'Wise children' by Angela Carter is book number eight in my TBR Pile Challenge 2013, and I think I want Dora Chance to be my grandma, or my next door neighbour, or something. The book reads as if you are sat chatting with her over a cuppa, or maybe a cheap bottle of wine. Although Nora and Dora are twins the story is narrated by Dora and she is the one we come to know and we follow their wild ride though the twentieth century as dancers and actresses, and unacknowledged offspring of the renown Melchior Hazard. The book starts where the elderly pair receive an invitation to their father's hundredth birthday party and works though the story until we reach the event in question. Raised by the wise and wily Grandma Chance after the death of their mother (not really a relative at all but the landlady) the girls work hard and make the most of their talents, sharing the ups and downs of a very chequered career. They watch from the sidelines as their father's career takes him from obscurity to 'national treasure', yearning not to bask in his reflected glory, but simply to be accepted as his daughters. Their consolation is the unreliable but adorable Peregrine, uncle and sometime pretend father, who descends into their lives and provides entertainment and sustenance in times of need.
Twins they are, and devoted to each other, with neither love nor friendships ever really coming between them, but they could not be more different. Nora's 'first time' tells the whole story:
"The goose had Nora up against the wall in the alley outside the stage door one foggy night, couldn't see your hand in front of your face, happily for them. You don't get fogs like that, these days. It was after the cast Christmas party. I looked round the Green Room but they'd gone.
Don't be sad for her. Don't run away with the idea that it was a squall, furtive miserable thing, to make love for the first time on a cold night in a back alley with a married man with strong drink on his breath. He was the one she wanted, warts and all, she would have him, by hook or by crook. She had a passion to know about Life, all its dirty corners, and this is how she started, in at the deep end, for better or worse, while I stood shivering on the edge like the poor cat in the adage." (p.81)
while this is Dora's first affair, with 'Irish':
"Attracted as he was to my conspicuous unrefinement, all the same Irish thought it would only make sleeping with me all right in the end if we could read Henry James, together, afterwards, and I was nothing loath because there'd been precious little time for book-learning in my short life as I'd been earning a living from age twelve and sometimes Irish, when he remembered that, would forgive me everything.
Don't misunderstand me. He was a lovely man in many ways. But he kept on insisting on forgiving me when there was nothing to forgive.
Meanwhile Nora was eating pasta and making love with the magnificent simplicity I always envied." (p.123)
If anything the main player in the book is Melchior, the convolutions of his marriages and various offspring are a source of fascination for the Chance twins, but it is the women who dance around him who are the characters. In true theatrical style everything is so dramatic and sometimes you feel as if you are watching the scenes from a hilarious farce. Here Daisy arrives to demand that Melchior accept responsibility for her pending baby. Lady A, his current wife, accepts her fate and fades quietly into the background, ending up being taken in by the twins:
"It was the Lady A that I felt sorry for. I could even find it in my heart, at that moment, to feel sorry for Imogen and Saskia. The girls clung to their mother's skirts (she was wearing a lovely mid-calf crepe de Chine with fichu plus a wide-brimmed hat with an old rose ribbon), too scared to cry, too overwhelmed by the horror of it, the madwoman in her underwear, the screams, the tears, the recriminations. Meanwhile, the English Colony, ever unflappable, took their final bites of kipper and laid their knives and forks together on their plates." (p.147)
But what you really love about the girls is their zest for life; nothing is done by halves, it's all or nothing. They have relished every moment, seized every opportunity that comes their way and you can bet your life they will end it with no regrets. Here they are at the party, coincidentally their own seventy fifth birthday ('Wheelchair' is their name for Lady A in her old age):
"We gave up on Wheelchair, surrendered our furs and, hand in hand, did another Hollywood ascension up the staircase although I suffered the customary nasty shock when I spotted us both in the big gilt mirror at the top - two funny old girls, paint an inch thick, clothes sixty years too young, stars on their stockings and little wee skirts skimming their buttocks. Parodies. Nora caught sight of us as the same time as I did and she stopped short, too.
'Oooer, Dor,' she said. 'We've gone and overdone it.'
We couldn't help it, we had to laugh at the spectacle we'd made of ourselves and, fortified by sisterly affection, strutted our stuff boldly into the ballroom. We could still show them a thing or two, even if they couldn't stand the sight." (p.197-8)
This was a wonderful book, lit up by the women who populate it. A world of bright lights and grease paint and everyone takes a bow at the end. Large bunches of flowers all round.