I am 23 and utterly clueless regarding most facets of life. Like many have written before me, and will undoubtedly continue to do so, making one’s way in the world can be mind-bogglingly difficult. Becoming a young woman in a culture that is markedly against young women – through the institutionalised fears about our sexual autonomy, the violence perpetrated against our bodies, or opinions of our mental and emotional capabilities – is at times exasperating and scary.
However, this negativity exists on a complex continuum. Such harmful acts are coupled with the architecture of girlhood, to create a feminine experience that’s stained with tears, blood and moonlight. This assessment might seem a bit melodramatic, but haven’t we written dark thoughts on secret diary pages, found an allure within the unknown, or cried because of the messiness of the bundles hoisted upon our shoulders? Perhaps, unsurprisingly, these moments of utter agony, the feelings of being forgotten or unlovable are provisions for the heartiest growth spurts.
The writer Angela Carter understands such messiness and how this confusion is a transformative force. Like many other girls with a literary streak, Carter’s work came into my life when I needed ideas of magic and treachery, tales of women making their ways through the wilderness.
Angela Carter was born on May 7th, 1940 and passed away on February 16th, 1992. While Carter’s body of work comprises numerous collections of short stories and several novels, The Bloody Chamber anthology is perhaps her most infamous creation. The stories within The Bloody Chamber have commonly been called feminist fairy tales, but in actuality are narrations of survival and gruesome affinities within a world populated by handsome wolves and hidden tigers.
The first story I read within The Bloody Chamber was The Company of Wolves, which is a reworking of Little Red Riding Hood. I, like many others, read Little Red Riding Hood as a child and understood the fundamentals of the story to be: girl strays from path, meets wolf, girl’s subsequent naivety is the cause of grandmother’s devouring by said wolf, both are rescued by a man. However, as I grew older I became more aware of the story’s insidious undertones. For instance, under the criterion of Little Red Riding Hood, if you are a young woman you have reason to be afraid. If you stray from your path (either literal or metaphoric) you invite danger upon the ones you love. The classic Red Riding Hood is someone whose downfall is her inexperience. She has no chance to grow or learn, because in the world of fairy tale morality her disobedience is a magnet for catastrophe.
Carter’s Red defies these conventions through her utter fearlessness in exploring the forest and her liaison with the wolf. In Carter’s world Red Riding Hood, “stands and moves within the invisible pentacle of her own virginity. She is an unbroken egg; she is a sealed vessel; she is a closed system; she does not know how to shiver. She has her knife and she is afraid of nothing.” She is a young woman whose power stems from the very fact that she is a young, inexperienced woman. Her power and ability to grow and change directly correlates to her own feelings about the adventure: “she is afraid of nothing.” She is the subject of her own story – a story that is reclamation for all who have gone off the beaten path.
Growing up I was riddled with anxiety, terrified by any whiff of the unknown. To be truthful, I am also a planner by nature, so anything that couldn’t be quantified, or expected, or understood brought on waves of nervousness and nausea. However, all the things that can’t be quantified, expected, or understood make our time on earth a beautiful existence. It would be a cliché to say that Carter’s work completely changed my life, but her work certainly contributed to who I am today. I see options. Instead of being a meek girl shuffling my way along a well-trodden path, I know I can explore the forest, meet a wolf and I’ll be okay.
This past Christmas, I spoke at length with a young relative about her love of reading and her own anxieties regarding being a young, complex woman. Something told me to go into my room and get my copy of The Bloody Chamber. I gave her the book and hopefully she too will find her own forest.
Words: Annette LePique
Image: Anna Robinson