Angela Carter and the Art of Appropriation


Outwardly appropriative texts tend to frontload the notional hypotext with which they are engaged in their opening stages, as in Fielding's reworking of Richardson's Pamela over the first ten chapters of Joseph Andrews or Robert Bloch's almost verbatim relocation of some lines from Poe's 'The Fall of the House of Usher' in the opening paragraph or so of his gothic mimicry, 'The Man Who Collected Poe'. In an audaciously allusive and endlessly inventive short story, 'The Bloody Chamber', Angela Carter masterfully rewrites the fairy tale 'Bluebeard', along with snatches of Dracula, popular romance fiction, and other pieces. The opening sentence alone warrants a closer look:

“I remember how, that night, I lay awake in the wagon-lit in a tender, delicious ecstasy of excitement, my burning cheek pressed against the impeccable linen of the pillow and the pounding of my heart mimicking that of the great pistons ceaselessly thrusting the train that bore me through the night, away from Paris, away from girlhood, away from the white, enclosed quietude of my mother’s apartment, and into the unguessable country of marriage.”

Mimicry, a masterful form of appropriation with its own artistic history, prevails here. For one thing, the speaker's racing heart mimics the motions of the train; you'd be hard pressed to find a more knowing deconstruction of simile than that one right there. Also, the passage substantially mimics Jonathan Harker’s journey to Transylvania in Dracula, glorying, doubtless ironically, in the masculine, penetrative power of the engine. The male-centric heterosexuality underpinning the movement, however, is compromised by the knowing othering of marriage as an "unguessable", Conradian, foreign country. Three archetypical female roles are pinned up -- girlhood, motherhood, and wifedom -- in toyingly conventional terms; the purity of the "white, enclosed quietude" is already threatened by the sexual awakening ("burning cheek") that prefaces gratification. But such arousal is subtly discomfiting as that burning cheek is "pressed" (a delicate yet forceful word) against the impossibly, implausibly "impeccable" linen.

Like the protagonist of Stoker's Dracula, Carter's heroine is in line for a world of innocence-defeating experience. Her reading habits have no doubt been shaped by popular romance novels as much as by horror fiction, and such material seeps into the page in a potent, oily mix of textual appropriation. Already, right from the first sentence, our expectations have been set on edge. In short, Carter is a brilliant, highly teachable writer, not least of all because she excelled in the delicate and multivocal art of mimicry. That delicious, messy opening sentence alone catches everything from Sade to Stoker, day-time romantic drama to the dark fairytale.

#teaching #AngelaCarter #Dracula #fairytale #Bluebeard

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