is a magical realist
novel by Angela Carter. First published in 1991, the family saga follows the daily lives of two sisters who claim to be the unacknowledged daughters of a great Shakespearean actor, Sir Melchior Hazard. Carter’s final completed novel, critics believe it is the most bewitching and imaginative work of her career. The author of numerous acclaimed books, Carter is one of the most significant post-War writers in the English language. Before she died, she planned to write a sequel to Jane Eyre
, featuring Jane’s stepdaughter. She is best known for her novels Nights at the Circus
and The Magic Toyshop
Dora and Nora Chance are identical twins who spent their youth working as minor actresses. Popular in their hometown, they have always felt like celebrities. Dora narrates the story in the form of a memoir; having just turned 75, she feels it is time to sum up her life. Interestingly, the novel coincides with Carter’s own terminal lung cancer diagnosis.
As the book opens, the twins celebrate their seventy-fifth birthday together at home. The date, April 23, is also William Shakespeare’s birthday, which the twins think is very poignant. Sharing memories from their childhood, they talk about their parents. Everyone thinks their father is Perry Hazard, a gregarious, eccentric actor who took the girls all over the world on his travels.
The girls, however, don’t believe Perry is their real father. They think their father is Perry’s twin brother, Melchior. Melchior is a legendary Shakespearean actor who worked during the 1920s. Today is also his one-hundredth birthday. He doesn’t acknowledge his daughters, although he once admitted he is their biological father. He gave Perry legal guardianship because he didn’t want to ruin his career by raising children.
One day, Tristram, Melchior’s son, visits the sisters. He is worried because he can’t find his girlfriend, Tiffany. He last saw her on a television show, and she didn’t seem herself. She was drunk, high, or simply delusional. After some prompting, Tristram admits Tiffany is pregnant and she doesn’t want the baby.
Naturally, the sisters worry about her safety, but before they go looking for Tiffany, the police call around. They have found Tiffany’s body in a river. The incident shakes Dora, leading her to reflect on her childhood again. She remembers fancying Melchior before she knew he was her father.
Dora reflects on how she and Nora got into acting. They started in seedy, rundown theatres. They didn’t enjoy acting much but it made them feel closer to their absent father. Perry encouraged them because it meant he could spend time alone with them, traveling around theatres. It is implied that he sexually abused the girls.
During the 1929 Wall Street Crash, everyone loses his or her money. The girls dance in music halls and sleep with actors. They sometimes share the same boy by swapping identities. The boys never know the difference because the girls are beautiful. Dora and Nora spend their adolescence looking for love in all the wrong places.
One day, Melchior asks them to star alongside him in a Shakespearean play. The girls are overjoyed, thinking it means that Melchior wants to acknowledge them. Unfortunately, Melchior doesn’t care about them. He just thinks they’re pretty and will look good in his play. Eventually, he moves to Hollywood, where he works as a film producer. He gives the girls minor parts in his films. They never progress any further in acting.
Melchior marries a beautiful actress and together they have two daughters, Saskia, and Imogen. He acknowledges these girls and raises them as his own. Dora and Nora find this terribly distressing but they don’t say anything because they don’t want to lose Melchior’s love. When Melchior has two sons, Gareth and Tristram, he stops paying attention to Dora and Nora because his family is big enough.
Gareth grows up and becomes a priest. Dora and Nora never see him again. Tristram sleeps with Saskia regularly, much to Dora’s amusement. Meanwhile, Saskia throws her mother down the stairs because she didn’t get an acting part that Melchior had promised her. Saskia’s mother moves in with Dora and Nora because Saskia terrifies her.
The play ends with Melchior’s one-hundredth birthday party. Melchior invites the twins especially because he plans to make a formal announcement. For the first time, he acknowledges Dora and Nora as his legitimate daughters. Melchior’s wife makes her own announcement—Melchior isn’t Saskia or Imogen’s father, Perry is.
Perry rounds the evening off with another staggering revelation. The twins’ grandmother, Grandma Chance, is their birth mother. The twins find this amusing and it doesn’t bother them in the least. Dora sneaks off to sleep with Perry because she can’t fancy Melchior anymore. They plan to live forever because they want to see Tristram’s children grow up.