Fairy Tales

Bad-good girls, beasts, rogues and other creatures: Angela Carter and the influence of fairy tales

Marina Warner describes how Angela Carter collected, reimagined and borrowed from fairy tales and folklore.

Italo Calvino, the Italian writer and fabulist and collector of fairy tales, believed strongly in the connection between fantasy and reality: ‘I am accustomed to consider literature a search for knowledge,’ he wrote. ‘Faced with [the] precarious existence of tribal life, the shaman responded by ridding his body of weight and flying to another world, another level of perception, where he could find the strength to change the face of reality’.[1] Angela Carter wouldn't have made the same wish with quite such a straight face, but her combination of fantasy and revolutionary longings corresponds to the flight of Calvino's shaman. She possessed the enchanter's lightness of mind and wit – it's interesting that she explored, in her last two novels, images of winged women. Fevvers, her aerialiste heroine of Nights at the Circus (1984), may have hatched like a bird, and in Wise Children (1991), the twin Chance sisters play various fairies or feathered creatures, from their first foot on the stage as child stars to their dalliance in Hollywood for a spectacular extravaganza of A Midsummer Night's Dream.

Notebook used by Angela Carter for Wise Children

Notebook used by Angela Carter for Wise Children

Angela Carter notes down various theatrical roles played by the Chance sisters, including the parts of Peaseblossom and Mustardseed, the fairies who serve Titania in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

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Photographs of Max Reinhardt's Hollywood production of A Midsummer Night's Dream, 1935

Photographs of Max Reinhardt's Hollywood production of A Midsummer Night's Dream, 1935

Inspiration for Melchior Hazard’s extravagant Hollywood version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream within Wise Children.

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Fairy tales also offered her a means of flying – of finding and telling an alternative story, of shifting something in the mind, just as so many fairy-tale characters are shape shifters. She wrote her own – the dazzling, erotic variations on Perrault's Mother Goose Tales and other familiar stories in The Bloody Chamber – where she lifted Beauty and Red Riding Hood and Bluebeard's last wife out of the pastel nursery into the labyrinth of female desire. She had always read very widely in folklore from all over the world, and compiled her first collection, The Virago Book of Fairy Tales, in 1990.

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

Notes and ideas for ‘Wolf-Alice’ (estimated 1975–79), one of Angela Carter’s variations on the Red Riding Hood tale that she published in The Bloody Chamber.

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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

In 1977, two years before The Bloody Chamber was published, Angela Carter published a book of fairy tales by Charles Perrault that she translated from the original French.

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She found the stories in sources ranging from Siberia to Suriname, and she arranged them into sections in a sequence that runs from one tale of female heroic endeavour to another about generosity rewarded. There are few fairies, in the sense of sprites, but the stories do move in fairyland, albeit not the prettified, kitschified, Victorians' elfland, but the darker, dream realm of spirits and tricks, magical talking animals, riddles and spells. In ‘The Twelve Wild Ducks', the opening tale, the heroine vows not to speak or to laugh or to cry until she has rescued her brothers from their enchanted animal forms. The issue of women's speech, of women's noise, of their/our clamour and laughter and weeping and shouting and hooting runs through all Angela Carter's writings, and informed her love of the folk tale. In The Magic Toyshop (1967), the lovely Aunt Margaret cannot speak because she is strangled by the silver torque which the malign puppet master her husband has made her as a bridal gift. By contract, folklore speaks, and speaks volumes about women's experience, with women taking up the role of the storyteller, as in one of the dashingly comic and highly Carteresque tales in the Virago collection (‘Reason to Beat Your Wife').

Angela Carter's manuscript notes on fairy tale material

Angela Carter's manuscript notes on fairy tale material

Angela Carter’s wide-ranging knowledge of fairy tale and folk lore is revealed in sources such as this draft essay (undated).

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Angela Carter's partisan feeling for women, which burns in all her work, never led her to any conventional form of feminism. She continues here one of her original and effective strategies, snatching out of the jaws of misogyny itself ‘useful stories' for women. Her essay The Sadeian Woman (1979) found in the Marquis de Sade a liberating teacher of the male-female status quo and made him illuminate the far reaches of women's polymorphous desires, and in this collection she also counters expectations, and turns topsy-turvy some cautionary folk tales, shaking out the fear and dislike of women they once expressed to create a new set of values, about strong, outspoken, zestful, sexual women who can't be kept down. In Wise Children she created a heroine, Dora Chance, who's a showgirl, a soubrette, a vaudeville dancer, one of the low, the despised, the invisible poor, an old woman who's illegitimate and unmarried (born the wrong side of the blanket, the wrong side of the tracks), and each of these stigmas is taken up with exuberant relish and scattered in the air like so much wedding confetti.

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

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

Drafting Dora Chance’s bold and high-spirited introduction in Wise Children (4 July, no year).

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‘Spreading the Fingers', a tough morality tale from Suriname about sharing what one has been given with others, also discloses the high value Angela Carter placed on generosity. She gave herself – her ideas, her wit, her incisive, no-bullshit mind – with open but never sentimental prodigality. Her favourite fairy tale in the Virago Book was a Russian riddle story, ‘The Wise Little Girl', in which the tsar asks her heroine for the impossible, and she delivers it without batting an eyelid. Angela appreciated its fair-mindedness: it was as satisfying as ‘The Emperor's New Clothes', she wrote, but ‘no one was humiliated and everybody gets the prizes'. The story comes in the section called ‘Clever Women, Resourceful Girls and Desperate Stratagems', and its heroine is an essential Carteresque figure, never abashed, nothing daunted, sharp-eared as a vixen and possessed of dry good sense. It's entirely characteristic of Angela's spirit that she should delight in the tsar's confounding, and yet not want him to be humiliated.

Angela Carter's manuscript notes on fairy tale material

Angela Carter's manuscript notes on fairy tale material

Angela Carter’s notes on ‘The Wise Little Girl’ prepared for teaching a university class (undated).

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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.

She did not have the strength, before she died, to write the introduction she had planned for the Virago Book of Fairy Tales, but she left four cryptic notes among her papers:

‘every real story contains something useful’, says Walter Benjamin
the unperplexedness of the story
'No one dies so poor that he does not leave something behind,' said Pascal.
fairy tales - ‘cunning and high spirits'.

Fragmentary as they are, these phrases convey the Carter philosophy. She was scathing about the contempt the ‘educated’ can show for popular stories, when two-thirds of the literature of the world – perhaps more – has been created by the illiterate. She liked the solid common sense of folk tales, the straightforward aims of their protagonists, the simple moral distinctions and the wily stratagems they suggest. They're tales of the underdog, about cunning and high spirits (the phrase is also from Benjamin’s key essay, ‘The Storyteller’), winning through in the end; they're practical and they're not high-flown. For a fantasist with wings, Angela kept her eyes on the ground and reality firmly in her sights. She once remarked, ‘A fairy tale is a story where one king goes to another king to borrow a cup of sugar’.

Marshall's edition of Cinderella

Marshall's edition of Cinderella [page: facing p. 9]

19th century illustrated edition of one of the best-known fairy tales, ‘Cinderella’.

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Feminist critics of the genre – especially in the 1970s – jibbed at the socially conventional ‘happy endings' of so many stories (for example, ‘When she grew up he married her and she became the tsarina'). But Angela knew about satisfaction and pleasure; and at the same time she believed that the goal of fairy tales wasn't ‘a conservative one, but a utopian one, indeed a form of heroic optimism – as if to say: “One day, we might be happy, even if it won't last”. Her own heroic optimism never failed her – like the spirited heroine of one of her tales, she was resourceful and brave and even funny during the illness which brought about her death. Few writers possess the best qualities of their work; she did, in spades.

Her imagination was dazzling, and through her daring, vertiginous plots, her precise yet wild imagery, her gallery of wonderful bad-good girls, beasts, rogues and other creatures, she causes readers to hold their breath as a mood of heroic optimism forms against the odds. She had the true writer's gift – she remakes the world for her readers.

Footnotes

[1] Italo Calvino, Six Memos for the Next Millennium, trans. by William Weaver (London: Cape 1992), p. 26.

 

Banner illustration by Matthew Richardson 

Copyright © Marina Warner, 1992. 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.