“Impressions: The Wrightsman Magdalene” first appeared in FMR Magazine in February 1992. It was subsequently published in American Ghosts and Old World Wonders, the short story collection that appeared the year after Angela Carter’s death in 1992, and again in 1995’s Burning Your Boats: The Complete Short Stories. It is the tale of St. Mary Magdalene’s penitence in a cave in the forest of Sainte-Baume where, it is recounted, she arrived alone after having sailed with Mary, mother of Jesus, and others to the coast near Marseille. In this tale Carter’s characteristic magic realist approach is discernible only in her representation of saints and miracles, and Mary Magdalene is depicted in her popular role of repentant harlot.
Carter problematizes any simple opposition between vice and virtue suggested by the juxtaposition of a former prostitute and a virgin mother. Carter’s narrator describes Georges de la Tour’s painting “The Magdalene with Two Flames” (“The Wrightsman Magdalene” of the title): This picture shows a sensual Magdalene meditating upon a burning candle, the flame of which is also reflected in a mirror. The candle flame is the story’s central motif. Its contemplation enables the Magdalene’s repentance: “The new person, the saint, is being born out of this intercourse with the candle flame” (146). The story’s mysterious, first-person narrator (Carter herself?) has been similarly entranced by a flame. She describes how she imagined a candle during the birth of her son: “When the pains came thick and fast, I fixed all my attention on the blue absence at the heart of the flame, as though it were the secret of the flame and, if I concentrated enough upon it, it would become my secret, too” (145). These two women, shadowed by the presence of the impressive, impervious virgin, are united by their separate transformations. Justyna Sempruch reads Carter’s “blackbrowed Palestinian” Magdalene (141) as a “paradoxical creature” who escapes from “the limits of cultural boundaries, from the bonds/bounds maintained by traditional structures, religious as well as racial or national” (74). All cultural stigmas and stereotypes are challenged as the experience of the former prostitute in the cave at Sainte-Baume is portrayed equally alongside that of the narrator’s labor.
True to its name, “Impressions” is not so much a narrative as a series of observations, centred around the narrator’s reflections on two representations of the Magdalene: the Georges de la Tour painting and Donatello’s sculpture kept at the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo in Florence, which depicts a Magdalene “dried up by the suns of the wilderness, battered by wind and rain, anorexic, toothless, a body entirely annihilated by the soul” (143). The poetic or literary description of artistic objects is known as ekphrasis, and in “Impressions” it is used to conjure the disparity between these different portrayals. The conflict that results implies Mary Magdalene’s mystery, her unknowability. While Carter’s narrator remains at all times entranced by the penitent, the variances between the two artistic works suggest that the society that may condemn the Magdalene is also the society that may not understand her.
The story concludes by implying that a worldlier, earthier experience—like the Magdalene’s—may produce a different sort of birth. The figure in “The Magdalene with Two Flames” holds a skull in her lap, “where, if she were a Virgin mother and not a sacred whore, she would rest her baby” (146). The skull is memento mori, a reminder and augury of death. Mary Magdalene has labored to bring her own enlightenment into the world. She has arrived at a revelation of the human condition in its inevitable mortality. The possibility of transformation is thus denied to neither the mother nor the nonmother. Carter presents revelation in a story that, given the frailty of its plot, is almost a nonstory. Ideals about the exclusivity of traditional or romantic means for attaining enlightenment are thus unsettled and challenged by “Impressions: The Wrightsman Magdalene,” be these means childbirth or realist narrative itself.
Carter, Angela. American Ghosts and Old World Wonders. London: Chatto & Windus, 1992.
Sempruch, Justyna. “The Sacred May Not Be the Same as the Religious: Angela Carter’s ‘Impressions: The Wrightsman Magdalene’ and ‘Black Venus.’ ” Women: A Cultural Review 16, no. 1 (2005): 73–92.