Wise Children by Angela Carter

Give Angela Carter credit--she didn't brag without justification. Her writing, as it turns out, really does "cut like a steel blade at the base of a man's penis" (admittedly, I don't have any personal experience with which to make a comparison). I'd like to quote a passage from Wise Children to illustrate just what a fantastic writer she was, but I'm spoiled for choice. Open the book at any random page and you're almost guaranteed to find something quotable. Here, try this from the opening chapter:
"You can see for miles, out of this window. You can see straight across the river. There's Westminster Abbey, see? Flying the St. George's cross, today. St. Paul's, the single breast. Big Ben, winking its golden eye. Not much else familiar, these days. This is about the time that comes in every century when they reach out for all that they can grab of dear old London, and pull it down. Then they build it up again, like London Bridge in the nursery rhyme, goodbye, hello, but it's never the same. Even the railway stations, changed out of recognition, turned into souks. Waterloo, Victoria. Nowhere you can get a decent cup of tea, all they give you is Harvey Wallbangers, filthy capuccino. Stocking shops and knicker outlets everywhere you look. I said to Nora: 'Remember Brief Encounter, how I cried buckets? Nowhere for them to meet on a station, nowadays, except in a bloody knicker shop. Their hands would have to shyly touch under cover of a pair of Union Jack boxer shorts.'"
This is the wary and experienced, but by no means tired, voice of Dora Chance as she describes the events of her seventy-fifth birthday, which also happens to be the one hundredth birthday of her illustrious father, Melchior Hazard. Dora and her twin sister Nora are Melchior's illegitimate daughters by a nameless chambermaid (or was their mother, in fact, the woman they knew as Grandma?), and their father has never acknowledged them even in private. Despite this, the sisters' lives, professional and personal, have been inextricably bound with Melchior's and his family's--his twin brother Peregrine, as generous with his affections as Melchior is stingy with his; his three wives; his twin daughters by his first wife and twin sons by his third.

If this all sounds ridiculously theatrical, it's meant to. Melchior, Dora, and Nora are descended from theatre royalty--the august Ranulph Hazard and his irrepressible child-bride, Estella (they met when she played Cordelia to his Lear, which neatly sets up not only the many Shakespearean parallels in the book, but also the recurring themes of May/December romances and genteel incest). Melchior himself is also a giant of the theatre, whereas his daughters are song-and-dance girls who tread the boards of dance halls in everything from dance reviews to striptease acts. Wise Children is a novel full of such contradictions--legitimate children versus illegitimate ones, respectable theatre versus low burlesque, comedy versus tragedy.

As Dora narrates her life, we follow her and her sister from humble beginnings as chorus girls and hoofers, to the apex of their career in a Hollywood version of A Midsummer Night's Dream starring their father (in an obvious parallel to Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, Melchior falls passionately in love with his leading lady, the producer's wife, and they abandon their respective spouses for a tempestuous and short-lived marriage as the film goes to pieces around them), to a quiet life teaching children to dance and occasionally selling off a memento of their show-business past to pay the heating bill. There's nothing sad or wistful about Wise Children, however, nor indeed about Dora and Nora themselves. They have regrets, lost loves, failed ambitions, but as they wake up on the morning of their seventy-fifth birthday, each sister is ready for her life to begin again.

And begin it does. The day starts off with a tragedy, as the sisters discover that their beloved goddaughter has been jilted by her lover, Melchior's son, and may have drowned herself. You can always count on the Chance sisters to turn a frown upside down, however, and on Carter herself--for all the tragedy she throws in her characters' paths, Wise Children is an extraordinarily funny book. Every kind of funny--from acid wit through double entendres to broad farce. As much as I admired Carter's The Bloody Chamber, a collection of retold and reimagined fairy tales, there was a defensiveness to it that was hard to ignore. Yes, these are fairy tales, Carter seemed to be saying, but look! Sex, violence, gore, depravity! The Bloody Chamber exuded the desperate determination of a young person to be accepted as an adult and leave childish things behind them. In Wise Children, Carter's last novel, she seems to have come full circle. Her voice is that of a mature woman who recognizes that nothing is as serious as comedy, or as adult as the heartbreak and tribulations of childhood.

Wise Children's denouement takes place as the sisters attend their father's birthday gala. It's a side-splitting and heartbreaking scene, during the course of which several long-lost and presumed-dead relatives will reappear, the paternity of several children will be brought to light, a wronged woman will publicly condemn her fickle lover, a deserting husband will be made to acknowledge his true wife, ungrateful children will be punished and grateful ones rewarded, and the entire party will be served a poisoned desert.

This is all from Shakespeare, of course--or, perhaps, all of Shakespeare. There is hardly a play in The Bard's repertoire that Carter doesn't riff off, reference, or lampoon, and the book is riddled with references to Shakespeare himself--Dora and Nora's house, for example, is on Bard Road. Discovering these parallels and references--many of which, I'm sure, flew right over my head--is half the fun of reading the book, as are the ways in which Carter manages to put a modern spin on so many of Shakespeare's plots.

Wise Children is a book about the search for identity, and about the ability--and the need--to reinvent yourself. When Dora takes Nora's name for a night, the usually quiet sister finds herself mimicking, and even becoming, her exuberant and vivacious twin. Nora, on the other hand, quickly forgets to behave like Dora, and soon gives her sister a reputation as a flirt. It is a wise child, Carter tells us, who knows its own father, but for Dora and Nora Chance, wisdom is found in knowing themselves, and in being known by others. Surrounded by theatrical people, who see their lives as a series of dramatic climaxes and tragic setbacks, it is the Chance sisters who recognize that real life is simply a sequence of events without plot or resolution. The secret, the sisters know, is to hope for the best, prepare for the worst, and always be ready for a new beginning.


Anonymous said…
hey im caz and I stumbled across this page by accident whilst looking for some more information on Angela Carter. Im studying Wise Children for A.S. I know you wrote this a while ago now but i just wanted to say YOU ARE GREAT! your over view really inspired me and i am eternally greatful! x
Anonymous said…
GRATEFUL! Watch that AO1!
Anonymous said…
i agree with caz... I LOVE YOU! thank you sooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooo much!
Anonymous said…
thank u so much! AS english agen!
Anonymous said…
i did not enjoy wise children at all. the rest of my class for AS English will totally agree with me. we all found it pretty hard to read and as we had a very difficult question on the january exam... we wasnt pleased with the result!!!
Anonymous said…
im finding it pretty hard to get to grips with this book actually. i no wot u mean bout it being hard to read cos theres a lot in there that u've really gotta pay attention to... i got my AS on it coming up very soon.... >.< I DONT WANNA DO IT!!... but i'll try to engage myself =) you, who wrote this, have inspired me to keep my hopes up!
Anonymous said…
(well anonymous number 5, no wonder you "wasn't pleased with the result" if that's your sense of grammar)
it's a good book, an excellent book, i just wish they'd make a guide of some sort running next to each page explaining EVERY allusion!
good review though, got it down to a tee.
Anonymous said…
AS english

ive ogt n exam on it tommorow
marry me please?
Anonymous said…
Anonymous number 7, you took the words right out of my mouth.
This was a great book, and couldnt have come at a better time in my life.
Thanks for this, it's helped me greatly in my revision - Test is tomorrow! eek!
FEEF said…
very inspirational. i dont think the book is bad just hard to understand thanks anyway love feef!!!
Anonymous said…
the people that find this book 'hard to get into' are very strange, do you actualy read? i dont know about anyone else but i really enjoy a book that is challenging, it stimulates the mind and makes the reader get more involved. this book is amazing carter was an amazing writer she could inspire anyone.people that find this book hard to read obviously dont have a very good imagination because the book is all about stretching the readers belief boundaries and challenging their suspicions. (studying for A level) could'nt be happier about the choice of book.
Anonymous said…
whoever is carter fan!what a geek, just because some people find the book harder to get than you, doesn't mean they don't actually read!You don't have to be some literature obsessive to do A level english lit!my whole class thought the book was just about bearable with all her rambling, at the start of term, but now the peices are starting to fit, if you just stick at it, it all becomes clearer. You don't have to be stuck up and sound intelligent just 2 get a book like this!(Carter fan)
Anonymous said…
i'd just like to say it is a great book, but it is kinda hard to understand at first. im resiting it, because at AS everyone in the year at my college got a U!!
Anonymous said…
my whole class thought the book was just about bearable with all her rambling

If you don't understand that these aren't simply "ramblings", then you're not going to get particularly far with the exam. Carter uses Dora in a manner as such to pull in the reader; she is made to be as "human" as possible, her personality and tangents simply add to the character in my opinion.

I'm personally not looking forward to the exam, I'm hoping to pass it at least; if I do but with a really low pass I'll probably try and retake, but I think my final grade will depend on the question asked. I'm really confident in about half the possible questions and will fail horribly if I get one of the other questions.

Good luck to everyone who's sitting/resitting the exam tomorrow! Now... back to revision...
Anonymous said…
Oh and I forgot to mention; fantastic article. Just what I was looking for. Thanks so much Abigail; your blog is a really interesting read to say the least.
Anonymous said…
hey just cramming in my last minute revision for my resit tomorow. i found this book really hard to read because i just couldnt get into the story line. i have read this book over and over but i still couldnt tell you a through line of action for any of the characters. the time change is what makes the book even more confusing than it already is. i enjoyed parts and found them funny and interesting but other parts really boring. thanx so much for this article has helped alot but doubt it will make much difference im sure im going to fail this exam again. x
Anonymous said…
I'm confused... The mother of Dora and Nora was a chamber maid known in the novel as "pretty Kitty"... or was she nameless?
Anna said…
I'm also doing this book for AS English Lit.

We have only just started it, but I'm already enjoying it immensely.

I found this page by accident, but I have put your quote about Carter's work cutting like a steel blade at the base of a man's penis into my essay.

My teacher LOVES that kind of thing, so thanks!

Anonymous said…
Have just started reading Wise Children for my AS in English, am actually an A2 student and have just picked this up for this year.
I was told to read the book over half term, and i just cant get into it at all, i find myself reading the same lines ove and over cos it just doesnt go into my head at all.
The atricle helped though, so thankyou, and those above who criticise for not being able to get into it, not everyone is going to find it as easy as you ok?
everyone's taste is different, and i dont appreciate being told to read something i'm not interested in, you read a book cos you want to, i think thats why its hard.
and i do agree, tis a little bit rambly.
Kat xx
Anonymous said…
Ohh guys...guys!
All we have to do is hope for the best and prepare for the worse.
And you touchy CARTER fans...GET A LIFE. Why don't you have a stif drink and put down them geeky glasses...lifes to short.
As for the person who wrote this...thankyou very much it was a good read.
Anonymous said…
Thanks for the article, it's helped a lot inspiring me with my homework.

I like the book, now that I've finished reading it, and I think it's cleverly written and interesting. I have to admit the first chapter lost me completely and I hated it the first time reading it, my AS Level class said the same thing, but oce I got past that I found it good :)

Saying that however, I have the exam in January 2008 and I hope I don't have to resit it in June because there's only so many times you can read it... I really hope I pass :-S
Anonymous said…
heyaa.. i got ma a level exam in january of wise children, n to b honest i dun actually enjoy readin dis book. it aint ma type of book to read, n whoever sed dat if dey dun like wise children dey dont read, sory but thats not true. i speak for soooo many people, practicaly all ma english class n to b honest dey hateeee ittt. ots not for 16-17's to read even if it 'chanllenges' ur mind!! so so much more better books out dere dat can inspire us to carry on wid english lit. dis aint one of dem..
Anonymous said…
this article is really helpful but the book still confuses me - the whole of my AS class are hating it and finding it really difficult to understand. hopefully we will get there in the end...
Anonymous said…
Woah - i was actually looking for a bit of background information on Angela Carter & maaged to find this page. It has been extremely useful - many thanks!

I read 'Wise Children' and didnt like it at first because of all of the flashbacks & rushed nature of the narrative voice. But after re - reading, analysing & discussing the book i began to really like it.

I love how the story remains funny - even in parts where it is meant to be serious!

I am currently concluding my 3rd practice essay on 'Wise Children' and am glad i found this page woop!!!

Good luck to anyone else doing AS English Literature!

Anonymous said…
I've been currently doing my second piece of AS english literature coursework on The Bloody Chamber and have found this article enormously helpful in reference to Carter's other works.

Thank you so much!
Unknown said…
yeah, im doing AS English Literature as well, however this is my coursework option, studying Carter's use of the conventions of magical realism and carnivalesque (:S thats a bit of a mouthful!) but this has bee invaluable to me...thanks! :)
Anonymous said…
Hey, I loved this book. I read it years ago in the early 80s and gave it to my sister as a present. It's a brilliant read, quite apart from the allusions etc, you don't need to get all of them to get the book. Although I do understand that it helps alot at AS and A2 level. BTW anyone who thinks eng lit A'level shouldn't mean deciphering difficult texts is delluded, and for most people, Wise Children is far more accesible than Shakespeare.
Anonymous said…
Mind you, I wouldn't be suprised if men didn't like carter, all that steel blade cutting penis's stuff ouch!!!!
Couldn't disagree more.

Even though there were some decent passages in there, the whole thing felt like being stuck in a one-sided conversation with someone the wouldn't stop talking about themselves. I read it waiting for something to happen, other than a single, overlong piece of character establishment. The lack of any actual plot, the lack of tension and release, meant that there was nothing to follow, no shared experience with the protagonist other than the nostalgic rambling of a one-dimensional old woman. It was like having tea with my Nan, except that at my Nan's house I would at least have had pie.

Just because a story references Shakespeare doesn't mean it's any good. If the Chuckle Brothers included allusions to Troilus and Cressida in next week's show it still wouldn't be high art.

And the shoddy, lazy, ending. All the charcters turn up and say hello, like the end of The Muppet Show.

Had I not been required to read this book, I never would have got to the end. It felt weak in most respects. I now have to go and discuss it with the rest of the class. Joy of joys.
Anonymous said…
I've just read 'Wise Children' as part of a third year University module and I absolutley loved it. It is one of the first novels that I have geniunely enjoyed reading and this is after 3 years of uni and a massive amount of reading.
I think people who are doing it as part of their AS level course may not enjoy because you have to tear the book apart, I can no longer read 'A Handmaid's Tale' because of this, but it's a truely fantastic read!
Anonymous said…
I can't believe this is on the A.S. reading list / syllabus! I had to read it for first year uni when I was 18 and HATED it. I've just re-read it now (9 years on, only picked it up because I couldn't sleep a few weeks back and it was on the shelf) and it's actually quite an enjoyable read. I think only because - now that I'm 27 - I have more life experience and 'get' her chatting about old age and youth and stuff. To all the AS English people: very tough you're being 'forced' to enjoy it / study it now ... but if you ever can't sleep in 10 years time, give it another airing. It's better 2nd time round!! :)
Anonymous said…
heyy thats really cool. great piece of writing. was just wondering what u think of the pathos surroundgint the chance sisters in the novel>>>>
Emlin2291 said…
At the end of the day this "review" is just another persons opinion. People should have more confidence and use thier own views. Opinions cant be wrong and you shouldn't rely on other peoples views, it kind of disregards what English literature AS is all about!
Anonymous said…
hey this post is brilliant!
just wanted to ask (for anyone who reads this) what the time period for the book is, like when is it supposed to end?
is it 1992 - thats when it was published?
would really appreciate any help! :)
Baz said…
This was very helpful. I'm doing a GCSE speaking on this book, which is tricky to do in 2 mins as it is so complicated. This helped alot. Thankyou
Anonymous said…
Just wanted to point out the terrible spelling and grammar in the comments section.
Anonymous said…
The level of literacy at AS level is obviously appalling. I'm quite shocked.
Anonymous said…
I'm 52 and read some of the comments on "Wise Children" with sympathy and some astonishment.

Sympathy for those 17 year olds who are trying to read and understand a text that is really not suitable for their age group. Astonishment at their spelling and grammar - in most cases appalling. How can you study English when lacking a basic understanding of the language?

Encore sympathy for their attempts to understand a complex plot and themes, and for the poor tuition they seem to have received.

I studied Carter at university and like a couple of the other posters, believe this is a text for adults, not the AS syllabus. I love it, but then I love Carter's work. Multi-layered, complex, blackly funny.

For me, this novel is a celebration of life and I agree with those who say they enjoyed it when older and sympathise with 17 year olds who may struggle with the concept of such celebration when conveyed by a 75 year old.

Rock on Carter. I think you were the best female author of your generation.

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