Wise Children

Angela Carter’s last novel is an over-exuberant bear hug of a book; it’s the literary equivalent of being dragged into a conga line at a party, and it does this with such big-hearted, good-natured cheeriness that it is quite impossible to resist. To think that Carter wrote this when she knew she was dying is extraordinary. So much generosity and vitality whilst in the shadow of death is unbearably poignant.

Longevity is the first gift that Carter gives to her characters, and the story begins on the morning of Nora and Dora Chance’s 75th birthday, a date that is coincidentally also the birthday of their 100-year-old father, the great thespian, Melchior Hazard, not to mention the immortal Shakespeare, too. The only problem is that Melchior has never properly acknowledged them, given that they were the result of a brief acquaintance with a chambermaid, and whilst Melchior’s twin brother, Peregrine, has been full of the love and generosity their real father lacks, Nora and Dora both idealise the handsome Shakespearian actor and hope for his affection. The sisters are preparing for a big event that evening, their father’s birthday party, whilst staving off grief about their young and beautiful goddaughter, Tiffany, who has been dumped by the father of her unborn baby, (son of Melchior Hazard’s third and final marriage, Tristram), and who in sorrow and rage may have drowned herself in the Thames.

So you may already be able to see the patterns forming. This is a novel about a big, rambunctious theatrical family, with a history of illegitimacy. Nora and Dora, born on the wrong side of the tracks, are brought up by their gin-swilling, maxim-spouting ‘grandma’ (really the landlady of the boarding house where the chambermaid worked) and have spent their working lives in song and dance routines on the music hall stage, the ‘illegitimate’ side of great classical theatre. Not that this has been a tragedy, in a world where tragedy has all the class, but comedy gets all the best lines. Nora and Dora have been irrepressibly vital all their lives, soaking up the bright lights, beating a headlong path through love affairs and making the best of whatever came their way. ‘Hope for the best, expect the worst,’ Grandma always counselled them, although ‘seize the day’ could equally well be the sisters’ motto.  Dora Chance narrates this story, looking back over their lives and the blazing trail of the Hazard family, in a voice that is larky and cheeky and rude and irrepressible. It’s an amazing achievement of sustained vitality on Carter’s part, for the voice never falters, never fails, bundling the reader along through one big set piece after another, all wildly improbable, all funny and farcical and ludicrous. Never was the word ‘romp’ so well suited to a novel.

In good Shakespearian fashion, twins abound with all sorts of possibilities for mistaken identity, and there are lots of suggestions of incest, although with the family blood line being so tricky to follow, we are of course never quite sure whether any genuine offence is committed, and even if it had been, this most inoffensive of books would laugh it off. The point is that try as we will to keep things apart in separate categories, they always come together in the end. Hence the culmination of Nora and Dora’s careers is a film they make in Hollywood, a remake of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, naturally, with Melchior Hazard directing, in which traditional theatre meets the excess of Hollywood with predictably laughable results (‘Dora,’ [Nora] said, ‘why do they call it “a masterpiece of kitsch”?’) The text is littered with references to Shakespeare’s plays which, not being in any way versed in Shakespearian drama myself, I missed entirely. It doesn’t matter. ‘What a joy it is to dance and sing!’ Dora writes, and this most incestuous of novels, high literature combined with ribald, bawdy, colloquial style, doesn’t care a button what you get or don’t get, so long as you have a good time.

What a fearless, joyful encore this was from Angela Carter, who made the most of her own spectacular gifts, right up to the very end.

13 thoughts on “Wise Children

  1. Great review, Litlove. I agree, you can feel the energy coming off the page and Dora is a lively, energetic narrator all throughout the book. I wonder if Carter’s knowing she was dying allowed her to write no holds barred. Since this was the first Angela Carter I have ever read, I can’t make any comparison. It was an amusing, madcap read and I am glad I read it, but ultimately I didn’t love the book. It was too farcical for me and consequently, I didn’t really feel any connection to any of the characters or the story. Humor is so tricky, isn’t it? I wouldn’t, however, be disinclined to try something else by Carter. Any suggestions?

  2. The bit about her writing this while dying is very moving. I have read a lot of Angela Carter’s books and was stunned by many of them. Something holds me back here but I do not know what it is. It’s been bothering me since I first heard about it. One doesn’t like to have a weird reaction without being able to explain it. Nights at the Circus feels similar. Why though you make it sound so like so much fun and I love Shakespeare.

  3. I really loved the energy of this novel in parts but on the whole it didn’t work for me. I found it too ‘manic’ would be one word (or frantic or busy I suppose). I never felt a strong connection with the characters and the humour kept me at a distance from them. I did find the twin aspect interesting though. Lots of mirroring and comparisons and playful confusion. I wonder if it makes a difference reading this with the knowledge of Angela Carter’s illness in the background? I haven’t read Nights at the Circus but I loved the short story I heard (they had it as a podcast on the Guardian).

  4. I cannot wait to run to the bookstore and get this. I’ve been looking for just this sort of book. It sounds like a good summer read. I’m a bit late on that score so no time to waste.

  5. Lilian – isn’t it just? I find that so very affecting.

    David – aren’t they great names? I do hope you like this – I’d so love to know what you think!

    iwriteinbooks – what a great name, btw! It is a lot of fun – I must come over and visit you – I’d be so interested to know what you make of this book if you get hold of it.

    Celawerd – it is. But then I find Angela Carter is always an interesting writer.

    ds – I don’t know how she found the generosity to do that – what an amazing woman she must have been.

    Ruthiella – I have every sympathy for your point of view here. I find myself that I bond much better with characters when they show some vulnerability. I enjoyed this very much, but preferred Nights At The Circus, although it is a more incoherent book, and parts of it are a bit weird. But I found I did feel for the characters more, and there are some very poignant parts to that narrative. My favourite Angela Carter so far has been The Bloody Chamber, her retelling of fairy tales. Let me know if you read any more of her – I’m so pleased you read this one!

    Caroline – perhaps you have had a similar reaction to Ruthiella and Pete, who were both a little alienated from the characters. That can happen. And whilst Carter’s ability with language is extraordinary, it can run out of control. I noticed while reading this that everything happens on the page; there is no more profound dimension beyond the events of the narrative, which the reader can ponder and dream about. Anyway, I can understand your reaction; although she’s accessible, she isn’t always an easy writer to love.

    Pete – how interesting! And you’re not alone, as you can see: Ruthiella felt very similarly and Caroline has her doubts. I do completely sympathise with your reaction and I can see exactly what you mean about the humour holding you at a distance. I did find the narrative extremely poignant once I realised she was dying, and I think that did alter it for me. If you feel like trying her work again, then I recommend The Bloody Chamber, her rewrites of fairy tales. I think the short story worked really well for her.

    Grad – I think there’s a good chance you’d really enjoy this – rich language and a very positive attitude maintained throughout!🙂

  6. I read The Bloody Chamber several years ago and she is indeed a wild sort of storyteller–really liked the book but she falls into the ‘need to be in the right mood’ category for me. I really need to add this one to my list, however, I like the larger than life feel to the story. It’s really good to read outside your (my) comfort zone and I need to do it more often. However–how very sad that this was the last book she wrote while dying–certainly a nice way to be remembered!

  7. Pingback: Wise Children by Angela Carter | Iris on Books

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