Academic journal article The Review of Contemporary Fiction

All You Need Is 'Love': Angela Carter's Novel of Sixties Sex and Sensibility

Academic journal article The Review of Contemporary Fiction

All You Need Is 'Love': Angela Carter's Novel of Sixties Sex and Sensibility

Article excerpt

IN HER AFTERWORD to the revised 1987 edition of Love, Angela Carter reveals the obscure source of inspiration for her narrative of sixties sexual misadventure: "I first got the idea for Love, from Benjamin Constant's...novel of sensibility, Adolphe; I was seized with the desire to write a kind of modern-day, demotic version...although I doubt anybody could spot the resemblance." (1) If this connection had eluded Carter's audience, surely it is understandable. A phenomenon of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the novel of sensibility had long fallen from vogue and reappeared, revenantlike, only in its latter-day guise of popular romance. Yet, as Lorna Sage has so adroitly observed, one of the hallmarks of Angela Carter's craft is the "grotesque, and yet ...recognisable (borrowed, parodied) range of her symbolism [with which] she seems bent on a general stocktaking, from the earliest innocent cons to their latest camp revivals."(2) In this particular borrowing Carter effectively scrutinizes the moral ambivalences of sensibility, particularly the sinister motivations lurking behind the external display of emotionality constructed as a sign of heightened sensitivity and refined benevolence. Simultaneously, she mercilessly illustrates the similarities between the excesses of the period that gave rise to Romanticism and those of the period that gave us the sexulal revolution. Through the medium of the menage a trois comprised of Lee, Annable, and Buzz, she takes stock of our cherished and reviled conventional gender roles and to what extent they have, while changing drastically, nonetheless stubbornly remained the same.

In a retrospective assessment of the cultural and social significance of the sixties, Carter speculated that "manners had not been so liberal and expressive since the Regency--or maybe even since the Restoration, with the absence of syphilis compensated for in the mortality stakes by the arrival of hard drugs."(3) Indeed, the sex and drugs that seem synonymous with sixties culture were simply elements of a greater phenomenon, the youth culture's valorization of total freedom (or, more precisely, license), of boundless physical and mental sensation, and of a Rousseauistic "natural" goodness unrelated to traditional social mores (or, as a number of popular songs of the era put it, being "really real"). Likewise, if less demotically, the eighteenth-century cult of sensibility prized emotional susceptibility, heightened sensitivity, and a tremendous capacity for suffering, all regarded as the outward signs of a highly refined moral character. The novel of sensibility, as Janet Todd explains, was originally a didactic mode that "showed people how to behave, how to express themselves in friendship and how to respond decently to life's experiences," but it soon devolved into a popular form that "prided itself more on making its readers weep and in teaching them when and how much to weep."(4) Yet Carter, incorporating this mode into a postmodern pastiche, inverts this paradigm. Love is more likely to invoke fear and revulsion than tears and sympathy--and is, in its fatal consequences, a study in how not to deport oneself.

In the traditional novel of sensibility the characteristic signs of the privileged trait were most often embodied in female protagonists who were prone to weeping, fainting, and madness while being perpetually subject to threats of seduction and bodily harm. This historical model finds its postmodern reincarnation in the "mad girl" Annabel, a young woman so lost in a dream world that "even the women's movement would have been no help to her and alternative psychiatry would have only made things, if possible, worse" (113). The setting in which Annabel, in the throes of hysteria, first appears is directly analogous to the origins of the novel of sensibility and its literary first cousin, the Gothic novel: the collision between the orderly, cool rationality of Augustan neoclassicism and the pleasurable terrors of the imagination lurking at the heart of Romanticism. …

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