The Angela Carter Bookclub launches on Saturday 1st July, and we will begin with Carter’s celebrated short story collection The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories. The collection spans ten tales, all of which are based on traditional European fairy tales but written in a more Gothic mode. Some commentators and readers describe them as “retellings”, “adult fairy tales” or “feminist fairy tales”. However, Carter strongly disagreed with these labels and instead insisted that, drawing on the language of Sigmund Freud, her intention was “to extract the latent content from the traditional stories and to use it as the beginnings of new stories”. Helen Simpson, in her introduction to the Vintage edition, argues that we should avoid seeing the collection as “homogeneous”, for the tales vary greatly in length, style and tone. The “slow-moving Gothic intensity” of the title story is markedly different from “the libidinous top-speed fare of ‘Puss-in-Boots’ […] or from the laconic brutality of ‘The Werewolf'”. She goes on to suggest that the collection thus has an “impressive complexity” and “uses the physical form of the story collection to approach its theme obliquely, variously, from ten strikingly different angles.”
By the time The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories appeared in 1979, Carter had published seven novels and one collection of short stories. Just why she turned to fairy tales can be explained by at least a couple of reasons. Firstly, Carter had produced a translation of Charles Perrault’s fairy tales just two years earlier, which Jack Zipes notes could be described as “an unusual brazen appropriation of his works”. Zipes goes on to suggest that what Carter did with Perrault was to bring his tales “down to earth”, making him into “a gentle educator of children who wrote in a precise, reasonable style”. By comparison with these translations, Zipes argues that The Bloody Chamber tales are “written in a contemporary baroque sensuous and luscious language with extraordinary metaphors that recall the seventeenth-century fairy tales of Giambattista Basile, who combined Neapolitan vulgar dialect with the mannerist and affected language of the upper classes.” Carter may well have enjoyed Matteo Garone’s 2015 film Tale of Tales, which is based on Basile’s Pentamerone or Lo cunto de li cunti (Tale of Tales, or Entertainment for Little Ones).
Secondly, as Carter points out in her introduction to The Virago Book of Fairy Tales, published in 1990, because fairy tales and folk tales come from an oral tradition, they are “the most vital connection we have with the imaginations of the ordinary men and women whose labour created our world.” Unlike the novel, with its links to the bourgeoisie and the figure of the author, fairy tales are a more democratic and maleable form of storytelling. Carter also notes an important connection with gender: fairy tales are sometimes referred to as “old wives’ tales”, invented by “Mother Goose”. The connotations of the term “old wives’ tales” – “worthless stories, untruths, trivial gossip” – makes clear the negative association between women and storytelling. As Carter writes, this “derisive label […] allots the art of storytelling to women at the exact same time as it takes all value from it.” Hence, Carter’s various fairy tale projects – translating Perrault, editing two volumes of female-centred fairy tales for Virago, and her stories in The Bloody Chamber – can be seen as different strategies for reclaiming a positive space for women within literature broadly defined.
The tales in The Bloody Chamber collection also have a rich history. ‘Puss-in-Boats’ and ‘The Lady of the House of Love’ were both adapted for radio (the latter renamed ‘Vampirella‘), whilst ‘The Company of Wolves’ was made into both a radio play and a film. The scripts for all of these have been published in The Curious Room: Plays, Film Scripts and an Opera, edited by Mark Bell. You can also listen to a fantastic discussion of Carter’s relationship to radio on the BBC Radio 4 show Writing in Three Dimensions: Angela Carter’s Love Affair with Radio, which features interviews with Carter’s friends and colleagues Susannah Clapp, Marina Warner, Carmen Callil, and Christopher Frayling. Finally, I have to recommend Charlotte Crofts’ excellent book Anagrams of Desire, which features in-depth analyses of the radio plays as well as the cinematic adaptation of ‘The Company of Wolves’.
Lastly, you may find Edmund Gordon‘s introduction to The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories helpful. In this video produced by the London Review of Books, Gordon discusses the influence of Bruno Bettleheim’s The Uses of Enchantment, the porous boundary between the human and the animal in many fairy tales, and Carter’s penchant for lush imagery. As he puts it at one point: “She said that she liked blood and brains in a sentence and you get that throughout her writings. She’s very un-English in that respect.” You can watch the full video below:
To book a place at the Angela Carter Bookclub meeting on 1st July, please register at my Eventbrite page (registration is free). I look forward to welcoming you to the Bookclub and to hearing from others online.
Potential talking points for the meeting:
- How can we read these stories: as retellings of fairy tales, as adult fairy tales, as feminist versions, or as original stories?
- What connections can we find between the different tales?
- What might we say about Carter’s style in the tales, compared with traditional fairy tales?
- Is The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories still relevant today and how do her stories compare with other modern fairy tales such as Disney cartoons, Pan’s Labyrinth and Tale of Tales?