Angela Topping’s Focus on The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories, published by Greenwich Exchange (2009), is a short and incisive guidebook for anyone studying Angela Carter’s influential book of short stories for the first time. The book appears to be aimed primarily at GCSE and A-level students, for the writing and analysis are both easy to understand and the range of secondary sources relatively narrow. Themes, motifs and symbols are all frequently and clearly noted, and there is also plenty of analysis of Carter’s language with the occasional nod to the literary terminology that students are asked to learn, such as assonance, sibilance and anaphora.
The book is divided thematically, with chapters focused on topics such as the power dynamics of sexual relationships, the importance of mirrors and ways of seeing for subjectivity, and the traditional locations for fairy tales (which Carter follows much of the time in her own stories). The first chapter, for example, opens by drawing attention to one of the “main themes” in Carter collections: “the initiation of a female protagonist into womanhood by placing her into a situation which requires power and resourcefulness.” Topping then observes that while the female characters of many of the “traditional stories” that Carter uses as a source are presented as “victims”, Carter herself gives her women more power and agency, thereby affecting a kind of feminist rewriting of past stories. Each chapter also considers Carter’s use of language, such as the “range of metaphors” used to describe the virginal heroine of ‘The Company of Wolves’: she is variously described as “a sealed vessel”, a “pentacle” and an “unbroken egg”. To take another example, Topping notes the “cleverly ambiguous” colour symbolism of the ruby choker that the marquis gives his new bride, for it is both “a dangerous ill omen” and a sign of survival, since the aristocrats who survived the Terror of the French Revolution used to wear a red ribbon as a way of signifying their escape from the guillotine.
Those studying The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories will also be pleased by the fact that Topping’s guidebook sheds light on Carter’s influences, including Chaucer, Perrault, Blake, Dickens and Goethe. Although the usual suspects are all here, I particularly enjoyed reading about less well-known influences such as the old Scottish ballad ‘Binnorie’, on which Carter drew for the ending of her story ‘The Erl-King’ (which is also based on Goethe’s poem ‘Erlkönig’), or the ballad ‘Tam Lin’, which inspired Carter when writing ‘The Courtship of Mr Lyon’. Unsurprisingly, there is much discussion of other fairy tale writers and collectors, especially Charles Perrault, and the tales that Carter based her stories on, including ‘Beauty and the Beast’, ‘Bluebeard’, ‘Sleeping Beauty’ and ‘Little Red Riding Hood’. Topping is keen to point out that Carter “did not see herself as writing ‘versions’” of fairy tales but rather “used traditional stories as a starting point for new texts”. Usefully, she brings in the suggestion made by Terri Windling and Ellen Datlow that we consider fairy stories as akin to jazz: as they write in Black Thorn, White Rose, a fairy story is “like jazz, an improvisation on a theme […] The pleasure lies in savouring the writer’s skill as he or she transforms a familiar story.” This is one of many great uses of secondary sources in the book that not only helps those studying Angela Carter’s writing but also provides them with examples of further reading that will aid their studies. Another such book is Cristina Bacchilega and Danielle M. Roemer’s collection Angela Carter and the Fairy Tale (Wayne State University Press, 1998), from which Topping frequently quotes.
There are, sadly, a few aspects to the book with which I was less pleased. While the writing is clear and simple, making it highly suitable for younger students, it can be a little plodding at times. I also noted a number of stylistic mistakes that could have been corrected at the editing stage, such as missing articles. I was also disappointed to read that The Magic Toyshop was supposedly first published in 1981 when in reality it first appeared in 1967. However, these errors do not mar the overall quality of the writing and I would happily recommend this book to my students. In particular, those studying The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories at high school will appreciate the clarity of expression, the explicit identification of themes, symbols, motifs, and the use of literary terminology. Being a slim volume, this is also highly affordable for those on a budget, in contrast with the exorbitant prices of most academic books.
I would like to take this opportunity to thank Greenwich Exchange for providing me with a review copy of this book. To find out more about this book, head over to their website by clicking here. Angela Topping also has an official blog page here.