I would really like to have had the guts and the energy and so on to be able to write about, you know, people having battles with the DHSS. But I haven't. They're dull things. I mean, I'm an arty person. OK, I write overblown, purple, self-indulgent prose. So f**king what?
Angela Carter was born Angela Olive Stalker on May 7, 1940 in Eastbourne, Sussex. During her childhood she was evacuated to Yorkshire to live with her grandmother, and as a teenager she suffered from anorexia for many years.
Carter’s first writing job, aged 19, was as a journalist for the Croydon Advertiser. In 1960 she married Paul Carter, and in 1962 she left the newspaper to read English literature at the University of Bristol. Her first novel, Shadow Dance, was published in 1966, just one year after finishing her degree. The Magic Toyshop (1967) won the John Llewellyn Rice prize, and Several Perceptions (1968) won the Somerset Maugham Award.
In 1969, Carter divorced her husband and moved to Japan for two years. She was often enigmatic about her life, but did famously reveal that during this time abroad as a newly single, successful young writer she “learnt what it is to be a woman, and became radicalised”. She continued to write prolifically over the next few years, whilst holding a succession of academic posts at the Universities of Sheffield and East Anglia in Britain, Brown University in the USA, and the University of Adelaide in Australia. Meanwhile, she began a relationship with Mark Pearce, whom she married in 1977. They had one son, Alexander, born in 1983.
In 1978 came one of her masterworks, a non-fiction discussion of the writings of the Marquis de Sade called ‘The Sadeian Woman’. A thesis of her passionate belief that women should never accept the position of victim, it riled many feminists who were incredulous that she could defend such a monster. The following year saw the publication of The Bloody Chamber, a short story collection based around well known fairy and folktales; she was emphatic that they were not ‘adult versions’, but re-imaginings of the dark themes inherent in the original stories.
The novels Nights at the Circus (1984), and Wise Children (1991) represent Carter at her hilarious best, telling the delightful tales of a winged aerialist and the illegitimate twins of a great Shakespearean actor respectively. When Nights at the Circus failed to be shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1984 there was an outcry among critics.
Over the course of her career, Carter wrote novels, short stories, poetry, journalism, children’s books and plays; she also adapted The Magic Toyshop and her short story ‘The Company of Wolves’ for the cinema.
Carter was diagnosed with lung cancer in 1991, and she died on February 16, 1992, aged just 51. At the time of her death she was working on a sequel to Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, telling the story of Mr Rochester’s ward, Adele.
Nostalgia, the vice of the aged. We watch so many old movies our memories come in monochrome. (Wise Children)
Helen Simpson reads Carter’s short story The Kitchen Child
Further reflections on Angela Carter, by Bryony Bell
"My mother learned that she was carrying me at about the same time the Second World War was declared; with the family talent for magic realism, she once told me she had been to the doctor's on the very day."
Even before her visit to Japan, but more overtly after it, Carter’s writing was brazenly feminist and openly political. Her early works might be classed as science fiction, but matured into a more earthy sense of the incredible. She had great admiration for Gabriel Garcia Marquez, the master of magical realism, and is now herself recognised as a leading figure of the genre.
"In a secular age, an authentic miracle must purport to be a hoax, in order to gain credit in the world."
Carter’s passions are vibrantly present in her writing. She loved cinema, carnival and performance; the stark contrast between onstage and off. Her favourite film, Marcel Cerne’s Les Enfants du Paradis (1945), plays with character, with makeup, with stage personae, love and tragedy just as her novels do.
"Strangers used to gather together at the cinema and sit together in the dark, like Ancient Greeks participating in the mysteries, dreaming the same dream in unison."
Her characters are bright, oversized, performers; they hover somewhere between the light and the dark. She is fascinated by the human made strange, by the divide between the real and unreal, by in between spaces between states, between sexualities, between waking and sleep, dream and nightmare. She draws many versions of femininity, embracing victims, tyrants, beauties, beasts, lovers, the fantastic and the meek.
"Art need no longer be an account of past sensations. It can become the direct organization of more highly evolved sensations. It is a question of producing ourselves, not things that enslave us."
Carter has both translated the traditional fairy tales of Charles Perrault, written her own new take on well-known stories in The Bloody Chamber (1979) and created her own books of new fairy tales for children in 1990, 1991 and 1992. Her full length novels draw on similar themes of dark magic and gothic horror, as well as classical mythology, the mediaeval texts she studied at university - the bawdiness and rich language of Chaucer is frequently present - through to Shakespeare and modern life. Her writing can be hysterically funny, bitingly cruel, honest even when it speaks of the impossible. She described herself as fascinated by “the smell of dirt, poverty and graveclothes,” (Shadow Dance, 1966) particularly in her early work.
Certain themes and characters recur. Shamans, automata, puppets, hermaphrodites, lesbians, burning houses - she tells us that houses represent mothers in her fiction, and are destroyed in order that girls can reach maturity, characters playing other characters, vampires, werewolves, freaks; all return again and again, reminding us of a dark, unsettling world of magic that lingers a little too close for comfort on the fringe of our reality.
"Reading a book is like re-writing it for yourself. You bring to a novel, anything you read, all your experience of the world. You bring your history and you read it in your own terms."
In Japan, Carter recognised her own powers to create the world in her own fashion. “I attempted to rebuild the city according to the blueprint in my imagination as a backdrop to the plays in my puppet universe, but it sternly refused to be so rebuilt” (Fireworks, 1974). In her fiction, unlike the real world, she found ultimate power to build according to her own blueprint and to wield her own puppets. At the same time, she talks of learning to observe her own experience, to distance herself from events in order to feel them; Walser’s journey from journalistic scepticism to ignorance to a new sense of self follows a similar path, a ‘hatching out’ from his shell into a man worthy of Fevvers.
"To pin your hopes upon the future is to consign those hopes to a hypothesis, which is to say, a nothingness. Here and now is what we must contend with."
There is relatively little known about the everyday aspects of Carter’s life, or the specifics of her experiences in Japan. She disliked interviews and public appearances, but enjoyed performing her work for an audience. One of her last interviews on BBC radio in 1991 can be heard here, and there is a great range of critical writing to guide new readers to more detail of her work.