No, not telling you what the sentence is. It’s mine.
From last weekend’s column.
I read quite a lot, by most people’s standards. And I frequently come across bits of writing that awe me with their beauty; lush, dense things that I cannot help but read aloud. Yet only once have I ever looked at a sentence and thought “that’s perfect”. It will come as no surprise to those familiar with her work that the sentence in question was from an Angela Carter book.
Carter was a journalist, a novelist, a critic and a playwright, though she is perhaps best known for The Bloody Chamber, her collection of fairytale re-imaginings. Of her novels, the one with which most people seem to be familiar is Nights at the Circus, her fin de siècle circus fantasy. Her writing seems suited to this sort of setting – over the top, rich, anarchic.
Yet the sentence that stopped me in my tracks years ago was a quiet one, so unobtrusive that sometimes when I go back to look for it I have trouble finding it. For all her illusion of excess, her writing is ultimately controlled and precise.
Perhaps this is why of all her books my favourite is the most outwardly sober. Wise Children was her last novel, and unlike most of the others contains no element of the surreal, the supernatural or the science-fictional. In plot, if Wise Children resembles anything it’s The Bold and the Beautiful. The title comes from the saying “it’s a wise child that knows its own father”. Dora Chance, the narrator of the novel does know her father, but he refuses to acknowledge her in return. Dora and her twin sister Nora are the illegitimate children of the Shakespearean actor Sir Melchior Hazard. The main action of Wise Children takes place over a day – the twins’ seventy-fifth birthday which, coincidentally, is their father’s hundredth. Yet within this time frame we also get the entire history of the Hazards; a multigenerational family saga that begins with the twins’ grandmother Estella, herself an actress.
The novel begins with a reference to the Thames. London is “two cities divided by a river”, and the Chances are definitely from the wrong side of it. “We’ve always lived on the left-hand side, the side the tourist rarely sees, the bastard side of Old Father Thames” and Wise Children delights in the disreputability of its origins. If Melchior is a serious Shakespearian actor, the Chance twins are showgirls. Melchior might wish for a dignified old age; at seventy-five, the Chance girls wear make-up “an inch thick” and sexy underwear. The Hazard family tree has titled aristocrats; the Chances’ ‘family’ appears an agglomeration of strays and bastards. But then, among those the Chance sisters have taken in is Lady Atalanta Lynde, Sir Melchior’s first wife. In addition, Dora suggests that the eminently respectable Hazard family might also carry some suspicion of illegitimacy. And so though Wise Children might appear at first to be a contrast between high and low culture, high and low birth, the two sides of the Thames, the novel will soon unravel those differences completely. The lives of the Chances and the Hazards are completely intertwined, and any pretensions to superiority progressively reduced. Everyone’s a bit disreputable, and some are wise enough to be proud of it.
Because the wisdom in Wise Children is its favoured characters’ unflinching, amused acceptance of the truth. The truth of their birth is only the first example of this – that one thing that their father and his legitimate offspring refuse to admit.
Most of all, it is an absolute delight to read. “What a joy it is to dance and sing!” says Dora, and this exuberance fills the novel. Wise Children may not be as experimental as some of Carter’s other works but it is such a joyful, bawdy, lively thing.