Fans of Leonora Carrington’s weird and fantastic fiction had their wishes met last April. In celebration of the Surrealist’s centennial (she would have been 100 on April 6th), the literary world has come together to bring most of her catalog back in print, alongside a new evaluation of her life. In the U.S., Dorothy, A Publishing Project has released The Complete Stories of Leonora Carrington featuring an introduction by Kathryn Davis and three previously unpublished tales. In conjunction, The New York Review of Books published her asylum memoir, Down Below, as well as her children’s book The Milk of Dreams.
In the U.K., Carrington’s collected short works are available from the new feminist publishers, Silver Press. The Debutante and Other Stories is the first title in their catalog, and features an introduction by Sheila Heti and an afterword by Marina Warner, Carrington’s premier editor, translator, and champion. The big presses are in on the action as well with Little Brown/Virago’s launch of a brand new biography The Surreal Life of Leonora Carrington by Joanna Moorhead.
While these centennial efforts are a much needed push towards a proper Carrington revival, it is still a bit messy and with important works still languishing in the stacks. Both Dorothy, A Publishing Project and Silver Press claim their new collections to be first complete editions of Carrington’s work, but they both have excluded longer short works, like the novellas Little Francis and The Stone Door, which originally appeared alongside the other tales in The House of Fear and The Seventh Horse. The content is also mostly the same with the exception of “The Skeleton’s Holiday,” which appears in The Debutante and Other Stories, and is excluded from The Complete Stories. The previously unpublished stories “The Sand Camel,” “Mr. Gregory’s Fly,” and “Jemima and the Wolf” also appear in both volumes.
The differences between the U.S. and U.K. editions are more nuanced. Silver Press has provided more historical and literary context (as well as better publishing history) with their front and back matter, as well as some nice artistic flourishes with a few photos and illustrations. The Dorothy version is a no-frills arrangement featuring the stories as they appeared in The House of Fear and The Seventh Horse collections. Silver Press ordered the tales chronologically. None of this makes one book more preferable. In fact, it makes their subtle differences compliment each other while demonstrating, perhaps, what each national market is interested in finding within Carrington. (This is an idea I will explore further after I’ve completed reading all of the stories).
Which brings me to the point of this introduction. This centennial revival has been a dream to surrealist readers. Now any reader can find most of Carrington’s work outside of academic anthologies and out-of-print collections, and can form their own library without a rare books budget. As a result, not only will this broaden the discussion on the role of women within Surrealism and Modernist work (as well as women’s literature, in general), but also restore the history of women authors working within the Weird and other Fantasist traditions.
That’s a huge reevaluation, and I am thrilled to be able to commemorate it and participate in it here with a special read-along of these releases. My plan is this: with both the Dorothy and Silver Press collections, I will review each Carrington story individually, then evaluate the collections as a whole. After that, we will move on to look at the NYRB’s releases, Down Below, The Milk of Dreams, and last, but not least, we will discuss the life of Carrington herself as guided by Moorhead’s new biography.
So, without further a do, let’s party like hyenas:
NOTE ON SOURCE: Because WFR.com is U. S. based, and the two collections share an almost exact TOC, I have decided to use the Dorothy, A Publishing Project collection for the majority of this read-along. However, a thorough evaluation of The Debutante and Other Stories, will follow after all of The Complete Stories of Leonora Carrington have been presented.
“The Debutante” is perhaps Carrington’s most read and anthologized story. It first appeared in Andre Breton’s Anthology of Black Humor in 1940, highly significant as Carrington was one of two women writers included among the 45 contributors. (Child prodigy, Gisèle Prassinos, was the second). An anti-fairy tale full of desire and empty of consequence, the unnamed narrator is a wayward rich girl who prefers reading Swift and going to the zoo over dressing up and flirting with suitors. All of this makes the ball her mother is throwing her very vexing, and she persuades her best friend, a hyena, to attend the ball in her place.
After breaking the hyena out from the zoo and sneaking her home, the friends scheme to pass the beast off as the Debutante with her gown and a sinister mask made out of the maid’s face. The only dead give away that cannot be cloaked is the hyena’s smell, but the girl sends her down anyway. With the hyena successfully launched into society, the girl relaxes with Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels until a bat flies into her window and disturbs her. A harbinger of bad luck, the mother comes up and informs the girl her little trick didn’t work. Fed up with the guests’ snobbishness about her smell, the hyena tells them off, while devouring the maid’s face. She “bounds” through the window to return to her natural animal state leaving the Debutante to remain in hers.
Like most of Carrington’s work, this story is highly autobiographical and it’s easy to assume that Carrington is only expressed within this story as the eponymous debutante. However, Joanna Moorhead has a really interesting theory in The Surreal Life of Leonora Carrington that Carrington broke herself apart into different aspects of her being, and her bestiary therefore represents individual aspects of her self. In this story, she is both the debutante and the hyena, a past and present evaluation (and catharsis) of her new life at the time of the story’s composition in 1937.
Before this year, Carrington was the daughter of one of the most affluent families in England. She was presented at court, and expected to marry rich in both money and title. Like the debutante, she longed for solitude among her books and paintbrushes and yearned for something more. All of that changed when she met Surrealist artist, Max Ernst. They fell in love, and she fled her abhorred debutante life to live with him in France where she found both sexual and artistic awakenings. From an autobiographical perspective, “The Debutante” is a transmutation. While Carrington begins as the debutante, she ends (in 1937, anyway) as the hyena.
While the hyena will go on to embody a much more mystical and deeper meaning in Carrington’s work, in this story, the hyena’s symbolism is simple. She embodies our deepest animal natures that we attempt to formalize and escape with civilizing notions. As a result, individuality can get lost within the regulations and expectations of society. Perhaps that is the significance of the girl reading Gulliver’s Travels, a satire that pits the eponymous protagonist against a series of conforming societies that Gulliver never quite fits into and ends up being exiled from in some shape or form.
Which makes the conversations between the hyena and the girl an interesting exchange of class and hierarchy. While the girl can’t even be bothered, the hyena—who is incarcerated and at the whim of her zookeepers—would love the chance at attending a ball because it conveys a life beyond the cage. It is somewhat resonant of “The Prince and the Pauper,” where each person holds a preconceived notion of the other person’s life. The Hyena thinks human society would be easy to infiltrate with a little small talk. The Debutante presumes civilizing rituals would tame the Hyena long enough for at least an evening. If you took these two presumptions and plugged them into a Venn Diagram, in the overlapping middle are both characters’ judgements on the upper class system and the notion of civilized society. With its emphasis on superficial ritual and protocol, everyone in the Debutante’s circle is so disconnected from the natural world that that they are oblivious. They don’t sense what is under their nose—literally—because all that is expected is for something to be there.
The girl is not impervious to this, either. Although she dismisses tradition, she’s still above it all and doesn’t hesitate to take what she wants. The person who gets the brunt of the horror is, of course, the help. When the hyena proposes killing the maid for the use of her face, the girl merely shrugs once the hyena promises the maid a swift death: “I certainly wouldn’t have done it if I didn’t hate having to go to a ball so much.” As long as it doesn’t inconvenience her, all bets are off. It is a sly depiction of aristocratic indifference—everyone and everything is disposable for their convenience.
Which is why I really like this story—it is sort of an antithesis to depictions of wealth at the time. The narrator could be seen as an anti-Flapper. She has no interest in glitz or status and finds society stifling rather than riveting. She would not fit in at Downton Abbey or Blandings Castle, or any other British homestead where the Bright Young Things were celebrated. No, “The Debutante” is one big eye roll to all of that, something most people within the middle classes would gawp at over their Gatsby party martinis. It’s a rebellion that seems dated, but due to the high tide of nostalgia washing over our recent entertainments, it is still able to bring into check how antiquated and stultifying the concept of aristocracy, and its attainments, still are.
The Oval Lady
“The Oval Lady” is a companion piece to “The Debutante.” It is about Lucretia, a sixteen year old aristocrat trapped in the proverbial tower that is her family manor. Given to standing and looking outside of the window, her strange loveliness and stillness attracts the unnamed narrator. Intrigued, the narrator enters the house to befriend Lucretia and is drawn into a magical playroom where the resident hobbyhorse wizard, Tartar, is able to manifest an imaginary game of horses into reality. The playmates are interrupted by the maid, who chides Lucretia for her arrested development, and drags her kicking and screaming to her father.
Before him, Lucretia is reprimanded. “This is the seventh time that I have had to punish you, and you are no doubt aware that in our family, seven is the last number. I am afraid, my dear Lucretia, that this time I shall have to punish you pretty severely.” He does this by burning the hobbyhorse. The narrator has gone unseen during this whole exchange, and is left in the dining room alone with the terrible sounds of a tortured horse coming from the playroom.
Carrington’s bestiary is further developed here and recalls The Inn of the Dawn Horse, her self-portrait painted in 1937. We see Carrington and her hyena in a playroom with a white hobbyhorse hung overhead and a white horse running wild outside. Her untamed hair mimics the manes of both animals, connoting a new found connection with freedom, imagination, and inner natures. A liberty that isn’t necessarily won in either tale. However, if you look at some of the numerical patterns laid out in the story, their divination points towards escape and self-actualization.
The story begins and ends with sevens, and her age is even an indicator of this number that represents will, desire, and perfection. Perhaps seven is the last number in Lucretia’s family because it is at the summoning point of realization and determination. Threes and Fours occur less, but with maximum significance. The playroom is on the third floor, and with the magpie’s arrival, the group of three becomes four, thus opening up the imaginary realm for their game. In fact, right before Lucretia is transformed by the snow into a white horse, the magpie chants “Horse” three times. If threes are all about potential, growth, friendship, and creativity, then four is the manifestation of all of that. It seems that once the playroom has reached this magical capacity its transformation is dissolved when the Maid, a fifth wheel as it were, interrupts the reveries.
Perhaps the most poignant mystical queue Carrington uses is within the title itself. We know the oval is a special distinction: “For these aristocrats, even plates were oval, not round like ordinary people’s.” Nonetheless, the plates are the only objects that receive physical attribution. Lucretia is described in straight-angles and her father is simply geometric. Puzzling, as I presumed Lucretia was the title’s subject. Then I looked to the negative space of the story and realized that she was not necessarily the ovoid lady in question.
The Oval Lady is a cosmic egg. While the cosmic egg is usually meant for a larger creation of the world, here it is more personal and deals with not the creation, but the individual awakening, of Lucretia (and Carrington). Keeping Moorhead’s assessment in mind, perhaps the Oval Lady is the unnamed narrator who—with the exception of participating in Tartar’s game—is a terse observer who goes unnoticed by everyone but Lucretia. Perhaps she is Lucretia, an older conscious form, and is a fulfillment of Lucretia’s needed incubation in the unconscious.
Why not? The only detail we have about the narrator is that she is shorter and older than the girl. Could it be, then, that the Oval Lady is the narrator—a matured Lucretia— looking back on this pivotal scene, not through a window, but a memory portal? Through it, she is witnessing where Lucretia has reached a point of no return, a point where some cosmic eggs are about to be broken. It is the future looking to the past to meditate on the present. It’s kind of pure tarot.
The Royal Summons
A Queen goes mad, and a woman is summoned to a sovereign council to deal with it. The solution is to assassinate and replace her. All but the woman is eager to do the deed, and the council opts to select an assassin by playing a game of draughts (checkers). The woman, who is friends with the Queen, and actually there as her proxy, sees nothing good coming from this scene, but goes along with the crowd because figures her inadequacies at the game will disqualify her from the responsibility.
The Royal estate is magical, perhaps an old magic, but more Celtic than Gothic. Again, I am reminded of Alice in Wonderland, but rather than just Alice going against the Queen of Hearts, it’s her and the Queen verses the majority. But also the fantastical elements are more whimsical than sinister. There are bath sponges swimming in goat’s milk, flowers growing from woven tapestries, and talking trees, who seem to be the guardians of the regency. The woman and the council play checkers through Dawn, and to her dismay, the trees announce that she is the winner simply because she was the only one that didn’t cheat. She tries to run away from her fate, but the trees uproot and chase her down and force her to accept. So shaken is she by the Cypress that she chokes down her conscience and fulfills the mission.
I have to admit this story didn’t speak to me as readily as the last two. I don’t necessarily see Carrington within the female characters, and was thrown off by the female characters’ compliance when previously they were fierce rebels. A bone was thrown to me, though, when I learned that the French term for Draughts is Le Jeu du Dames, the game of Ladies. And while in the states we call the reigning monarch in our checkers Kings, in Europe they are Queens.
The role of Muse is every bit as constricting as debutante, and while Carrington found a place to explore and discover herself within Surrealism, she still had a patriarchy to contend with. Up until Carrington, Remedios Varo, and Leonor Fini came on the scene, women’s participation in Surrealism was considered inspirational and recreational—they were les femmes enfants that ignited l’amour fou. They also came with an expiration date, something Carrington witnessed in her relationship with Max Ernst.
Not only was he cheating on his second wife, the once femme enfant Marie-Berthe, with Carrington, but she found herself spending orgiastic, idyllic holidays among his former lovers. I don’t necessarily see Carrington as the jealous type, but I can see the emphasis on youth, beauty, and ingénue staples promoted amongst the much-older male leaders of the movement, as well as the laundry list of discarded women by 1937, as something of which the intuitive and skeptical painter stayed leery. So, perhaps one reading of this story could be its confrontation with the age-old feminist conundrum of in-fighting and competition championed by a misogynistic society that finds women disposable. As soon as someone is crowned Queen and she no longer fits the male ideal, they find another piece to depose her and take the crown.
A Man in Love
A caught thief is punished for stealing a melon by having to bare witness to her victim’s strange tale. Like “The Oval Lady,” it is a story where the narrator is brought inside a stranger’s house, only to find weird shenanigans afoot. In this instance, it’s a dead woman, named Agnes, lying on a bed of grass. Or, at least, the narrator thinks she’s dead. The fruit merchant claims otherwise, saying she has felt warm even though she’s been still for forty years.
How this bizarre situation occurred is what the merchant relays. On the night of their honeymoon, they sought lodging at a “sinister looking café” outside of Paris. It was being protected by a fox and two wolves, and the only person that answered their knocking was an old crone who barred them access. They refused to leave, and he eventually found a window to break into. They found themselves in a magical kitchen, ate of the animated vegetables, and slept on the floor among sentient rats and other unnamed horrors. But what really did the bride in was the drafts. Straight out of Poe, almost, it was a “strange draught” in the kitchen that chilled and killed—or comatosed—Agnes.
There are hints to what the classical tradition of the story’s magic is: there are transformative creatures like the wolf and fox, the domestic alchemy found in the Crone’s kitchen, and the Crone herself. The mythpunking of the Crone is brilliant. Not only does it go beyond Celtic myth, but also addresses Western poetic notions of the death of a beautiful woman (Poe’s conceit remixed within Surrealism as Convulsive Beauty) and the worship of body over the female temple of the mind. Carrington illustrates this by showing the Crone (who embodies female wisdom within Celtic legend) only as a head and Agnes only as a body. The Crone protects her hearth through the wolf and fox manifestations, but when it is ultimately breached by the fruit merchant, poetic justice is served ironically via the poetic principle. The Crones female magic gives the Merchant, and what society wants from all its brides, a beautiful and eternal body that silently submits.
It’s a heavy scene the narrator is hearing, and she cuts it short by escaping when the merchant is overcome with tears. Man, was I relieved when she fled. A sense of dread haunts the vignette. Especially when the innocuous punishment was made ominous when the merchant tells the thief that he’d been waiting forty years to catch someone red-handed to punish them thus. Why? To alleviate loneliness? To unburden his soul? Or to lure the wicked into some kind of fairy tale switch-a-roo with the farm-to-table sleeping beauty? In any case, the dread she rightfully flees is the story’s real crux, and is made more mysterious from its old magic and revamped myths.
Uncle Sam Carrington
Carrington’s family was one of the wealthiest in Lancashire, but not the oldest. They were the nouveau riche. This major status flaw was of much worry and contention to Leonora’s mother, whose art was social climbing. She was obviously very brilliant at it, as the Carringtons were invited to all of the balls and Leonora herself was presented at George V’s court. Even so, Leonora would often hear her mother lament that someone wouldn’t acknowledge her in the street for her lack of pedigree.
This desired elitism, then, is what drives this story. An eight year old is burdened by her mother’s shame of her uncivilized relatives. She hates seeing her mother upset, and sets out on a journey to find solutions. As little girls often do in these circumstances, she finds herself lost and wandering into an enchanted forest. The first indicator is a vicious scene of two cabbages fighting like beta fish: “They were tearing each other’s leaves off with such ferocity that soon there was nothing but torn leaves everywhere and no cabbages.” Further on, she befriends a horse who takes her to see two ladies that deal in remedying “family shame.”
The Misses Cunningham-Joneses are refined and elegant witches living among ancient fauna and dignified knickers. This is glorious because the witch in the wood is usually anything but civilized. But when you meet the Misses Cunningham-Joneses, they aren’t sweating over a cauldron in their backyard, but playing draughts while dressed for tea.
They ask the child into their parlor and quiz her on her heritage. When the girl evades the questions, the elegant Crones warn her that they can only help if there is some kind of line connecting her family with “the affairs of the oldest and most noble families in England.” The girl thinks of some dead duchess’s lorgnette left in her mansion. The loose connection is tight enough for the witches, and they disappear to work their magic.
The horse encourages the girl to spy on them. They find the ladies shouting Charm school axioms as spells while whipping their vegetables. When they finish, they return with two carrots and a zucchini. The girl exchanges a pot of jam and a fishing hook for the magical food. The vignette ends.
I am a bit dissatisfied with “Uncle Sam Carrington.” While the previous stories are all vignettes, they all have circular and clever conclusion: the thief continues her interrupted action of stealing the melon; the councilwoman continues her deception to its final conclusion; the Debutante is caught in her deception; and the magic in “The Oval Portrait” ends with Tartar’s destruction. In “Uncle Sam” however, I don’t see any return or point to the story. While I love the imagery of the cabbages and the Charm School Crones, the adventure does not seem fully concluded where it ends. Like the duchess’s lorgnette, the ending is sufficient, but still very loose. However, sometimes fantastic stories are made better by their loose associations than anything else, so I’ll just shrug on to the next one.
The House of Fear
The same equine premise drives this tale as the last when the narrator befriends a horse who wants to show her something. She follows him to an establishment where “There were a number of creatures in ecclesiastical dress.” There is going to be a party in this bizarre cult menagerie and she is invited. When she returns that night, she is enveloped within the team of these mystic horses and follows their charge to the Castle of Fear.
Fear, the castle’s mistress, is a one-eyed woman who may either be a really homely human or some kind of chimera: “She looked slightly like a horse, but was much uglier. Her dressing gown was made of live bats sewn together by their wings: the way they fluttered, one would have thought they didn’t much like it.”
This is an annual get-together the women’s horse friend informs her, but the girl can’t help notice that no one seems excited about the events. She learns why: First, the ancient castle is freezing; Second, Fear is an erratic and didactic hostess who has devised a series of impossible games for the evenings entertainment. The horses do as they are instructed, and enact the games to a horrifying effect: “…the horses began to beat the floor with their hooves as if they wanted to descend to the depths of the earth.” Despite the narrator’s trepidations, she stays still among the mayhem hoping Fear won’t see she isn’t (and can’t physically) participate. It ends on a note that is perhaps the most cryptic of the stories read so far: “It went on like this for twenty-five minutes, but…”
Those ellipses say more about the story than the story itself. The string of horses, as well as Fear, poke somewhat at the group-think dynamics that oiled and ran Surrealism. Fond of experimental games, the group always held organized parties where either a visual or verbal game was devised to explore further territory of the untapped conscious. While that lead to a lot of the core group’s great work, perhaps Carrington found it a bit tiresome. Perhaps, like she did in England, she was feeling expected to always perform during these automatic parlor games. There is a great passage in this story about the narrator’s inner nature to stay home and just talk to herself, and I can’t help but see the “but…” as the conclusion of that musing. She doesn’t really want to participate in the group antics, but she’s in it now, and no matter how much she tries to remain invisible, they all are seeing her and watching how she performs.
“The House of Fear” was Carrington’s publishing debut. Introduced and illustrated by Max Ernst, it appeared as a limited edition chapbook in 1938. According to Joanna Moorhead, the pamphlet was more of a public validation of the couple’s blooming relationship than anything else. Ernst riffs on the horses and birds motif for their personal symbology they held for each other. He teases her about her inadequacies in a way only lovers do, not necessarily professional colleagues. Asking why, in any sort of professional seriousness, whether the writer you are introducing can “even read” seems like less than a good endorsement, I’m sure Ernst knew the intended audience would eat it up. With a print run of 120 copies, “The House of Fear” had no ambitions of being read beyond the Surrealist coterie. Therefore, Ernst knew that the audience he was declaring and exhibiting this love to would understand this contextualizing much more than the satirizing of the group itself.
 Alongside Katherine Talbot and Anthony Kerrigan, Warner worked with Carrington directly in the 1980s to translate her French and Spanish stories into English for two major collections The House of Fear: Notes From Down Below and The Seventh Horse and Other Tales that were published by E. P. Dutton/Virago in 1988. Dutton also published Down Below at this time. These two works make up the majority of both Dorothy, A Publishing Project’s and Silver Press’s collection.