20 classics in 2011 #4: Heroes and Villains by Angela Carter

I’m reading 20 classic, modern-classic or cult books in 2011. Read more about this project here.

Why did I want to read it?

I only heard of Angela Carter, strangely, when I started my doctorate and attended a seminar about one of the stories in The Bloody Chamber. It included a hand-out with an extract of the story. Feminist, erotic fairytales with layers of socio-political meaning, written in an enjoyable, playful manner – they sounded like heaven. I was also, recently, looking for something allegorical to read as part of a mini-research task within my thesis. I decided to go with Angela Carter, but I didn’t mind which text. I just wanted a taste of her. I came across Heroes and Villains for just $5.50 in Berkelouw Books, Newtown, and it seemed perfect.

When was it published?

Heroes and Villains was first published in 1969. My edition is a 1986 King Penguin with a wonderfully symbolic cover: a black snake, coiled around and ready to strike into the heart of a dewy, pink flower. There are other editions available (see Aus, US, UK).

What’s it about?

In a seemingly post-apocalyptic world, Marianne grows up among the Professors, who live in gated communities and are protected by Soldiers from the Barbarians attacking and from the diseases of the Out People. Marianne is somewhat an outsider, and bored, within her community, so when she has the opportunity to escape with a fearsome though surprisingly intelligent Barbarian, she does.

What she finds is that though the Barbarians live roughly and putrescently, they have their own rituals and structures within society, still patriarchal, and Marianne is both frustrated by, and caught up within them. The man who she ran away with, Jewel, is both a myth and a man. He seems just as trapped by his role in his tribe and his performances of honour and duty. Their relationship is one of seething hate combined with small moments of vulnerability and tenderness. Both are in conflict with themselves, each other, and the rules and structures (within the chaos). There is much erotic tension and conflict as Marianne is both repelled by and drawn to Jewel.

Tell us more about the author.

Angela Carter is an absolute legend. She was a postmodern writer in that her novels and stories worked within the traditions of genres such as science fiction, fantasy, magic realism and romance, but she also appropriated and renewed them with social and political comment. She started publishing at 26 (in 1966) and was very prolific until her sadly early death at age 51 in 1992, from lung cancer.

She travelled a lot after leaving her first husband and living in Japan for two years. She was a writer in residence at many universities around the world, including the University of Adelaide, South Australia. She married again in 1977 and had one son.

Besides novels and stories, she wrote articles, screenplays, radio scripts and a libretto. Totally inspiring.

So, what did I think? Does it deserve to be a classic?

Carter would probably come more under ‘cult’ than classic, and it isn’t her best-known work, but I do hope her books continue to be reissued. Heroes and Villains was a completely visceral read: dirty and sticky and stinky. It’s future-gothic, in a way. The buildings are broken-down baroque things with runaway moss and hanging bits of meat, and slippery, mucky stairwells. There are towers, there is mud, there is hunger, but then there are flowers and streams.

I enjoyed its pessimistic outlook, and I liked the fact that the male character, Jewel, was also trapped by a kind of fear outside what he knew. No one could act according to their own will – nor could they figure out their true motivations, or what came from need and what came from desire (and what the difference really was).

The book was written 12 years after Nevil Shute’s On the Beach, probably the most famous post-apocalyptic story of the Cold War era. But Carter was, as mentioned, working within and also appropriating a known genre. The narrative is entirely accessible, the writing is rich with imagery:

‘He picked her up; she climbed inside his jacket as much as she could and would have climbed inside his breast to vanish there if such a thing had been possible. Her nostrils were full of wood smoke, the rank richness of horses and the disturbing odour of imperfectly cured animal hide, all of which combined in Jewel’s particular perfume, but when she looked upwards towards his face, she saw no palpable structure, only a series of hallucinations.’

Marianne often sees people and space in a distorted way, particularly Jewel. She almost nonchalantly reflects, at times, on the fact that he may not be real. Even when they are making love, she cannot see his face. So there is a layer to the novel, too, about reality and unreality and the creation of stories, structures and myths. This also gives the novel a metafictional bent. The Professors wish to see the Barbarians as savage and fearful, and exotic, so they have nothing to fear within their walls. Within the Barbarian tribe is an ex-Professor, trying to create his own structures, symbols and myths – through fear.

It’s po-mo, it’s feminist, and you know what, it’s also just damn sexy.

Here’s a great BBC (audio) interview I found with Angela Carter, if you’re interested: ‘Refusing to write about the bourgeoisie and their cleaning ladies‘.

What’s next?

The Picture of Dorian Gray. For reals.

Have you guys read Angela Carter? I know my Facebook page went nuts when I said I was reading her. Which novel or collection is your favourite? Are there other female authors of the era as delicious and political as Carter, whom I should check out?

8 thoughts on “20 classics in 2011 #4: Heroes and Villains by Angela Carter

  1. Well the novel was still loaded with symbolism, but there’s also a lot of space for imagination. The Company of Wolves was more overt, but yes, ridiculously fun because of it!

  2. Great review! The Bloody Chamber came about after Carter finished translating Charles Perrault — just another case of the act of translation inspiring the translator-author to create some amazing ‘original’ (whatever that means) stuff. Shows the kind of creativity that can happen when a culture embraces translation.

  3. If you like Angela Carter’s tales you might like the collection, Wonder Tales: Six French Stories of Enchantment, edited by Marina Warner. Wonder tales were almost pre-cursors to fairy tales – the women of King Louis the fourteenth’s court used to tell them to one another as a way to voice things they weren’t allowed to talk about. The tales usually feature strong female characters who rely on their wits rather than a prince to get what they want and who often don’t belong because they don’t really conform. AS Byatt is one of the translators of the original tales in Warner’s book and, of course, anything she writes is always brilliant.

  4. I’ve been teaching Angela Carter’s “The Werewolf” for years now, in my Year 12 English class. Beautiful bit of writing, and context and values examination. All in one page.

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