THE BRITISH LIBRARY

English and Drama blog

11 December 2017

Holy Days and Holidays: Angela Carter’s Ghost Ships: A Christmas Story

by Callum McKean, Curator, Contemporary Literary and Creative Archives. The British Library holds the Angela Carter Archive and you can explore some digitised manuscripts on our Discovering Literature website.

For Angela Carter, many of our apparently banal daily practices orbit around ancient and largely invisible centres of gravity; they are the result of rituals repeated and folk narratives re-told across generations, often unconsciously. Her work looks askance at these invisible – or naturalised – narrative and behavioural forces, and then proceeds to take them apart to see how they work. In her hands, myths and fairy-tales are re-told in such a way as to drag them from the dark, invisible world of the habitual into the lighter realm of the thinkable.

Perhaps it is no surprise, then, that Carter is interested in the idea of the Festival as a rupture in the procession of the Everyday; a moment when social norms are stretched and even overturned, at least temporarily. In her posthumously published ‘Ghost Ships: a Christmas Story’, this conflict takes place in a burgeoning 17th century New England colony which finds itself under silent attack from a larger-than-life pagan armada, where the titular ships re-call a contemporaneous Christmas carol of unknown origin. 

  ThreeShips
This reproduction of a 19th Century wood-engraving illustrating the famous Christmas carol, ‘I Saw Three Ships’, shows three intensely colourful and oversized figures aboard ships, bringing music and festivity to the shore in a way comparable to the oversized figures aboard the ships in Carter’s story. (Walter Crane’s Painting Book [1889] YK.2000.b.3201)

 This re-imagination of the folk-song as an attack on puritan sensibilities, where the anticipatory joy of the original song becomes a kind of subliminal violence, is symptomatic of what Carter sees as the paranoid world-view of the New England settlers. The function of music in puritan societies was to help the congregation attain a higher religious ideal. Purely sensual enjoyment was discouraged and severely punished. Songs without basis in scripture, such as carols, came under immediate suspicion; the settlers preferred instead to chant psalms in unison, without instrumentation. ‘The greatest genius of the puritans lay in their ability to sniff out a pagan survival’, Carter writes, ‘they were the stuff of which social anthropologists would be made’.

The irony here, of course, is that peculiarly sensitive noses are at increased risk of ‘sniffing out’ more alluring scents too. Protection from the dangers of the purely sensual came, more often than not in the early colonies, through top-down legislation. ‘Ghost Ships’ begins with such a piece of legislation, an excerpt from a Statute Enacted by the General Court of Massachusetts in May 1659. The Statute itself is real, and still viewable in the Massachussets State Archives. 

Such top-down attempts to purge the so-called New World of its Old World traditions are particularly feeble for Carter. No penalty, however large or strictly enforced, can pry a culture from its origins. The Boston Bay which her pilgrims inhabit – described as being ‘as calm as milk, as black as ink, smooth as silk’ – is a paradoxically fantastical space; an imaginary clean slate constructed as a bulwark against the infinite reproducibility of a folk-culture which some of the more elite or pious settlers had hoped to leave behind, but which could not be forgotten by force. When reading Carter’s annotated typescripts for ‘Ghost Ships’, one is struck by how forcefully this conflict is encoded into the physicality of the text. Her typescript is draped in richly descriptive pen annotations which indulge sensual, onomatopoetic ruminations and asides – one reads simply, ‘slurp, slurp, slurp’:

  GhostShipsMs

 This typescript page from a draft of ‘Ghost Ships’ shows heavy annotations which never made it into the published version of the story, but which throw light on Carter’s sense of the titular ships as overflowing with rich and sensuous imagery. (Add MS 88899/1/39).

However, to focus too strongly on the emancipatory potential of Festival in this story is to forget its ending, where the Lord of Misrule (a precursor to modern Father Christmas whose body is a catalogue of obscene comedy) is thrown back into the sea in defeat. Carter read the work of Mikhail Bakhtin -- a Russian cultural theorist and literary critic whose sense of the Carnivalesque as possessing the potential to liberate us from oppressive structures -- with more than a pinch of salt. In ‘Pantoland’, another story from the same collection, she writes that, ‘the essence of the carnival, the festival, the Feast of Fools, is transience. It is here today and gone tomorrow, a release of tension not a reconstitution of order, refreshment… after which everything can go on again exactly as if nothing had happened’. Rather than overthrowing the puritans of Boston Bay, Carter’s Lord of Misrule leaves only a parting gift, a ‘juicy resistance’ which turns out to be, ‘to their amazed and secret glee, […] a raisin the size of your thumb, wrinkled with its own sweetness, plump as if it had been soaked in brandy, that came from who knows where but might have easily dropped out of the sky during the flight overhead of a disintegrating Christmas pudding’. Rather than a full-scale overthrow of the status-quo, then, Carter leaves us with only an exceedingly ripe kernel, a single transitional object which can move, inexplicably, from the world of magic to the world of the everyday. This saturated raisin, soaked in brandy, is all that remains of the night’s assault, but it is all that is needed to permit the imagination– in the smallest way – to re-think the world.