‘Wise Children’ by Angela Carter (1991) – 234 pages
Here is a novel about the dance act the Lucky Chances who are identical twin sisters Dora and Nora Chance. The sisters are part of the Royal Family of the British Theatre although unacknowledged by their father.
“We are his natural daughters, as they say, as if only unmarried couples do it the way nature intended. His never-by-him recognized daughters, with whom, by a bizarre coincidence, he shares a birthday.”
Yes, it is William Shakespeare’s birthday and their actor father’s birthday and Dora and Nora’s birthday all on the same day, April 26. This is highly apropos since Shakespeare is surely the guiding light of ‘Wise Children’. Many of the scenes take place on stage with either members of the family acting or Dora and Nora dancing.
This is a jolly old London novel filled with risqué humor with a bawdy detour to Hollywood. It covers over 100 years of the theatre stopping in at the sisters’ act in the London dance halls of the 1920s and then at a memorable Hollywood movie production of ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ (‘The Dream’) in the 1930s.
Much of the action centers on Dora and Nora’s famed actor father Melchior Hazard, him with “that selfsame knicker-shifting smile”. The final scene in the book takes place at his hundredth birthday party as Dora reminisces about their lives in show business.
‘Wise Children’ was Angela Carter’s last novel. She died at the age of fifty one a year after it was published in 1991. I read one of her books a few years later and wasn’t much taken with it. However after seeing all the acclaim that Angela Carter has received since then, I decided it was time to read ‘Wise Children’.
‘Wise Children’ is a witty lively read that keeps moving and is quite funny in pinning down this show business family. It gives you a good feel for what these old London dance halls must have been like, and we are entertained by Dora and Nora’s cheerfully ribald antics. We watch as the dance halls go from music revues in the 1920s to sleazy topless shows in the late 1940s.
The Hollywood scenes capture the early days of motion picture sound and the whole idea of highly respected London Shakespearean actors going to Hollywood to get some quick cash and then becoming enamored by the latest Hollywood starlet. And thus the outraged ex-wife back in London. How many times has that situation happened?