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
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.