"What a joy it is to dance and sing!"
I first read this book in March 2009; I re-read it over ten years later in October 2019 and, I am ashmed to say, I didn't remember I had read it the first time.
On her 75th birthday, Dora Chance tells the story of her life with twin sister Nora. The Lucky Chances were a dance act during the declining days of variety but what really set them apart was the interlocking of their lives with the Hazard dynasty of classical actors including their father Melchior, who is celebrating his 100th birthday. Twins, bastards and intra-family affairs permeate this romp through this comedy of the legitimate and the illegitimate theatre.
This is a fantasy, a fairy tale. It is often necessary to willingly and consciously suspend one's disbelief; the pay off in entertainment terms is well worth it. Coincidences abound (there are 5 sets of twins; Nora and Dora share their 75th birthday with their father Melchior (and his twin Peregrine) and Shakespeare. Peregrine is a magician; he arrives out of the blue at key dramatic moments and then disappears (in one case presumed dead) and then returns having made a fortune out of gold, or oil, or... A lot of Perry's back story is secret.
There are many Shakespearean themes (twins, fathers) and motifs:
- Melchior's father murdered his mother and her (presumed) lover and then committed suicide after he had played Othello to her Desdemona (and the presumed lover was playing Iago); later Melchior plays Othello and marries HIS Desdemona
- Tiff goes mad on live TV, carrying flowers, singing a song and subsequently drowning, like Ophelia in Hamlet;
- The twins dance as fairies in a film version of Midsummer Night's Dream starring their father and written by their uncle.
- At the end of the filming there is a triple marriage in which Dora avoids matrimony by substituting for herself the previous bride of the man who wants to marry her; thus more or less replicating the 'bed trick' in Measure for Measure.
- Lady Atalanta is cast out of her house by her two evil daughters, as Lear is cast from his kingdom by his Goneril and Regan.
- The musical show What? You Will! is the alternative title for Twelfth Night which features a pair of twins
- And of course all those bloody twins and the fact that some of them look so alike that lovers don't know with whom they are sleeping.
As well as twins, mirrors crop up as a theme. Deefholts explains in detail that the theme of the twins is in itself a theme of reflection, with the mirror image often being the literally perverted or evil aspect. Dualities include illegitimacy (explicitly characterised as the 'left side') versus legitimacy, Dora versus Nora, the "legit" theatre vs the music halls, north London vs South London, Peregrine vs Melchior, Nora and Dora vs Saskia and Imogen, Tristan vs Gareth etc
This book is immense fun and an exhilarating read. It has been turned into a stage show by Emma Rice.
Angela Carter also wrote:
- The Bloody Chamber, a brilliant collection of short stories in which fairy tales are brought up to date and given a horrid, and often feminist, twist
- The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman: a very sixties psychedelic romp
- Heroes and Villains: a post-holocaust fantasy
- The Passion of New Eve: obsessed with mirrors and sex changes and dominatrices
The real strength of this book is the voice of the narrator, a seventy-five year old ex-showgirl born into the illegitimate side of a great theatrical family and growing old disgracefully in Brixton. This wonderful voice is reflected in so many great moments:
- “She said: ‘Yes!’ to life and I said, ‘Maybe ...” (C 1)
- “We’re stuck in the period at which we peaked, of course. All women do.” (C 1)
- “The habit of applying warpaint outlasts the battle” (C 1)
- “These cheekbones are descended from some of the most profitable calcium deposits in the world. Like all those who spend much time before the public eye, our father has always been dependent on his bone structure.” (C 1)
- “Lovely is as lovely does; if they looked like what they behave like, they’d frighten little children.” (C 1)
- “His stock in trade is boyish charm. God knows what he’ll do when he loses that.” (C 1)
- “Not many people can boast a photo of their grandmother posing for kiddiporn.” (C 1)
- “Ranulph, lean, haggard, bearded, more and more resembled John the Baptist had John the Baptist reached old age.” (C 1)
- “An actor’s inheritance of unpaid bills, paste jewellery, flash attitudes” (C 1)
- “She didn’t so much talk as elocute. She rhymed ‘sky’ with ‘bay’, and made ‘mountaynes’ out of ‘molehills.” (C 1)
- “I couldn’t look a cabbage in the eye after what Grandma did to them. Boiled them to perdition. The abattoir is kinder to a cow.” (C 1)
- “Gareth and Tristram, the priest and the game-show presenter. Not so different, really, I suppose. Both of them in show business. Both, in their different ways, carrying on the great tradition of the Hazard family – the willing suspension of disbelief. Both of them promise you a free gift if you play the game.” (C 1)
- “She’d got it bad and Tristram wasn’t worth the paper she wiped her bum with.” (C 1)
- “Her cheeks give the game away; they’ve got that tight, full, shiny chipmunk look that spells out: facelift.” (C 1)
- “The stately progress of the tram, occupying by right of bulk and majesty the centre of the road, not veering to the left nor right upon its way but sometimes swaying every now and then with a sickening lurch, like Grandma, coming home from the pub.” (C 2)
- “To travel hopefully is better than to arrive, as Uncle Perry used to say. I always preferred foreplay, too. Well. Not always.” (C 2)
- “He stripped off only to reveal a gee-string of very respectable dimensions, more of a gee-gee string, would have kept a horse decent.” (C 2)
- “Nora was always free with it and threw her heart away as if it were a used bus ticket.” (C 2)
- “She had a passion to know about Life, all its dirty corners.” (C 2)
- “Each time she fell in love, she fell in love for the first time, no matter how many times she fell in love.” (C 2)
- “Ambition, the curse and glory of the Hazards, who’ll risk everything they’ve got and a little bit more on a throw of the dice.” (C 2)
- “A nudist might be able to grow old gracefully in the company of other ageing nudists, but she had the misfortune to live with two teenage sexpots.” (C 2)
- “Lynde Court was built in the eclectic style, that is, a little bit of this and that.” (C 2)
- “Then I spotted Saskia. She, oblivious of her distracted mother, was tucked away under a rosebush, pigging it. She’d dragged out with her the entire carcass of the swan from the Great Hall. Its feathers were so blackened by the soot it looked more like an upstart crow but that didn’t put the little greedyguts off.” (C 2)
- “Then I understood the thing I’d never grasped back in those days, when I was young, before I lived in history. When I was young, I’d wanted to be ephemeral, I’d wanted the moment, to live in just the glorious moment, the rush of blood, the applause. Pluck the day. Eat the peach. Tomorrow never comes. But, oh yes, tomorrow does come all right, and when it comes it lasts a bloody long time, I can tell you.” (C 3)
- “They kept themselves to themselves, away from the hoi polloi, held tea parties on Saturday afternoons when everybody else was having group sex, played cricket on Sundays, drank pink gin at sundown and talked as if their upper lips wore plaster casts.” (C 3)
- “It’s the American tragedy in a nutshell. They look around the world and think: ‘There must be something better!’ But there isn’t. Sorry, chum. This is it. What you see is what you get. Only the here and now." (C 3)
- "As if Hollywood were the name of the enchanted forest where you lose yourself and find yourself, again; the wood that changes you; the wood where you go mad; the wood where the shadows live longer than you do.” (C 3)
- “Everywhere a threadbare, expensive shabbiness that had a class to which we knew we never could aspire. Not the Lucky Chances. We were doomed to either flash or squalor.” (C 4)
- “We painted the faces that we always used to have on to the faces we have now.” (C 4)
- “Given the history of fathers in our family, it seemed only right and proper we should have finally turned up a celibate one – a non-combatant, as it were.” (C 5)
- “But there you are; no silver lining without a cloud.” (C 5)
- “Saskia ... was ... unique amongst mammals, a cold-blooded cow.” (C 5)
- “Comedy is tragedy that happens to other people.” (C 5)
- “A mother is always a mother, since a mother is a biological fact, whilst a father is a movable feast.” (C 5)
- “He was not the love of my life but all the loves of my life at once, the curtain call of my career as lover.” (C 5)
- “‘If the child is father of the man,’ she asked, ‘then who is the mother of the woman?’” (C 5)
- “Has it ever occurred to you to spare a passing thought as to the character of the deceased Mrs Lear? Didn’t it ever occur to you that Cordelia might have taken after her mother while the other girls . . .” (C 5)
- “There was a house we all had in common and it was called, the past, even though we’d lived in different rooms.” (C 5)
Shakespeare with a nod to Spanish picaresques and Voltaire's Candide.
May 2009 and October 2019, 232 pages
May 2009 and October 2019, 232 pages