In November I read The Magic Toyshop, shockingly it was my first Angela Carter novel (I had read The Bloody Chamber stories several years earlier). It was a glorious reading experience and I was determined to read more, and soon. Since reading that, I added two more novels to my ever growing tbr as well as the new biography by Edmund Gordon (which looks utterly brilliant) and upgraded my film tie-in edition of The Magic Toyshop, to a beautiful vmc designer edition. In the comments on my review of The Magic Toyshop a couple of people recommended I read Wise Children next. I’m so glad they did, I loved it too.
Wise Children was Angela Carter’s final novel. It is a glorious, bawdy extravagant novel, hilariously irreverent with more than a nod to Shakespeare. In this comic celebration of a century of show business, Carter weaves a magical story around the tangled fortunes of two theatrical families; the Hazards and the Chances. Their connections to one another are wonderfully convoluted and unreliable, their relationships frequently improbable. It is a novel of pairs, there are several sets of twins, one twin of each pair, being more extravagant than the other. Much of the action takes place in London, a city divided by a river. This duality is one of the main themes of the novel.
The novel is narrated by Dora Chance, one of a pair of identical twins, she and her sister Nora were The Lucky Chances, born on the wrong side of the tracks – they have spent their whole lives in the theatre, song and dance girls, and their legs are still pretty good – for their age.
“Yes, indeed; I have my memories but I prefer to keep them to myself, thank you very much. Though there are some things I never can forget. The cock that used to crow, early in the morning, in Bond Street. And I saw a zebra once, he was galloping down Camden High street, his stripes fluoresced. I was in some garret with a free Norwegian. And the purple flowers that would pop up on the bomb-sites almost before the ruins stopped smoking, as if to say, life goes on, even if you don’t.”
The sisters are devoted to one another, though Nora always wanted a child, they take some comfort in their goddaughter Tiffany, who now appears on a trashy TV game show.
The novel opens in Brixton, South London, where Dora and Nora were born, and lived with their grandmother after their mother’s death. It is their seventy-fifth birthday – it is also Shakespeare’s birthday, and it is the birthday of their one-hundred-year-old father – a giant of the theatre himself – who has never publicly acknowledged his daughters. Melchior Hazard is their famous father (although paternity is never certain in this novel) whose first wife, Lady A – now called Wheelchair by Dora and her sister – live with the Chance sisters. A Shakespearean actor, Melchior often sports a gilded cardboard crown. Melchior is himself a twin – his brother Perry adored by his nieces and assumed by many to be their father – vanished abroad many years earlier. There are two other pairs of twins, and in true Shakespearen fashion, confusions over paternity and identity abound. Dora and Nora have been told they are the product of a brief encounter between their mother Pretty Kitty and Melchior Hazard. Their grandmother wastes no time in pointing out their absent father, on their seventh birthday, during their first visit to the theatre.
Neither sister ever marries, although they both come close. Nora is the one who falls in love all the time, even sharing her boyfriend with her sister on their seventeenth birthday, but at the end of the day, the sisters can’t be separated.
“Nora was always free with it and threw her heart away as if it were a used bus ticket. Either she was head over heels in love or else she was broken-hearted. She had it off first with the pantomime goose, when we were Mother Goose’s goslings that year in Newcastle upon Tyne. The goose was old enough to be her father and Grandma would have plucked him, stuck an apple up his bum and roasted him if she’d found out and so would the goose’s wife, who happened to be principle boy.”
On this, their seventy-fifth birthday an invitation arrives for Melchior’s birthday party later that day. It is the first of a number of surprises that day. In the hours before the party, Dora tells the story of their life, a life in the theatre, a life which takes them to Hollywood with their father to make a film based on A Midsummer’s Night Dream. Her stories of love affairs and theatrical characters are told from a distance of decades. Dora is a real character, a rambling old woman who says it just like it is, a lovable teller of tales, she’s not an entirely reliable narrator. The life she describes is one of bed hopping, theatricals, long lived relatives and the great joy that it is to sing and dance.
The novel ends where it starts on the day of Dora and Nora’s seventy-fifth birthday. They get ready for the party – plenty of makeup and star spangled stockings, and they and Wheelchair arrive at the party, to be greeted by the flash of paparazzi cameras – and where they find Melchior enthroned on a great chair, wearing a purple kaftan. Dora had known it would be an eventful day, and as the party progresses there are more surprises and revelations – not to mention one more inappropriate bunk up.
Wise Children was a big success with me, thank you those people who suggested I read it – you were quite right.