This is the notebook that Angela Carter used to record research and ideas for Wise Children, her 1991 novel about twins, music hall and Shakespeare.
Divided into several sections including ‘Hazards / High Life + people’ and ‘Screen + stage’, the notebook shows Carter fashioning characters and plot from research, prior to writing a first full draft of the novel. Interspersed throughout the notes, however, are some longer prose passages – essentially the earliest draft fragments of Wise Children.
Carter’s approach to research
Like the final novel, the notebook brings together high and low culture for a lively and at times raucous read. Packed with rich and meticulous detail, we see Carter drawing ideas and inspiration from a variety of material. This ranges from Max Reinhardt's Hollywood production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream to Walter Benjamin’s ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’, together with biographies of Victorian Shakespearean actors and many anecdotes about the worlds of music hall and pantomime.
What unites the material is Carter’s ever-present eye for the comic and absurd as well as for the kitsch and fantastic. So a section of notes on World War Two irreverently details the escape of a zebra after London zoo was bombed, and includes tales of night clubs where it was said that ‘Army boots were ruining the dance floor’.
It is particularly interesting to see how Carter weaves real, already-outlandish anecdotes into the novel, amplifying them into carnivalesque extremes. On f. 5r, for example, Carter records how in 1936 the Stratford-upon-Avon Festival Company received a cable from Dallas, Texas, requesting some earth from Shakespeare’s garden and water from the River Avon to consecrate a production. In Wise Children, Melchoir arranges for the Chance twins to import the same ‘sacred earth’ to his Hollywood production but, among other comic complications, it gets used as cat litter.
Drafting character and structure
As well as containing research notes, the notebook reveals the emerging structure of Wise Children and its characters.
There is a sketch of the Hazard family tree, both ‘official’ and ‘real’ (f. 11r). Ticks written next to individual notes (‘they posed for stocking ads up until the ‘60s – legs are the last things to go’, f. 24r) show the ideas Carter ultimately incorporated into the novel (although this should not be assumed to be wholly accurate or complete).
Beginning on f. 65r, Carter’s notes show that she originally envisaged the novel as seven chapters, ‘[Shakespeare’s] acts being 7 ages’. This was later revised to five chapters that reflect the five acts within a Shakespeare play.