Shadow Dance was Angela Carter’s first novel, originally published in 1966 by William Heinemann and then after 1994 by Virago. Here is my review along with suggested further reading. Please feel free to leave a comment below or on Facebook and Twitter.
Shadow Dance is a story about many different things. On one level, it is about two seemingly opposed, but in reality intimately related, versions of masculinity. Protagonist Morris Grey is weak, passive and riddled with guilt. He drifts through the story, feeling sorry for himself – “he was a bad painter and knew himself to be a bad painter […] It was his secret, his fatal secret” – and disavowing any sense of responsibility for his actions. Although married, Morris mostly neglects his wife and looks down on her condescendingly: “He knew that women like Edna could give their hearts and souls to cats and kittens, if nothing else was forthcoming. If he had not married Edna, she would have aged into a cat-spinster in a bed-sitter”. Alienated and unable to enact his desires, Morris spends most of his time lost in various fantasies, often featuring women. Whilst waiting to be served in a shop, for example, Morris sees an advert on the notice board for a “15-year-old girl [seeking] riding lessons” and quickly turns this into a “fleeting but disturbing [fantasy]” of a “panting, wet-lipped nymphet”, an allusion to Nabokov’s Lolita.
Alongside these narcissistic fantasies, though, is a recurring nightmare about the beautiful but scarred Ghislaine. Morris wanted to punish her because she evoked his insecurity and guilt during a brief sexual encounter. However, out of weakness he encouraged his friend and business partner, Honeybuzzard, to do the terrible deed instead, and the latter took a knife to Ghislaine’s face. Now, Morris is plagued by a recurring dream:
“He dreamed he was cutting Ghislaine’s face with a kitchen knife. The knife was blunt and kept slipping. Her head came off in his hands, after a while, and he cut her into a turnip lantern, put a candle inside and lit it through her freshly carved mouth. She burned away with a greenish light.”
Morris’s voice provides the dominant narrative perspective and the narrative is indeed largely about his internal struggle. Towards the end of the novel, he fantasises about simultaneously running away and confronting existence authentically: “He would go away, really go away […] But this idea had the smack of one of his fantasies and he was determined that he would, in future, put such fantasies behind him – he would become a citizen of the real world, a world where there was black and there was white but no shadows.”
Contrasted with Morris is the aforementioned sweet and predatory Honeybuzzard, who does “what Morris had always wanted but never defined”. As the title of the novel suggests, Honeybuzzard is Morris’s shadow-self, an idea that is captured brilliantly by Roxanna Bikadoroff’s cover image for the Virago Modern Classics edition of the novel. In this illustration, Morris gazes up at his shadow with a look of terror, perhaps noticing that his paintbrush has become a dagger in the hand of Honeybuzzard, thereby alluding to the former’s impotence and repressed desires. Honeybuzzard is represented variously as a dandy, a puppet-master, and a nightmarish and narcissistic patriarch who recognises no barriers to his pleasure-seeking. When he first appears in the narrative, Honeybuzzard is described as “lithe and slick as a stick of liquorice”, “affecting a Groucho Marx stunt walk” and looking “like a Hollywood starlet unsuccessfully attempting incognito”. Although he performs his identity with camp and affectation, frequently shouting out “Darling!” to Morris, he is also a darkly sinister figure: “It was impossible to look at the full, rich lines of his dark red mouth without thinking: ‘This man eats meat.’” Honeybuzzard acknowledges this fluidity of identity, telling Morris on one occasion that “I would like to be somebody different each morning. Me and not-me.” However, as Sarah Gamble has pointed out, this performance of identity “fails” when Honeybuzzard murders a young woman, Ghislaine, at the novel’s climax, thereby stepping “over the boundary dividing camp from tragedy”.
On another level, Shadow Dance is about the construction of femininity, specifically a masculine-scripted version of “Woman”. Ghislaine is the central female character, a “very young girl” who “used to look like a young girl in a picture book”, but who now looks rather monstrous after being disfigured by Honeybuzzard. Ghislaine is described as simultaneously innocent and threatening, a girl with “soft, baby cheeks” and “yellow, milkmaid hair” but also “the bride of Frankenstein” and a “vampire woman”. This ambivalent image makes it clear that she is figured as a traditional male fantasy in which “Woman” is both idealised and castigated, as in the dichotomy of the virgin and the whore. What makes matters worse, though, is that Carter has Ghislaine not only accept but actually desire this position. As she is reported as saying at the novel’s climax, “‘I’ve learned my lesson, I can’t live without you [Honeybuzzard], you are my master, do what you like with me’”. And indeed, Honeybuzzard does just that: he rapes and murders Ghilaine, and then lays her body out on a make-shift alter in an act of surrealist blasphemy, an allusion to the Surrealists’ love of shock, as in George Bataille’s Story of the Eye for example. Ghislaine is thus a disturbed and disturbing female character, and critics of Carter’s work have often found both her and the novel itself highly problematic in terms of the representation of gender.
The other women in the novel do not fare much better. As noted above, Morris’s wife is represented as a self-effacing and masochistic woman, though she asserts a small degree of independence from Morris by sleeping with another man towards the end of the novel. She too is “a product of the male imagination”, in Gamble’s words. However, where Ghislaine is figured as a seductive monster, Edna is reduced to a traditional and passive “Victorian girl”. Two other women in the novel offer the barest suggestion of resistance to the male imagination and anticipate (for some readers) Carter’s later and more assertive female characters. Emily, Honeybuzzard’s girlfriend, initially appears rather passive and quiet, positioned by the latter as an edible woman:
“‘My Emily’, he said cheerfully. ‘Rich, moist and sticky. Fruitcake. My Emily is like nothing so much as the very best fruitcake […] Oh, my, oh, my’”.
However, she later asserts herself by imposing her own sense of order on Honeybuzzard’s bedroom, throwing out his strange collection of objects that includes “antique magazines”, “a bust of Queen Victoria wearing one of [his] ubiquitous false noses” and “a jar containing a pickled foetus”, as well as calling the police after finding Ghislaine’s corpse. Emily also plays a maternal role at one point, wrapping Morris in blankets to make a “snug, woollen nest”, drawing him “to her breast” and then “rocking with him” while whispering “‘Hush, hush, baby, hush’”. Similarly, but in a more minor way, the café waitress referred to as the “Struldbrug” (an allusion to Gulliver’s Travels) also functions as a maternal figure: Morris notes that the “atmosphere around her was warm; she seemed protective and benevolent.” Like Emily, she too resists Honeybuzzard’s power. Morris and Honeybuzzard discover her in the basement of an abandoned house one night, and the latter frightens her so much that Morris fears for her life. However, she appears the next day in the café, singing a usual and as if nothing had happened. As Gamble thus argues, while none of the female characters have a voice in the text, it is
“the women […] who become the means by which the text’s camp façade is ruptured. They are not participants in the narcissistic spectacle, but its victims, and when they resist the role forced upon them, they reveal the true horror of a cultural environment in which ethical and evaluative concepts have become wholly relative.”
Shadow Dance is a bold and dark first novel. The Times has described it as “a modern-day horror story”, and certainly the violence and perversion can be uncomfortably visceral. It is also a very self-conscious text, repeatedly reminding the reader that identity is something that we make up as we go along, that we assemble our personalities from whatever lies around us, bricolage-style. It opens with a paragraph focused on the artificiality of modern life by describing a 1960s bar filled with kitsch:
“The bar was a mock-up, a forgery, a fake; an ad-man’s crazy dream of a Spanish patio, with crusty white walls (as if the publican had economically done them up in leftover sandwiches) on which hung unplayable musical instruments and many bull-fight posters, all blood and bulging bulls’ testicles and the arrogant yellow satin buttocks of lithe young men”.
Shadow Dance has often been grouped together with Several Perceptions (1968) and Love (1971) to form what has been called by some critics as “the Bristol Trilogy”. Carter once said in an interview that the locations of these books were “absolutely as real as the milieu I was familiar with” and that she wanted to write about Bristol’s “provincial Bohemia”. Although some readers have characterised these representations of Bristol as realist, Zoe Brennan points out that novels like Shadow Dance “transform Bristol into a Gothic cityscape in which her characters play out their intense and destructive relationships.” Indeed, examples such as Morris’s surreal nightmare and his perception of the city clearly complicate the notion that Carter’s early fiction is dominated by realism. Brennan also notes that Morris avoids bumping into Ghislaine by hiding in a few famous buildings in Bristol, such as the Central Library and the Bristol Museum. Carter even includes two objects that can still be seen today at Bristol Museum: the “reassembled skeleton of an Irish Elk” and the “Romany caravan all baroque paintwork and engraved mirrors”.
Zoe Brennan points out that novels like Shadow Dance “transform Bristol into a Gothic cityscape in which her characters play out their intense and destructive relationships.”
The exact location of Morris and Honeybuzzard’s junk shop is not clear, but Brennan points out that there were a number of such shops “in the Triangle, Clifton and on Christmas Steps”. On a related note, much of the 1960s is missing from Shadow Dance, such as groups like the mods and rockers. Shadow Dance is, therefore, not a realistic representation of either Bristol or the 1960s, and neither does it eulogise this decade in the way that many revival narratives do today. Instead, as critics like Brennan and Marc O’day argue, Carter transforms Bristol into a strange and surreal space in which characters work through their internal conflicts and the sense of cultural disruption that occurred in this heady decade.
Shadow Dance is a funny, dark, violent, and surreal first novel, and although it has been relatively neglected by both readers and critics, along with Carter’s other early novels it has started to gain more recognition and attention. In addition to accounts such as Gamble’s, a number of other critics have more recently analysed the novel from alternative perspectives and in more detail. Anna Watz, whom I interviewed back in March, devotes a chapter to Shadow Dance in her recent monograph Angela Carter and Surrealism: A Feminist Libertarian Aesthetic. There, she considers the text’s mobilization of a surrealist uncanny, in particular with respect to Morris’s recurrent nightmare and Ghislaine’s scar – both dramatising the return of repressed emotions. She disagrees with O’Day’s reading of the text in terms of a “traditional literary realism”, arguing that it in fact blurs “the distinction between external reality and the imagination” in a typically surrealist manner. Watz traces the many surrealist influences on this text, pointing out the allusions to Salvador Dalí, Luis Buñuel, André Breton, and George Bataille amongst others. She also develops a subtle reading of the relationship between surrealism and feminism in the novel. As she argues:
“Shadow Dance […] seeks provocatively to mimic, in order to lay bare, misogynist patterns buried deep in the (male and female) psyche, and in that way challenge traditional and prescriptive notions of femininity as either passive and virtuous or threatening and castrating.”
Watz adds that the text simultaneously works “to shock and disturb, as an end in itself”, another part of Carter’s “surrealist aspiration”. Therefore, she sees Carter as performing “an ambivalent tightrope act” because although Shadow Dance can be read as a critique of misogyny, it also “risks becoming complicit in the very phallocentric logic it tries to transcend.”
Scott A. Dimovitz has also explored the influence of surrealism on the text in his Angela Carter: Surrealist, Psychologist, Moral Pornographer. He argues that at this early stage of her career, Carter “is less interested in the metaphysics of surrealists than she is in employing surrealist imagery”. Differing slightly with Watz, then, Dimovitz argues that Carter is not critiquing surrealism in her fiction at this point but drawing more straightforwardly and affirmatively on its imagery and techniques. Dimovitz also makes frequent reference to Carter’s manuscripts, held at the British Library, which give a fascinating insight into Carter’s planning and writing. In one manuscript, Dimovitz writes, Carter discusses “digging through abandoned houses in search of antiques like delft tiles, which is exactly what Morris and Honeybuzzard spend time doing”. If you would like to read more about Scott Dimovitz’s fascinating book, you can read my interview with him by clicking here.
In addition to considering the surrealist dimension to Shadow Dance, Katie Garner has also analysed the influence of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood in both this novel and Love. In addition to noting the many allusions and references to the Pre-Raphaelites – including William Morris, John Everett Millais, and Edward Burne-Jones – Garner argues that “it is the image of the suffering Pre-Raphaelite muse which reoccurs again and again in Shadow Dance“. Morris, she goes on to observe, imagines his wife Edna in the style of Millais, in a painting entitled ‘Compassion’. Although Millais never composed a work with this title, Garner usefully points out that his piece from 1895, ‘A Disciple’, fits the description of Edna in Carter’s text. Although surrealism and the Pre-Raphaelites might seem miles apart, Garner notes that Carter uses both schools of art to create the same effect: “Though Edna and Ghislaine are aligned with different artistic models, the effect of the comparisons remains the same […] woman always suffers through, or for, visual art.” You can read this fantastic essay in Angela Carter: New Critical Readings.
As readings such as these demonstrate, despite its relative neglect in Carter’s oeuvre, Shadow Dance is a rich and rewarding text, and there is no doubt that more readings will appear in the future. As with many other texts by Carter, the range of intertextual references and allusions in the novel is enormous: this includes F. Scott Fitzgerald, A Streetcar Named Desire, El Greco, Francis Bacon, Gulliver’s Travels, Robert Louis Stevenson, Dante, Dostoevsky, the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, Groucho Marx, Salvador Dali, Edgar Allan Poe, Buster Keaton, William Morris, Descartes, Lowry, Alice in Wonderland, Burne Jones and Millais, Goblin Market, Lady Chatterley’s Lover, The Three Little Pigs, Little Red Riding Hood, and the myth of Orpheus. Carter has certainly given critics plenty to be going on with for many decades! For a recent edited collection that focuses on some of Angela Carter’s many references to other writers and works, see Re-Visiting Angela Carter: Texts, Contexts, Intertexts, edited by Rebecca Munford.
This ends my review of Shadow Dance and I hope you found it both informative and entertaining. Obviously, there is much more that could be said about this novel. What did you think after reading it? How does it compare with other works by Carter? Have you read any brilliantly insightful analysis of this strange text? Please leave your comments below or write to me on Twitter and Facebook.
Suggested Further Reading
Zoe Brennan, ‘Angela Carter’s “Bristol Trilogy”: A Gothic Perspective on Bristol’s 1960s Counterculture’, in Literature Bristol: Writers and the City, ed. Marie Mulvey-Roberts (Bristol: Redcliffe Press, 2015)
Scott A. Dimovitz, Angela Carter: Surrealist, Psychologist, Moral Pornographer (Abingdon: Routledge, 2016)
Sarah Gamble, Angela Carter: Writing from the Front Line (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1997)
Katie Garner, ‘Blending the Pre-Raphaelite with the Surreal in Angela Carter’s Shadow Dance (1966) and Love (1971), in Angela Carter: New Critical Readings, ed. Sonya Andermahr and Lawrence Phillips (London: Bloomsbury, 2014).
John Haffenden, ‘Angela Carter’, Novelists in Interview (New York: Methuen Press, 1985)
Rebecca Munford (ed.), Re-Visiting Angela Carter: Texts, Contexts, Intertexts (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2006)
Marc O’Day, ‘“Mutability is Having a Field Day”: The Sixties Aura of Angela Carter’s Bristol Trilogy’, in Flesh and the Mirror: Essays on the Art of Angela Carter, ed. Lorna Sage (London: Virago, 1994)
Anna Watz, Angela Carter and Surrealism: A Feminist Libertarian Aesthetic (Abingdon: Routledge, 2016)