Saturday, 13 April 2013

Angela Carter: How to be a woman.

So, for reasons best known to themselves, the book group have elected to read Caitlin Moran's How To Be a Woman for next month, effectively throwing me into the path of a bullet I had been dodging since some time last year.

Bang. Splat.


I can't even be bothered to argue with it. Frankly, I'm having difficulty being bothered reading the damned thing. It's not so much inflammatory as dull. In fact to make the slog seem terminable, I have been interspersing its chapters with short stories from one of the better-loved volumes gracing my shelves, a book that must always be attended by score of superlatives, Angela Carter's incomparable The Bloody Chamber.

Its fitting, too, that it should be this book I use to re-engage my brain, restore my equilibrium and massage my affronted aesthetic sense. In part because I have, in my reading, hissed that any of Moran's factually correct statements were said, better, by Carter about thirty years before, and that the factually incorrect ones are refuted by she-who-must-not-be-contradicted with all her usual wit and perspicacity. Mostly, though, it is because I have been known to say that The Bloody Chamber should be placed before every girl in this country on her fourteenth birthday.

If I had my way, everybody would read this book anyway - as a work of literature, it is elegant, intelligent and powerfully done, its value is beyond doubt; but only to a pubescent girl is it a work whose value is beyond measure. I had always, always thought this, and I have never quite understood why. I think I get it now.

And I'm willing to admit that I have been wrong.

The Bloody Chamber remaps the territory inside your head, and it does not do it kindly. I would ask how many people had the same experience I had, that my husband had, when presented with a slender volume of short stories by an unfamiliar writer. Did you do as we did and, to get a measure of it, flicked through to the shortest story in the book, only to be shocked, perhaps even appalled, by the coldly sexual brutality of 'The Snow Child'?

And don't you feel that was exactly what Carter intended? As she reworks the fairy tale into a cruel puppet dance of male lust and female jealousy, as she shows flesh in vicious nakedness, she warns you, lets you know what to expect. We flinch, and we open the book to find out more. The book itself becomes a bloody chamber. We have been warned. There will be consequences.

We can no longer be so hypocritical as to be displeased by what we find.

But what do we find? Elegant, terrible stories of love. And in each of these tales, a young woman about to come of age. That sounds like common enough fare - the movement from girlhood to womanhood through a brush with love, successful or otherwise. It's what the patriarchy prescribes for us, it is, apparently, what we are.

Ah, but here's the wonder; we see this from inside the women's heads for once, and for once their heads are part of a body and that body is flesh. What's more, it's flesh I recognise, flesh that, as a breathless fourteen year old, encountering these stories for the first time, I inhabited. Mine were the long, half awkward legs, mine the pale face, mine the small, soft, sore breasts. It was my body I read about, breathing through the pages, not something spread out for a voyeur's gaze, not as an object of male desire, but as itself, as the self, as me. Like me these bodies were inhabited by fierce, cold, rational minds, like me they inhaled, exhaled, they wept and ate and shat and bled.

We can talk about essentialism as much as we like, but the bodies we inhabit do affect us, do change our relationship with the world. It is a point Carter returns to, again and again, "I was a young girl, a virgin, and therefore men denied me rationality just as they denied it to all those who were not exactly like themselves, in all their unreason."

Yes, yes. Dear Gods, yes.

And more, still more! These young women are not just affected by the way their body is viewed, but through the way their body touches the world, by the way it caresses or stikes, by the way it is struck or caressed. Like no other writer I have encountered, Carter is serious about female desire.  And here, truly, here, is the most remarkable thing of all - she does this from within, from the lived space of these bodies. The hand that moves, the voice that narrates, is female. The look is the female look. In these stories, when we encounter The Other, he is male.

I'm going to say that again: In these stories, The Other is male. Just like that! With wit and intelligence and poetry, Carter has done what Irigaray and Woolf said couldn't be done, and has done it as though it was no big deal, done it so that you don't even notice. Agency, self, centrality, these are female bodied things, young and female. Men are unknown, masked, not quite human. They are irreducibly alien, despite being the possessors of power, magic, wealth. Mysterious, desirable, yes, and not necessarily hostile, but a creature that cannot be fathomed.

This Other, it rules the world of these stories, true, but it cannot comprehend, cannot engulf the irreducible difference between its own, foreign state and that of the agent it attempts to entrap. They produce automata, these men, make clockwork princesses who perform the functions of femininity, creatures of surface that are understood and controlled by the male gaze. But automata are tragic, unconvincing things when faced with the real flesh-and-blood of female experience, a reality that refuses, violently, to be controlled by that gaze, that terrible thing whose power Carter never underplays. 

That was what this book said to me, as a teenage girl, this is what it understood. This is the reason I thought all fourteen year old girls should read it, this is the reason I shall still ensure it is given to my daughters on their fourteenth birthdays. It was the tale of a woman in the world who refused to be anything other than a full participant, it was the Disney Princess bullshit ripped down to gory, pulsing human flesh. It was the smart girl who watched herself being watched, and would not be beaten by that. They are ugly stories, these, and the worlds they inhabit are vicious, cruel, but few of them are tragedies. This book shows you how to be a woman and win.

But still, I've changed my mind. Still, I'll admit that I was wrong.

The femaleness in these stories is specific, culturally and economically. It's personally specific, sexually, too. It is white womanhood, it is bohemian-bourgeois womanhood, it is heterosexual womanhood and cis-womanhood. It is young womanhood. It shows what it is to be the other because of your menarche, but it is a comfortable, intelligent, middle class otherness. It is a European otherness, perhaps even a particularly English otherness. This book, alone, cannot make you a woman. This book alone cannot let you win.

That doesn't make it any less remarkable, any less mind-blowing - especially if you are comfortable, intelligent and middle class. Especially if you do fancy men, and did endure female puberty and are white, but there are great, wide gulfs of experience, of life and oppression and denial of autonomy that it doesn't even begin to fathom. It is a gospel of feminism, not a complete testament.

Here, though, is the tragedy; we do not have these other texts. The only comparable book I can think of is Tsetse Dangarembga's Nervous Conditions. Certainly, the sense of bodies within the work has something of the same impact, but its very nature as a work of realism it limits it in this respect. Carter deals in archetypes made flesh, she slips through the cracks in fables to create an eerie world where the order can be unsettled, where the exigencies of fables allow the unreality of the oppressor. Dangarembga writes of the flesh itself, her world is rigidly, unforgiving real, the awareness of the self's Otherness a thing which the bounds of the text that cannot overlook. Oh, there is literature which unsettles the normative whiteness of the post-colonial world by slipping out of reality through those same cracks, but that literature is, for the most part, written by men.

It is not that there is anything wrong with The Bloody Chamber. What is wrong is the world that forces it to stand alone, a single and sadly specific voice. A solitary inversion, and by virtue of that singleness, necessarily insufficient, incomplete. You should still read it, if you haven't, and if you're fourteen and mostly white and mostly cis and mostly straight, you should read it RIGHT NOW, but then, along with everyone else, you should start the hunt for the other stories, the other viewpoints. A mental map can be reformed multiple times.

In fact, I'm beginning to think it should be happening endlessly.


  1. This a is a really good, useful article on Angela Carter - wonderfully passionate and insightful.

    But I don't think it's fair to find Carter lacking for not doing something she didn't - couldn't - set out to do. Coming-of-age narrative/philosophy is probably so culturally specific it can't be usefully written by one person to suit all. Carter, as you say, does it brilliantly for white, straight European women (not sure it has to be middle class). But the other narratives have to be written by other people who have lived those other adolescences. All we can do is help make the space available for them to emerge and welcome them when they do. Anything else would be patronising, surely?

    A great read, though - thank you!

    1. You're absolutely right - I meant to cast no aspersions on Carter for not doing that. She could not have done it and that's no criticism of her. My intention was more to to question my own assumptions when I universalised the my own experiences and emotions - ones neatly captured in 'The Bloody Chamber'. In believing it would be equally important and relevant to 'every' 14 year old girl I was as good as silencing those other voices.

      We should absolutely make space for, and be receptive to, other writers who can provide those missing narratives. They're something the world needs, desperately.

      I worry that our society is more receptive to Carter's work because of her whiteness, her education, and, despite the shock, is more willing to accept her work as valid than books written by people who come from outside the normative white, English speaking and educated circles. It's possible that the other works we need are either languishing in obscurity because they don't fit dominant cultural norms, or, worse still, not getting the chance to be written at all.

      But anyway, good point, and thanks for making it.