Review: Decadent Daughters and Monstrous Mothers: Angela Carter and European Gothic

Posted by Donna Mitchell on July 02, 2015 in Blog, Donna Mitchell, Reviews tagged with , , ,

Decadent Daughters and Monstrous Mothers: Angela Carter and European Gothic.

By Rebecca Munford.

Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2013.

ISBN: 978-0-7190-7671-8

Reviewed by Donna Mitchell

Perhaps inspired by Carter’s claim that ‘[c]ontradictions are the only things that make any sense’[i], Decadent Daughters and Monstrous Mothers: Angela Carter and European Gothic sees Rebecca Munford take on the daunting task of examining the feminist dialogue in Carter’s texts through a masculinist lineage of European Gothic writers. She justifies her reasons for the unusual combination by explaining that European Gothic is a vital theoretical tool in understanding the tension between the politics and aesthetics of Carter’s work. To demonstrate this theory she identifies the juxtaposition of feminist politics and sadomasochistic elements found in Carter’s stories and unites the two by reading a mix of her published and unpublished works alongside the European intertexts that inspired them.

Munford begins her careful exploration of Carter’s texts by examining references to the Marquis de Sade in unpublished fragments of her manuscripts that were believed to have been extremely influential to the theoretical formation of her narratives. She then explains how The Sadeian Woman exemplifies Sade’s use of pornography as a means of exposing cultural structures that mystify femininity and in doing so place women outside of history. To support this notion she defines the Sadeian allusions found in the dual imagery of deathly femininity and femininity as death in The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman. Additionally, the influence of Georges Bataille on Carter is illustrated by the presence of dust in some of The Bloody Chamber’s fairy tales and is discussed by Munford in relation to how it reduces the female body to a site of waste and detritus.

Munford cites Sade’s theatre of suffering as the main influence on nineteenth-century European Gothic and names Edgar Allan Poe and Charles Baudelaire as the key literary figures of this time. She discusses how these figures brought about a change in the Gothic muse who was evolving into a Medusian figure in response to the tension that existed between female beauty and monstrosity within their texts. From here she focuses on Carter’s re-imagined muse and her illusions to Poe and Baudelaire in terms of artist-muse relations. For example, she explores how Poe’s ambivalence towards the maternal figure is reflected in Carter’s abject re-staging of his birth, life, and death in ‘The Cabinet of Edgar Allan Poe’. Similarly, Baudelaire’s fascination with the prostitute as a threat of contamination and disease or a sick muse is demythologised in ‘Black Venus’ through Carter’s ‘re-presencing’ of Jeanne Duval. Munford argues that these revisions destabilise the delicate power balance between the male poet and his female muse and causes the male artist / muse to disappear into the previously (female) Medusian space of the Gothic mirror.

Automated femininity and its relationship to male authority in Carter’s works are linked to the notion of dangerous femininity found in E.T.A. Hoffmann’s ‘The Sandman’ and Villiers de L’Isle Adam’s L’Ève future. These concepts are explored through the doll and toy-maker’s battle for power in The Magic Toyshop, ‘The Loves of Lady Purple’, and later through the surrealist images of Carter’s women as mannequin, hysteric, and chess queen in Shadow Dance and Love. Munford discusses a range of influences in these texts such as woman as a Medusian figure in Freud’s ‘The Uncanny’ and his correlated reading of ‘The Sandman’ as well as German artist Hans Bellmer’s life-size female dolls. She also connects these texts to the evolution of chess in relation to the queen’s ever-changing position and power and how their heroine’s corpses can be read as an imitation of surrealist art.

The influence of European Gothic on parental issues in Carter’s work is then examined in terms of her absent and surrogate maternal figures and how this variation of the family unit often leads to incestuous relations between the daughter and father figure of the text. The Sadeian influence of matricidal impulses and the ensuing gruesome and grotesque methods of death are thoroughly detailed in relation to The Sadeian Woman. Munford pays particular attention to Sade’s refusal to portray femininity in relation to its reproductive function and how Carter uses this perspective to depict the genital area as a site of violence and humiliation. However, Carter later restores the mother-daughter bond in ‘The Bloody Chamber’ which sees the mother return to save her daughter from the Sadeian libertine, and in doing so, frees her from the patriarchal structure of her earlier pornograph. Villiers de L’Isle Adam’s L’Ève future is applied to The Passion of New Eve in order to demystify the eternal feminine which is explored in terms of Evelyn’s gender re-education and physical reconstruction under Mother’s vision. Finally, the Sadeian Gothic influence on the ‘new woman’ of Nights at the Circus is explored through the figure of Fevvers with Eugène Sue’s Les Mystères de Paris and Louis Aragon’s Le Paysan de Paris acting as literary contexts for the novel.

Munford’s attention to detail in her dissection of these works and discussion of how Carter’s textual practice reveals the mechanics of European Gothic fantasies and allusions is admirable and makes for a fascinating read. Her inclusion within the monograph shortlist for the Allan Lloyd Smith prize is well-deserved.

[i] Carter, Angela (1975), ‘Notes on the Gothic Mode’, The Iowa Review, 6:3-4, 132-4.

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