An introduction to The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories

An introduction to The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories

Chris Power examines how Angela Carter’s collection of reworked fairy tales is a unique, disruptive work that places gender politics centre-stage and refuses to be easily categorised.

In The Bloody Chamber we encounter some of the best-known stories in Western literature – fairy tales by Charles Perrault, Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont and the Brothers Grimm – twisted into extraordinary new shapes. The collection, published in 1979, was Angela Carter’s ninth book of fiction, and while channels of fairy tales and myth run through her prior work, nowhere does she engage with those genres so directly and disruptively as here. The journalist and critic Lorna Sage, a close friend of Carter’s and an insightful reader of her work, describes how throughout the 1970s she became ‘more explicitly and systematically interested in narrative models that pre-date the novel: fairy tales, folktales, and other forms that develop by accretion and retelling’.[1]

Manuscript notes and drafts of The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter

Manuscript notes and drafts of 'The Bloody Chamber' by Angela Carter

‘My wish, of course, was their command’: Angela Carter weaves in references to One Thousand and One Nights in a manuscript draft of ‘The Bloody Chamber’, which is largely a reworking of the French folk tale ‘The History of Blue Beard’.

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Little Red Riding Hood, 1810

1810 edition of Little Red Riding Hood [page: 11-12]

1810 chapbook edition of the popular fairy tale Little Red Riding Hood with hand-painted prints.

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Carter’s approach wasn’t new. Robert Coover rewrote ‘Little Red Riding Hood’ and ‘Hansel and Gretel’ in his 1969 collection Pricksongs and Descants; two years later the poet Anne Sexton published her revisionist take on fairy tales, Transformations; and in 1976 came Bruno Bettelheim’s Freudian analysis of fairy tales, The Uses of Enchantment. Earlier in the century, meanwhile, the Danish writer Isak Dinesen (Karen Blixen) had written a sequence of complex gothic variants on northern European folk models, stories that should rightly be considered forerunners to The Bloody Chamber. But if Carter’s point of origin was far from unique, her destination would prove to be.

Seven Gothic Tales by Isak Dinesen

Seven Gothic Tales by Isak Dinesen

Angela Carter acknowledged that The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories was influenced by Danish writer Isak Dinesen and her short story collection, Seven Gothic Tales.

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Angela Carter's translation of The Fairy Tales of Charles Perrault

Angela Carter's translation of The Fairy Tales of Charles Perrault

‘Little Red Riding Hood’ translated by Angela Carter with illustrations by Martin Ware. As she drafted The Bloody Chamber collection, Carter simultaneously worked on this translation of Charles Perrault fairy tales, which were published in 1977.

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Usage terms Charles Perrault: This material is in the Public Domain. Angela Carter: © Displayed with the permission of the Estate of Angela Carter c/o Rogers, Coleridge & White Ltd., 20 Powis Mews, London W11 1JN. Angela Carter’s work is published in the UK by Vintage, Virago, Penguin Classics. You may not reuse the material for commercial purposes. Martin Ware: © Estate of Martin Ware. Published under a Creative Commons Non-Commercial Licence.

‘Reformulations’

In 1977 she published her own translation of Charles Perrault’s fairy tales. By retelling these tales, writes Sage, Carter was ‘deliberately drawing them out of shape … The monsters and the princesses lose their places in the old script, and cross forbidden boundary lines’.[2] Carter’s variations on three of these stories – ‘Bluebeard’, ‘Puss in Boots’ and ‘Little Red Riding Hood’ – usefully demonstrate the variations in tone that exist between what Carter called her ‘reformulations’. Her ‘Bluebeard’, entitled ‘The Bloody Chamber’, is an elaborate, disturbing tale of sexual predation and victimhood, the lush descriptiveness and mounting tension of which threatens to make the reader complicit in the exploitative, pornography-inspired lust of the sadistic Marquis. ‘Puss-in-Boots’, contrastingly, is a screwball sex comedy, while, in the stranger reaches of the book, ‘Little Red Riding Hood’ splits itself into three stories that, as in a hall of mirrors, accentuate different parts of the original (or ‘develop by accretion and retelling’, to remind ourselves of Sage’s phrase). In ‘The Werewolf’, the heroine’s granny turns out to be the wolf; in ‘The Company of Wolves’ (later filmed by Neil Jordan, with a script co-written by Carter) Red Riding Hood bats away the wolf’s threatening advances and willingly takes him to bed (‘The girl burst out laughing; she knew she was nobody’s meat’); and in ‘Wolf-Alice’ a girl raised by wolves is taken in by a lycanthropic duke. In this loose trilogy we see the different strategies Carter employs when deconstructing these old stories: sometimes tweaking the familiar into oddness, sometimes reaching back to earlier versions that pre-date Perrault or Grimm, and sometimes letting her own inventiveness seize the reins.

Manuscript notes and drafts of stories from The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter

Manuscript notes and drafts of stories from The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter

he obtained ^she freely gave the kiss she owed him’: Angela Carter’s revisions to the manuscript draft of ‘The Company of Wolves’ reveal the development of a self-assured, heroine who claims her sexual desire as her own.

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Photographs from The Company of Wolves, a film by Neil Jordan and Angela Carter

Photographs from The Company of Wolves, a film by Neil Jordan and Angela Carter

Sarah Patterson as Rosaleen in the film adaptation of The Company of Wolves, 1984. The film layers several stories from The Bloody Chamber collection, including ‘The Werewolf’.

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Gender politics

One thing common to all the stories in The Bloody Chamber, however, is the centrality of gender politics: ‘I was using the latent content of those traditional stories’, she said in a 1985 interview, ‘and that latent content is violently sexual.’ Carter published another book in 1979, an extended essay on pornography and the Marquis de Sade called The Sadeian Woman, that has been described as ‘a parallel text, or polemical preface’ to The Bloody Chamber. In it, she argues that despite Sade’s evident misogyny, he was nevertheless correct to treat ‘all sexual reality as political reality’. She is particularly interested in two of Sade’s female characters, Justine and Juliette. The former is a sexual stereotype: meek, collusive in her own victimisation at the hands of predatory males. Juliette, meanwhile, is as sexually domineering as any man. While she states that separately these types are ‘both ... without hope’, nevertheless they ‘mutually reflect and complement one another, like a pair of mirrors’.

Typescript draft of The Sadeian Woman by Angela Carter

Typescript draft of The Sadeian Woman by Angela Carter

Angela Carter composed The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories during the same period as she worked on The Sadeian Woman, a long essay examining pornography, power and sexuality through the work of the 18th century French aristocrat, the Marquis de Sade.

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Usage terms © Displayed with the permission of the Estate of Angela Carter c/o Rogers, Coleridge & White Ltd., 20 Powis Mews, London W11 1JN. Angela Carter’s work is published in the UK by Vintage, Virago, Penguin Classics. You may not reuse the material for commercial purposes.

It would be going too far to describe the young women in Carter’s two versions of ‘Beauty and the Beast’ as being entirely analogous to Justine and Juliette, but there is a pointed difference in how they respond to the way their father uses them to settle his debts. In ‘The Courtship of Mr Lyon’ we encounter demureness, resignation:

Do not think she had no will of her own; only, she was possessed by a sense of obligation to an unusual degree and, besides, she would gladly have gone to the ends of the earth for her father, whom she loved dearly.

It is significant here that Beauty, whose name diminishes her to a single attribute of male-determined value, doesn’t tell her own story: Carter’s use of the third-person robs her of agency. The heroine of ‘The Tiger’s Bride’, in contrast, tells her story in the first-person, and although she is similarly trapped at the outset – her father, having lost everything at the card table to a masked Italian nobleman, stakes her as his final wager – she is fully aware, and ready to exploit the fact that her flesh is ‘my sole capital in the world’. She becomes a prisoner of the Beast, and is given a chamber with an automaton maid where she takes the measure of her situation:

I certainly meditated on the nature of my own state, how I had been bought and sold, passed from hand to hand. That clockwork girl who powdered my cheeks for me; had I not been allotted only the same kind of imitative life amongst men that the doll-maker had given her?

By the end of the story, after she has defied the Beast’s wishes several times, she perceives an affinity between them, and eventually rejects the opportunity to return to the world that, despite her wealth and privilege, has kept her shackled. Instead she embraces the Beast, the strokes of whose rough tongue ‘ripped off skin after successive skin, all the skins of a life in the world’:

The sweet thunder of his purr shook the old walls, made the shutters batter the windows until they burst apart and let in the white light of the snowy moon. Tiles came crashing down from the roof; I heard them fall into the courtyard far below. The reverberations of his purring rocked the foundations of the house, the walls began to dance. I thought: ‘It will all fall, everything will disintegrate.’

‘The Snow Child’

Carter’s depiction of transactional sexual relations is starkest in ‘The Snow Child’, which boils down ‘Snow White’ to a harsh Freudian reading: jealous hatred of mother for daughter, lust of father for daughter. Of all the collection, it is closest to fairy tale in its matter-of-fact presentation of a magical reality:

Midwinter – invincible, immaculate. The Count and his wife go riding, he on a grey mare and she on a black one, she wrapped in the glittering pelts of black foxes; and she wore high, black, shining boots with scarlet heels, and spurs. Fresh snow fell on snow already fallen; when it ceased, the whole world was white. ‘I wish I had a girl as white as snow,’ says the Count. They ride on. They come to a hole in the snow; this hole is filled with blood. He says: ‘I wish I had a girl as red as blood.’ So they ride on again; here is a raven, perched in a bare bough. ‘I wish I had a girl as black as that bird’s feathers.’


As soon as he completed her description, there she stood, beside the road, white skin, red mouth, black hair and stark naked; she was the child of his desire and the Countess hated her.

The rest of this strange, spare story (barely longer than a page) details the various attempts the Countess makes to kill the girl. On each unsuccessful occasion, another item of the Countess’s clothing springs from the older woman to the young one. Everything the Countess possesses is a token of her attractiveness to the Count; if this young woman usurps her, she will be naked in the wilderness and will quickly die. Eventually, the Countess succeeds in killing the girl, at which:

Weeping, the Count got off his horse, unfastened his breeches and thrust his virile member into the dead girl. The Countess reined in her stamping mare and watched him narrowly; he was soon finished.

Manuscript notes and drafts of stories from The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter

Manuscript notes and drafts of stories from The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter

Explicit references to the Snow White tale, from which Angela Carter draws her alternative reading, can be found in this heavily modified typescript draft of ‘The Snow Child’, here titled ‘The Sleeping Beauty’.

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Usage terms © Displayed with the permission of the Estate of Angela Carter c/o Rogers, Coleridge & White Ltd., 20 Powis Mews, London W11 1JN. Angela Carter’s work is published in the UK by Vintage, Virago, Penguin Classics. You may not reuse the material for commercial purposes.

Shocks, slaps and snares

It is a shocking, indelible moment; one of several in the book the near-constant atmosphere of menace erupts. Another occurs in ‘The Bloody Chamber’, when the narrator discovers one of her husband’s pornographic books:

… I opened the doors of the bookcase idly to browse. And I think I knew, I knew by some tingling of the fingertips, even before I opened that slim volume with no title at all on the spine, what I should find inside. When he showed me the Rops, newly bought, dearly prized, had he not hinted that he was a connoisseur of such things? Yet I had not bargained for this, the girl with tears hanging on her cheeks like stuck pearls, her c*nt 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.

From the first sentence the text has been swarming with sexual intimation, hints and allusions (‘the great pistons ceaselessly thrusting the train that bore me through the night, away from Paris, away from girlhood, away from the white, enclosed quietude of my mother’s apartment’), but only now does the cruelty and violence that lies beneath the Marquis’s luxurious lifestyle fully reveal itself. It is a slap readers do not forget: for the rest of the book we are on edge, a state that Carter skilfully (and often gleefully) exploits.

Other snares wait for the unwary reader. In ‘The Erl-King’ and ‘The Werewolf’, we suspect the stories we are being told are not quite accurate. The heroine of ‘The Erl-King’ appears to kill her supernatural captor, but why does the narrative shift from first- to third-person in the final sentences? Why will the fiddle she strings with her victim’s hair ‘play discordant music without a hand touching it’, and cry out ‘“Mother, mother, you have murdered me!”’ This ending forges a strong link to ‘The Juniper Tree’ and ‘The Singing Bone’, Grimm stories in which murdered innocents issue accusations from beyond the grave. In ‘The Werewolf’, a short, powerful piece of gothic, Red Riding Hood’s own grandmother is the murderous wolf. The proof is that the girl cuts off the wolf’s paw, only for it to turn back into the old woman’s hand. She is stoned to death by her neighbours, but is her granddaughter’s testimony to be believed? The final line – ‘Now the child lived in her grandmother’s house; she prospered’ – suggests a ruthless survival instinct, and prompts more questions than it answers.

When she indicates the possibility of these alternative readings, Carter seems to be warning us that we would be foolish to take any fairy tale at face value. ‘I’m in the demythologising business’, she wrote in 1983, ‘I’m interested in myths … because they are extraordinary lies designed to make people unfree’. Her methods and her results were various: comic, cruel, seductive, disturbing. Perhaps one of the reasons why The Bloody Chamber was such a controversial work, and remains a contested one today, is because it doesn’t conform to a single position, for example orthodox feminism, but shape-shifts from story to story. So some critics attack Carter’s reduction of all men to predatory sadists, while others regret that her heroines, however resourceful and independent, still mostly want to bag a man. But Carter was an artist, not an ideologue; she told the stories she wanted to tell, and they are not stories that make a single point, or follow a specific ideology. She said that ‘provoking unease’ is the only moral purpose of a tale, and she was always more interested in confounding beliefs than confirming them. Like the fairy tales she transmuted, and the folktales that came before them, there are all sorts of spaces in her stories – a maze of chambers – into which interpretation can flow.

 

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Footnotes

[1] Lorna Sage quoted by Stephen Benson ‘Angela Carter and the Literary Marchen: A Review Essay’ in Angela Carter and the Fairy Tale, ed. By Danielle M. Roemer & Christine Bacchilega (USA: Wayne State University Press, 2001), p. 46.

[2] Lorna Sage quoted by Marina Warner, From the Beast to the Blone: On Fairy Tales and Their Tellers (London: Chatto and Windus, 1994), p. 309).

  • Chris Power
  • Chris Power’s Brief Survey of the Short Story has featured in the Guardian since 2007. He reviews books for that paper and the New Statesman. His fiction has appeared in the White Review, the Stinging Fly and elsewhere. He has written a collection of short stories Mothers (Faber, March 2018).

     

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