Wise Children was Angela Carter’s last book, published the year before her death in 1992, and is the first of my “re-reading women” books. Having only read it for the first time last month, I wondered whether having been through the journey would be as exhilarating the second time, particularly so soon afterwards.
It is the story of Dora Chance and her twin sister Nora, the illegitimate children of a famous Shakespearean actor Melchior Hazard, and their relationship with their father, his twin brother, Perry Hazard, and other members of the showbiz family. It tells the life history of the Chance sisters, and leading up to their father’s 100th birthday, and their 75th birthdays.
There are three things that I enjoyed most about the book. At the top is the first person narration, both for the language used by Dora, but also the pace,
“Melchior slept here. This attic, the cheapest room in the house, cheaper still because never paid. I picture him in front of a square of mirror, trying on that shabby crown, emoting, listening to the sycamores at the end of the garden thrashing about in the wind and pretending the sound they made was applause. Desperate, ravenous, on the make, tramping round the agents day after day after day, back to the boiled cabbage at Bard Road and the hard, narrow bed.”
This is enhanced by Dora’s occasional, perhaps deliberate, forgetfulness,
“At my age, memory becomes exquisitely selective.”
This conversational style relaxes the reader, lowers their guard, but does not mask the many themes which elevate the story beyond a simple recollection. For example, the high culture of the Hazards, “Shakespeare, to whom our family owed so much”, can often be compared to the low culture of the Chance sisters
“…we girls are illegitimate in every way – not only born out of wedlock, but we went on the [music] halls, didn’t we!”
Grandma Chance’s constant refrain is “Hope for the best, expect the worst” and this approach helps Dora and Nora to respond more effectively to the challenges they face. This can be contrasted with the Hazard’s reply to difficulties. For example the fire at the Christmas party, when although his stately home has burnt to the ground, Melchior Hazard is more upset by the loss of a family heirloom, a cardboard crown.
“I’d better believe that, what he said about children. I was amazed to see him so much moved, and on account of what? A flimsy bit of make-believe. A nothing.
‘What shall I do without my crown? Othello’s occupation gone!’
He began to cry.”
Shakespeare appears frequently in Wise Children, with 26 plays either mentioned directly, quoted or alluded to. At one stage Melchior Hazard is producing a West End Revue and at various points in the book it is called “What? You Will?”, “What! You Will?”, “What! You Will!” or just plain “What You Will!”, both teasing on the name William as well as using the subtitle for Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, which in turn also features twins.
Another theme is the relationship between parents and children, and what makes a family. Melchior’s supposedly legitimate children, Imogen and Saskia, swindle their mother out of her home.
“The precious, unique Hazard blood that blinds parents to their children and turns daughter against mother!”
In comparison, Grandma Chance adopts Nora and Dora, as well as others, with an easy heart,
‘Family,’ I say. Grandma invented this family. She put it together out of whatever came to hand – a stray pair of orphaned babes, a ragamuffin in a flat cap.
Their house in Bard Road is full of characters who appear for all sorts of reasons. When “Our Cyn” knocks on the door after being sent there by Perry
‘He said you’d give us a job,’ she said. ‘Help look after the kids or something. He said you’d give us a roof.’
‘I wasn’t planning on running a hostel for fallen women,’ said Grandma in a huff. It was pissing down with rain, Our Cyn was soaked.
‘I haven’t fallen yet,’ said Our Cyn. ‘But I might.’
For me, the most impressive part of the book is that it combines all these things with so much humour, I laughed on almost every page. Occasionally the jokes are longer in the telling; the Hollywood production of The Dream, and the Chance sisters transportation of soil from Stratford Upon Avon intended to baptise the production with the spirit of Shakespeare, and it’s replacement with soil from the replica Stratford built in Hollywood, which works in so many ways.
In other parts Carter simply produced some excellent one liners, with my favourite being,
She looked a million dollars, I must admit, even if in well-used notes
When I read Wise Children the first time I was blown away by all these things. On the second reading they were still there, even the jokes, knowing they were coming, didn’t diminish the book, and as with any good book more layers were revealed, adding to to the pleasure.
This was my second reading but I know I’ll be back for the third and perhaps fourth in years to come.