It’s only a paper moon

Patrick Parrinder

  • Wise Children by Angela Carter
    Chatto, 234 pp, £13.99, June 1991, ISBN 0 7011 3354 6

‘Brush up your Shakespeare,’ instructed Cole Porter. Is Shakespeare part of popular culture, and if so, whose popular culture? Does the Bard’s writ extend to the wrong side of the tracks – say, to 49 Bard Road, Brixton, where Wise Children begins? Is he still in any sense the poet of the groundlings, and not merely of the powerful and the chattering classes whose legitimation-anxieties he so searchingly addresses? (There is no one so anxious nor so devoted to Shakespeare as a legitimate prince, to judge by the current heir to the throne.) We have heard all too many earnest pronouncements, including a correspondence in the London Review, in recent months, as if these alone could determine the future place of Shakespeare in the educational and cultural life of the nation. What a relief then, to come upon Angela Carter’s new novel, an uproarious Bottom’s-eye view of Bardolatry and Bardbiz, full of cardboard crowns, asses’ heads, and actors strutting, fretting, singing and dancing! Wise Children will give pleasure to thousands of readers, and it may even have the added merit of conveying without tears a hard-fought slice of the National Curriculum.

Angela Carter made her name with a series of novels set in a generic Wonderland; now she has moved to Theatreland. Her fantasy worlds range from the dystopian near-futures of Heroes and Villains (1969) and The Passion of New Eve (1977) – fictions more than half in love with catastrophe – to the plush Fin-de-Siècle and Edwardian Gothic of her collection of retold fairy-tales, The Bloody Chamber (1979).

The typical Carter heroine in Wonderland is in the midst of her passage from childhood to adulthood, a rite she undergoes ambivalently and with much looking back; it would not surprise us at the conclusion to find her still transfixed at the edge of puberty, her midsummer nightmare dissolved into a midsummer night’s dream again. All this is summed up in the self-consciously literary opening paragraph of The Magic Toyshop (1967): ‘The summer she was fifteen, Melanie discovered she was made of flesh and blood. O, my America, my new found land.’ Which reminds us – and this may also be reflected in Angela Carter’s rejection of social realism – that she is one of the first generation of British novelists to have read English at a provincial English university.

Nights at the Circus (1984) marked a clear change of direction in her work, with a heroine who was at once a supernatural being and a turn-of-the-century variety artiste – Fevvers, the Cockney aerialiste with wings, Wise Children, the memoirs of another Cockney old-stager, is as romantic and extravagant as any of its predecessors, yet – except for Uncle Perry Hazard’s conjuring routines, white doves produced from handkerchiefs, ladies sawn in half, and the like – it eschews magic tricks. The word Wonderland is used here as a simile for Hollywood. In this, her first novel for seven years, Carter has put away her fantastic toys, with the crucial exceptions of the toy theatre and the toy film-set.

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