- Banana bread is not a meal.
- Stale Italian coffee grounds you found at the back of the pantry will not produce an enjoyable result.
- Reading the news 24/7 will turn you into a neurotic.
- You can’t not read anything for extended periods of time and then try to be a good writer.
- Referencing and editing will take you far longer than you hoped they would.
- Sleep is worthwhile.
- Apply moisturiser.
(A word of warning: This review may contain spoilers).
I’m a bad person and bad student. Let’s just get that out of the way. Right from the beginning of my GCSEs to the present day, I have never quite been able to separate myself from novels I have studied and be truly able to view them from a cold, analytical viewpoint. Thus, the isolated, miserable sixteen-year-old that I was thoroughly enjoyed A Streetcar Named Desire, somehow being able to link my own adolescent loneliness to Blanche Dubois’ insanity (How? We may never know.) And at the same age, just as my ”depression” was beginning to set in, I really, really loathed Virginia Woolf and all she stood for when she wrote To The Lighthouse.
It’s difficult to say what I found most banal and draining about a novel which seems to excite millions of modernist aficionados around the globe. Actually, ”excite” is probably the wrong word. There is nothing exciting about To The Lighthouse. Oh, plenty happens: protagonists die, World War I happens, Mr Ramsay bounces about screeching the words to ”The Charge of the Light Brigade” in a most unrealistic manner, yet it is written so that it feels like one long endless ramble about a woman trying to complete a pretentious painting. Overall, my main complaint about the novel isn’t that it’s endlessly depressing (although, that factor didn’t exactly endear it to me either)- It is that To The Lighthouse skims over what could have made it great. Woolf chooses to almost entirely skip over the First World War, save for a few brief mentions of casualties, as well as almost completely avoiding the immediacy of a central character’s death. A novel which could’ve explored the devastation of war and grieving (and certainly, Woolf does try to include these themes) refuses to do this, at least not in any remotely effective manner.
My second major criticism of To The Lighthouse is that Woolf’s use of stream of consciousness is frankly not effective. It was certainly a daring technique to use back when the novel was initially published, but now it screams ”modernist era” and is distracting and annoying (especially in the dinner party episode). It makes it hard to separate one character’s angst from the next. The novel by doing this (in the same way that Nabokov’s Lolita uses generous helpings of Gratuitous French), effectively announces that it is out of the reach of the average reader. Now I can appreciate some high culture every now and again, but frankly, To The Lighthouse is just not clever enough to justify its own pretentiousness.
My final grumble can be summarised as follows: the novel is just too relentlessly depressing. Yes, life is not the most enjoyable of experiences and literature should reflect that fact, but To The Lighthouse goes above and beyond in this duty. By all means, please do write about war and its consequential sufferings. Kill off your main character. Explore grief. But please, give the reader one redeeming thing to hold on to. It is not kind to force existential misery onto a Higher English class.
(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.