Corruption takes many forms, but some can be quite pleasant. I was corrupted in the most enjoyable way imaginable when I chanced upon Neil Jordan’s 1984 film The Company of Wolves late one night on Channel 4 as a fifteeen year old Goth kid in the late eighties. At that point, Channel 4 showed esoteric films (in this instance, read, foreign or arthouse films with a disproportionate amount of nudity, satire and/or blood) – their seasons were always of the highest calibre, and for the most part, kicked against the mainstream.
The film, an adaptation of Angela Carter’s short story from The Bloody Chamber, resonated with me- not least as it was a coming-of-age tale with subversion, a film laced with subtext: Rosaleen (Sarah Patterson) was Little Red Riding Hood , albeit one of the most stubborn, smart kind. Symbolism abounded: the path represented her virginity, the wolf her seducer, and her Granny (an eerie Angela Landsbury, putting paid to her Jessica Fletcher role forever) the odd catalyst for exploring her sexuality, telling her stories about men “whose eyebrows meet in the middle”.
Thus, a seed, as it were,was planted for her curiosity in finding a handsome Prince. When she did encounter the Prince (Misha Bergese) a huntsman in the woods who bet her “a kiss” he could reach Granny’s house before her, she was at once frightened and desirous of him- but they both became wolves together.She had been warned by her Mother that “if there’s a beast in men, they meet their match in women”, and so she was proved right.
Of course, this only whetted my appetite for reading pretty much everything Carter wrote. Her feminist re-imaginings of Brothers Grimm Faiytales and folk tales were nuanced, heady and written in a sensual and provocative prose, all underpinned by bawdy humour. Who else could write Puss In Boots as a pimp, or make Lizzie Borden laugh at a potential attacker’s genitals? Her heroines are flawed, yet sassy, and take no nonsense.
Some of the gender politics may have dated, as with The Passion of New Eve‘s somewhat clumsy understanding of gender reassignment, but it’s worth remembering that this was written in the 70s, when this issue was less likely to be tackled in modern literature.Better yet was her love of all things theatrical, indulged in her last novel Wise Children,which is a personal favourite- twins Nora and Dora Chance look back with a wry eye at their surreal showbiz careers.
Nights at the Circus is arguably her best-loved novel. Sophie, aka ‘Fevvers’, is considered a ‘freak’, with the giant feathered wings on her back. Exploring misogyny through freak shows is a potent symbol, where women are at once desired and considered ‘other’, or strange.
It wasn’t all fiction, though.Some of her finest writing is on Josephine Baker, William Burroughs and the Marquis Du Sade from a female perspective. She had a love of cinema, too:”anything that flickers”, as she put it.
Her influence still looms large-from music (Bat for Lashes,The Wytches,Agnes Obel,lots of 4AD’s outpout) to the eerie sculptures of Nicola Hicks (of whom I will post later) to writers like Jeffrey Eugenides and Ali Smith and the films of Tim Burton and Jan Svankmajer. She passed away in 1992,aged just 52, but her legacy remains. A new biography on her has just been published by Edmund Gordon. About bloody time,too.