Femme fatale - Angela Carter

The Bloody Chamber is often wrongly described as a group of traditional fairy tales given a subversive feminist twist. In fact, these are new stories, not re-tellings. As Angela Carter made clear, "My intention was not to do 'versions' or, as the American edition of the book said, horribly, 'adult' fairy tales, but to extract the latent content from the traditional stories and to use it as the beginnings of new stories." She knew from the start that she was drawn to "Gothic tales, cruel tales, tales of wonder, tales of terror, fabulous narratives that deal directly with the imagery of the unconscious". She drew a sharp distinction between what she described as "those fragments of epiphanic experience which are the type of the 20th-century story", and the "ornate, unnatural" style and symbolism of her favoured form, the tale. When, in her second collection, The Bloody Chamber, she continued in this Gothic mode but with narratives suggested by traditional west European fairy tales, she found she had conjured up an exotic new hybrid that would carry her voice to a wider audience than it had reached before.

The Bloody Chamber is like a multifaceted glittering diamond reflecting and refracting a variety of portraits of desire and sexuality - heterosexual female sexuality - which, unusually for the time, 1979, are told from a heterosexual female viewpoint. This was the year, remember, that Penelope Fitzgerald's Offshorewon the Booker prize, and Penelope Lively's Treasures of Time won the National Book Award. Anita Brookner's first novel, A Start in Life, would not appear for another two years. Margaret Thatcher, 53, had just been elected Britain's first prime minister. Angela Carter, 39, had seven novels to her name, none of which had so far received more than marginal recognition.

Carter was later to come under attack for not busting more taboos than she did ("She could never imagine Cinderella in bed with the Fairy God-mother," wrote Patricia Duncker, for example). But such criticisms seem wide of the mark. Her work caused shock waves when it appeared, and it continues to shock. The Bloody Chamber, which has been extensively studied in universities over the past decade, apparently elicits furious hostility from a significant number of students, who are outraged when they recognise the bedtime stories of their childhood newly configured as tales of sex and violence. But as Carter said, "I was taking ... the latent content of those traditional stories and using that; and the latent content is violently sexual." It is also true that her imagination had a fierce and appetitive quality, turbofuelled by Gothic themes, particularly in her youth. (Later, after she had published Nights at the Circus, she was to comment, "You know, sometimes when I read my back pages, I'm quite appalled at the violence of my imagination. Before I had a family and stuff.")

Fairy tales have been usefully described as the science fiction of the past; certainly Carter regarded them in this light, using them as a way of exploring ideas of how things might be different. She admired much science fiction with its utopian perspectives and speculative thinking - "It seemed to me, after reading these writers a lot, that they were writing about ideas, and that was basically what I was trying to do." Also, as dissident writers have so often found, the indirection and metaphor of fantasy can be helpful when airing controversial subject matter; not that Carter would have minded about causing offence, but, whether she minded or not, by using the timesanctioned form of fairy tales she acquired readers who would not otherwise have read her. And she was using the forms of fantasy and fairy tales with conscious radical intent; in a letter to her friend Robert Coover, she wrote: "I really do believe that a fiction absolutely self-conscious of itself as a different form of human experience than reality (that is, not a logbook of events) can help to transform reality itself."

All this makes her writing sound over-schematic; but while she used fantasy to discuss ideas, it is also obvious that it was the landscapes and imagery of fairy tales and legends that fired her imagination - bloodstains and ravens' feathers on snow, moonlight on a dust-grimed mirror, graveyards on Walpurgisnacht. The stories in The Bloody Chamber reverberate with deep and unmistakable imaginative pleasure. There is an astonishing extravivid materiality to this alternative world she invented, down to the last sensuous detail, like the candle which drops hot wax on to the girl's bare shoulders in "The Tiger's Bride". She loved to describe the trappings of luxury, to display rich scenery in rich language. Dialogue came less naturally to her and she avoided it for years, joking that the advantage of including animal protagonists in her work was that she did not have to make them talk. Naturalism or realism, the low mimetic as she called it, was not her mode. Not that she wasn't observant - nothing could have been sharper than her journalism with its gimlet anthropological eye - but in the end her genius did not actually lend itself to the "low mimetic" (see "The Quilt Maker", an uncollected story in this mode, which is interesting but possibly her least successful).

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