Wednesday, January 27, 2010

excerpt from The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter

The Bloody Chamber (1979), a short story by Angela Carter, is a feminist reinterpretation of the folktale Bluebeard. It "explicitly deal(s) with the horrific or corrupting aspects of marriage and/or sex and the balance of power within such relationships." (thanks Wikipedia!) Carter's description of the Marquis' wedding gift (the "cruel necklace") has directly inspired my imagery in several works, and I've included details of this imagery below.

Kym Hepworth / detail, Valentine / mixed media / 21 1/8 x 14 3/8 x 2 in. / 2004

"He was older than I. He was much older than I; there were streaks of pure silver in his dark mane. But his strange, heavy, almost waxen face was not lined by experience. Rather, experience seemed to have washed it perfectly smooth, like a stone on a beach whose fissures have eroded by successive tides. And sometimes that face, in stillness when he listened to me playing, with the heavy eyelids folded over eyes that always disturbed me by their absolute absence of light, seemed to me like a mask, as if his real face, the face that truly reflected all the life he had led in the world before he met me, before, even, I was born, as though that face lay underneath this mask. Or else, elsewhere. As though he had laid by the face in which he had lived for so long in order to offer my youth a face unsigned by the years.

And, elsewhere, I might see him plain. Elsewhere. But where?

Kym Hepworth, his real face

In, perhaps, that castle to which the train now took us, that marvelous castle in which he had been born.

Kym Hepworth, the castle where he was born

Even when he asked me to marry him, and I said "Yes," still he did not lose that heavy, fleshy composure of his. I know it must seem a curious analogy, a man with a flower, but sometimes he seemed to me like a lily. Yes. A lily. Possessed of that strange, ominous calm of a sentient vegetable, like one of those cobra-headed, funereal lilies whose white sheaths are curled out of a flesh as thick and tensely yielding to the touch as vellum. When I said that I would marry him, not one muscle in his face stirred, but he let out a long, extinguished sigh. I thought: Oh! how he must want me! And it was as though the imponderable weight of his desire was a force I might not withstand, not by virtue of its violence but because of its very gravity.

Kym Hepworth, sometimes he seemed like a lily

He had the ring ready in a leather box lined with crimson velvet, a fire opal the size of a pigeon's egg set in a complicated circle of dark antique gold. My old nurse, who still lived with my mother and me, squinted at the ring askance: opals are bad luck, she said. But this opal had been his own mother's ring, and his grandmother's, and her mother's before that, given to an ancestor by Catherine de Medici . . . every bride that came to the castle wore it, time out of mind. And did he give it to his other wives and have it back from them? asked the old woman rudely; yet she was a snob. She hid her incredulous joy at my marital coup--her little Marquise-- behind a facade of fault-finding. But, here, she touched me. I shrugged and turned my back pettishly on her. I did not want to remember how he had loved other women before me, but the knowledge often teased me in the threadbare self-confidence of the small hours.

I was seventeen and knew nothing of the world; my Marquis had been married before, more than once, and I remained a little bemused that, after those others, he should now have chosen me. Indeed, was he not still in mourning for his last wife? Tsk, tsk, went my old nurse. And even my mother had been reluctant to see her girl whisked off by a man so recently bereaved. A Romanian countess, a lady of high fashion. Dead just three short months before I met him, a boating accident, at his home, in Brittany. They never found her body, but I rummaged through the back copies of the society magazines my old nanny kept in a trunk under her bed and tracked down her photograph. The sharp muzzle of a pretty, witty, naughty monkey; such potent and bizarre charm, of a dark, bright, wild yet worldly thing whose natural habitat must have been some luxurious interior decorator's jungle filled with potted palms and tame, squawking parakeets.

Kym Hepworth, his last wife: they never found her body

Before that? Her face is common property; everyone painted her but the Redon engraving I liked best, The Evening Star Walking on the Rim of Night. To see her skeletal, enigmatic grace, you would never think she had been a barmaid in a cafe in Montmartre until Puvis de Chavannes saw her and had her expose her flat breasts and elongated thighs to his brush. And yet it was the absinthe doomed her, or so they said.

Kym Hepworth, his second wife: the absinthe doomed her

The first of all his ladies? That sumptuous diva; I had heard her sing Isolde, precociously musical child that I was, taken to the opera for a birthday treat. My first opera; I had heard her sing Isolde. With what white-hot passion had she burned from the stage! So that you could tell she would die young. We sat high up, halfway to heaven in the gods, yet she half blinded me. And my father, still alive (oh, so long ago) took hold of my sticky little hand, to comfort me, in the last act, yet all I heard was the glory of her voice.

Kym Hepworth, his first wife: she burned with white-hot passion

Married three times within my own brief lifetime to three different graces, now, as if to demonstrate the eclecticism of his taste, he had invited me to join this gallery of beautiful women, I, the poor widow's child with my mouse-colored hair that still bore the kinks of the plaits from which it had so recently been freed, my bony hips, my nervous, pianist's fingers.

Kym Hepworth, my bony hips, my nervous fingers

He was rich as Croesus. The night before our wedding--a simple affair, at the Mairie, because his countess was so recently gone--he took my mother and me, curious coincidence, to see Tristan. And do you know, my heart swelled and ached so during the Liebestod that I thought I must truly love him. Yes. I did. On his arm, all eyes were upon me. The whispering crowd in the foyer parted like the Red Sea to let us through. My skin crisped at his touch.

How my circumstances had changed since the first time I heard those voluptuous chords that carry such a charge of deathly passion in them! Now we sat in a loge, in red velvet armchairs, and a braided, bewigged flunky brought us a silver bucket of iced champagne in the interval. The froth spilled over the rim of my glass and drenched my hands. I thought: My cup runneth over. And I had on a Poiret dress. He had prevailed upon my reluctant mother to let him buy my trousseau; what would I have gone to him in, otherwise? Twice-darned underwear, faded gingham, serge skirts, hand-me-downs. So, for the opera, I wore a sinuous shift of white muslin tied with a silk string under the breasts. And everyone stared at me. And at his wedding gift.

Kym Hepworth, what would I have gone to him in?

His wedding gift, clasped round my throat. A choker of rubies, two inches wide, like an extraordinarily precious slit throat.

Kym Hepworth / detail, Demon Lover / mixed media / 28 x 20 1/8 x 2 in. / 2004

After the Terror, in the early days of the Directory, the aristos who'd escaped the guillotine had an ironic fad of tying a red ribbon round their necks at just the point where the blade would have sliced it through, a red ribbon like the memory of a wound. And his grandmother, taken with the notion, had her ribbon made up in rubies; such a gesture of luxurious defiance! That night at the opera comes back to me even now . . . the white dress; the frail child within it; and the flashing crimson jewels round her throat, bright as arterial blood.

Kym Hepworth / detail, Briar Rose / mixed media / 28 ¼ x 21 7/8 x 6 in. / 2005-6

I saw him watching me in the gilded mirrors with the assessing eye of a connoisseur inspecting horseflesh, or even of a housewife in the market, inspecting cuts on the slab. I'd never seen, or else had never acknowledged, that regard of his before, the sheer carnal avarice of it; and it was strangely magnified by the monocle lodged in his left eye. When I saw him look at me with lust, I dropped my eyes, but in glancing away from him, I caught sight of myself in the mirror. And I saw myself, suddenly, as he saw me, my pale face, the way the muscles in my neck stuck out like thin wire. I saw how much that cruel necklace became me. And for the first time in my innocent and confined life, I sensed in myself a potentiality for corruption that took my breath away.

The next day, we were married."

Kym Hepworth, the next day we were married

Kym Hepworth / detail, to part no more / mixed media / 73 x 27 x 13 1/3 in. / 2009

(excerpt from The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter from the anthology Mistresses of the Dark: 25 Macabre Tales by Master Storytellers, selected by Stefan Dziemianowicz et al., published by Barnes & Noble, Inc., New York, © 1998)

Wilco - Shot in the Arm

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