Feminists had to work quite hard to come to terms with the Gothic. Yes, Gothic books were originally frequently by women for women, but they do also tend to present exaggerated gender stereotypes. Angela Carter took on the challenge with her collection of subversive re-worked fairy-tales.
As an A Level teacher, I’ve marked hundreds of essays on this text, so it’s quite hard to remember what struck me when I first read it, but I’ll do my best!
1. Adult themes. For lots of readers (or at any rate, the ones I taught) this book is an introduction to quite how risqué literature can be. I don’t want to labour the point, but Cater was inspired by, among other authors, the Marquis de Sade and part of her subversion is to put the sexuality back into the fairy tales. Just read the opening paragraph of the title story…
I remember how, that night, I lay awake in the wagon-lit in a tender, delicious ecstasy of excitement, my burning cheek pressed against the impeccable linen of the pillow and the pounding of my heart mimicking that of 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, into the unguessable country of marriage.
There’s a lot of this, and a lot of symbolic towers and keys and locks and flowers. If you ever thought that lots of fairy-tales might be about sexual awakening, read Carter to prove yourself right.
2. Varied styles. The Gothic spans three centuries and fairy-tales are even older, so Carter reflects this in the different setting and narrators of each story. Some are timeless fables, some have 1930s-inflected decadent settings, Puss-in-boots is an 18th century rococo fantasy. It’s a very clever way of showing the scope of the source material and the ways the stories have been reinterpreted over time. The collection keeps its coherence through the themes and overarching ambition, but celebrates diversity through it’s exhaustive re-inventions of the selected stories.
3. Wolves. Of the ten stories in the collection, three are based on Little Red Riding Hood and two more on Beauty and the Beast. It’s all about transmogrification, beastliness and the animal within. And sex, obviously.