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Commentary on The Lady Of the House of Love by Angela Carter

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 “The Lady Of the House of Love” by Angela Carter

“The Lady of the House of Love” can be read as exploring the ideas of how women are entrapped in a certain constraint by society and depicting how females could break out of that routine. The story also explores the rational through the form of the Officer, and the irrational, explored through the vampire being that is Countess Nosferatu.

Countess Nosferatu only sucks the blood of young men, and in this sense, Carter is reversing the traditional scenario of a male vampire feeding on females and thus becomes a paradigmatic femme fatale. Instead of being a helpless victim, she is actually taking on the role of the villain in the story by taking on the role of the vampire, this can be seen as subverting the traditional gender role of a helpless female victim in the story. She seduces and murders men, much like the Count in the Bloody Chamber, obviously occupying the role of the violent aggressor. In order to feed on her male prey, “she takes them by the hand and leads them to her bedroom” where she seduces them before drinking their blood. Here, Carter also challenges the gender binary and shows an alternative to the patriarchal constraint of desire. However, by breaking the female out of the typical ‘feminine victim’ constraint, the story places her into another constraint, that of the role of a male antagonist. Seemingly, it seems that woman cannot completely break out of constraints but merely be relocated completely into another.

Sexuality is an important aspect encased within the boundary of the patriarchal society. A classic symbol for female genitalia is the rose, and rose bushes surround the castle. The Officer’s reaction to these roses and their scent is almost one of repulsion:

“A great, intoxicated surge of the heavy scent of red roses blew into his face as soon as they left the village, inducing a sensuous vertigo; a blast of rich, faintly corrupt sweetness strong enough almost, to fell him. Too many roses. Too many roses bloomed on enormous thickets that lined the path, thickets bristling with thorns, and the flowers themselves were almost too luxuriant, their huge congregations of plush petals somehow obscene in their excess, their whorled, tightly budded cores outrageous in their implications. The mansion emerged grudgingly out of this jungle.”

From a male perspective, the roses are described as compelling, yet repulsive. In patriarchal society the female body is viewed in a certain boundary: it is both highly sexualized and objectified while at the same time considered somewhat repulsive in terms of menstruation. This ambiguity is reflected above, the officer is both in awe of the beauty of the roses but still repulsed by their ‘obscene excess’. In addition, blood is also mentioned several times in the text. Upon waking up in the Countess’ castle, the officer finds“ a lace negligee lightly soiled with blood, as it might be from a woman’s menses”. The idea of menstruation is seemingly a threat to patriarchy, as it cannot be controlled, and thus out of the constraints of society. From a patriarchal perspective, menstruation, in a sense, also denies the sexualisation of the female body and when the female body is no longer sexualized it is no longer desired nor ‘useful’ to the patriarchy.

Although this story explores a different side to a woman’s sexuality by depicting her as the sexual aggressor, it also shows how constrained she is in this role. “Under the eyes of the portraits of her demented and atrocious ancestors, each one of whom, through her, projects a baleful posthumous existence”. This shows the life she lives is merely just a continuation of what her male ancestors did, not out of her free will. This refers to the control by society and tradition over female sexual behavior. Moreover, the idea that her ancestors exist within the frames of the portraits, it brings to mind a certain constraint, a certain boundary that Countess Nosferatu cannot break through herself. The Countess also resort “to the magic comfort of the Tarot pack and shuffles the cards, lays them out, reads them, gathers them up with a sigh, shuffles them again, constantly constructing hypotheses about a future which is irreversible”. This strikes as being rather ironic as there seem to be limitless possibilities or outcomes but her fate is constrained within a particular configuration. This again brings to mind the constraints of society, and how women seem to be placed within a particular configuration.

The Officer in the story is described as being rational, and chooses a bicycle to travel “the most rational mode of transport in the world for his trip”, “his beautiful two-wheeled symbol of rationality”. Furthermore in the passage, carter also writes “ Geometry at the service of man! Give me two spheres and a straight line and I will show you how far I can take them”. He in this sense represents the world of the rational, and he brings this rationality with him when he enters the world of the irrational, represented by the Countess and her castle. Through the Officer’s ‘rational’ reasoning, he chooses to diagnose the Countess with nervous hysteria, instead of admitting the irrationality of his situation, that of her being a vampire, which does not belong in the rational world.

The Countess is further described as an “automaton” and how “she is like a doll” by the officer, he is describing her unreality or irrationality through a more rational mindset. What is interesting in this description of how the British officer sees the girl, is that he makes the choice to not see her bestiality and instead sees her as a fragile and eccentric girl. In this sense, the Officer is then representing that rationality shown earlier by his mode of transportation. This has been an underlying current in the story. The description concludes “this lack of imagination gives his heroism to the hero”. His rationality has seemingly blinded him to the access to a different world, to a world not explainable by his rationality. His lack of imagination is the anticipation of the war, almost a prerequisite, as if she were saying that imaginative men would not wage war in that way: “he will learn to shudder in the trenches. But this girl cannot make him shudder”. The juxtaposition of history and timelessness, imagination and direct experience is here clear. The Officer seems to slot her into a category he can easily and rationally understand, which is the female form being depicted as objects instead of an irrational, eternal vampire.

Countess Nosferatu, a female is depicted as a timeless being; this shows how she represents society’s recurrent notions of patriarchy. In this sense Carter is raises the question, are females considered archetypes that live on or are they real and complex people in time? It can be read in “The Lady of the House of Love” that Carter takes the stand that females can only live timelessly as a stereotype instead of being a real and developed person. Marcel Proust said, “A person, scattered in space and time, is no longer a woman but a series of events on which we can throw no light, a series of insoluble problems.” Through “The Lady of the House of Love”, we can see that Countess Nosferatu herself is “scattered in space and time”, she does not have an identity of her own but is in fact “a series of events” that are a continuation of what her ancestors had done.

Moreover, the only company she keeps is a caged bird which is symbolic of her. She is imprisoned within the boundary set up by her ancestors, much like the bird imprisoned within the boundary of the cage. This is also a reference to the girls trapped in the form of birds imprisoned within cages in “The Erl King”. Countess Nosferatu repetitively asks ‘can a bird only sing the song it knows or learn a new song?” This implies a system of boundaries or a closed circuit as mentioned in the text, she has no control over her life, role or freedom. Therefore sexuality is discussed in this story through the characterization of a woman’s sexuality that is transgressive but still imposed or imprisoned within a certain constraint. The Countess lives in a ritualized pattern, repetitively reading her tarot cards and seducing and killing men, in the end of the story, the Countess breaks out of the routine imposed on her, but she dies as though she cannot live any other way, in this sense Carter is trying to show how difficult it is to break away from ritualized patterns.

The Countess is an irrational figure, she represents unreality by being a timeless, ageless vampire. The rational (the officer) invades the realm of the irrational (Countess Nosferatu). One example of this can be seen during the morning after, when the officer wakes up, he sees the room to be what it really is, “light and air streamed in; now you could see how tawdry it all was, how thin and cheap the satin, the catafalque not ebony at all but black-painted paper stretched on struts of wood”, rationality is literally exposing irrationality for what it really is. Another example is when the officer turns her into a human, he is literally turning her into a rational being, and thus rationality seems to prevail over irrationality.

However, irrationality does seem to have a place in the “Lady of the Hosue of Love”, the tarot cards are one such example. When Countess Nosferatu casts her fate, it is always the same, “La Papesse, La Mort, La Tour Abolie, wisdom, death, dissolution”, this is an act of irrationality as cards seem to cast her true fate and future. Even when she casts “Les Amoureux”, it comes true through the form of the Officer. The casting of futures certainly do not belong in a rational world, in fact they are very irrational, but the fact that the idea that fate can be cast, suggests that irrationality still has a place in the rational world. Furthermore, just when the officer rides away on his rational transportation and  geographical displacement seems to substantiate the split between the logic of ordinariness and the code of a disturbing elsewhere, he discovers in his pocket the rose. Rationality performs an act of irrationality, when the officer revives a seemingly dead rose, “flower whose petals had regained all their former bloom and elasticity, their corrupt, brilliant, baleful splendor”, it is an act or irrationality itself as he revives a dead rose. In this case Carter seems to suggest that irrationality still has a place in the rational world.

“How can she bear the pain of becoming human? The end of exile is the end of being.” sums up the main idea of women being entrapped in a certain boundary (the routine of society) and eventually breaking away, destroys the woman. “The Lady of the House of Love” explores how a vampire woman, a timeless, dark mystical creature cannot exist once she stands in the light of the real world. This also raises an important question, can something so intrinsic and rooted in history or society be changeable? Carter raises this important question, her stand in the story in regard to this question can be read as how something so innate could be changed, but not without any drastic consequences.

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