Sarah Glazer asks why this feminist novelist doesn’t translate well to America
How does it feel when you can’t see the greatness in a writer reputed to be one of England’s major feminist novelists?
A little lousy, frankly. That was my feeling after tackling Angela Carter’s last novel, Wise Children, published in 1991.
“A funny, funny book,” Salman Rushdie says on the back cover. But it didn’t seem funny to me. Instead, this first-person narrative by a woman in her seventies looking back on her show-business life has a kind of forced jollity so grating that I put the book down halfway through.
The character, Dora Chance, situates herself in the opening page in South London, a neighborhood “on the wrong side of the tracks.” Her slang and phrasing is particular to Brixton, a traditionally working-class neighborhood (though now like many such neighborhoods increasingly being discovered and transformed by Yuppies.) For Londoners, her turn of phrase is as recognizable a class marker as Eliza Doolittle's in "My Fair Lady."
While she tells her life story in a la-dee-da tone, it has a darker past. Dora and her twin sister Nora are the illegitimate daughters of a famous Shakespearean actor. Throughout their childhood their father refuses to recognize them as his own. Instead, they are raised by a woman, who herself, it is hinted, has a past as a prostitute, but who supplies them with a warm and loving home.
The twins discover early on they have a talent for dancing, singing and acting. They become the “Chance Girls,” an increasingly well-known music hall act, enough that they finally attract the attention of their father-actor, who invites them to perform with him.
For me, the relentlessly cheerful tone in which Dora narrates this story—with its intrinsic sadness of spending a childhood unrecognized by one’s famous parent—became tiresome and fake. Ultimately, it meant I didn’t care about her character, either as an elderly woman or a child.
Compared to other British writers I admire, like Hilary Mantel, Carter’s depiction of a lower-class milieu lacked the richness and understanding I look for. Her attempts to model her story on the typical Shakespearean themes of mistaken identity and surprise parentage—even slapstick comedy-- fell flat for me.
So I was fascinated to learn that Ali Smith, another British writer I admire, describes Dora’s voice as filled with “buoyancy” and found Carter’s final legacy “a wisdom” and “a joy,” as Smith says in her introduction to the 2006 Vintage edition.
Similarly, my London book club divided along cultural lines: Americans found it hard to relate to the book; Brits found it resonant with cultural and class references.
But perhaps most important was the unfulfilled desire of the Americans to have the book stir more emotion: poignancy, laughter or at least sympathy.
One of my most astute English friends tried to explain this difference: Americans like to put their emotions out in the open, but Brits find Americans too “forward” in this respect. The English are more likely to keep their emotions under cover, and many Brits consider that a virtue, prizing the stoicism that we Americans poke fun at as the very English “stiff upper lip.”
Maybe that's why, in America, Angela Carter has never gained the kind of reputation she has in Britain.