Black Venus – 1985
Sad; so sad, those smoky-rose, smoky-mauve evenings of late autumn, sad enough to pierce the heart. The sun departs the sky in winding sheets of gaudy cloud; anguish enters the city, a sense of bitterest regret, a nostalgia for things we never knew, anguish of the turn of the year, the time of impotent yearning, the inconsolable season. In America, they call it “the Fall”, bringing to mind the Fall of Man, as if the fatal drama of the primal fruit-theft must recur again and again, with cyclic regularity, at the same time of every year that schoolboys set out to rob orchards, invoking, in the most everyday image, any child, every child, who, offered the choice between virtue and knowledge, will always choose knowledge, always the hard way. Although she does not know the meaning of the word, ‘regret’, the woman sighs, without any precise reason.
Soft twists of mist invade the alleys, rise up from the slow river like exhalations of an exhausted spirit, seep in through the cracks in the window frames so that the contours of their high lonely apartment waver and melt. On these evening, you see everything as though your eyes are going to lapse to tears.
Carter’s third collection, published in 1985 as Black Venus in the UK and Saints and Strangers in the states, features mostly stories about women throughout history, such as Lizzy Borden, Edgar Allen Poe’s mother, the actress Elizabeth Arnold Poe and the title character, Jeanne Duval. While the collection continues to theme of Carter’s work in defining male tales through the eyes of the other sex, only three of the stories in the collection contain the more fantastic elements of her previous collection, The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories, as she chooses instead to focus on typically male perceptions of history, redefining the roles of the women in those situations. Duval is transformed from kept woman and sexual object of Baudelaire to a superior sexual being who holds the naïve poet in thrall and outlives him becoming wiser. Lizzy Borden’s crime becomes not a horrific act of violence but a form of emancipation from a cruel and oppressive situation. In doing so, Carter creates another strong collection of stories focused on destroying male myths about femininity.
The opening story, Black Venus, is Carter’s take on the muse and mistress of Charles Baudelaire, Jeanne Duval, whom he called his “Vénus Noire”, the inspiration for the Black Venus Cycle poems in Les Fleurs du Mal. What she represents to Baudelaire she also represents to men through the glass of history, mysterious because she is Creole and sexual because she was a dancer and the object of desire of someone as perverse as the “evil poet”. We are told of how he becomes aroused one night after abducting her from the place where she dances, having seen her urinate in the street without any indication or sense of shame. The subtle suggestion she is a fallen woman as implied in the quote above is reinforced by the last sighting of Nadar that sees her syphilitic, toothless and on crutches. Through Carter she is transformed, her sexuality becomes an empowerment as she charges Baudelaire for sex because she respects him and because she is worth it. She is also shown to be the more intelligent of the two; although she appreciates his art, as she recognizes the stupidity in his comparing her dance to a snake, as if he had seen one like she had, he would know how ridiculous the comparison is. Baudelaire himself is shown to be all talk and somewhat as a poseur, as he weeps in her arms post coitus. At the end of the tale she outlives the poet who dies of syphilis and is able to put her own life together in outliving him, returning to the Caribbean and living to become a wise old woman, having “snatched herself from the lion’s mouth”. Carter’s Duval is not a sexual object for male perversion but a strong, independent and empowered sexual being.
The second story, The Kiss, is the shortest story in the collection and is about an incident between Tamerlane and his beautiful and clever wife. With her husband on his way home to Samurkand from another victorious campaign, the wife wants the Mosque she has had built in his honour to be finished for his return, but one archway still remains unfinished. She summons the builder, but he will only complete it in return for the payment of a kiss. The wife does not want to be unfaithful and so being clever she devises a plan in order to trick him by giving him eggs of different colour to eat. When he has eaten them and is unimpressed because they were all the same, she uses that against him by saying that the same logical applies to kisses regardless of aesthetics therefore she will allow him to kiss any one of her handmaidens instead. His counterproposal includes three bowls of clear liquid, two containing water and one vodka, with the argument that although they look alike, each tastes different and this is the case with love. After this she kisses him and when Tamburlaine returns home she will not return to the harem because she has tasted vodka, telling him that she has kissed the architect. She is beaten and he sends his guards to execute the architect who is at the archway having completed it, but when they arrive he grows wings and flies away. The vodka serves as a catalyst to awaken the wife to her subservient role and once it has occurred she can never go back to the way it was. It is implied at the end of the story that she flees the palace to be a normal woman who would visit the market, and perhaps sometimes sell lilies, becoming the old woman who seems to live unaffected by time, mentioned earlier in the story.
Our Lady of the Massacre tells the story of a Lancashire lass who moves to London, where she has to steal a loaf of bread to avoid starving and is caught by a gentleman who coaxes her to go to a bedroom with him where they have sex. Afterwards when he realises she was a virgin, he is ashamed and gives her some money and as a result she starts to prostitute herself on Cheapside in order to get by. In addition to whoring, she also begins to steal out of excitement and is caught lifting a gold watch from a city aldermen which leads to her being transported to the New World. There she is sent to work on a plantation but has to run away after she cuts the ears off of one of the foremen who attempts to rape her. She attempts to travel to Florida where she intends to make a living from whoring again, but along the way realises that she is able to survive by herself living off the land. While out in the wild she encounters a Native American woman who takes her in as a daughter and she becomes part of the tribe. There she lives a simple life, happy because she has no wants or needs and is part of a community. She even gets married to one of the tribesmen and has a baby boy. Her happiness does not last though, as soon the English come and the men of the tribe will not heed her warning, as she is a woman. Believing as they are proud warriors they will be a match for the English army. Caught the morning after a victory, hung over and unable to defend themselves, the Native Americans are all slaughtered by the English and the protagonist sees her husband shot dead, and her surrogate mother raped and murdered. She is taken away by the English to be taken back to town and branded, but on the way a priest buys her freedom so he can save hers and the baby’s soul. At the end it is revealed that she is to be married off to one of the townsmen and the baby is to be taken and raised in the church, but she states that she will never allow this to happen. In England the protagonist sells herself because that is the only way she is able to survive and steals out of the lack of anything meaningful in her life. This is reversed when she goes to live with the supposedly less civilized Native Americans because she is given a place in the community and respected as a woman. She is a strong woman throughout and even after the tragedy that occurs to her she remains that way, refusing to let another take her son away from her, no matter what it takes.
The next story is one of my personal favourite Carter stories, The Cabinet of Edgar Allen Poe, dealing with the effect that Poe’s childhood and his mother had on his psychological problems later in life. His mother, Eliza Poe, was an actress, praised for her ability and versatility in play roles ranging from Shakespeare’s tragic heroines Ophelia and Juliet Capulet to choral, dancing and comedy roles. In Carter’s story Edgar as a child watches every night in the wings, sometimes wandering onto the stage and kept quiet when he cried with a dab of alcohol (a suggested precursor to his own heavy alcoholism). The thing he enjoys most is seeing her in her cabinet mirror, watching her change completely from one person to another in front of it. After his mother is abandoned by their father, she continues to try and raise them until her own death from consumption two years afterwards. As described by Carter:
The moist, sullen, Southern winter signed her quietus. She put on Ophelia’s madwoman’s nightgown for her farewell.
When she summoned him, the spectral horseman came. Edgar looked out the window and saw him. The soundless hooves of black-plumed horses struck sparks from the stones in the road outside. “Father!” said Edgar; he though their father must have reconstituted himself at this last extremity in order to transport them all to a better place but, when he looked more closely, by the light of a gibbous moon, he saw the sockets of the coachman’s eyes were full of worms.
The death of his mother has a profound effect on Poe as he has seen his mother die countless times before on the stage and get back up after the curtain fails, but this time she does not return. Three weeks after her death he is taken in by the Allen’s and given a good home and education, he grows up to marry his thirteen year old cousin Virginia Clemm. The pair were married for eleven years until her death of tuberculosis. Through the story, Carter shows the way in which Poe was shaped by the tragic death of the two women he loved and we know that the effect was the constant theme of dying or dead women in his work, such as Ligeia and The Oblong Box.
For the next two tales, Carter returns to the familiar area of folk lore for a reimagining of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer’s Night Dream in which she introduces a golden hermaphrodite, and Peter and the Wolf, returning again to the theme of feral children. In Overture and Incidental Music for A Midsummer’s Night Dream Carter imagines a very English sort of wood as the setting in which she places into the story a golden hermaphrodite called Herm who is under the care of Titania, who is determined to protect her from the amorous advances of her husband Oberon. While the forest begins to change to match Oberon’s sexual frustration, Titania uses the Herm for herself, cuckolding her husband. In addition to this, the Herm is also lusted after by Puck who follows her into the forest where she practices yoga, but is unable to molest her because of a barrier created to protect the Herm from harm and as a result, can only watch and masturbate. Puck even manages to make himself into a hermaphrodite with the position of his genitals reversed, but his plan still does not come to fruition. The interesting thing about the story (despite the language being lush even by Carter’s standards) is the symbolism that she uses in each of the characters. Titania is a fertility goddess while her husband the King is frustrated male dominance and Puck is pure uninhibited animal sexuality. The golden Herm, while possessing both sets of genitals and being desired by men and women alike seems to find the whole idea of sex boring, as if more enlightened through a higher state as shown by his/her yoga. In adapting the tale Carter retains the bawdiness of Shakespeare’s play while making it uniquely her own story.
In Peter and the Wolf, when he comes of age to go hunting in the mountains, Peter discovers a young girl amongst the wolves. She is his cousin who has become feral as her parents were killed by wolves in the mountain when she was just a baby. Calling the other hunters, they track her and take her home, where she is wild and continues to be a handful, although Peter and his grandmother are committed to try to help her. She begins to howl loudly though and before long the wolves have come down from the mountain and start scratching on the door in order to reclaim her, breaking into the house and freeing her. The girl is so animalistic that she even scares the grandmother who knows that it is her dead daughters’ child and wants to love it. After this event, Peter becomes religious, taking a great interest in the bible and religious studies with the village Priest and when he comes of age is recommended to go and study at the seminary. Leaving the village, he comes to the village and he sees his cousin on the other side with two wolf cubs who nurse on her (perhaps for comfort, or maybe even the dark symbolism of bestiality). Seeing her there, he is reminded of his desire for her which was enflamed when he first was drawn to her sex when she was naked in the house. He runs across the river to her, forsaking everything, but he just scares her off. Like Puck in the previous story, the feral girl represents animal sexuality, but she also represents a kind of freedom that Peter also desires but cannot have. Continuing on his way, Peter notices that the mountains of his youth have become to him like those on a postcard and does not look back for fear of sharing the same fate as Lot’s wife.
The next story, The Kitchen Child, tells the story of a young boy born from a chance encounter between his mother and a mystery man in the kitchen of a country house in which she works. Being raised in the kitchen, the boy learns from a young age a number of culinary skills and his mother continues to cook impressive dishes. She is constantly being vexed by her antagonist the head housekeeper and feels underappreciated as when the master of the house visits he never asks for her speciality, the lobster soufflé. One year when the Duke visits, the boy approaches him to try and find out about his father and learns that he has sadly passed away, but also that the housekeeper has been purposely not passing on the message, leading his mother to believe wrongly that he was not interested in the lobster soufflé. As an act of kindness he goes down to the kitchen in order to give the boy’s mother a seeing-to, but she rejects him, as when she was molested on the previous occasion it caused her to accidently add too much cayenne to the dish. The Duke is moved by the mother’s dedication to her job and brings her back with her son to be the head chef at his residence, the boy becoming the Duke’s stepson and the youngest French chef in England. In the mother we see a woman who is strong and independent, able to raise her child while having a career and being dedicated to her art.
The final story in the collection is The Fall River Axe Murderers which tells the story of Lizzy Borden, who in folklore famously murdered both her father and stepmother with an axe, although in reality, doubt still remains as to whether or not she did it, as she was acquitted at trial. Carter’s Lizzy lives in an oppressive house where due to a recent break-in, all the doors remain locked at all times, including her bedroom when she is asleep. Her father is quite wealthy but he is a miser, so even the shape of the house is oppressive, very narrow, and Carter uses this to create an atmosphere that is in a sense claustrophobic. Her stepmother is presented as being rather gluttonous, she does not really do anything in the story except eat and eat and the relationship between her and Lizzy is not a good one as they do not get along. Lizzy’s sister has gone away to stay with friends in another town, but Lizzy feels compelled to stay in Massachusetts for reasons that are at that time unknown to her. As the heat becomes unbearable, making everyone in the house ill, an event occurs that triggers Lizzy’s crime. While her father is a miser (to the point that when he was in the undertaking business he cut off feet to fit people into caskets he had gotten on the cheap) he dotes on his daughter and buys her whatever she wants, including the pet doves that she craved. One day though he grows sick and tired of the doves and kills them, almost allowing his wife to eat them in a pie before he is stopped by the servant girl who likes Lizzy and knows that would add cruelness to an already bad situation. Lizzy’s crime becomes almost an act of radical freedom in which she resorts to violence in order to emancipate herself a cruel and oppressive situation. In retelling the story in this way, Carter changes Borden from a person seen as a “crazy woman” by a male perspective of history to a woman who refused to be a victim.
In conclusion, Black Venus is another strong collection of short stories from Carter examining and demythifying the roles of women throughout history. As stated, The Cabinet of Edgar Allen Poe is one of my favourites of all Carter’s short work and even the one that I feel is the weakest in the collection, The Kitchen Child, is still a strong story. Carter’s prose continues to be lush and uniquely hers, her symbolism rich and vivid and her ideas strongly tied to narrative. While it may not be as good as her best collection, The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories, it is still a fantastic collection and recommended to all of you who are fans of literature.
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