‘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.
In Wise Children our heroines, the Chance sisters, get a toy theatre on their seventh birthday. Decades later, their reputed father, the great Shakespearian actor Sir Melchior Hazard, celebrates his 100th birthday in front of the television cameras by cutting a huge cake shaped like the Globe Theatre, which turns out to have been poisoned by one of his band of ex-wives and cast-off daughters. Wise Children is not only a family saga but a carnival-esque history of the English theatre, legitimate and illegitimate, during most of this century. As the decades wear on, we see a boom in high culture at the expense of its vulgar relation, the music hall: the rise and rise of the Hazards, in fact, and the fall of the Chances, who are song-and-dance girls. Told by Dora Chance, a marvellously vivacious old ruin who is at her best when she is, as she says, ‘drunk in charge of a narrative’, Wise Children is, among other things, an affectionate wake over the corpse of the music hall. If a drop of spilt storytelling essence can revive the old trouper, so much the better.
The Chance children begin to get wise to the ups and downs of the theatre at the age of 13, when Uncle Peregrine takes them on an August Bank Holiday outing to Brighton. They get to see Gorgeous George, the stand-up comedian at the Pier Pavilion, followed by Melchior Hazard in Macbeth at the Theatre Royal. Gorgeous George, ‘the rudest man in England’, does a striptease which uncovers a map of the British Empire tattooed across his whole body. He tells a story about the boy who wants to get married to the girl next door, and its eventual punch-line, ‘’e’s not your father!’, brings down the house and reverberates through the novel we are reading. At the Theatre Royal the luckless sisters visit Melchior in his dressing-room and claim him as their father, but are rudely rebuffed. They are not the only pair of twins in this comedy of errors, so whose father is Melchior, and whose father isn’t he? Such things are not to be revealed by a humble reviewer.
The ‘imperial Hazard dynasty’ may bestride the British theatre, but Dora and Nora Chance have to make their own way, with an obscure stage debut in Babes in the Wood at the Shepherd’s Bush Empire. Nevertheless, their lifelong home at Bard Road, Brixton, was once a theatrical boarding-house standing at the hub of a wheel of Empires and Royalties. By the time the novel starts the itinerant singers, dancers, Thespians and conjurors are long gone, and all that is left are three old ladies, innumerable cats, and an antlered grandfather clock – an heirloom from the Highlands, once put on show at the Great Exhibition – which is and always has been the only male fixture. Then, on 23 April, which just happens to be the sisters’ 75th as well as Sir Melchior’s 100th and the Bard’s four hundred and thirtieth-odd birthday, there comes the long-awaited invitation to the Hazard mansion near Regent’s Park. Will Dora and Nora become legit at last?
It is not only Sir Melchior’s putative offspring who might be in doubt as to the identity of their only begetter. Officially, Melchior and Peregrine are the twin sons of the Victorian actor-manager Ranulph Hazard, who took his company of travelling Shakespearians all over the British Empire and the United states. They came to Gun Barrel, Texas, with such éclat that the town was renamed Hazard, Texas, with young Peregrine as its honorary sheriff, though this was long before anyone thought to drill an oil-well there. Playing Lear on Broadway, Ranulph fell in love with his Cordelia, an actress named Estella who later accepted P.T. Barnum’s offer for her to play Hamlet in drag in a tent in Central Park. An American actor, Cassius Booth, appeared as her Horatio, and later as Iago to her Desdemona, which led to a triple killing, attributed to Ranulph, in a New York hotel room. So nobody would ever know whose genes had been transmitted to Melchior and Peregrine. Cassius, according to Dora, was ‘one of those Booths’: ‘His parents had a nerve, to call him Cassius’. To appreciate this we need to recall the assassin John Wilkes Booth and his father, also an actor, whose forenames were Junius Brutus. This is characteristic of Carter’s allusiveness, and of her masterly interweaving of history and fiction. One would have to be the most devoted of theatre buffs to get out of Wise Children everything she has put into it.
But we are reading a novel not just of cross-references but of cross-purposes, cross-dressing, cross-breeding and cross-parenting. The physical crossings-over of the River Thames are also significant, since Brixton in South London is on Old Father Thames’s wrong or ‘bastard’ side. According to our narrator, it is also the capital’s rive gauche, but this may be as cross-eyed as some of her other passing assertions, such as the allusions to ‘falling Zeppelins’ in the First World War, or to the ‘diesel Saabs’ of present-day yuppies. Who is Dora, anyway? We are invited to think of her both as typing away in the attic of 49 Bard Road with filing-cabinet, card index and word-processor, and as a gin-sodden hag pouring out her story to whoever will listen to it in some crowded saloon bar. How, above all, has she managed to rise above the usual level of a Cockney actress’s memoirs to achieve such vivaciousness, such metaphorical power, such surprisingly literary turns of style? Ask a silly question, get a silly answer. Dora has an explanation for it all.
Her book would never have been written without the sisters’ fabulous journey to prewar Hollywood, the modern enchanted forest, to play Pease-blossom and Mustard-seed in Melchior’s grossly over-budget film version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. (Gorgeous George is there, too, as Bottom.) They cross America on two trains, the Twentieth Century Limited and the Super-Chief, names that many a lesser novelist than Angela Carter would have dealt with far more portentously. With them is the ‘Shakespeare casket’, a box full of genuine earth from Stratford-upon-Avon, which Melchior has ordered to be sprinkled over the film-set as some sort of benediction before the cameras begin to roll. Unfortunately, Melchior’s co-star and future second wife Daisy Duck has brought her Persian with her, and there are no pets’ toilet facilities on the Super-Chief, but a Shakespeare casket is still a Shakespeare casket even if it has cat’s piss mixed in with the sacred soil.
Also on the Super-Chief, Dora falls briefly in love with a burned-out alcoholic in a rumpled suit, who will later immortalise her as a Cockney harlot in his Hollywood stories. He is the scriptwriter Ross O’Flaherty, aka Irish F. Irish, who undertakes her literary education, believing it undignified to go to bed with a woman unless they can read Henry James together. Dora knows plenty about sex, of course, though not as much as her twin, who began with the pantomime goose at the age of 16. The two sisters played the bed-trick on an unsuspecting young man on their 17th birthday, thus developing an art of substitution which comes in useful when they are subjected to the attentions of a Hollywood mogul. In terms of literary knowledge, Dora is a comparative greenhorn, but with ‘Irish’ she gets at least as far as A for Austen, Jane – ‘Let other pens dwell on guilt and misery,’ Dora says, for she is wholly and joyously dedicated to the comic rather than the tragic muse.
As Puck sings on the set of A Midsummer Night’s Dream,
It’s only a paper moon, sailing over a cardboard sea.
But it wouldn’t be make-believe if you believed in me ...
The movie version of the Dream is an instant and unsurprising box-office failure, yet Melchior is the type who always gets people to believe in him, proceeding inexorably towards knighthood and specialising in the tragic roles which are, as Dora says. ‘eternally more class than comedy’. Like all theatre, Melchior’s triumphs are based on no more and no less than imposture, or the legitimation of artifice, the cardboard crown becoming a real one, and the wooden O an Agincourt. Even the Dream becomes, in time, a classic of kitsch and a standby on Film Studies courses. Of the Chances’ later stage career there is, however, sadly little to be said. They end up in vaudeville at its last gasp, doing their song-and-dance routines in tasselled bikinis, weaving in and out among the statuesque nudes in shows with titles like Goldilocks and the Three Bares.
Wise Children, surely the funniest and most vibrant of Angela Carter’s novels, seems well qualified to make the Bard himself turn in his grave – for envy, perhaps. A final point worth noting is the narrative construction, since like most family sagas this one relies heavily on inventing a series of grand occasions to bring the whole intricate clan of Hazards and Chances (who are a good deal more numerous than I have indicated) together. Weddings and funerals are often the staple of this sort of fiction, providing an opportunity for gossip, flirtation, marital disharmonies and the naked struggle for power and succession. But Carter avoids funerals and weddings (at least, consummated weddings) and goes wholeheartedly for birthday parties. The scenes of the seventh, 17th, and 21st birthdays are only the prelude to the final thumping centennial celebration, complete with the poisoned cake and the return of enough characters from what we had thought of as the dead to rival one of Shakespeare’s most overloaded reversal-and-recognition scenes. Even poor Gorgeous George shows up again, reduced in his old age to begging outside the Hazard family mansion: will he be revenged on the whole pack of Shakespearians? For all the talk of birthdays, the Chance girls’ actual day of birth is still shrouded in mystery at the end – not only ‘’e’s not your father,’ but she’s not your mother either, it would seem.