The Bloody Chamber: the book I wished I had read at seventeen

Posted on 17th January 2020

In Spring 2020 Proteus’ producing arm will premiere a brand new adaptation of Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber at Worthing Theatres – director Mary Swan explains why, at the start of a new decade, there has never been a better time to delve into the world of Carter’s rich imagination.

Angela Carter’s re-telling of western folk tales and fairy tales is a heady, erotic and deliciously dark collection. A proper jewellery box of gothic fantasy for grown-ups, the tales puncture the po-faced gravitas, and squarely avoids the ‘woman as victim’ tropes, that can be found in much contemporary adult fantasy. In the era of #MeToo, Carter’s empowered female protagonists feel vital at this very moment, and the time is ripe for their discovery. The book was well received when it was published in 1979, but was not a ‘hit’ in the way Wise Children was to become or Nights At The Circus had been. For many people their knowledge of the book is confined to the film The Company of Wolves which she adapted from the ‘wolf’ stories in the book, into a screenplay with Neil Jordan in 1984 (the stories are The Werewolf, Wolf Alice and The Company of Wolves).

Fairy tales are the science fiction of the past

– anon

The Bloody Chamber is the book I wished I had read at seventeen; the strangeness and fearlessness of the women, even the unnamed, seemingly doomed protagonist in The Bloody Chamber are all capable of rebellion, survival and wit, qualities which, when you are seventeen, are the most important to know you are allowed to possess.

It is a feminist book, but not one that excludes male characters, nor does it demonize them. Indeed the most potentially misogynist character – the ‘Bluebeard’ villain of the The Bloody Chamber itself – is almost sympathetic.  Carter creates not a monster, but a serial killer you could find attractive, sympathetic even, a technique used years later to create modern icons of the genre like Hannibal Lecter and Dexter.

At the start of a new decade, at a decisive point in the history of our natural world, we need imagination to lead us through the forest.

There are also male characters that are depicted as gentle, innocent, and passive, qualities typically given to vanilla-hued Disney Princesses, but Carter does not present anodyne men; these are deeply complex creatures, trying to understand or to find love in her strange worlds. The Erl King was a portrait of her second husband, depicting him as the spirit of the forest, calling up the most primitive pagan ‘Green Man’ folklore, and giving us the most beautiful, visceral descriptions of the forest; you can almost smell the damp earth.

At the start of a new decade, at a decisive point in the history of our natural world, we need imagination to lead us through the forest. Fairy and folk tales were always the way to pass on advice and warnings and to illustrate the mistakes of the past, perhaps we need to heed their warnings more clearly. For young women, leaving the teenager behind and entering adulthood, Carter’s tales pass on plenty of advice that your mother would struggle to articulate, revealing their possible use in the first place; for how else in a patriarchal society could women talk freely about domestic violence (The Bloody Chamber), seduction (The Lady of the House of Love), and puberty (any of the ‘wolf’ stories).

It is this rich seam of highly visual work that myself and the brilliant Creative Team will be delving into for the next few months, and I for one cannot think of a better place to escape to.

Find out more about Proteus’ adaptation of The Bloody Chamber here.


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