Archive for literature

The Fairy Tales of Charles Perrault, Angela Carter

Posted in Books, Fairy Tales with tags , , , , , , , on April 30, 2013 by mysearchformagic

Anyone who loves modern magic will love the writing of Angela Carter. I have already featured one of her best-known novels, Nights at the Circus, a book that I have enjoyed many times. This week I read her translations of the fairy tales of Charles Perrault for the first time, a very different work perhaps, but no less enchanting.

The Fairy Tales of Charles Perrault, Angela Carter

The Fairy Tales of Charles Perrault, Angela Carter

Charles Perrault wrote his fairy tales in late 17th Century France, re-interpreting old stories which had been passed down from generation to generation. Some of them are still well know, in particular Cinderella, Blue Beard and Little Red Riding Hood, some are more obscure – I for one have never come across the strange adventures of Donkey Skin or Ricky with the Tuft! Perrault spent many years as a notable figure in the government of Louis XIV, but took to writing more seriously following his retirement in 1695.

Charles Perrault, 1628-1703

Charles Perrault, 1628-1703

Angela Carter has remained largely faithful to his original text, but in places was unable to resist adding her own (often feminist) slant; here and there, little sparks of pure Carter shine through, particularly in the instructive ‘morals’ which follow each tale. Although not nearly as dark or gruesome as the Grimm Brothers’ versions which followed a century later, Perrault’s fantastical fictions are often far from cosy. Quite who they were written for is still debated, for although we now assume that children were their target market, in fact the idea of ‘children’s literature’ didn’t exist in the 17th Century, and it is likely that these tales were aimed firmly at the members of the French Royal Court, who were currently in the grip of a fashion for tales of magic and wonder.

Carter’s translations may seem rather tame compared to her other writings; perhaps she felt constricted by the idea of interpreting a historic text. What is for certain is that it was working on Perrault’s stories that inspired one of her greatest collections of short stories, The Bloody Chamber of 1979, in which she was finally allowed free reign with these classic fairy tales. Her versions are bold and subversive, violent of often terrifying, and feature female protagonists who are strong and decisive, far from the blushing princesses of tradition. But I won’t go into too much details about them here, as The Bloody Chamber definitely deserves a blog post all of its own!

The Greatcoat, Helen Dunmore

Posted in Books, Ghosts with tags , , , , , on February 25, 2013 by mysearchformagic

It’s been a while since I have featured a book in my search for magic, so inspired by Jeanette Winterson’s The Daylight Gate, I decided to check out another of the new supernatural tales commissioned by Hammer publishing. Apart from the fact that it is rather brief, and readable in one sitting, Helen’s Dunmore’s novel The Greatcoat  has little in common with the Winterson’s work, except of course for the fact that it is decidedly spooky and most definitely magical.

The Greatcoat, Helen Dunmore

The Greatcoat by Helen Dunmore

The early 1950s were a tough time in Britain, the country mired in post-war austerity. Food was still in short supply, moral standards were strict, life was often pretty grey. For Isabel Carey, a newlywed setting up home in rural Yorkshire, things certainly are not easy. Her husband is trying to establish himself as a GP, and working all the hours, and their grim rented flat is cold and forbidding. The days are long and lonely. But when Isabel finds an RAF greatcoat folded up in one of the closets, things begin to change. That night she hears a knock at the window, and an unexpected guest arrives – a young man in RAF uniform.

The Greatcoat is different from your average ‘haunted house’ ghost story. Much of it is rather romantic, as Isabel develops an inevitable bond with her mysterious visitor. Like every good thriller, the story unravels itself slowly at first, but gathers speed as the truth is gradually revealed and the narrative rumbles towards a nerve-wracking finale. Dunmore explores the shadowy world of memory, and as Isabel’s own complex past mixes with that of Alec the ghostly pilot, the borders between reality and the supernatural begin to blur. The Greatcoat is elegantly written, atmospheric and more than a little sad. Strange things happen when people are lost and lonely, often with tragic consequences. But will the ending be a happy one for Isabel Carey? I’m not going to tell you, so there is only one way to find out…

Nights at the Circus, Angela Carter

Posted in Books with tags , , , , , on December 13, 2012 by mysearchformagic

As some of you may have read last week, Angela Carter’s novel Nights at the Circus has just been chosen as the best ever winner of the James Tait Black award. By pure coincidence this was announced on the very day that I had finished rereading my dog-eared copy of this fabulous book.


For those of you who aren’t familiar with her work, Angela Carter could be described as the queen of magic realism. Her writing is heavily influenced by myth, and much of it built around strong feminist principles. Her female protagonists are powerful, intelligent, sexy, and sometimes terrifying, her stories dark and disturbing. Carter also edited and translated a number of fairytale collections, and even wrote her own modern versions of these traditional tales, turning many of their old-fashioned ‘prince rescues princess’ tropes on their misogynistic heads.

Nights at the Circus features the raucous adventures of Fevvers, a variety show star at the turn of the 20th Century whose unique selling point is the large, delicate wings which sprout from her broad back. The novel follows her from the music halls of London to the Siberian wastelands, taking in Belle Époque St Peterburg in the process, and charts her encounters with dukes, kings and vagabonds. This is a world inhabited by amazing characters; muscled and oiled circus strongmen, piano playing lion tamers, a crazy Siberian shayman, and a band of escaped Russian female convicts to name but a few. In the book, which was first published in 1984, Carter wonderfully captures the glamour and depravity of the era, and the shabby underbelly which hides just behind the dazzling glitz of the circus. The book is a romance, but it is never soppily romantic. As well as beauty and excitement of life, Carter also describes its horror, the two intermingling like the overpowering stink of fine perfume and sweat.

Is Fevvers really a bewinged ‘freak’, or is she just a clever con-artist? Of course, we never really find out, which is all part of the magic that the author weaves. If you haven’t already read it, then I suggest you do. It is a great introduction to the work of Angela Carter, a subject to which I shall no doubt be returning in the not too distant future…