Angela Carter: Far from the fairytale

Angela Carter: Far From The Fairytale

The otherworldly figure conjured after her demise in 1992 doesnt do Angela Carter justice. Her biographer Edmund Gordon attempts a more accurate portraying of a complex, sensual and highly intellectual woman

Angela Carter: Far From The Fairytale

When Angela Carter succumbed aged just 51, on 16 February 1992 her reputation changed from cultish to canonical. Her obituaries in the British press received more space than any others that year except Francis Bacon, Willy Brandt and Marlene Dietrich. Their tone was rhapsodic. Angela Carter was one of the most important novelists at work in the English language. She interpreted the times for us with unrivalled piercing. Her imagination was one of the most dazzling of this century. Three days after she died, Virago , the publishing home with which her name was most closely associated, sold out of her volumes. Over the course of the next academic year, the British Academy received 40 proposals for doctoral research into her run compared with three on the literature of the entire 18 th century.

Her friends and long-term admirers considered this torrent of posthumous acclaim with a touch of exasperation. For more than 25 years Carter had been creating fictions, short tales, drama and journalism that stood defiantly apart from the work of her contemporaries. At a period when English literature was dominated by sober social realists, she played with disreputable genres gothic horror, science fiction, fairytale and devoted free rein to the fantastic and the surreal. Her work is funny, sexy, frightening and brutal, and is always shaped by a keen, subversive intelligence and a style of luxuriant beauty. She was concerned with unpicking the mythic roles and structures that underwrite our existences in particular the various myths of gender identity and by the end of their own lives she was starting to acquire a dedicated following. But only once her voice had been silenced was she accorded the situation of women a great novelist and feminist icon.

As Carters first biographer, a large part of my undertaking has been trying to look beyond some of the certainties that have resolved around her since her death to assure her once again as mutable, vulnerable, unfinished. Im in the demythologising business, she once wrote, and as I worked on my book, its main purpose increasingly became to demythologise her: to recapture the fluidity of her identity and the unpredictability of her intellect, and in doing so, to tell a story about how she came to write some of the liveliest and most original volumes of the last hundred years.


One of the central themes of Carters writing is the contingency of personal identity. She believed that our egoes are neither false nor true, but merely roles we either master or are mastered by. Her characters wear their personalities like fancy dress attires. She was explicit about viewing femininity as a social fiction, part of a culturally choreographed performance of selfhood. She wasnt the first to make this observation but she may have been the first to greet it so warmly, as a licence for boundless self-invention.

The story of her life is the story of how she devised herself, of how she progressed from a shy, introverted childhood, through a nervy, defiantly unconventional youth, to a happy, self-confident middle age. She consistently flouted expectations of women, making instead, by sheer force-out of will, the lifestyle and circumstances that suited her. It wasnt a straightforward process. Born in 1940 just before the Luftwaffe unleashed its first wave of bombs over Britain she grew up in the shabbily respectable south London district of Balham, the second child of an eccentric journalist parent and a neurotic homemaker mother. As a young girl she was spoiled and zealously sheltered by her parents, and in particular by her mom, who placed a handkerchief behind Angelas head whenever she sat down in a public place, rubbed so much Zam-Buk ointment on her chest that her top was permanently stained green, and indulged her with so many edible treats that by the time she left primary school she was extremely overweight.( Not an easy thing to achieve in a decade when meat, sugar, chocolate, butter, cheese and cooking fat were all strictly rationed .)

As she approached adolescence, her moms obsessive cosseting merely became more pronounced. Even when she was 10 or 11, Angela wasnt allowed to go to the lavatory on her own. She was made to clean with the bathroom doorway open well into her teens. Her mother was terrified that some catastrophe would befall her if she let her out of her sight: she would slip and injure herself, or drown in the tub.

Magic - Angela Carter: Far From The Fairytale
Tom Bell as Uncle Philip in the film adaptation of The Magic Toyshop ( 1987 ). Photograph: ITV/ Rex Features

When she was 17 decided that the time had come to put some emotional distance between herself and her mother. She sought a doctors advice about losing weight and was put on a rigorous diet: in the early stages of 1958, she weighed something between 13 and 15 stone; by that summertime, she was around 10 stone. She also took up swearing and smoking, both of which dismayed her socially conservative mothers( as she had calculated that they would ), and began preferring her own clothes, opting for close-fitting black garments that were a positive sign of perversion in the late 1950 s( a typical attire consisted of black-mesh stockings, spike-heeled shoes, bum-hugging skirt, coat with a black fox collar ). It was the first of many times when, faced with adverse or repressive circumstances, she forcibly asserted her identity.

But on that first occasion she may have exerted too much force: her weight loss seems to have accelerated into anorexia shortly after she left school. By then she was working as a journalist an overwhelmingly male profession in the late 1950 s on a local south London paper, which, she wrote, functioned as a kind of benign day-clinic, where my patent insanity was taken in good component. One of her duties was writing the papers music reviews: that was probably how she first encountered Paul Carter, an industrial chemist by profession, but also an amateur producer and recordist of folk records, whom she afterwards remembered as being a simple, artsy Soho 50 s beatnik. Through him, she became involved in the English folk revival( she wrote sleeve notes to several of the records he produced, performed with him at singarounds, and even briefly ran a folk club with him) and the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. He represented a clear escape route from her mothers home: soon after her 19 th birthday, she accepted his proposal of marriage.

When Paul was offered a lectureship in chemistry at the newly formed Bristol Technical College in 1961, Carter quit her job and went with him. But the marriage soon faltered. Paul had a depressive streak, and had quickly begun to exhibit what Carter came to know as his indrawn moods, which could last for days at a time. These moods were extremely difficult for her , not least because she felt( or was made to feel) that she was responsible for them. And after she began publishing fictions( her first, Shadow Dance , a gothic assassination tale set in a distinctly Bristol-like city, appeared in 1966 ), his stillness lengthened: she told a friend that he didnt speak to her for three weeks after one of her books came out. I acknowledge it, she wrote in her publication less than two years after their wedding. Marriage was one of my typical burn-all-bridges-but-one acts; flight from a closed room into another one. By her mid-2 0s, she was already plotting her second escape from an oppressive domestic situation.

In 1969 she received the Somerset Maugham award for her third novel, Several Perceptions . The rules( laid down by Maugham himself) stipulated that the money “mustve been” spent on foreign travel. Carter decided to visit Japan. Shortly after arriving in Tokyo( which she thought was the most absolutely non-boring city in the world ), she met a 24 -year-old Japanese human who was hoping to become a novelist. After breaking up with Paul by letter, she lived with the man for the best part of a year. When the relationship ended she moved in with a 19 -year-old Korean man, while working for a period in a hostess bar. The two years that she spent in Japan were among the most crucial periods of Carters life, one of the great hinges on which her tale turns: she wrote two of her most dazzling volumes, The Infernal Desire Machines of Dr Hoffman ( 1972) and Fireworks ( 1974) while living there. Her new sense of personal freedom had given rise to a new artistic freedom.

After returning to Britain in 1972, she lived in London( renting the spare room of the poet Fleur Adcock for a while) and is more and more interested in the emerging women liberation motion. She always felt happier sniping from the sidelines than toeing the party line, however. I suspect, she told an interviewer, that when my sisters think of me, they consider me as a little bit of an Uncle Tom. I think its all terrible. I think its terrible for everyone , not only females. Carters 1979 run of culture history, The Sadeian Woman in which she used the Marquis de Sade as her exemplar of a moral pornographer was rejected by the revolutionary critic Andrea Dworkin as pseudofeminist.( It was also stickered by the Federation of Alternative Bookshops for having an offensive encompas: a painting by the surrealist artist Clovis Trouille featuring several half-naked women, some of whom are being whipped .) Even so, she found one of her closest friends and most ardent supporters in Carmen Callil, the founder of the feminist publishing house Virago.

During this period, Carter had a series of disastrous love affairs, and at least one abortion, while living hand to mouth on the proceeds of journalism and the odd royalty cheque from her early novels. After one particularly tempestuous relationship ended she fled London for Bath, and her father loaned her the money to buy herself a small house in the city( her mom having died in 1969 ).

She eventually discovered domestic happiness with her second husband, Mark Pearce. He was a builder, 15 years her junior; they met when he was constructing an extension for the house opposite hers in Bath. She operated across the street to ask for his help with a plumbing emergency. He came in, she told her friends, and never left.


Carter was intentionally messy, awkward, even paradoxical in her behaviour: she never permitted herself to settle into any predictable guise or position for long. At the same time in the 1970 s as she was writing for the feminist magazine Spare Rib, she was also contributing smutty articles and erotic short narratives to the soft porn publications Men Merely and Club International. She voted Labour and loathed Margaret Thatcher, but when she attended a meeting of leftwing writers and intellectuals in 1988, she felt poorly out of place, and scarcely said a word. She refused identification with any motion, and resisted attempts to absorb her work into any genre( she always denied that she was a magical realist, for example, arguing that the phrase was meaningless when employed outside the specific context of Latin American literature ). She believed that integration means giving up ones freedom of being, in that one becomes mastered by ones role.

Company - Angela Carter: Far From The Fairytale
Micha Bergese and Sarah Patterson in the film adaptation of The Company of Wolves( 1984 ). Photograph: Sportsphoto Ltd ./ Allstar

But if we invent ourselves, we also invent one another and novelists personalities can quickly solidify in the popular imagination, especially once theyre no longer around to astonish us with new run. As Auden wrote of Yeatss death: he became his admirers. Carter has become hers in ways that have often ignored her wish not to be defined by her roles. Her obituaries demonstrated an impulse towards myth-making and sanctification. They emphasised her gentleness, her wisdom and her magical imagination, at the expense of her intellectual sharpness, her savour for violent and disturbing imagery, and her exuberant sensuality.

She had something of the faerie queene about her, wrote Marina Warner in the Independent, except that she was never wispy or fey. In the New York Times, Salman Rushdie identified her straightforwardly with the fairy queen, adding that English literature has lost its high sorceress, its benevolent white witch. Margaret Atwood, writing in the Observer, ran even further: The amazing thing about her, for me, was that someone who appeared so much like the fairy godmother should actually be so much like the fairy godmother. She seemed always on the verge of bestowing something some talisman, some magical token youd need to get through the dark forest, some verbal formula useful for the opening of charmed doors.

This mythic version of Carter soon became the predominating one. But the otherworldly figure conjured by her obituarists doesnt do justice to her complexity. Her fundamental vigor, determination and courage all emerge powerfully from the histories of her life; her wild, often gleefully crass sense of humour and her strong sexual energy are both conspicuous in her books; and her quick witticism and personal charm are apparent in surviving Tv footage. In her 40 s, newly confident, Carter allowed her hair to turn grey, and grew it down to her shoulders. She became a mother just as she began to look like the cartoon image of a grandmother: her son, Alexander, was born in 1983. He brought her a great deal of elation, and the last decade of their own lives was also the happiest. She returned to live in south London , not far from where she had grown up, and between teaching stints in Australia and the US she rendered some of her richest and most affecting work, including the screenplay for the Neil Jordan film The Company of Wolves ( 1984 ), which was based on one of her short narratives, and the novels Nights at the Circus ( 1984) and Wise Children ( 1991 ). As her friend Lorna Sage observed: by the end her life fitted her more or less like a glove. But thats because she put it together, by trial and error, bricolage, all in the( conventionally) incorrect order.

Edmund Gordons The Invention of Angela Carter: A Biography is published by Chatto& Windus on 13 October. To order a copy for 20.50( RRP 25) going to see or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p& p over 10, online orders merely. Telephone orders min p& p of 1.99.

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Angela Carter: Far From The Fairytale
Angela Carter: Far From The Fairytale
Angela Carter: Far From The Fairytale
Angela Carter: Far From The Fairytale
Angela Carter: Far From The Fairytale

Angela Carter: Far From The Fairytale

Angela Carter: Far From The Fairytale

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