Angela Carter: Fairy tales, cross-dressing and the mercurial slipperiness of identity

Angela Carter: fairy tales, cross-dressing and the mercurial slipperiness of identity

Marina Warner explores cross-dressing and the performance of identity in Angela Carter's fairy tale-inspired works.

In the 20th century, traditional tales have offered many imaginative writers a territory of freedom to express their rebellion: the granny bonnet and the wolf mask have offered a helpful disguise to some of the boldest spirits. Angela Carter's quest for a female erotic voice, her perseverance in the attempt to capture its energy in her imagery, her language and her stories, drew her to fairy tales as a form, and before her death in 1992 she wrote some of the most original reworkings in contemporary literature in her collection Fireworks (1974) and The Bloody Chamber (1979), while the posthumous American Ghosts (1993) contains a Cinderella story (‘Ashputtle, or The Mother’s Ghost’) told with the succinct lyrical poignancy of Carter at her most tender.

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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In the longer fiction of The Magic Toyshop (1967), Nights at the Circus (1984) and Wise Children (1991), Carter conjures gleefully with fairy tale motifs: changelings and winged beings, muted heroines, beastly metamorphoses, arduous journeys and improbable encounters, magical rediscoveries and happy endings. Her use of the form has had a widespread influence, palpable in the writings of contemporaries like Salman Rushdie, Robert Coover and Margaret Atwood.

Typewritten and annotated drafts of Wise Children by Angela Carter, Chapter One

Typewritten and annotated drafts of Wise Children by Angela Carter, Chapter One

‘Once upon a time’: Angela Carter weaves fairy tale elements into the opening of the second draft of Wise Children.

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It is interesting, in the context of fairy tale narrators' masquerades, that Carter was also deeply fascinated with female impersonation as a literary device, as a social instrument of disruption and as an erotic provocation; with exceptional bravura she made theatrical burlesque and music-hall travesties into a high style; her own prose was glitteringly, self-mockingly hybrid, contrived and slangy at once, beautiful and vulgar, romantic and cynical. These contradictions were conveyed through the figure of the cross-dressed male or female. As on the boards, cross-gender disguises provide a recurrent tease; from Shakespeare in his comedies and romances Carter borrowed the fantastic, perverse, bewildering entertainment of double drag – Rosalind and Viola dressed as boys played by boys cross-dressed as girls; she continually explored her protagonists the imagination's own capacity for protean metamorphoses, which allows it to leap barriers of difference, or at least play with them till they seem to totter and fall. It is revealing that she enjoyed the fairy tale motif called ‘the witch's duel’, when a heroine or hero seizes hold of the witch or evil fairy who has snatched away their beloved, and holds on and never lets go; the witch keeps shifting her shape, from one creature to another, but cannot shake off her assailant, and when the dawn breaks and light returns, she has to give up her victim, as in Robert Burns' Tam O’Shanter, one of the most famous versions. Angela Carter understood this struggle very well, and in her writing she conveys the mercurial slipperiness of identity as well as the need to withstand it and secure meanings.

The centrepiece of her novel The Passion of New Eve (1977) dramatises the wedding of Tristessa, a legendary screen goddess, who is really a man in disguise, and her long-time fan, the novel's New Eve and protagonist, who began life as a boy but has travelled a long way since then. In Nights at the Circus, seven years later, the American journalist and questing hero, Jack Walser, speculates at the very start that Fevvers, the winged giantess, might be a male in disguise.

Carter's treatment of travesty moves from pleasure in its dissembling wickedness and disruption of convention, to exploring, in her later work, its function as a means of survival – and a specifically proletarian strategy of advancing through the construction of self in image and language. In this, many of Carter's heroines – both in her writing and in life, like Fevvers, like the music-hall artistes the Chance sisters of Wise Children, like her idol Lulu/Louise Brooks – resemble the literary text of the kind she herself was writing: ornate, bejewelled, highly wrought prose of supreme artifice, which conjures straight-talking and foul-mouthed characters underneath their greasepaint and costumes. Her crucial insight is that women like the circus aerialiste Fevvers produce themselves as women, and that this is often the result of finding the inner strength to use what you have to get by. The fairy tale transformations of Cinders into princess represent what a girl has to do to stay alive.

Manuscript notes and draft of Wise Children by Angela Carter

Manuscript notes and draft of Wise Children

Angela Carter’s notes on the life of her heroine Louise Brooks, taken when drafting ideas for the characters of Dora and Nora Chance in Wise Children.

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Angela Carter was a fantasist with a salty turn of mind, a dissident with a utopian vision of possibilities in the midst of disaster, who always sprang surprises and challenged the conventional response, as in her controversial essay of the late 1970s, The Sadeian Woman, which found in the Marquis de Sade a paradoxical champion of women's sexual liberation. In her novels of the 1960s and early 1970s (Heroes and Villains, The Infernal Desire Machines of Dr Hoffman), in the dazzling reworkings of The Bloody Chamber, and her last, full-stretch flights (Nights at the Circus and Wise Children), she developed Freud's polymorphous perversity with panache and played with humour in a wide variety of keys, ranging from flamboyantly upfront ribaldry to the quietest, driest, droll asides. She opened a recent anthology of fairy tales with the figure of Sermerssuaq, a heroine of contemporary Eskimo folklore, who was ‘so powerful’ that

she could lift a kayak on the tips of three fingers. She could kill a seal merely by drumming on its head with her fists ... Sometimes this Sermerssuaq would show off her clitoris. It was so big that the skin of a fox would not fully cover it. Aja, and she was the mother of nine children, too! 
(‘Sermerssuaq’, Angela Carter’s Book of Fairy Tales)

Carter was invited to moderate this passage as its inclusion, especially in the heraldic position at the beginning of the book, would prevent teachers using the collection in schools. But she stood firm; she practised through her writing a constant stretching of the permitted, of the permissible. Taboo was her terrain (a collection of her journalism is called Nothing Sacred and another, of her short stories, Burning Your Boats). Comedy was one of her most effective forms of trespass. Not for her the humour of control, of convention, of censure. In one of the very last pieces she wrote, she celebrated the British pantomime tradition, its transvestite roles, use of heavy innuendo and bawdy banter about sexual oppositions:

The Dame bends over, whips up her crinolines; she has three pairs of knee-length bloomers... One pair is made out of the Union Jack... The second pair is quartered red and black, in memory of Utopia. The third and vastest pair of bloomers is scarlet, with a target on the seat, centred on the arsehole...
(‘Part Two: In Pantoland’, American Ghosts & Old World Wonders)

The Fool in Dutch painting deals in comic obscenity in this manner: as fools can enter where angels fear to tread, and thumb their noses (or show their bottoms) at convention and authority tomfoolery includes iconoclasm, disrespect, subversion.

The Dame became one of Angela Carter's adopted voices (a woman speaking through a man disguised as a woman); this double drag scatters certainty about sexual identity, and calls the idea of fixed identity into question. But it was not always so, and in the broadening of her comedy one can decipher the risks and the difficulties she suffered as a writer. This transformation itself forms part of the larger shift that has taken place in recent times, which has made humour the weapon of the dispossessed, the marginal, the response of the victim who feels Punch's stick, not the manic joy of Mr Punch himself.

Her humour was of the unsettling variety which makes it necessary to examine one's own received ideas. It was so very impolite, with its particular idiosyncratic feminism, its blend of the irreverent and the Gothic, its dazzling linguistic intricacy and relish for imagery. But it is this humour, its dark and even snaky stabs, that above all produced the shock and unease people felt at her work – which is of course what she – like Sermerssuaq, like the Panto Dame – wanted.

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

‘The girl burst out laughing; she knew she was nobody’s meat’: Typescript draft of ‘The Company of Wolves’, Angela Carter’s retelling of the ‘Little Red Riding Hood’ tale that was collected in The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories (1979).

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Manuscript drafts of 'Alison's giggle' and an article on Edgar Allan Poe by Angela Carter

Manuscript drafts of 'Alison's giggle' and an article on Edgar Allen Poe by Angela Carter

In the essay ‘Alison’s Giggle’, Angela Carter examines the presence (or absence) of women’s laughter and humour throughout the history of literature.

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The growing presence of humour in Carter's fiction signals her defiant hold on ‘heroic optimism’, the mood she singled out as characteristic of fairy tales, the principle which sustained the idea of a happy ending, whatever the odds. But heroic optimism shades into gallows humour. Although laughter breaks the silence and jesting can be provocative, disruptive, anarchic and unsettling, some laughter never unburdens itself from knowledge of its own pessimism; it remains intrinsically ironic.

In her later fiction, Carter used her own brand of carnivalesque comedy to mock the yearnings and delusions of Eros, and in Wise Children she burlesques Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream, recasting this recension of ‘Beauty and the Beast’ as a full Hollywood spectacular, Cecil B. DeMille-cum-Busby Berkeley; like the Bard, a presiding presence in the book, Carter has fun at the Queen of the Fairies' expense, but she vividly takes the part of the rude mechanicals, too. Wise Children is another of Bottom's dreams: it literally looks at romance from the angle of those at rock bottom, the Chance sisters, and snatches victory from the jaws of defeat, as the donkey proves, against all expectations, that folly has its wisdom too.

Notebook used by Angela Carter for Wise Children

Notebook used by Angela Carter for Wise Children

Angela Carter takes notes on A Midsummer Night's Dream for Wise Children. This notebook includes draft extracts and sketches of characters, as well as notes on Hollywood, Shakespeare, music hall and pantomime.

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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 is uncomfortable to know you are identifying yourself as an outsider by what you say, that all the disguises in the wardrobe will never fix identity, all the voices in the repertory will not tell the complete story. Angela Carter was the most recent and most original of the goose-footed queens, of the riddling, scabrous dames, to put hard questions in the quest of a deeper understanding.

From the Beast to the Blonde by Marina Warner. Published by Vintage, 1994. Copyright © Marina Warner. Reproduced by permission of the author c/o Rogers, Coleridge & White Ltd., 20 Powis Mews, London W11 1JN

  • Marina Warner
  • Marina Warner's books include Alone of All Her Sex: The Myth and the Cult of the Virgin Mary (l976), Joan of Arc: The Image of Female Heroism (l982), From the Beast to the Blonde : On Fairy Tales and Their Tellers (1994) and No Go the Bogeyman (1998). In l994 she gave the BBC Reith Lectures on the theme of Six Myths of Our Time. Recent books include Stranger Magic:Charmed States and The Arabian Nights (2011) and Once Upon a Time: A Short History of Fairy Tale (OUP, 2014). She has also published novels (The Lost Father (l988), INdigo (l996) and The Leto Bundle (2000). A third collection of short stories Fly Away Home came out in 2015. She is Professor of English and Creative Writing at Birkbeck College, London. She was made DBE in 2015 and the same year was awarded the Holberg Prize in the Arts and Humanities.