiative to show the exhilarating thrill of women’s sexual and textual aggression.


1. Susannah Clapp remarks: ‘She [Carter] had wanted to write about the parent-killer Lizzie Borden . . . what a fine fierce book we might have had’


The Infernal Desires of Angela Carter


3. 4. 5. 6.

(‘Introduction’, in Carter, American Ghosts and Old World Wonders (London: Chatto & Windus, 1993), pp. x—xi). The two stories featuring Lizzie Borden are ‘The Fall Axe River Murders’, in Angela Carter, Black Venus (London: Picador, 1986), pp. 101-21, and ‘Lizzie’s Tiger’, in Carter, American Ghosts and Old World Wonders, pp. 3-19. See Andrea Dworkin, Pornography: Men Possessing Women (London: W omen’s Press, 1981), and Woman Hating (New York: Dutton, 1992); Catherine Itzin, ed., Pornography: Women, Violence and Civil Liberties (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992); and Catharine A. MacKinnon, Only Words (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1993). Each of these studies construes sexual violence as inherendy misogynistic and implicit in male sexuality. Such a stance reinforces the longstanding, distorted view that men are predators and women are prey. Elaine Showalter, ‘Re-thinking the seventies: women writers and violence’, in Katherine Ackley, ed., Women and Violence in Literature: An Essay Collection (New York: Garland, 1990), p. 253. Philip Schlesinger, Russell Dobash, Rebecca Dobash and Kathy Weaver, Women Viewing Violence (London: British Film Institute, 1992), p. 169. Ibid., p. 170. Harriett Gilbert, ‘So long as it’s not sex and violence’, in Lynne Segal and Mary McIntosh, eds, Sex Exposed: Sexuality and the Pornography Debate (London: Virago, 1992), pp. 228-9.

7. Helen Zahavi, Dirty Weekend (London: Flamingo, 1991), p. 160. 8. Valerie Solanas, The S.C.U .M . Manifesto (New York: Olympia Press, 1968). ‘SCUM ’ stands for the Society for Cutting Up Men. 9. Angela Carter, ‘Sade and the sexual struggle’, Observer Magazine, 25 March 1979, pp. 54-5. 10. Angela Carter, The Sadeian Woman: An Exercise in Cultural History (London: Virago, 1979), p. 38. Further page references to this edition are given in the text. 11. Paulina Palmer, ‘From “coded mannequin” to bird-woman: Angela Carter’s magic flight’, in Sue Roe, ed., Women Reading Women’s Writing (Brighton: Harvester Press, 1987), pp. 194—5. 12. For an essay that claims that Carter unreservedly praises Juliette, see Avis Lewallan, ‘Wayward girls but wicked women? Female sexuality in Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber, in Clive Bloom and Gary Day, eds, Perspectives on Pornography (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1988), pp. 144-58. 13. Angela Carter, The Passion of New Eve (London: Virago, 82),19p. 25.Further page references to this edition are given in the text. 14. John Haffenden, ‘Angela Carter’, in Haffenden, Novelists in Interview (London: Methuen, 1985), p. 86. 15. Joan Riviere, ‘Womanliness as a masquerade’, International Journal of PsychoAnalysis 10 (1929), pp. 303—13, reprinted in Victor Burgin, James Donald and Cora Kaplan, eds, Formations of Fantasy (London: Methuen, 1986), pp. 35-44. 16. The key work on gender performance is Judith Butler, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (New York: Routledge, 1990). A number of critics have considered the performative aspects of gender in relation to Carter’s work. See, for example, Paulina Palmer, ‘Gender as performance in the fiction of Angela Carter and Margaret Atwood’, Chapter 1 in this volume. 17. Eve’s very material transsexuality points to a broader feministdebateon androgyny that took place in the 1960s and 1970s. Among essentialist feminist


Sexual and textual aggression in The Sadeian Woman and New Eve

18. 19. 20. 21. 22. 23. 24.

critics, androgyny was upheld as a political ideal to which men and women had to strive. See, for example, Carolyn Heilbrun, Towards a Recognition of Androgyny (New York: Norton, 1964), and June Singer, Androgyny: Towards a New Theory of Sexuality (New York: Doubleday, 1976). Carter, ‘Love in a Cold Climate’, in Angela Carter, Nothing Sacred: Selected Essays (London: Virago, 1992), p. 170. Laura Mulvey, Visual pleasure and narrative cinema’, in Mulvey, Visual and Other Pleasures (London: Macmillan, 1989), pp. 14-26. Angela Carter, ‘Notes from the Front Line’, in Michelene Wandor, ed., On Gender and Writing (London: Pandora, 1983), p. 71. Carter, ‘Love in a Cold Climate’, p. 170. Nicole Ward Jouve, ‘Mother is a figure of speech’, in Loma Sage, ed., Flesh and the Mirror: Essays on the Art of Angela Carter (London: Virago, 1994), p. 156. Lisa Appignanesi, Writers in Conversation: Angela Carter, video (London: Institute of Contemporary Arts, 1987). Hélène Cixous, ‘Laugh of the Medusa’, in Elaine Marks and Isabelle de Courtivron, eds, New French Feminisms (Brighton: Harvester Press, 1981), pp. 245-64.



Unexpected geometries: transgressive symbolism and the transsexual subject in Angela Carter's The Passion of

New Eve

Heather L. Johnson

In her highly influential essay ‘The Empire Strikes Back: a posttransexual manifesto’, Sandy Stone draws attention to the theoretical opportunity afforded by the transsexual body. The transsexual, she argues, enables us to recognize that ‘[bjodies are screens on which we see projected the momentary settlements that emerge from ongoing struggles over beliefs and practices within the academic and medical communities’.1 Stone repeatedly characterizes transsexuals as ‘screens’, ‘embodied texts’ and ‘genres’.2 For the field of gender studies, such an emphasis on the textuality of the gendertransgressive figure3 has come to highlight a significant tension: between its potential for theorization, as a ‘screen’ onto which we can map the ‘ongoing struggles’ for comprehension about gender identity, and the significance of autobiographical narrative in presenting such a figure’s subjective experience and desires. Angela Carter’s novel The Passion of New Eve (1977) directly engages with this tension in the depiction of her very ‘textual’ transsexual, Eve(lyn). Addressing this tension in the novel immediately raises two questions. How does Carter, on the one hand, reproduce the phenomenon of the trans­ sexual as blank text to be ‘written’ by other discourses? Certainly we will see how she focuses a ‘theorization’ of gender on the character of Evelyn (‘change in the appearance will restructure the essence’, Sophia instructs Evelyn, for example4). He comes to refer beyond his immediate role as protagonist to the arena of debate concerning gender, sexuality and desire


Transgressive symbolism and the transsexual subject in New Eve

- to the extent that he may be seen to represent this debate itself. Carter complements and amplifies Evelyn’s metaphorical role through two prin­ cipal images in the novel: that of the New World and the philosophy of alchemy. On the other hand, the second question which arises is this: what would it mean to read the novel and its ‘metaphorical’ chimeras of the transvestite and transsexual in the context of the 1960s and 1970s, a time that saw widely reported cases of gender reassignment and the publication of several transsexuals’ autobiographies? For Carter’s text reveals some intriguing simil­ arities to these concurrent non-fictional accounts of transgender experience, addressing the problematic relation of fantasy and history in autobiography - a relation which, for the transsexual, involves the disclosure or denial of an ‘other’ gendered past. Comparison with this non-fiction reveals, for in­ stance, that in contrast to the absence in transsexual self-presentations, as Stone notes, of an ‘erotic sense of their own bodies’, the configurations of desire recounted in Eve(lyn)’s narrative become all the more conspicuous.5 To historicize The Passion of New Eve in this way is indeed to underline the avant-garde nature of Carter’s writing. Her novel seems to pre-empt, by nearly two decades, recent developments in the discipline of gender studies such as the intersection of theory and transsexual autobiography in the work of Stone, Kate Bornstein and others.6 More specifically, I would argue that in her protagonist’s declaration of his/her complex history of gender identi­ fication, Carter prefigures the provocative notion of a ‘post-transsexual’ identity.


‘In the beginning all the world was America’ — so the opening epigraph of the novel declares. This customary romantic evocation of the New World resonates throughout the narrative with its connotations of origins and new frontiers, the Arcadian birthplace of a technological new Eve. The English­ man Evelyn’s expectations of America as a ‘place of transgression’ (p. 63) find confirmation when this symbol of uncharted territory furnishes an ex­ ploration into the nature of gender identity. This relation of gender and place occurs partly through numerous tropic associations of the landscape as (feminine) body, and the body as landscape: the desert, for example, is ‘the post-menopausal part of the earth’, while later Eve imagines she has landed ‘on one of my own breasts, on the left one’ (pp. 40, 151). The metaphor of the New World also implies a suspension of the order and


The Infernal Desires of Angela Carter

accepted knowledge of an Old World, clearly associated in the novel with a polarized view of gender. The resulting sense of unlimited possibility drives the fantastic tale of Evelyn’s transformation and creates a plausible stage for the appearance of the gender-transgressive figure. While Carter’s quotation of John Locke sounds utopian and nostalgic — ‘In the beginning all the world was America’ - her use of this sentiment may be more sophisticated than it might appear. For in context, this Lockean ideal does not simply refer to some imaginary, Edenic place, but specifically addresses the nature of a fledgling nation’s economy. In his Essay Concerning the True Original, Extent and End of Civil Government (1690), from which the epigraph is taken, Locke contrasts the natural and monetary values which the settlers of America ascribe to the land. Carter’s use of the quotation arguably draws on this interest in the economic, as it highlights the distinc­ tion between natural and acquired elements that forms the central concern of the novel. ‘America’, then, introduces the notion of an economy of identity in which gender traits are traded back and forth. Here what is ‘natural’, according to our usual understanding of gender, becomes part of a complex economy: a cultural and political economy of gender, race and sexual preference. The exchange or transmission of gender characteristics in the novel pro­ ceeds by various means: through infection (and here gender is disturbingly yoked to race) - Evelyn believes he is blighted by ‘the sickness of the ghetto and the slow delirious sickness of femininity’ (p. 37); through violence — Mother’s wave of the scalpel, Zero’s brutal strip of Tristessa; and through imaginative re-creation - the picture-puzzle models of identity which appear in the scene of dismembered waxworks. ‘America’ thereby comes to rep­ resent a darker and potentially more threatening scene than its convention as a pastoral ideal. W hen Evelyn’s secure sense of masculinity is jeopardized by M other’s assistants in Beulah, he expresses his dread in these terms: I felt the dull pressure of the desert, of the mountains beyond the desert, of the vast prairies, the grazing cattle, the com; I felt upon me the whole heaviness of that entire continent with its cities and its coinage, its mines, its foundries, its wars and its mythologies imposing itself in all its immensity, like the night-mare, upon my breast. (p. 52)

It is not only the vastness of the place that disorients the newly arrived ex­ plorer, it is also the seemingly infinite possibilities of circulation and exchange - intimated through the Lockean allusion - that appear overwhelming. The introduction of Baroslav the alchemist, Evelyn’s neighbour in New York, provides a further hint of impending chaos, as it signals the second metaphorical framework for the presentation of the gender-transgressive figure: the symbolism of alchemy. In fact, the two tropes of America and


Transgressive symbolism and the transsexual subject in New Eve

alchemy eventually intersect in the subterranean location of Evelyn’s sexual transformation: ‘Beulah is a profane place. It is a crucible’ (p. 49). This ref­ erence to the vessel of material transmutation is anticipated by the discov­ eries Evelyn makes in Baroslav’s room: the picture of the ‘hermaphrodite carrying a golden egg’ (p. 13), the scientific gadgetry, and his shelves of mysterious alchemical texts. For a writer such as Carter, the attraction of alchemical imagery lies in its wealth of colourful images, emblematic scenes and baroque myths. Her work shares a predilection for this source with literature written as early as the seventeenth century, when, Charles Nicholl writes, ‘for those whose business and pleasure was language . . . the rich exuberance of alchemical imagery was a goldmine’.7 Certainly Carter’s delight in the play of such language is easily perceptible. In The Passion of New Eve , she loosely patterns the narrative after the principal stages described in alchemical theory: the ‘nigredo’ or prima materia is embodied by Leilah; a state of ‘chaos’ persists in this Mad Max version of New York City and the desert beyond; Tristessa’s glass house is an exaggerated version of the hermetic vessel as a ‘spherical or circular house of glass’;8 the chymical wedding of Sol and Luna and the resultant manifestation of the hermaphrodite are obviously recreated by Eve and Tristessa in their moment of physical union; the piece of amber which Eve discovers during her surreal trip underground is a common symbol of alchemical gold; and, as if fashioning a cosmic diagram, all four elements ultimately converge at the novel’s end. Carter’s emphasis on the language that structures alchemy effects a kind of demythologizing of the alchemical narrative itself - a practice analogous to her well-known treatment of the fairy-tale.9 In this respect, Carter fol­ lows Jung’s disentanglement of the scientific and religious contents of alchemy in order to point to ‘the signal connection between our modem psycho­ logy of the unconscious and alchemical symbolism’.10 Furthermore, Carter’s disclosure of the relation between the metaphorical and the literal in ‘the living metaphor’ intersects with Jung’s own understanding of the operation and nature of symbol as ‘neither abstract nor concrete, neither rational nor irrational, neither real nor unreal. It is always both.’11 Carter’s fiction demon­ strates an acute awareness of this duality in its intricate play of metaphor. While the allegorical scheme provides The Passion of New Eve with a ready-made narrative structure, most significant here are the gendered aspects of this alchemical narrative and its emphasis on metamorphosis. The prac­ tice of alchemy involved the identification of contrasting forces among the elements, and this was managed through a series of carefully delineated binarisms. There was attraction and repulsion between these opposites, ‘between the metals, between the Sun and Moon, between man and woman . . . with the intention of making clear the fundamental forces of the Universe’.12


The Infernal Desires of Angela Carter

The usefulness of such imagery in Carter’s novel is clear when we realize that all of these forces, including the discovered metals, were characterized as masculine or feminine. One of the alchemical books cited in Baroslav’s library, Michael Maier’s Atalanta Fugiens, makes this practice explicit. The motto of the thirtieth Emblem reads: ‘The sun needs the moon, as the cock needs the h en /13 From the outset, Carter establishes a series of polarities along gender-specific lines in Evelyn’s male narrative in New York, and then proceeds to emphasize the dominant aspect of a particular gender by reference to the sun or moon in ascendance. For instance, she heralds the imminent assault on Tristessa’s female identity through two concurrent events: Zero smashing his way into the house, while ‘the moon slid behind the cliff’ (p. 112). Once the transvestite has been disrobed, his first erection coincides with the humorous ‘brightening of the sky that hinted the sun was about to rise’ (p. 137). When their multiple selves finally merge in the Platonic image of the couple’s sexual union, the event is governed by both the sun, which melts gold into ‘alchemical gold’, and the moon, ‘enough moonlight to . . . perform the ritual of the dissolution of the contents of the crucible’ (p. 150) —the contents of this desert crucible being the gold and silver of their merged and exchanged genders. Equally important for Carter’s purposes is alchemy’s focus on meta­ morphosis and refinement. Even the title of Atalanta Fugiens takes its name from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, evidence of alchemy’s preoccupation with trans­ formations. Perhaps in this respect the most telling of alchemical images in The Passion of New Eve are the enormous tears of glass scattered in the grounds of Tristessa’s desert mansion. Manget’s Bibliotheca Chemica Curiosa (1702), which Carter also places in Baroslav’s collection, contains an illus­ tration of a glass-blower making such a shape. Tears are important in alchemy as they symbolize sorrow at the death of the hermaphrodite, and the alembic was said to ‘weep’ during the process of distillation. The tear shape clearly represents the action of falling, of movement, while in Tristessa’s sculptures this moment of metamorphosis is captured and frozen in its glass form.14 The very rhythm of the alchemical opus is one of liquefaction and coagulation, process and stasis. This becomes an apt metaphor for the negotiated experience of gender identity explored in Carter’s novel, as it is shown moving through periods of dissolution and moments of fixity.

II It is within this arena of metaphors - this site of play, possibility and exchange —that Carter introduces the gender-transgressive figure. Initially,


Transgress we symbolism and the transsexual subject in New Eve

Evelyn and Tristessa embody fixed and polarized positions of gender in rela­ tion to one another. Soon, however, they experience that same dynamic across their own individual bodies. For instance, the classic relation of male gaze and female object is present in the opening scene when Evelyn is aroused by the projection of Tristessa’s image on the cinema screen. Sim­ ilarly, when he later describes Leilah as ‘a visitor in her own flesh’ (p. 27), Evelyn seems to sense the discrepancy between an inferred, elusive subject­ ivity (invisible and therefore threatening to him) and her body as defined by a conventionally heterosexual paradigm of desire. His physical relation­ ship with Leilah ends in feelings of disgust - a response to her differences from him as she comes to embody maternity, blackness and the feminine. These categories of alterity are all seen as disruptive, and necessary, to the world of the ‘disembodied consciousness’, where the domination of the rational depends, as Jane Gallop argues, ‘on other sexes, classes, and races to embody the body’, and it is in a world grounded on this cultural premiss that Evelyn centres himself.15 Accordingly, he dreams o f ‘meeting Tristessa, she stark naked, tied, per­ haps to a tree in a midnight forest’ (p. 7). This image is soon explicitly allied to the experience of suffering, when Baroslav tells the story of the Gestapo murder of his wife during which ‘he, tied to a tree in a forest clear­ ing, watched all and could do nothing’ (p. 14). While the two images have distinctive contexts, this repetition noticeably replaces the fetishized female of the first scene with a male subject, and it is he who gives voice to the agony of the experience. Here the fantasized woman is silent and passive, while the historical man in speaking is active. Evelyn’s male narrative cer­ tainly endorses this stereotypical and hierarchical view of gender relations. Once he has been surgically provided with a replicated female body, Eve(lyn) transfers this dichotomous relation onto himself, thereby repro­ ducing a perception of the self that is recognizably transvestite in character. He feels a discrepancy between outward female appearance and a sense of himself as essentially or internally male. Again, the interior/exterior model of subjectivity supports an identification of the body with the female and the mind with the male. Invoking the metaphor of the New World, Carter describes Eve(lyn) in a narcissistic pose: ‘I delighted me . . . I drew my dis­ coverer’s hand along the taut line of my shin and my thigh’ (p. 146). In fact, he reacts to his body as if it were the body of a woman he desires: ‘the cock in my head, still, twitched at the sight of myself’ (p. 75). Here we encounter the first sign of the intriguing shape assumed by desire in Carter’s novel. It is this distinctive configuration of desire that prompts a shift in the focus of our present attention from the allegorical to the historical, as Carter’s portrayal invites comparison to non-fictional accounts of transgender experi­ ence. For Eve(lyn)’s perception of his body in this case is strikingly similar


The Infernal Desires of Angela Carter

to the transsexual Renée Richards’s autobiographical account of her own post-operative moment when shown her newly constructed genitals: ‘What I saw was essentially what I had seen so many times between the legs of the women with whom I’d been intimate.’16 Surely we have to question the gender status of the T in this passage, for although Richards presents this as his first thought as a ‘woman’, it certainly seems to speak from his ^re-operative subject position as a man. In Evelyn’s case, since he is deter­ mined to reverse the surgery that Mother performed, he first reacts to the new female body as a garment he will wear only temporarily. So, while Evelyn does eventually approximate the subjecthood of the transsexual, this shift originates in the initial reaction of the transvestite. Tristessa is complicit in a similar projection of this dynamic onto his own body in his identity as transvestite. Enacting the trajectory of male desire across the feminine body which is his own, Tristessa reproduces the rela­ tion of a male artist to an objectified female subject. He fetishizes parts of his body in a way accurately characteristic of the male transvestite. The psychologist Robert Stoller, one of the principal theorists of transvestism in the 1960s, gives an example of this in an account provided by one of his subjects: ‘Sometimes in my mind I could mostly imagine the legs [his own] as being girls’ legs.’17 The desiring viewer and the desired object, usually distinct figures, are here confined within the one body. Indeed, it is productive to consider Carter’s fictional characters in rela­ tion to the work of theorists such as Stoller. The mid-1960s and early 1970s saw the establishment of gender identity clinics and research programmes devoted to the study of gender dysphoria syndrome. The First International Symposium on Gender Identity was held in London in July 1969 and was widely reported in the media. Yet, as we have seen in the example of Richards, it was not just professional psychologists and social science re­ searchers who recorded accounts of gender transgression; the men (and less commonly the women) who cross-dressed or underwent sex-reassignment surgery began to write about their experience. These autobiographical accounts reveal some striking preoccupations in common. Most noticeable is the transsexual’s repeated identification with Hollywood film stars such as Greta Garbo, Bette Davis and Marlene Dietrich - stars in fact who are the recognized queens of camp. So even when surgery has been carried out, there persists an understanding of gender as performance. For the performative emphasis of camp means, as Susan Sontag argues, that to perceive camp in a person is to ‘understand Beingas-Playing-a-Role’.18 In reading transsexuals’ autobiographies, one realizes that in many cases they do not entirely abandon the camp style traditionally associated with the transvestite - the ‘arabesques of kitsch and hyperbole’ (p. 5) prevalent in Tristessa’s autobiography. For instance, in her book Man


Transgressive symbolism and the transsexual subject in New Eve Into Woman (1970), Dawn Langley Simmons (like Evelyn), previously an Englishman before travelling to what she calls ‘the Promised Land’ of America for a sex-change operation, describes the scene of her wedding through a riotously extravagant comparison: ‘Daddy led me down, to a recording of Andy Williams singing the immortal Battle Hymn of the Re­ public, just as he had done at Senator Robert F. Kennedy’s funeral.’19 If, as Sontag puts it, camp ‘neutralizes moral indignation and sponsors playfulness’,20 then Carter produces a similar tone in The Passion of New Eve , as it addresses issues of gender identity reflecting her own intellectual engagement with contemporary theory, while at the same time presenting the reader with images which seem to counteract these potentially more sober aspects of the novel. The effects of camp can often be disconcerting: Simmons’s earnestly italicized declaration that ‘[t]he doctors made me whole, but my husband made me a woman 21 demonstrates how camp transcends seriousness, and yet this comic reading is only possible at the expense of the clearly serious decision to alter the body surgically. Behind the drama of this last account, too, lies the inference that desire is contingent on the interaction of specific, that is heterosexual, configura­ tions of genitalia, and that a ‘complete’ gender identity is only won on this basis.22 Eve(lyn)’s full acceptance of her identity as a woman is measured along the lines of Simmons’s initiation: the Children’s Crusade militia, who have murdered Tristessa after spying the pair during sexual intercourse, are informed by Eve of her identity and the nature of her relationship: ‘I said, my name was Eve and the man they so carelessly disposed of had been my husband’ (pp. 159—60). On the one hand, this version of events presents a view of desire and gender identity based on heterosexual physicality; on the other, the narrative style through which this is expressed — ‘the man they so carelessly disposed o f - persists in a camp parody which defers any serious statement about the nature of desire. Carter’s discerning use of camp styles and characters to underscore issues of gender is not entirely surprising, given the period in which she was writ­ ing this novel. The sexual politics debate of the 1960s and 1970s, as Andrew Ross points out, focused on ‘questions camp had already highlighted about the relation between “artifice” and “nature” in the construction of sexuality and gender identity’.23 With her exaggerated femininity and her association with the theatre and performance, Tristessa is clearly the embodiment of camp in The Passion of New Eve . Tristessa’s elusive identity seems to reside somewhere in the many fictional roles she dramatizes and in the wardrobe of variously gendered costumes from old Hollywood films. In assuming the exaggerated shape of drag queen, her own subjectivity is triply mediated by the role of starlet, the fictional heroines she plays, and the cinema screen itself. Consequently, the multiply coded figure acts as a ‘screen’ onto which


The Infernal Desires of Angela Carter

definitions of femininity and male desire are projected. Appearing to Eve(lyn) ‘in seven veils of celluloid’, Tristessa demonstrates ‘every kitsch excess of the mode of femininity’ (p. 71). Nevertheless, both modes of gender flicker across the transvestite’s face. As they escape together in the abandoned helicopter, Eve(lyn) observes Tristessa looking back at the shattered house: ‘he, she was lifted as on a wire, the mimic flight of the theatre, from the tomb she’d made for herself; he looked about him with the curiosity of Lazarus’ (p. 143). The interchange of pronouns, signifying the simultaneous presence of both genders at this moment, is expressed in terms of mimetic performance and the trickery of ghostly resurrection. The drag queen’s metaphoric role is further highlighted when we con­ sider the differences between her gender performance and that of Eve(lyn). As cross-dressers, both Tristessa and, in certain circumstances, Eve(lyn) are concerned with the act of ‘passing’. To pass is to conform to a set of cul­ turally determined signs, and by this means cross-dressers and non-cross­ dressers alike attempt to project a ‘pure’, uncomplicated gender identity. In Tristessa’s case, passing leads to a kind of logical conclusion: invisibility. When, after years of reclusion in her glass house, the intruders arrive to enact Zero’s revenge, she pretends to be another of the waxwork figures in her mausoleum, as she wants to be unseen. The frequent references to ‘translucent skin’ - his flesh seems ‘composed of light’, he ‘flickered upon the air’ (pp. 143, 147) - suggest an ethereality which belies any real presence. She lives in ‘a nameless zone’ (p. 126) and has no ‘real name’ (p. 144), except her stage name, itself an abstraction of emotion, ‘Tristessa’: sadness and suffering. In fact, it is very like many drag names which themselves declare their metaphoric nature and are linked to performed identity. Eve(lyn) too is described in the act of passing while she is not yet fully reconciled to her new body. During the consummation with Tristessa (in the male role), she is careful to mimic a woman’s pleasure, ‘heretofore, seen but never experienced’ (p. 147), and so emits a calculated sigh at a strategic moment. Yet perhaps the most cunning act of passing which Eve(lyn) per­ forms is the act of narration itself. The reader catches a glimpse of this per­ formance when his/her narration slips during a sexual attack by Zero which makes the victim cry. At first the tears are explained as an altruistic and heroic measure to ensure that the distraught and envious wives of Zero are not heard by him. ‘No. I’m lying’, the narrator then confesses, ‘I cried because of the pain’ (p. 107). In the terms of the novel, this admission of pretence may be read as gender-based. The initial impulse is to deny the physical intrusion and relate the incident in his accustomed voice of male bravado, before shifting into a ‘feminine’ register (that is, like Tristessa). In the narrator’s abrupt change of story, Carter makes explicit both the gendered nature of fiction and the fictive nature of gender.


Transgressive symbolism and the transsexual subject in New Eve

III At this point in the narrative, a distinction begins to emerge between the treatment of the transvestite and that of the transsexual. Evelyn’s narration in the first person offers a fully declared presence - the story of his/her transformation constitutes the narrative itself By contrast, Tristessa’s history is lost. The reminiscences she shares with Eve(lyn) are as evidendy fabrica­ tions as the ‘paper-back ghosted autobiography printed some time in the fifties’ (p. 105). The fictive autobiography she relates —a ‘symbolic schema’ designed to attest to her female identity - places her as a freak in a side­ show; she describes the life of an acrobat in a circus complete with wrest­ ling dwarfs and a piano-playing horse. Her performances on screen and her solitary life in the desert seem to have fixed her within an image outside time. Deciding that Tristessa must be mad and treating her as an object of pity, Eve(lyn) further consigns the transvestite to a marginal position in relation to him/herself In a sense Tristessa becomes the figure onto which Eve(lyn) projects her own anxiety about her sexual status. If, as Anne Herrmann argues, ‘the transvestite functions as mediator between the symbols of [social] forma­ tions’,24 it is possible to read the character of Tristessa as such a mediator, or medium, between the two gender formations of the male ‘Evelyn’ and the fully realized female ‘Eve’ at the close of the novel. The interaction with the body of the transvestite coincides with Eve(lyn)’s most problem­ atic stage of psychological transformation. Furthermore, the revelation of Tristessa’s male sex occasions a wider sense of crisis as it affects seemingly stable cultural codes. Certainly, the discovery of Tristessa’s dual nature excites a dramatic response among Zero’s group, whose understanding of their own world, divided neatly along the strict binary lines of gender, is severely disturbed by this disclosure. Nevertheless, it is both gender-transgressive figures who pose a threat to the binary world-view of other characters. As Zero seeks to arrest sexual indeterminacy and impose the binary logic of marriage on them, his band gather the scattered limbs of the destroyed waxwork bodies to construct witnesses for the event: they put the figures together haphazardly, so Ramon Navarro’s head was perched on Jean Harlow’s torso and had one arm from John Barrymore Junior, the other from Marilyn Monroe and legs from yet other donors all assembled in haste, so they looked like picture-puzzles. (p. 134)

The group intend these cubist mannequins to stand as a cruel parody of the cross-dressed and ambiguously gendered couple who kneel before them.


The Infernal Desires of Angela Carter

The ‘picture-puzzle’ figures are inanimate reflections of Tristessa and Eve(lyn) in this regard,25 and placing the couple within the paradigm of heterosexu­ ality becomes an attempt to ‘solve’ the visual anomalies with which their attackers have been confronted.26 The metaphor of a puzzle has been employed by the gender-transgressive figure to account for a perceived disparity between external bodily appear­ ance and an internal sense of identity. Jan Morris, for instance, chose Con­ undrum as the title for her autobiography. Published three years before The Passion of New Eve , it chronicles his surgical transformation into a woman, and describes transsexuals as ‘life-long puzzlers’ who are driven to ‘achieve completeness’.27 Carter takes the idea of self-composition and gender assignment beyond the images of parody constructed from the wax models, in her description of the swimming pool full of their severed limbs which have been flung into it as the glass house spins off its own foundations. We are left with an image of gendered fragments - the bobbing torso, Zero’s wooden leg —while the remaining parts could be from either sex: ‘arms and legs that might have belonged to anyone’ (p. 142). During all the confusion of this apocalyptic scene, Eve(lyn) and Tristessa gaze into this pool of gender pos­ sibility - a space which figures the potential disturbance of fixed and polar­ ized representations of gender identity such as the binarisms in hermetic philosophy, or the normative construction of heterosexual marriage. This image is suggestive of the fluidity, and of the reconstituted elements which, as Stone proposes, may in fact shape the gender-transgressive identity: In the transsexual as text we may find the potential to map the refigured body onto conventional gender discourse and thereby disrupt it, to take advantage of the dissonances created by such a juxtaposition to fragment and reconstitute the elements of gender in new and unexpected geometries.28


The disruptive potential of such new configurations seems to point both to liberating possibilities in thinking about gender relations and to a posi­ tion in which desire itself is caught up in a solipsistic field of self-reflection - ‘I delighted me’. Each of these conclusions may be reached from a read­ ing of one of the novel’s emblematic scenes in particular, a single thread of intertextual allusion which demonstrates the constitutive deferral of fixed


Transgressive symbolism and the transsexual subject in New Eve

meaning in Carter’s narrative, especially in its allegorical play. For in addi­ tion to the pool of gender fluidity and the parodie waxwork figures at the wedding, an unexpected geometry also appears as the centrepiece of the novel: the dream-like sequence of union in the desert. W hen they are alone in this scene, Eve beckons Tristessa and then relates how ‘he approached me as warily as the unicorn in the tapestry at the Musée de Cluny edges towards the virgin’ (p. 146). As in so many depictions of the unicorn and the virgin, the tapestries to which Carter refers, ‘The Lady with the Unicom ’, also portray the lady holding up a mirror to the unicorn as he approaches her.29 The mirror has an important role in the capture and death of the unicorn, and this scene in The Passion of New Eve obviously prefigures Tristessa’s murder. Yet perhaps we might regard the absence of the mirror in this tableau vivant as bearing some significance in itself. Could it be that Tristessa is drawn to the ‘virgin’ Eve because he is lured by his own likeness? Certainly, they have already appeared as reflections of one another. Eve finds herself reflected in her partner: ‘I saw in his face how beautiful I was’.30 The recurrence of reflective surfaces in the novel points to desire as primarily narcissistic. This scene has been read diversely as a parody of sexual relations in a romantic mode and as a return to the Platonic ideal by critics such as Susan Suleiman,31 when in fact it describes a trajectory of desire which begins and ends in the self. W hen the persona of ‘Tristessa’ becomes the transvestite’s own sense of self, it is clear that a system of representation, in which a specific model of gender identity is inscribed, has marked itself onto the body, and it is across this body itself that desire finds expression. To return to the analogy of the unicorn story, the identity of the virgin is particularly noteworthy here, for Tristessa herself is also virginal. Not only is she dressed in the white satin bridal gown by Zero’s followers, but the depiction of Tristessa in flight from the intruders is one reminiscent of the Gothic heroine who is under threat of rape —she flees to the tower in a white and flowing diaphanous dress. So both gender-transgressive figures are positioned in the role of the sacrificial. This further problematizes the opera­ tion of desire in this scene. We might read this innocent figure through the discourse of Sadeian pedagogy where the pupil’s virginity presents a ‘blank’ onto which the desires of others are projected. Such an interpretation con­ firms the figurative function of Tristessa’s body, and repeats a narcissistic model of desire, since those who are ‘twinned’ desire one another, as each betrays to the other the difference within themselves. As a myth bearing Christian symbolism as well as erotic content, the story of the unicorn shares the betrayal and sacrifice that characterizes the Christ-like persecution Tristessa endures. Even in his greatest moment of male sexual potency, the transvestite betrays this resemblance to Eve(lyn):


The Infernal Desires of Angela Carter

‘I’d know your skull on Golgotha, Tristessa’ (p. 149). The correlation to Christ in fact appears in the alchemical opus, and the iconography associated with the unicorn shares the symbols of alchemy such as the sun and the moon. The analogy of the unicorn, depicted as a lunar creature, proceeds then in Tristessa’s luminous embodiment as ‘a materialisation of the moon’ (p. 151). Yet the figure of the unicorn has also been associated with a penetrative, phallic masculine identity, and it therefore would seem to incorporate the same degree of nebulous gender identification as Tristessa herself in the role of transvestite, and indeed to suggest equally mysterious origins. This scene reveals a crucial relation between gender and narration, when we remember that their union translates into a bizarre and fantastic encoun­ ter because we have read the history of the participants. They appear to be a man and woman embracing, but we know the image constitutes more than this simple binary equation indicates. Carter’s emphasis on the con­ struction of the gendered subject in this novel means that first we read some history of the characters and then our knowledge of their histories creates the fascination present at the climactic moment - no frisson of nar­ rative pleasure beyond the conventional romance plot would be experienced by the reader without this history. The transvestite or transsexual who refers to the history of its pre-transgressive past ensures the legibility of a subject­ ivity which truly subverts the hegemonic binarism of heterosexuality and its commonly polarized model of gender identification. This emphasis on history and the significance of authentic biography are critical when reading Carter’s novel alongside transsexual autobiographies. We have seen that Tristessa presents to Eve(lyn) a fictive, ‘purely’ female biography of her life, and, in fact, for the duration of his/her captivity in Zero’s harem, Eve(lyn) also devises a history as a means of survival: T fabric­ ated an autobiography, a cruel mother who kept me locked in the coalshed, a lustful step-father’ (p. 87). These self-constructions should be read in the context of the conditioned need to pass as either one sex or the other, rather than a textual combination of the two. As Judith Schapiro observes, the project of autobiographical reconstruction in which transsexuals are engaged, although more focused and motivated from the one that all of us pursue, is not entirely different in kind. W e must all repress information that creates problems for culturally canonical narratives of identity and the self, and consistency in gender attribution is very much a part of this.32

It is understandable, therefore, that the transsexual, referring to the maleidentified part of his/her life, wishes that ‘all those wasted years had been blotted out’, or regards aspects of the past as ‘simply not being there’.33 While it is clear that Carter’s two gender-transgressive characters have much in


Transgressive symbolism and the transsexual subject in New Eve

common, ‘mysteriously twinned by [their] synthetic life’ (p. 125), it is this question of biography which firmly sets them apart. Although Tristessa per­ sists with a fictional biography which preserves her female identity, Eve(lyn) reads both genders in her counterpart - in her behaviour and in his biography. The inclusion of both ‘he’ and ‘she’ in relation to Tristessa - remember ‘he, she was lifted as on a wire’ - is Eve(lyn)’s reading of the companion’s body, as a means of locating him/herself in the world through the discovery of a likeness. Transsexual subjectivity here seems ideally grounded in the ability to read, and display, many aspects of gender simultaneously. The presentation of a transsexual’s pre-operative history, that is, disclos­ ing ‘his’ male history as well as ‘her’ new present history, has recently been designated by Stone as ‘posttranssexual’.34 We can apply the same term to Carter’s novel itself, as it recounts events through Eve(lyn)’s various sub­ ject positions. It is therefore possible to locate the emergence of a post­ transsexual subject in Eve(lyn)’s role as narrator. The invisible, intervening space between male and female identity created, but denied, during the shift from one to the other, seems to have been recovered in The Passion of New Eve. As the autobiographical accounts of the same period betray a struggle between repression and disclosure of the former gendered self, Carter’s novel seems to offer a chronicle of the missing history, albeit fantastic, of trans­ sexual transformation and experience, and uncovers the sense of process, of becoming, which underlies the appearance of a ‘pure’ gendered self. The Passion of New Eve tries, finally, to capture the nature of what Majorie Garber suggests is the ‘third term’: ‘a mode of articulation, a way of describing a space of possibility’.35 Against the order of hegemonic gen­ der formations, Carter may be inferring that the chaos which the alchemist predicted and Eve(lyn) encounters is not a state of ignorance, but a place which makes possible new meaning. This ‘place’ is further circumscribed by temporal limitations in that a realization of new, complex models of gender can only be glimpsed, in the mind of a character and in the text itself Evelyn describes his intention of self-discovery in terms of the spatial: I would go to the desert. . . the arid zone, there to find, chimera of chimeras, there, in the ocean of sand, among the bleached rocks of the untenanted part of the world, I thought I might find that most elusive of all chimeras, myself. (P- 38)

Evelyn’s search takes him through a maze of gender configurations in order to realize or create his own subjectivity, and his quest ends with the dis­ covery of a ‘miraculous, seminal, intermediate being whose nature I grasped in the desert’ (p. 185). This find might be a reference to Tristessa, for ulti­ mately Evelyn’s design to understand this sense of identity — ‘myself’ —is


The Infernal Desires of Angela Carter

managed through interaction with an almost identical figure, but one which functions as intermediary to Eve(lyn)’s formation. This intermediate quality also proves to be an accurate description of the central protagonist himself, who has moved through a ‘space of possibility’ in the desert. However, it is not the landscape as tabula rasa that is most telling here, but rather the ‘mode of articulation’ used to express the experience of this New World. While presented in fabulous terms, Eve(lyn)’s act of narration seems to confirm Paul Ricoeur’s contention that ‘we attempt to discover and not simply to impose from outside the narrative identity which constitutes us’.36 This idea of a textual identity to be discovered within is commen­ surate with Evelyn’s original goal, and underlies the importance with which Stone views the writing of multiply gendered narratives. Moreover, if we consider the post-transsexual narrative in parallel to the explorer narrative of transoceanic navigation, we can further appreciate the metaphoric design of Carter’s Old W orld/New World map. For the voyage of discovery in­ volves an act of translation which, in the terms of Michel de Certeau, ultimately resides in the figure o f ‘return’, whereby the encounter with the other is incorporated into the narrative presentation of self37 The circular form of Carter’s novel enacts this sense of return in Eve(lyn)’s ocean journey back to the Old World and in the narrative account of Evelyn’s transformation. That the imaginative progeny —both ‘Eve(lyn)’ and the newly conceived child inside her — of this evolution are ‘miraculous’ underlines the self-generative nature of Eve(lyn)’s journey and narrative. The novel’s closure on the word ‘birth’ finally refers us back to the nature of the ‘intermediate being’ Eve(lyn) has discovered in her/himself, as the act of generation proves to be partly the work of sex and desire, and partly the act of narration itself.


1. Sandy Stone, ‘The Empire Strikes Back: a posttranssexual manifesto’, in Julia Epstein and Kristina Straub, eds, Body Guards: The Cultural Politics of Gender Ambiguity (London & New York: Routledge, 1991), p. 294. 2. Ibid., pp. 296, 299. 3. These identities can be understood as follows: transvestite describes an occasional cross-dresser who experiences a temporary shift in gender identity and is often heterosexual in orientation; transsexual is someone who undergoes sexual reas­ signment surgery and fully identifies with the newly sexed body. Yet bounda­ ries between transvestism, transsexualism and gender dysphoria syndrome are


Transgressive symbolism and the transsexual subject in New Eve not easily drawn. Where the distinction is significant in Carter’s text I will be specific; otherwise I will sometimes refer to the ‘gender-transgressive figure’ to indicate when the two identities embodied by Tristessa and Eve(lyn) are equatable. As can be seen, I am also taking liberties with the spelling of the central character’s name, in order to indicate the composite nature of his/her post-surgical identity following page 71 - a double identity in the novel which this chapter seeks to uncover. 4. Angela Carter, The Passion of New Eve (1977; London: Virago, 1982), p. 68. Hereafter, page references to this novel are given in the text. 5. Stone, ‘The Empire Strikes Back’, p. 291. 6. See Kate Bomstein, Gender Outlaw: On Men, Women, and the Rest of Us (London: Roudedge, 1994), and also Bernice L. Hausman, Changing Sex: Trans­ sexualism, Technology and the Idea of Gender (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1995). 7. Charles Nicholl, The Chemical Theatre, cited in Lyndy Abraham, Marvell and Alchemy (England: Scolar Press, 1990), p. 26. 8. The ‘domus vitrea sphaeratilis sive circularis’, Theatrum Chemicum (1622), vol. 5, p. 896, cited in C. G. Jung, Psychology and Alchemy (London: Routledge, 2nd edn, 1968), p. 236. 9. According to Marie-Louise von Franz, the documents of alchemy bear ‘the greatest value in regard to the formation of symbols in general and the indi­ viduation process in particular’. Following Franz, we may regard Carter’s fictional play with this symbolism as a parallel to Carl Jung’s re-examination of it, along the same lines as Sigmund Freud’s reinterpretations of the fairy-tales. See MarieLouise von Franz, ed., Aurora Consurgens: A Document Attributed to Thomas Aquinas on the Problem of Opposites in Alchemy (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1966), p. 3. 10. Jung, Psychology and Alchemy, p. 37. 11. Angela Carter, ‘Alice in Prague or The Curious R oom ’, in American Ghosts and Old World Wonders (London: Chatto & Windus, 1993), p. 137; Jung, Psychology and Alchemy, p. 283. 12. H. M. E. De Jong, Michael Maier’s Atalanta Fugiens: Sources of an Alchemical Book of Emblems (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1969), p. 50. 13. Ibid., p. 217. 14. The narrator of Carter’s story ‘Alice in Prague’ muses at length on the ‘antithesis of metamorphosis’ apparent in the shape of the crystal ball owned by Dr Dee the Alchemist, like the shape of a drop of water, before, in its act of falling, it forms the shape of a tear. Carter, American Ghosts, pp. 122-3. 15. Jane Gallop, Thinking Through The Body (New York: Columbia University Press, 1988), p. 20. 16. Renée Richards, Second Serve, quoted in Maijorie Garber, Vested Interests: Crossdressing and Cultural Anxiety (London: Penguin, 1993), p. 105. Garber includes this as an example of the elusiveness of the subject position. 17. Robert J. Stoller, Presentations of Gender (New Haven, Conn. and London: Yale University Press, 1985), p. 149. 18. Susan Sontag, ‘Notes on “Camp” ’, in Against Interpretation and Other Essays (London: Eyre and Spottiswoode, 1967), p. 280. Sontag’s definitions o f ‘camp’ in this seminal essay have since been qualified and challenged by many critics. Andrew Ross, for example, points out that while Sontag had characterized camp as ‘apolitical’, she later amended this view, stating that camp had had ‘a


The Infernal Desires of Angela Carter

19. 20. 21. 22.

23. 24. 25.


27. 28. 29. 30. 31.


considerable if inadvertent role in the upsurge of feminist consciousness in the late 1960s’. Moe Meyer and Cynthia Morrill both regard Sontag’s distinction of camp as ‘gay-sensibility’ as ahistorical, and limited to ‘the presumption that Camp is a discursive mode offered to heterosexuals as a means for homosexuals to gain acceptance’. See Andrew Ross, No Respect (New York and London: Routledge, 1989), p. 161; Moe Meyer, ed., The Politics and Poetics of Camp (London: Routledge, 1994), pp. 8, 115—16. Dawn Langley Simmons, Man Into Woman: A Transsexual Autobiography (Great Britain: Icon Books, 1970), p. 139. Sontag, ‘Notes on “Camp” ’, p. 290. Simmons, Man Into Woman, p. 139. According to this perspective, as Judith Buder notes, ‘within the naturalized heterosexualization of bodies. . . physical acts serve as causes and desires reflect the inexorable effects of that physicality’. See Butler, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (London: Routledge, 1990), p. 71. As part of a dis­ cussion regarding the male-to-female transsexual’s pre- and post-operative denial of penile pleasure, Stone makes a similar point about gender identity ‘qualifica­ tions’, a point particularly relevant to Simmons’s account: ‘Full membership in the assigned gender was conferred by orgasm, real or faked, accomplished through heterosexual penetration’: Stone, ‘The Empire Strikes Back’, p. 292. Eve(lyn) claims a similar initiation into the female identity upon experiencing ‘the swooning, dissolvent woman’s pleasure . . . heretofore, seen but never experienced’: New Eve, p. 147. (It is worth adding that Eve(lyn) does not have to deny his own penile pleasure, because of course Carter’s character does not choose to become a transsexual.) Andrew Ross, ‘Uses of Camp’, in David Bergman, ed., Camp Grounds: Style and Homosexuality (Amherst: University of Massachusetts, 1993), p. 72. Anne Herrmann, ‘Travesty and transgression: transvestism in Shakespeare, Brecht, and Churchill’, Theatre Journal 41 (1989), p. 134. Indeed, in dressing Tristessa in the wedding dress she once wore in a produc­ tion of Wuthering Heights and Eve(lyn) in the evening suit intended for the character of Frederic Chopin in the story of George Sand, the heterosexual relations between them are maintained and repeated by the mutually exchanged gender characteristics, since Sand was renowned for her masculine attire and behaviour, while Chopin was popularly thought to be a feminine man. The cultural impulse to ‘solve’ such conundrums finds an expression in Jung’s assessment of the individuation process as a drive toward unity, as we saw reflected in the symbolism of alchemy. Clearly a sense of unity is achieved when the threatening sense of ambiguity is eliminated and once indistinct boundaries of identity are normalized into distinct categories. Jan Morris, Conundrum (London: Faber, 1974), pp. 155, 30. Stone, ‘The Empire Strikes Back’, p. 296. John Williamson, The Oak King, the Holly King, and the Unicorn: The Myths and Symbolism of the Unicorn Tapestries (New York: Harper & Row, 1986), p. 167. This follows Tristessa’s explanation of the importance of mirrors to his own evolution: ‘she [the persona Tristessa] entered me through my eyes’, p. 151. Susan Rubin Suleiman reads the scene as ‘one of the most extraordinarily sensual and bewildering love scenes in recent literature, despite its obvious elements of parody’, and in regretting that her students do not join her in this ‘positive’ reading, writes, ‘[s]o much for the dream . . .’: Subversive Intent: Gender,

Transgressive symbolism and the transsexual subject in New Eve

32. 33. 34. 35.

36. 37.

Politics, and the Avant-Garde (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1990), pp. 139, 234 n. 39. For Olga Kenyon, £[t]he love-making between Tristessa and Eve represents an ideal’: Writing Women: Contemporary Women Novelists (London: Pluto Press, 1991), p. 24. My own reading of the scene as a ‘celebra­ tion’ and ‘positive . . . transgression of gender boundaries’ ( The Review of Con­ temporary Fiction XIV:3, Fall 1994, p. 47) has been considerably revised in the light of Cynthia Morrill’s argument that ‘the appropriation of Camp as a theoretical strategy for the interests of postmodern and/or feminist deconstruction follows a troublesome critical tradition of refashioning queer subculture into dominant culture’s discursive metaphors’. See Morrill, ‘Revamping the gay sensibility: queer camp and dyke non , in Meyer, ed., The Politics and Poetics of Camp, p. 112. Queer desire is all but made invisible in Carter’s configuration, which is ultimately procreative. Judith Shapiro, ‘Transsexualism: reflections on the persistence of gender and the mutability of sex’, in Epstein and Straub, eds, Body Guards, p. 251. Simmons, Man Into Woman, p. 153; Duncan Fallowell and April Ashley, April Ashley’s Odyssey (London: Jonathan Cape, 1982), p. 218. Stone, ‘The Empire Strikes Back’, p. 299. This practice overlaps to a certain extent with Bornstein’s notion of a ‘transgendered writing style’: Bomstein, Gender Outlaw. Garber, Vested Interests, p. 11. Even Raymond, infamous for her provocative declaration that transsexualism leads to ‘the total rape of our [sic] feminist identities, minds, and convictions’, proposes a similar ‘third’ possibility for transsexual identity: ‘to move from false and static being to the total Be-ing of integrity [the unfolding of process] through a rejection of both [stereotypical gender] roles’. Although much of her argument is problematic (suggesting for instance that it is mainly transsexuals who ‘do not enter into the depths of their own experience by getting beyond the role-bound and body-bound crisis’), it is worth noting that Raymond blames the patriarchal context for this rigid gender stereotyping and, in fact, resorts to an alchemical analogy to make her point. Janice Raymond, The Transsexual Empire (London: The W om en’s Press, 1980), pp. 112, 175, 174, 155. Paul Ricoeur, ‘Life in quest of narrative’, in David W ood, ed., On Paul Ricoeur (London: Routledge, 1991), p. 32. Michel de Certeau, The Writing of History, trans. Tom Conley (New York: Columbia University Press, 1988), p. 213. De Certeau says of Jean de Lery’s sixteenth-century Histoire d’un voyage that the voyage ‘brings back a literary object . . . that allows him to turn back to his point of departure. The story effects his return to himself through the mediation of the other.’ In showing how narrative often belies this notion of a complete reconciliation of the other to the ‘same’, Carter’s novel, like De Certeau’s study, problematizes this straight­ forward relationship between the same and the other, the Old W orld and the New.



Boys keep swinging: Angela Carter and the subject of men

Paul Magrs


In the wild woods of Russia, just before the twentieth century begins, we clap eyes on a reconstructed man. ‘From that fleeting glimpse we caught of your fancy boy mounted on a reindeer and wearing a frock, it would seem he is not the man he was.’1 Here we are earwigging on Lizzie, the ex-whore and mentor to winged aerialiste Fewers. The pair of them have just emerged from wandering in the tundra where they have waxed exist­ ential about the coming century and their place in it as women. Ostensibly they are looking for Jack Walser, Fewers’s fancy boy, a white, middle-class reporter, a man of action and detection. Separated from her by calamity, disaster and outrageous circumstance, Walser has undergone changes to his personality of which Fewers and Lizzie will find they can only approve. This chapter looks at the kinds of changes that some of the men in Angela Carter’s fiction undergo. A certain pressure is put upon these male egos, and it is often transformative. In Nights at the Circus (1984), Walser’s is an exemplary case: he comes through all of their adventures and winds up deserving of Fewers’s love. Whether he knows it or not, the moment he steps into the boudoir of the music-hall starlet he is set on a course of self-reconstruction from a starting point of privilege. That blithe and uninterrogated position is one which is apt for decentring. Yet has not his life already shaken him out of his false sense of a secure ego? Apparently not. Right at the start we are told that the series of circumstances, the ‘cataclysmic shocks’, to which his career has already exposed him (‘Plague in Setzuan . . . a sharp dose of bug­ gery in a bedoin te n t. . .’, p. 10) have left his sense of identity unimpeached: ‘His inwardness had been left untouched;’ he exhibits ‘n o t. . . one single


Boys keep swinging: Angela Carter and the subject of men

quiver of introspection’ (p. 10). Fewers will change all that. Like many of Carter’s leading ladies, she is the apotheosis of brash self-reinvention. Walser has come to her for a ‘human interest’ story. This will, ironic­ ally, lead him directly to questions of fictionality, implausibility, a considera­ tion of the constructedness of his own ‘inwardness’, his own ‘maleness’, and the death, as far as he is concerned, of humanism itself. At first he shies away from being drawn into the aerialiste s story. Her eyes become Chinese boxes, embodying ‘an infinite plurality of worlds’ (p. 30). From beneath her threeinch-long false eyelashes flash alarmingly, seductively, all of the vertiginous impossibilities of the postmodern text. Suddenly, for Walser, nothing seems stable anymore: ‘He felt himself trembling as if he, too, stood on an unknown threshold’ (p. 30). The apocalyptic thresholds into personal interrelations that feature so strongly in D. H. Lawrence’s work have, in Carter’s writing, become invitations to deconstruction and reinvention. In her fiction, it is the already reconstructed women who initiate this process of reinventing men. The likes of Fewers understand how to juggle identity because this is all they have ever known. They are able to adopt a number of contingent, shifting subject positions because this is their life already. Carter’s women put these men through every circus hoop they themselves have jumped. Fewers, as it were, brings him on by hand. She takes Jack under her wing. In her 1992 interview with Lorna Sage, Carter talks about most men’s apparent blindness to their own contingency and their bland belief in their own cultural centredness. She limits this judgement to heterosexual men: the last bastion, perhaps, of those who believe themselves to be ‘natural’: Very few men are in fact bothered to find out what is going on, whereas women have to because of sheer self-preservation. It’s one of the great differences between the sexes. I think it’s one of the great differences between gay men and heterosexual men. The minute you realise you’re not natural, you really need to know what’s going on.2

This chapter looks at the two kinds of men in Carter’s fiction: not gay and straight, but ‘natural’ and ‘unnatural’.


In a book about transvestism, the cultural critic Maijorie Garber writes the following about men:


The Infernal Desires of Angela Carter The concept of ‘male subjectivity’ to many custodians of Western Culture . . . should they ever have recourse to the term — is in a sense redundant. To be a subject is to be a man - to be made literally or empowered ‘as’ male in culture and society.3

In the cultural context that has been labelled postmodernism, the redefinitions of this generic ‘subject’ have actually been at the expense of that stable self. The ‘subject’ is undermined, fragmented, shown to be in an untenable posi­ tion. The ‘subject’ is an apocryphal being; and, in the era of postmodemity, it is feminism which has set about unsettling the unfair assumption that a universalized application of a male model of experience will do for everyone. The feminist literary critic, Elaine Showalter, conjures the potent image of the Baudelairean, modernist hero, emblematic of this unimpeachable, rational male ‘subject’. Modernism can be read as a masculinist hegemony’s last stab at privileging its own experience above all others. Discussing the apparently untouchable male explorers, the Kurtzes and Marlows of Conrad’s ‘Heart of Darkness’ (1899), Showalter writes: Men do not think of themselves as cases to be opened up. Instead, they open up a woman as a substitute for self-knowledge, both maintaining the illusion of their own invulnerability and destroying the terrifying reminder of their impotence and uncertainty.4

I concentrate briefly here on the image of the male ‘subject’ at the begin­ ning of the century because I think of it as the inheritance of the critics, theorists and writers I am considering. This ‘subject’, with his rationality and calm, his dark secrets and his skulking flaneurism, is the ‘subject’ with whom the twentieth century starts. He is somewhere between Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897) and Prufrock, the ‘hero’ of T. S. Eliot’s ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’ (1915). It is also useful to bear in mind what happened to humanism and the ‘subject’ in the early part of the twentieth century, because much of the recent critical work on the redefinitions of male sub­ jectivity has concerned itself with modernist artefacts and texts. I am thinking here of Peter Middleton’s The Inward Gaze , which, while eloquent on the lost language of male self-reflexivity, on D. H. Lawrence and on Superman, unfortunately becomes mawkish about the importance of a hobby such as trainspotting to the construction of a decentred male subjectivity.5 Middleton is right, however, in locating a particular kind of male self-consciousness in the era of Eliot and Lawrence. Middleton and Showalter both demonstrate the male ‘subject’ in crisis through the whole of the twentieth century. In Sexual Anarchy, Showalter dwells on the male ‘subject’s’ impotent lashing out and objectification of the female as an Other to bolster his own ego, and Middleton concentrates on this ‘subject’s’ lacking languages for emotional connection or reflection. What is clear throughout these texts is a realization, seeping like something


Boys keep swinging: Angela Carter and the subject of men

spilled, that there can be no recourse to an essential maleness, an autonomy founded on masculinist humanist ideals. Male modernism in this analysis comes to seem more and more like a hasty patching-up of fragmented sub­ jectivities, accompanied by a laboured stress on the status of these subjective stances as objectivities. As Showalter says, they will attack anything in the defence of their own ‘impotence and uncertainty’. Similarly, in The Gender of Modernism , Bonnie Kime Scott demonstrates that male modernist writers coped with female modernists by insisting upon regarding them as honorary men.6 These token presences were supposedly meant to be th ç flâneuses that Janet Wolff discusses in Feminine Sentences. They are the female equivalent of the fin-de-siècle, autonomous, anonymous flâneur, an equivalent which never really existed.7A flâneuse is exactly what the likes of the contemporary cultural critic Camille Paglia wants to be: she is still sold on this bargaining-chip offered by a self-deluding masculinist world. She still wants a bit of an ill-fitting humanism and wants to ignore the post­ modern sense of self. I like this reading of postmodernism, for in this instance it is liberating. Like the boy in the ‘Emperor’s New Clothes’, it is blowing modernism’s cover. The folly of would-be humanists like Paglia emerges in her celebration of ‘Apollonian’ male culture, its thrustingly projectile success and its neat, parabolic pissing.8 She has no problem accepting that there is a tidily objective world which is safely masculine. Pissing is a significant issue for Paglia. She says women cannot build skyscrapers because they rely on the squatters’ rights of non-parabolic urinary practices. Paglia can have her humanism because she is prepared to piss with the boys. Their objective stance is one they happily project up the wall.


The man who celebrates his own pissing as the pinnacle of modem and postmodern achievement gets short shrift from Carter. He is the man de­ luding himself with his own ‘naturalness’, and ultimately, to do this, he inflicts pain on others. She creates as the emblem for this the figure of the Executioner. He is the man who refuses to be decentred and to reconstruct himself. He cannot be taught self-consciousness. Carter’s fictions are strewn with mirrors, so that now and then her characters will glimpse themselves on fly-blown glass. In that moment, for better or for worse, they are wedded to a consciousness of themselves, are in complete possession of themselves and the sum of all their parts. They


The Infernal Desires of Angela Carter

see where they are at on the self-reinvention front, all these reconstructed men and self-created women. But the Executioner would die of fright to see himself without his mask, staring back from the mirror. W hat’s his problem? In the short story ‘The Executioner’s Beautiful Daughter’ (1974) we are told that he would not be able to withstand surprising ‘his own authentic face’.9 To be sure, ‘authentic’ is one of those words which comes to us rever­ berating madly. W hen we read ‘authentic’ or ‘essential’ or ‘reality’ slipped blithely into a sentence written by Carter it is like putting a bare foot down on a wasp. Here the Executioner supposes that without his mask he would see his own ‘authentic’ face. He is presuming that beneath the accoutre­ ments of his retributive office he exists as a palpitating being still. Shrodinger’s cat’s just having a nap in his box. Carter undermines this presumption on his part and the Executioner has, in this languorous, considered piece, made himself over into as much of a rigid icon as a geisha or a samurai: [His face] no longer pertains to that which is human . . . [those who] blotted out his own, original face . . . defaced him forever. Because the hood of office renders the executioner an object. . . He has become an object who punishes. He is an object of fear. He is the image of retribution. (Fireworks, p. 15)

Carter paints him as an automaton, his flesh transcribed and sold over to his role. He is one of many in her fictions to be described as clockwork or robotic, since he has given up responsibility for himself W hen Carter uses clockwork imagery, it is often to condemn. But Lady Purple and the Lady of the House of Love, the eponymous protagonists of two of Carter’s short stories, are murderous puppets or dolls, and, like the Executioner, they believe themselves ‘natural’. They are dangerous because they are stultified and cannot reinvent themselves. More often than not, these figures are male: the Executioner, the Asiatic Professor, Zero, Uncle Philip. All of them are supremely dangerous puppet masters who inflict their un-self-regarding viciousness on, usually, the women around them. The Asiatic Professor in the story ‘The Loves of Lady Purple’ (1974) is especially interesting here when it comes to brutal self-delusion. We are told that he is a wizard with his puppets and that, nighdy, he enacts with astonishing verisimilitude the adventures of the infamous whore, Lady Purple. He expends himself and his miraculous skills bringing life to this rewriting of Sade’s wickedest woman, Juliette. We are told that the Professor medi­ ates his passions through her person. This exquisite puppet articulates his desires. W e are told that he does not communicate otherwise. The story is of her coming to life, disposing of him, and articulating her own subject­ ivity by wreaking a heady, hedonistic vengeance on men in general. Here


Boys keep swinging: Angela Carter and the subject of men

I am concerned with the Professor, though: with how ‘[h]e himself looked after her costumes and jewellery’, and how, ‘when the Professor spoke in the character of Lady Purple herself. . . his voice modulated to a thick lasci­ vious murmur like fur soaked in honey’ (Fireworks, pp. 25-7). It would seem that, just as the Executioner wears his robes and badges of office, the Professor wears Lady Purple’s gestures, her clothes, make-up, voice and personality at one step removed. He articulates her being as a language. Every nuance, we learn, signifies and communicates her heinousness to his audience. We are told that the puppet betrays an ‘essence’ of femininity which can only ever be a sham. It is a conglomeration of accoutrements made up by a man. [Lady Purple’s] actions were not so much an imitation as a distillation and intensification of those of a bom woman and so she could become the quintessence of eroticism, for no woman born would have dared be so blatandy seductive. (p. 25) Similarly, in The Magic Toyshop (1967) Uncle Philip puts ‘himself, or

rather invests his diabolical skill into, the puppet of the rapacious swan.10 Philip’s is an overweening male ego run rampant in a toyboxful of dressingup clothes. He shores up his own identity with all of these trappings, all of the artificial materials, the paints and bits of wood, his tools and toys, and he pretends this is the 'real’ world. Under his puppet mask, like the Executioner and the Asiatic Professor, Uncle Philip can go about his business to his heart’s giddiest content. Philip recruits for his shows, the Executioner kills, and the Professor covertly makes himself into the quintessence of eroticism. They all do it incognito, stealing about likc flaneurs, like Dracula under his cape. If Carter does anything with the presentation of these ‘Executioner’ figures, she outs them.


‘To be a man is not a given condition but a conscious effort.’11 This is one of the teachings of Mother in The Passion of New Eve (1977).

The hitherto brutalized and brutalizing Evelyn is shown that, actually, rather than his maleness being a given and natural thing, he is making a conscious effort to keep his end up in the question of identity. Carter outs the selfconsciousness he has tried to keep hidden, in Evelyn’s case by having him castrated.


The Infernal Desires of Angela Carter

Because, eventually, he does not delude himself about how much he has to learn and put into conscious practice in order to reinvent himself, there is hope for Evelyn’s reconstruction. But, in the same book, we have the unredeemable Executioner, the vicious harem-keeper Zero. His weakest point is his wooden leg, kept hidden during bed baths. Upon his death he is symbolically castrated and all his efforts at integrity, at the preservation of an essential, unreconstructible maleness are revealed as the disembodied limb floats by. Its status as appendage is all too apparent; it is Zero’s literal prop, upholding a bogus identity: ‘You could see the harness of leather straps that kept his wooden leg in place’ (p. 142). Elsewhere in Carter’s work, though, there are men more skilful at manip­ ulating the accoutrements of which they themselves are composed. They seem to take on the articulate, self-reconstructing nous of some of her hero­ ines, but they use it for destructive ends. In this way, these seducers, all too aware of the conscious effort they sustain, become more destructive than the Executioners. In Carter’s first novel, Shadow Dance (1966), Honeybuzzard is suspected of mutilating women, and he is, from the first, one of Carter’s several fiendishly sexy, capricious, predatory men. Honeybuzzard exerts a fatal fascination: each time we see him, through the eyes of his feckless business partner Morris, he has a different girl he can be cavalier about. He taunts Morris with a homoerotic tension bred between the pair of them, one by which they profit even less than they do by the antiques business they run. This first novel reads to me like the 1960s sit-com Steptoe and Son rewritten by the gay playwright Joe Orton. And, like one of O rton’s Mr Sloane figures, it is Honeybuzzard’s attractiveness, his plausibility, that draws victims in. Carter expends on him a deluge of sexily masculine metaphors and paints him by turns as Pan, a cat, an angel, a cherub. He has ‘an inexpressibly carnivorous mouth . . . a pretty feline curve . . . How beautiful he was, and how indefinably sinister.’12 W hen we encounter absolute beauty in Carter’s writing, it is always sinister. It is the waxy, perfect face of the fully enslaved doll or puppet. Again, she is warning us of mechanical perfection, of being like clockwork. These puppets have features which show none of the stresses or rents which betray experience, of a struggle towards liberation. They are smoothed beneath the pressure of somebody’s thumb. ‘Her beauty is an abnormality, a deformity’, we are told of the Lady of the House of Love, ‘for none of her features exhibit any of those touching imperfections that reconcile us to the imperfection of the human condition. Her beauty is a symptom of her disorder, her soullessness.’13 W hen used in conjunction with one of her predatory male characters, this soulless, perfect beauty is most often expressed in the image of the


Boys keep swinging: Angela Carter and the subject of men

white lily. Male subjectivity is succinct as the bland, impervious white lily which bites, as in the incest story ‘Penetrating to the Heart of the Forest’ (1974).14 The lily stands for an entirely narcissistic male sexuality which can blinker itself as to its own nature and believe itself integral and complete, sufficient unto itself. Or it can appear that way. Carter’s seducers reinvent themselves in order to entrap the people they need. The young bride of ‘The Bloody Chamber’ (1979) is seduced by her husband’s imperviousness: still he did not lose that heavy, fleshy composure of his. I know it must seem a curious analogy, a man with a flower, but sometimes he seemed to me like a lily . . . Possessed of that strange, ominous calm of a sentient vegetable, like one of those cobra-headed, funereal lilies whose white sheaths are curled out of a flesh as thick and tensely yielding to the touch as vellum. (.Burning Your Boats, p. 113)

This, for me, is one of Carter’s particular triumphs. She shows her heroine seduced by the conscious conceit of this predatory man emblematized by a flower. The heroine considers the oddness - in terms of gender stereotypes —of this irresistible analogy, and then still, in the unfurling and elaboration of that conceit, the heroine makes the man seductive and vital to the reader too. And yet, all the time, we see that the lily wards us off. It is encased in a deadening, perfect white gloss. The image of the lily is that of a prick whitewashed over in a huge, grotesque caricature of itself. It becomes a phallus and the male subject hides behind it: this, Carter shows us, is the measure of patriarchy. But it is something she demonstrates in terribly seductive terms, betraying the ease with which lies get perpetuated. As long as lilies seem gorgeous, puppet masters continue to live behind props. She shows these men in their various carapaces - Bluebeard with his luxurious paraphernalia of monstrous wealth and his provoking lilies, Honeybuzzard with his costumes and false vampire teeth and his junk - and she draws them sensually and vitally, so that we are led into falling for their glamour too. Luckily, the next stage in a Carter story is that the seduced woman manages to convert herself from Sade’s eternal victim, Justine, into his rapacious avenger, Juliette. Either the mother arrives on horseback, or she kisses the puppet master to death, or his deadly toys get hacked to bits. What is of vital interest, it seems to me, is that Carter examines men as conscious seducers. Unlike Camille Paglia, she will not simply grant women control and responsibility for the ‘sexual realm’ and see men as hapless, uncontrollable lumps of random urges.15 Carter very sensibly shows men going about the daily business of manipulating themselves in myriad, un­ derhand ways and recruiting women into upholding and perpetuating a


The Infernal Desires of Angela Carter

patriarchy —women falling for the imperturbability of the white lily and then in turn submitting to their own, deadening allegorization process, turning inert, mechanical, unable to reinvent themselves. So these are the men to avoid - more so, even, than Executioners. These shrewd, perfect men are ‘hairy on the inside’ in order to hoodwink Red Riding Hood and her granny (Burning Your Boats, p. 214). They have about them a perfect glossiness of the eyes. Many of them wear sunglasses, and we have to watch, in these texts, for their moments of sombre self-reflection when they remove their shades. Only then are they vulnerable, like a vampire in daylight. When Honeybuzzard (a honey-tongued and seducing scavenger if ever there was one) tries to convince Morris —and himself — that teenagers were responsible for an attack on the woman, Ghislaine, he remains inscrutable. His inwardness is what Morris seeks to penetrate: Bewildered, Morris tried to see the eyes under the sunglasses but only saw his own face blackly reflected. Was Honeybuzzard really believing his own stories? (Shadow Dance, p. 61)

Honeybuzzard is indeed a conceited man believing his own conceits. A practising bricoleur, he believes and behaves in the reality he invents, and in this instance he does so to escape blame for the attack. So, in not giving himself away in the potentially tender ‘wild surmise’16 of removing his shades for Morris, he does not give himself away. In effect, he is no better than any other mechanical Executioner. I have said that Morris is trying to ‘penetrate’ his friend’s mask of conscious deceit, and the verb is a loaded one. Reflected by those shades, Morris can see only his own face, nothing of Honeybuzzard’s. If theirs were an equal and equivalent pairing - as is, say, Melanie and Finn’s at the close of the next book, The Magic Toyshop — then the outcome would be different. Their mutual illusions about each other, their respect for each other’s inventions, conceits and delusions, would sustain them nicely in reciprocal and fulfilling passion. In short, if Honeybuzzard was for a moment honest with Morris, then they would both be able to understand the extent of each others’ self­ created subjectivities. But Honeybuzzard holds out on Morris. He withholds the glance that can lead to self-knowledge and knowledge of the other through the exchange of mirrored glances. His visor stays down and that is reason enough for us to distrust him. In Carter’s world, we already know that the reflection we get back in the other’s eyes is distorted enough. It is always thwarted by myriad circumstances. How can it be any good at all if the male subject opposite won’t even remove his dark glasses? Morris is as hoodwinked - in his terrible, stilted, homoerotic hinterland - as Blue­ beard’s bride.


Boys keep swinging: Angela Carter and the subject of men

The bride in ‘The Bloody Chamber’ fares rather better than Morris because she effectively penetrates the rank mystery of her husband, taking in his various secrets while he is away. She ransacks his arrayed, papery history, his flattened paper heart and, finally, his inner sanctum, the tor­ ture chamber itself. It is all horrible and she is, of course, giddy with fright, but she has at least whipped off his shades. She shows him masturbating in the wings of the puppet theatre as he eagerly manipulates his own Lady Purple. This is the triumph of those Carter heroines who learn to take control of their own lives and beings, and who can unmask the deceits and conceits of their oppressors: The puppet master, open-mouthed, wide-eyed, impotent at the last, saw his dolls break free of their strings, abandon the rituals he had ordained for them since time began and start to live for themselves; the king, aghast, witnesses the revolt of his pawns. (Burning Your Boats, p. 142)

So the seducing, articulate puppet master is shown to be an Executioner all along. In the end, this is the role he will cling to. W hen his pawns run away for a life of their own, he is an impassive Grand Master left with an empty board and a chequered career. He is an Executioner with no func­ tion to execute. Having iconized himself to a simple function, the once changeable, capricious seducer has yoked his whole subjectivity to a gesture of rapacious attack. Left alone, he is impotent and useless, no longer pertaining to the human. In Carter’s work, pertain is all we can ever do to a human state, something we only ever approximate in our endless reconstructions, mindful all the while of the hypocrisies of humanism. Meanwhile, the Executioners and the seducers get lost on the way and settle for hypocrisy and violence.


So far I have looked at men who cling to maleness, modernism, nature, humanism. They cling and, wilfully neglecting others, turn into seductive executioners. However, Angela Carter’s fiction shows men in flux. Some of her men are redeemable and can be taught the error of their ways. Others seem tragic in their hyper-awareness of their own intransigence.


The Infernal Desires of Angela Carter

The bottom line in Carter’s work is that survival is not something reserved for the fittest, but something practised in a day-to-day, ad hoc fashion by individuals who can recreate themselves amid the circumstantial impedi­ menta of their lives. The Magic Toyshop and The Passion of New Eve are perfect illustrations of this aspect of Carter’s writing. Stable subjects are forced to jump through hoops, fixed identities are impeached by brute circumstance. Here we may draw a parallel between Carter’s image of the being who can survive by adapting and reinventing itself and the work of the Amer­ ican cultural critic Donna Haraway. In her 1985 essay, ‘A cyborg manifesto’, later published in Simians, Cyborgs and Women: The Reinvention of Nature, Haraway postulates a model for postmodern subjectivity. This — chiming in with a 1990s vogue for the Internet, cyberspace, cyberpunk (in short, cyber-any thing) —is her conception of a cyborg subjectivity. What she calls a ‘myth of political identity’ is constructed to grant optimistically a kind of agency to women, negotiating the technological, discourse-saturated land­ scape of the postmodern age. By its very form, however, and its insistence on anti-essentialism, the concept of the cyborg undermines nature and gen­ der, and therefore the cyborg blueprint is one amenable to anyone. It is a sort of virtual critical facility. My interest in this cyborg conceit is the way in which Haraway describes its endless self-reinvention in terms of writing: Writing is preeminendy the technology of cyborgs, etched surfaces of the late twentieth century. Cyborg politics is the struggle for language and the struggle against perfect communication, against the one code that translates all meaning perfectly, the central dogma of phallogocentrism.17

So much of what Haraway says about her cyborgs reminds me of the characters in Carter’s fiction who are ‘saved’. Fewers, Eve, Perry and Melanie (the last two from Wise Children, 1991) - all effectively rewrite their lives in this way. To rewTite is to elude easy allegorization. They set out to con­ found a single reading of their lives. The cyborg Haraway meticulously delineates is a model of a similarly unstable, shifting subjectivity, one that capitalizes on the postmodern explosion of the stable subject, and one which the masculinist hegemony finds difficult to pin down. However, there is still for me something bloodless about the cyborg conceit. All of life simply is not on the Internet. Much of it is well off the beaten track, let alone the Information Super Highway. Furthermore, Haraway’s conception seems to suggest an endless reinventableness, a kind of infinite Barthesian jouissance in the creation of selves. Judith Butler fol­ lowed her book Gender Trouble with a sequel called Bodies that Matter in an attempt to address this quandary about the materiality of bodies.18 Butler’s earlier work on the hegemony-confounding vagaries of what she calls gender


Boys keep swinging: Angela Carter and the subject of men

performativity had to be taken further, to account for the very material, fleshy artefacts involved: the body itself, the accoutrements of lives, the circumstances in which lives are lived. While celebrating the carnival, the theories we have been evolving to do with mutable selves, genders, life and affairs have been forgetful of the fact that life is not always a cabaret. And, of course, the whole reason Carter is so important to contemporary theo­ rizing on gender and subjectivity is that she shows us the bits in between performances. She writes about what the show-girl does in the cracks be­ tween exposures, the extent to which she can scrape a life together in the quotidian, the everyday. The cyborg, by this reckoning, makes the performing of a life seem too easy. There is also, I think, a disturbing creepiness in its being like an automaton, a clockwork being. In the context of Carter’s work, should a cyborg appear, we would know it was an Executioner, a being who thinks life as simple as the few simple operations it is required to fulfil. The cyborg form is too perfect, too beautiful almost. The cyborg, in its refutation of a biologism that sets out to essentialize gender, goes too far towards the wish to elide gender altogether. I rather think the model of a shifting, self-reinventing subjectivity as described by Carter draws upon a figure which both Butler and Garber examine in their work. This is the figure of the transvestite. It is this figure with which I wish to close my discussion of Carter’s men. My contention is that the ‘conscious effort’ made to uphold a male identity, and the nous to recon­ struct it, both entail a cognizance of the language of drag.

C R ISP Quentin Crisp’s description of his ‘brazening out’ of his ‘condition’ almost confers upon him honorary status as a Carter heroine.19 At the opening of his semi-autobiographical work, The Naked Civil Servant (1968), he demon­ strates his identity as something shaped entirely by his circumstances. He is like the utterly constructed femme fatale Tristessa in Carter’s The Passion of New Eve , who is determinedly ‘reduced to going out merely in [his] ap­ pearance’ (p. 141). By looking the way he did, primped, pampered, henna’ed, he engaged in open hostilities with the unreconstructed straight world before that world even knew it was the straight world. Like the ‘subject’ of humanist discourse, it pretended that it was all there was.


The Infernal Desires of Angela Carter

In Vested Interests, Garber talks about the transvestite as a deconstructive figure, one provoking a crisis in categories and culture itself.20 She paints this being as the hinge in culture, from which point all points are fixed. In her terms, in the 1930s, when Crisp was brazening out, London was forced to look at rather than through this disturbing figure of the transvestite: ‘I put my case not only before people who knew me but also before strangers. This was not difficult to do. I wore make-up at a time when even on women eye-shadow was sinful.’21 But Crisp's drag was entire on only one, memorable occasion. At that time his disguise as a woman was too complete, too exact, and so no longer transgressive or provocative and therefore, to him, no fun. He found it too dull an experience to repeat. There seemed to be no point in ‘passing’: he wanted to open up crises in categories. Crisp’s self-consciousness was the beginning and the end of the issue for him, and it was this he wanted to parade. He had a crippling awareness of the constructedness of gender and his was a kind of protest at the rest of the world’s blithe play-acting, its willingness to breed Executioners. Crisp went shouting his mouth off, making himself conspicuous, rather like Jack Walser demonstrating his reinventedness at the end of Nights at the Circus by sitting astride a reindeer in a frock. In this demonstration of consciouness, of a willingness to turn identity inside out like a mobius strip, in full view of the rest of the world, Crisp and Walser are the very opposite of the selfdeluding Executioners. While not literal transvestites, they are utilizing the verb to transvest not simply to parody or protest or pass, but to confound and survive and to learn how far reinvention can go. In this, I think the reconstructed men Carter creates are more viable, perhaps more believable versions of the cyborg motif. They are living in a world which, no matter how magical-seeming, is still recognizable. In Wise Children, Perry may come back from the dead repeatedly, never age, grow to the size of a house and excrete tropical butterflies, but we never stop believing in him as a reconstructed man, a man worthy of the respect and love of his self­ reconstructed octogenarian nieces. Out of all the parables of gendered subjectivity produced by contemporary writers and theorists, Crisp’s most approximates to Carter’s narratives of male development. His dyeing his hair from red to blue, suddenly aware he has survived into old age, is no more or less an epiphany than that of Fewers, reunited with her fancy boy, hungering for bleach so she can put her own hairdo back to rights. These are the details that keep lives ticking over, the things that subjects notice in the mirror, and these are the markers by which selves are reinvented. That boys keep swinging is a foregone conclusion; the deck is stacked in their favour. But for reconstructed, self-conscious, performing liminal be­ ings, that swinging is an effort, a struggle, an exercise in dogged resilience.


Boys keep swinging: Angela Carter and the subject of men NOTES

1. Angela Carter, Nights at the Circus (London: Picador, 1993), p. 279. Further page references to this novel are given in the text. 2. Angela Carter interviewed by Loma Sage, in Malcolm Bradbury and Judy Cooke, eds, New Writing (London: Methuen, 1992), p. 221. 3. Maijorie Garber, Vested Interests (London: Roudedge, 1992), p. 94. 4. Elaine Showalter, Sexual Anarchy (London: Virago, 1992), p. 48. 5. Peter Middleton, The Inward Gaze (London: Roudedge, 1992). 6. Bonnie Kime Scott, ed., The Gender of Modernism (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1990). 7. Janet Wolff, Feminine Sentences (London: Polity, 1990). 8. Camille Paglia, Sexual Personae (London: Penguin, 1992), p. 21. 9. Angela Carter, Fireworks (London: Chatto & Windus, 1987), p. 15. Further references to this work are given in the text. 10. Angela Carter, The Magic Toyshop (London: Virago, 1978), p. 174. 11. Angela Carter, 77ie Passion of New Eve (London: Virago, 1993), p. 63. Further references to this work are given in the text. 12. Angela Carter, Shadow Dance (London: Heinemann, 1966), p. 57. Further page references to this work are given in the text. 13. Angela Carter, Burning Your Boats (London: Chatto & Windus, 1995), p. 196. Further references to this edition are given in the text. 14. Carter, Fireworks, p. 55. 15. Paglia, Sexual Personae, p. 21. 16. Carter, The Magic Toyshop, p. 200. 17. Donna J. Haraway, Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature (London: Free Association Books, 1995), p. 176. 18. Judith Butler, Gender Trouble (New York: Roudedge, 1990); Judith Butler, Bodies That Matter (New York: Roudedge, 1993). 19. Quentin Crisp, The Naked Civil Servant (London: Cape, 1968), p. 7. 20. Garber, Vested Interests, p. 71. 21. Crisp, The Naked Civil Servant, p. 7.



Auto /biographical souvenirs in

Nights at the Circus Sarah Bannock


This essay offers an auto/biographical1 reading of Nights at the Circus (1984). At first sight, this may seem to be a surprising, not to say foolhardy, enterprise, since Carter’s baroque fantasy seems to be about anything but its author. I want to suggest, however, that Carter improvises her protagon­ ist Fewers from a number of specific auto/biographical resources or ‘sou­ venirs’.2 I explore Carter’s engagement with a range of auto/biographical works: Walter de la Mare’s novel Memoirs of a Midget (1922), to which Carter wrote an introductory preface in 1982;3 Simone Berteaut’s bio­ graphy of her sister, Piaf (1969); and one of Carter’s personal essays, ‘The Mother Lode’ (1976), which is collected in Nothing Sacred (1982).4 These writings represent three different kinds of biography. First, Memoirs of a Midget is a biography which can be regarded as ‘purely’ fictional. But Carter’s reading of de la Mare’s novel suggests that for her there is no such thing as ‘pure’ fiction. Secondly, Piaf frames itself as belonging to the genre of the eye- (and ear-) witness account of another’s life: the personal remin­ iscence. Yet since there are many correspondences between Fewers’s own account of herself in Nights at the Circus and the depiction of Piaf in her sister’s, we are encouraged to reflect upon the auto/biographical uses of experience in the creation of a fictional self. Thirdly, Carter describes aspects of her own life and ‘origins’ in ‘The Mother Lode’, and elements of this essay resurface in Nights at the Circus. My aim, then, is to show that Nights at the Circus is a complicated auto/ biographical performance, resulting from Carter’s engagement with, and processing of, her textual milieu and history.5 I am not seeking simply to establish the sources of Carter’s novel, for another critic could come up


Auto/biographical souvenirs in Nights at the Circus

with a completely different heritage for Nights at the Circus. Given the extensive allusiveness of Carter’s fiction, such an exercise would quickly become exhausting, if not meaningless. Instead, I want to throw light upon the process by which a writer mixes text, memory and desire in the pro­ duction of a novel. Roland Barthes remarks that we cannot establish the identity of the speaker of a text because ‘[w]riting is the destruction of every voice, of every point of origin’. ‘Writing’, he adds, ‘is the neutral, composite, oblique space where our subject slips away, the negative where all identity is lost, starting with the very identity of the body writing.’6 He goes on to argue that contrary to the traditional view o f‘classical criticism’, ‘a text’s unity lies not in its origin, but its destination’.7 The ‘destination’ of the text may simply be its reader. But Barthes, I think, envisages text as something which emerges into a public arena. He uses a performative metaphor to illustrate this point, remark­ ing upon the ‘ambiguous nature of Greek tragedy’ whose ‘double mean­ ings’ are comprehended not by its characters, but by its audience.8 We can say, then, that writing is an engagement with an implied other. The analogy with Greek tragedy emphasizes that meaning resides not exclusively in the author, or in the word, or even in the individual reader, but emerges from the process between these points. In fact, Barthes uses a metaphor of perfor­ mance for the process of writing a number of times in this essay: for example, he says that ‘a narrative is never assumed by a person but by a mediator, shaman or relator whose “performance” - the mastery of the narrative code - may possibly be admired but never his genius’.9 Again, he is emphasizing the fact that a text’s writer is not the origin of its meaning, but merely its manipulator. I shall link this notion of narrative ‘performance’ with Carter’s definition of fiction as ‘symbolic autobiography’.10 Fiction, then, may be conceived of as a performative art, in which the author uses, as an actor does, his or her own life experiences and impressions in the creation of characters, transforming these experiences and impressions into something new in the process. Where the actor’s medium is the body in combination with text, space and audience, a writer’s medium contains similar elements but in a different constellation. Writing, like acting or shamanism, is a physical act, and Barthes seems to be attracted to the notion of writer as shaman, because the shaman’s body becomes a conduit for language not necessarily associated with his own identity (as is the notion of ‘speaking in tongues’).11 Barthes uncompromisingly asserts: the modem scriptor is born simultaneously with the text, is in no way equipped with a being preceding or exceeding the writing, is not the subject with the book as predicate; there is no other time than that of the enunciation and every text is eternally written here and now. The fact is (or, it follows) that writing can no longer designate an operation of


The Infernal Desires of Angela Carter

recording, notation, representation ‘depiction’ (as the Classics would say); rather, it designates exactly what linguists, referring to Oxford philosophy, call a performative, a rare verbal form (exclusively given in the first person and the present tense) in which the enunciation has no other content (contains no other proposition) than the act by which it is uttered — something like the I declare of kings or the I sing of very ancient poets.12

In so doing, he seems to suggest that the author’s history has no relevance to a text. However, Julia Kristeva’s essay, ‘Word, dialogue, and novel’, which refers to Bakhtin —who, she says, ‘situates the text within history and society’13 - can be read in dialogue with Barthes’ essay. ‘Word, dialogue, and novel’ envisages a more complex situation, reintroducing the notion of history into novelistic discourse: we must . . . define the three dimensions of textual space where various semic sets and poetic sequences function. These three dimensions of dialogue are writing subject, addressee, and exterior texts. The word’s status is thus defined horizontally (the word in the text belongs to both writing subject and addressee) as well as vertically (the word in the text is oriented toward an anterior or synchronic literary corpus). The addressee, however, is included within a book’s discursive universe only as discourse itself He thus fuses with this other discourse, this other book, in relation to which the writer has written his own text. Hence horizontal axis (subject-addressee) and vertical axis (text—context) coincide, bringing to light an important fact: each word (text) is an intersection of word (texts) where at least one other word (text) can be read. In Bakhtin’s work, these two axes, which he calls dialogue and ambivalence, are not clearly distinguished. Yet, what appears as a lack of rigor is in fact an insight first introduced into literary theory by Bakhtin: any text is constructed as a mosaic of quotations; any text is the absorption and transformation of another. The notion of intertextuality replaces that of intersubjectivity, and poetic language is read as at least double,14

Here Kristeva conceives of novelistic discourse as existing at the inter­ section of (textual) history and the present textual matrix (she describes this dialectic in terms of synchrony and diachrony, where synchrony is the study of the word in the light of the present, and diachrony is the study of the word in the light of the past).15 This intersection is activated in both writer and reader. The pleasure of reading and writing a novel lies in the resonances experienced at the site of this intersection. The concept of the ‘souvenir’ is useful here. A souvenir is an object of memory, an impression which could be either material or psychological — but, in novelistic discourse, always textual. It is something from the past which arises to the present during the process of writing or reading. Such impressions could also be traced as intertextualities, or permutations of text. I want to consider how elements of Carter’s textual milieu resurface in the novel and suggest ways in which text is used to construct the ‘self* in the public sphere. 200

Auto/biographical souvenirs in Nights at the Circus

For Carter, I believe, an important function of fiction is to realize the (female) subject. Because this process involves constant movement and the dissolving of definitions as soon as they crystallize, her work is radical, disruptive and - in Lorna Sage’s words - ‘sometimes hard to take’.16 Indeed it proves to be ‘hard to take’ by those - feminist and non-feminist alike - who wish to establish political or cultural orthodoxies upon which to build a theory of gender or identity. Fiction exists at the limits of experience and must constantly traverse definitional boundaries. In Nights at the Circus, love - the loving encounter between writer and her text, between characters in the text, and between the reader and the text - becomes a metaphor for the dynamic of this process. Carter’s description of that great narcissistic artist, Frida Kahlo (1907—54), whom she imagines constantly gazing in the mirror, perhaps reveals some­ thing of her own artistic process. Carter depicts Kahlo as ‘a woman working at transforming her whole experience of the world into a series of marvel­ lously explicit images. She is in the process of remaking herself in another medium than life and is becoming resplendent. The flesh made sign’17 The mirror, of course, is one of Carter’s favourite motifs: to gaze in the mirror is to perceive oneself as other, to address oneself as other; and this describes the art of novelistic writing, where language becomes the reflecting sur­ face.18 When the reader-writer (lovingly) contemplates the text, the image will change, and more text will be generated.


Nights at the Circus is structured like a chiasmus, and moves like a baroque

automaton. The central part of the novel turns upon the circus ring, where identities (and the boundaries between male and female, animal and hu­ man) are blurred, inverted, reformed. The chiasmic shape also suggests an hour-glass figure, as if the novel performs some sort of magic trick, within itself, with time. At the beginning of the novel, Walser is metaphorically on top, writing Fewers down; but by the end, she has taken the ascend­ ancy. Fewers achieves this feat by means of wooing and subverting the concepts of time, gravity, perspective. In the first chapter, we are vouch­ safed a view of Fewers’s performance at the music-hall through the lens of Walser’s opera glasses. The detail of the glasses inaugurates the theme of rationality and science which will be elaborated throughout the novel. The pleasure experienced by the reader of the fantastic anomalies of Fewers’s 201

The Infernal Desires of Angela Carter

‘disconcerting pact with gravity’,19 of her defiance of the laws of evolution and projectile motion, recalls that associated with Swift’s baroque novel Gulliver’s Travels (1726), as well as the adventures of Walter de la Mare’s impossibly small heroine in Memoirs of a Midget. De la Mare’s diminutive creation, Miss M., so captured her readers’ imaginations on publication that she ‘brought de la Mare a vastly increased readership and drew from its admirers curious tributes in the shape of teeny-tiny objects, miniature Shakespeares and so on, suitable for the use of Miss M .’ (p. ix). If we bear in mind Barthes’s metaphor of writing as performance, we can make some interesting comparisons between and speculations about de la Mare’s Miss M. and Carter’s Fewers. A significant aspect of what I per­ ceive as the dialogue between the biographies of Miss M. and Fewers is their engagement with the discourse of love. Carter wrote a Preface to the new Oxford University Press edition of Memoirs of a Midget in 1982. She hints a number of times during this Pre­ face that the eponymous heroine ‘may stand as some sort of metaphor for the romantic idea of the artist’ (p. vii). This character is a diminutive, lateVictorian woman known enigmatically as Miss M. She is an incredible creature, ostensibly of pure fiction, whose very existence defies the laws of biology and physics. I want to suggest that de la Mare’s creation, whom Carter elegantly deconstructs in her Preface, serves as a precursor for the more life-affirming (and much bigger) Fewers. It is significant that both of these novelistic biographees get caught up in the world of performance within their narratives, and both of them join the circus. In the Preface, Carter also hints that Miss M. is a projection of de la Mare’s own public and private persona. She quotes his introduction to a selection of his own work, written in 1938: ‘Feelings as well as thoughts may be expressed in symbols; and every character in a story is not only a “chink”, a peep-hole in the dark cottage from which his maker looks out on the world, but is also in some degree representative of himself, if a self in disguise’ (pp. xxii-xxiii). At first sight, the idea that this female midget might represent her male author seems highly unlikely. We have no dif­ ficulty in accepting that the author here is remote in identity from his fic­ tional creation. But Carter observes ‘that Miss M. herself, in her tiny bizarre perfection, irresistibly reminds me of a painting by Magritte of a nude man whose sex is symbolised by a miniature naked woman standing upright at the top of his thigh’ (p. xv). Perhaps we could see Miss M., then, as a kind of chiasmic inversion of her author, who, at the time of writing, was a highly respected figure of the establishment Miss M .’s central concern, like that of Fewers, is to achieve a satisfactory public identity. Miss M .’s small size expresses her social impotence: one could argue that her experience of diminution is the result of an incomplete 202

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or abnormal adjustment to reality (that is, reality as defined by a patriarchal society). This maladjustment provides much entertainment in the novel. Miss M .’s childhood is described against the backdrop of a detailed, elegandy defamiliarized evocation of the Kent countryside, and Carter hints that de la Mare is accessing his own childhood memories in recreating this envir­ onment. ‘Almost all of Memoirs of a Midget takes place in Kent, the “garden of England”, and, as it happens, de la Mare’s own home county. Miss M. is most herself in a garden’ (pp. xv—xvi). She grows up among the rural flora and fauna; this is for her a fascinating, beautiful - though sometimes, because of her size, dangerous and humiliating - environment. Carter seems to suggest that Miss M .’s knowledge is informed by and paralleled with the child’s eye view of the world retained in the memory of her author: that the writer’s history re-emerges here in a transformed, fictional form. Miss M .’s size recalls that of a child subject (at one point she is mistaken for a ten-year-old girl), who lives in a magical world unmodified by Enlightenment philosophy. If the garden of Miss M .’s childhood is dangerous, it is also an exciting and pleasurable place to be. But moving from garden to city, childhood to adulthood, proves to be traumatic. (Here it is interesting to note that Fewers, whose narrative is very sketchy on childhood as such, feels most herself in the city.) Miss M .’s memoir deals in most detail with her twentyfirst year, at which age a woman was traditionally expected to make her entrance into society. From this time onwards, a series of comic, satiric, sadistic and sad encounters culminate in a flight to the circus in search of (financial) independence and freedom — with tragic results. Miss M .’s acceptance into late-Victorian society is attained by dubious means: public performance. She uneasily narrates to us the occasion when, to the bafflement of her audience, she recited Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s enigmatic poem, ‘The Weakest Thing’ (1838). Miss M. observes: ‘you see, when one is listening to poetry, not reading it to oneself, I mean, one hasn’t time to pry about for all its bits of meaning’ (p. 178). Here we see the contrast between the written and the spoken word, between reading and listening, and the characteristic superficiality of the self-present word. One of the consequences of Miss M .’s experience of ‘going public’ is pain: for her, performance represents an activity hazardous both to integrity and identity. And when a fellow midget and admirer, Mr. Anon, attempts to dissuade her from going into the circus ring, it becomes clear that this first step into the public arena has resulted in moral decline. She describes her situation: T m sorry,’ I muttered. ‘But you don’t know what I have gone through these last weeks. And even if I were a hundred times as ashamed of myself as you think I ought to be, I couldn’t — I can’t go back. I have promised. It’s written down. Only once more - this one night, and I 203

The Infernal Desires of Angela Carter

swear it shall be the last.’ My mouth crooked itself into a smile. ‘You shall pray for me on the hill/ I said, ‘then lead me off to a Nunnery yourself.’ And still I could not whisper - Money. (p. 373)

The fact that Miss M. at first says ‘I couldn’t’ rather than T can’t’ suggests (perhaps not very subtly) that she has changed irretrievably. And her lack of integrity is emphasized by her crooked smile, and her disavowed greed for cash. Miss M. strays into performance because her main preoccupation is with the establishment and maintenance of a viable social persona. As Carter observes: ‘The question of the definition of identity recurs throughout the novel’ (p. xviii). Another aspect of this preoccupation, which resonates intriguingly with themes and motifs in Carter’s novel, is Miss M .’s engagement with the laws of perspective. Equipped early in life with a telescope, Miss M. learns to be a stargazer: even my small Bowater astronomy had taught me that as the earth has her poles and equator, so these are in relation to the ecliptic and the equinoctial. So, too, then each one of us - even a mammet like myself — must live in a world of imagination which is in everlasting relation to its heavens. But I must keep my feet. (p. 73)

She apprehends not only the minutiae of the earth but also the height of the heavens. In showing how her breadth of vision —in the material world, at least - does not match her size, de la Mare is exploiting in Swiftian ways the disturbing, distorting and defamiliarizing effects of perspective upon the objects of the narrative and the narrator herself. There is also, interwoven throughout the narrative, a sophisticated thematics of gravity, which makes de la Mare’s imaginative recreation of the experiences of the Midget all the more convincing. For Miss M., it seems, an understanding of the identity of things depends upon an understanding of the laws of gravity and per­ spective - hence the need to keep her feet on the ground. The presenta­ tion of Miss M. in the attitude of stargazer characterizes her as a being who is struggling to orient herself with respect to an external reality which can only really be understood in the abstract, from an insurmountable distance. The stars thus become a symbolic representation of the unattainable other, by which the self is compelled to define itself. Carter suggests that Miss M .’s ‘actual size is not within the realm of the physical dimension; it is the manifestation of an enormous difference’ (p. xv), implying that the differential is somehow self-imposed from the inside, an artificial boundary set up to provide definition with respect to the outside. In his construction of this diminutive character, de la Mare can be seen to


Auto/biographical souvenirs in Nights at the Circus

be examining the rationalization of self-identity and individuality which is a characteristic theme in the history of the novel. By problematizing the situation of the subject with respect to objective reality, this otherwise quaintly old-fashioned work betrays its modernist context. Novelistic fiction conventionally dramatizes the definition of self in terms of a love affair with another. In Nights at the Circus, this encounter is staged between Walser and Fewers. Love is a sometimes mutual scram­ bling of identity which is often expressed in the metaphor of falling head over heels; in a sense, it is a suspension of the laws of gravity. Throughout the novel, both Fewers and Walser are fundamentally rearranged by their encounter, both physically and mentally. But intriguingly enough, Miss M. seems to be incapable of this kind of experience. She has a suitor, Mr. Anon, who is devoted to her and is also a loyal friend. But she finds him repulsive. As Carter observes: ‘why should she marry him, when she has no wish to do so, simply because they are a match in size?’ (p. xx). Miss M., in turn, hopelessly loves another, Fanny Bowater, who, though beauti­ ful to look at, is spiritually corrupt. But as Carter again points out, this love is not of a sexual nature: Miss M. seems as alienated from sexuality as she is from all other aspects of the human condition and if her passion for Fanny suggests it is only heterosexual contact from which she is alienated, de la Mare feels himself free to describe her emotional enslavement by Fanny because the idea this might have a sexual element has been censored out from the start. Although Miss M. declares repeatedly that she is in love with Fanny, the reader is not officially invited by de la Mare to consider this might have anything to do with her rejection of the advances of Mr. Anon. The conflict is played out in terms of pure spirit. (p. xx)

There is a moment in Miss M /s story when it seems she might actually ‘fall’. Like most of the characters in Nights at the Circus, Miss M. is drawn to the centrifugal force of the circus ring in order radically to rearrange her sense of identity. At the circus, Carter tells us, Miss M. finally puts on her ‘erotic disguise’ (she pads her tits and bum, and rouges her cheeks): she is ‘out in the world for the first time, tremulously experimenting with the appearance of sexuality’ (p. xxi). This is when she comes face to face with the desirable Stranger, describing it as ‘a giddy moment’ (p. 342). The episode recalls several moments in Carter’s own fiction where a confrontation with the other is accompanied by an intense feeling of vertigo. Unfortunately, this incident results in death for Mr. Anon, and loss of soul for Miss M. For ultimately, suggests Carter, de la Mare is a classically repressed Victorian. Nights at the Circus, like Memoirs of a Midget, is set at the end of the Victorian era. It seems to me that in the performance of Fewers in Nights


The Infernal Desires of Angela Carter

at the Circus, Carter is exploding the forces that keep Miss M. down. (‘Oh, my little one, I think you must be the pure child of the century that just now is waiting in the wings, the New Age in which no women will be bound down to the ground’ — observes Ma Nelson, p. 25.) These forces are metaphorically expressed in terms of time, gravity and perspective, and Fewers constantly flouts them. Both novels are set on the cusp of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, but while Memoirs of a Midget looks back longingly at the Victorian era, Nights at the Circus gazes fearlessly into the new. There is a sense in which Fewers can be seen to be a product of modernism,20the artistic and literary movement which also liberates itself from these forces —and a movement which Carter observes de la Mare to have studiously ignored. In her essay ‘The alchemy of the word’ (1978), Carter asserts: ‘Love, passionate, heterosexual’ is ‘inextricable’ from ‘freedom’.21 It is not surprising, then, that Carter wishfully speculates that the explanation for Miss M .’s mysterious disappearance at the end of her narrative may be that she has run off with her Stranger (p. xxii).


Fewers seems to embody the emergent ‘new’ twentieth-century woman, defined against the old as represented by Miss M. As such, Carter’s por­ trayal of Fewers is concerned with breaking down boundaries, exploring alternative ways of expressing the female subject and sexuality. I want to suggest that Carter utilizes another biographical subject as part of this project. This subject is Edith Piaf (1916—63) as commemorated by her half-sister Simone Berteaut. As far as I know, there is no textual evidence extant that Carter read Simone Berteaut’s biography of Edith Piaf But if Piaf had not already existed, then Carter might have created her, for she is, along with Greta Garbo and Piaf’s own personal friend, Marlene Dietrich, one of the most significant female icons of the twentieth century. There are a number of resonances between Piaf and Nights at the Circus which suggest to me that it forms another part of the novel’s auto/biographical context. Berteaut’s biography takes a simple chronological form: she begins with a description of Piaf s life in the slums and charts the singer’s struggle out of them into fabulous wealth and stardom. Since Berteaut was with Piaf for most of the time (even, in their days of poverty, sharing the bed with Piaf


Auto/biographical souvenirs in Nights at the Circus

and her lovers), the account has all the vividness of personal memoir. Both sisters were disappointed in their biological mothers (they shared a father), and the relationship between them seems to have filled the resulting emo­ tional gap. After a description of PiaPs beginnings and the establishment of her relationship with Simone, the narrative constructs itself around the significant men in Piaf’s life (of whom there were a lot). Chapters of the biography are named after these men, each presiding over and character­ izing an era in Piaf’s life. Unlike Miss M., Piaf had absolutely no difficulty in falling in love. Indeed, passionate, heterosexual love appears to have been the fundamental driving force of her creative life. Each new lover was the true one, the only one. Piaf’s love was sincere but also governed by sound intuitive sense: each lover lasted as long as it took for Piaf - and, to be fair, her lover - to take what she or he needed from the relationship. The men in PiaFs life wrote songs for her, and managed her career. Nearly all of her lovers remained close and loyal friends after the sexual relation­ ship had faded. They had good reason to feel that they owed her a debt, for it becomes a recurring pattern that Piaf would provide her men with successful public personas. This is attested in the memoirs of one of them, Eddie Constantine: Edith Piaf taught me everything - me and several others - about how a singer should behave on stage. She gave me confidence in myself, and I had not had any self-confidence until then. She made me want to fight and I had never wanted to fight. O n the contrary, I had drifted along. In order to turn me into someone, she had to make me believe I was someone. She had a sort of affirmative genius in her hammering home a personality. She would repeat endlessly, ‘You’ve got class, Eddie. You’re a future star.’ Coming from her, a star of the first order, that affirmation galvanized me.22

Edith Piaf and Fewers share this quality of optimism. The key word here is confidence, which we learn from our reading of Fewers is a magic ingredi­ ent in the performance of femininity. At the comic closure of the novel, as Fewers sits astride Walser, she mirthfully congratulates herself on convincing him of her virginity: ‘“To think I really fooled you!” she marvelled. “It just goes to show there’s nothing like confidence” ’ (Nights at the Circus, p. 295). She inhabits very much the same kind of showbusiness world as Piaf (albeit a couple of decades or so earlier): that music-hall world inhabited by mythic characters and freaks. Edith’s soubriquet, ‘Piaf’, means, of course, sparrow. Partly because of her size she was named after the diminutive birds which haunt the streets of Paris. Fewers, with glorious, vulgar, bare-faced cheek, appropriates the Piaf legend and transforms it even before the ‘original’ is born. For Fewers’s plausibility as a character rests upon an ingenious play


The Infernal Desires of Angela Carter

upon the notion of Cockney as bird-woman - ‘Cockney Sparrow I may be by birth’ (p. 41). The Cockney stereotype is cheeky, cheery, chirpy and quick-witted (think of Stanley Holloway, and Wendy Hiller in Pygmalion). The very word ‘Cockney’ itself, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, comes from the expression ‘cock’s egg’, a derivation wittily apposite to both Fewers’s avowed genesis and her gargantuan size. As well as ‘cockneyfying’ her name, Fewers also seems to have appro­ priated aspects of Piaf s childhood. The first chapter of Piaf is entitled ‘From Pavement to Brothel’, and tells of Piaf’s unconventional birth and upbring­ ing. We are told that she was bom on the streets of Paris, under a lamppost, and after some years of neglect was moved by her father into a brothel, presided over by Piaf’s grandmother, where a group of prostitutes provided food, shelter and love for the remainder of her childhood (the end of which is marked, significandy, by Berteaut as the attainment of the ‘Age of Reason’). As Berteaut tells us, Piaf remembered that the women were kind, that there were parties every evening, that every­ thing was gay. It smelt of cigarette smoke and liquor, and champagne corks popped all night. She heard the sounds in the distance, for her grandmother did not feel she belonged in the salon. (p. 20)

This movement from pavement to brothel is echoed in Fewers’s version of her beginnings, and her memories of the Whitechapel brothel in which she has been brought up recall Piaf’s childhood home: In a brothel bred, sir, and proud of it, if it comes to the point, for never a bad word or unkindness did I have from my mothers but I was given the best of everything and always tucked up in my little bed in the attic by eight o’clock of the evening before the big spenders who broke the glasses arrived. (p. 22)

Subsequently, both Fewers and Piaf retain a weakness for champagne, perhaps a reminder of this nurturing environment. Fewers and Piaf also share the same taste in flowers: Piaf s ideal lover does not buy her huge bouquets; she observes: ‘You must have the faith to buy a little bunch of violets, to dip your hand in your pocket and give them without feeling ridiculous’ (p. 170). Piaf loves the colours blue and violet: her lovers must have blue eyes (the colour of her own eyes); violet is her lucky colour. Fewers has appropriated the violet motif in Nights at the Circus. Walser observes Fewers’s lucky violets in the dressing room, and they stay with her until the train crash: the close of the novel is anticipated by the sight, on New Year’s Eve in Siberia, of a ‘miracle of frail violets, frost-nipped and pale, the colour of tired eyelids, yet big with perfume and


Auto/biographical souvenirs in Nights at the Circus

optimism, [which] were in full bloom among the sheltered roots of the big pine’ (Nights at the Circus, p. 284). W hen one reads the description of Piaf s laugh by one of her lovers, one is reminded of the ‘spiralling tornado of Fewers’ laughter (p. 295) with which the novel actually does achieve its comic closure: Suddenly an enormous, magnificent, pure laugh breaks out, gushes into the room and fills it with joy. Edith Piaf comes towards me, clings to me, and laughs and laughs until she can’t breathe any more, until you think she is going to suffocate right there on the spot. I see her extraordinary face close to mine, with the expressions shifting and changing colour. I see her eyes like a deep sea, her curved forehead, and that monumental laugh which possesses her, and pushes out through her lips as if it is glad to be bitten by those little animal teeth. (Piaf, p. 301)

When possessed by laughter, both performers embody the comic (in the sense of pleasure, the lust for life) at its most transformative. We feel here that Piaf’s laughter turns what is inside out, mediates the physical and the spiritual (constellated in the quotation by a loving encounter between female and male). There is a negative side to PiaFs relations with men, however, and this is suggested most succinctly in Berteaut’s observation: ‘when a man looks at you, you feel that you amount to something; that’s living (p. 37). It seems that both Fewers and Piaf need to be looked at by men. For all of Piaf’s staggering creativity, her gigantic personality, her daily existence constantly threatens to descend into chaos, despair and even death. She needs male affirmation. Without her feminine charm (a confidence trick, as Carter would say), she loses all rights of existence in a patriarchal society. As she gets older and more vulnerable, she begins to lose her power over men and her rags-to-riches story is darkened by drugs, alcoholism and madness. In fact, as soon as the fairy-tale of success becomes more problematic, there is a kind of health warning inserted by the editor. A disclaimer prefaces the second part: ‘One wishes to shout “Enough!” One is overwhelmed by horror and pity. But while others might have foundered without protest in the depths of despair, Piaf retained her amazing courage. Her art was in effect purified. So frail, yet so strong, we must forgive her everything’ (p. 295). In an important respect, the Piaf of Piaf is the product of a brothel: a place where heterosexual encounters are provided commercially. Piaf at­ tests that this environment remains a place of inspiration to her in her performances. The importance of her childhood home in this respect is illustrated by a quasi-miraculous narrative concerning vision. W hen she was small, a neglected cataract had left Piaf blind, and Berteaut tells us,


The Infernal Desires of Angela Carter

through the imagined testimony of her dead sister, how the prostitutes took her to the shrine of St Theresa in an attempt to heal her. Despite the verdict of physicians that the condition is irreversible, this attempt turns out to be successful, and Piaf s sight returns at the time requested of St Theresa by the prostitutes. Berteaut constructs Piafs memories of this formative time: I’ve always believed that that journey through the darkness made me more sensitive than other people. Much later, when I wanted really to hear something, really ‘see’ a song, I would shut my eyes. And when I wanted to bring out a sound from my guts, deep down, as if it were coming from very far away, I would shut my eyes. (P* 20)

Piafs entry into the world of sight marks the movement from puberty to sexual maturity. Here blindness is associated with inner vision, the resource of self-expression, which can be mediated by the messenger of the voice. Song, or the activity of singing, can be construed as a metaphor for the performative process of writing. It mediates memory. In Berteaut’s biography, the singing voice activates the Kristevan dialectic of synchrony and diachrony within the human subject. Moreover, through resonance, the voice, like writing, can enable the body to exert influence upon things remote from it in space. By contrast, sightedness is associated with the outer world of sense and reason. Piafs voice is identified as coming up from under (in that sense, it is literally a sous venir), emanating from the unconscious, and poten­ tially subversive. The voice, like writing, negotiates the limits of experi­ ence, shattering definitions. And we feel that Piaf’s artistic and imaginative reserve of memory is located in this time of nurturing in the brothel. She has to ‘dig it up’ to express herself as an artist. W hen Piaf becomes sighted she is thrown out of the local ‘respectable school’: ‘You’ll have to take the child away’, says the headmaster to her father: Y ou must understand that her presence here is a scandal. W hen she couldn’t see it was all right for your little girl to be brought up in an establishment of that kind, but now she can see, sir, what an example for her pure little soul. W e can’t tolerate this.’ (p. 24)

For Carter, there is nothing utopian about the brothel, despite the radical possibilities of co-operative mothering. The house in which Fewers grows up is something of a fool’s paradise. In this sense, Nights at the Circus can be seen to occupy a dialogic relationship with Piaf For the brothel in Whitechapel is a monument to eighteenth-century neo-classical aesthetics, and the notions of blindness and sight are evoked in a more critical setting: 210

Auto/biographical souvenirs in Nights at the Circus

A little flight of steps ran up to the front door, steps that Lizzie, faithful as any housewife in London, scrubbed and whitened every morning. An air of rectitude and propriety surrounded the place, with its tall windows over which we always kept the blinds pulled down, as if its eyes were closed, as if the house were dreaming its own dream, or as if, on entering between the plain and well proportioned pediments of the doorway, you entered the place that, like its mistress, turned a blind eye to the horrors of outside, for inside, was a place of privilege, in which those who visited might extend the boundaries of their experience for a not unreasonable sum. It was a place in which rational desires might be rationally gratified; it was an old fashioned house, so much so, that, in those years, it had a way of seeming almost too modem for its own good. (Nights at the Circus, p. 26)

The brothel is presided over by Ma Nelson, one of Fewers’s multiple mother figures. Ma Nelson’s characterization recalls the famous incident in which Nelson craftily holds a telescope up to his blind eye: a clear dem­ onstration of the difference between sight and insight. But Ma Nelson’s partial sightedness, reflected by her window blinds, also suggests the danger of self-deception. It is here that Fewers negotiates adolescence, a process which results in the destruction of the house/mother. Here too, Fewers starts to bleed: a souvenir of sorts from inside out, reminding us, like PiaFs voice, of where we came from and where we are going. Fewers represents an attractive, if freakish, manifestation of femininity. Is she the embodiment of ‘female freedom’?23 Ma Nelson’s prophecy ‘Oh, my little one, I think you must be the pure child of the century that just now is waiting in the wings, the New Age in which no women will be bound down to the ground’ —must surely be viewed ironically by the reader, both because of what we have seen Ma Nelson represents (a kind of post-enlightenment individualism), and because we are looking at Fewers from a late-twentieth-century perspective, when the perceived benefits of technology and scientific knowledge for the position of women are being revised. And we come to realize, as we follow Fewers’s adventures through the novel, that her ‘freedom’ is a negative one, for she is always in flight in both senses of the word. She is both aspiring to, and running away from, the fiction that is femininity. Hence the joke of Fewers’s alleged virginity: with her hymen hypothetically intact, she is an unsmashed egg, an unbroken circle, an unopened container, perhaps concealing unimaginable riches. Indeed, she has all the charm of an unviolated chocolate egg on Easter Sunday. I would suggest that what Fewers actually represents can best be gauged within showgirl contexts such as that provided by Piaf. Both performers are tempted to be sentimental about their unconventional experience of mother­ ing, both take comfort and inspiration from their memories of that time. 211

The Infernal Desires of Angela Carter

But in Carter’s text, at least, there is an ironic aftermath to this feminine nostalgia. While in Piaf’s text we witness her death in the arms of Theo Sarapo, her last true love, Fewers’s story ends with the explosion of the virginity myth, and hence of the mystique of femininity. Fewers comes out, literally, on top.

IV Let me close this chapter by looking briefly at Carter’s personal essay ‘The Mother Lode’ (1976), various elements of which resurface in Nights at the Circus as yet another seam of auto/biographical souvenirs. It is significant, I think, that the essay’s title links the notion of metal ore with Carter’s maternal history, figuring it as something to be dug up, and also suggesting that it is something with magnetic influence: attracting to itself, by invisible force, objects remote from it in space (and, figuratively speaking, in time). This could be imagined as a kind of metonymy, for magnetism demands presence, bestows contiguity. Carter illustrates the notion of the contiguity of one’s familial identity when she refers to the legend of Aeneas: ‘Aeneas carried his aged father on his back from the ruins of Troy and so do we all, whether we like it or not, perhaps even if we have never known them.’24 On the evidence of this essay, however, Carter’s family was clearly dominated by its females. By far the most impressive of these is the grandmother, whose name is not given here. Carter describes this woman first of all in terms of her house: a South Yorkshire brick cottage with no inside toilet or hot running water. This house is ‘part of the archaeology of my mother’s mother’s life and gran dug it up again and dived back within it when times became precarious’ (p. 3). Grandmother obviously made a profound im­ pression upon the young Carter; she is described as ‘squat, fierce and blackclad like the Granny in Giles’ cartoons’ (p. 4).25 She kept her money always ‘on her person in her big, black, leather bag’ (p. 10). Carter recalls: ‘My maternal grandmother seemed to my infant self a woman of such physical and spiritual heaviness she might have been bom with a greater degree of gravity than most people’ (p. 8). This grandmother, whose ‘personality had an architectonic quality’, bequeathed to Carter ‘a core of steel’ (pp. 11, 8). There is also the grandmother’s next-door neighbour and sister, Carter’s great aunt Sophia, who was an accomplished amateur artist, teaching her great niece ‘the rudiments of perspective’ (p. 7) at a pre-school age. Carter also mentions a rather enigmatic ‘dotty aunt’ (p. 10), whom she identifies 212

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in a radio interview as Aunt Kit, thwarted in her ambition to go on the music-hall stage. Ma Nelson’s ménage in Nights at the Circus seems a composite of these maternal ancestors from Carter’s auto/biography. We notice that Fewers’s real name is Sophie (p. 13); her metallic voice suggests a ‘core of steel’, and her narrative is interwoven with the fate of the building itself. The key to the magic of the novel resides in Lizzie’s black handbag: the things my foster mother can pull off when she sets her mind to it, you’d not believe! Shrinkings and swellings and clocks running ahead or behind you like frisky dogs; but there's a logic to it, some logic of scale and dimension that w on’t be meddled with, which she alone keeps the key of, like she keeps the key of Nelson’s timepiece stowed away in her handbag and won’t let me touch. (p. 199)

Earlier we are told of Lizzie’s handbag that it ‘could look like that of a mid-wife or an abortionist’ (p. 150). This enigmatic container - a ‘sou­ venir’, or impression of the grandmother o f ‘The Mother Lode’ —holds the secret of creation. Meanwhile, Fewers fulfils Aunt Kit’s thwarted ambition of a life on the boards. In a sense, Fewers is many things that Carter might have been but was not. The creation of Fewers is ultimately rooted in Carter’s ‘experience’, albeit mediated through a complex network of texts. Carter thus problematizes, without actually invalidating, Barthes’ perception of writing as ‘the destruction of every voice, of every point of origin’.26 Carter is interested in the use of self in fiction, not in the sense of an outpouring of personal reminiscence, but in the sense of that deconstruction of selfhood that the artistic process makes possible. Despite her obvious impossibility, her emphatic implausibility, Fewers has a curious - if ironic —ring of authenticity. She functions perhaps as Carter’s answer to de la Mare’s heroine: a metaphor­ ical T to his ‘M ’. For, as Carter points out in her Preface, ‘Miss M .’s “M ” may stand for Midget, or Midgetina, or Metaphor. Or, Myself’ (p. xxiii).


1. I borrow the term auto/biographical from Liz Stanley’s The Auto /biographical I: The Theory and Practice of Feminist Auto /biography (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1992), in which she uses it to cover a number of forms of


The Infernal Desires of Angela Carter

2. 3. 4. 5. 6. 7. 8. 9. 10.

11. 12. 13. 14. 15. 16. 17. 18. 19. 20.

21. 22.

life-writing and to problematize the distinction between autobiography and biography. W e could perhaps equate this term with Roland Barthes’ notion of the the ‘biographeme’: Camera Lucida, trans. Richard Howard (London: Vintage, 1993), p. 30. Walter de la Mare, Memoirs of a Midget (Oxford: OUP, 1982), pp. vii-xxiii. Further page references to this edition are given in the text. Angela Carter, Nothing Sacred (revised edition), (London: Virago, 1992), pp. 3 19. Further page references to this edition are given in the text. In arguing my case I shall be making use of Julia Kristeva’s concept of ‘intertextuality’ as defined in her 1966 essay, ‘Word, dialogue, and novel’, collected in Desire in Language, ed. Leon S. Roudiez (New York: Columbia University Press, 1980), pp. 64-91. R. Barthes, ‘The Death of the Author’, collected in Image Music Text, trans. Stephen Heath (London: Fontana, 1977), p. 142. Ibid., p. 148. Ibid. Ibid., p. 142. Carter defined fiction as ‘symbolic autobiography’ at least twice. In the Preface to Memoirs of a Midget, she suggested that ‘[ajll fiction, as Balzac said, is sym­ bolic autobiography’ (p. xxiii); she reiterated this definition during an interview in the 1992 BBC Omnibus broadcast ‘The Curious R oom ’, made shortly be­ fore, and screened immediately after, her death. Eve(lyn), the narrator of The Passion of New Eve (1977), refers to films as his idol Tristessa’s ‘symbolic autobiography’ (London: Virago, 1982), p. 5. In the third part of Nights at the Circus, of course, Walser comes up against a shaman, and Carter makes use of the opportunity comically to demonstrate the fact that even shamans are bound to culture. Barthes, Image Music Text, pp.145-6. Kristeva, Desire in Language, p. 65. Ibid., p. 66. Ibid., p. 65. Loma Sage, ‘Death of the author’, in Granta: Biography (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1991), p. 248. Carter, Nothing Sacred, pp. 100-6. For an extended discussion on the role of narcissism in creative writing, see Julia Kristeva’s Tales of Love, trans. Leon S. Roudiez (New York: Columbia University Press, 1987). Angela Carter, Nights at the Circus (London: Chatto & Windus, 1984), p. 17. Further page references are given in the text. That Fewers is a child of modernism is also illustrated by the fact that she is born of an egg, like Helen of Troy, the conception of whom is memorably dramatized in Yeats’s apocalyptic poem. W hen Fewers launches herself for the first time, off the mantelpiece in Ma Nelson’s house, she has a Titian depicting the scene as a backdrop, and she hears the sound of great, white wings beating (p. 30). Angela Carter, ‘The alchemy of the word’, in Expletives Deleted (London: Vintage, 1993), p. 72. Simone Berteaut, Piafi trans. Ghislaine Boulanger (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1969), p. 323. Further page references to this edition are given in the text.


Auto/biographical souvenirs in

Nights at the Circus

23. See Ricarda Schmidt, ‘The journey of the female subject in Angela Carter’s fiction’, in Textual Practice 3:1 (Spring 1989), p. 60. 24. Carter, Nothing Sacred, p. 12. The page references given in the text in the rest of this paragraph all refer to Nothing Sacred. 25. ‘Giles’ cartoons would be well known to readers of the Daily Express. 26. See above, n. 6.


Afterword Elaine Jordan

The introduction to this collection, deriving from a 1994 conference called ‘Fireworks’, gives a useful overview of Angela Carter’s career, and of changing responses to her writing, and the chapters by Britzolakis and Keenan, for example, add to this diverse and thought-provoking history in particular respects. The emphasis of the work is unashamedly academic, on the side interested in feminist politics and theory, or gender studies, and includes several new scholar critics. Academic’ in the sense used here does not mean ‘futile’ or ‘impractical’ - it registers how much Carter’s writing has con­ tributed to lively critical thought. Whether reading Carter stimulates delight or revulsion (as sometimes it must do), it is always an intellectual activity. A criticism that can be made of this collection, however, is that there is not much consideration of how Carter’s writing intersects with that of her more-or-less contemporary peers in both ‘serious’ and ‘popular’ fiction (not only women but younger men such as Amis, Rushdie or McEwen, as well as other writers bridging popular and experimental fiction: J. G. Ballard and Michael Moorcock, or Samuel Delany, Octavia Buder and Joanna Russ from the US). The editors have chosen to stress Carter’s role as a writer of fantastic or allegorical fictions of desire (for print, radio, or screen), rather than her equally polemical and stylish cultural criticism of actualities (although chapters on The Sadeian Woman and Sarah Sceats’s comments on Carter’s cookbook reviews go some way to compensate). At the Fireworks conference, Paul Barker spoke of her cultural journalism for New Society as deserving a status for her era equivalent to that which Orwell enjoys for his. I agree. Her cultural criticism does not emerge from a cast of mind utterly different from that shown in her fiction; there could be more exploration of what they have in common. This might make the adjectives ‘angry’ and ‘honest’, ‘observant’ and ‘curious’ as frequent as ‘fascinating’ or ‘stylish’ in describing her work. She had a genuinely comic humour, as well as ironic wit. Her optimism and pessimism could be aligned with the work of the Italian Marxist



theorist Antonio Gramsci, or (equivalently) with that streetwise rabbit Bugs Bunny, expecting the worst and hoping for the best (this was Carter’s version o f ‘optimism of the will, pessimism of the intellect’, heard on BBC Radio 4’s ‘Woman’s Hour’). Someone who spoke out in a general discus­ sion at the conference said that we had not really studied Carter’s particular poetics, and I think that’s right. When Lucie Armitt says we have not engaged with how form and structure may contribute to ideological reori­ entation, some will want to say, yes we have! in talking, for example, about allegory, picaresque seriality, oxymoron or zeugma, and the shifting syntax and grammar of time and person which are significant in and between The Bloody Chamber stories, in particular ‘The Erl King’ in contrast to ‘The Company of Wolves’. Many essays here do touch on formal and generic questions, but it is quite true that political argument dominates, here and elsewhere. Only Armitt’s essay, itself metaphorically imaginative, makes form a significant focus - though Paul Magrs negotiates with comparable verve some of the typologies, especially of men, which Carter works through (and, yes, through which she works: where else do you start except from where you are?). Look at two examples which are, in more local ways than stereotypical and generic forms and frames, typical of Carter’s kinds of pleasure and shock. Magrs quotes from ‘The Loves of Lady Purple’ about the puppet master mimicking the voice of Lady Purple - ‘a thick lascivious murmur like fur soaked in honey’.1 Soaking suggests a rich culinary marinade or stewing together, while each of the synaesthetic associations for the heard voice (the oral pleasure of sucking, hinted at by ‘soaking’, unites touch and taste) evokes sensations which might be delicious, but only if kept apart. You know what is meant (like stroking fur, like tasting honey), but fur soaked in honey would in fact be very nasty as fur or as honey. O f course it’s perfectly possible to dislike fur or honey in the first place; but if you like them, is Carter’s association of them simply bad writing, or does it make you jump, cooking up the desirable with what proves to be nasty? Sarah Sceats quotes a celebratory breakfast in The Magic Toyshop with bacon and eggs, very domestic, but suddenly there is an allusion to Arthurian legend, to ‘the Siege Perilous’ - whoever sat there would disappear, as the tyrant Uncle Philip seems to have disappeared. Uncle Philip’s chair is casually occupied by someone who won’t try to take on that power, who behaves easily and democratically in a way which soon seems quite normal. Describing this ominous patriarchal chair as ‘the shell of a threat’ assimilates Uncle Philip’s power to something eggshell-thin and cracked, its slippery contents metonymically eaten up or thrown away. Everyday experience of material facts, as well as luxuriant possibilities,'are all suggested by Angela Carter’s associative, often oxymoronic style. The politics, as I argue else-


The Infernal Desires of Angela Carter

where,2 is in the attraction and the flinching, the recoil from what is horrible, produced by the vibrancy of image and syntax working locally as well as in larger structures. The aesthetic (a word which, like ‘pathology’, originally related to physical sensation, as Terry Eagleton points out in The Ideology of the Aesthetic) works with, not against, the political, whether this is radical, liberal or conservative. Poetic language pushes constantly against the barrier between actuality and the arbitrariness of language, and poetics such as Carter’s do so self-consciously, while drawing necessarily on both conscious principles and unconscious obsessions. In seventeeth-century England philosphers like John Locke and insti­ tutions such as the Royal Society - part of the movement of thought and practice now called ‘the Enlightenment’ - were suspicious of rhetoric, metaphor, poetic language, desiring instead the clear, transparent prose of an honest person delivering so many things in so many words (an ideal maybe as crazy as the ambitions of poetic language). Among the suspect rhetorical tropes, or devious turnings of language, irony was understood as a deviation from saying it straight (saying the opposite of what is meant, or saying rather less). Some modem linguists, Dan Sperber and Deirdre Wilson for example, would rather think of irony as an echo, a quotation of what some person might say or think, which an alert listener would recognize as something for them to consider critically. Angela Carter’s mode is char­ acteristically, though not always, ironic. In some essays here there is, I feel, a failure to negotiate ‘echoic irony’, to appreciate that a particularly defined character is saying something which may also be culturally typical, and this is combined with confusion between what a character is saying, and what Carter’s argument might be claiming. This comes up more than once in relation to discussions of the transvestite Hollywood star Tristessa in The Passion of New Eve: ‘How could a real woman ever have been so much a woman as you?’3 Paulina Palmer chooses not to observe it is the character ‘Eve/lyn’, rather than the author ‘Carter’, who says this, although it could be argued that they may share the same ironic, citational attitude about what ‘a woman’ might be understood to be. Scare quotes around the second ‘woman’ might have forestalled the inference that ‘ “real” biological women are inferior and redundant’. Similarly, the guerilla Lilith is thought to be the ‘real self’ of the prostituted Leilah, at the end of The Passion of New Eve , rather than, like Eve herself, a new but not final possibility. This fantasy fear of depreciating actual women is more likely to be produced by the work of Monique Wittig, or of Judith Butler on concepts of gender and sex, subjection and performance. The latter emerged later than Angela Carter’s work and has a lesbian, homosexual or ‘queer’ animus, as distinct from Carter’s equally valid concerns with the heterosexually 218


desirous woman. That Buder’s arguments, with their genealogy from Hegel, Freud, Riviere, Lacan, Irigaray and post-Marxists such as Ernesto Laclau, Chantal Mouffe and Slavoj 2izek, are so often used by a younger generation to validate or explain Carter’s work, is something which always strikes me as curiously back-to-front - maybe quite properly inverted, but nevertheless Carter did this sort of thing before Butler, so her work could just as well be used to explicate Butler. Her interests are different, primarily with women’s heterosexual desire and with class forms of desire and power, in a cultural perspective which is English, European, as well as internationally socialist. Is political theory more classy than fiction, poetry, drama? (As Carter said about the contrast between tragedy and comedy in Wise Children, with irony rather than pathos, though she was dying at the time: ‘Tragedy, always more class than comedy.’) It may be that theorists, philosophers and especially politicians just get on to these matters a bit too late. Yet Carter’s writing assuredly asked for, cried out for, this sort of dispute. Her character, scenarios and modes of writing move between dogmatic or principled argument and ironic or shamanistic metamorphoses, and the ethics and politics of both draw on ‘the curious room’ of a particular, personal, imagination, its horrors and delights. She worked in dialectical and explor­ atory ways, which have been variously understood. Critics in this collection tend to exemplify the tendencies proposed or deplored by the Enlightenment. They want a writer to provide a sound, coherent foundation for thinking and living, and therefore quarrel with what they too often see as simple oppositions or contradictions; or they understand that Carter was exploring her cultural inheritance and trying, rhetorically, to provoke difficult and different responses in living beings, so as to make things less bad, less cruel and destructive (she was as feminist, socialist, democratic and egalitarian as these ‘fundamentalists’). She was seriously a writer, and seriously political: on both counts questioningly concerned about how things get said, written, imagined, done and remembered.


1. Angela Carter, ‘The Loves of Lady Purple’, in Fireworks: Nine Profane Pieces (London: Quartet, 1974), p. 23. 2. See Elaine Jordan, ‘Enthralment: Angela Carter’s speculative fictions’, in Linda Anderson, ed., Plotting Change: Contemporary Women's Fiction (London: Edward Arnold, 1990), pp. 18-40; ‘The dangers of Angela Carter’, in Isobel Armstrong,


The Infernal Desires of Angela Carter ed., New Feminist Discourses: Essays on Theories and Texts (London: Roudedge, 1991), pp. 119-31; and ‘Down the road, or History Rehearsed’, in Francis Barker, Peter Hulme and Margaret Iverson, eds, Postmodernism and the Re-Reading of Modernity (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1992), pp. 159-79. 3. Angela Carter, The Passion of New Eve (London: Virago, 1982), p. 129.



abjection, 92-3, 95, 120 Ackley, Katherine, 150 Adomo, Theodor, 10 alchemy, 168-9 Alien films, 118 allegory, 44, 46, 54 Alphaville, 9 anorexia, 35 Apollinaire, Guillaume, 142, 155 appetite, 91, 100-13 Appignanesi, Lisa, 9, 161 Armitt, Lucie, vii, 15, 16, 217 Atwood, Margaret, 1, 14, 24, 27, 36, 40 Cat's Eye , 38 The Edible Woman, 33, 35 The Handmaid’s Tale, 34, 39, 74 The Robber Bride, 33, 35-8 Surfacing, 33 Austen, Jane, 9, 103 Bakhtin, Mikhail, 28, 56, 69, 111, 112, 119, 200 Baldick, Chris, 118 Ballard, J. G., 216 Bannock, Sarah, vii, 18 Barker, Paul, 216 Barnes, Djuna, Nightwood, 126 Barthes, Roland, 59, 194, 199, 202, 213 Mythologies, 50 Bartkowski, Frances, 75 Bataille, Georges, 144, 146 Bath, 9

Baudelaire, Charles Pierre, 47, 49-52, 61 Fleurs du mal, 51, 52 Bayley, John, 8, 9, 11 Benjamin, Walter, 47 Bersani, Leo, 90 Berteaut, Simone, 18 Piaf, 198, 206-11 Bettelheim, Bruno, 89-90, 137 Booker prize, 5, 6 Borden, Lizzie, 123—4, 149 Bomstein, Kate, 167 boundaries, 15-16, 61, 62, 66, 79, 90, 92, 94, 96 bread, 101 breasts, female, 108, 160, 161-2, 163 Breton, André, 3 Bristow, Joseph, vii Britzolakis, Christina, vii, 14-15, 19, 32-3, 216 Bronfen, Elisabeth, 93 Brontë, Charlotte Jane Eyre, 123 Villette, 118 Brookner, Anita, 11 Hotel du Lac, 6 brothels, 39-40, 208-11 Broughton, Trev Lynn, vii Browning, Elizabeth Barrett, ‘The Weakest Thing’, 203 Brown, Rebecca, The Terrible Girls, 74 buggery, 155 221

Index Burgess, Anthony, 3 Burgin, Victor, 121 Butler, Judith, 14, 19, 24-7, 30, 60-3, 67, 73, 75-80, 83, 195, 218-19 Bodies That Matter: On the Discursive Limits of ‘Sex’, 61, 194 Gender Trouble, 194 Butler, Octavia, 216 Calder, Liz, 4 Callil, Carmen, 4 Cameron, Marsaili, 135 camp style, 172-3 cannibalism, 107-11, 123 camivalesque, 54—6, 69, 71, 111-13, 119-23 Carter, Angela American Ghosts and Old World Wonders, 9 ‘The Applicant’, 121 Black Venus, 51, 61 £The Cabinet of Edgar Allan Poe’, 61-2 The Bloody Chamber and Other Stones, 1, 4, 5, 12, 13, 16, 76, 77, 88-98, 116, 133, 135-6, 142, 217 ‘The Bloody Chamber’, 95-7, 120, 122-3, 124, 191, 193 ‘The Erl-King, 93-4, 96, 217 ‘The Lady of the House of Love’, 91, 93, 95-7 ‘The Snow Child’, 91, 94, 136 Burning Your Boats, 191, 192, 193 ‘The Company of Wolves’, 8, 13, 89, 94, 120, 125, 126, 217 ‘The Fall River Axe Murders’, 120, 123, 124 Fireworks, 3, 75, 189 ‘The Executioner’s Beautiful Daughter’, 188 ‘Penetrating to the Heart of the Forest’, 191 Heroes and Villains, 3, 16, 73-85, 100, 104, 139 The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman, 3, 5, 9, 31, 108-10, 139, 141 222

‘The Kitchen Child’, 104, 106,


‘The Lady of the House of Love’, 127, 128, 190 ‘Lizzie’s Tiger’, 124 Love, 3, 45-6, 47 ‘Love in a Cold Climate’, 159 ‘The Loves of Lady Purple’, 124-5, 129-30, 188, 217 The Magic Toyshop, 3, 10, 16, 28, 31, 34, 73, 75-82, 84, 85, 100, 103, 106, 107, 111, 120, 121, 124, 189, 192, 194, 217 ‘The Merchant of Shadows’, 61 Nights at the Circus, 1, 5, 6, 11, 15, 18, 28, 31, 36, 39, 43, 45, 54, 59, 62-70, 77, 100, 111, 133, 142, 146, 184, 196 auto/biographical souvenirs, 198-213 ‘Notes from the Front Line’, 10, 52-3, 60, 64, 70 Nothing Sacred: Selected Writings, 9, 10 ‘The Mother Lode’, 18, 198, 212-13 The Passion of New Eve, 4, 5, 6, 11, 18, 29, 50-1, 55, 61, 102, 104, 105, 108, 133, 139, 143, 146, 189, 194, 195, 218 sexual and textual aggression, 149-63 transgressive symbolism, 166—80 The Sadeian Woman: An Exercise in Cultural History, 4, 12, 17, 102, 107, 113, 123, 132-46, 216 sexual and textual aggression, 149-63 Several Perceptions, 3, 110 Shadow Dance, 3, 44, 149, 190, 192 Vampirella, 128 The Virago Book of Fairy Tales, 17, 89 Wise Children, 6, 7, 9, 15, 16, 28, 32, 39, 45, 48, 55, 59, 61, 67-70, 101, 105, 111, 112, 146, 194, 196, 219 censorship, 133, 140, 142 Chandler, Raymond, 38

Index Chatto & Windus, 4 -5 Christie, Agatha, 38 Civil Rights Movement, 10 Cixous, Hélène, 134, 161 Clark, Robert, 88 Cocteau, Jean, 6 commodity fetishism, 46, 49, 54 Conrad, Joseph, Heart of Darkness, 186 Constantine, Eddie, 207 consumerism, 49 cookery-book reviews, 16, 101, 216 Crisp, Quentin, The Naked Civil Servant, 195-6 cross-dressers, 157, 158, 174 cyborgs (in Carter’s fiction), 193-5 Dada, 144 Dahl, Roald, 119 Daly, Mary, 34, 139 David, Elizabeth, English Bread and Yeast Cookery, 101 Davis, Bette, 172 death, 121 de Beauvoir, Simone, The Second Sex , 158 Decadence, 49-52, 61 de Certeau, Michel, 180 deconstruction, 60, 132 de la Mare, Walter, 18 Memoirs of a Midget, 18, 198, 202-6, 213 Delany, Samuel, 216 de Lauretis, Teresa, 77, 80 demythologizing, 50, 54, 133, 146 Derrida, Jacques, 60, 65 desire, 2 diachrony, 200, 210 Dickens, Charles, 103 Great Expectations, 100, 102 Dietrich, Marlene, 172, 206 Dinesen, Isak, 6, 126 Donald, James, 120 Doyle, Sir Arthur Conan, 38 Dracula, 118, 126, 128 drag, 14, 25, 26, 61, 173-4, 195, 196 du Maurier, Daphne, Rebecca, 123 Duncker, Patricia, 12, 13, 88, 89, 95 Literature and History, 12 Dworkin, Andrea, 12, 150 Mercy, 151

Dyer, Richard, 127 dystopia, 73-7, 81 Eagleton, Terry, The Ideology of the Aesthetic, 218 Eliot, George, 103 Eliot, T. S., 'The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock', 186 Ellmann, Maud, 102 eroticism, 1, 2, 8, 17, 105, 146, 189 Evans, Kim, 110 Executioners (in Carter’s fiction), 187-9, 190, 192, 193, 195 fairy tales, 12, 13, 15, 16, 74, 88-98, 116, 124, 125, 135-8, 143 fantasy, 4, 14, 117-19 in Heroes and Villains, 73—85 femininity, 26-34, 39, 52, 138-41, 149, 156-60 myths of, 132, 162, 163 passive, 157 as spectacle, 44, 45, 54 fetishism, 46-50, 53 Fiedler, Leslie, 119 Firbank, Ronald, 6 ‘Fireworks: Angela Carter and the Futures of W riting’ (conference at York University, 1994), x, 2, 132, 216 First International Symposium on Gender Identity, 172 First World War, 127-8 Fletcher, John, 53 Fly, The (film), 118 food and literature, 100 and morality, 102 and sex, 106 Foucault, Michel, 15, 16, 60, 64-5, 108 Discipline and Punish, 54 France, 10 freaks, 63 French, Marilyn, The Women’s Room,


Freud, Sigmund, 9, 10, 47, 49, 75, 110, 117, 219


Index Gallop, Jane, 171 Garber, Majorie, 179, 185, 195 Vested Interests, 196 Garbo, Greta, 30, 50, 172, 206 Gay News, 134, 135 gender, 2, 14, 60-1 and performativity, 24-41 gender dysphoria, 18 gender dysphoria syndrome, 172 gender identity, 173, 178 gender identity clinics, 172 gender performance, 43, 53 gender reassignment, 167 gender-transgressive figures, 175-7 Gilbert, Harriett, ‘So long as it’s not sex and violence’, 151 Gilbert, Sandra M. and Susan Gubar, The Mad Woman in the Attic , 136 Gilda (film), 158, 159 Godard, Jean-Luc, 9 Goldman, Emma, 145 Gollancz, Victor, 4 Gothic fiction, 4, 13, 15, 16, 48, 89-98, 117-21, 126 Gramsci, Antonio, 217 Greenaway, Peter, The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover, 107, 109 Griffin, Susan, 139 Haffenden, John, 5, 6, 158 Hanson, Clare, viii, 14, 15, 16 Haraway, Donna, 19 ‘A cyborg manifesto’, 194 Hardy, Barbara, 100, 102 Hayworth, Fata, 158 Hegel, G. F., 219 Herrmann, Anne, 175 heterosexuality, 75, 141, 178 Hiller, Wendy, 208 Hogg, James, The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner, 117 Holland, Norman, 91 Holloway, Stanley, 208 Hollywood, 6, 9, 18, 118, 156-9, 162, 172, 173, 218 homosexuality, 18


horror writing, 4, 17, 116-30 Huysmans, Joris-Karl, 50 Internet, 194 Irigaray, Luce, 14, 26, 27, 30, 31, 35, 60, 121, 143-4, 219 Simians, Cyborgs and Women: The Reinvention of Nature, 194 irony, 218 Jackson, Rosemary, 119 James, Henry, 7 Jankovich, Mark, 119 Japan, 3, 10 Jeffrey, Sheila, 27 John Llewellyn Rhys Prize, 3 Johnson, Heather L., viii, 18 Jordan, Elaine, viii, 13, 19, 50, 59,


Jordan, Neil, The Company of Wolves (film version), 97, 98 Jung, Carl, 169 Kahlo, Frida, 201 kaleidoscopes, 97-8 Kappeler, Susanne, The Pornography of Representation, 133, 137, 139-44 Keenan, Sally, viii, 17, 19, 216 Koertge, Noretta, 25 Kristeva, Julia, 69, 73, 92, 93, 134, 210 Powers of Horror: A n Essay on Abjection, 120 1Strangers to Ourselves’, 126 ‘Word, dialogue, and novel’, 200 Lacan, Jacques, 26, 75, 219 Laclau, Ernesto, 219 Laplanche, Jean, 79, 97, 98 Lautréamont, Comte de, 144 Lawrence, D. FL, 185, 186 Leavis, F. R ., 102 Lee, Hermione, 8 lesbian fiction, 24-7, 38-41, 126 Lévi-Strauss, 3 literary prizes, 3 Locke, John, 9, 218 Essay Concerning Human Understanding, 9

Index Essay Concerning the True Original, Extent and End of Civil Government, 168 London Review of Books, 101, 102, 106 Lyotard, Jean-François, 60

New York Review of Books, 8 Nicholl, Charles, 169 nostalgia, 108 Nye, Robert, 5

Oakley, Ann, 135 O ’Day, Marc, 48 O ’Faolain, Julia, 135 O ’Keeffe, Georgia, 127 Omnibus, 110 Orton, Joe, 190 Orwell, George, 216 overwriting, 6, 54 Ovid, Metamorphoses, 170 Oxford Book of Gothic Tales, The, 118 oxymoron, 17, 125, 217, 218

MacKinnon, Catharine A., 150 Madonna, 142, 154, 155 magic realism, 3 Magritte, René, 202 Magrs, Paul, viii, 14, 18, 217 Mahoney, Elisabeth, viii, 15-16 Maier, Michael, Atalanta Fugiens, 170 Maitland, Sara, 135 Makinen, Meija, viii, 13, 17, 59, 88 male fantasies, 36, 37 Manget, Bibliotheca Chemica Curiosa, 170 mannerism, 6 Mapplethorpe, Robert, 75 Marcuse, Herbert, 10 Marxism, 44, 46-7, 49, 54, 64-5 masculinity, 18, 24, 32, 59 masquerade, 31-4, 38, 50-4, 153, 158 Maugham, W. Somerset, 3 Meaney, Gerardine, 69 metamorphosis, 169-70 Middleton, Peter, The Inward Gaze, 186 mimesis, 26-7, 31, 32, 38-9, 41, 46 Modernism, 50, 186 Moorcock, Michael, 216 Morris, Jan, Conundrum , 176 Mortimer, John, 11-12 motherhood, 133, 134, 146, 161 mothering, 103-4, 145 mothers, 102-3, 120, 145-6 Mouffe, Chantai, 219 Moylan, Tom, 74, 75 Mulvey, Laura, 49 ‘Visual pleasure and narrative cinema’, 159

Paglia, Camille, 142, 187, 191 Palmer, Paulina, ix, 14, 44, 88, 154, 218 Paulin, Tom, 6 Penelope, Julia, 25 performativity, 18, 24—41, 61 Piaf, Edith, 206-11 picaresque, 4, 5 pissing, 187 Plath, Sylvia, 121 Poe, Edgar Allan, 40, 49, 51, 61-2 Poe, Elizabeth, 61—2 political correctness, 8, 88 Pontalis, Jean-Bertrand, 79, 97, 98 pornography, 2, 4, 12, 13, 17, 132-46, 153 fetishistic, 157 violent, 150 postmodernism, 44, 186, 187 poststructuralism, 37, 44, 52, 60 Potter, Beatrix, 103 professionalism, 52-3 prostitutes, 47, 50, 51, 129, 208, 210 psychoanalysis, 10, 24, 26, 27, 44, 75 puppets, 28, 97, 108, 120, 122, 188-9, 190

naturalism, 4 New Man, 66 New Review, 4 New Society, 216 New Woman, 55, 62, 66, 142 New World, 167, 171, 180

Radcliffe, Ann, 118 Mysteries of Udolpho, 117 radio, 128 rape, 81-2, 138, 151 Raymond, Janice, The Transsexual Empire, 30


Index Real men (in Carter’s fiction), 185-7 representational limits, 73 resignification, 61 Richard, Cliff, 121 Richards, Renée, 172 Ricoeur, Paul, 180 Riviere, Joan, 26, 158, 219 ‘Womanliness as masquerade’, 43, 53 Ross, Andrew, 173 Rushdie, Salman, 216 Midnight’s Children, 5 Russ, Joanna, 216 Sade, Marquis de, 8, 11, 12, 17, 49, 123, 132-46, 153 Juliette, 4, 133, 137, 140-3, 153-6, 188, 191 Justine, 4, 134, 137-40, 145, 153-6, 158, 191 Philosophy in the Boudoir, 145 Sage, Lorna, 1, 2, 4, 59, 137, 185, 201 Sceats, Sarah, ix, 16, 216, 217 Expletives Deleted, 16 Schapiro, Judith, 178 Schulman, Sarah, After Delores, 149, 150 Scott, Bonnie Kime, The Gender of Modernism, 187 Scott, Ridley, 152 seducers (in Carter’s fiction), 189—93 Segal, Lynne, 139, 141 sexism, 117 sexual aggression, 149—63 sexual economy, 144 sexuality, 1, 2, 7, 12, 14, 17, 24, 84, 88, 106, 134-5, 138-46 sexual perversity, 3 sexual politics, 10, 24, 142, 173 sexual revolution, 141 Shakespeare, William, 7, 8, 28, 46, 55, 67-70 All's Well That Ends Well, 32 King Lear, 65 Measure for Measure, 32 The Tempest, 46 The Winter’s Tale, 28 short stories, 4-5, 14, 61, 95, 96 Showaiter, Elaine, 150 Sexual Anarchy, 186 Simmons, Dawn Langley, Man Into Woman, 173


social change, 67, 70 social realism, 6 Solanas, Valerie, The S.C.U .M . Manifesto, 152 Sontag, Susan, 172, 173 Sperber, Dan, 218 Steptoe and Son, 190 Stevenson, Robert Louis, The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde , 117-18 Stoker, Bram, Dracula, 118, 186 Stokes, John, 54 Stoller, Robert, 172 Stone, Sandy, ‘The Empire Strikes Back’, 166, 167, 179, 180 Straub, Kristina, 32 strippers, 40 Suleiman, Susan Rubin, Subversive Intent, 144, 177 Surrealism, 49, 144 Swift, Jonathan, Gulliver’s Travels, 202 synchrony, 200, 210 technology, 50 textual aggression, 149-63 Thatcherism, 15, 107 theatricality, 14, 28, 43, 51, 53 Thelma and Louise, 152 Toussaint L’Ouverture, 63 toys, 97 transgender experience, 167 transgender theory, 18 transsexuality, 4, 29, 30, 158, 166-80 transvestism, 30, 172-5, 178, 196 Trollope, Joanna, 11 Tuttle, Lisa, 117 Tyler, Carole-Anne, 26, 27 unicorn, 177, 178 United States, 10 uroborus, 108 vampires, 120, 126, 127, 128, 130 Vidor, Charles, 158 Villiers de L’Isle Adam, L ’Eve Future, 51 violence, 7, 81, 139 by women, 149-63 Virago Press, 4, 17, 132 virginity, 138, 141, 177, 211-12

Index voyeurism, 33-5, 40 vulgarity, 8 Walpole, Horace, The Castle of Otranto , 117 Ward Jouve, Nicole, 103, 146, 160 Warhol, Andy, 152 Warner, Marina, 2, 53 werewolves, 118, 120, 125, 127 Whatling, Clare, 25 White, Edmund, 6 Williams, Linda, Hard Core, 133, 142 Wilson, Barbara, 38 Wilson, Deirdre, 218 Wings, Mary, She Came Too Late{ 38, 39, 40

Winterson, Jeanette, Sexing the Cherry, 149, 150 Wisker, Gina, ix, 17 Wittig, Monique, 218 Wolff, Janet, Feminine Sentences, 187 W omen’s Movement, 10, 11 Women*s Report, 135 Women and Violence in Literature (ed. Ackley), 150 Women Watching Violence (BFI), 150 Yeats, W. B., 122 Zahavi, Helen, Dirty Weekend, 17, 149-52, 155, 159-60 Zizek, Slavoj, 219