Sunday, 7 October 2012

The Novels of Angela Carter: The 60s


The symbolic role of families in fairy tales is also reflected in the novels. In Heroes and Villains, the father figure (Donally) is supplanted by his son (Jewel). Jewel sends Donally into exile after he tries to shoot him – an attempt to pre-empt his son’s inevitable and mythologically prescribed usurpation of his power. Jewel fatally reneges on his decision, however, his sentimentality and need to act out the role of heroic leader causing him to go to Donally’s rescue when he has seemingly been captured. His unglamorous, perfunctory death at the hands of the ‘heroes’ of Melanie’s childhood games leaves the way clear for her to directly assume a power which she has previously exercised tangentially. Donally is a monstrous father who is to be found hidden away in his secret room in the ruined mansion where Marianne first lives with the tribe, playing thunderous pieces on his organ (the signature gothic instrument). He dons fearsome animalistic masks and enveloping cloaks which act as transformative hides to make himself appear more than human, the godlike father and source of authority.

In The Magic Toyshop, Philip is another monstrous father, a domestic ogre who cows his wife into mute silence and beats the spirit out of his adopted ‘son’ Finn (actually his brother in law). His controlling influence is felt as much in the fear he inspires as in his physical presence. It’s not until about a third of the way through the novel that he makes his entrance, by which time we have learned to anticipate his return with dread. He has to be destroyed in order that Melanie and Finn can move out into the world and Margaret her freedom. In the meantime, Margaret his essentially his slave, obliged to wear a broad silver neck choker on Sunday as a talismanic mark of possession and subjugation. The symbolic role of incestuous relationships in fairy and folk tales is also explored. Margaret’s relationship with her brother Francie, and Finn’s knowledge and acceptance of this, his sense of closeness to them, form a charmed circle. Melanie feels a similar sense of enchantment and protection when she is admitted to this protective group. Philip’s discovery of his cuckolding at the hands of his brother in law, which completely undermines his power over both his wife and the wider household, causes an explosion of self-destructive rage in which he burns the house down around him – a deliberate self-immolation, which destroys the pocket world which he has created and presided over like a Gnostic demiurge. It’s a violent act which serves as a dramatic admission that his tyrannical kingdom has already been shattered.

In Love, Buzz and Lee’s relationship verges on the incestuous, with Annabel coming in between them and acting as a proxy via whom they can sleep with each other. They are two halves of a split personality waiting to come together to form a whole, and also represent wider social divisions. They had different fathers, Lee’s English (‘a railwayman killed in the course of duty’), Buzz’s an American serviceman ‘who left behind him nothing but a crude, silver, finger-ring decorated with a skull and crossbones’; went to different, socially stratified schools (this in the age of the 11-plus) – Lee a grammar, Buzz a secondary modern; Lee moves towards middle class respectability as a secondary school teacher, whilst Buzz remains on the periphery of menial short term employment and petty criminality. Their emotional characters are also divergent: ‘Lee was sentimental while Buzz was malign’. Carter makes the symbolic incestuous yearning for completeness explicit in the afterword added to her 1987 revision of Love. Giving an overview of how the lives of the characters develop into the 80s, she notes that the brothers no longer communicate with each other, ‘but that ‘Lee is the only human being his brother ever felt one scrap for and he admits to himself, and occasionally to startled companions, that if there is one thing he would like to do before he dies, it is to fuck him’. Honey’s repressed homosexual desire for Morris, expressed in their embrace in the decaying Victorian house where they go on a scavenging raid, and in his use of the familiar endearment ‘darling’ towards the end of the novel, is a variant on the theme, since he is, in many ways, Morris’ alter ego, the other half of his divided self. The theme is obliquely stated in Heroes and Villains too. Jewel kills Marianne’s brother in a raid when she is still a child, an event which she witnesses from her tower. He also observes her witness, and a transference of sorts takes place, he taking on the character of another brother, replacing her real one.

The power of monstrous or psychotic men in the novels is often expressed through the figure of the puppet master. Philip is the most obvious example. His family, none of whom are his own offspring or flesh and blood, are living versions of his puppets, which are his true children. His only displays of tenderness and affection are towards these inanimate dummies, which come to life according to his will, and move according to his design. Real people have to be beaten and bullied, economically enslaved and psychologically cowed in order to achieve the same level of absolute control. Finn articulates their status as puppets explicitly when he says ‘he’s pulled our strings’. Margaret and Francie are also modelled in toy form as monkeys playing fiddle and flute, as they do in their intimate evenings of musical communion. Melanie is finally induced into becoming a human puppet in one of the performances in Philip’s basement theatre. The direction of a real person is seen as preferable to allowing Finn to control any of his precious puppets, after he has ruined one of his pieces by getting the strings tangled and turning an elegant historical pavane into a stumbling, comical slapstick routine (something for which he receives a severe beating). Honey in Shadow Dance is another puppet master, and himself something of a malevolent Punch figure, with his false noses and gleefully amoral violence. He makes cardboard jumping jacks, Victorian toys with loosely jointed limbs which jerk into capering life at his bidding, and gives them the faces of various of the people he knows and evidently holds in contempt, such as Oscar and Ghislaine. When he jumps out to surprise the old woman in the decaying house they search, assuming that it is abandoned and empty, seemingly causing her to collapse from shock, he explains to a remorseful Morris that ‘I wanted to pull her string’. The control of the strings changes hands in Love, with Buzz, Lee and Annabel all take their manipulative turn. Buzz uses his camera to capture Lee and Annabel’s most intimate moments (including her near suicidal death) and displays them on his wall as ‘frozen memories’; an objectified overview and summation of their life which implies an omniscient, godlike eye. Annabel gains control over Lee and banishes Buzz through her attempted suicide, which propels him into ‘a delirious state of wilful self-abandonment’. He becomes her lifeless possession, ‘as silent and decorative as the statue with which she had always compared him’.

Lee here takes on the role more often assigned to women, the passive doll-like female. There are several in Carter’s 60s novels. Ghislaine is one such, the scar across her face like a crack in the porcelain (this analogy is visualised on the cover of the 60s Pan paperback, published as Honeybuzzard, which has the disturbing photographic quality of their horror anthologies). When they are skulking around one of the old Victorian houses which they scavenge, Morris and Honey come across what is described as a ‘raped doll’. This is essentially a stand in for Ghislaine, representing the state in which she is left after Honey has assaulted her, possibly with Morris’ help, or at least with his complicit inactivity. She remains passive throughout, seeking out the man who has left his mark of violence and hatred on her. In the end, she becomes a lifeless doll, laid out on the table in another condemned Victorian house, murdered by a Honey now wholly lost in his own psychosis. The used doll is also found in Several Perceptions in the form of a soiled and torn Pierrot. It represents the worn out life of Mrs Kyte, who lies in a permanent flop on her bed, having retreated into the timeless sanctuary of her bedroom for the last fifteen years. Annabel is also a passive, doll-like figure, withdrawn and remote from the world and from others. Her deluded belief that a ring Buzz gives her can make her invisible is indicative of her impulse towards dissolution, the severing of any connection with the outer world. In the end, her Thanatos-like will to achieve the untroubled state of non-being leads her to lay herself out carefully on the bed and turn the gas on. ‘Now she was a painted doll, bluish at the extremes, nobody’s responsibility’, least of all her own.

In her works of ‘male impersonation’ (Shadow Dance, Several Perceptions and Love), Carter opposes these doll-like women with detached, self-possessed and mysterious women: Emily in Shadow Dance, Anne, the down to earth and anti-romantic Midlander and Barbie, the exotic American in Several Perceptions, and the various female characters with whom Lee has affairs in Love – the unnamed philosophy lecturer’s wife (the ‘other woman’), Carolyn and Joanne. In Shadow Dance and Several Perceptions in particular, these are women seen through a male perspective, as imaginatively reconstructed by a woman. In Love, everyone’s motives and feelings, base or noble or somewhere inbetween, are laid bare. Carolyn expresses female distaste at the brothers’ romantic (or anti-romantic) misadventures (a distaste which also includes Annabel’s passive participation) when she tells herself she wants nothing more to do with ‘their slimy snail trails of squalid passion’. Emily is first seen lounging about with a cat, her cool 60s chic contrasting with Morris’ wife Edna’s pre-Raphaelite appearance and outlook. Her feline association and aloof self-containment give her some connection with Joseph’s cat in Several Perceptions. By the end of their respective novels, Emily and the cat are pregnant, the cat actually giving birth to a new litter of kittens as the year draws to an end. Marianne too is pregnant at the end of Heroes and Villains. Even in the midst of the surrounding chaos, there is a sense that life will continue, and these endings also offer a final image of female strength prevailing through the very essence of its sexual difference. The bleak denouement of Love offers no such comforts. It’s certainly not a sentimentalised or sacralised view of maternity. Shadow Dance leaves us with the image of a pool of vomit as Emily suffers a wave of morning sickness. But it stands as defiant declaration of hope in the face of the death and degradation, the self-abasement and aimless drift which have preceded – qualities of negation which often stem from the male characters. As the unconventionally maternal Mrs Boulder says in Several Perceptions, ‘father is only a word at the best of times but mother is a fact’.

The divine Hattie - The Pleasure Garden
The protagonists of The Magic Toyshop and Heroes and Villains are both young girls on the verge of pubescent awakening. These stories are partly coming of age tales the likes of which Carter would later pursue in allegorical fairy tale form in the Bloody Chamber stories and the film Company of Wolves which was derived from them. The nature of the stories is reflected in the fact that these two novels have a greater fantastic or fairy tale quality than any of the other 60s works. Both Melanie and Marianne (and the similarity in the names is probably intentional) enter strange and unforgiving new environments. Both wander through groves of lushly verdant growth which has wound itself around crumbling ruins: the ‘place of ghosts’ beyond the city walls in Heroes and Villains and the overgrown gardens of Crystal Palace in The Magic Toyshop. Perhaps Carter had seen James Broughton’s charming short 1957 fantasy The Pleasure Garden, in which various characters seeking love are aided by Hattie Jacques’ liberal-minded fairy and abetted by John le Mesurier’s stiffly censorious and funereally attired Victorian overseer amongst the melancholy ruins and weatherworn statuary of the once great palace’s gardens. These sensual sites in which wilderness and civilisation intertwine are engulfing environments symbolic of sexual awakening (the forest beyond the path serves a similar symbolic function in Company of Wolves). In Heroes and Villains, Marianne sees Donally in his barbarous finery in the grove, and subsequently spies on the travelling caravan which she will later join. In The Magic Toyshop, Melanie is led to the palace grove by Finn, and experiences her first kiss there.

Marianne and Melanie both experience a deflowering in the course of the story, again in semi-wild settings. This is brutal in Heroes and Villains, in which Marianne is raped by Jewel. In The Magic Toyshop, it is symbolic but traumatic nevertheless, Melanie assaulted by Uncle Philip’s giant puppet swan in her role as Leda, played out against a pastoral backdrop. Both Melanie and Marianne survive these violations, and proceed to take control of their destinies in the unforgiving world into which they have received such a harsh introduction, in a way which Ghislaine and Annabel signally fail to do. Both go on to see their violators die, and play some part in that destruction, though without any direct agency or intent – these are definitely not rape revenge fantasies. The progression of events which leads to the final conflagration in The Magic Toyshop is triggered by Finn’s dismemberment and burial of Philip’s perverse swan puppet. And Marianne’s growing influence within the tribe precipitates Donally’s assassination attempt, his exile and Jewel’s attempt to rescue him which leads him into a fatal trap. Marianne even teasingly hints that Jewel is the ‘furious invention of my virgin nights’, and, as an imaginative emanation, is thus in her power.

The 60s as depicted in Carter’s contemporaneous novels is seen as marking the end of an era, the sweeping away of the lingering remnants of Victorian England, both physically and psychologically. Her 60s is seen from the wings, away from the spotlit centre of the stage. The view from this peripheral vantage point is a lot less bedazzled and mesmerised than that from the magic, glittering bubble of the capital’s centre. When Melanie ends up in the Victorian surrounds of South London, in the Crystal Palace area, she remarks ‘we might as well not be in London at all’. The ‘Bristol trilogy’ is set in a locale which is noticeable by small details rather than any specific exploration or description of local geography. In Shadow Dance, Morris regularly goes to sit on the steps of the gypsy caravan in the museum, a familiar fixture which can still be found in the Bristol City Museum and Art Gallery. In Several Perceptions, Joseph wanders over the downs above Bristol and lives around the Georgian terraces leading down the hills from Clifton. Viv’s endearments ‘my star’ and ‘my lover’ also serves to locate events in the West Country and by implication Bristol. In Love, Annabel and Lee walk through the park with its gothic tower (Cabot’s Tower, presumably) and slopes leading down to the dockside area where Buzz lives in the latter half of the novel. The shattered landscape of Heroes and Villains is that of Southern England, which is particularly evident when the tribe arrives at the half-drowned and ‘time-eaten’ seaside town with its cheerfully vulgar clock held by the oversized figure of a bather. It summons up the spirit of Brighton even if it was never actually erected there.

The end of the Victorian era is signified by the crumbling buildings which Morris and Honey raid in Shadow Dance. Edna, Morris’ wife, is described as being ‘a Victorian girl’, styled in the manner of a pre-Raphaelite portrait, but she is seen as old-fashioned in comparison to Emily’s modern 60s woman (and the similarity in their names invites comparison). Annabel is also described as ‘the girl who, like a Victorian heroine, had come between them (brothers Buzz and Lee). In Several Perceptions, the old tramp Sunny is generally regarded as a tiresome annoyance with his tales of Little Tich and former music hall glories. A reference in Shadow Dance to the Lady Chatterley trial (which ‘opened the floodgates of corruption’, as Honey sardonically observes), points to a significant shift in social morality and philosophical outlook. Philip’s house in The Magic Toyshop exists in an island of the Victorian past, now grown decayed and seedy. Philip himself inhabits the Victorian scenery in appropriate style; he appears ‘in shirt-sleeved, patriarchal majesty and his spreading, black waistcoat (the shiny back of it cracked in long lines) was strung with an impressive gold watch-chain, of the style favoured by Victorian pit-owners’, and he sports a ‘thick walrus moustache’. When Melanie first explores the house in the cold morning after her arrival, it appears as a strange and magical environment, like the beast’s castle in La Belle et La Bete. But the charm is soon dispelled, leaving only comfortless squalor. The destruction of the house at the end of the story, with Philip in it, marks a definitive turning away from the oppressive Victorian past and its social attitudes.

In Love, Empire Day, a now defunct celebration which embodied Victorian and Edwardian values, is the day on which Buzz and Lee’s mother goes spectacularly insane. Lee is holding the ‘S’ in the morally improving sign ‘Do Right Because It Is Right’ which the children in the playground are spelling out ‘when his mother, naked and painted all over with cabbalistic signs, burst into the crowded playground and fell writhing and weeping on the asphalt before him’. Her wild and barbaric invasion of the sober and respectable Empire Day ceremonies enacts the unruly and occasionally equally deranged disruptions of the 60s. Similarly, the raids of the colourful, barbarous gypsies (violent future hippies) on the remaining enclaves of civilisation in Heroes and Villains represent the social and generational fissures of the decade. The barbarians squat in the ruins of the past, living for a time in a mansion with ‘baroque stonework of the late Jacobean period, Gothic turrets murmurous with birds and pathetic elegance of Palladian pillared facades weathered indiscriminately together towards irreducible rubble’. It is essentially a stately home of the sort which were already being opened as tourist attractions by a cash-strapped aristocracy in the postwar period, and offered a selective and carefully presented view of the past overawed by the extravagances of the ruling classes. Here the house is ‘a gigantic memory of rotten stone’, but and notion of picturesque Romantic ruins is dispelled by the offal (human and animal) and rubbish-filled squalor to which the barbarians swiftly reduce it.

Down on its luck South London - The Pleasure Garden
The novels are all situated within a similar social stratum, a particularly 1960s level of bohemian dropout poverty. Characters tend to be downwardly mobile, either through conscious choice or through misfortune and accidental circumstance. Morris in Shadow Dance is a scavenger, making his living from the secondhand economy which thrives on the cultural detritus of a past which is being demolished to make way for a modernist vision of a rationally planned future, and is at the same time plundered to provide the props for a fashionable historical bricolage of furnishing and costume. Joseph in Several Perceptions lives off social security, but doesn’t put his freedom from the workplace to any productive use, other than engaging in the odd dadaist or situationist prank (setting free the badger from the zoo or sending a piece of shit through the post to President Johnson), which usually go unnoticed or are credited to others. Melanie and Marianne both move from their comfortable, protected environments into more deprived areas, with all the attendant discomforts and miseries of poverty. Marianne makes this decision herself, but Melanie has no choice but to move to ‘melancholy, down on its luck South London’. Marianne is repulsed by the squalor of the once grand house the barbarians live in, and appalled by the diseases of poverty which she comes across. ‘It’s all very different from what you’ve been accustomed to, dear’, the matronly Mrs Green, who’s also made the journey from professorial city to tribal wilderness, affirms.

In Love, Lee differs from Buzz in that he takes an upwardly mobile path from their working class origins in South London, going to grammar school, then university and becoming a teacher. Buzz is not a downwardly mobile bohemian like Morris or Joseph. Rather he is a working class misfit who attaches himself to the hippie dropout milieu, following the trail to North Africa before returning to a life spent flitting between casual jobs and petty thievery. In the postscript to her 1987 revision of the novel, Carter traces his later upwardly mobile trajectory, placing him in the vain media business of the 80s, a world of shiny, self-deceiving surfaces, easy flattery and devalued friendship. Annabel fits the pattern more closely, coming from a respectable background and entering the brothers’ bohemian orbit by enrolling as an art student. She later abandons her studies and takes Buzz as a role model, falling into an imitative pattern of short-term employment bolstered by shoplifting.

Few of these characters are genuinely working class. In Shadow Dance, Joseph views the old woman who works in the café he frequents as if she were a member of an alien species. He refers to her as a Struldbrug, one of the races from Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels. Carter would later always decry the marginalisation of the working classes in the English literary novel, but she doesn’t seem terribly interested in them herself at this stage. She’s more attracted to the depiction of this separate, self-defining bohemian class, of which she herself was a part, which claims to set itself at a slight remove from society. The aunt who raises Buzz and Lee in Love does provide a slight correction to the elderly waitress in Shadow Dance, albeit an offstage one. A self-educated and politically active radical who renames Michael Leon after Trotsky (which he later alters to Lee), she also worked in catering, and is described as having been ‘a remarkable woman, a canteen cook and shop steward who worked her fingers to the bone to support the two boys’. A different kind of social stratification is also found in the wastelands of Heroes and Villains, with the barbarians cast as savage hippies who are a class above the wretched Outcast, freakshow grotesques deformed through mutation. Carter is fascinated by all kinds of social outsiders, and gypsies and travellers in particular. Morris displays a spiritual affinity with the gypsies by going to sit on the steps of the caravan motionlessly moored in the museum, and Margaret, Finn and Francie are all Irish immigrants who dance at night to jigs played on fiddle and flute and spoons like travelling folk. Sunny, as a wandering tramp in Several Perceptions, is another outsider and traveller who also plays the fiddle. It turns out in the end that he has a home, a flat in the spacious Kyte household, once more proving that appearances can be deceptive. The tribe which Marianne joins in Heroes and Villains is also descended from gypsy travellers. Jewel’s name before the disaster was Jewel Lee Bradley, and Marianne discovers that he came from a fairground family. The brutal carnivalesque life which he leads with his extended ‘family’ after the apocalypse is a fantasticated development from these origins.

The bohemian class as Carter portrays it is strangely unproductive, however, and fails to make full use of the freedoms which it has claimed. It seems faintly dazed by the rapid social and moral realignments which it is at the heart of and to which it pledges allegiance. The novels are full of failed artists, creatively impotent in the face of the challenges which these interesting times present. In Shadow Dance, Morris’ ambitions to become an artist, his creative self, are locked away in the room which is lined with the abstract paintings he now sees as the uninspired products of a mediocre talent. In The Magic Toyshop, Finn’s paintings of his dog and of a Boschean hell in which Philip is subjected to hideous tortures by pitiless, grinning demons are examples of a naïve art which expresses a singular perception of the world. He himself shows nothing but contemptuous disdain for them, however. His finely detailed work on the toys in the shop is crafted according to Philip’s artistic plan, a subservient artistry with just the occasional hint of individual character subversively showing through. Uncle Philip’s theatrical puppet shows, the works into which he wholeheartedly puts himself, with the greatest dedication and seriousness, are in the end banal, old-fashioned melodramas set to the most lachrymose and sentimental Tchaikovsky music. Joseph in Several Perceptions is full of clever literary and artistic allusions, but aside from the pop art collage on his wall and his situationist pranks, solipsistic efforts at best, he applies himself to nothing creative.

Only Kay’s band Electric Opera seem to reflect the supposed spirit of the age. Donnally in Heroes and Villains is a tattoo artist, but his dream of creating a ‘tiger boy’ covered from head to toe in his transformative designs remains unrealised, with several dead bodies in his wake testament to his failure. In Love, Annabel begins with artistic ambitions, painting an elaborate mural on the walls of the bedroom in Lee’s flat, but her enthusiasm soon peters out, settling into the general sludge of lassitude and inertia. Only Buzz makes the upwardly mobile move into photography typical of the period in which Terence Donovan, David Bailey and Brian Duffy rose to fashionable prominence from working class backgrounds. His obsession with taking pictures is as much to do with a voyeuristic mindset as it is with any conscious artistry or aesthetic outlook. Buzz is the only active artist in the books, and his artform is one of instant, instinctive and almost effortless image making, concerned with capturing the fleeting moment. Perhaps Carter sees the 60s as too mutable and mercurially shifting to allow for any one person to make a grand gesture of artistic genius which defines and fixes the era. Or perhaps the idea of being an artist has become the latest fashion, adopted by those who lack the talent or insight to really see the world in a new way. This failure, whether real or perceived, is linked with the failure of the characters in these novels to fully grasp the new freedoms the decade offered, or with the fact that they are shut off from those freedoms.

Carter’s view of the 60s was not on the whole a negative one, however. She saw it as a strange and unstable country of shifting territories in which it was easy to get lost, and in which a certain superficiality prevailed, allowing convincing tricksters and madmen to be hailed as heroes and prophets. Jewel, the supposedly ignorant barbarian, summons up something of its spirit in remarking upon ‘the map of a country in which I only exist by virtue of the extravagance of my metaphors’. The 60s was the decade in which Carter developed as a writer, and it informed her later work and general outlook to a significant degree. These novels, some of which could be seen, enjoyable though they are, as essentially apprentice works (Several Perceptions and Shadow Dance in particular) contain the seeds of later fabulations, which draw the carnivalesque parade on through the following decades. Carter herself perhaps best sums up the tenor of the times, and of these five novels, in the introduction to her 1967 essay Notes for a Theory of Sixties Style which prefaces it in the 1982 collection Nothing Sacred, written with the benefit of 15 years hindsight. In answer t the perennial question ‘what were the sixties really like?’ she replies that it is ‘impossible to answer except, well, it wasn’t like they say in the movies. It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, etc. etc. etc. The pleasure principle met the reality principle like an irresistible force encountering an immovable object, and the reverberations of that collision are still echoing about us’. The novels she wrote in the 60s record the moment of that collision in all its confusion and fear, bewilderment and intense excitement.

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