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.

16 comments:

kairu said...

Happy mother's day! (I was deeply confused until I realized that your mother's day falls in a different month than ours...).

I read The Bloody Chamber some months ago due to your suggestion, Justine (interesting, I never connected your name with the Marquis de Sade, even though I think I have Justine somewhere on my shelves). Having a deeply fierce mother of my own (though I have never seen her so riled up on my behalf, and hope I never need her to do so) I love Carter's ferocious wild thing of a mother, galloping in to save her child...

oxford-reader said...

The universe chimes again, Justine, however slightly. I was in London yesterday watching 'Madame de Sade' at Wyndhams, where the Marquis' 'Justine' was mentioned.

I've never read any Angela Carter, although I've seen The Magic Toyshop on stage, and was given her book of fairy tales for my birthday this year. She's always seemed to me to have a repuation for the mysterious, strange and gothic, and she's been on my to read list for ages, I've just not got around to her.

There's another literary Justine you should read - by Lawrence Durrell, part of the Alexandria Quartet.

Justine Picardie said...

According to my father, I was named after both Justines -- Lawrence Durrell and the Marquis de Sade. Both of them disturbing and provoking namesakes to have, but perhaps they were the twitches that turned me into the beginnings of a writer.
Was Madame de Sade worth seeing?
Kairu -- glad you have a fierce mother to stand beside you; we all need one in battles...

oxford-reader said...

Yes, it was worth seeing, a fascinating look at the Marquis' life, through the eyes of his wife and several women around her, including her mother. However, Judi Dench has severely sprained her ankle, so we had her understudy ... I'm going again in May!

Sadly, I was not named after a great literary character - Rebecca was simply hugely popular the year I was born...

kairu said...

Durrell's Justine...that was what I was thinking of. It's ages since I read it.

Usually my mother's fierceness is directed at me rather than on my behalf. Less so now than during my teenage years, now I am grown and living on a different continent.

Justine Picardie said...

Which continent is she on? I can entirely understand the benefits of keeping a distance...

Justine Picardie said...

PS. Though that last comment was nothing to do with my mother, whom I love dearly!

oxford-reader said...

I suppose that could be another bibliotherapy Justine - What to read when you're Mother is driving you crazy - or some similar theme!

kairu said...

I feel sure that I drive my mother crazy far more than she does me.

She lives in Taiwan (not so much a continent as a small island nation) but there is still the vast Pacific Ocean (not to mention fifteen hours' time difference) between us.

Hm...what books to read about mothers and daughters? The starkly brutal tragedy of Bastard Out of Carolina? The comfort of The Railway Children, whose mother loved and gave without question?

kairu said...

Also want to add that of course my mother and I love each other, too! Then again, love in our family is none the less felt for being unspoken.

Gondal-girl said...

there is a certain witchy magic in these tales isn't there? So baroque and delicious. I think the Erl King is my favourite....

what did you think of the Neil Jordan film of the book?
( the special effects are pretty funny)...

Justine Picardie said...

The Railway Children is one of my favourites, but its author, E.Nesbit, was not a very good mother to her own children. In fact, I wrote a piece about her which was posted on this blog a while back.
Would love the see the film version of the Company of Wolves again -- haven't seen it for years, and can't remember much about it! Odd that the film fades much faster in my memory than Carter's original stories...

Primrose said...

Justine, I love the Company of Wolves as well. Fantastic movie. Leonora Carrington's books and art has that strange, fey, fairy-tale feel to them as well.
Happy Mothers Day to you. xx

kevinhil123 said...

i have heard a lot about ‘The Bloody Chamber’, but i did not get a chance to read it. im sure its a master piece

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