Shreds and patches

Clifton Heights, Bristol

Angela Carter: Heroes and Villains
Introduction by Robert Coover
Penguin Modern Classics 2011 (1969)

“When I was a little girl, we played at heroes and villains but now I don’t know which is which any more, nor who is who, and what can I trust if not appearances?”
— Marianne, Chapter 6

In a post-apocalyptic Britain young Marianne runs away to join the gypsies. Or that would be the equivalent if Carter’s novel — fifty years old now — were a traditional folk ballad. The author was a stalwart of the folk music revival in the sixties and would have been familiar with Scottish ballads like ‘The Raggle Taggle Gypsy’ in which the female protagonist is attracted to the life of travellers.

Now it would be a gross simplification to say Heroes and Villains is essentially an escape from a pampered existence to an imagined romantic way of life but that, nevertheless, is the basic plot that drives the narrative. And yet Carter instils so much ambiguity and ambivalence in her novel while interweaving conceptual shreds and patches into the warp of her novel that the exotic elements distract the eye from the apparent plainness of the garment.

Traditional gypsy caravan interior, Bristol Museum

Marianne’s world consists of tribal groupings surviving after a war to end all wars, a blast that has destroyed much of civilisation. There are Professors — the caste to which Marianne belongs — Workers and Soldiers, who collectively maintain some kind of ordered life in isolated and insulated communities. Outside are the marauding Barbarians, and the even more fearful Out People, groups of genetically malformed individuals living in city ruins and preying on whoever comes within their grasp.

An unruly girl growing up in an antiseptic enclave, she is tutored by her Professor father while in the care of a witch of a nurse. Like Rapunzel she lives in a tower, a structure of glass and white concrete, perhaps a bit like like the inappropriate towers which started to be built in the Bristol she knew in the 1960s, sited amidst historic streets already disfigured by bomb sites dating from the Blitz, gaps in a mouthful of teeth.

But Marianne, perhaps like her namesake icon of the French Revolution, is a rebel. From her tower she sees her brother killed by a young Barbarian during an attack, and when she becomes an orphan and cuts off her hair it’s as if the ties that bind her to this world of conformity have gone. Enamoured of the glamour that surrounds the Barbarians, with their war paint, colourful rags and apparently carefree life the teenager escapes her metaphorical ivory tower in search of difference in the savage greenwood. Only to find she is a fish out of water:

And Marianne knew in her heart that none of this was real; that it was a kind of enchantment. She was in no-man’s land.
— Chapter 5

This future Britain is a jungle: wild beasts, descendants of escaped zoo animals, roam the wilderness; poisonous plants and snakes lurk in the undergrowth; the manor houses and villages and railway stations the nomads shelter in are decaying around their ears. And there is always the danger from the Out People. Violence, rape, pillage, abuse, sickness and death stalk any wanderers in this landscape.

How do they survive? By scavenging. By procreating, despite or because of a high mortality rate. By resorting to superstition, trusting in a charismatic shaman, an ex-academic who, Merlin-like in his esplumeor or moulting-cage of a study, seeks to advise and influence the most Arthurian of leaders, Jewel Lee Bradley, and his band of half-brothers. Dr Donally is partial to aphorisms that pass for great wisdom, such as

‘Religion is a device for instituting the sense of a privileged group.’
— Chapter 4

It’s hard not to be constantly reminded of literary and artistic parallels. In one sense this novel is a tragic adult version of Peter Pan: Marianne is a prototype Wendy figure, Jewel — descending from gypsies on his mother’s side — is an adult Peter, crowing and delighting in gaudy displays while yet melting into natural surroundings, his brothers the Lost Boys. Another Wendy is Mrs Green, who is a kind of housekeeper and nurse to the loose knit community; Donally, with his tattooing needle and caged snake, perhaps a Captain Hook for Jewel, both forever bound to each other’s fate. But there’s no guarantee of a return from Never Land.

Other parallels are more explicit: Shakespeare’s late play The Tempest is referenced in terms of Prospero’s tutelage of Miranda, even with this world’s Caliban; an Arthurian Dark Age is also conjured up, by name and also figuratively in the sorts of raiding Celtic war bands that archaeologists in Carter’s day theorised existed; Christian symbolism rears its head at significant points, and a whole intellectual hinterland opens up in conversations such as this advice given to Marianne by her father: “Rousseau spoke of a noble savage but this is a time of ignoble savages.”

Marianne is the beating heart of this novel, Maid Marian to an illiterate robber bowman. She vacillates from moment to moment and yet has an inner strength one can only admire, remarkable for a teenager who’d led an otherwise sheltered life. All other characters exist purely in relation to her — it’s almost as if they are emanations from a vivid dream or nightmare she’s having.

In retrospect it has the feel of magic realism but without the magic, an antecedent of Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant but set in an unspecified future, not a fabled past. And as with Ishiguro’s novel it continues to haunt my imagination long after I’ve turned the last page. A lot of that is down to the author’s use of language: pared down at times, lyrical at others; sensuous passages, from foetid smells to memorable and intense images; sensual moments punctuated by sudden violence — Carter’s lifelong obsessions with ideas, art, music, words and experiences all competing and jostling for attention like infants in a classroom.

18 thoughts on “Shreds and patches

    1. Thanks, Nick; I like it when a novel defies expectations—this was at first like nothing I’d have anticipated from The Magic Toyshop or The Bloody Chamber. It felt like an out of kilter response to the Cold War anxieties we all felt in the 60s, when I was the same sort of age as Marianne; but as events proceeded here it took on a more surreal quality — a lion loose in the English countryside! Out People made up of Cyclops, Dwarfs and other mythical beings! — so you can see how I was reminded of Magic realism. An odd novel, but one I’m glad I’ve read.

      Liked by 1 person

  1. earthbalm

    Great post Chris. Angela Carter is one an author I’m itching to read more (along with A S Byatt). I’m adding this book to my ‘to read’ list and am going to learn more about “The Buried Giant”. Hope all is well.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Glad you liked this, Dale, and now I’m wondering how you’ll find Carter (though if you’ve read her before you’ll sort of know her approach). Byatt is altogether more cerebral but, yes, I too would like to get back to reading her. The Buried Giant? That’s one weird novel which I’ve still to get a handle on, even more disconcerting than this Carter.

      Yes, all is well, thanks, lots of music making and a late holiday break to look forward to in a few weeks! And you?

      Liked by 1 person

      1. earthbalm

        I’ve read some Byatt and Carter short stories and enjoyed them – Carter particularly. Enjoying reading on the way to work – just completed “Foucault’s Pendulum” which I didn’t enjoy as much as “Name of the Rose” as I wasn’t satisfied with the end of the novel. Have a week off shortly and have a promotion in a different branch of CS so have to use up all of my holidays and my accrued flexi. So not missing teaching any more. Thanks for asking.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Foucault’s Pendulum was, I remember, a bit of a let-down after The Name of the Rose, but I’m happy to revisit them after half a century to see if my first assessments were correct!

          Glad to hear that you haven’t looked back since giving up teaching. I don’t particularly miss it (either the classroom or the piano teaching) but I’m happy to do short bursts of it in, for example, occasional choir rehearsals or helping out with rehearsals for the local school’s musical. No marking or inspections especially suiting me!

          Liked by 1 person

  2. I’m woefully under-read in Angela Carter’s wonderful canon. I think I’d love this one from your write-up. Adding it to the wishlist.

    I also had to check that my recollections were correct about your title of this post – ‘shreds and patches’ – and yes it was WS GIlbert’s wandering minstrel from the Mikado, but I forgot Shakespeare used it first (Hamlet on Claudius).

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, I had the G&S quote in my head when I wrote this but had forgotten the Hamlet quote, which I should’ve remembered, having done it for A level!

      I thought I’d try Nights at the Circus for my next Angela Carter, but I’m easily tempted aw— Oh look, there’s a squirrel!

      Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s mainly the travelling through a dream-like wild landscape that reminded me of the Ishiguro, that and the fact that both take place after a collapse in civilisation, one after the departure of the Romans from Britain, the other after a catastrophic war in a notional future.

      Liked by 2 people

  3. Lovely review Chris. I think this is the only Carter novel I haven’t yet read, I can’t think why… and now I can’t wait. I love her writing, long and short.

    I’ve now added The Buried Giant to my list. Looks I’m never going to clear that list.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’ve tried to hint at what lies behind the novel and not give too much of the details away, Cath, so I do hope it won’t detract from your coming fresh to it! Ishiguro’s novel is … one that’s divided opinion. I wouldn’t say I exactly enjoyed it, but it gave me much pause for thought and made me curious to explore Never Let Me Go, the next of his titles I’m going to read.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Tantalised, would be the word I’m opting for. I think you got the balance right, Chris. When I’m reading someone who is adept with ‘layers’, I like a few clues.

        I’ve only read one other Ishiguro, and I probably don’t need to name it. Your ellipses are intriguing. I shall certainly look out for it now. I heard the radio dramatization of Never Let Me Go, on Radio 4, some time ago, and enjoyed it. I wonder how closely it kept to the novel.

        Liked by 1 person

  4. what an informative review, thank you! I haven’t read this but must catch up with Angela Carter and will put this to the top of the list and then come back to your review

    Liked by 1 person

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