Breaking the Spell

For Angela Carter, literature had the power to upend the fictions that regulate our world.

By Namara Smith (from The Nation)

The title story in Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber, the collection of reimagined fairy tales that contains her best-known work, is based on the legend of Bluebeard. Carter updates the story’s setting to the late 19th century—the widowed husband smokes Cuban cigars, the young wife wears a Poiret shift to dinner—but otherwise retains its traditional contours. The familiar plot unfolds with a sense of inevitability, as if every action were preordained. The heroine drifts through the story like a sleepwalker, hypnotized by her husband’s “heavy, fleshy composure,” the rhythmic motion of the train that carries her to his castle in Brittany, the scent of the lilies that fill her bridal suite. Even when she discovers the bodies of his previous wives laid out in a gruesome tableau and it becomes clear that she is his next victim, the mood remains dreamlike.

The spell isn’t broken until the story’s final pages. In the 17-century version of the fairy tale by Charles Perrault, the bride is saved by her brothers-in-law; in Carter’s, it’s her mother, a military widow who comes galloping up the causeway, armed and dangerous, just as the killer is about to cut off the young wife’s head. Carter narrates his reaction with a typical flourish: “The puppet master, open-mouthed, wide-eyed, impotent at the last, saw his dolls break free of their strings, abandon the rituals he had ordained for them since time began and start to live for themselves; the king, aghast, witnesses the revolt of his pawns.” His authority shattered, the husband is reduced to “one of those clockwork tableaux of Bluebeard that you see in glass cases at fairs.”

Variations on this scene—the moment when the strings are cut and a familiar story suddenly veers off course—recur throughout Carter’s fiction. The strongest emotions in her work are elicited by the prospect of a leap into the unknown, the event that could not be predicted or controlled. Unlike many writers shaped by the upheaval of the 1960s, Carter never disavowed the politics of that period or treated them as a temporary madness; she remained committed, throughout her life, to the possibility of radical change. Her novels tend to conclude with either a wild party, an act of violent destruction, or a combination of the two. Although her fiction drew heavily on traditional folklore, she saw herself as being in “the demythologizing business.” Myths, Carter asserted, are “extraordinary lies designed to make people unfree,” and she adopted their conventions in order to blow them up. At the end of her second book, The Magic Toyshop, a Gothic reworking of Paradise Lost, the two main characters look at each other “in a wild surmise” as their house burns to the ground. “Nothing is left but us,” the heroine says. She doesn’t seem unhappy about it.

As Edmund Gordon emphasizes in his new biography, The Invention of Angela Carter, the allure of remaking oneself remained a constant throughout her life. Her notebooks and letters are filled with plans for self-improvement projects: to learn Gaelic as well as “the French they speak in France”; to work out how to “live off the land”; to dye her hair a different color; to redo the kitchen. Carter was enthralled by fashion, particularly its potential to antagonize others. At her first job—reporting for a local newspaper—she wore green lipstick until her colleagues complained. Decades later, when she bought her first house, she painted the outside blood red.

In the journal she kept as a young woman, Carter wrote a sentence from André Breton’s First Surrealist Manifesto over and over: “The marvellous alone is beautiful. The MARVELLOUS alone is beautiful. The marvellous ALONE is beautiful.” She loved storms, pyrotechnics, circuses. When she was 30, she moved to Tokyo to live with a Japanese man she had met and fallen in love with six months earlier. Two years later, after the relationship dissolved (she’d found another woman’s lipstick on his underwear), she returned to London alone. Carter knew they weren’t compatible, she told a friend, when she made him take her to a fireworks display and he was bored by it. Who could be bored by fireworks? (read the full review at The Nation)

“Pussy” – a musical adaptation of Angela Carter.

Pussy is a musical adaptation of Angela Carter’s radio play and short story Puss-in-Boots from her well-known collection of short stories, The Bloody Chamber. Carter’s genius was to unfurl the feline raunchiness implicit in Charles Perrault’s tale. The outcome is high comedy and the target it hits is the male chauvinism imprisoning human sexuality. The show presents sexual intrigue and seduction as seen through the eyes of a talking, booted, dilettante cat.

This musical version of Carter’s radio play and short story, ‘Puss-in-Boots’, commemorates the 25th anniversary since her death. This extravaganza is a blend of Perrault’s fairytale (translated by Carter), commedia dell’ arte and Figaro from the operas by Mozart and Rossini. The music captures the prose of such antics as his somersaulting holding a full wine-glass and speaking in French, the language closest to a purr. Music and lyrics have a feline quality. The ribald cynicism of the tom-cat protagonist expresses Carter’s radical treatment of traditional fairytales, which expose gender issues still relevant today.

Angela Carter was one of the greatest writers of the twentieth century, best known for her transformations of the fairy tale. She also wrote a libretto for an opera and published the children’s book, Comic and Curious Cats (1979). Around five of her nine novels were written while she was living in Clifton, Bristol during the 1960s and where she studied English at the University of Bristol. This entertainment promises to capture her subversive humour and to introduce or re-acquaint audiences with her highly original and wicked imagination.

 

The life and work of Angela Carter [timeline]

Award-winning author Angela Carter is widely viewed as one of the great modern English writers. Known for her use of magic realism and picaresque prose, Carter’s writing style reflected the world around her, capturing 1960s counterculture and second wave feminism.

The timeline below, created from The Invention of Angela Carter: A Biography, highlights key moments from Carter’s life and career, from her personal life, to her monumental time spent living in Tokyo, to her professional achievements. Carter’s lead a life filled with intensity and turmoil, all the while pioneering literary genres and becoming a feminist icon.

Angela Carter’s Feminist Mythology

By  for The New Yorker

The English novelist Angela Carter is best known for her 1979 book “The Bloody Chamber,” which is a kind of updating of the classic European fairy tales. This does not mean that Carter’s Little Red Riding Hood chews gum or rides a motorcycle but that the strange things in those tales—the werewolves and snow maidens, the cobwebbed caves and liquefying mirrors—are made to live again by means of a prose informed by psychoanalysis and cinema and Symbolist poetry. In Carter’s version of “Beauty and the Beast,” retitled “The Tiger’s Bride,” the beast doesn’t change into a beauty. The beauty is changed into a beast, a beautiful one, by means of one of the more memorable sex acts in twentieth-century fiction. At the end of the tale, the heroine is ushered, naked, into the beast’s chamber. He paces back and forth:

I squatted on the wet straw and stretched out my hand. I was now within the field of force of his golden eyes. He growled at the back of his throat, lowered his head, sank on to his forepaws, snarled, showed me his red gullet, his yellow teeth. I never moved. He snuffed the air, as if to smell my fear; he could not.

Slowly, slowly he began to drag his heavy, gleaming weight across the floor towards me.

A tremendous throbbing, as of the engine that makes the earth turn, filled the little room; he had begun to purr. . . .

He dragged himself closer and closer to me, until I felt the harsh velvet of his head against my hand, then a tongue, abrasive as sandpaper. “He will lick the skin off me!”

And each stroke of his tongue ripped off skin after successive skin, all the skins of a life in the world, and left behind a nascent patina of shiny hairs. My earrings turned back to water and trickled down my shoulders; I shrugged the drops off my beautiful fur.

Imagine that: a great, warm, wet, abrasive tongue licking off skin after skin, down to the bottommost one, which starts to sprout shiny little animal hairs.

Because Carter took on fairy tales, she was sometimes pigeonholed as a “white witch,” the sort of person who reads Tarot cards and believes that the earth speaks to her. It didn’t help that she favored an outré look, with long, flowing skirts and, in her late years, a great, disorderly mane of white hair. (Andrew Motion said she looked like “someone who’d been left out in a hurricane.”) So it’s good to see that “The Invention of Angela Carter” (Oxford), by Edmund Gordon, a lecturer in English at King’s College London, is a notably levelheaded book. The first thorough account of Carter’s life, it is an authorized biography—Gordon had the coöperation of Carter’s intimates, and access to her letters and diaries. It shows the faults endemic to that genre: too much detail, together with a suspicious vagueness about family members who are still alive. But it reclaims Carter from the fairy kingdom and places her within what sounds like a real life. Unsurprisingly, we find out that the white witch cared about her reviews and sales.

Carter was born in 1940 and grew up in a quiet, middle-class suburb of London, the second child of a straitlaced mother, Olive—she turned off the TV if a divorced actor came on the screen—and a father, Hugh, who was the night editor of London’s Press Association. Both parents spoiled Angela outrageously. She was crammed with treats, bombarded with kittens and storybooks. Her mother never put her to bed until after midnight, when Hugh got back from work—she wanted her company—and, even then, often let her stay up. Hugh brought home long rolls of white paper from the office for her, and as her parents chatted she wrote stories in crayon.

She grew to be a tall, pudgy child, with a stammer. Between those disadvantages and extreme shyness, which she covered with an aloof and frosty manner, she had few friends. Olive redoubled her attentions. Angela was not allowed to dress herself, or to go to the bathroom alone. Finally, she rebelled, went on a diet, and changed from a fat, obliging girl to a skinny, rude girl. She slouched around in short skirts and fishnet stockings, smoking and saying offensive things to her mother.

She was a good student, though, in a good school. The 1944 Butler Act, riding the same democratic wave as the American G.I. Bill, provided grants for gifted children from regular backgrounds to go to élite private schools. Carter, as an adult, had a theory that this created Britain’s first real intelligentsia, a group of people who had no interest in using education to maintain the class system but who simply wanted to operate in a world of ideas. If so, she was one of them. Her teachers urged her to apply to Oxford. Olive, hearing this, pronounced it an excellent idea, and said that she and Hugh would take an apartment there, to be close to her. Angela thereupon dropped all thought of going to university. Marriage, she realized, would be the only way to escape her parents.

Through her father’s connections, she got a job as a reporter. She started writing record reviews and liner notes and getting involved in London’s music scene. In an independent record store, she met a serious-minded young man, Paul Carter, an industrial chemist who moonlighted as a producer and seller of English folk-song records. Gordon thinks that Paul was the first man to take a romantic interest in Angela. Or, as Angela put it, “I finally bumped into somebody who would . . . have sexual intercourse with me.” But Paul insisted that they get engaged first, and so Angela found herself, at twenty, a married woman.

They seem to have been happy at the beginning. Paul taught Angela to love English folk music, thereby giving her a great gift. The folk iconography, in time, offered her an escape hatch from the rather gray realism dominant in British fiction of the period. Folklore also presented her with a set of emotions that, while releasing her, eventually, from sixties truculence, nevertheless felt true, not genteel.

But soon the marriage was failing. Paul suffered engulfing depressions. Sometimes he and Angela barely spoke for days. She felt swollen with unexpressed emotion. “I want to touch him all the time, with my hands & my mouth,” she wrote in her diary. “(Poor luv, it annoys him.)” The note of sarcasm here is interesting. Through some miracle, Angela, who had little sexual self-confidence—she once described herself as “a great, lumpy, butch cow . . . titless and broadbeamed”—did not allow Paul’s withdrawal to demoralize her. She wanted to save herself. On her twenty-second birthday, her Uncle Cecil, knowing that she was unhappy, invited her to lunch at an Italian restaurant and told her to apply to university. As she recalled, he said to her, “If you’ve got a degree you can always get a job. You can leave your husband any time you want.” (read the full article at the New Yorker)

 

“Vampirella” an opera by Siobhán Cleary

A new opera by Siobhán Cleary with a libretto by Katy Hayes is based on theon the radio play of the same name by Angela Carter and also uses material from her related short story The Lady of the House of Love from the Bloody Chamber.

Presented by the Royal Irish Academy of Music in collaboration with The Lir National Academy of Dramatic Art at Trinity College Dublin in Dublin’s Smock Alley Theatre from 23-25 March 2017 (preview 21 March). The following is a short interview with the composer about the opera. (from the Contemporary Music Centre)

Vampirella is based on a short story by Angela Carter about an English soldier and a vampire countess. What drew you to this story and basing the opera on the vampire myth?

Vampirella is based primarily on the radio play of the same name by Angela Carter and also uses material from her related short story The Lady of the House of Love from the Bloody Chamber. What attracted me initially was the musicality of the narrative, the rhythm and cadences of Carter’s rich lush language. I was also attracted by the integration of romance and gothic horror. It is a fairytale romance based on Sleeping Beauty which assimilates the myth of Dracula’s daughter who is trapped in a lonely castle in the Carpathian mountains. I like my opera to be escapist, even fantastical, so this had all the elements I was looking for and more besides.

The opera also takes place against the backdrop of the First World War. How important is it in the overall plot of the opera?

The First World War is the real life horror that Hero ultimately succumbs to after managing to escape mostly intact from being the prey of the beautiful vampire queen. The bloodlust and the destructive compulsions of the count and countess and the ghostly chorus are an allegory for the savage carnage of young men that was WWI. Not sure how much of a plot spoiler this is!

The story was adapted for libretto by Katy Hayes. Did you collaborate closely together on this?

Yes this was a very close collaboration. And all the more worthwhile and fulfilling for it! We spent hours pouring over aspects of the text, exchanging ideas and Katy really did an excellent job with providing what I needed. When the libretto was done it felt my work has half way complete. I enjoyed working so closely with someone who had already a deep knowledge of this play (she previously adapted Vampirella and the Company of Wolves for a production in 1995 with a score by Raymond Deane) .

How would you characterise your approach to composing the music for the opera and setting the text?

I read and reread the play and story and once I got the libretto I almost learned it off by heart so that I could really get a deep understanding of the language and the rhythms of the text. I spent months doing that and forming some sort of structure for the opera. Then really it just poured out of me. The only times I got stuck is when I had got too tired to write anything more down. But it really did flow out of me which I hope is a good sign. It’s certainly a good sign of the material I had to work with. Otherwise I’m as mystified as anyone about the process of composition!

(read the full interview here)

Preview of Siobhán Cleary’s Vampirella

Short video of rehearsals for Vampirella, an opera by Siobhán Cleary with a libretto by Katy Hayes based on the Angela Carter radio play of the same name. Presented by the Royal Irish Academy of Music in collaboration with The Lir National Academy of Dramatic Art at Trinity College Dublin in Dublin’s Smock Alley Theatre from 23-25 March 2017

‘It will fascinate Carter’s admirers’

Gordon’s book reminded me of the deep pleasures of literary biography at its best. It will fascinate Carter’s admirers…

(Max Liu in The Independent)

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At the outset, two things about The Invention of Angel Carter are surprising. The first is that we’ve waited this long for a biography of Carter who died of cancer, aged 51, in 1992. The second is that this is Edmund Gordon’s first book. Gordon, who’s one of our best young critics, has been writing perceptive articles for newspapers and literary magazines for several years, as well as teaching English at King’s College London. So on two counts this book feels overdue. On neither count does it disappoint.

Writers are “invented and reinvented” by their readers, says Gordon, long after their deaths. In Carter’s case the posthumous myth-making has “taken on a life of its own”. Her books stand “defiantly apart” from those of her contemporaries and are among the most celebrated of the past half-century. She believed that gender roles were “always a fabrication” and her work has challenged and reflected feminist thinking since the publication of her first novel, Shadow Dance, in 1966.

The popular view of Carter, however, is encapsulated by Salman Rushdie’s description of her as the “benevolent white witch” of English literature. Gordon sets out to demythologise Carter and succeeds in depicting a unique and complex figure who was serious, funny and politically engaged.

Initially, her childhood in post-war south London sounds almost idyllic. Her father took Angela and her brother to the cinema and encouraged her to become a journalist at a time when most young women were expected to get married and stay at home. However, a “deluge of parental attention” from her mother lead Angela to “place a high value on solitude” and she was isolated at school.

Her marriage to Paul Carter, a dour stalwart of the 1960s folk music scene, was miserable. That said, Angela made lifelong friends during their years living in Bristol and, by the time the couple divorced, she’d published five novels and was still only 32. She felt liberated by the breakup and travelled to Japan where she fell in love twice and found the settings for some of her best stories.

Back in England, she met her second husband, Mark Pearce, and wrote the books The Bloody Chamber (1979), Nights at the Circus(1984) and Wise Children (1991) – on which her reputation rests. Gordon explains the role of fairy tales in Carter’s work and its relation to South American magical realism. He captures her happy home life with Pearce and their son Alex and introduces a vivid cast of friends and colleagues, including the publisher Carmen Callil, Lorna Sage and Ian McEwan.

Personal taste was an important part of Carter’s literary judgements, so I don’t mind admitting that I’ve always been put off her oeuvre by the “batty kind of whimsicality” that she identified in her early writing. And yet Gordon’s book reminded me of the deep pleasures of literary biography at its best. It will fascinate Carter’s admirers, create interest in her work among a new generation and possibly even make her detractors think again.

 

Far more than magic

A biography that reassesses the writer’s legacy, emphasising purposeful choices and intellectual energy over fairy charms

(Alexandra Harris, Financial Times)

carter

In Bristol in her twenties, all in black with a Jimi Hendrix haircut under a floppy-brimmed hat, reading Freud and medieval romances in tandem, writing her first novels at phenomenal speed, Angela Carter was already acting on what she acknowledged to herself as a “need to be extraordinary”. Then she took an improbable leap from a constraining marriage to a passionate affair in Japan. She thanked her friend Carole Roffe for giving her the courage: for “prodding & pushing & propagandising me so that I took my life into my own hands”. She wanted to be author of her own story, she wanted “a bit of flash”, she wanted to experiment and to startle.

This gripping biography, brimming with new material, comes 24 years after Carter’s death and is the first full account of her life. It is not by anyone who knew her, or a feminist of her generation, but by the young literary critic Edmund Gordon, now a lecturer at King’s College London. He was granted access to 30 years’ worth of journals and mounds of correspondence, all the stores of writing and remembrance that readers have so far had to do without. He has undertaken feats of scholarship and written an admirably clear-sighted book.

The Invention of Angela Carter is much more about purposeful choices and intellectual energy than about sorcery or fairy charms. Carter’s gleeful whimsicality is here (among the Victorian bric-a-brac in her study and the circulating budgerigars) but it’s a grace note. Gordon mistrusts the tendency to mythologise Carter as a white witch of modern literature, and thinks the provocative, high-risk elements of her feminism have too often been flattened to fit political readings of her work. His response is to emphasise her exhilarating intelligence and astute wit, the complex balance between her generosity, carefulness and cruelty, the resilience she shared with the tough comic heroes she most admired, and the extreme self-consciousness she manipulated into a happier kind of self-possession.

Carter’s young life was shaped by a mother who would not let her go. She was dressed up, cosseted, watched over in ways more damaging than protective. University promised no release because, dreadfully, when Angela considered applying for Oxford, her mother spoke of coming too. Later she would keep writing (as in The Magic Toyshop) about airless Edens where innocence lasts too long. (read the full review at the FT)

Far from the fairytale

The otherworldly figure conjured after her death in 1992 doesn’t do Angela Carter justice. Her biographer Edmund Gordon attempts a more accurate portrayal of a complex, sensual and highly intellectual woman
(Edmund Gordon, The Guardian, October 2016)

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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 Carter’s 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. “I’m 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. (read the full article at the Guardian)

Unicorn

unicorna) The Unicorn
As with the night-scented stock, the full
splendour of the unicorn manifests itself most potently
at twilight. Then the horn sprouts, swells, blooms
in all its glory. SEE THE HORN
(bend the tab, slit in slot
marked ‘x’)

Despite being one of the most influential – and best-loved – of the post-war English writers, Angela Carter remains little-known as a poet. In Unicorn, the critic and historian Rosemary Hill collects together her published verse from 1963-1971, a period in which Carter began to explore the themes that dominated her later work: magic, the reworking of myths and their darker sides, and the overturning of literary and social conventions.

With imagery at times startling in its violence and disconcerting in its presentation of sexuality, Unicorn provides compelling insight into the formation of a remarkable imagination.

In the essay that accompanies the poems the critic and historian Rosemary Hill considers them in the context of Carter’s other work and as an aspect of the 1960s, the decade which as Carter put it ‘wasn’t like they say in the movies’.