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House of Fear and the reinvention of fairytale

Libby Cherry writes about the feminist undertones to Leonora Carrington's The Hearing Trumpet

In his Preface to Carrington’s House of Fear, Max Ernst defined the ideal reader of Leonora Carrington, as one that would less read than imbibe her prose. Written in 1974, The Hearing Trumpet is the focal point of Carrington’s new period of artistic creation, and in part acts as a meditation on her Surrealist art of the 1930s. Like any fairytale, reading Carrington’s most extended piece of prose is coloured not only by the story itself, but by its accompanying artwork. Her painting, The Giantess adorns the cover of my edition and captures the haphazard, mythic strands of the novella in a single tableau, from the egg to the wolf to the black geese.

The fairytale is a collision site of temporality, combining the childish and the macabre, and The Hearing Trumpet is no different. “People under seventy and over seven are very unreliable if they are not cats,” attests Carmella to the nonagenarian protagonist, Marion. Childhood and old age become fused and separated from the ‘adult’ world. Indeed, it’s only through Camella’s gift of the eponymous trumpet that Marion can pierce this divide and is able to discover her children’s plot to send her to retirement home. Yet the home itself has more of the atmosphere of a lively all-girls boarding school, watched over by the ineffectual Dr Gambit. Guided by Marion through the story, we find the wild ramblings of an infant equivalent to demented mental wanderings, as the “wild anemones” of fairytale morph into the “wild enemas” of aging’s reality.

Carrington’s work represents an outgrowing of fairytale, grotesquely lurid rather than romantically tinted. Within the institution, the women live in parodies of fairytale houses such as “dwellings shaped like toadstalls”, shaped being the word of significance here. or the institution is a place of falsities, the saccharine pastel shades of their houses are cloying and the furniture an illusion, painted on the walls. It’s “like banging one’s nose against a glass door” grumbles Marion in her deadpan tone. Despite the ridiculousness, there is a sinister element to the home, perhaps reminiscent of Carrington’s own experience within a Spanish mental asylum in 1940. Dr Gambit’s continual mantra to “Remember Ourselves” in order to “create objective observation of Personality”, denies imagination and forces the women into an identity socially prescribed to them.

The image of the glass door and, by extension, the glass ceiling becomes all the more important because the story progresses, as the retirement home becomes a female utopia that “creeps with ovaries” and where women dance under the moon and pray to Venus. Out of a mishmash of myths, Carrington creates a pseudofeminist creed offering the women a literal and ideological escape from their damsel-like languishing within the prisons of their plastic fairytale homes. Old age, with its associated wisdom, ugliness and menopause-associated androgyny, becomes a route out of feminine passive beauty. Marion’s “short grey beard” re-claims and re-purposes female masculinity as not “repulsive” but “gallant”, witchlike features not only a symptom of societal ostracism but power.

In this way, Carrington’s own voice and philosophy is defiantly audible. I shall never get on with my narrative if I can’t control these memories”, Marion/Carrington declares, and indeed amongst the mythic references with the novella itself are threads from Carrington’s own extraordinary life, rupturing the fictional world she has created. We imagine Marion’s companions were taken from real life, the European crones sequestered in an unspecified Spanish-speaking country mirroring Carrington’s own French intellectual community in Mexico. Carrington uses Marion as a platform for her own sentiments, from bewailing the domestication of Surrealist art that hangs in “almost every village rectory and girl’s school” to recounting her own life experiences.

The Hearing Trumpet may be a piece of flagrant and unabashed escapism, in its own words, “not an intellectual book, just fairytales”. Yet like any fairytale behind the psychedelic effects, there are moments of cogent truth, such as “why was Eve blamed for everything?” and “for real understanding one can only depend on dogs”. Carrington’s novel offers the literary equivalent of Andre Breton’s surrealist “dizzy descent into ourselves”, where the strangeness of the fictional world reveals the true oddities and malformities in what we consider reality.

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