Friday, 24 April 2009

Angela Carter, the Wicked Queen, Sadean Women etc

The latest 'classic' from the Disney canon that my daughter has discovered and seized upon is Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, so I’ve watched it about a zillion times over the last seven days. Still, unlike Cinderella, this one is more or less a pleasure: clearly, all things considered, a great movie, hugely innovative for its time, with intricately shaded passages that still startle – all of these the ‘scary ones’ concerning the Wicked Queen, of course, rather than the eponymous heroine and the titular 'little men'.
The boldness of the picture is all there in how it opens, with the black castle, the Queen and the superbly animated Magic Mirror. The Queen’s later transformation into the Old Hag is still a tour de force in a subsequently crowded field. The picture takes obvious and age-old mythopoeic elements and makes them newly beautiful and forceful, just as did Cocteau (albeit more archly and richly) in his rightly adored Belle et la Bete and Orphee.
The Queen was but the first of Disney’s appalling stepmothers, and the first villain to suffer the standard Disney villain fate of death by a nasty fall. Watching her haughty/gleeful malovelence this time I was reminded of Anne Sexton’s description in her Snow White poem: ‘Pride pumped in her like poison.’
The other eminent female writer summoned to mind when one thinks about the rich reworking of fairytale is of course Angela Carter, whom I began to read with huge enthusiasm back in the mid-1980s after the release of Neil Jordan’s film The Company of Wolves and the near-simultaneous publication of what seemed to be her most successful novel, Nights at the Circus. Helen Simpson writes interestingly here about The Bloody Chamber, the story collection that inspired the Jordan film and which also includes Carter's warped mirror-image of Snow White, The Snow Child.
I was flicking through some of Carter’s books only a few weeks ago, for the first time in twenty years. She was brilliant, and her best sentences are stinging, sensual images that lodge in the memory, though she could also inflict page after page of overdressed fancy on the reader. Simpson quotes Carter to the effect that she insisted she was only using the ‘latent content’ of ‘traditional stories’, content she believed to be ‘violently sexual.’She was right, though there’s part of me that feels that fairytale or myth played straight is more stark and suggestive and involving than any sophisticated post-Freud/Jung re-imagining. One doesn’t want to spend too much time in the dream world, behind the mirror... But then, it might be different for girls.
A novelist who was taught by Carter at one of her many Creative Writing perches once told me a funny story about how he went on a fell-walking/pot-holing excursion in the company of her and some other students, only to take a bad fall and injure his ankle. He remembers Carter being a useful part of the rescue/relief effort, but also that she spent a certain amount of time gazing thoughtfully at him during his plight. He later understood that she had been recording the details of the accident mentally, in case she needed to draw upon it later for fictional purposes. Ah, the writer, and the chip of ice in his or her heart…

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