To the Manner Born

Essay by Jan Alexander

A re-appreciation of Wise Children; by Angela Carter; first published by Chatto & Windus, Ltd. 1991.

My name is Dora Chance. Welcome to the wrong side of the tracks.”  

Who’d have imagined that London’s scrappy neighborhood of Brixton could be the setting for a kind of fairy tale? Granted, a horror story too.  A pair of 75-year-old ex-showgirls—Dora and her identical twin Nora— are headed for a  birthday bash where they settle old scores with their 100-year-old celebrity father who’s never acknowledged his paternity.

Wise Children was Angela Carter’s last novel, and it’s a raucous stage set of a yarn, a paean to Shakespeare and to twisted families that are nevertheless family, as well as to the legacy Carter left as spinner of fairy/horror tales as the crones of the Medieval age might have told them.

Carter died of cancer, at 51, in 1992, just a year after Wise Children was published. One can imagine this as her meditation on the sheer miracle of life. And so while she knew she was dying she spun a fantasy in which missing and-presumed-dead characters turn out to be very much alive, first wives tell off ex-husbands, and evil children who try to poison their father’s birthday cake get caught red-handed.

And 75-year-old women wearing miniskirts and silver-spangled tights get a reason to keep living another 20 years.

Dora and Nora have lived all their lives in a house in Brixton, “the bastard side of Old Father Thames”   Dora calls it, and not for nothing is their address 49 Bard Road.  Shakespeare’s Sonnet Number 49 begins:

“Against that time, if ever that time come,

When I shall see thee frown on my defects...”,

and looks to a time “When love, converted from the thing it was,

Shall reasons find of settled gravity...”-

The story opens on April 23, which is William Shakespeare’s birthday. Also, coincidentally, the 75th birthday of Dora and Nora, and the 100th birthday of their father, Sir Melchior Hazard, Shakespearian actor and lothario extraordinaire.

Did I mention that Melchior is also a twin? As are all of his other known issues.  The potential for mistaken identities is, therefore, of maximum Shakespearian proportions, along with the potential for mistaken parentage. 

Uncle Peregrine Hazard, Melchior’s twin, is a businessman, magician and lepidopterist who has gained and lost fortunes.   Dora describes him as “here today and gone tomorrow, not so much a man, more of a travelling carnival.” He’s always loved his nieces. And, it turns out, was never oblivious to their long legs. Carter had a way of pushing boundaries so that villains aren’t wholly unsympathetic and what most feminist writers would portray as man’s weapon of destruction is the stuff of comedy.  

There’s a boudoir scene designed for maximum cringe effect, but can we maybe forgive a 75 year old woman and a 100 year old man for acting out forbidden urges? This is a family horror tale after all. “It’s a wise child that knows its own father,” is an old saw that that informs the tile of Angela Carter’s novel.

We don’t get to pick our families but it’s best that we know where we came from.

In England, to be wise enough to know your father is also to know your place in society—something we’re just beginning to understand in an America where social mobility is looking more and more like a myth.

That may be why we’ve developed a fascination for stories of the British class system.  It shows up in Harry Potter, not to mention Atonement, Downton Abbey, and the old Brideshead and Upstairs, Downstairs mini-series.  Wise Children has a not-at-all subtle subtext about class distinctions right within families.

I can imagine a teleplay of Wise Children that opens with a shot of the house in Brixton instead of the grand estate of Downton Abbey.  Then the camera pans to the interior, where the worse-for-wear twins are rising and painting their faces. “We’re stuck in the period at which we peaked, of course,” Dora says of herself and her twin. “....The habit of applying war paint outlasts the battle; haven’t had a man for yonks but still we slap it on...”

This is Brixton between the riots of 1985 and 1995, before its uneasy gentrification, and the action always takes us back to the house.  “If it wasn’t for this house, Nora and I would be on the streets by now,” Dora tells us on the first page.

The Crawley family of Downton Abbey is no less precarious—those of us who are addicted to this show stay hooked partly because we want to know how long the family will be able to hang on.  Precariousness is itself a sort of life lesson in which the Brits have an advantage over us.

“Knowing one’s place” may be repressive, but it also gives you a tribe to belong to and a language anyone in the tribe will recognize, whether you’re a broke aristocrat or a Cockney street fighter who’s made billions in the city of London.

It gives you an identity—and identity is frighteningly fluid in an a  America that’s full of the nouveau riche who don’t wear it prettily and nouveau poor who never thought they’d be in these straits.  

The upper crust members of the Hazard family have, in fact, come down in the world from their time as Shakespearian actors roaming the world to provide a touch of civilization—on stage anyway.

Melchior’s crowning moment came and went just before The War (the second World War, the one that brought down all of England, that is), when he went to Hollywood to star in a production of a Midsummer Night’s Dream and ended up running off with the producer’s wife.  A reluctant democratization has set in. Melchior has even appeared as a creaky relic on an S&M game show that has one of his sons as host.  

Melchior’s first wife, Lady Atalanta, a renowned beauty in her day, now lives with Dora and Nora in Brixton. They call her Wheelchair. She hasn’t walked since her  daughters pushed her down the stairs.

Ah, family.

Carter’s message, if there is a message at all here, is swallow the whole lineage with irony, not Zoloft. And somehow, this fractured fairy tale has a gloriously happy ending, at least the kind of happy ending that Carter described in a 1990 interview with a Guardian reporter about another of her books, the fairy tale/folklore anthology she edited called The Virago Book of Fairy Tales.

“The whole notion of 'happy ever after' in a polygamous, or polyandrous society is quite different to what it is in ours,” she said, adding that if there was a common female goal running through her collection of stories, it was not about marriage but “fertility and continuance.”

On the eve of her own death Carter bestowed Dora and Nora with continuance.  As Dora puts it, after guiding us through a century of life among the Hazards, “What a joy it is to sing and dance.”

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