One of the many allusions sprinkled throughout Angela Carter’s short story ‘The Bloody Chamber’ is to the French Symbolist painter Odilon Redon, who was born on 22nd April 1840. As the nameless protagonist explores her husband’s library and picture gallery, she discovers a number of decadent works including Huysman‘s Là-bas (1891), an etching by Félicien Rops, and a fictitious engraving by Redon entitled The Evening Star Walking on the Rim of Night. The engraving is of the Marquis’s second (and now dead) wife, which the protagonist describes as follows:
“Her face is common property; everyone painted he but the Redon engraving I liked best, The Evening Star Walking on the Rim of Night. To see her skeletal, enigmatic grace, you would never think she had been a barmaid in a café in Montmartre until Puvis de Chavannes saw her and had her expose her flat breasts and elongated thighs to his brush.”
Martine Hennard notes in her brilliant study, Reading, Translating, Rewriting: Angela Carter’s Translational Poetics (Wayne State University Press, 2013), that the Marquis’s “passion for collecting decadent art is a key to a fuller understanding of his scopophilia and misogyny”. She continues: “For the Marquis, women have a decorative function, and their attraction lies in their ability to embody decadent perceptions of women’s alleged nature.” The “actual conditions of the female models” are erased in such paintings so that their sufferings can be “aestheticized to represent the morbid decadent ideal of femininity – skeletal, enigmatic, and frail and marked by decay, disease, and death.”
Christopher Frayling also provides some background context for this and other allusions in Carter’s work in the chapter ‘Angela and Me: A Literary Friendship’, from his book Inside the Bloody Chamber: on Angela Carter, the Gothic, and other weird tales (Oberon, 2015). He recalls that Carter had been “very struck by a large monochrome poster on the wall of [his] flat, advertising an exhibition of the lithographs of Odilon Redon in Geneva (June to October 1975)” and that this poster “found its way into Blubeard’s Castle in the story The Bloody Chamber” as the aforementioned fictional engraving. Frayling also observes that he and Carter often discussed his poster, which “showed a cosmic battle between a winged devil and a vulnerable, naked girl”. They wondered “what it might mean, and why the decadent aristocrat in Huysmans’ À Rebours had a particular penchant for collecting Redon drawings.” Lastly, the Rops etching was also “inspired by three works in a large catalogue [he] lent Angela – L’œuvre gravé de Félicien Rops (Paris, 1975): Le Plus Bel Amour de Don Juan, Le Massage and L’Agonie ou Mors et Vita“.
There is much more that could be said about Carter’s use of decadent and symbolist works, and their relationship to her own representations of femininity. However, this is just a short post to stimulate discussion of Carter’s literary and artistic sources. What other intertexts are you drawn to in Carter’s writing and what do you make of her particular use of them? Feel free to leave a comment below or join the discussion on Twitter (@AngelaCarterFan) and Facebook.