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Fireside Reflections: The Lady of the House of Love by Angela Carter

Updated: May 22, 2021

Fancy a bite?

The Supper Club is here to convince readers that the short story is a mighty feast, imbued with complex flavours and the third sitting was a Gothic banquet.

Thank you to everyone who came to sup and share bonhomie at our table. Apologies for the sound issues during the first 10 minutes and we hope it didn't ruin your overall enjoyment of the event. We appreciate and agree that the balance of biographical information and story detail was a little out of kilter – in the future, we will be sure to keep the short story as the star.

For those of you who couldn't join in or just want more, come sit by the fire with us….

My first encounter with the Queen of the vampires was one of confusion. There was a damsel in distress dreaming of a different life and there was a hero. A hero who was everything a hero is supposed to be, young, strong and surrounded with a halo of golden sunlight.

Where then, was my happily ever after?

Whilst reading Edmund Gordon's biography of Angela Carter, The Invention of Angela Carter: A Biography, the ideas felt familiar almost like waking up memories from my childhood. It's only as I have studied and read and matured that I realised I was (old habits die hard) as indoctrinated by the patriarchy as the next woman. Now I understand that we, as women can create our own happy endings, self save and carve our own path. And for me, Angela Carter's, The Bloody Chamber (1979) was part of my own enlightenment.

"Can a bird sing only the song it knows or can it learn a new song?"

The Lady of the House of Love by Angela Carter was first published in 1979 as part of the celebrated and ground-breaking short story collection, The Bloody Chamber. Both a critical and commercial success, it won the coveted Cheltenham Festival Literary Prize (1979). The chambers of the title are the spaces in which the characters are physically and metaphorically imprisoned, robbed of their agency. In the traditional telling, Carter's main reference was the fairytales of Charles Perrault (1628–1703), the protagonist would have no way of escape, but in Carter's stories the characters often find escape from violence or a traditional marriage.

These tales unfold layer by layer, until the heart is revealed. Carter was horrified by the idea that her stories were, as classified by her American publisher, 'fairy tales for adults ' – instead they are reimagining traditional fairy tales, and drawing out the latent. Grandma is the wolf and Beauty can become the beast.

Carter was however, criticised by some commentators for deploying the instrument of the patriarchy, thus still being party to it. I don't agree – turning well-loved fairy tales on their heads clearly reveals the mechanisms of the patriarchy exposing women's unequal status, which even extends to their being bereft of their own sexuality.

One of the reasons I love The Lady of the House of Love so much is that vampire stories are so hard to get right, mainly because it’s such a crowded genre. But Angela Carter delivered something original and new. The story started life as a BBC radio play called Vampirella (1975) and was adapted especially for the collection. Its strength lay in the mix of fairy tale and of horrific folklore.

"A single kiss woke up the Sleeping Beauty in the Wood."

A Gothic interpretation of Sleeping Beauty, it incorporates the traditional tropes; a corrupted bloodline, a beautiful and helpless female and an imposing, decaying castle. She is the end of her line: she is Nosferatu, trapped by a deadly legacy, which she abhors. The external decay of the Castle and everything within replicates the moral degradation of the curse bestowed via her lineage. She's a prisoner in time – waiting for true love's kiss.

Turning the unchanging tarot her question is – can she change and become human? Can she escape her dreadful destiny?

"In her dream, she would like to be human; but she does not know if that is possible."

Then our hero arrives.

As well as The Bloody Chamber, Angela Carter published three other volumes of short stories; Fireworks (1974), Black Venus (1985) and American Ghosts And Old World Wonders (1993, Posthumus). Although The Bloody Chamber is the most celebrated I would urge you to read all four. Black Venus is to my mind equally interesting and worthy of investigation. Do give the three volumes of fairytales she edited a go too – you will not be disappointed; Wayward Girls and Wicked Women – a collection of short stories (1986), The Virago Book of Fairy Tales (1990) and, The Second Virago Book of Fairy Tales (1992)

In no way do I see the short stories as a lesser alternative, but her novels show how she developed as a writer. She moves through genres from murder mystery, science fiction, fantasy to Gothic fairy tale. Her last two novels, Nights at the Circus (1985) and Wise Children (1991) are often cited as the most accomplished and certainly explore the idea of women as performers. Born of a society dominated by the patriarchy, her outrageous characters demonstrate clearly that women are always performing and that their true identity is often masked.

I was glad to be reminded of how easy it is fall back into unhealthy ways of thinking and live as some kind of distorted Disney Princess – no, thank you. I want to live, free, even if that makes me a witch – warts and all.

Angela Carter: Of Wolves and Women (2018), BBC documentary

Next to feature on the Supper Club: Fireside Reflections – I'll be chewing over our meeting with Robert Shearman. Yes, he was actually here with us and shared all his secrets about his fabulously disturbing story, Custard Cream, writing for Doctor Who and his epic Arabian nights style adventure, We All Hear Stories in the Dark.

The Short Story Supper Club is hosted by Racontesse and Kensington and Chelsea Libraries. For more wonderful KCL events subscribe to their newsletter.

Twitter: @rbkclibraries

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