Angela Carter’s Black Venus is Baudelaire’s Creole mistress Jeanne Duval, whose hair the poet once likened to a sea of ebony, among other things; his enchantment and her disenchantment figure in the story, the first in an inspiriting new collection of eight by an inveterate scrutiniser of the whole romantic box of tricks. There’s Baudelaire’s voluptuous reverie, on the one hand – full of his chère indolente, le charme des soirs, with the astonishing hair – and, on the other, cross Jeanne, toughened by experience, poking with a stick at a smoky fire. Men and their fancies don’t count for much with this unimpressionable ex-cabaret dancer – un serpent qui danse, the poet said, using an image not highly regarded by the girl who knows perfectly well how snakes move. Nor is she willing to accept without comment the exotic heritage he foists on her – la langoureuse Asie et la brûlante Afrique (all that) – knowing herself, in fact, to be completely déracinée. Hasn’t her family history been all but excised, with only a Creole grandmother, gabbling a broken dialect, to anchor her to a shady lineage? Carter – who’s created a bizarre déité or two of her own. notably Fevvers in Nights at the Circus – imagines the reality behind the narcotic lines, in which the poet goes overboard for the scents of tar and musk and coconut oil. Pungent odours indeed.
It’s not exactly demystification that Carter is after; with her last collection of stories, The Bloody Chamber, for instance, she simply made explicit the harsh or carnal import of certain folk tales, with full acknowledgement of the outlandish, bleak or glittery quality of the originals. (Her ‘Northern Forests’ sequence – ‘The Company of Wolves’, ‘Wolf-Alice’ and so on – might have been titled ‘Lycanthropy: or, The Beast in Me’.) If one of her aims is to dispense with prettification, she is none the less remarkably alive to the decorative element in myth-making; her gothic or baroque or purely wintry effects come double-distilled. She is a writer who draws on other bodies of writing to procure her most idiosyncratic touches: a wholly admirable act of plunder. She adds further twists or layers of meaning to the meanings already in situ. Her style varies interestingly too: from Grimm served up icy to the jollier tones of Puss-in-Boots; or, in the new collection, ‘The Kitchen Child’, about gourmet goings-on. The decadent and the robust attract this author equally. So, in ‘Black Venus’, we have Jeanne Duval, purveyor of ‘the authentic ... Baudelairean syphilis’, scornful and resilient, sans teeth, sans hair as the pox gets to work, but doing all right in the Caribbean, in old age, in spite of everything. ‘Venus was rotting,’ as Zola has it: but this particular Venus takes it on the chin.
Nothing seems outside Angela Carter’s narrative range. Black Venus includes a kind of Moll Flanders pastiche, with a 17th-century heroine ‘who first saw light in the county of Lancashire, in old England’; what’s depicted here is one of those cheerfully vicissitudinous lives, prostitution, deportation, a spell with Algonkian Indians, and all. The last story in the book, ‘The Fall River Axe Murders’, is a vigorous piece of stage-setting, with, at the end, the curtain about to rise on Lizzie Borden running amok. A Massachusetts heatwave, with people suffering in the clothes of the 1890s, is as easily imaginable to Angela Carter as the wolf-infested forest of Germanic folklore – or, for that matter, as a wet English wood. Another overture – ‘Overture and Incidental Music for A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ – puts on record the thoughts of the Changeling, that bone of contention between Oberon and Titania, here dubbed ‘the Golden Herm’, short for hermaphrodite verus, and afflicted with a terrible cold in the nose. All the fairies are sneezing and sniffing too, and there’s an incurably priapic Puck, making do – since he can’t have the Herm – with a mandrake root. These fairies are not akin to the wispy little dragonfly creatures, located at Cottingley, that took in Conan Doyle when he saw them on film. Not being mere puffs of sugariness, they’re unsuitable fare for the nursery. It’s been recognised for some time that the Victorians debased their fairy lore, in the course of desexing it. ‘The Victorian fairyland is a place that not only never existed but also served no imaginative function except that of diversion, of the prim titillation of a jaded fancy.’ So says a character in Angela Carter’s radio play ‘Come unto these yellow sands’, in which a succession of voices discourse on the fairy painter and parricide Richard Dadd (odd that no one comments on the singular aptness of his surname). Dadd, having taken his father for the devil, went at him in Cobham Park with a spring-knife – a weapon more effective than Christy Mahon’s loy. Poor dad – or, if you like, poor Dadd, whose subsequent habitation was the criminal lunatic department of Bethlem Hospital. Here, Dadd continued to hobnob with hobgoblins, fairy fellers and the like, delineating elfin capers with the utmost gusto, and a fair amount of grace.
Come unto these yellow sands contains the texts of four plays written for radio; as well as the dazzling Dadd play, as nimble as a fairy juggler, there’s another ‘Company of Wolves’, better than the souped-up cinema version. Where the original story couldn’t have been starker, the film went in for exorbitance in every direction – picturesqueness, psychological embellishment, provision of thrills. You choke, as Philip Larkin has put it in a poem, on such nutritious images. Angela Carter, however, has things well in hand in the radio adaptation. Perhaps this is simply explained. In an introduction to the book, she describes herself as ‘a child of the Radio Age’, and acknowledges the strong effect on her of the annual Box of Delights – John Masefield’s exemplary exercise in quintessential Christmas makebelieve. Is this one source of Angela Carter’s feeling for the fantastic? What she shares with Masefield – the Masefield of the Kay Harker stories anyway – is an ability to locate her characters in the richest and most heady of atmospheres. There’s an essay by Elizabeth Bowen, ‘Out of a Book’, in which she divides child readers into two sets: sensationalists and future students. Among the first lot are those who, in later life, will gravitate towards disreputable novels – children’s stories with sex added, an addition that somehow ‘queers everything’. We know the sort of thing she has in mind: however, it’s as if Angela Carter has taken the remark as a challenge, and set out to show how certain so-called children’s works can be recast superbly for adult consumption. Her stories, indeed, gain a good deal of their force from the conflicting impulses they seem to contain: an urge towards earthiness, and, at the same time, a wish to sprout wings, like Fevvers, and take off for some breathtaking realm.
On the evidence of two novels, it would seem that Susan Fromberg Schaeffer has a good range of narrative tones at her command. The Madness of a Seduced Woman – first published in America in 1983 – is very full and informative about the suffering inflicted on inflamed girls by the caprices of lovers less single-minded than themselves. Inspired by an actual Vermont murder of the 1890s, it treats with clarity and thoughtfulness the plight of the central figure in the case, an 18-year-old seamstress whose beauty does her no good at all. The plot of this novel is the deep-rooted one of seduction and betrayal, with the heroine’s practicality, conjoined with instability, to complicate matters. It’s effectively dispassionate in its appraisal of intemperate behaviour.
In Mainland, the plainness of the earlier novel has given way to a kind of jokey plaintiveness, whimsically expressed. This is a perkier book than its predecessor. Here is a thought of the heroine’s:
Her mind refuses admittance to that word: affair ... ‘You are not a sexual affair,’ Eleanor tells it. It rattles its bones at her. It makes motions as if it were washing its hands.
Eleanor, who’s given to holding conversations with her dead mother and grandmother, attributing to the two of them a poor view of her conduct and character, is endowed with rather a smartie-pants personality. She suffers somewhat from compulsive imaginativeness. Fanciful little observations keep escaping her all the time. (‘Is the entire family up there on that cloud? Is heaven full of front porches?’) What has sparked all this off? In a state of weakness engendered by an eye operation, Eleanor – a middle-aged college lecturer and mother of two – has embarked on an affair with the Chinese student hired to drive her around. Thinking about herself, and her family life, past and present, produces a kind of self-congratulatory, fake amazement at the things required of her: ‘How has Eleanor stayed alive for so long?’ It’s unfair, of course, to implicate the author in the foibles of her character; but Susan Schaeffer doesn’t adopt any of the usual devices – satire, comedy or whatever – to dissociate herself from them.
‘The Accidental Tourist’ denotes a series of guidebooks for business travellers and others uninterested in the pursuit of foreignness. It instructs you in the technique, away from home, of avoiding undue disruption to your ordinary routine. The author of these books is a rather buttoned-up individual called Macon Leary, at whom people, Anne Tyler included, are apt to poke amiable fun. Macon, to whom the worst has happened – he is grieving for a dead son, and deserted by his wife – proceeds to get into some ludicrous plights, all of them centred on his ownership of an uncontrollable Welsh corgi. The name of this dratted animal is Edward. Edward will respond to nothing but the stern tone in the voice of Muriel Pritchett, a scatty dog-trainer with artificially frizzy hair and a thrift-shop outfit. Thus, we have a couple of archetypal scene-stealers – dog lady and dog – and the slightly stuffy accomplice needed to set them off. It adds up to an entertaining piece of fiction.
Virginia Moriconi has written an odd novel about the Irish and Anglo-Irish. Her heroine is a guileless young American academic, named Gretchen, who sets out to establish herself (roughly) in the locality of Yeats and Synge: she has a thesis to write. Things quickly go wrong for Gretchen. First, the faces of passengers on the flight to Shannon airport strike her in much the same way as those on the London Underground struck T.S. Eliot. ‘Mental emptiness’ is the phrase. A flu germ is lying in wait for her on the bus to Ralston’s Cove (somewhere in the south-west corner of Ireland). She arrives in a very seedy state. A doctor is summoned who proceeds to take her in hand. His name is Donovan. Soon, Dr Donovan has Gretchen installed, as a lodger, in an Anglo-Irish mansion characteristically unkempt. Here we find colourful Miss Nellie, the last of the Dufresnes, and her husband Seamus – her father’s ex-groom – ‘an angry Irish peasant miscast as an aristocrat’. So Dr Donovan describes him. These potty old people need to be handled with care. One has the manner of an ostrich-like autocrat, while the other drinks and snivels and generally acts in the most charmless way imaginable.
Rats and other things infest this preposterous Hall, where even the furniture is inimical to Gretchen’s well-being. Chair seats maliciously give way beneath her. A wicked spring in the mattress all but disables her. The lavatory won’t flush. An influx of pigs occurs (‘five stunned hogs lay at the foot of the stair-case’). Fire breaks out in the kitchen. Bronchitis follows Gretchen’s flu. A circle of devastation extends outward from the Hall, with a rapist and murderer on the loose near by, and an ‘elemental’ living in the vicar’s hedge. A wrongful arrest and attempted suicide are included among the novel’s events to keep things on the boil.
Virginia Moriconi’s objective is possibly to fix in its final form an idea of Irish eccentricity and chaotic living; as Stella Gibbons is to Mary Webb, so perhaps this author would wish to be considered in relation to a host of ‘Big House’ novelists, chroniclers of monumental disrepair. Gates falling off their hinges and leaking roofs. Plaster from the moulded ceilings on the rotting Aubusson carpets. Arrows of Longing, however, is insufficiently sharp to pass itself off as satire, though at times it rises to an energetic type of farce. At other times, it’s in danger of not distinguishing between parody and imitation. Take the terrible title: is the author having a go at Mills & Boon? Or not? Is Dr Donovan – twice the age of Gretchen, and mutely besotted with her – meant to be considered risibly romantic, or just romantic? It’s hard to tell. What’s certain is that the narrative tone, effectively deadpan in places, can turn frankly over-blown: ‘She would ... expose the suffering he had inflicted on her and cry out for the love he had, so abruptly, withdrawn, the love she was certain that he felt for her, the love she could not live without.’
Gretchen, we are told, is an expert on Irish writing, but we have to take this pronouncement on trust: this is not one of those bookish books that abound in literary parallels. Only the standard names are uttered in passing – Joyce, Synge, MacNeice, Yeats, Heaney. However, Gretchen’s view of Ireland has certainly come out of a book: she arrives in the country nurturing obtuse expectations. Word, for example, of the destruction of Georgian Dublin hasn’t percolated through to this supposedly alert ‘A’ student, for whom a blow is in store. What occurs to Gretchen, face to face with the untransfigured Irish? They don’t wash with sufficient thoroughness, keep their pigs under control or understand the principles of house maintenance. (Similar conclusions, we may remember, were proclaimed during the last century in the pages of Punch.) Murder and mutilation are not alien to them (did she ever imagine they were?). Their behaviour at the dinner table is unengaging. This literary girl, very strangely, blames James Joyce among the others for giving her a false perspective on the Irish. Has she actually read him? Or did she seriously believe the country had stuck in 1904?
A lot of issues are raised in this novel, and then allowed to drift away: for instance, when it strikes Gretchen that romantic Ireland (her romantic Ireland) is really founded on English importations – style, habits of mind, and so forth. And the author’s idea of a Gaelic-speaking peasant is perhaps a little wide of the mark: social criticism via caricature is fine, but only if the target is hit. What most seriously flaws Arrows of Longing, though, is the occasional lapse it sanctions into heartfelt seriousness.