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Quotes within: "It's every woman's tragedy that after a certain age, she looks like female impersonator."
And: "Comedy is tragedy that happens to other people."
Wise Children is told from a perspective of a 75-year-old Dora (Nora's twin), an illegitimate child of a theatrical family, the Hazards. While the book is filled with twins, incest, mistaken identity (well, they ARE a theatrical family after all - many productions and just as many nods to Shakespeare within) as Dora remembers the old days and faces new problems, it never ceases to be believable.
Dora's voice is what makes the novel stand out. Cynical, yet still girl-ish at heart. Witty, yet still sensitive and emotional in front of a father who rejected them. Flashy, yet self-depreciating in her own old-age. Indeed, behind all the wit and humour, here is a character who'd been through years of heart-break with a smile and a kick.
A joy to read.
For those who love Angela Carter's feminism, it isn't in-your-face in this novel, but there are various absent fathers, failing fathers, and rejected fathers. Yes, paternity is a real theme here, along with the sheer energy of the song and dance that fuel Dora and Nora's lives.
I studied this book quite extensively for A Levels, and to be honest it is probably one of my favourite books of all time, but I will try not to spoil it too much!!
The gist of the story is this: Twin sisters Dora and Nora, who have been brought up by their Grndma after their orphan mother died in childbirth, are sitting at home on their 75th birthday and they receive a letter in the post, inviting them to their father's and uncle's (also twins) 100th birthday that evening. Suddenly their nephew (actually half-brother but he doesn't know that! Oh and also a twin!) arrives on their doorstep telling them that his girlfriend has gone missing, and then we learn about the twins' life from when they were abandoned as babies to their careers in show business to unwanted marriages and a lack of a father all through those years. They never had children and never had a father who would acknowledge them, but on their 75th birthday there's a small piece of them that hopes that will change. The whole story is told from Dora's perspective, but she tells of both hers and Nora's lives and considering they spent almost every waking minute together it is no surprise she knows all about her experiences too!
I don't want to spoil this book as I think it's a really good read for anyone, and something that should be read by everyone! It's a kind of tragic story with a twist; they believe that their father is Melchior, and have done all their lives, but as he has a twin brother Peregrine it makes you wonder about who really is the father! It also has a huge Shakespeare influence too - most of the plays spoken about are Shakespeare plays, and all 4 of their birthdays actually fall on Shakespeare's birthday too, so it's a hue influence to Angela Carter in this book. Although I don't like Shakespeare personally (his plays are so hard to analyse!!) the influence of him was actually very amazing in this book; almost every chapter has a reference, almost everything said or done has a reference. I was so surprised when analyzing it so closely in class! This is most definitely a must-read if you like Shakespeare and it's 'adapted' books and films, for want of a better phrase, although it's not so much adapted as more explained and explored.
Dora tells the story in first person narrative, the only way it can be told as far as I'm concerned, and although it is a tragic story they have so much fun and do so many great things along the way. They end up in squalor, in Hollywood, no dad, one dad, two dads... It's incredible, and I really don't know where Carter got the imagination for this but wow!
All the characters have a part to play aswell, and I don't think there are many characters that are named that don't have something to do with Dora and Nora throughout; even some random actors in the plays end up in bed with them or married of to a member of their family, so they're all useful and necessary, unlike some books that will sometimes explain a character at the beginning that will never show up in the rest of the book again! There are also hugely shocking bits to the plot too, such as incest and lies and confusion over fatherhood; because Perry and Melchior are twins, it is impossible to know who fathered who - there are at least 3 sets of twins fathered by the 2 of them, but you never find out who is the actual father of each set! This I think adds to the story in so many ways, one of which shows just what it was like back in those days when it was difficult to know, but with such a funny twist!
It's not even a long book either, 200-300 pages I think, and once you start reading it doesn't even matter - we were told to read the first chapter for homework one night when we got the book, and me being me and really getting into it ended up reading the first 7! It ruined he class work but I really didn't care at that point.
I probably read it 3 or 4 times during that year, and then once more since leaving College, and it really was an amazing book to read. In fact, I may have to go dig my copy up and read it again - definitely a recommended book from me!
Wise Children, the final book written by Angela Carter tells the story of Dora and Nora Chance, identical twins and illegitimate and unrecognised daughters of theatre legend Melchior Hazard. On the twins 75th birthday they receive an invitation to Mechiors 100th birthday party and after 75 years of being ignored they don't hesitate to get dressed up and go. Dora then starts to look back at her and her sisters long and eventful life in the theatre and around the world.
As their mother, chambermaid Pritti Kitty dies giving birth, the two twins are adopted by 'grandma', although not related by blood a grandma to the two in every other sense of the world. They grow up in a house in London which is constantly taking on a wide variety of random women and have quite a liberated youth as inspired by the naturism of their grandma. Also from birth, twin brother of Melchior, Peregrine Hazard, takes on the role of father to the two, in the eyes of the law so as to help the small family out with a bit of extra money. As he also works in the theatre industry, Dora and Nora start their acting careers from a very young age. From small parts in London theatre to being cast as extras in America in a movie of A Midsummer Nights Dream starring father Mechior and one of his many hearts desires Daisy Duck. The story goes through the lives of the girls and their theatre careers, focusing on their (mostly non-existent) relationship with their fathers, his many wives and children, until the night of the aforementioned party.
I am sure that any fans of Angela Carter will recognise this if one of, if not the best, of her novels. Her writing style is like no others, rich in description, double entendre, and fantastical characters. This book is full of very strong and extravagant personalities, there is hardly anyone in there who isn't a big personality, you may wonder how, by the size of the book, so many big characters manage to fit in. But the do! This book is over the top in everyway that the theatre is meant to be. There was a couple of times when I did wonder who was actually related to who, but luckily there's a list of characters in the back of the book stating as much. Everyone seems to be related to each other in Wise Children, legitimately, illegitimately, by blood or not. Although the story does have a beginning middle and end it doesn't follow the usual plot form as most books, you never really know where it's going, although a lot seems to be happening at all times. However, I found this very readable and read it pretty fast, it's one of those kind of books that you can't put down, even though it has no real cliff hangers, you still want to know what's going to happen. This is a really excellent read, I love the writings of Angela Carter and if you haven't read anything of hers already I would urge you to give her a try!
Wise Children By Angela Carter
Angela Carters Wise Children is the life story of show businesses Chance Sisters. Dora Chance, twin sister of Nora, narrates throughout the story. She tells their colourful life tale upon the commencement of the twins seventy- fifth birthdays.
The story is set mainly in England. The twins spend a great deal of their lives based at their childhood home in Brixton, South London. I think Angela Chance has chosen this setting to exaggerate and highlight the twins illegitimacy. The North and South divide of social London were very clear at the time of the books setting. The Right side of the tracks is the North and the wrong side, the South. There is to be no overlapping of borders, as the sides are very definitely separated by the river.
At the time of the twins births, there was a huge stigma attached to being illegitimate. Angela Chance has again exaggerated this by adding that the sisters are half orphaned (their Mother died in childbirth) and unacknowledged by their father. So effectively there is double the stigma there.
The fact that Angela Chance has used a lot of exaggeration is no great coincidence. This story centres on the world of show business. A world full of larger than life characters, melodramas and indeed exaggeration on every level.
The twins know very little about their Mother. They know that she died in childbirth, when she was working at 49 Bard Road, Brixton, London. The properties rooms where at the time of the twins births, let to theatricals that Nora describes as being
Not shall I say theatricals of the well heeled variety
Nora and Dora were brought up by the owner of 49 Bard Road whom they know as Grandma although she bears no relation to the girls to their knowledge. In fact, the twins seem to know very little about the woman, who has taken them in, loved, cherished and brought them up. Nora describes what she knows early on the book.
All that I know about her is shed arrived at 49 Bard Road, on new years day 1900, with a bankers draft for the first years rent and the air of a woman making a new start, in a new place, a new century and so the evidence points, a new name.
The sisters biological father is the famous Melchoir Hazzard, an acclaimed actor, who has dedicated his career to playing Shakespeares lead characters. Melchoir has followed in both of his show business parents footsteps. He however does not acknowledge Nora and Dora as being his daughters.
Grandma Chance confronts Melchoir Hazzard about being the girls father, upon discovering that coincidentally he is acting in the play, she has taken the twins to for their seventh birthday. Melchoir is just about to wed Lady Atlanta Lynde at this
point and denies fathering the twins for fear the marriage will not happen if the truth gets out. Instead, Melchoirs twin brother Peregrine claims to be the twins father.
Peregrine Hazard is a flamboyant character who adores the twins. He provides for them financially throughout their childhood and also sends extravagant gifts from some of the far-flung places across the world that he visits. He always seems to have several business ventures on the go, although the twins know very little about these. He is portrayed in this story as quite a hero. He has taken on the girls wholeheartedly whilst his twin brother has disowned them totally, despite being their biological father.
Peregrine wins the girls hearts the first time he meets them, by being a magician. He always turns up unexpectedly at 49 Bard Road laden down with exotic gifts for the girls and bottles of crème de la menthe for Grandma Chance. Right the way throughout the girls childhood, Peregrine displays an endless ability to surprise, delight and wow the girls and Grandma Chance. His reputation however becomes completely tarnished right at the end of the book when we discover all along that Peregrine has sexually abused and taken Noras virginity. One calls in to question the authors sense of moral obligation to her readers.
Throughout the book, Angela Chance uses Melchoir and Peregrine, the twins to display binary opposition. Melchoir and Peregrine are very different in character and that was apparent from an early age, despite them being twins.
Now although these two were twins, they were not alike as two peas
Melchoir is described at ten, as being dark, brooding and very serious about his acting. Whereas his twin brother Peregrine is described as being
A holy terror and couldnt keep a straight face
Angela Chances use of binary opposition adds structuralism to the characters and thus the story.
Nora and Dora take after Grandma Chance, they will help and take in anybody as a member of their own family. Whereas in the Hazzard family, it is an entirely different story altogether. The author uses this to display a clear example of irony. Dora and Noras half sisters by Lady Atlanta display unbelievable cruelty towards their Mother. They push her down the stairs and steal everything that belongs to her. Ironically, it is Nora and Dora who come to the rescue and bring Lady Atlanta to live with them.
Angela Chance has worked at an ideological level that reflects accurately upon the era in which the story has been written. The main example of this is of course the twins illegitimacy. The Hazzard family clearly see themselves as belonging to a different social class to Nora and Dora. They see themselves as a cut above them, despite the fact that this is a dysfunctional family that boasts affairs, incest and indeed poor treatment of many an unfortunate person, who has become involved with the family. This is somehow acceptable because this is a famous, legitimate family. Angela Chance shows how one single irrelevant fact such as illegitimacy can make you socially unacceptable whereas legitimacy means you can get away with near on anything!
Wise Children, like all Angela Carter's novels, is very, very, very hard to quantify. The novel itself is a minefield of clichés, stock characters and contrived situations waiting to happen. My point being: this never happens. Ever. Not at all. This does not seem possible.
Contextualisation: knowing the name and not much else I picked up the novel second hand, having read the first few pages in the shop. I was enjoying it but there was the niggling thought in the back of my mind: this book could get annoying. But I knew it would take 30 or forty pages to find out and so what was there to lose.
I bought it.
Wise Children, on the surface, is the tale of Dora and Nora Chance (known in their 'glory days' of music hall / vaudeville as the Lucky Chances), bastard offspring of Thespian Sir Melchior Hazard, one of a line of great Thesps (read: theatrical hams), though it is allowed to be thought Melchior's Brother, Perry is their father (and there is no doubt that they would prefer that he was). The story opens when they discover that they have been invited - the invitation they have long been waiting for - to their father's 100th Birthday Party. From this vantage point, Dora, our narrator, takes us back through her life with Nora, living in Brixton (Bard Road - there are a Shakespearean nods abound) first with Grandma Chance (who is possibly their mother), then their travels to Hollywood as part of Melchior's very family orientated (and ultimately kitsch) production of A Midsummer Night's Dream, their return to Brixton, as well as narrating the early life of their unrecognising father and grandfather.
The story is in many ways beside the point and yet it is also very important. It is at heart a Shakespearean cockney knees up, filled with more sets of twins than you can shake a stick at, sex, incest, tangled relations, affairs, changed loyalties, unsuitable marriage, recriminations and familial back stabbings.
What is most important though, to my mind, is Carter as writer and not the story. Wise Children was Carter's final novel, written as she was dying of cancer (she did not live long after the novel was published) and assumedly because of this - in rejection of her illness - the novel is filled with such infectious joy and sheer delight at the possibilities of living. The vaudevillian/carnivalistic nature of the story is mirrored by the prose. There is a sense of utter completeness about it and so I found myself utterly entrapped within the novel, which, ironically, in the hands of a lesser author, would have irritated me beyond measure. Carter's use of language: the novel is written from Dora's point of view and reflects her world view, her use of language is Dora's language and not stiff and inflexible, but filled with vibrancy and colour and energy and an almost carnivalistic attitude to existence. Dora and her sister Nora are, after all, dances and though they do not dance through life necessarily, the language dances about the mind beautifully, entrancing and graceful even when vulgar. Carter is poetic concerning the mundane yet never allows her language or the novel to get lost or become pompous. Carter constantly brings herself down to earth. Such as Dora's uncertainty, when in asked in a cinema if she and Nora are indeed the Luck Chances (they've been watching their father's Midsummer Night's dream decades after it was made), and noting the semen on a man's moustache (it does make sense in the narrative, honest!) admits she was never sure if come should be spelt "come" or "cum".
Ultimately Wise Children succeeds because it celebrates life, in this case especially a romantically (but never lachrymose) skewed music hall, carnival, cockney existence (things that would normally arouse my antipathy in fiction), also because it reminds you of the possibility of language and the reason why you read average books, because there is the possibility of discovering such exquisite moments of literature as this.
Wise Children seems to me to be the perfect synthesis of her works, of her later, more mature style, also of the surreal nature of her earlier works, of the provocations of The Infernal Desire Machines of Dr Hoffman (a personal favourite), as well as the disturbing yet mundane, magical realism of The Magic Toyshop.
It's rare that I suggest to people to read anything, people's tastes being too varied and mine too askew but the remarkable nature of the novel, the infectious joy that suffuses it is such that I suggest you try it, even if to read the first few pages in the bookshop and decide. Moreover, ever so rarely in novels, you approach the denouement, and in Wise Children, the anticipation of Melchior Hazard's birthday party you wonder, now, where can this novel go, how can it end so that I'm not disappointed or kinda go: good ending but Yet this is a novel that is rare. It starts off magnificently and as you read, as the words slip under your skin, you realise it does the near impossible and gets better still.
And the ending really didn't let me down. No Whizz-Bang-Gimmick or anything like that. It is just right. Right in that way that is so hard to pin down. It's the only way that I can explain it. But then surely that is what marks out art from that which is merely well crafted, and Wise Children is almost impossible to pin down, or, for that matter, to put down.
If you enjoy it a tenth of the amount that I did, I doubt it is possible to be disappointed. After a spat of reading average books (one aside, Moorcock's Dancers at the End of Time), this renewed my faith in literature. No exaggeration (for once), it really did, and since then I've been going steadily through the Carter back catalogue!
You can pick it up from Amazon for 6.99, for some reason no longer reduced; from Play for 5.49, or from Ebay for next to nothing.
Please note that this review also appears on Ciao
A richly comic tale of the tangled fortunes of two theatrical families, the hazards and chances, Angela Carter's witty and bawdy new novel is populated with as many sets of twins, and mistaken identities as any Shakespeare comedy, and celebrates the magic of over a century of show business.