Smiling villains

The Lady under the control of Comus: William Blake, 1801

“O villain, villain, smiling, damnèd villain!
My tables—meet it is I set it down
That one may smile, and smile, and be a villain…”
—Hamlet: Act I, Scene 5

I began with Comus, Milton’s 1634 masque, the touchstone of which I identified as chastity ensnared. Its horrifying story of a young woman trapped by a villain — smiling or otherwise — the likely victim of perdition through seduction is distressingly all too familiar these days. In Milton’s drama she puts up a spirited defence, but if it weren’t for the intervention of her brothers and a third party she may have indeed been lost; rescue, tragically, is all too rarely at hand in real life.

Many tales where the female is menaced by a male figure are still seen as inferring that it’s the woman who’s the instigator of her own victimhood, the architect of her own misfortunes. Like mythical Pandora or Psyche, who succumb to what’s often referred to as ‘transgressive curiosity’, they may stray where they shouldn’t, open storage containers, shine lights in dark corners, enter locked rooms or go widdershins. The astonishing message appears to be that it’s their own fault that they find trouble by, for instance, dressing provocatively, walking alone, or just being a woman.

But not all narratives take this line; whether implicitly or explicitly they pin the blame fully on the predator, the male — and more often than not it is a male — who perversely sees women as deserving abuse, rape or death. Many scholars have discussed this aspect and in what follows I shall allude to some of them (because, of course, my argument is in no way original). I want then to take up a couple or more threads: the implication that women bring misfortune on themselves; the intervention of one or more rescuers; and instances when sisters are actually doing it for themselves.

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Bluebeard’s Castle

tower door

The Magic Toyshop
by Angela Carter,
Virago Press 1981 (1967)

Bluebeard’s Castle hides
a puppeteer of humans
who defy their fate

Though this is an early work, I found it a much more engrossing read than some of Angela Carter’s shorter stories in the collection The Bloody Chamber. One of the fascinating things about humans is their propensity for confounding expectations, and while it was possible to see where the narrative generally was going, I was drawn to these grotesques (despite their very obvious failings) by their surprising resourcefulness as they tried to cope with Uncle Philip’s cruel and despotic regime and almost overpowering psychic vampirism.

In fact, despite their clearly delineated and sometimes unforgivable vices (unsavoury habits, voyeurism, unmitigated cruelty, incestuous relationships and acquiescent victimhood) you can’t help admiring their positive, mostly creative attributes: Finn’s painting, Francie’s musicianship, Margaret’s jewel-like cooking, Jonathan’s model-making, Melanie’s needlework, even Uncle Philip’s sheer inventiveness and craft.

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“Strange things”

‘Beauty and the Beast’ (1818) attributed to George Cruikshank (British Museum)

Presentments are strange things! and so are sympathies; and so are signs: and the three combined make one mystery to which humanity has not yet found the key. — Jane Eyre, II/6

The climax to Jane Eyre, as most readers know, comes with the narrator hearing Rochester’s voice calling “Jane! Jane! Jane!” though he is many miles distant, and he in turn hears her answering, “I am coming: wait for me.” And Charlotte Brontë has, if we are aware of it, given us plenty of hints that “strange things” are part and parcel of the novel, as this example from the second volume shows.

Presentments, sympathies, signs — what are we to make of these? Luckily Jane characterises them thus:

  • Presentiments are when impressions are anticipated in the form of a dream.
  • Sympathies can exist “between far-distant, long-absent, wholly estranged relatives.”
  • Signs, “for aught we know,” she writes, “may be but the sympathies of Nature with man.”

She has dreams about one child or another, which she recognises as symbolic; the sympathetic bond she has with Rochester — expressed as a cord joining their bodies — finds its fullest expression in their telepathic communication; and the chestnut tree riven by lightning (though surviving) is Nature’s sign of their imminent but temporary separation. Magic and the supernatural thoroughly suffuses the pages of this classic.

As a novel Jane Eyre is full of balances and correspondences, as I’ve alluded to in an earlier post, another such one being orphan Jane’s religious education by Helen Burns in Lowood Asylum — as occurs early on — being matched by Jane’s cousin St John’s evangelical zeal towards the end. Indeed, as we may expect from a perpetual curate’s daughter, the pages are increasingly peppered with biblical phrases and references.

But running parallel with plentiful Christian images we have a contrasting concentration on the supernatural, almost pagan, world or plane, and especially on Faërie and fairytales, notably in the central Thornfield section. As always with these discussion posts there will be spoilers galore, so desist from further perusal if you’d rather not have revelations!

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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
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