Sunday, 22 March 2009
Bibliotherapy: what to read when you’re seeing red
One of the best pieces of advice I’ve ever been given is that it’s a mistake to turn rage inwards, so that it becomes self-loathing depression. Which is not to say that I am advocating endless displays of temper; but when fury is justified – when someone has done you a great wrong – I’ve discovered that there is much to be said for punching a pillow, and after sufficient punching, to recline back onto the pillow and read Angela Carter’s ‘The Bloody Chamber’.
I love each and every one of this collection of short stories, but the title novella is particularly effective. This fiercely gothic narrative is a new version of the Bluebeard fairytale, and also a response to the Marquis de Sade’s ‘Justine’; a book that horrified me when I first read it as a teenager, discovering that I was the namesake of an abused young girl, who rather than fighting back, becomes the epitome of female masochism.
Carter – who wrote controversially, and also brilliantly, on the subject of the Marquis de Sade in her polemic, ‘The Sadeian Woman’ – described Justine as ‘a woman with no place in the world, no status, the core of whose resistance has been eaten away by self-pity’. Her red-blooded retort (published alongside The Sadeian Woman in 1979) was ‘The Bloody Chamber’, in which a nameless heroine is apparently another Justine, a pale sacrificial virgin in a translucent white dress, destined to be murdered by her sadistic husband, the evil Marquis, who has already killed three previous wives. But instead of succumbing to passivity, Carter’s heroine is saved from decapitation by her pistol-toting mother, a woman filled with righteous rage. “You never saw such a wild thing as my mother, her hat seized by the winds and blown out to sea so that her hair was her white mane… without a moment’s hesitation, she raised my father’s gun, took aim and put a single, irreproachable bullet through my husband’s head.”
‘The Bloody Chamber’ – red in tooth and nail – seems to me a better story for Mother’s Day than a sickly sweet candy-coloured confection; with its message that sorrowful capitulation is not necessarily helpful, for wrath can be a way of saving one’s skin, and also one’s self-respect.