Angela Carter: Far from the fairytale

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

When Angela Carter died 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 writers at work in the English language. She interpreted the times for us with unrivalled penetration. Her imagination was one of the most dazzling of this century. Three days after she died, Virago, the publishing house with which her name was most closely associated, sold out of her books. Over the course of the next academic year, the British Academy received 40 proposals for doctoral research into her work compared with three on the literature of the entire 18th century.

Her friends and long-term admirers regarded this torrent of posthumous acclaim with a touch of exasperation. For more than 25 years Carter had been producing novels, short stories, drama and journalism that stood defiantly apart from the work of her contemporaries. At a time when English literature was dominated by sober social realists, she played with disreputable genres gothic horror, science fiction, fairytale and gave 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 her life she was starting to acquire a devoted following. But only once her voice had been silenced was she accorded the status of a great novelist and feminist icon.

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

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One of the central themes of Carters writing is the contingency of personal identity. She believed that our selves are neither false nor true, but merely roles we either master or are mastered by. Her characters wear their personalities like fancy dress costumes. 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 invented 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, creating instead, by sheer force 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 father and a neurotic housewife mother. As a young girl she was spoiled and zealously sheltered by her parents, and in particular by her mother, 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 mothers obsessive cosseting only 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 wash with the bathroom door 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.

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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: at the start of 1958, she weighed something between 13 and 15 stone; by that summer, she was around 10 stone. She also took up swearing and smoking, both of which dismayed her socially conservative parents (as she had calculated that they would), and began choosing her own clothes, opting for close-fitting black garments that were a positive sign of depravity in the late 1950s (a typical outfit consisted of black-mesh stockings, spike-heeled shoes, bum-hugging skirt, jacket 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 1950s 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 part. 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 later remembered as being a simple, artsy Soho 50s 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 parents home: shortly after her 19th 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 novels (her first, Shadow Dance, a gothic murder story set in a distinctly Bristol-like city, appeared in 1966), his silences lengthened: she told a friend that he didnt speak to her for three weeks after one of her books came out. I admit it, she wrote in her journal 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-20s, 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 had to be 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 man 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 story turns: she wrote two of her most dazzling books, The Infernal Desire Machines of Dr Hoffman (1972) and Fireworks (1974) while living there. Her new sense of personal independence 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 became increasingly interested in the emerging womens liberation movement. 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 see me as a bit of an Uncle Tom. I think its all terrible. I think its terrible for everyone, not just women. Carters 1979 work of cultural history, The Sadeian Woman in which she used the Marquis de Sade as her exemplar of a moral pornographer was dismissed by the radical critic Andrea Dworkin as pseudofeminist. (It was also stickered by the Federation of Alternative Bookshops for having an offensive cover: 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 mother having died in 1969).

She eventually found 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 ran across the street to ask for his help with a plumbing emergency. He came in, she told her friends, and never left.

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Carter was deliberately messy, awkward, even paradoxical in her behaviour: she never allowed herself to settle into any predictable guise or attitude for long. At the same time in the 1970s as she was writing for the feminist magazine Spare Rib, she was also contributing smutty articles and erotic short stories to the soft porn magazines Men Only 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 badly out of place, and barely said a word. She refused identification with any movement, 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 used 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.

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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 writers personalities can quickly solidify in the popular imagination, especially once theyre no longer around to surprise us with new work. 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 taste 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, went even further: The amazing thing about her, for me, was that someone who looked 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 magic 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 prevailing one. But the otherworldly figure conjured by her obituarists doesnt do justice to her complexity. Her fundamental vigour, determination and courage all emerge powerfully from the story 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 wit and personal charm are apparent in surviving TV footage. In her 40s, 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 joy, and the last decade of her life 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 produced 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 stories, 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) wrong 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) go to <a href=”https://bookshop.theguardian.com/invention-of-angela-carter.html?utm_source=editoriallink&utm_medium=merch&utm_campaign=article” data-link-name=”in” body link” class=”u-underline”>bookshop.theguardian.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over 10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of 1.99.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2016/oct/01/angela-carter-far-from-fairytale-edmund-gordon

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