‘One day, Annabel saw the sun and moon in the sky at the same time. The sight filled her with a terror which entirely consumed her and did not leave her until the night closed in catastrophe for she had no instinct for self-preservation if she was confronted by ambiguities’.
Love, Angela Carter, Pg.1
Love, written in 1969 but published in 1971, tracks the destructive course of a young woman and the relationship she has with her husband and his half-brother. Often described as ‘a farewell to the sixties’, Love chronicles, in acute detail (more so than the first two novels, Shadow Dance and Several Perceptions, which make up this loosely termed ‘Bristol Trilogy’) the psychological and sexual encounters that take place within and outside of this love-triangle. Meeting on New Year’s morning a few years prior to the events that open up the novel, Annabel and Lee chance upon one another the morning after a party:
‘She opened her eyes and some kind of hunger, some kind of despair in her narrow face caught at Lee’s very tender heart. […] Her movements were spiky, angular and graceful; how was he to know, since he was so young, that he would become a Spartan boy and she the fox under his jacket, eating his heart out. The Japanese peasantry had an awed respect for foxes, who, they believed, could enter a person’s body either through the breast or else the space between the flesh of a finger and any one fingernail. When the fox was inside, it would harangue its host until he lost his reason but Lee felt no need to beware of her’.
Love, Angela Carter, Pg.15
The free-spirited, bohemian Lee decides to take Annabel home to live with him, thus embarking on a constrained life of respectability. Becoming a schoolteacher and offering to marry the young Annabel to please her parents, his comfortable – yet stifling – life seems set in stone. However, the return of his half-brother, Buzz, who has been roaming America in the hopes of finding his Apache Indian father, causes a stir in the domestic dynamics of Annabel and Lee’s two-bedroom flat, where the majority of the action takes place. Although Lee and Buzz were both brought up in South London by their stern auntie after their mother goes spectacularly mad, their outlook on life could not be more different. Whereas Lee has gravitated into the middle class life and has an air of social responsibility, Buzz remains a working-class dropout whose real life has never lived up to the imaginary world he has constructed for himself. It is this world of ‘subjective fantasy’, amongst many other traits, that draws Buzz and Annabel together.
‘She suffered from nightmares too terrible to reveal to [Lee], especially since he himself was often the principle actor in them and appeared in many hideous dream disguises. Sometimes, during the day, she stopped, startled, before some familiar object because it seemed to have just changed its form back to the one she remembered after a brief, private period impersonating something quite strange, for she had the capacity for changing the appearance of the real world which is the price paid by those who take too subjective a view of it’.
Love, Angela Carter, Pg.3
A love-triangle, which seems to be based on anything but love, is at the centre of this devastatingly dark tale, reminding me of Angela Carter’s first novel, Shadow Dance. Like Love, Shadow Dance is also made up of a love-triangle between two men, the ghastly Honeybuzzard (whose name reappears in shortened form in Love) and Morris, and a young woman, Ghislane. This novel also ends catastrophically (though I won’t say how).
Unlike Shadow Dance, Angela Carter’s fifth novel hones in, with more detail, on the, predominantly, violent and heterosexual orientation of the characters. From Annabel’s loss of virginity, described in acute detail, to Lee’s numerous sexual encounters with the philosophy teacher’s wife, a young university student, Carolyn and his pupil, Joanne, heterosexuality abounds in this short tale of disaster. Though, it is mostly a heterosexuality that perceives women as placid and subservient to male needs, despite the myth of greater female sexual freedom due to the creation and wide dissemination of the Pill. As Annabel imagines when sleeping with Lee:
‘[…] whatever he was, he grew necessary to her and she even played with the idea of bearing his children, though these children existed solely in the terms of her mythology, were purely symbolic and quite undemanding, related not to fantasies of motherhood but to certain explicit fantasies she had of totally engulfing him which she occasionally experienced with extraordinary intensity when he penetrated her, as if, drawing him through her hairy portals, he could be forever locked up inviolably inside her, reduced to the condition of an embryo and, by dissolving in his own sperm, become himself his own child. So, by impregnating her, he would cease to exist’.
Love, Angela Carter, Pg.35
It is interesting that her experience of sex never lives up to the image she has in her head of totally consuming her partner – she still remains the victim in this relationship. And as Sue Roe argues in her essay, ‘The Disorder of Love: Angela Carter’s Surrealist Collage’, ‘Annabel is the victim of everything that has produced her and thereby outlawed her from herself; it may be that Love should really stand among Carter’s most important works, in that it leads the reader deeply into the question of how to render the problem of outlawed femininity in artistic form’.
There is so much going on in Love that it is impossible to talk about, or even understand, everything that happened after only one reading. Tropes that have become familiar in Carter’s work, such as incest (which is only hinted as desire in Love), femininity and female roles as a construct (such as the script of the Other Woman – Carolyn) and sadomasochism are all packed into this 120 page novel leaving hardly any space to breathe. Yet, it is an exciting and thought-provoking novel that makes you think about the word ‘love’ in all its splendour and devastating destruction.