Angela Carter is, perhaps, England’s least-recognised literary great. In 2008, The Times ranked her tenth in its ‘50 greatest British writers since 1945’. Oddly, she collected few awards and gained limited recognition up to her death in 1992. Best known for writing The Company of Wolves and Nights at the Circus, her writing tends to be pigeon-holed as fantastical-feminist-socialism marooned in the lefty lagoon of 80s Britain.
Wise Children is debatably her greatest work. Written in the early 1990s, it is, to paraphrase Salman Rushdie, a case of ‘ooerr missus, brush up on your Shakespeare.’ It is an astounding book, exploring and exposing Shakespeare and London theatre as popular (working-class?) culture stolen, repackaged and resold as high culture by and for the middle-class. Even without its other strands of social commentary, this theme alone makes the book worth contemplating as I find I can no longer afford a season ticket at White Hart Lane.
The text’s genius is that it is nowhere near as boring as I have just made it sound. The novel tracks the life story of twin exotic dancers who have been disowned by their father, a Shakespearean ‘colossus’ of a director/actor, and forced to ‘hoof it’ in the declining music hall and popular theatre. Their life is a series of athletic sexual liaisons, riotous farcical situations, ‘knob gags’ and magically-realistic filth. Their stories portray and recall the liberating naughtiness of popular theatre, and so original Shakespeare, before the new-Shakespeareans broke it.
Meanwhile, the father, Melchior Hazard, attempts to disseminate a sober and academic Shakespeare to the elites of London, America and the world. He wholly misses the everyman point of Shakespeare and uses the acquired cultural status to seize sex, money, power and further sex. Those legions ignored by Melchior and his phallocentric culture include a string of wives, illegitimate children and exploited women together with the non-white, non-straight and anyone with a sense of fun.
Fortunately, Carter gives us an abounding sense of fun in the carnival spirit of the naughty uncle Peregrine, magician and sensualist whose inappropriate and voluminous libido, at one point, manages to literally soak a room full of crusty Shakespeareans.
The book is a riot of tactical jokes and ironic comments in a Cockney narrative voice, which restores the balance of England’s dispossessed culture by pricking the pomposity of its elite. In one scene, cheeky music-hall comic Gorgeous George strips to show a coloured tattoo of the British Empire covering his whole body and disappearing up his ‘bum’. Towards the end of the book, our dancing twin Dora sees him on a street-corner, homeless, and with Empire tattoo fading away. Dora hands him a pound note with Shakespeare’s head drawn on it to cheer him up.
For every refined Shakespeare quote or allusion, there is some reference to popular culture in London argot with accompanying knob gag. Here Dora’s adopted Grandma singing the old soldier’s song about Charlie Chaplin:
‘The moon shines bright on Charlie Chaplin
and his shoes are crackin’
For want of blackin’
And his little baggy trousers they need mendin’
Before they send him
To the Dardanelles.
Poor old Charlie, pushing up the daisies, now. Old Charlie. Hung like a horse.’
Wise Children is a breathtaking work of challenging literary fiction. It is high-brow, even academic, yet egalitarian, culturally embracing and really filthy. I never knew great writing could be such a larf.