The Bloody Chamber can, of course, be enjoyed in and of itself as a well-written and exciting collection of short stories. Readers might feel that they are enjoying 'adult versions' of traditional, well-loved fairy tales, and they certainly do deliver on this level. This was not, however, Angela Carter's intention in creating them. What she wanted was not to elevate the familiar tales to new heights, but rather to restore them to their original roots, with all the violence, sexuality and attendant fear intact. She was pissed off at those versions of the stories told to little girls – where a handsome prince would save them from the 'big bad wolf' – and she was pissed off with the popular branch of feminism which cast women in the role of victim. Passivity was not her style, as she proclaimed to great effect in her seminal work of 1978, 'The Sadeian Woman'. This is exemplified particularly well in one of the tales here, 'The Company of Wolves': when the Red Riding Hood figure is told by the wolf-man that his big teeth are all-the-better-to-eat-her-with, she “burst out laughing; she knew she was nobody's meat”, before ripping the wolf's shirt off and getting into bed with him. This reviewer, when first reading the story as a young female undergraduate and desperately trying to come up with a lofty academic response, could only muster an enthusiastic “Hell, yeah!”. One of the best things about literature is the way a writer can give the reader permission to think or feel things that they have always sensed but have never perhaps been able to articulate to themselves. Where The Bloody Chamber succeeds so brilliantly is in illustrating a truly modern feminist argument – that women and girls have inherent power and inherent rights, and a responsibility to themselves to utilise the first and claim the second – whilst using the folkloric, ancient structure of the fairy tale. Carter going wild with her own erudition throughout the collection also makes it a rich, exciting banquet of references and allusions which create a tangible beauty.
33 years after The Bloody Chamber was published, it is disheartening to witness many of the role models that young girls look up to; one only has to squint at the covers of magazines to see that plastic tits, hair extensions and a footballer are the accessories du jour, and that success is measured by the amount of attention gained by these items. It would be very cool to think that, along with a calculator, homework diary and lesson timetable, schoolgirls could be given a copy of Carter's book to keep them on the straight and narrow of their own autonomy.
Boys, too, should read it; men should read it. Mr. Lyon, Milord the Tiger and the occasional Werewolf are sympathetic characters, exhibiting a deeper wisdom and empathy than the vile Marquis of 'The Bloody Chamber', or the Count of 'The Snow Child', who use their socially bestowed gender advantage to inflict abuse on women (though even the latter tale, the darkest in the collection, ends on a note of defiance).
If another goal of literature – of any art, really – is ultimately to foster a sense of connection, then Carter's other explanation of why she favoured the fairy tale form is important. She said that it represents “the most vital connection we have with the imaginations of the ordinary men and women whose labour created our world”. Her respect for these people is apparent throughout the book, almost like a watermark; beliefs that we would call superstitious are portrayed with sincerity.
So much more could be said in favour of this wonderful book, but to summarise: it's less than 150 pages – read it!