In both her fiction and her life Angela Carter was fearless, says Anne Chisholmby Anne Chisholm / September 15, 2016 / Leave a comment
The question of Angela Carter’s literary standing, both during her lifetime and since her death at the height of her powers in 1992, is not easily settled. She arrived with a bang: her first two novels, Shadow Dance (1966) and The Magic Toyshop (1967), with their electrifying prose, imaginative wildness and dark sexuality, established her as a powerful new voice in British fiction, a writer who from the start excited both admiration and unease. She went on to write or compile some 15 more books, won a prize or two, wrote a great deal of journalism and established herself as an original, unpredictable essayist and critic. Today, she is taught in schools and colleges around the world; critical studies and theses proliferate. Most of her work is in print. She has influential admirers: a new edition of her poetry appeared at the end of last year, presented by Rosemary Hill, and Christopher Frayling has recently published a book of essays built around an account of their friendship and shared interest in vampires. Now comes the first full and authorised biography, based on complete access to her personal and professional archive and help from family and friends.
From the start, Edmund Gordon presents himself as a biographer with a mission: to rescue Angela Carter from a carapace of misconceptions and myths. Since her death at the age of 51, he maintains, she has been venerated for the wrong reasons, regarded by academics and feminist theoreticians as a white witch of preternatural wisdom, her artistic genius muffled and misunderstood. The implication is that she has been more studied than enjoyed.
In most ways, this is a conventional biography, which despite starting with Carter’s death and its aftermath proceeds to tell the story of her life with only minimal traces of the modish quest approach that emphasises the biographer’s own adventures along the way. Instead, the quest in this book is Carter’s journey of self-discovery, and the story Gordon tells is “of how she invented herself.” Carter showed from early on in her life a taste for the fantastic and a marked distaste for the realistic and the restrained, both in her personal style and writing.
From the outset, he integrates the story of her life, which was a journey away from conventional expectations, with her work, which also set out to surprise. As she said of herself, she was always “a born fabulist,” for whom storytelling and imaginative energy mattered above all. Before describing her childhood and the grandmother who looked after her for the crucial first five years, he reminds us of her sinister reinterpretation of Little Red Riding Hood—her interest in re-examining fairy stories was lifelong, and led to one of her best books, The Bloody Chamber (1979)—and shows how she romanticised her family history. Her mother’s forebears were Yorkshire miners, while her father’s were cobblers in a fishing town near Aberdeen; she made up tales about both, though her grandparents had moved to less picturesque South London as soon as they married. From tough working-class antecedents, her family on both sides pursued self-improvement through hard work and education, and it was, as Gordon crisply points out, an “outright falsity” for Carter to describe her grandmother as “functionally illiterate,” when she actually passed on to her children a passion for reading and for the theatre, especially Shakespeare. Her uncle Cecil was academically successful and a sympathetic mentor.
“Carter’s electrifying prose, imaginative wildness and dark sexuality established her as a powerful new voice in British fiction”
“Our lives are all about our childhoods,” she was to write, and Gordon gives hers full weight. She was born Angela Stalker in Eastbourne in 1940, but during the war was sent to her maternal grandmother, back living in Yorkshire, where she played with miners’ children and learned about strong women. Back in London when the war was over, she grew up in suburban respectability, fussed over by her anxious, overprotective mother and adored by her journalist father. A clever, imaginative child, she started writing stories (the first, apparently, at the age of six, entitled “Tom Cat Goes to Market”) but she hated her grammar school and became a fat, solitary teenager desperate to leave home. She veered away from university when her mother told her that wherever she went her parents would accompany her. Instead, several stone lighter, perhaps after a bout of anorexia she went to work for the local paper, the Croydon Advertiser, a job arranged for her by her father. She kept her end up among the all-male staff by learning to drink and swear; she wore outlandish clothes for the late 1950s, a time when girls tried to look grown up by dressing like their mothers. She longed for male attention while remaining insecure about her appearance. By the time she was 21 she had taken one of the few predictable steps of her life and escaped from home to marry her first boyfriend, Paul Carter, an industrial chemist and a jazz and folk enthusiast. He was also, it turned out, a depressive, with whom she moved to Bristol where he took a teaching job in 1962. Gordon has no hesitation in describing them as “a remarkably ill-matched couple”; but it was seven years before she took up with anyone else, and during that time she took a degree in English at Bristol University and published her first five novels.
It was clear from the start that Carter was, in Gordon’s words, “an utterly distinctive new voice.” Shadow Dance had as its central character a sadistic sexual predator called Honeybuzzard with an “inexpressibly carnivorous mouth,” who slashed his pale victim Ghislaine, with a knife, and eventually murdered her. Deliberately dark, it was, according to Carter, more “slapstick nightmare” than black comedy; she went on to write more playful books but her refusal to be delicate about sexuality and her love of the surreal, the Gothic and the fantastic remained a constant. Shadow Dance brought her praise from the TLS and the New Statesman, whose reviewer noted her “decided talent for the grotesque scene, the nightmarish atmosphere, the alarming uncertainties of human relationships.”
She also made her first close women friends in Bristol. Gordon tracked down and makes good use of a long correspondence with one of them, Carole Roffey, who already had a degree and a divorce behind her and was deep into women’s liberation. Roffey told her friend she had taken a hundred lovers. For the first time, it seems, Carter had someone she could talk to about her writing, her problems with Paul and her increasing need to break free. Soon, Carter began to sleep with other men. Then in 1968 her third novel, Several Perceptions, won the Somerset Maugham award: it was worth £500 and had to be spent on travel. She decided to go to Japan, apparently because it was both exotically different and had proper plumbing.
Her time in Japan—where she lived for most of the next three years—gave Carter the dramatic and conclusive escape from her background and her marriage that she had begun to crave. She separated, painfully and with some anger, from Paul, fell out permanently with her mother, and embarked on her first real love affair. He was a Japanese man, six years her junior and an aspiring writer, who took her to a Tokyo love hotel on their first meeting. She lived with him for a while in a house by the sea where she worked on her next book, The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman (1972). When he dumped her, she was desperate; but she recovered by seducing a 19-year-old Korean virgin, whom she dumped in turn, behaving with a ruthlessness she later regretted. Gordon’s account of Carter’s strong sexual needs is never censorious, but he does occasionally sound a bit startled. Writing about this aspect of her life was, he says carefully, “more of an enlightening experience than I had initially expected.”
After Japan, Carter moved from London to Bath and back to London, where by the mid-1970s she had settled in Clapham, in south London, where she finally felt at home. Various lovers came and went, until in 1974 she took up with the man with whom she found lasting stability and domestic as well as sexual happiness. Mark Pearce was a builder, 15 years her junior, who came to fix a plumbing disaster and, she would say, simply never left. In 1983, when she was 43, they had a son; she would thereafter refer proudly to her two boys. They married not long before she died.
Meanwhile as the permissive 1960s (a label Carter always queried: “who is it who permits me?”) turned into the less playful 1970s, she found herself both embraced and criticised by different factions of the women’s movement, and becoming both more established as a writer and harder to place. She was always too subversive to toe a party line, and upset some feminists with remarks like, “I think it’s terrible for everyone, not just women” and “mother goddesses are just as silly as father gods.” Even so, she found a natural home and a steadily supportive publisher in the feminist imprint Virago, and a close friend in its founder Carmen Callil. In 1979 Virago published both The Bloody Chamber, a brilliantly unnerving version of the scariest of fairy stories, notably Bluebeard, and Carter’s provocative new look at the Marquis de Sade, The Sadeian Woman and the Ideology of Pornography, which advanced the idea that he empowered rather than victimised women. This startling view was received, according to Gordon, with “peevish incomprehension.”
The fact was that Carter had never really found a secure position on the literary ladder, despite some influential early support from Anthony Burgess, John Berger and Claire Tomalin. Gordon resents this on her behalf, referring disdainfully to “the social realist soup of British fiction” of her time. This is a little sweeping, given the work of at least two of her older contemporaries, Doris Lessing and Iris Murdoch, neither of them social realists. Carter never seems to have objected to either of them (though she was taken aback when it turned out in the mid-1980s that Murdoch had never heard of her), but she was critical of both AS Byatt and Margaret Drabble, whom she classed as Hampstead novelists interested in tea and adultery. Given the chance she would dismiss other prominent women writers such as Edna O’Brien, Joan Didion, Jean Rhys and Anita Brookner, for their apparent presentation of women as victims.
In some ways, her position as a maverick suited her. Through her publisher Virago, however, Carter established, as Gordon puts it, “a corner of the British literary world where her position as a great and totemic writer was assured.” Even so, as the years passed, she was never given the recognition won by younger, usually male, writers such as Martin Amis, Julian Barnes or Ian McEwan. She found being overlooked hard. She paid a price, perhaps, for being so resolutely wayward and opinionated. She did and said and wrote what she liked, and could be, as Gordon shows, both tactless and overpowering. To some, her later writing, with its huge feathered circus performers and Victorian theatrical sagas, was overblown. “There must be less to life than this,” sighed one exhausted reader.
In her forties, in what turned out to be the last 10 years of her life, she was astonishingly productive, teaching creative writing in Britain and abroad, writing film scripts and short stories, living happily in creative chaos in Clapham with Mark and their son, and producing two of her finest novels, Nights at the Circus (1984) and Wise Children (1991). By the time the latter was published, to great praise, she had been diagnosed with terminal cancer, which she endured with stoicism and wit. “There is an upside to everything,” she wrote to a friend during her last year. “I haven’t been to a literary party in nine months.”
This rich, well-written and sympathetic biography raises as many questions as it answers. Angela Carter remains paradoxical; like her heroines, her confident personality and unexpected gifts elude classification. Her literary heirs and admirers include Salman Rushdie, Jeanette Winterson and Ali Smith, none of them, like her, afraid to experiment and provoke. In her writing, as in her life, she made her own way. She is never going to be everyone’s cup of tea but this book should introduce her to new readers. She deserves them.