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magic realism - angela carter & a.s.byatt

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Carter and Byatt: Magic Realism

Angela Carter’s Nights at the Circus and A.S Byatt’s Possession are on the surface antithetical in many ways, Carter’s novel often described as ‘experimental’ while Byatt’s has been seen as a traditionalist rejoinder. Both novels can however be interpreted in terms of Bakhtin’s argument that ‘each age re-writes the literature of the age preceding it’.

Byatt’s literal rewriting of Victorian literature, like Carter’s setting her quintessentially postmodern novel ‘at the fag end of the 19th century’ go beyond quality of “leaving home” which Fleishman saw as characteristic of the historical novel, towards in Byatt’s case an exploration of the ‘latitude’ which is given a work entitled a romance, and in C’s to a furthering of her aim to defamiliarise the landscape of habit.

. As Marina Warner has noted all Carter’s work is informed by the rereading of myth and fairytales which is central to The Bloody Chamber. In The Magic Toyshop for example she subverts the reactionary elements in the fairytale ‘wordstring’ of a girl’s ‘transgression’ by including what is usually suppressed, the girl’s “awakening” and awareness of change, as well as of the contructs which determine her role as a woodnymph or ballerina. Melanie knows that the swan is ‘a ludicrous thing’. This allusion to Leda and the Swan is inverted in Nights at the Circus, with Fevvers as the literalised winged creature which often appears in ontologically magic texts. 

Byatt’s novel on the other hand can be seen as epistemologically magical, using fantasy to bind together the two levels of her plot. In this sense Christabel can be seen as the central figure. Her Fairytales for children and her poem Melusine contribute in large part to the magical atmosphere of the novel and form the connecting point with the 20th century characters. This can be seen in the parallel drawn between Roland and the tailor, and Maud and the princess in the Glass Coffin, as well as in the literal re-enacting of the knight’s central transgression scene in Melusine.

Hulbert has argued that the 20th century characters are driven to confront the ‘glacial antiromanticism’ which permeates their world and is symbolised by the Woolfian image of a narrow white bed. In this sense the Victorian setting is significant in both novels as the period which rejected the romantic. Carter and Byatt both structure their works on Romantic quest patterns including elements of the Chase and the Quest, patterns which in both novels involve the progression of characters away from their clinging to the ‘objective’ respectable status of their work. Walser as journalist, Maud and Roland as ‘textual critics’ go on a journey which end with them ‘hatched’ out of their egg or ‘bright safe box’. 

As in Christabel’s fairytales however, happy endings are self-reflexively undermined. As Shinn has noted, Christabel’s saying that ‘we can go no further, having reached the happy end’ realises the romance while admitting the contrivance. In a sense this can be seen as a parallel to an early scene in Nights at the Circus where as Russo has argued Fevver’s incompetence in the air reveals what angels and aristes normally conceal, the ‘labour in the midst of play’ which indicates that the spectacle is produced. 

In part this can be seen as an echo of Buffo and Nelson’s dilemma ‘our work is their pleasure, so they think it must be our pleasure too’. Both Byatt and Carter can be seen as balancing their novels between ‘ideas and sensuality’ as Byatt put it, not as two separate parts but by incorporating one within the other. 

Carter’s ‘glitteringly self-mockingly hybrid’ prose, as Warner described it, Byatt’s self-professed parody and mix between poetry and prose accentuate the elements of the fantastic in their work. This goes beyond what Rifkin described as ‘literary game playing’ to an investigation of the uses of language and the way plots shape lives. 

The difficulty of determining what is ‘genuine’ behaviour informs Carter’s work, while in Possession Roland inverses the usual sense of romance as self-assertive and wonders how far he and Maud are compelled to act as they do because they are ‘in’ a Romance. 

In this context, it is significant that for all the magical elements in her novels, Carter once defined herself (perhaps jokingly) as a social realist, while Byatt had said she sees herself as a self conscious realist. 

Day has argued that that the fantastic elements in Carter have a rationalist basis, and are in part traditional rather than postmodern – for example he notes that the picaresque is invoked ‘straight’, as a means to describe progress rather than as pastiche. Hanson similarly argues that the celebratory tendency of Carter criticism simplifies her radical scepticism. Carter does progress from the analytical demythologising towards what Palmer sees as the libratory depiction of a winged woman and the egg which symbolises psychic rebirth. This progress is however not a simple one, further complicated by the double meaning of these “positive” magical symbols. Rosencreutz reading of Fevvers as the angel of death, for example, and the ‘clutch of eggs’ Lizzie warns Fevvers against, both show the ambiguity of this new hope. Finally, as Russo has argued, the utopia of a white new world or tabula rasa is not an unqualified celebration. Walser’s loss of memory, reduction to a new beginning is not unproblematic, and Fevver’s plan to “hatch him out” is balanced by Lizzie as the witch who sees storms ahead. 

In Byatt’s novel Christabel moves from Princess to ‘witch in a turret’. The fairytale imagery marks both the main female characters, Maud’s blonde hair and the Tennyson Tower which suggests the relevance of her name characterise her in fairytale terms. Byatt sees fairytale as an allegory of a loss of autonomy, while the icy women ‘splendidly null’ are a way of choosing the perfection of work over the cycle of blood and roses. 

In part the mix of ‘ideas and sensuality’ in both novels can be seen as similar to exposing and utilising of the gendering of genre in Tennant’s The Bad Sister. What Shinn describes as Byatt’s empathy for silenced stories reveals itself not only in the burnt and buried letters, the destroyed records Cropper laments, but also in the half-told stories of characters who appear briefly throughout the novel. One poignant though brief example is Bertha’s story. In part Bertha can perhaps be seen as a parallel to Mignon, another ‘voiceless’ character whose story is recovered through a disruption of the realist tradition which discourages authorial intrusion.

Byatt sees Possesion in part as revealing the way ‘human beings escape their biographers’. The multiple meanings of possession indicate the ambiguity in the researchers’ quest for knowledge. Like Walser, desiring to posses, they become possessed by their subject. The limitations of historical record are revealed in part through magic and illusion. As Carter noted ‘fairytales are our living connection with the men and women whose labour made our world’. 

In both novels the possibility of disentangling history from fairytale is problematised. Baudelaire describes history as ‘our lost referential…our myth’. This typically postmodern position of history as lost ‘an indifferent nebula’ informs both novels although it is dealt with differently. The silences in Carter are emphasised, and the most ambiguous hidden myth is Fevver’s. Her extra attributes, her wings, ruffle the pages of Walser’s notebooks and he loses his place. Later, when his disguise disguising nothing, he realises that the fictions we tell and are told create us. This scene is central to the magical element in the novel not only in the overt incidence of time-tampering, the reference to the magic kept prosaically in a handbag, but also on the metaphorical level. Fevvers, trying to demonstrate her first flight, realises there is not enough room. Liz tells her she will have to leave it to Walser’s imagination – Walser as reader engages with the story Fevvers tells through the gaps which invite reader participation.

In Byatt the silences are similarly telling. As Shinn has argued the history of falsehood in Ellen and Ash’s marriage is not a false history but one which in its lacunae performs the truth it hides. Similarly, Ellen’s journal keeps faith with fire and crystalline formations, the language of the earth which cannot be reads by what passes on the habitual surface.

Ellen is a literalisation of the Victorian evacuation of marriage. Her journal is flat, enigmatic yet revealing in the very act of concealing, like Rosseti’s Winter: My Secret. This feature of Byatt’s work takes stereotypes and mythical figures to extremes in a way which suggests parody ‘not in a sneering or mocking way but as rewriting.’ 

This can be seen as a parallel to overliterarization in Nights at the Circus. Matus argues that Carter’s method is to explore, to draw out and explore the implications of the mythical elements she includes in her work. Fevvers is the obvious example, an overliteralization of both angelic and demonic figures of women, she utilises myth – her wings – to escape Rosencreutz, as she takes control of her objectification by making a display of herself, she acts and appears. Similarly, the female freaks who as Boehm argues act as “a magnifying glass rather than a mirror to nature” are symbolic figures. The double function of their role is clearest – and some critics have argued, clichéd - when one freak with an extra set of eyes tell Fevvers that a baby is not nurtured on salt tears.

Boehm argues that misreadings of Carter’s novel are unable to suspend disbelief in the andocentric reading strategies which control plot. See’s reading of Nights at the Circus in terms of a traditional romance plot reflect this, as does Mars Jones criticism of anachronistic allusions. In Byatt, the use of an omnipresent narrator has similarly been criticised for destroying the solidity which some critics see as Possession’s virtue. However, the third person voice is, as Byatt has said, one way of registering events which ‘leave no discernible trace’. 

Byatt however argues that Fowles double endings instead of referring to the world, play the postmodern game in a way which manages to “reduce the world to paperiness”. Rejecting the multiple possibilities approach, she provides a double end in her novel not through presenting a variety of scenarios but through indicating the silences in the historical record. The disruption which ends the book in a gothic farce nevertheless leaves the characters in possession of an incomplete record. Within the genre of a romance of the archive which Keen says gravitates towards gaps and unabashedly takes history as built of material facts, Byatt’s use of magic and myth supplements the records limitations.

The two gardens in Possession are an example of this. Roland’s entrance into the garden can be figured as a transgression which is libratory, like the wild surmise which ends The Magic Toyshop. He moves beyond his hapless deconstruction and failed reading, however he cannot escape the sense of language as self-referential as speaking only itself. Similarly, in the final scene, the edenic garden is both Enna and Eden. The Miltonic ‘not’ in omitted, however prohibition cannot be escaped. Ash becomes the godlike figure who asks the questions while knowing the answers both true and false, and warns Maya not to eat belladonna flowers. This can be compared to the final scene in The Magic Toyshop where as Peach argues everything is burned, the old dark house which the originator of myth, but significantly the myth itself remains. 

Closure, Byatt argues is desirable though frightening and presently unfashionable. Carter on the other hand argues for the necessity of an open-ended narrative of ideas. Both writers however show how ‘anything can go into a novel’ as Byatt says, if you ‘keep up a quiet momentum of narration.’ 


written: 2007
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