Dear reader, it’s been so long. Let’s just say working pretty much full-time while studying for my Masters as a full time student basically leaves time for oooh, nothing else at all. My brain is close to exploding with all I’m trying to cram into it. Put it this way: I’ve lost all capacity for nouns. I can’t remember the name of anyone or anything. Apparently this is a sign of dementia starting. I’m trying to be positive and think it’s just a sign of my impending breakdown.
Anyhoo, it’s March now, and so I’ve decided that Spring has officially sprung. I’m sick of winter, and although it’s cold and grey in old London town today, we’ve had at least 3 days where it’s been sunny & bright & I’ve had to remove my jacket as I’m too warm. There are daffodils, so it’s Spring, people! Annoyingly, with this seasonal transformation comes exhortations from women’s magazines to transform your body into something called ‘bikini-ready’ or similar. Ugh. As a bibliophile I thought rather than attempting transformation, I would read about instead. Read about it seated in my favourite chair eating chocolate/cheese/chocolate topped with cheese while refusing to wear a bikini.
Firstly, possibly the most famous transformation story of all, The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson (1886). This is such a well-known story that I won’t bother outlining the plot. Just in case you need a reminder though, here’s a visual summary from the 1931 film:
Dr Jekyll observes:
“It was on the moral side, and in my own person, that I learned to recognise the thorough and primitive duality of man; I saw that, of the two natures that contended in the field of my consciousness, even if I could rightly be said to be either, it was only because I was radically both”
His potion suppresses his duality and lets forth the base Mr Hyde:
“He is not easy to describe. There is something wrong with his appearance; something displeasing, something downright detestable. I never saw a man I so disliked, and yet I scarce know why. He must be deformed somewhere; he gives a strong feeling of deformity, although I couldn’t specify the point. He’s an extraordinary-looking man, and yet I really can name nothing out of the way. No, sir; I can make no hand of it; I can’t describe him.”
The novella is not the most accomplished piece of writing but there are some well crafted passages:
“It was a fine, clear, January day, wet under foot where the frost had melted, but cloudless overhead; and the Regent’s Park was full of winter chirrupings and sweet with spring odours. I sat in the sun on a bench; the animal within me licking the chops of memory; the spiritual side a little drowsed, promising subsequent penitence, but not yet moved to begin.”
When originally published, this Victorian novella no doubt spoke to anxiety about sexual drives which may have faded somewhat, but the metaphor still lends itself to inner turmoil and guilt, when Hyde is figured as “the ghost of some old sin, the cancer of some concealed disgrace”; or the personality change associated with drug/alcohol addiction, as Hyde has “the body of a self-destroyer”; or various dissociative/psychotic psychological disorders. I think what makes this story so famous and enduring is that it captures an anxiety about who we are, and of what we are capable. The terror of The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde is not in Hyde himself, but in the unsettling notion that Hyde is not strange, but in fact common to us all.
Secondly, a chance for me to indulge my on-going obsession with Angela Carter, and discuss ‘The Tiger’s Bride’ from The Bloody Chamber. This collection of stories saw Carter reworking fairytales; an obvious choice for this post as the genre is filled with transformations – beasts into princes, wolves into grandmothers, wicked step-mothers into witches. In ‘The Tiger’s Bride’ narrator’s father stakes her in a game of cards, only to lose.
“I watched with the furious cynicism peculiar to women whom circumstances force mutely to witness folly, while my father, fired in his desperation by more and yet more draughts of the firewater they call ‘grappa’, rids himself of the last scraps of my inheritance. When we left Russia, we owned black earth, blue forest with bear and wild boar, serfs, cornfields, farmyards, my beloved horses, white nights of cool summer, the fireworks of the northern lights. What a burden all those possessions must have been to him, because he laughs as if with glee as he beggars himself; he is in such a passion to donate all to The Beast.”
The Beast is the name given to the Lord of the manor, a man who smells of:
“potent a reek of purplish civet at such close quarters in so small a room. He must bathe himself in scent, soak his shirts and underlinen in it; what can he smell of, that needs so much camouflage?”
The narrator moves into his lair:
“A profound sense of strangeness slowly began to possess me. I knew my two companions were not, in any way, as other men, the simian retainer and the master for whom he spoke, the one with clawed fore-paws who was in a plot with the witches who let the winds out of their knotted handkerchiefs up towards the Finnish border. I knew they lived according to a different logic than I had done until my father abandoned me to the wild beasts by his human carelessness…I was a young girl, a virgin, and therefore men denied me rationality just as they denied it to all those who were not exactly like themselves, in all their unreason.”
This Angela Carter, and so things do not play out as tradition would dictate: there is no helpless heroine surrendering herself to a man in this tale:
“I squatted on the wet straw and stretched out my hand. I was now within the field of force of his golden eyes. He growled at the back of his throat, lowered his head, sank on to his forepaws, snarled, showed me his red gullet, his yellow teeth. I never moved. He snuffed the air, as if to smell my fear; he could not.
Slowly, slowly he began to drag his heavy, gleaming weight across the floor towards me.”
The transformation in the tale is two-sided and empowering. It is everything you would expect from Carter: weird, surprising, audacious, and above all skilfully written with beautiful, concise prose.
To end, a warning from The Librarians that you should never wish your life would transform to a fairytale: