“Isn’t it Every Girl’s Dream to be Married in White?” – Angela Carter’s Gothic Bride

By | October 30, 2012

Angela Carter New Critical ReadingsAngela Carter
made her opinion of the traditional white wedding dress quite clear in an essay
published in 1967, ‘Notes for a Theory of Sixties Style’, in which she
theorizes fashion as a complex sign system. She argues that while we may ‘think
our dress expresses ourselves . . . in fact it expresses our environment . . . almost
at a subliminal, emotionally charged, instinctual, non-intellectual level’. Thus,
the romantic glamour surrounding the ‘tulle and taffeta bride in her crackling
virginal carapace, clasping numinous lilies’ only disguises her real function, which
is as ‘the supreme icon of woman as a sexual thing and nothing else whatever’. It
was a view she enlarged upon in an interview she gave in 1977, where she opined
that ‘A wedding dress is like a gift -wrapped girl. It’s as though the wearer
is only existing in transition. It’s the greatest day of her life, and she’s
gift -wrapped for it,
and she’s passing from her father to her husband, and only at the moment of
passage is she allowed any being at all, in this completely artificial manner.’

Carter
went on to trace back the prevalence of wedding dresses in her fiction to a fascination
with the figure of the jilted bride Miss Havisham in Charles Dickens’ Great
Expectations
, whom she summarizes as an ‘awful image of the condition of
women’.  Deserted by her prospective
husband at the altar, Miss Havisham refuses to adopt any alternative identity
other than that of a bride, freezing both time and herself at the moment of her
abortive marriage. Angela Carter’s reference to such a figure is meaningful
within any discussion of her portrayal of the wedding dress in her fiction,
since it gives us the key to understanding the way in which it works as a
specifically Gothic trope.

Magic ToyshopThe
first notable appearance of a wedding dress in Carter’s writing is in her 1967 novel
The Magic Toyshop. Its main protagonist, Melanie, is a fifteen year old
girl who, in the midst of puberty, is just beginning to see herself as a
potentially desirable sexual object, future bride to ‘a phantom bridegroom’.
She and her siblings are left at home for the summer while her father, who is a
successful writer, goes on a lecture tour to the United States and takes her
mother with him. In their absence, Melanie explores their bedroom and pores
over her parents’ wedding photograph, fascinated by the elaborate nature of the
display. Full of burgeoning sexual curiosity as she is, Melanie is not wholly
seduced by superficial appearances. In fact, caught up as she is in a pubescent
preoccupation with sexuality, she is only too well aware of the nature of the
contract that is being celebrated. She reflects, while engaged in a close
examination of the wedding dress, that ‘It seemed a strange way to dress up
just in order to lose your virginity’.

Melanie
comes very close here to identifying a paradox central to any reading of the
wedding dress as Gothic. Insofar as the white dress signifies the sexual purity
of the bride, it acquires meaning only in the context of its imminent defilement,
thus becoming emblematic of endings rather than beginnings:

“Symbolic
and virtuous white. White satin shows every mark, white tulle crumples at the
touch of a finger, white roses shower petals at a breath. Virtue is fragile. It
was a marvellous wedding dress. Did she, Melanie wondered for a moment, wear it
on the wedding night?”

Viewed
from this perspective, the wedding dress carries strong intimations of mortality,
which are foregrounded by the wedding photograph, which, in its very attempt to
freeze-frame ‘this fragment of her mother’s happy time’, can only capture it in
the act of its passing away. The photograph may hint at immortality, but it is
actually a coffin containing a corpse preserved for permanent display, an analogy
Carter drives home with brutal, forensic directness: ‘Her smiling and youthful
mother was as if stabbed through the middle by the camera and caught forever,
under glass, like a butterfly in an exhibition case’.

The
association between death and display – seductive veiling and sinister
shrouding – is preserved in the transition from the photographic image to the
real thing. Melanie feels ‘wicked, like a grave-robber’ for disinterring her
mother’s bridal outfit from the trunk in which it has been carefully preserved.
When she lifts the creaking lid, it is as if she has disturbed a phantom when a
‘great deal of loose tissue paper packed in the top rose up . . . and hovered a
few inches in the air, momentarily levitated, an emanation’. And the mass of
fabric contained in this coffin-like space possesses sinister characteristics
too – the extravagant veil appears bent on stifling Melanie, ‘blinding her eyes
and filling her nostrils’, and when she puts on the dress ‘It slithered over
her, cold as a slow hosing with ice-water’.


New PassionCarter’s
use of the wedding dress trope reaches the height of audacity in her 1977 novel
The Passion of New Eve. Zero performs a savagely satirical marriage
ceremony uniting Eve and Tristessa, in which Eve (a woman who was once a man)
is the groom and Tristessa (a man who wishes with all his heart he were a
woman) the bride. In spite of the fact that this is the most brutal of shotgun
marriages, Tristessa is nevertheless seduced by the image of femininity he
assumes in his role as bride – for after all, his ultimate ambition is to
fulfil all the criteria required of the ‘perfect’ woman:

“He
leaned forward and scrutinized the romantic apparition in the mirror with eyes
filled with an obscure distress and also a luminous pride.

‘Isn’t
it every girl’s dream to be married in white?’ the virgin bride demanded
rhetorically of the company in her heroic irony.”

Clearly,
we are not meant to agree with Tristessa here: marriage is not every girl’s dream,
nor, more importantly, can it be his. Not only does Eve recall Tristessa’s role
as Catherine in Wuthering Heights, but also an unnamed film in which
Tristessa plays the part of a nurse in a leper colony who becomes infected
herself. Consequently, ‘the missionary she loved . . . married her as soon as
it was too late. She wore a veil thick enough to hide the ravages of the
disease at the ceremony, but they could not touch, of course. So she died and
he was sorry'. As in The Magic Toyshop and Heroes and Villains,
the body of the bride is also the body of a corpse: the wedding dress is worn
both at the altar and in the coffin. What the veil – and the wedding dress –
disguise is a Gothic horror: not the virginal modesty of the blushing bride,
but the leprous signs of infection, or the face of madness and delusion.

Carter’s manipulation of the trope of veiling is very important in her literature. Although veiling hints at the
concept of depth – at something ‘underneath’ – Carter’s wedding dresses
accumulate their meanings on the surface, thus making subjectivity itself, in
the words of Judith Halberstam, ‘a surface effect’. In Carter’s fiction,
therefore, every veiling is a Gothic act in that it is also simultaneously an
enshrouding, signalling a terrifying descent into ‘nothingness’ for the female
subject. Miss Havisham, whose life effectively comes to an end at the moment
she dons her wedding dress, is indeed – to reiterate Carter’s words – ‘an awful
image of the condition of women’, because she suggests that, for women for whom
marriage is the ultimate life ambition, the wedding dress really is the garment
in which they will both live and die.

– the above edited extract is taken from Angela Carter: New Critical Readings edited by Sonya Andermahr and Lawrence Phillips. You can find out more about this book by visiting our website! Our Bloomsbury friends in the trade division publish the excellent A Card from Angela Carter by Susannah Clapp (Angela Carter's literary executor) – through the medium of her postcards, Susannah evokes Carter's anarchic intelligence, fierce politics, the richness of her
language.. her fact, all her brilliance and contribution to the literary world.

Read our other Halloween inspired blog posts from yesterday: we talk about one of the most enduring gothic figures: the Vampire, and Ian Rankin discusses how he became a crime writer.

Jenny Tighe

9 thoughts on ““Isn’t it Every Girl’s Dream to be Married in White?” – Angela Carter’s Gothic Bride

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    “Isn’t it Every Girl’s Dream to be Married in White?” – Angela Carter’s Gothic Bride – Bloomsbury Literary Studies

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