Friday, August 1, 2008

Fairytale feminists

by Olivia Knight

Tale as old as time
Song as old as rhyme
Beauty and the Beast
Theme song to Disney’s ‘Beauty and the Beast’

For the very end of myths is to immobilise the world: they must suggest and mimic a universal order…
Roland Barthes, “Myth Today”

Next week introduces Enchanted, the novella collection of erotic fairytales – not a combination that startles us now, but a handful of decades ago, fairytales looked exclusively like this.

Collage of Disney heroines being carried, dancing, and being kissed, all with wasp-waists and happy smiles, and Snow White delivering a pie

Before Black Lace could blithely commission, or we blithely write, erotic fairytales, a lot of work needed to be done on them. Fairytales have always gone through a lot of work, though. Here’s the nutshell version: peasant makes good, joins the aristocracy, happily ever after, gets decadent. And in a slightly larger shell – an oyster, perhaps…

Illustration from Perraults Cinderella showing courtly life around the trying on of the shoeFairytales began life as good ol’ oral tradition – oh, the honest wisdom of the humble peasant! – and so were largely about humble peasants ceasing to be either humble or peasants. They broke the class barrier in the 16th and 17th centuries, when they became the pet of the French aristocracy and in particular of Charles Perrault, Mme D’Aulnoy, and Mlle L’Hériter – so if you wondered why the castles of the Loire look so fairytalish, it’s art copying life; sorry. Masculine chivalry and feminine charm ruled (and in Disney still do) and the importance of honest peasants remaining honest peasants was underlined.

The girl in the little red shoesWhen the French aristocracy were slaughtered en masse by their honest peasants, the fairytale – like so many of the aristocrats – fled to neighbouring countries, and took refuge amongst the bourgeoisie - in particular, the brothers Grimm, Hans Christian Anderson, and William Makepeace. It abandoned its dangerous courtly fripperies in favour of more earnest virtues, such as the domestication of women and subjugation of the working class, the sanctity of the patriarchy and family loyalty, good manners, justice, the Protestant work ethic, and the horror of red shoes.

But as the bourgeoisie veered towards capitalism, so did its fairytales – peasant-hero-makes-good returned (otherwise known as the American dream), romance ended happily-ever-after with wodges of hard cash and a great big dress, and at last, the fairy tale prostrated itself before the feet of Walt Disney and gave itself up wholly to this fresh, innocent, and charming form of family entertainment. And that’s where we got it.

You’re the girl in white or you’re the witch. If you look in the room, you’ll die like the others. Step off the path and you deserve to be eaten. Work hard; sob in the kitchen; have tiny feet: your prince will come. And we can laugh at this because of many extraordinary women, but in particular…

Cover: The Bloody ChamberAngela Carter is the unchallenged fairytale queen. The Bloody Chamber, ten inimicably rewritten fairytales, was published in 1979 and feminist criticism wet itself. Ellen Cronan Rose smashed the champagne on the boat that would float Angela Carter into PhD theses with wild enthusiasm: complete reclamation of fairytales for women! Yeeee-haaar! Then the arguments started. Patricia Duncker turned to Andrea Dworkin (of all-pornography-is-rape fame) and called it pornography. Being accused of pornography, in the early eighties of feminism, was like being accused of witchcraft in the fifteenth century. Llewallen agreed; Flora Alexander vacillated; Robin Ann Sheets suggested it was moral pornography, and the terms were set: was it pornography? Was that okay? Was Carter a traitor?

Carter was a goddamned heroine. She didn’t toe the feminist line as neatly as some wished, making all women glow and all men suitably humble; she skipped three steps ahead. And here, for the record, are my favourites of her naughty bits – of which she would thoroughly approve – and partly thanks to her, we don’t have to fret about whether all this is okay or not: she dunnit already.

In the cold, white cliff-top rooms of the castle, surrounded by mirrors, Bluebeard’s bride is finally taken:

Choker necklace
He made me put on my choker, the family heirloom of one woman who had escaped the blade … It was cold as ice and chilled me. He twined my hair into a rope and lifted it off my shoulders so that he could better kiss the downy furrows below my ears; that made me shudder. And he kissed those blazing rubies, too. He kissed them before he kissed my mouth. Rapt, he intoned, “Of her apparel she retains / Only her sonorous jewellery.”
A dozen husbands imapled a dozen brides while the mewing gulls swung on invisible trapezes in the empty air outside.

In The Tiger’s Bride, a version of the Beauty and the Beast, the beauty sends an automaton back home to her father and enters the beast’s room…

Tiger licking his shoulder
He dragged himself closer and closer to me, until I felt the harsh velvet of his head against my hand, then a tongue, abrasive as sandpaper. “He will lick the skin off me!”
And each stroke of his tongue ripped off skin after successive skin, all the skins of a life in the world, and left behind a nascent patina of shiny hairs. My earrings turned back to water and trickled down my shoulders; I shrugged the drops off my beautiful fur.

The Erl-King lives in the autumnal forest and has birds in a cage, which perhaps she should have thought about more carefully before…

Cover detail from Burning Your Boats - rich reds
Cover detail from Burning Your Boats - rich reds
Cover detail from Burning Your Boats - rich reds

I lie down on the Erl-King’s creaking palliasse of straw. His skin is the tint and texture of sour cream, he has stiff, russet nipples ripe as berries. Like a tree that bears blossom and fruit on the same bough together, how pleasing, how lovely.
And now – ach! I feel your sharp teeth in the subacqueous depths of your kisses. The equinotical gales seize the bare elms and make them whizz and whirl like dervishes; you sink your teeth into my throat and make me scream.
…If I strung that old fiddle with your hair, we could waltz together to the music as the exhausted daylight founders among the trees, we should have better music than the shrill prothalamions of the larks stacked in their pretty cages as the roof creaks with the freight of birds you’ve lured to it while we engage in your profound mysteries under the leaves.
He strips me to my last nakedness, that underskin of mauve, pearlised satin, like a skinned rabbit; then dresses me again in an embrace so lucid and encompassing it might be made of water. And shakes over me dead leaves as if into the stream I have become.
Sometimes the birds, at random, all singing, strike a chord.
…The candle flutters and goes out. His touch both consoles and devastates me; I feel my heart pulse, then wither, naked as a stone on the roaring mattress while the lovely, moony night slides through the window to dapple the flanks of this innocent who makes cages to keep the sweet birds in. Eat me, drink me; thirsty, cankered, goblin-ridden, I go back and back to him to have his fingers strip the tattered skin away and clothe me in his dress of water, this garment that drenches me, its slithering odour, its capacity for drowning.

Cover: The Djinn in the Nightingale's EyeA.S. Byatt is another trailmaker – far less contentious, possibly because her symbolism is well nigh indecipherable at times. Her fairytales don’t have that usual narrative shape, the sigh-yes-I’ll-sleep-now feeling, BUT – big but – they’re exquisite, she is the most fearlessly and unashamedly intelligent writer I have ever encountered, and she has the best-ever description of men’s bits-and-bobs in The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye. The djinn has just escaped the bottle to fill the middle-aged lecturer’s hotel room…

He seemed to be wearing a green silk tunic, not too clean, and not long enough, for she could see the complex heap of his private parts in the very centre of her rosy bed.

She asked him to make himself a more manageable size, and…

He did so, not all at once, so that for a moment the now only slightly larger-than-life being was almost hidden behind the mound of his private parts, which he then shrank and tucked away. It was almost a form of boasting.

Cover: BeautyFinally, Sheri S Tepper, whose fantasy book Beauty interlinks dozens of fairytales as the truth behind the tales: did you ever suspect Cinderella was a thoughtless brat? Well, how about her mother’s take on the story, masquerading as a godmother? So already, we don’t need to defend Cinderella as the subjugated woman but we can say, quite honestly, anyone who cares that much about shoes, princes, and balls has some long hard thinking to do. The only properly erotic scene in Beauty is between a couple who have known and narrowly missed each other since they were fifteen, and are now in their dotage, by the standards of the 14th century…

And Giles and I lay in the grass below the terrace, hidden beneath my cloak.
“Beauty,” he sighed, and I did not correct him. I was. He was. We were. Our bodies moved and touched and held one another, with nothing between us. We grasped at stars once, twice, three times, falling exhausted at last into the warmth of our nest. My kirtle was somewhere in the grass. My underdress was around my neck. Giles wore only his shirt. Our secret flesh was still wet and entangled, one with another’s.

At the end of all of which, Olivia Knight, Janine Ashbless, and Leonie Martell get to start fairy tales with the hero and heroine in bed, have Beauty and the Beast shudder and clench together in the dark, and throw spanking into a tale of witchcraft and sorcery. Our heroines have jobs, swords, and sex, their happily-ever-after doesn't come in the form of a white meringue dress, and all the issues we would have had to tangle with have been ironed out or stamped out already. But for more on that, you'll have to read our posts about Enchanted...


Janine Ashbless said...

No book has influenced my writing more than Angela Carter's The Bloody Chamber. It is superb. God knows what I'd have ended up doing if I hadn't found it - hideous fantasy epics, I suspect!

Erastes said...

Wow. I'd never heard of these - and I'll certainly have to seek out The Bloody Chamber. Thank you - great post!

Louisa Harte said...

Great post Olivia; Enchanted sounds like an awesome collection. Look forward to hearing more!

I too love Angela Carter; The Bloody Chamber is one of my favourite books and I have a well cherished copy on my bookshelf. She's also been inspirational in my own writing.

Angell said...

Wow Olivia. Thanks for adding to the ever-growing list of books that I must read. I'd never heard of them myself, like Erastes. Definatley will check them out.

Now, while he never wrote erotica (to my knowledge) the "let's look at this from the other point of view" made Gregory McGuire a household name with Wicked, The Mirror, and others. All excellent books, just not, umm, arousing.

Amanda Earl said...

this is a great essay, Olivia. thanks so much for writing it and posting it :)

as a child, i devoured fairytales, particularly the Andrew Lang collection of coloured fairy books (the Blue Fairy Book, the Red Fairy Book etc)

i have never read Angela Carter and i apologize for being the dissenting voice. it's marvelous that she brought the fairy tale into contemporary writing, but i have to say that the excerpts demonstrated what i find distasteful about some erotica (not all by any means), this overly precious language: "the harsh velvet of his head against my hand." ugh. to me that kind of language is one of the reasons erotica gets such a bad name in the literary world. sorry to be the dissenting voice. i realize everyone has her own taste in erotica :) but this to me is appalling stuff.

in 2006, the now unfortunately defunct Thunder's Mouth Press published a wonderful collection of fairy tales, edited by Sage Vivant and M. Christian, Garden of the Perverse: Fairy Tales for Twisted Adults. these tales are not so much the rewriting of old stories as they are the creation of whole new fairy tales. Remittance Girl's The Pipe of Thorns is beautiful and brilliant; as are stories by Catherine Lundoff, Kathleen Bradean, Mackenzie Cross, Donna George Storey and more. i recommend this anthology very highly as a 21st century take on an old genre. it's made of rebellion, spice and storm not marshmallow goo.

Amanda Earl said...

there's a conference called The Fairy Tale After Angela Carter next April:

Madeline Moore said...

Beautiful post Olivia. Sumptuous to look at, with prose that rolls off the tongue, excerpts that delight, and information to boot! Yay!

felinewyvern said...

I have always liked readign fairytales with a twist but hadn't heard of some of these. Thanks for the infromation and hte great excerpts. I will certainly be on the look out for Enchanted when it is out.

Joanna Chambers said...

The whole opening gambit to The Djinn in the Nightingale's Eye is just gorgeous - and I love that turquoise typeface.

And I adore Angela Carter. Especially her Cinderella Tales.

There was a fantastic erotic cinderlla story posted free on a very good blog last year: Ember by Bettie Sharpe - see link below.

Megan Kerr said...

Coming late to the party, from the land of the midnight sun... Glad to introduce you to my heroines, Angell - enjoy! (A.S. Byatt's Possession, in my opinion, is the best book ever written.)

Amanda - yes, you're not alone in finding Carter's language a bit rich; lots of people finish reading her books & reach for the alka seltzer... personally, I love it, but it's not to everyone's taste, I know. Strictly speaking her work isn't categorised as erotica, but she doesn't hold back when the story demands it. Well, yes - she never holds back! Hence the prose-style - sumptuous, purple, or overblown, depending on your point of view... Will definitely check out Sage Vivant and M Christian's collection!

Ilona - come visit this Monday & Friday; you'll get a few tasters of Enchanted to tempt you further! It's released in the UK on 7 August.

Tumperkin (any relation to Rumplestiltskin?) - yeah, turquoise typeface - I think we all dream of being the kind of author that gets to dictate not just fonts, but ink colour... I'll look forward to exploring that blog when I'm back in a country that gets dark at night. Although there's a lot to be said for the halluconegenic effects of sleep deprivation!

Madeline Moore said...

I'd never even heard of 'The Bloody Chamber' until this post... I'll definitely pick it up. I was in two of the three anthos Sage and M. Christian did for Thunder's Mouth but could not for the life of me come up with a fairy tale. I don't know why my wild and crazy imagination refuses to play along when it comes to fairy tales...grumble...

Deanna said...

I'd never heard of it either. Thanks for that great post Olivia.