Save the feet for later

Edmund Gordon

  • The Surreal Life of Leonora Carrington by Joanna Moorhead
    Virago, 304 pp, £20.00, April 2017, ISBN 978 0 349 00877 6
  • ‘The Debutante’ and Other Stories by Leonora Carrington
    Silver Press, 153 pp, £9.99, April 2017, ISBN 978 0 9957162 0 9
  • Down Below by Leonora Carrington
    NYRB, 69 pp, £8.99, May 2017, ISBN 978 1 68137 060 6
  • Leonora Carrington and the International Avant-Garde edited by Jonathan Eburne and Catriona McAra
    Manchester, 275 pp, £75.00, January 2017, ISBN 978 1 78499 436 5

What Leonora Carrington remembered most clearly about being a debutante in 1935 was her tiara ‘biting’ into her skull. In her short story ‘The Debutante’, the teenage narrator hates balls, ‘especially when they are given in my honour’ (Carrington’s parents threw one for her at the Ritz), so she engages a hyena to take her place: the animal is about the right size, and she reckons nobody will make it out properly in the candlelight. She gives it her dress, finds some gloves to hide its paws and teaches it to walk upright in heels. Then she summons her maid, whose face the hyena tears off to wear as a mask (it eats the rest of her body, except the feet, which it saves for later in a little bag). The narrator settles down with a copy of Gulliver’s Travels, but before long her mother bursts into her room complaining that as they sat down to dinner, ‘that thing sitting in your place … tore off its face and ate it. And with one great bound, disappeared through the window.’

‘The Debutante’ was written in the South of France, three years after Carrington’s own coming out dance. She left England for good when she was twenty, and spent most of her long life in Mexico City, but in her writing and her painting she returned frequently to the landscapes, rituals and relationships of her childhood. Her work isn’t a reliable guide to the events of her life, but says something about the way they affected her: it often reads like an inventory of her dreams or an encyclopedia of her private mythology. Symbolic creatures (horses, hyenas, crows) and emblematic figures (patriarchs, virgins, crones) recur again and again. But where her paintings formalise these motifs, her stories are more improvisational. The tone is often droll, as in ‘Mr Gregory’s Fly’, about a man who’s plagued by a fly that buzzes into his mouth when he speaks and out of his ear when someone speaks to him. At other times it’s more unsettling: in ‘White Rabbits’ the narrator’s neighbour asks for some rotten meat and when she takes it over she finds the woman’s apartment ‘littered with gnawed bones and animal skulls’, as well as a hundred or so live rabbits and a man with bandaged eyes sitting in the corner. As she flees, the woman waves goodbye and her fingers come off and fall to the ground ‘like shooting stars’. All of Carrington’s writing – she wrote stories on and off till she died – has an Alice in Wonderland matter-of-factness about absurd events, and a fairy-tale insouciance about violence and gore. Her paintings are more inscrutable: the same extraordinary scenes occur but without the (often equally perplexed) narrator to guide us.

She didn’t like to question where it all came from. ‘Do not psychoanalyse my paintings,’ she told one interviewer. ‘If you continue I will go on strike.’ You wouldn’t expect that to put off would-be biographers, but it’s interesting, and perhaps a little disappointing, that Joanna Moorhead, the first of them, didn’t come to Carrington through her work but because of a familial connection (she’s a much younger cousin). Carrington was almost never spoken of by the family after she left England, and it was only through a chance conversation at a drinks party that Moorhead learned that her wayward cousin was just about the most famous painter in Mexico.

The family background, as Moorhead tells it, was one of genteel philistinism. Carrington’s father, Harold – a textiles magnate who became the principal shareholder in Imperial Chemicals Industries – was said to be the wealthiest man in Lancashire, but the family was uneasy about its status, and his wife, Maurie, complained that she was snubbed by the local gentry. They were Catholic too, which may have been part of it. Both parents seem to have viewed their daughter as an instrument for social improvement – Carrington took refuge from their ambitions in a vivid imaginative world. One of her earliest surviving notebooks, from 1927, when she was ten years old, is titled ‘Animals of a Different Planit’ and is full of annotated sketches of horse-like creatures, not unlike the ones in her mature work.

She liked to claim that her Irish-born mother, who shared her love of stories, came from Gypsy stock (Moorhead thinks this is unlikely). Her relationship with her father was more fraught. She said he was like ‘a mafioso’, and he clearly expected deference and devotion from his daughter, though he received neither. ‘The Oval Lady’, a story written around the same time as ‘The Debutante’, conjures up the atmosphere of paternal tyranny and filial insubordination. Its young heroine, Lucretia, likes to play with her rocking horse, Tartar, even though her father (‘the bastard’) has forbidden it; when he catches her, he throws Tartar into the fire, producing ‘the most frightful neighing … as if an animal were suffering extreme torture’. Moorhead, who sometimes seems nonplussed when faced with her cousin’s fiction, writes that Harold Carrington ‘did not burn Leonora’s rocking horse, because it was still there … when my father was a child’.

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in