Wayward Girls and Wicked Women by Angela Carter

21st Jan 2011


Featuring stories by Grace Paley, Jamaica Kincaid, Bessie Head and Angela Carter herself, this accomplished collection is a consummate delight.

Carter immediately sets the tone, pointing in her introduction to the irony of the book’s title: very few of the women in these stories are actually guilty of criminal acts. Rather, each protagonist and narrator possess a certain spirit.

The real crux of Carter’s collection, however, is the notion that had men invented our charmingly wayward heroines, they would appear to the reader significantly more reprehensible.

“They would be predatory, drunken hags; confidence tricksters; monstrously precocious children; liars and cheats; promiscuous heart-breakers.

As it is, they are all presented as if they were perfectly normal. On the whole, women writers are kind to women.”

It is this notion that lies at the heart of this collection’s success. Breaking free from the binaries of madonna/whore and pious/sinful, the book’s heroines appear as everyday women: bound by exceptional circumstance, yet possessing sufficient self-esteem to acknowledge they are worth more than that which fortune has endowed upon them.

Rocky Gamez‘s tale from The Gloria Stories sees our titular heroine become so consumed with her aspiration to be a man (“like Sal Mineo”), she convinces herself and her girlfriend that her potent masculinity can override the course of procreation.

The young, melancholy woman in Colette‘s The Rainy Moon exacts revenge on her estranged husband, only herself returning to full vigour once he has fallen off his mortal coil. Leonora Carrington‘s débutante feels so repelled by societal expectations, she sends a hyena in her place to her coming-out ball.

Unfettered by the shackles of Victorian ‘ladylike’ morals, these women play out their emotions to delightfully comedic effect. Refusing to pontificate, Carter has selected stories conspicuously and refreshingly absent of moral retribution – a fact which renders this collection a deliciously indulgent read.

Perfectly paced and rife with acerbic heroines, Carter’s Wayward Girls and Wicked Women have absolutely stood the test of time. Proving that being ‘naughty’ involves more than splashing out on a piece of cake, this astutely judged oeuvre deserves to delight a new generation of readers.

By refusing to play with the age-old binary representations of women, these authors hold up an uncompromising mirror up to the depth and multiplicity of the female mind.

As Carter herself states:

“If you don’t play by the rules but try to start a new game, you will not necessarily prosper, nor will the new game necessarily be an improvement on the old one. But that does not mean it is not worth trying”.

Angela Carter’s Book of Wayward Girls and Wicked Women is published by Virago, and you can pick up the re-issued hardback edition from Amazon for £9.29.

Annette Barlow