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)

 

Burning Your Boats

book cover: Burning Your Boats This volume presents Carter’s considerable legacy of short fiction gathered from published books, and includes early and previously unpublished stories. From reflections on jazz and Japan, through vigorous refashionings of classic folklore and fairy tales, to stunning snapshots of modern life in all its tawdry glory, we are able to chart the evolution of Carter’s marvelous, magical vision.

1995


Burning Your Boats: The Collected Short Stories
9780099592914

Black Venus

book cover: Black Venus Black Venus (also published as Saints and Strangers), is an anthology of short fiction. Angela Carter takes real people and literary legends – most often women – who have been mythologized or marginalized and recasts them in a new light. In a style that is sensual, cerebral, almost hypnotic, “The Fall River Axe-Murders” portrays the last hours before Lizzie Borden’s infamous act: the sweltering heat, the weight of flannel and corsets, the clanging of the factory bells, the food reheated and reserved despite the lack of adequate refrigeration, the house “full of locked doors that open only into other rooms with other locked doors.” In “Our Lady of the Massacre” the no-nonsense voice of an eighteenth-century prostitute/runaway slave questions who is civilized – the Indians or the white men? “Black Venus” gives voice to Charles Baudelaire’s Creole mistress, Jeanne Duval: “you could say, not so much that Jeanne did not understand the lapidary, troubled serenity of her lover’s poetry but, that it was a perpetual affront to her. He recited it to her by the hour and she ached, raged and chafed under it because his eloquence denied her language.” “The Kiss” takes the traditional story of Tamburlaine’s wife and gives it a new and refreshing ending. Sometimes disquieting, sometimes funny, always thought-provoking, Angela Carter’s stories offer a feminist revision of images that lie deep in the public psyche.

1985


Black Venus
9780099480716

Angela Carter’s Book of Fairy Tales

fairyOnce upon a time fairy tales weren’t meant just for children, and neither is Angela Carter’s Book of Fairy Tales. This stunning collection contains lyrical tales, bloody tales and hilariously funny and ripely bawdy stories from countries all around the world- from the Arctic to Asia – and no dippy princesses or soppy fairies. Instead, we have pretty maids and old crones; crafty women and bad girls; enchantresses and midwives; rascal aunts and odd sisters. This fabulous celebration of strong minds, low cunning, black arts and dirty tricks could only have been collected by the unique and much-missed Angela Carter. Illustrated throughout with original woodcuts.

2005

Angela Carter
Angela Carter’s Book of Fairy Tales
9781844081738

Wise Children

book cover: Wise ChildrenIn their heyday on the vaudeville stages of  the early twentieth century, Dora Chance and her twin sister, Nora–unacknowledged daughters of Sir Melchior Hazard, the greatest Shakespearean actor of his day–were known as the Lucky Chances, with private lives as colorful and erratic as their careers. But now, at age 75, Dora is typing up their life story, and it is a tale indeed that Angela Carter tells. A writer known for the richness of her imagination and wit as well as her feminist insights into matters large and small, she created in Wise Children an effervescent family saga that manages to celebrate the lore and magic of show business while also exploring the connections between parent and child, the transitory and the immortal, authenticity and falsehood.

1991


Wise Children
9780099981107

The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman

book cover: The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor HoffmanThe transformation of Desiderio’s city into a mysterious kingdom is instantaneous: Hallucination flows with magical speed in every brain; avenues and plazas are suddenly as fertile as fairy-book forests. And the evil comes, too, as imaginary massacres fill the streets with blood, the dead return to question the living, and profound anxiety drives hundreds to suicide.

Behind it all stands Doctor Hoffman, whose gigantic generators crack the immutable surfaces of time and space and plunge civilization into a world without the chains – or structures – of reason. Only Desiderio, immune to mirages and fantasy, can defeat him. But Desiderio’s battle will take him to the very brink of undeniable, irresistible desire.

1972


The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman
9780141192390

The Magic Toyshop

book cover: The Magic ToyshopOne night Melanie walks through the garden in her mother’s wedding dress. The next morning her world is shattered. Forced to leave the comfortable home of her childhood, she is sent to London to live with relatives she has never met: Aunt Margaret, beautiful and speechless, and her brothers, Francie, whose graceful music belies his clumsy nature, and the volatile Finn, who kisses Melanie in the ruins of the pleasure gardens. And brooding Unlce Philip loves only the life-sized wooden puppets he creates in his toyshop. This classic gothic novel established Angela Carter as one of our most imaginative writers and augurs the themes of her later creative work.

1967


The Magic Toyshop
9780860681908

Nights at the Circus

book cover: Nights at the CircusSophi Fevvers—the toast of Europe’s capitals, courted by the Prince of Wales, painted by Toulouse-Lautrec—is an aerialiste extraordinaire, star of Colonel Kearney’s circus. She is also part woman, part swan. Jack Walser, an American journalist, is on a quest to discover Fevvers’s true identity: Is she part swan or all fake?

Dazzled by his love for Fevvers, and desperate for the scoop of a lifetime, Walser joins the circus on its tour. The journey takes him—and the reader—on an intoxicating trip through turn-of-the-century London, St. Petersburg, and Siberia—a tour so magical that only Angela Carter could have created it.

First published: 1984


Nights at the Circus
9780099388616