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Wise Children – Angela Carter

December 22, 2015

WC 2This book has a spirituality about it – that of those who are marginalised, having lost everything and who take each day as it comes and enjoy it as far as is possible.

 The repeated refrain in Wise Children is “What a joy it is to dance and sing! ” It is a book about celebration and about the lighter side of life, not tragedies, and even from the plodding passage of the everyday. The spirit of the carnivalesque permeates the work.

 Carnival was a time when all the hierarchies that were so firmly established in medieval life were inverted. The lowliest were placed at the same level as those who were ordinarily socially superior and sometimes even elevated above them. This was a time of flux.

It acknowledged the organic functions of the body with bawdy references to eating, drinking, copulation and defecation.

Carnival was marked by inclusion rather than exclusion and embraced the diversity of humanity in all its forms and imperfections, and privileged those imperfections. The emphasis was on our earthy side, and so much of the carnival imagery dealt with humans when they are closest to the earth: namely, at times of birth and of death.

Dora says, when her father enters the scene: “… smashing legs… I did piss myself when I saw him, in fact, but only a little bit, hardly enough to stain the sofa. Such eyes! Melchior’s eyes, warm and dark and sexy as inside of a London cab in wartime… those knicker-shifting, unfasten-your-brassiere-from-the-back-of-the-gallery eyes… ”

Later, it is not Melchior’s eyes that come under scrutiny, but some other, considerably more private, parts: “…the way that Melchior filled those tights was the snag; Genghis hadn’t gone to all this expenses so that his wife would be upstaged by her co-star’s package”

Dora admits a spiritual link with her sister but implies the physical differences between them: “identical we may be, but symmetrical — never. For the body itself isn’t symmetrical. One of your feet is bound to be bigger than the other, one ear will leak more wax. Nora is fluxy; me, constipated”. The difference between their personalities, when Nora is described as impulsive, emotive and gushing, while Dora is cautious, thoughtful and reserved is best illustrated when Nora says ‘Yes!’ to life and Dora says, ‘Maybe’.

She doesn’t care about who was born as what, and so she is ready to reduce everyone to the same level by bringing out all their common flaws and their humanity. Nor does she pretend to be any better than they. She willingly admits to her own shortcomings and transgressions — often as not without shame and with few regrets. And so it is that in her laughter, we can find our own humanity as well — our virtues and our shortcomings. We can never quite take ourselves seriously when we think of Dora’s stories, because as she points out, “nothing is a matter of life and death except life and death”.

Both Dora and Nora, not knowing their mother or father, have to find identity of themselves somewher else: “our mother died when we were born”. Maybe it even makes them stronger.

WC As a symbol of post-war Britain, Gorgeous George is a parody of the English patron saint. He is a comedian who has the map of the world tattoed on his body. But, as Dora notes, he is not comic at all but an enormous statement. Some of the irony is of his own design; he flexes his muscles to ‘God save the the King’ and ‘Rule Britannia’ ; the Cape of Good Hope is at his navel and the Falkland Islands disappear down the crack of his bum’.

When Dora mentions “nothing queer about our George”, it suggests anxiety about homosexuality, which was a very topical question in the 1980s.

WC 3 Quotations:

It’s a wise child that knows its own father… But wiser yet the father who knows his own child.”

“Fate continued to deal kindly with Melchior

“The destination of Melchior had been prepared for him since birth

“He was doomed to wear the pasteboard crown

“We were doomed to dance and sing

“It is a characteristic of human beings that if they haven’t got a family of their own, they will invent one”

“He’d brought me on a pilgrimage”

“I live mostly in the past these days, I find it’s better”

A celibate one – a non-combatant, as it were.

“To add to the hypothetical,disputed, absent father that was such a feature of our history, now you could add a holy father, too. Put it down to liberation theology.”

“The priest and the game show host, not so different, really.”


“Memory lane is a dead end”

“Grandma invented this family. She put it together out of whatever came to hand… she created it by sheer force of personality”

“She was a naturist, she was a vegetarian, she was a pacifist”

“She wasn’t going to let Hitler inconvenience her drinking habits”

When the bombardments began, she’d go outside and shake her fist at the old men in the sky”

“She was our air raid shelter, she was our entertainment, she was our breast”

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From → Spirituality

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