Angela Carter didn’t enjoy much of what she called ‘the pleasantest but most evanescent kind of fame, which is that during your own lifetime’. She was known and admired, but on nothing like the scale that has caused her to be described since her death in 1992 at the age of 51 as ‘one of the 20th century’s best writers’ and inspired Lambeth Council to name a street in Brixton after her. This posthumous enthusiasm is not the first major reassessment of a reputation that always had something of a switchback ride. Beginning well in the 1960s, Carter saw her status go, as she put it, ‘from being a very promising young writer to being completely ignored in two novels’. At this distance those novels, the dystopian fantasies Heroes and Villains and The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman, as well as The Passion of New Eve which followed, may seem like excursions. Their successor, The Bloody Chamber, a collection of stories extrapolated from folk and fairy tales which appeared in 1979, not only restored her popularity but brought her to the wider audience her work still enjoys. It was arguably a return to the form that best suited her imagination, well described by Ian McEwan as both ‘fastidious and sensual’, by giving it constraints to work against.
For Carter ‘the really important thing’ was narrative, as she said in the introduction to Expletives Deleted, a collection of essays and reviews which appeared just after her death. Narrative power was what animated the best of her writing. According to Susannah Clapp, it was what she admired in Shakespeare, whose plays she read like novels, enjoying the ‘bland’ lines that moved the action on, such as ‘a ship has come from France.’ Like Shakespeare, Carter was adept at borrowing plots. The Bloody Chamber was not her first reworking of fairy tales and myths. Many of her characters are not exactly people. Sleeping Beauty and Red Riding Hood are at once familiar yet also fantastic, while the aerialist Fevvers in her later novel Nights at the Circus is a chimera, human only up to a never quite clarified point. Dialogue between such mutable, unhuman creatures could never be naturalistic and Carter, for whom a narrative was ‘an argument stated in fictional terms’, often presents her protagonists with their allegorical and moral values stamped on their foreheads. ‘She had less fear of the Brechtian placard,’ Clapp recalls, ‘than any writer I have met.’
Once she’d chosen to dispense with most of the apparatus of what she called ‘real novels’ of the sort in which ‘people drink tea and commit adultery,’ narrative was what remained: the beating, often bloody heart of her argument. It was the simplest of strategies, a return to the storytelling of childhood and to oral traditions that began ‘before there was such a thing even as writing’, but in the later 20th century it was also something of a high-wire act, risking bathos on the one side, forced extravaganza on the other. Francis Wyndham was not alone in feeling a certain weary exasperation, commenting of one of her books that ‘there must be less to life than this.’
Like her own Fevvers, however, Carter saw herself as committed to a death-defying act as a storyteller in descent from Scheherazade, ‘spinning another story out of the bowels of the last one’, because, as she wrote in Expletives Deleted, ‘the end of all stories, even if the writer forbears to mention it, is death.’ By the time she wrote that Carter knew she was dying but her earlier writing had rarely forborne to mention the subject. From The Magic Toyshop, in which an off-stage plane crash kills the heroine Melanie’s parents, propelling her into a lurid distortion of a childhood fantasy, to The Bloody Chamber, in which reddened teeth and claws loom up at the turn of every tale, the imminence of death pervades her work. The writer plays, she said, ‘a complicated game’ with time, suspending or reinventing it for herself and the reader. In Carter’s reconfigured fairy stories, which are perhaps her best work, it is her easiness with ‘once upon a time’, in perfect tension with her resistance to ‘happy ever after’, that lets the fictional argument blossom into startling imagery, while the narrative drives deep into the hairy fairy underbelly of the nursery.
Where it all came from was something that Carter herself sometimes wondered, finding herself ‘quite appalled’ in 1985 by the violence of some of her earlier writing. It certainly didn’t come from an exotic or overtly troubled upbringing. Born Angela Stalker in 1940 in Eastbourne, she was the daughter of a journalist father who was perhaps the original of Melanie’s, a man ‘compounded’ of ‘tweed and tobacco and type-writer ribbon’, and a mother who had been a cashier in Selfridges. As a child she was a happy evacuee who spent much of the war in Yorkshire with her grandmother and later grew up with the welfare state – ‘all that free milk and orange juice and cod liver oil’, as she put it. Even the ‘mild discomfort’ of postwar austerity was remembered with approval: ‘the fact that you were always a little bit healthily cold, and yet you had brown bread’ appealed to a temperament of which high thinking and plain living were to be enduring characteristics. After one glass of white wine had been poured, Clapp remembers ruefully, the bottle would be recorked and put back in the fridge.
Clearly Carter, who believed that ‘our lives are all about our childhoods,’ was from an early age having interesting experiences in her imagination. Many of them came to her in the cinema. After the family had settled in South London she was a regular visitor to the Tooting Granada, where her father took her with him to whatever was showing, thereby introducing her to some productively unsuitable material. But it was not just the films. The cinema itself made a permanent impression. Like its sister Granada in Woolwich, the Tooting branch has a fabulous Gothic interior created by Theodore Komisarjevsky, a theatre and opera designer and exile from Soviet Russia, whose career ricocheted between Paris, London and Stratford-on-Avon, taking in several marriages, including one to Peggy Ashcroft, on the way.
Komisarjevsky’s productions of Shakespeare startled and stimulated Stratford audiences in equal measure: like Carter he took a very particular view of what was interesting in the texts and the words always fought a losing battle against his wild expressionist sets and costumes. The Granada chain had brought him in to help them establish a brand identity to distinguish them from the Odeons with their sleek Art Deco faience tiles and monochrome exteriors. The brief was fulfilled on a scale beyond anything they could have anticipated. Komisarjevsky’s auditoria are vivid confections, part cathedral, part Fabergé egg, fantasies whose tinselly riches hint in the half-light at further depths. It was in the Granada interiors that Carter first encountered romantic fantasy set amid modern urban street life, just as it would be in her own work. Like the neo-medieval mansion where the kidnapped Fevvers is taken, on whose front the ‘raw brick showed through the ivy’, Carter’s best effects could be summed up as South Circular Gothic.
The poignancy of the postwar Outer London of her childhood echoes through The Magic Toyshop. The story is set against the decaying aspirations of ‘a high and windy suburb’ which partakes largely of Crystal Palace, in whose ‘once stately and solid streets’ the houses now ‘have the look of queuing for a great knacker’s yard’, but where in the imagination the ‘bustled daughters’ of the rising middle classes still play parlour ballads on ‘rosewood pianos antlered with candlesticks’ in ‘roast-beef coloured dining rooms’. And it is still there in Wise Children, her last novel, which takes place largely in Brixton, with its rattling trolley buses and music halls in sad decline.
Carter went to school in Balham, where she stopped working for her A levels, having been made to feel by her mother that if she wasn’t going to Oxford or Cambridge then there was no point bothering with university at all. Instead she followed her father into journalism. In the job he found for her on the Croydon Advertiser she displayed a capacity for such ‘demonic inaccuracy’ that she was soon taken off reporting and put on the features desk. She continued to write journalism all her life. As Expletives Deleted shows, she became an agile critic, adept at every length from newspaper reviews to extended essays. Her introduction to a new edition of Walter de la Mare’s Memoirs of a Midget is a subtle exploration of the idea of the novel in which one of her many surprising enthusiasms, in this case for a writer who was neither fashionable nor obviously close to her own literary concerns, is developed into a study of fiction and its effects.
The friendship with Clapp that is the spine of this volume grew out of Carter’s work for the LRB, where Clapp was an editor and Carter a valued if irregular contributor. She could deliver, Clapp recalls, ‘with equal pungency on the ANC and on Colette’, when, that is, she delivered at all. Though notoriously disinclined to housework (‘people would come in and write 1789 in the dust’), she was willing to do anything, up to and including ironing sheets, to avoid a deadline. In the course of a querulous correspondence generated by her unfavourable review of The Official Foodie Handbook in 1985, Christopher Driver made pointed reference to her ‘perpetually forthcoming’ review of his own work. The postcards that punctuate the book, each one the occasion for an excursion by Clapp into biography or reminiscence, are also sometimes laconic, even for postcards, the understatement a striking and curious contrast to the exuberance of her published work. On the back of a picture of Shakespeare with the caption ‘So I haven’t written much lately! So what? Neither has Shakespeare,’ Carter wrote: ‘Canada’s nice. Especially Montreal. Like Scandinavia with Liquor.’ Round such brief bulletins Clapp weaves an engaging and acute memoir of her friend and also of the period, now just slipping from memory into history.
A card with Charles and Diana on the front – under the caption ‘All I want for Christmas is …’ she says, ‘A divorce’; he answers, ‘I wasn’t thinking of anything that expensive’ – was sent in 1987, five years before John Major announced the ‘amicable separation’ of the royal couple. The image and the attitude are a sharp reminder of the mood of the decade that saw Carter’s reputation revive. It was, appropriately, a time when monstrous females stalked the land. Diana was the fairy-tale princess going wrong, rampaging over convention, sulking, crying, wreaking havoc and generating mythology on a scale nobody but Carter herself perhaps could have previously imagined. At the same time, as Clapp points out, it’s ‘hard to exaggerate the visceral anti-Thatcherism’ of those years. It was a violent loathing which Carter shared and in which she had unlikely bedfellows, snobs as well as misogynists. Certainly, it went far beyond politics and it turned Britain’s first female prime minister into a goggle-eyed spitting image of the wicked witch.
Fictional females grew similarly large and strange. In 1983, year of the Tories’ landslide victory, on the eve of the miners’ strike, Fay Weldon published Life and Loves of a She-Devil, with its huge and ugly heroine. The next year produced both Carter’s film The Company of Wolves, a horror story directed by Neil Jordan, in which the heroine turns into a wolf, and Nights at the Circus, whose winged protagonist is, as Carter emphasises, ‘a big girl’. Her misjudged but reiterated contempt for Penelope Fitzgerald, who won the Booker Prize in 1979, was perhaps of a piece with her feeling that these were not the times for gentleness or understatement.
Carter was, of course, a feminist writer, but as the binary oppositions of a decade characterised by exaggeration on so many fronts have receded, that seems a less satisfying description. It is the subtleties of her work that increasingly shine out, as well as the continuities with literary as much as with mythic traditions. In her twenties, during her first marriage, she decided she would after all go to university. She read English at Bristol, specialising in the medieval period. This had the advantage of keeping her largely out of the reach of literary criticism, for which she had little time: she believed in ‘taste’ rather than either Leavis’s Great Tradition, which she dismissed as the ‘eat your broccoli’ approach, or Derrida and theory, with which she was similarly impatient. ‘I’ve fallen among semioticians,’ she wrote to Clapp while teaching in Providence. ‘I haven’t got a dictionary in my flat & keep forgetting to look “hermeneutics” up in the library.’ She was surely thinking of herself as much as de la Mare when she wrote admiringly that he had ‘evaded some of the more perilous reefs of literary criticism’ and had done so in part by suggesting ‘elements of religious allegory’ in his work, ‘which is as good as putting up a “No Trespassers” sign’.
As well as a refuge from cant, the Middle Ages offered her a rich selection of such allegorical sources, figures who could be used to reveal and simultaneously conceal authorial intention. Carter was quick to exploit them. In the poem ‘Unicorn’, published in 1966, just after she finished her degree, she was already playing with myth. In this case she used the legend, as recounted by the antiquary Thomas Browne, that the unicorn can be caught only if he is lured by a virgin left alone in a wood. Carter draws the narrative out from the flattened plane of tapestry it usually inhabits, animating it with one of her first big girls, one who is ‘raw and huge and her breasts are like carrier bags;/the only virgin to be had’. The beauty of the original myth, ‘the full splendour of the unicorn’ blossoming at twilight like night-scented stock, is still there but now laced with explicit violence ‘running through ripping/ the bulging belly of the dark’, eroticism in the ‘spark of magnesium flash’ as the naked girl catches the unicorn’s eye, and a slick of broad comedy for the ending – ‘you can put your knickers back on in a minute dear.’ All the essential ingredients of her mature work are there. The conventions of medieval emblems, static yet multilayered in meaning, allow her to turn the ungainly virgin into a synecdoche of the female, all lips and teeth and nails: ‘lacquer slickly hides the claws/In my red fingertips.’
Although she seems later to have stopped writing poetry, or at least publishing it, Carter’s prose was always studded with compacted images of the kind that propel ‘Unicorn’: the ‘sequin regard’ of a cat, Fevvers’s discarded corset ‘like the pink husk of a giant prawn’, a character with eyes that are ‘no colour like a rainy day’. But while the subject matter of her own Gothic, like some of the technique, clearly grew out of the medieval, she also owed something to the less obvious influence of her other literary interests, especially Defoe – on whom Carter wrote – and Swift, both of whom excelled at similarly dense and self-reflexive images. According to Clapp, Carter liked to tell the story of her mother’s attempt to stop her from reading novels as a teenager: ‘She told me to remember what had happened to Madame Bovary.’ It is probably, as Clapp suggests, ‘too good to be completely true’ but its ironic slippage from literature to life and back again is reminiscent of Sterne. The play on physical scale to suggest metaphysical meaning, which Carter so admired in Memoirs of a Midget, is another device that fairy tales and satire have in common. ‘Actual size’ in these contexts is not, as she wrote, ‘within the realm of physiological dimension; it is the physical manifestation of an enormous difference.’ She used growth, shrinkage and flight, the suspension of the laws of nature, as they are used in Gulliver’s Travels, to reveal a truth of human nature. In the science fiction novels of the 1970s, set on flying islands that seemed to fly too far from the ground for popular taste, the landscapes are laid out with Swiftian grotesques, like the ruined chapel in The Passion of New Eve in which Zero the poet keeps his pigs ‘coated with their own muck’ and makes the women of his ménage dress piglets up in baby clothes in order to learn ‘the disciplines of motherhood’.
Carter moved back to South London in the 1980s with Mark Pearce, who became her second husband, and had a son, Alexander. After his birth she taught more and wrote less, and though her name was more widely known her work was a minority, almost a cult taste. Her face was not familiar enough for Selina Scott to recognise when gathering vox pops after the 1983 Booker Prize had been awarded to Coetzee. Carter had to explain on television that she was in fact one of the judges, at which Scott, still stumped, had to ask which one. She was never a winner herself, and thought it most unlikely she ever would be unless she wrote a ‘long novel featuring a philosophy don, his mistress and time travelling’, to be called ‘The Owl of Minerva’.
Her last novel, Wise Children, included none of these, though it rang an almost full peal of references to Shakespeare’s plays. The writing, she reported, was a struggle and she had a ‘deep conviction that when I’d finished something awful would happen’. Within a few pages of the end of the book Dora Chance, one of the twins whose story the novel tells, attempts to break the narrative off short, Scheherazade-like, explaining that much remains unexplained and always must. ‘Truthfully,’ she tells the reader while the plot is suspended, ‘these glorious pauses do, sometimes, occur in the discordant but complementary narratives of our lives and if you choose to stop the story there, at such a pause, and refuse to take it any further, then you can call it a happy ending.’ The narrative, however, continues after the pause and the awful thing Carter dreaded had happened by the time the book appeared. She was diagnosed with lung cancer and died the following year. ‘The fin’, as she put it, had ‘come rather early’ in that siècle, while in the next her reputation goes on to the more enduring kind of fame.