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.