Ever since I first read The Bloody Chamber (1979), Angela Carter’s influential collection of repurposed fairytales, I’ve been alert to the genre’s potential for subversion. Those old tales that had most deeply impressed a much younger me transmit grim messages about female powerlessness, evil witches excepted. Take Rapunzel: her paramount feature, long hair, serves only to grant others access to her, while her tears have the power to restore sight but, like her hair, spring forth involuntarily. And the versions of these and other such stories on which I was raised are the work of male authors. So it’s seemed to me only natural that women, especially, have an investment in pulling these tales apart and reshaping them.
‘A compelling reimagining of the story of Rapunzel by one of our best novelists’, says the blurb on the cover of ‘Beauty’s Sister’ by James Bradley. Why, I wondered, would a male author desire to retell a story that, more than many from the Grimms, centres on female experience? And after reading his novelette, I wondered if I’d missed something. Seeking perspective, I reread a take on Rapunzel by one of Ireland’s best novelists. ‘The Tale of the Hair’ is the sixth of thirteen in Emma Donoghue’s linked collection Kissing the Witch (1997), subtitled Old Tales in New Skins.
Bradley tells the same old tale more or less, but in realist mode (if not vividly so) and from an extra character’s angle. The effect amounts to a shift of position, outer rather than inner – though hats off to any man who tries to view life through a teenage girl’s eyes! And his revision is nothing if not respectful. In no way does he violate genre conventions. Nor gender conventions. And this uncharacteristic lack of inventiveness goes for his prose. Compare the first two sentences from each version:
Bradley: ‘I was four when I discovered I had a sister. It was winter, the forest outside still and silent, the fire dancing in the hearth.’
Donoghue: ‘You see me now reduced to a skull; I have shed all the trappings of flesh, skin and mane. You’ll look much like this when you’re dead too.’
Now compare the treatment of a key moment (spoiler alert) from each version:
Bradley: ‘I worked quickly, binding my sister to the bed. When I was done Jinka produced a pair of scissors, and with rough strokes began to cut Rapunzel’s hair away.’
Donoghue: ‘Weighing them between my hands, I realized that my hair was my own to do what I would with. The small paring knife was slow in my hand, but it sawed through the plaits one by one.’
While the above examples may not show it, Donoghue’s narrator undergoes greater transformation (the essence of a fairytale?) in fewer pages. And despite the conciseness of Jeanette Winterson’s Rapunzel variant – less than a page in her novel Sexing the Cherry (1989) – she makes some trenchant observations, e.g.: ‘Her family were so incensed by her refusal to marry the prince next door that they vilified the couple, calling one a witch and the other a little girl.’ Like Donoghue, she plays with gender, if in a more directly political way, portraying the witch and Rapunzel as allies and lovers. In Bradley’s version, all the women distrust one another. Having been both betrayed and betrayer, his serious, unironic narrator finds a kind of redemption in solitude: apt for a morality tale that feels psychologically true. So what’s new?
Inevitably, literary originality gets harder to find in a world where ever more ‘individuals’ are writing, while the sheer volume of fiction for sale lets us think there’s more choice than ever before. Yet, some categories of difference don’t amount to a real choice at all. Censorship, for instance, can suppress a whole dimension of discourse. And though we might sign petitions against, say, internet censorship, our culture rewards us for self-censoring. That’s why the work of Kathy Acker (a sex-positive feminist, as was Angela Carter) continues to be provocative. As a mentor taught her, ‘you don’t just sit down and write, you have to know why you write and why you use certain methodologies.’ Agreed. And so, what if you don’t just sit down and read, you have to know why you read and why you respond to certain methodologies? A candid local critic, Stephen Wright, says:
I needn’t agree with all of the above to respect where he’s coming from. Freedom to choose is meaningless to the extent that it’s uninformed. Two decades ago, in an airplane-hangar-sized all-night supermarket on the US west coast, I was staggered by the range of yogurt flavours: lime, coffee, various kinds of berry etc. Yet all of it was made from the milk of factory-farmed cows. That’s the real status of choice capitalism offers: superficial alternatives that distract from, obscure, the logic of profit. And we see the same phenomenon in fiction: the trend toward endless hybridising of genres (Paranormal Romance; why not lime AND coffee?) – recombinations of tropes that still don’t lead readers beyond what they know.
‘Penguin Specials fill a gap’, says the front flyleaf blurb for ‘Beauty’s Sister’. And ‘they are short enough to be read in a single sitting...’ Apparently fiction now gets pitched on the basis of length before content: fill that gap between dinner and bedtime, short story and novella, children’s tale and literary game changer. And no doubt there’s room for twists on Rapunzel told by long-lost brothers, neighbours, aunts/uncles, or vampire- or zombie-themed treatments. But why bother? Is it real choice, an endless rotation of factory-farmed voices? Which brings me back to the value of literary criticism (in which, incidentally, Bradley specialises). Most book reviews serve little purpose beyond spruiking an author’s latest release – even bad press beating none, with a friend’s endorsement the ultimate – because most consumers are content to read the way they eat: without knowing where a product comes from. Was the cow artificially inseminated by force to keep it lactating to the max? Was the author bound by a two-book deal scraping the barrel bottom to produce an overdue second novel? That’s not aimed at Bradley. Familiar with only his unique if overlong second novel, The Deep Field (1999), I may have expected something more challenging. And now I can find no reviews of ‘Beauty’s Sister’ that take the time either to critique it or to convincingly justify its existence. Not that I’m suggesting that gap needs filling. Yet I wonder whether the PC blandness of so much of what’s published today belies a climate of growing desperation.