She pricked the pieties of Leavisite critics and feminists alike, but her fairy tales have outlived them all. They contain a black thread tying love to violenceby Paul Barker / July 22, 2006 / Leave a comment
Once upon a time, fairy tales were denounced, especially on the left. “Realistic,” improving literature was the thing. But Angela Carter loved to retell such stories in her gothic, pyrotechnic prose. At university, studying English, she’d plunged into the medieval options—romances, legends, allegories—partly to avoid the finger-wagging followers of FR Leavis who, she thought, belonged to the “eat up your broccoli” school of literary analysis. She has been rewarded with posthumous fame; it is a triumph for her take on the world, a mixture of attraction and menace, like a jewel glittering in the dark.
“Red Riding Hood,” “Beauty and the Beast” and similar tales were set down by Charles Perrault in his light, sophisticated 17th-century prose. Then, in the 19th century, came the bleaker versions of Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm. Enter, in the 1970s, Angela Carter, with one of her greatest books, The Bloody Chamber (filmed as The Company of Wolves), which really isn’t for tiny tots. The stories were ratcheted up: more ferocious, more perverse. This is the wolf closing in on Red Riding Hood’s grandmother: “He strips off his shirt. His skin is the colour and texture of vellum. A crisp stripe of hair runs down his belly, his nipples are ripe and dark as poison fruit but he’s so thin you could count the ribs under his skin if only he gave you the time. He strips off his trousers and she can see how hairy his legs are. His genitals, huge. Ah! huge.
“The last thing the old lady saw in all this world was a young man, eyes like cinders, naked as a stone, approaching her bed.
“The wolf is carnivore incarnate.”
I first met Angela in the dying days of the 1960s. She walked into my Covent Garden editorial office very erect, all in black, topped with a large, floppy hat. She spoke with an odd mixture of hesitancy and point-blank self-assurance; but I couldn’t entirely concentrate on what she said: dark gaps marked where two of her front teeth were missing. I never discovered why. When her eventual publisher, Carmen Callil, first met her, Angela’s opening gamut was that the man she then lived with had just thrown a typewriter at her, and would she advise her to leave him? The black thread that ties love to violence ran through all her work until she…