(Note: For this essay, I will be mainly writing about The Magic Toyshop (1967) and The Bloody Chamber (1979), although there will be passing references to other works by Carter.)
In my view, the thing that struck me most when reading Angela Carter was that the whole experience was not unlike stumbling upon the wayward, Freudian, non-age appropriate versions of the saccharine stories I had read as a child. Unsettling perhaps, but undeniable proof that I had come of age if even my fairy tales were for adults. That being said, it’s a comparison that has been made many times before, but is it really a fair one? Is it truly accurate to state that Angela Carter only ever wrote fairy tales for grown-ups? Does such a sweeping statement not limit and generalize the works of a refreshing and challenging author?
I’ll start by examining The Magic Toyshop, one of Carter’s earliest works. We had to study this one for first-year English Lit.; when the book with the very cute pastel cover arrived in the post , I’ll admit that I felt a bit belittled by my university- we were in higher education this was a children’s book. Great.
Well, someone was wrong. Someone was very, very wrong and she realized that she was wrong within the first three lines of the novel. Anyone who has read the novel will understand.
As I explained to my uncomfortable male classmates, one of the things that I found to be pleasantly surprising about the novel (especially given that it had been published nearly fifty years ago) was its honesty about female sexuality. I don’t want to dwell too much on this topic, as I’d like to keep this blog as respectable as possible, but suffice it to say, Melanie is one of the most unsettlingly accurate fictional adolescents I have ever read about. She is neither excessively vain nor unaware of her own appearance. She has a strong interest in her own beauty and sexuality, but Carter doesn’t shame her for this, nor does it make her a ”bad” character. Arguably, the only true villain of the novel is Uncle Philip, whose character arguably is completely diabolical and also perverted. Carter isn’t afraid to shy away from violence and the perverted in her tales (The Loves of Lady Purple, anyone?)
Of course both The Magic Toyshop and The Bloody Chamber have strong fairy tale elements. Denying this would significantly reduce the books’ scope and creativity, along with their, well, creepiness. What Carter has done, in my amateurish view at least, is bring to light the true eeriness of popular folk and fairy tales. Of course they are embellished with sex and danger to make them seem more adult, but the most of the stories in The Bloody Chamber are based on popular tales. Isn’t it wonderful that we went through our childhoods never questioning magical mice or mermaids or beasts or the logistics of sleeping for a hundred years (this always appeals to me greatly during exam season)? Carter made me question all these things. She also breathed new life into both Victorian novel conventions (seen in The Magic Toyshop, which despite being written in the ’60s shows no signs of its era except a mention of a woman in pale lipstick) and fairy tale tropes. I was also forced to appreciate how great fairy tales actually are, and how dark. Hardly the stuff of childhood.