I came across The Bloody Chamber (Angela Carter, 1979) in Jean’s post on books under 150 pages. As she described it as a fairy tale retelling, I thought, I like fairy tale retellings. I should read that. But when I saw the book with the cover I’ve posted to the right, I realized, I already had. I can’t quite place it, but I’m fairly certain I read this, or at least part of it, during my Master’s program. I think I had to write something about it for my final exam. I remember researching Little Red Riding Hood in the library, if nothing else. One of the reasons I started this blog was to help me better remember what I’ve read and what I thought about it. Seeing as I can’t remember a book on which I wrote an essay for an important exam, that seems rather ironic now.
In any case, The Bloody Chamber is, indeed, a modern retelling of classic fairy tales. They incorporate all of the violent, grim nature of the originals – none of that whitewashed Disney stuff here! – and offer a distinct look at female sexuality from the viewpoint of, well, a female. (Anne Elliot would be so proud.) The fairy tales the book draws from include Bluebeard (the inspiration for the title story), Beauty and the Beast, Puss in Boots, the Erlking, The Snow Child (a variant of Snow White), a radio play called Vampirella, Little Red Riding Hood, and, to a certain extent, Through the Looking-Glass. Most, though not all, were easily familiar to me.
Carter can write sex like no other author I’ve read, both the disgusting aspects of the act and the undeniable desire for it. In the titular story, she describes the formidable husband’s kiss as “the red lips that kissed me…a wet silken brush from his beard; a hint of the pointed tip of his tongue.” The young, still-virginal wife later describes a shocking illustration in a book found on her new husband’s shelves as, “the girl with tears hanging on her cheeks like stuck pearls, her cunt* a split fig below the great globes of her buttocks on which the knotted tails of the cat were about to descend, while a man in a black mask fingered with his free hand his prick, that curved upwards like the scimitar he held.” And yet, when her husband is called away to New York the day after their wedding, the narrator wife sighs, “I lay in bed alone. And I longed for him. And he disgusted me.” The sex here is so unwelcome, so invasive, so violating, and yet so coveted. And isn’t that, for all of us at some point in our lives, exactly how sex is?
But Carter does not relegate her fairy tale princesses to the be doomed at – or rescued by – the hands of men. In “The Bloody Chamber” it is the woman’s mother who saves her from her husband’s lustful wrath. In “The Courtship of Mr. Lyon,” Beauty only stays with the Beast out of overwhelming love for her father and not through loss of her own will. In “In the Company of Wolves,” Little Red Riding Hood is the seductress, not the victim. The women are not prizes to be won or helpless martyrs to be lost. They are individuals. Bravo for that.
Although I greatly enjoyed Carter’s liberal use of big words, some of which I figured out only because I knew the Spanish cognate (reverse language learning win!), I occasionally found her prose to be so ornate as to be cumbersome. I would be amidst a paragraph of description and have to reread it from the top because I’d lost the point of what she was saying. Is that her problem or mine? Regardless, it’s a small obstacle in an otherwise well-written collection. I’m glad it came to my attention again.
*I am not a fan of this word, but it was utterly effective within the mood of the piece when she used it.