‘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)

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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)

The Invention of Angela Carter

invention_angela_carterWidely acknowledged as one of the most important English writers of the last century, Angela Carter’s work stands out for its bawdiness and linguistic zest, its hospitality to the fantastical and the absurd, and its extraordinary inventiveness and range.

Her life was as vigorously modern and unconventional as anything in her fiction. This is the story of how Angela Carter invented herself – as a new kind of woman and a new kind of writer – and how she came to write such seductive and distinctive masterworks as The Bloody Chamber, Nights at the Circus and Wise Children. Edmund Gordon has followed in Angela Carter’s footsteps – travelling to the places she lived in Britain, Japan and the USA – to uncover a life rich in adventure and incident.

With unrestricted access to her manuscripts, letters and journals, and informed by interviews with Carter’s friends and family, this masterful biography offers an unrivalled portrait of one of our most dazzlingly original writers.

Edmund Gordon’s biography, The Invention of Angela Carter is published by Chatto and Windus on October 13.

Angela Carter’s taste for the fantastic

The Invention of Angela Carter: A Biography by Edmund Gordon

(review by Anne Chisholm, Prospect Magazine, September, 2016)

invention_angela_carterThe question of Angela Carter’s literary standing, both during her lifetime and since her death at the height of her powers in 1992, is not easily settled. She arrived with a bang: her first two novels, Shadow Dance (1966) and The Magic Toyshop (1967), with their electrifying prose, imaginative wildness and dark sexuality, established her as a powerful new voice in British fiction, a writer who from the start excited both admiration and unease. She went on to write or compile some 15 more books, won a prize or two, wrote a great deal of journalism and established herself as an original, unpredictable essayist and critic. Today, she is taught in schools and colleges around the world; critical studies and theses proliferate. Most of her work is in print. She has influential admirers: a new edition of her poetry appeared at the end of last year, presented by Rosemary Hill, and Christopher Frayling has recently published a book of essays built around an account of their friendship and shared interest in vampires. Now comes the first full and authorised biography, based on complete access to her personal and professional archive and help from family and friends.

From the start, Edmund Gordon presents himself as a biographer with a mission: to rescue Angela Carter from a carapace of misconceptions and myths. Since her death at the age of 51, he maintains, she has been venerated for the wrong reasons, regarded by academics and feminist theoreticians as a white witch of preternatural wisdom, her artistic genius muffled and misunderstood. The implication is that she has been more studied than enjoyed.

In most ways, this is a conventional biography, which despite starting with Carter’s death and its aftermath proceeds to tell the story of her life with only minimal traces of the modish quest approach that emphasises the biographer’s own adventures along the way. Instead, the quest in this book is Carter’s journey of self-discovery, and the story Gordon tells is “of how she invented herself.” Carter showed from early on in her life a taste for the fantastic and a marked distaste for the realistic and the restrained, both in her personal style and writing. (read full review at Prospect)

The Guardian: A book to share

(The Guardian, January 2016)

book cover: The Bloody ChamberStumbling across a well-thumbed copy of Angela Carter’s 1991 novel, Wise Children, in a secondhand bookshop, I was heartened – and a little saddened – to notice that I was not alone in choosing this title as a book to share. For written inside this particular paperback was the following inscription:

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Bridget,

You often have to travel far from the self in order to truly find yourself. Your journey to these alien lands is underway now. So go out there searching for the truth and returned enriched.

You have an immense amount of talent; don’t ever let anyone tell you otherwise,

Happy travelling,

Love Phil

One can’t help feeling for poor Phil. Do I detect romantic overtones? Or something more paternal? Perhaps a parting of the ways? (Certainly, at least, a parting of the ways for Bridget and this copy of Wise Children.) Whatever the true story behind Phil’s message to Bridget may be, I am not surprised that the novel inspired such an earnest and heartfelt inscription, because Wise Children – Carter’s last and greatest novel – is a book I have forced upon friends and family members over the years and never fail to recommend if asked. I return to it every year or so, always to find myself newly impressed by its brilliance. A fictionalised showbiz memoir charting the slings and arrows inflicted on two very different branches of a once-great theatrical dynasty in London (the legitimate Hazards and the illegitimate Chances), there is a passage early on which, for me, encapsulates the enduring appeal of this novel. (read the full review in the Guardian)