Analysis of Angela Carter’s The Courtship of Mr. Lyon

Originally published in British Vogue, “The Courtship of Mr. Lyon” is one of the nine pieces contained in The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories (1979), Angela Carter’s feminist rewriting of traditional fairy tales. In particular, “The Courtship of Mr. Lyon” is based on Madame Leprince de Beaumont’s “Beauty and the Beast,” which Carter had already translated and edited for her volume Sleeping Beauty and Other Favourite Fairy Tales in 1982. Some critics have therefore seen The Bloody Chamber as Carter’s commentary on her own previous work, and Carter herself has emphasized the metanarrative aspect of this collection by describing it as “a book of stories about fairy stories.”

Angela Carter in 1988 Photograph: John Mahler/Toronto Star

“The Courtship of Mr. Lyon” is one of two rewritings by Carter of “Beauty and the Beast” and, at a first glance, is the most faithful to the original: Beauty’s father is a ruined gentleman who takes temporary shelter in a grand, and apparently empty, mansion, from whose garden he plucks a white rose to take to his daughter as a present. This gesture provokes the sudden appearance and indignation of the owner of the house, the Beast, who can be pacified only by the promise that the thieving trespasser will come back accompanied by his beautiful daughter. Later, in exchange for Beauty’s company, the Beast offers to help restore her father’s fortune; when Beauty finally makes her way back to her father, she forgets her promise to visit the Beast, who begins to languish. Beauty’s providential return and proffer of love not only rescue the Beast from his deathbed but reinstate his human form and trigger the conventional happy ending in the couple’s marriage. In contrast, Carter’s other version of the story, “The Tiger’s Bride,” which immediately follows “The Courtship of Mr. Lyon” in The Bloody Chamber, ends with Beauty’s metamorphosis into a tiger rather than the Beast’s transformation into a prince.

The most superficial difference between “The Courtship of Mr. Lyon” and the original fairy tale is that Carter’s version is set in the modern world, albeit one that is scantily sketched, rather than in the indeterminate past of the “once upon a time.” The Beast is Mr. Lyon, a country gentleman rather than a spellbound prince, and once they have regained their fortune, Beauty and her Father start enjoying the glamour of city life in London. Even more defamiliarizing, within a fairy tale context, is the way Beauty’s father first enters Mr. Lyon’s mansion because of mechanical problems with his car. Similarly, the feeling of suspension of reality that pervades Mr. Lyon’s mansion cannot be ascribed to the magic quality of the fairy-tale setting. Instead, Beauty’s father puts it down to the eccentricity typical of the very rich, for whom the rules of everyday reality do not seem to apply. The materiality of these details emphasizes the patriarchal, capitalist economy of exchange within which Beauty is effectively imprisoned.

This strategy reflects Carter’s rejection of Bruno Bettelheim’s reading of the traditional “Beauty and the Beast” as the story of a girl’s necessary maturation from daughter to bride. Rather, Carter points out how Beauty’s fate is that of a commodity passed on from one master to the next within the patriarchal order. Women’s servility and subjugation to men is further emphasized by the presence of the white (like Beauty) bejeweled spaniel, the only other female creature in the story, whose status seems to hover between that of lady of the house, governess, and prized possession. More overtly, not only does Mr. Lyon demand that Beauty be brought to dinner as compensation for the theft of the white rose (again, Beauty’s own white complexion seems like a fair exchange for the stolen flower), but Beauty herself perceives the extension of her stay with the Beast as the rightful price for the reversal of her father’s fortune. Beauty appears to be incapable of escaping this perverse logic when, at the end of the story, she is once again victim of an emotional blackmail, this time perpetrated by Mr. Lyon rather than her father.

Several critics, however, have pointed out how, even as Carter drops hints about the oppressiveness of patriarchal ideology, Beauty in fact undergoes as positive a metamorphosis as Mr. Lyon does, through the blossoming of their mutual love. Beauty’s selfless commitment to the Beast represents the assumption of responsibility in place of the frivolity and shallowness of life as a spoiled socialite—in which guise she first appears, delighted by the prospect of a shopping expedition to buy, significantly, furs with her father’s money. According to this reading, Beauty renounces the pleasures of the glittering metropolis for the much less glamorous life in the country and the genuine love of what Margaret Atwood describes as a “somewhat tatty dying animal.” Even so, the ending of the story is anticlimactic and ironic: Domesticity is finally represented as tranquillity verging on stasis, even decay, as the closing image of the fallen petals seems to suggest.

Atwood, Margaret. “Running with the Tigers.” In Flesh and the Mirror: Essays on the Art of Angela Carter, edited by Lorna Sage, London: Virago, 117–135. 1994.
Carter, Angela. The Bloody Chamber. 1979. London: Vintage, 1995.

Categories: British Literature, Literature, Short Story

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