Sunday 15 June 2014

The Fall River Axe Murders by Angela Carter

I've had a lovely morning visiting all the other posts for Angela Carter Week.

I've even had some time to read articles and papers about Carter and her work. They have helped me clarify many of her themes and intentions.

I've included sections of two reviews that I found particularly relevant below.

I have been surprised by how absorbed (alright, obsessed) I have become about Carter this week.

Although I shouldn't have been.

The year I read Bettelheim's Uses of Enchantment (about 1994 I think) I became absorbed (alright, obsessed) with the psychology of fairy tales.

During my teaching years I observed how certain books & stories would get under the skins of certain classes, groups and individuals.

With Bettelheim in mind, I would try to ascertain the fear, the desire or underlying feeling that was drawing a child to a story. It was fascinating how a child would request a book over and over again, sometimes for months on end. It was so obvious that it was fulfilling some deep need within the child.

And then, all of a sudden, it would be over.

The need was satisfied, the fear forgotten, the idea resolved.

The spell was broken, the story no longer required.

But never completely forgotten - I still recall the stories that obsessed me as a child - they still give me little shivers now - Rose Red & Snow White, Rumplestiltskin, Enid Blyton's The Secret Island)

These are the kinds of stories that Angela Carter writes.

She has got under my skin. She has tapped my deep-seated feminist yearnings and she has stirred up all sorts of psychological & intellectual desires.

Carter draws propulsive energy from the big clanking madhouse of the English past. She loves circuses, crumbling mansions, toyshops, trains, horses, and prisons. She echoes Keats, Blake, Browning, the Brontës, and Milton. Like Hilary Mantel (“the wars unfought, the injuries and deaths that, like seeds, the soil of England is keeping warm” in Bring Up the Bodies) or Alan Garner (the Roman legions — or are they Cromwell’s soldiers? — in Red Shift), Carter is alive to the technical possibilities of history, the way war and murder and intrigue transcend time and bend backward to repeat themselves. 
She sees a lot and wants to get it all in. Yes, sometimes she overreaches. But in men’s writing, this kind of ambition and scope seldom gets called “too much,” even when it is. 
Women writers struggling to shake off the mind-forg’d manacles of good-girl self-policing and literary-industrial pigeonholing can take heart from her. She blows out the hesitancies and the self-sabotaging that silt up inside us. She makes us want to shake off the clinging of "have to" and "ought to" and get our own bloody work done before it’s too late. She makes us want to be as bold as she is, in ways that suit our own materials. And she helps us see how that might look.
Amy Weldon LA Review of Books 20/9/2013

In 1979, two years after translating a selection of Perrault's fairytales, Carter published The Bloody Chamber, a series of "revisionings" of some of the best-known fairytales, including Bluebeard, Red Riding Hood and Beauty and the Beast. 
The book is a supremely well-achieved critique and reformulation of stories that have been shaped by our society, and which shape it in turn. In the 1970s, myth and folklore was coming under fresh scrutiny in numerous ways – Bruno Bettelheim's Freudian reading in The Uses of Enchantment, Ann Sexton's poetry cycle Transformations, the incisive critiques of Jack Zipes – but nowhere is the strange, warped power of the originals harnessed so strikingly as in Carter's work....

Alongside these inversions are stories in which the hidden content of fairytales is made explicit. 

Most indelible of these is The Fall River Axe Murders (1987), her study of the allegedly murderous New England spinster Lizzie Borden. Here, the discord between Carter's forensic tone and fairytale details – a wicked stepmother who "oppressed her like a spell'; the detail that virginal Lizzie is menstruating on the day of the murders; talk of slaughtered pet pigeons baked in a pie – instils a heavy, malign tension. Carter, wickedly and perfectly, breaks off her account moments before chaos is unleashed, the story left like a blood blister about to burst.

To finish Angela Carter week I will leave you with The Fall River Axe Murders.

The premise behind retelling the murky events of the 1892 Borden murders reminded me of Margaret Atwood's Alias Grace. So much speculation & inaccuracy - biased reporting confused with facts & changing stories.

A fairy tale step-mother, a hot, sultry day, locked doors, greed & gluttony, an axe and a menstruating prime suspect - all perfect fodder for a Carter story!

To this tale she also adds a sense of destiny and her usual discussion on humanity - what makes us human? how do we tame the beast within? what is the role of nature in a civilised world?

Living in Australia, the Borden murders were completely unknown to me. Google revealed hundreds of theories and opinions. For a rational discussion of the evidence I found the Crime Library's article enlightening.
Emma & Lizzie Borden

No wonder Carter was so attracted to this case.

A mythology has built up around this gory story - childhood games and rhymes have been penned, movies made, history rewritten numerous times - it's a fairy tale just waiting to be.

No-one will ever know the truth, but Carter extracted her own truth - a universal truth - the consequences of a repressed, loveless life.

What the girls do when they are on their own is unimaginable to me.


  1. Anonymous15/6/14

    I so enjoyed your post. And those quotes.
    I've always been fascinated y Lizzie Borden as well. Carter returned to it in the collection I read and there young Lizzie meets a tiger. After reading your post the tiger makes perfect sense. He's far less beastly than the people in the story.

    1. I must read the second Lizzie story to complete the package.

      Thanks for cohosting this event. It's been a wonderfully enriching week :-)

  2. When I was growing up, many decades ago, there was a popular nursery rhyme, "Lizzie Borden gave her mother forty wacks and when she was done she gave her father forty one". I enjoyed your post and will read this story soon.

  3. I'm not familiar with this story but enjoyed your review of it. And I see nothing wrong in being obsessed with a writer's work, on the contrary. I'm happy to see you enjoyed Carter's work so much, even if I'm less enthusiastic about it.

    1. Thank you for cohosting this wonderful week.

      I'm sorry you didn't get as much pleasure from AC's stories as I did. Part of my enjoyment came from the research I did for each story. I can see why her work is studied in high school and Uni - I think she actually gets better the more you study her work.

  4. Thanks for sharing such a well-researched post. I didn't know much about Angela Carter before, and you've just made me really eager to give her books a try :-).


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