Rating 4 stars
Angela Carter’s collection of re-imagined folk tales and fables presents tales originally told to the detriment of women as bold stories of female resilience and triumph. Inspired by, among others, Bluebeard, Red Riding Hood, Beauty and the Beast and Sleeping Beauty, Carter has her heroines rise up against their male oppressors and find freedom.
As with the original tales, the subtext of Carter’s stories is awakening. The heroines are young women brought face to face with adulthood by the men who wish to possess them. Virginal and inexperienced, these women are woken to their sexuality.
In the title story, based on the fable of Bluebeard’s Castle, the young woman carried away from her mother and her schoolgirl existence recognises within herself a carnality that responds to her husband’s. Carter captures the symbiotic feelings of desire and disgust that is a woman’s natural reaction to the carnivorous lust that men typically hold for the female form. The husband is described as regarding his young bride like a fresh piece of meat that he is going to feast on, and Carter is careful to make apparent that his deflowering of this young maiden is all about the satisfaction of his own appetite. The young woman is left to make sense of the pleasure, pain and degradation she feels as the object that he has skewered. It’s a story about the difference between men and women and about the way men and women are fundamentally separate despite being yoked together in a relationship. It’s a parable that would benefit many of a romantic bent to read, a reminder that relationships aren’t fluffy pink fairytales but serious negotiations between two people attempting to negotiate differences in order to live in harmony. It’s also a reminder that a woman’s rescuer from a bad situation can be another woman riding in on horseback, just as bold and fierce as any knight in shining armour.
The reworking of Puss in Boots, which gives a nod to The Marriage of Figaro, is rambunctious in its telling. Puss/Figaro is quite the salty type who lets nothing stand in his way of bringing together his master and the woman he adores. Puss is ably assisted by the tabby cat who lives with the fair lady and the lady herself isn’t backward at coming forward. I could imagine the story as a play or TV show, it’s so funny and bawdy.
The Erl-King is my favourite in the collection. Carter wrote a prose poem with this one. I could quote the entire story, it’s so beautifully written. It’s a story about falling for the charismatic but toxic loner and it has a redemptive ending that will make anyone who has been in a poisonous one-sided relationship feel courage.
The Lady of the House of Love is an elegiac tale of vampires and a virginal young man whose rationality prevents his demise at the hands of the current and final head of the house of Nosferatu. It’s sumptuous in its description of the moral and physical decay of the land, buildings and people in a village at the foot of the Carpathian mountains. In the lady of the title there are echoes of Miss Havisham in Great Expectations. In the unnamed hero there is a moment of redemption for the Countess Nosferatu.
I was looking forward to reading The Company of Wolves because I watched the film of the same name that Carter adapted from her short story when it was broadcast on the UK TV channel, Channel 4 in 1984. The film was quite an event at the time. The 1980s were daring in their own way, but far more chaste than the times we live in now. The story is very different from the film, but I enjoyed it for what it was.
I enjoyed the final story, Wolf-Alice, more. It had a similar redemption message to The Lady of the House of Love, but reversed. It is feral Alice, raised by wolves, growing into womanhood, who finally redeems the unnatural, bloodthirsty Duke who terrorises the village at the foot of his castle.
The collection is less than 230 pages, but I found myself dwelling on the stories. The elegance of the language Carter employs, the pictures she creates with her words meant that I took my time reading, absorbing the atmosphere of these supernatural tales. I think this will be a collection that I return to. For all that things have moved on in women’s rights in the years since Carter published this collection, the stories she has wrought are of a feminism that still has relevance to society today. Carter captures those differences between men and women, those instincts that evolution hasn’t yet worked out of our systems, the willingness some men have to dominate women and the mirror willingness some women have to allow themselves to be dominated. The most important message I found in these pages was the insistence that relationships between men and women don’t have to be a power struggle, that women are allowed to be individuals who exercise their rights to a good life, that women aren’t here on Earth to service the needs of men. This is a fact that society hasn’t fully taken on board yet. Genetics be damned. We have brains capable of overriding our base instincts. Carter’s stories tell us that we should do that more often.