Wise Children by Angela Carter

published 1991

Then there were the frocks. Some things we’d put away in plastic bags: bias-cut silk jersey, beaded sheaths that weighed a ton. Others we’d covered up with sheets, the big net skirts, the taffeta crinolines, halter necks, strapless, backless, etc. etc. etc., all heaped high on Grandma’s bed.

‘Half a century of evening wear,’ said Nora. ‘A history of the world in party frocks.’

‘We ought to donate it to the V and A,’ I said.

‘Why should somebody pay good money to look at my old clothes?’

‘They used to pay to see you without them.’

‘They ought put us into a museum.’

‘We ought to turn this house into a museum.’

‘Museum of dust.’

Nora rummaged among the rags and gave a soft little chuckle. She held up a foamy white georgette number with crystal beads. ‘The Super-Chief!’ she said. ‘Remember?’
‘“ She wore something sheer and white and deceptively virginal, that emitted a hard glitter when she moved, a subtle, ambiguous cobweb softness veined with a secret of ice. ‘Got a light?’ Half trusting, half insolent, a hoarse voice, older than that pale face with its purple heart of lipstick, flourishing its rasp of gutter like a flag, with pride.”’
I for Irish, Ross ‘Irish’ O’Flaherty. Hollywood Elegies. The very frock! He never knew I’d borrowed it from Daisy.

observations: The book within a book is Hollywood Elegies, the lines in double quotes are the novelized version of a meeting on a train (that would be the Super-Chief) by a Pulitzer Prizewinner – Dora is remembering her conquest, and his written version of it.

The story of Dora and Irish is very plainly borrowed from the story of F Scott Fitzgerald and Sheilah Graham – but then everything in this book refers to something else, you get lost in all the Shakespeare plays and references, with the bits that remind you of another book, a play, a poem, a filmstar, a film. You also need a family tree to try to keep straight the two families, the Chances and the Hazards, though even then you have to allow for the fact that parents are not always who they seem to be. Does even Angela Carter get it wrong? The Chance sisters could never have been Tristram’s fake aunts (she seems to mean fake cousins), and there are some early references to Melchior where it seems Ranulph might actually be meant. There is a list of characters at the back of the book – you could do with it while reading, but then in its nature it contains spoilers, so there’s no easy way to keep track. There is also a(n) (extra) question mark over the punctuation of What? You Will!, the Shakespearean revue – the exact form of the name varies almost every time it is mentioned.

But all this is positive: the book is tremendous fun, Nora and Dora drag you through their picaresque, carnivalesque adventures, to America and back, looking for joy wherever it comes, and it is laugh-out-loud funny at times, very affecting at others.

Links on the blog: Angela Carter has made many appearances on the blog, and this book has appeared twice before: click on the label below. The real Fitzgerald has featured
before, as has his most famous book again, click on the label.

The picture isn’t exactly virginal, but the rest of the description fits beautifully, and she IS a Ziegfeld girl, so a performer like Dora. She is Mary Eaton, an actress of the 1920s, and the picture is from the
Library of Congress.


  1. Moira - I understand what you mean about needing a family tree to keep all of the characters straight, but I do like family stories. This one sounds like a fun one. And the life of a Ziegfield girl? Fascinating in its own right and as a look at the era.

    1. Do you know Margot, I always claim detective story fans like us are better than most people at working out family trees, because they are so often relevant in a good murder story. I think you should do a blogpost on that!

  2. I've only learned about Angela Carter since I started blogging, but I haven't head of this one before - it sounds like great fun. I love the photo of Mary Eaton. I've also just discovered your blog & I'm enjoying it very much.

    1. Thanks so much Lisa! I'm delighted you discovered the blog and hope you will visit often... I love Angela Carter, she's a great writer.

  3. OK, this is way too complicated for me to follow. Maybe it is my age; once I was able to do logic problems. But I will keep an open mind. I have many more years of reading ahead.

    1. I think you have to just go with it, let it wash over you....


Post a Comment