The last in a line of wildly inventive novels associated by many critics with postmodernism and magic realism, Wise Children, published just before the author’s death from cancer, is in many respects Angela Carter’s gentlest and most conciliatory work. Written as the first-person memoir of seventy-five-year-old Dora Chance, the introspective half of a twin sister song and dance team, The Lucky Chances, the novel re-creates five crucial periods in the sisters’ lives, each of which centers on an encounter between the twins and their natural father, Sir Melchior Hazard, the greatest Shakespearean actor of his day. Through these encounters, the novel explores the relationships between legitimacy and illegitimacy, fathers and children, reality and illusion, and tragedy and comedy.
The five parts of the book, complete with dramatis personae, self-consciously recall the five acts of a Shakespearean comedy. Part 1, the exposition, opens on the twins’ current life in a shabby house on the wrong side of the Thames, where they live with Wheelchair, their father’s aged first wife; numerous cats; and fading photo albums of their years as music hall hoofers. Then the narrative flashes back to their unpropitious birth to a scullery maid known only as Pretty Kitty in a boarding house on the bedraggled fringes of show business. They are adopted by the questionably respectable proprietor, Mrs. Chance, who, discovering late the joys of motherhood, gives them lots of love, dancing lessons, and a taste for unconventionality.
Part 2 chronicles their childhood and adolescence. On their seventh birthday, Grandma Chance takes them to see Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers on stage, an experience so intoxicating that they set their sights on a musical career. On the same occasion, Grandma Chance spots their father in the audience, a discovery that awakens in them an unquenchable longing for his approval and love. All this while, they are financially supported by Peregrine Hazard, their father’s twin brother, a magician and adventurer who lets on to the world that he is the girls’ natural father. When they turn thirteen, Peregrine mischievously takes them on an impromptu backstage visit to their father, who fails to acknowledge them, a failure that Dora considers “the bitterest disappointment…before or since.” At Melchior’s disavowal, Peregrine declares: “It’s a wise child that knows its own father…But wiser the father who knows his own child.”
In late adolescence, their lives take a turn for the better as they gain fleeting fame, money, and admirers. Dora loses her heart to Nora’s boyfriend, whom she persuades Nora to lend her for her sexual initiation. Although Dora really loves him, she never discloses to him the impersonation but returns him to her sister. Years later, she explains this choice. “I love her best and always have.” On their seventeenth birthday, their father partially acknowledges them by inviting them to appear with him in a musical revue based loosely on the Bard. A few years later, Melchior, rich and famous, invites them to his newly acquired manor house, which he intends to make the country home of the Royal Family of the British Theatre but which resembles “a permanent stage set.” When the house confirms its impermanence by burning down, Melchior announces that he will take all of his houseguests, including the twins, to Hollywood to make a film version of a Midsummer Night’s Dream, scripted by Peregrine Hazard, “with additional dialogue by William Shakespeare.”
Part 3 is a Hollywood extravaganza, complete with tinseled actresses, ever-hopeful starlets, and ever-predatory casting couch directors. In this world of excess in everything, all films run over schedule and budget, their fantasy scenes too realistic and their reality too fantastic. Hollywood offers the sisters their big chance, but they blow it: Nora forsakes stardom for paste and bambini with her boyfriend, Tony; Dora flees marriage to movie mogul Genghis Khan, who has designated her to bear his son and heir. In the hilariously raucous climax to this episode, the planned triple marriage of Nora to Tony, Dora to Genghis Khan, and movie star Delia Delaney (née Daisy Duck) to Melchior Hazard turns into a melee in which Tony’s Italian mother reclaims her erring son, Dora reworks the Shakespearean “‘substitute...