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Angela Carter: Wise Children

It is a wise child that knows its own father and paternity is just one of the many themes of this hilarious novel, Carter’s last. It is the story of two twins – Dora and Nora Chance. Dora, at the age of seventy, is now telling their story. Dora and Nora may – and there is a lot of uncertainty even about maternity and certainty about paternity in this novel – have been born to a chambermaid (who died on giving birth to them) and to Melchior Hazard, the man who will become the great Shakespearean actor and who disappeared shortly after having his wicked way with their mother. They are accordingly brought up by the landlady of their mother, a woman they called Grandma. Their father is eventually brought to recognise them but he plays a relatively peripheral part in their lives with his twin brother, Peregrine, recognising them as his children and providing for them.

The book is a romp through the Hazard family and through the entertainment industry. Melchior first marries Lady Atalanta Lynde, mainly for her money, who begets, of course, a pair of twins, Saskia and Imogen. At the beginning of the story Lady Atalanta – now known as Lady A. or Wheelchair (as she is wheelchair-bound) – has been abandoned by her husband (who has since been married twice more) and her children and is living with our heroines, while Saskia is a famous TV chef. Melchior, who has gone on to fame as a Shakespearean actor and, briefly, a film actor, subsequently marries Daisy Duck (as she is known), former wife of his Hollywood producer, by whom he has, of course, a pair of twins, Tristram, now a game show host, and Gareth, who is lost in South America. Finally, he marries Lady Margarine, as they call her, who happens to be Saskia’s best friend. Meantime, our heroines pass through music hall, early cinema (acting with their father in a Hollywood version of Midsummer’s Night Dream, in what is one of the most hilarious episodes of the book), finishing their careers in nudie reviews, while their successors make a go of it in TV. All of this gives Carter a wonderful opportunity to savour the old theatrical arts while decrying the current ones, particularly TV.

Carter not only has a wonderful romp through the entertainment industry and paternity (and maternity) but of course does her bit for the feminist cause, idly compares innocence and corruption, plays all sorts of language games, pays homage to Shakespeare, brings in loads of in-jokes, has fun with twins and makes fun of everything and everyone. This is a wonderful book and wonderfully funny. You should read it.

Publishing history

First published 1991 by Chatto & Windus