Angela Carter’s “The Courtship of Mr. Lyon”

I’ve reread Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber about once a year for the past 8 or 9 years (that is, since I was 17 or so, and effectively trepanned, Emily-Dickinson-style, by my first reading of the collection), continually refining and enriching my understandings of her stories – which are not, Carter said, “retellings” of fairy tales, but attempts to “extract the latent content from the traditional stories.”

All this time, though, I’ve never actually written down any of my thoughts about the collection – perhaps because it really has felt like one continuous reading, with no clear outlet or stopping-place. (“The woods enclose. You step between the first trees and then you are no longer in the open air; the wood swallows you up… Once you are inside it, you must stay there until it lets you out again…”)

But here, finally, is a first attempt: some thoughts about the “The Courtship of Mr. Lyon,” prompted by a conversation with friend J (and then rather painfully rewritten several times over the past few months).

That story has always felt the least conducive to extended inquiry: it’s so much lighter and subtler in palette than most of the other stories in the collection (Fragonard next to a Caravaggio, approximately?), and it hews quite closely to the original moral thread of “Beauty and the Beast.” Compared to the other tales in the Chamber, it’s still wickedly sharp-eyed, but less on-edge, less violently dramatic – dare I say, sweeter. Pleasures more straightforwardly tender.

But there’s a definite strain of ironic commentary woven throughout “Mr. Lyon” about wealth and privilege. By extension, this reflects too on the invisibility of those who are not privileged: the literal invisibility of the Beast’s servants takes on a distinctly uncomfortable cast when framed by this explicit awareness of class privilege. While the servant angle isn’t deeply explored in the story, the hint of it still serves to unseat Carter’s telling from the easily conventional.

…[Beauty’s father] knew by the pervasive atmosphere of a suspension of reality that he had entered a place of privilege where all the laws of the world he knew need not necessarily apply, for the very rich are often very eccentric and the house was plainly that of an exceedingly wealthy man.

Where typically the protagonist (and the reader of fairy tales) would grow to suspect sorcery, Beauty’s father immediately identifies money as the operative form of magic. In “The Bloody Chamber,” Bluebeard’s wealth is presented quite explicitly as a toxic seduction, but here it remains a quieter irony, an astringent to an otherwise mostly pastel composition. That particular strain of irony is to be expected given that Beauty, referred to both here and in “The Tiger’s Bride” as “a pearl,” is used in an economic exchange. And luxury is inseparable from the nature of her stay with the Beast, though it presents as a diffuse, dreamlike idyll – “pastel-colored idleness” – rather than the morbidly opulent temptations faced by the narrator of “The Bloody Chamber.”

Eventually, though, society is identified as the corruptive force in “Mr. Lyon,” rather than wealth and privilege per se. Beauty is tarnished when she becomes overfond of the admiration of others: “[T]hat pearly skin of hers was plumping out, a little, with high living and compliments… she smiled at herself in mirrors a little too often…”

The idea of women regarding themselves through, or being entrapped in the gazes of (masculine) others occurs most signally in “The Bloody Chamber” and “The Erl-King.” But here too there’s a (more traditional) moral correlate: “How was it she had never noticed before that his agate eyes were equipped with lids, like those of a man? Was it because she had only looked at her own face, reflected there?”

All proceeds from there as expected: Beauty, by turning from the allure of society, returning to Mr. Lyon, and confronting her own vanity, is able to coax the Beast out of his beastly state. His transformation is written in an exceedingly tender way – we see a Beast who finally feels safe revealing his true self, occupying its physicality. “When her lips touched the meat-hook claws, they drew back into their pads and she saw how he had always kept his fists clenched but now, painfully, tentatively, at last began to stretch his fingers.”

The story closes with a cultivated pastoral idyll: “Mr and Mrs Lyon walk in the garden; the old spaniel drowses on the grass, in a drift of fallen petals.” Unlike in “The Tiger’s Bride,” where parity of the lovers is achieved through release, “Mr. Lyon” delivers its Beauty and Beast to an enclosed, private society – the garden as wilderness tamed and miniaturized – reminiscent of the Biblical Peaceable Kingdom, where “the wolf also shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid.”

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A very happy October to all (a brief tribute to “The Erl-King”)

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