The Virago Books of Fairy Tales
Wednesday, March 15, 2017
The two Virago fairy tale books edited by Angela Carter are essential reading in the fairy tale field; as is Carter's reworking of the tales in her brilliant, influential story collection The Bloody Chamber -- the text (I'd argue) that sparked the "adult fairy tale literature" revival we've been enjoying for three decades now.
Carter was younger than I am now when she died of lung cancer in 1992. She'd finished compiling the manuscript for her second Virago fairy tale collection, but illness prevented her from writing the introduction she'd planned. Only these short notes for it remain:
* 'Every story contains something useful,"
says Walter Benjamin
* the 'unperplexedness' of the story
* "No one dies so poor that he does not leave something behind," said Pascal
* fairy tales -- cunning and high spirits
"Fragmentary as they are," fairy tale historian Marina Warner points out, "these phrases convey the Carter philosophy. She was scathing about the contempt the 'educated' can show, when two-thirds of the literature of the world -- perhaps more -- has been created by the illiterate. She liked the common sense of folk tales, the straightforward aims of their protagonists, the simple moral distinctions, and the wily stratagems they suggest. They're tales of the underdog, about cunning and high spirits winning through in the end; they're practical and they're not high-flown. For a fantasist with wings, Angela kept her eyes on the ground, with reality firmly in her sights. She once remarked, 'A fairy tale is a story where one king goes to another king to borrow a cup of sugar.'
"Feminist critics of the genre -- especially in the 1970s -- jibbed at the socially conventional 'happy endings' of so many stories (for example, 'When she grew up he married her and she became the tsarina'). But Angela knew about satisfaction; and at the same time she believed that the goal of fairy tales wasn't 'a conservative one, but a utopian one, indeed a form of heroic optimism -- as if to say: 'One day we might be happy, even if it won't last.'
"Her own heroic optimism never failed her -- like the spirited heroine of one of her tales, she was resourceful and brave and even funny during the illness which brought about her death. Few writers possess the best qualities of her work; she did in spades."
In the same essay, Warner paints this wonderful portrait of Carter:
"She was a wise child herself, with a mobile face, a mouth which sometimes pursed with irony, and, behind the glasses, a wryness, at times a twinkle, at times a certain dreaminess; with her long silvery hair and ethereal delivery, she had something of the Faerie Queen about her, except that she was never wispy or fey. And though the narcisissim of youth was one of the great themes in her early fiction, she was herself exceptionally un-narcissistic.
"Her voice was soft, with a storyteller's confidingness, and lively with humour; she spoke with a certain syncopation, as she stopped to think -- her thoughts made her a most exhilarating companion, a wonderful talker, who wore her learning and wide reading with lightness, who could express a mischievous insight or a tough judgement with scapel precision and produce new ideas by the dozens without effort, weaving allusion, quotation, parody and original invention, in a way that echoed her prose style. 'I've got a theory that...' she'd say, self-deprecatorily, and then would follow something no one else has thought of, some sally, some rich paradox that would encapsulate a trend, a moment."
I wish I'd known her.
Last month, Howard and I went to see Strange Worlds, the Angela Carter exhibition at the RWA in Bristol...and I'm afraid we found it rather disappointing. Here's what I can recommend, however: the new biography of Carter, The Invention of Angela Carter, by Edmund Gordon; Angela Carter & the Fairy Tale (a special issue of Marvels & Tales), edited by Cristina Bacchilega; and Marina Warner's article "Why The Bloody Chamber Still Bites" (The Scotsman).
Along with Carter's splendid work itself.
The passage above by Marina Warner is from her introduction to The Second Virago Book of Fairy Tales (Virago Press, 1993). The Angela Carter quotes in the picture captions are from her introduction to the first Virago Book of Fairy Tales (Virago Press, 1991). All rights reserved by Dame Warner and the Carter estate. The Little Red Riding Hood illustration is by G.P. Jacomb Hood (1857-1929).