Fairytales defamiliarised

Angela Carter The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories
Introduction by Helen Simpson
Vintage Books 2006 (1979)

Feminist — Gothic — retellings — magic realism — fantasy. Yes, the short stories in The Bloody Chamber are all these and more, but to label them is to limit them. For me they are simply wonderful expeditions into the imaginary landscapes of the mind. They may, as Helen Simpson writes in her introduction, reflect and refract “a variety of portraits of desire and sexuality — heterosexual female sexuality” and, as retellings of traditional fairytales, allow her to explore “ideas of how things might be different” from the male-dominated world of the past. But, polemics aside — and I in no way want to deny how important it remains to challenge the masculine consensus — the stories must work as narratives in their own right: the reader, whatever their gender or their politics, must be eager to push on to see what the narrative brings us next.

By subverting, or expanding, or reconfiguring familiar fairytales Carter does indeed so change them that we are unsure whether the traditional narrative will survive intact. The ten stories take those old stand-by tales
Bluebeard, Beauty and the Beast, Snow White, Red Riding Hood, Puss-in-Boots — plus two European legends (the Erl-King and a Romanian vampire tale) and render them anew. The underlying skeleton sometimes has had radical surgery, the figure is posed in curious postures and the revived corpse clothed in unexpected costumes; sometimes related tales and motifs are alluded to, as if one layer of costume has partially slipped to reveal an underlying garment; but by hints or explicit statements we are left in little doubt as to each creature’s provenance.

Interestingly, the first five pieces are told in the first person. This, because of its sense of immediacy, has the effect of almost making the reader complicit in the action. Two or three of the other tales are narrated in the present tense, or sidle from past to present, also creating that aura of immediacy.

Carter’s language is rich, vivid, incisive; it glints with alliteration, glistens with similes, pulses with onomatopoeia. But to dissect her storytelling further is to do it a gross disservice; you should stop reading this critique and, if you haven’t already, immerse yourself in the real thing. I promise, you won’t be disappointed; and if they linger in your mind a while after you’ve finished them then that’s no bad thing.

In my 2015 Reading Challenge this counted — though I was rather pushing the category’s terms — as a book with a colour in the title

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22 thoughts on “Fairytales defamiliarised

    1. I was thinking more of ‘bloody’ as a substitute for a bona fide colour, Thomas, though heaven knows blood is not always red — doesn’t Shakespeare liken it to purple? And it’s often described as brown, especially when it starts to clot or scab over.

  1. Although remakes have never been popular with me, you make these sound worth the read. Although it seems from the illustration that Beauty and the Beast may be a bit boar-ing.

    1. They are indeed worth a read, Col, the very fact that the retailed tales are presented in unfamiliar guises means they in effect are new tales for old: completely original in fact if you forget they’re retellings.

  2. I was glad to read this for the Witch Week readalong, but I must say from the responses I saw it did not seem to be congenial for all tastes — some readers absolutely hated it. I loved Carter’s writing, though, and would like to read more. The Magic Toyshop sounds fantastic!

    1. I suppose as with most authors or genres it’s a bit of a Marmite thing, Lory, one either loves her writing or loathes it. I too aim to read more of her stuff — I think you’d like The Magic Toyshop (my review’s at http://wp.me/s2oNj1-toyshop) — and I’ve got Black Venus to read too, I’ve just remembered.

  3. Oh, this brings back memories! I read it as a group read back in 2008 and oh, the discussions we had over some of these stories. It is enough to say that while some of us found the stories liberating, others found them off putting. Clearly these women were uncomfortable with the idea of playing with gender roles or strong women who express themselves in nonconformist ways.

    This is a great winter recommendation, as taken as fantasy certainly entertains our imagination.

    1. One thing I love about these tales, Sari, is the subversion of the offensive trope of the damsel-in-distress, common in Gothick tales and the medieval romances which they were partly modelled on. These days the kickass heroine, giving as good as she gets, is the new paradigm, and can sometimes seem as lazy a trope as the Gothick motif it stands in reaction to. Carter I feel manages to avoid any trite role reversal (though I did enjoy the pistol shooting mother in the title story) by often portraying the female protagonist in a slow but steady awakening of her power for change.

      Your co-readers who didn’t share your enthusiasms, perhaps they preferred the idea of the fictional hero rescuing the princess and sweeping her off her feet? It’s a powerful motif, and one many men subscribe to as well, in the sense that they usually see their status as being the breadwinner in a humdrum job, bringing home the metaphorical bacon and furnishing financial support for the family. It’s certainly the paradigm I as a husband and father subscribed to.

  4. Thank you for this. I love Angela Carter but haven’t yet read this collection. Your review spurs me to do so. She manages, brilliantly, to explore perversion, and even the pornographic, while remaining gloriously feminist — and deeply humane. I teach her novel, Nights at the Circus, quite often, and am always amazed and delighted anew by her energy and endless inventiveness. Sad that she died so young.

    1. Yes indeed, fifty-one is much too young, Josna. I see that Marina Warner (from the little I’ve read another great writer and critic) commented that The Bloody Chamber is “about desire and its destruction, the self-immolation of women, how women collude and connive with their condition of enslavement. She was much more independent-minded than the traditional feminist of her time …” (quoted on Wikipedia, fount of all knowledge of course …). I agree that she’s deeply humane — she seems to show compassion for all humans, of whatever gender, as flawed and vulnerable individuals, but ones who have the capacity to rise above it if they choose. Hope you enjoy this collection.

  5. I read a review of this once before and the reader hated it, said one of the stories in particular (possibly the Bluebeard one) was revolting, sexist. Put me off reading it myself. So it’s interesting to see how differently you view her retellings. One to look out for.

    1. Ah, never trust a review, Lynn, even this one! The title story, based on the Bluebeard tale and also novella-length, is mildly explicit and very Gothick and may put the squeamish off, but that’s not to deny its underlying message of empowerment. I would say judge for yourself!

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