Analysis of Angela Carter’s Black Venus

This story was originally published in 1980 in the series Next Editions and was reprinted in 1984 in Angela Carter’s collection Black Venus. The common concern of the stories gathered in this volume is the demystifi cation of famous historical and/or literary figures who have become crystallized and canonized in the Western collective imagination. “Black Venus” retells the story of Jeanne Duvall, Charles Baudelaire’s Creole mistress. Carter tries to rewrite history by shifting the focus from the iconic French author to a marginal figure, usually relegated to the footnotes of poetry books and of biographical studies on Baudelaire.

Through her revisionist approach to the authorized version of history, Carter is obviously interested in exploring the relationship between fact and fiction and the reasons that Jeanne’s story has been easily silenced. The strong political agenda of “Black Venus” combines feminist and postcolonial concerns: Jeanne is doubly other and marginalized, because of both her gender and her ethnicity. However, in her attempt to give Jeanne a voice, Carter is careful to avoid speaking for her and turning her into a mere literary object or anecdotal curiosity. Carter’s solution to this quandary is the adoption of a self-conscious narrator, who explicitly mistrusts his or her, or indeed anybody’s, ability to tell Jeanne’s true story. This attitude is in striking discord with Baudelaire’s relationship with Jeanne, who was not only his mistress but also a source of inspiration and the subject of his cycle of poems titled “Black Venus.”

Angela Carter/Penguin/Getty

Carter points out how Jeanne’s role as a muse to the great poet further confnes her to silence and misrepresentation, since she is typecast as the exotic mistress who paradoxically combines both the innocence of her Edenic faraway land and the corruption of an unrestricted sensuality. While Jeanne complains that Baudelaire will not pay for hot water for her bath, the poet is prey to the romantic fallacy that the woman’s sweat smells like cinnamon. Jeanne’s straightforward pragmatism is provocatively juxtaposed to Baudelaire’s self-absorbed idealism. Carter traces back the premises of this opposition to the conservative identification of man with culture and woman with nature, a model that is mentioned in the short story with ironic distance.

The common Western image of the Caribbean as an unspoiled and desirable paradise is also challenged. Baudelaire’s clichéd perception of Jeanne’s homeland is rendered by Carter in the tones of a shallow and unsophisticated pop song. Baudelaire’s lofty, iconic status as the groundbreaking figure of French symbolism is further desecrated by the allusion to his squalid sugar daddy role. Jeanne, on her part, remains untouched by the poet’s rhetoric and his literary efforts (which are branded as “scribbling”), while recoiling in horror at the mere recollection of the widespread poverty of the colonies. Mockingly, the poet’s ennui, the existential boredom typical of the modern human condition that Baudelaire captured so suggestively in his writing, is translated rather prosaically into Jeanne’s mundane boredom. An even more demythologizing comment on the poet’s work is offered when Jeanne uses Baudelaire’s discarded manuscript to collect the ashes of her cheroot.

At a first glance, the relationship between Baudelaire and Jeanne appears mutually exploitative, if grounded on a common feeling of alienation. However, Carter makes sure to emphasize that it is only Jeanne who is literally dispossessed and exiled, as well as economically dependent on her paramour. Jeanne’s subordination to Baudelaire is repeatedly foregrounded, perhaps nowhere more overtly than halfway through the story, when Carter grafts her creative reconstruction of the Creole mistress, about whom very little is known, onto a thin layer of factual information: Significantly, while Jeanne’s date of birth remains obscure, there is a clear, reliable record of when she first met the French poet. Yet the conclusion of the story departs from any historical accuracy. Although it is known that Jeanne died before Baudelaire, Carter, with typical black humor, represents her surviving her lover to return to the Caribbean, where she is able to open a brothel with the profits from the sale of the poet’s manuscripts. The closing paragraph of the story is an ironic reference to the only legacy from Baudelaire that Jeanne is truly able to disseminate around the world: Short of circulating the poet’s writing, Jeanne “will continue to dispense, to the most privileged of the colonial administration, at a not excessive price, the veritable, the authentic, and the true Baudelairian syphilis.”

BIBLIOGRAPHY Carter, Angela. Black Venus. London: Chatto and Windus, 1985.
Gamble, Sarah. Angela Carter: Writing from the Front Line. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1997.
Matus, Jill, “Blonde, Black and Hottentot Venus: Context and Critique in Angela Carter’s ‘Black Venus’ ” In Angela Carter, edited by Alison Easton, 161–172. London: Macmillan, 2000.
Schmid, Susanne. “ ‘Black Venus’—Jeanne Duval and Charles Baudelaire Revisited by Angela Carter.” Erfurt Electronic Studies in English (February 1997).

Categories: British Literature, Literature, Short Story

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