Indeed! Angela Carter’s invocation of Jane Austen at the start of chapter four couldn’t be more appropriate; Wise Children is a wonderful, ebullient, rich, bawdy, optimistic carnival of a novel.
So we all thought at Emily’s Walking Book Club yesterday. (All, except for one lady who thought it ‘too clever by half’.) We longed to go round chez Chance for a gin and a natter with winning narrator Dora toot sweet! Indeed, we felt a touch guilty for walk-talking the novel in North London, not far from Melchior Hazard’s swish Primrose Hill residence, rather than on ‘the bastard side of Old Father Thames’.
There was something about yesterday’s walk which was particularly wonderful. Perhaps it was because, in an attempt to avoid muddy patches and wind-exposed hill-tops, I led us on an unusually long loop. Perhaps it was thanks to the enormous tree that had blown dramatically across the path, which felt symbolic, in a Carteresque way, of an uprooted family tree. Or perhaps it was simply because Wise Children is an especially good book and we felt so exceptionally fond of Dora that it was almost as though she (and Nora, of course) were high-kicking alongside us on the Heath.
Dora Chance is the forceful narrator of the novel. We meet her on her seventy-fifth birthday, which is also the birthday of her twin sister Nora, the hundredth birthday of their father (though they are illegitimate and unacknowledged) – grand thesp Melchior Hazard, and it is Shakespeare’s birthday too. The novel takes place over the course of one day, from breakfast that morning to wandering home from Melchior’s centenary party that night, with Dora’s final exclamation:
What a joy it is to dance and sing!
In a feat of storytelling, Carter manages to contain over a century’s history of dancing and singing in this single day. We begin with Dora’s paternal grandmother Estella, born in 1870, a child actor on the provincial circuits, who came to London to be a Cordelia who married her Lear – Ranulph Hazard. They went to America, then all over the Empire: acting in Australia, Hong Kong, Singapore, Canada, America again – with everything from an ice-cream sundae to a township named after them in their wake.
Then we come to their (possibly illegitimate) offspring, twins Peregrine and Melchior Hazard. Melchior wound up in a Brixton boarding house, where, so Dora likes to think, her mother, who ‘emptied the slops, filled the washstand jugs, raked out the grates, built up the fires…’ and was only ‘a slip of a thing but she was bold as brass’, locked his door behind her and:
“Now I’ve got you where I want you!” she said. What else could a gentleman do but succumb?
And so Dora and Nora Chance were conceived.
One of the things I love most in Wise Children, is how time and again Carter rejects the role of wispy delicate woman, overpowered and badly treated by man. Their servant girl mother wasn’t raped by tough young Melchior, but took advantage of him! (I feel Rachel Cooke in her excellent column in yesterday’s Observer would approve.)
Elsewhere Carter rewrites the role of Ophelia. Beautiful young Tiffany – strewn with flowers, driven mad with grief at being impregnated and then seriously, serially cheated on by her awful boyfriend Tristram (Melchior’s son) – is thought to have drowned herself in the Thames. So far, so Ophelia … but no, at the end of the novel she reappears, ‘as fresh as paint … sound in mind and body almost to a fault … our heart’s delight.’ Tristram begs her forgiveness, to which she replies, bluntly, “Fat chance,”:
“Pull yourself together and be a man, or try to,” said Tiffany sharply. “You’ve not got what it takes to be a father. There’s more to fathering than fucking you know.”
Then she strides off. Brilliant!
Grandma Chance is the owner of the boarding house and she brings up Nora and Dora, as their mother died in childbirth and Melchior disowned them. Rather being raised in a stifling patriarchy, they grow up in a carnivalesque family, surrounded by singing and dancing from the moment they’re born, in a house where people are either naked, in a nighty, or dressed up as pirates, and stray souls are made very welcome. Again, rather than suffering at the hands of the badly behaving man, the women flourish.
Dora and Nora have dancing lessons and soon become high-kicking chorus girls, a career that eventually takes them to Hollywood, where they are Peaseblossom and Mustardseed in Melchior’s doomed production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
The descriptions of the Hollywood set of the Wood near Athens are spellbinding:
Daisies big as your head and white as spooks, foxgloves as tall as the tower of Pisa that chimed like bells if shook. Gnarled, fissured tree-trunks; sprays of enormous leaves – oak, ash, thorn, like parasols, or glider planes, or awnings … And rolling around at random underfoot, or stuck on buds, or hanging in mid-air as if they’d just rolled off a wild rose or out of a cowslip, imitation dewdrops, that is big faux pearls, suspended on threads.
Everything has been scaled up so that the actors look the size of fairies on screen. It is extremely surreal in reality in order to look real on screen. And yet, what on earth is reality in this context? It is The Dream, after all, and made in Hollywood, the ‘major public dreaming facility in the whole world’. It is a dreamlike landscape, for this dream of a dream, and like dreams, it is uncanny, beautiful and disturbing at the same time. Then, in a genius stroke of irony, it proves to be all too real, when Nora trips up and spikes her bottom on a giant conker and the wound goes septic.
The film flops; Shakespeare’s and Melchior’s Dream doesn’t work in Hollywood. Neither does the intriguing, sad character of Gorgeous George. He is first seen doing a bawdy show on Brighton Pier with great success. Next, he is imported to Hollywood to be Bottom in The Dream, where he fails rather unspectacularly. Finally, he is in the gutter outside Melchior’s hundredth birthday party, ‘some old cove in rags, begging’.
Gorgeous George is not just any old character. As Carter tells us:
For George was not a comic at all but an enormous statement … Displayed across his torso there was … a complete map of the entire world.
When they see him in Brighton, he strips almost naked (the vital bits are covered by a ‘gee-string of very respectable dimensions … made out of the Union Jack’) and sings God Save the King and Rule Britannia. ‘Most of his global tattoo was filled in a brilliant pink’ – the colour of Empire. So George’s downward spiral is that of Great Britain: it once ruled the world, lost to America, and now is reduced to begging.
Gorgeous George’s tragic trajectory mirrors that of the Hazards – from the paternal grandmother who acts in all corners of the Empire, through Shakespearean success Melchior, to his son Tristram who presents a third-rate television game show. It echoes the fate of the music halls and chorus lines.
‘Lo how the mighty are fallen,’ thinks Dora when she sees George in the gutter. Much has fallen, much dwindles, and yet, don’t forget, ‘Let other pens dwell on guilt and misery.’ Carter tells us throughout that there is no place for tragedy in this book.
The British Empire has crumbled, but if it is represented by Gorgeous George – at his best a stripper-comedian – was it really so wonderful? Who cares about him, when we have Dora and Nora, who remain ‘The Lucky Chances’, happy, joyful, making-the-best of things, singing and dancing to the very last line.
It is a profoundly optimistic novel, made all the more so by these lines of downfall that run through it. Wise Children encourages you to laugh and make merry, not cry when disaster inevitably strikes. Fate deals a cruel hand, the trick is not to take it lying down. (Or, at least lie down and enjoy it!) Perhaps it sounds rather naf and daft when put like this, rather than guised in Carter’s rich, raucous prose. No doubt it’s best to read it for yourself. Do – and I’d love to know what you make of it.
PS. For those of you who want to venture beyond EmilyBooks, here is a humblingly brilliant article on Wise Children by Kate Webb, here are my latest crop of reviews for The Spectator, and here‘s a little something I wrote on the Daunt Books Festival for The Bookseller.