March 16, 2016

Women of Doubt: Angela Carter and the Beasts Within

Source: The Telegraph

In 2008, The Times ranked Angela Carter tenth on their list of the "50 Greatest British Writers Since 1945".  This ranking put her in the company of George Orwell (2), Ted Hughes (4), and J.R.R. Tolkien (6). It placed her ahead of C.S. Lewis (11) and Roald Dahl (16).

For a writer so highly regard, she's surprisingly absent from mainstream discussions of genre fiction. Despite this absence, she's had a profound influence on a wide range of popular authors:

...though Carter never broke into the mainstream, an incomplete list of her devotees includes Salman Rushdie, Joyce Carol Oates, Jonathan Lethem, Neil Gaiman, Margaret Atwood, Jeannette Winterson, Tea Obreht, Rick Moody, and Ian McEwan. 3

Carter is "known for her feminist, magical realism, and picaresque works." 1 Her rich re-imaginings of classic fairy tales evoke a talented hand prose, while giving hints of one of the trends we've seen in popular culture over the last decade. She "reformulated" such classic tales as Red Riding Hood, Snow White, and Beauty and the Beast well before modern fiction began to revisit these classic stories.

So who was she? Let's take a look.

The Woman Behind the Words

On May 7, 1940, Angela Carter was born Angela Olive Stalker in Eastbourne, England. 1 As a child, she was evacuated with her grandmother to Yorkshire to avoid German attacks during World War II, and there she struggled for some years as a teen with anorexia. 2

She went on to attend Streatham & Clapham High School before securing her first writing position with the Croydon Advertiser "where she worked as a journalist", following in the footsteps of her father. 1, 2 She would go on to attend the University of Bristol, obtaining a degree in English Literature. 2

In 1960, she married Paul Carter. 2 1966 saw the publishing of her first novel, Shadow Dance. She followed this up with breathtaking rapidity, with The Magic Toyshop following in 1967, Several Perceptions in 1968, and Heroes and Villains in 1969. 1 In 1969, after nine years of marriage, she also left her husband, relying on the money "which she had won through the Somerset Maugham Award." 2

After the end of her marriage, she resided in Tokyo for two years, an invaluable experience:

Her experience in Japan was immortalized in 1974 in Fireworks: Nine Profane Pieces, a series of short stories, as well as in her book, The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman which was written in 1972. 2

Her time in Japan came to an end, and Carter spent the following years writing at various universities in Europe and the United States, including Brown University in the U.S., the University of Adelaide in Australia, and the University of East Anglia in England. 2

In 1972, Carter remarried to a man named Mark Pearce, and together they had one son. 2

On February 16, 1992, Carter passed away after a short battle with lung cancer. She was fifty one years old.

Shades of Meaning

Carter once wrote in The Sadeian Woman, "Polemical Preface":

Mother goddesses are just as silly a notion as father gods. If a revival of the myths of these cults gives woman emotional satisfaction, it does so at the price of obscuring the real conditions of life. This is why they were invented in the first place. 4

And yet, she herself dealt in a world of magical realities that was far from "real conditions". As Brian McGreevy points out:

Capturing “real life” held no interest for Carter; in fact she believed the intentional artifice of fiction was not a slave to reality but had the power to change it. 3

One of the works most often mentioned when discussing Carter is her collection of fairy tales, The Bloody Chamber. Writing for The Guardian, Helen Simpson said this:

The Bloody Chamber is often wrongly described as a group of traditional fairy tales given a subversive feminist twist. In fact, these are new stories, not re-tellings. As Angela Carter made clear, "My intention was not to do 'versions' or, as the American edition of the book said, horribly, 'adult' fairy tales, but to extract the latent content from the traditional stories and to use it as the beginnings of new stories." She knew from the start that she was drawn to "Gothic tales, cruel tales, tales of wonder, tales of terror, fabulous narratives that deal directly with the imagery of the unconscious". She drew a sharp distinction between what she described as "those fragments of epiphanic experience which are the type of the 20th-century story", and the "ornate, unnatural" style and symbolism of her favoured form, the tale. When, in her second collection, The Bloody Chamber, she continued in this Gothic mode but with narratives suggested by traditional west European fairy tales, she found she had conjured up an exotic new hybrid that would carry her voice to a wider audience than it had reached before. 5

In perhaps less academic terms, another author says:

On the surface, the conceit of The Bloody Chamber is simple: Carter takes familiar fairy-tales and folkloric tropes and “reformulates” them — her wording – into stylistically distinct word fugues that make the erotic subtext of the source material into hot-ass text. Or, as she has said: “I am all for putting new wine in old bottles, especially if the new wine makes the old bottles explode.” 3
Simpson describes Carter further:

Carter was an abstract thinker with an intensely visual imagination. What she liked about the short story form was (as she wrote in the Afterword to her first collection Fireworks) that "sign and sense can fuse to an extent impossible to achieve among the multiplying ambiguities of an extended narrative". She found that "though the play of surfaces never ceased to fascinate me, I was not so much exploring them as making abstractions from them". It comes as no surprise to find that she particularly admired Baudelaire and the 19th-century Symbolist poets, and also much 20th-century French surrealist and structuralist writing. The Bloody Chamber is packed with signs, symbols and signifiers. Ironically, though, the two Frenchmen who stand as true fairy godfathers to this collection lived in earlier centuries. 5


Angela Carter's works are a fascinating look at the subtext behind the fairy tales we all know and love. Her descriptions and prose are immeasurably intense and enjoyable. It is, in short, what I'd call a wild ride.

I strongly believe in exploring our more baser instincts. On a very real level, we're another branch of the animal kingdom, but we're the only ones (that we know of) with the ability to scrutinize our desires, to play them out in a safe field. Angela Carter's works are a beautiful way of doing so.

McGreevy touches on this too:

And in a sanitized, digital era when there is increasing dissonance between our NPR brains and our caveman brains with the attendant mass neurosis, Angela’s Carter’s celebration of the gross excellence of our animal selves is only becoming more relevant. 3

In 1984, Neil Jordan adapted Carter's story "The Company of Wolves" into a film that includes this very apt line: "If there's a beast in men, it meets its match in women too."

Take a walk on your wild side.


1  "Angela Carter". Wikipedia. <> Accessed March 16, 2016.

2  "Biography of Angela Carter". <> Accessed March 16, 2016.

3  McGreevy, Brian. "The Feminist Horror Author You Need to Read Immediately". Vulture. <> Published July 23, 2014. Accessed March 16, 2016.

4  "Positive Atheism's Big List of Quotes". <> Accessed March 16, 2016.

5  Simpson, Helen. "Femme fatale". The Guardian. <> Published June 24, 2006. Accessed March 16, 2016.

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