Shortly before Angela Carter’s death in 1992 — from lung cancer, at age 51, after a lifetime of smoking — I reviewed her last novel, the marvel-filled, magnificent “Wise Children,” a century-long saga covering the melodramatic lives and amours of an English theatrical family. Suffused throughout with a Shakespearean air of enchantment, it included an Ophelia-like mad scene, myriad echoes of “King Lear” and “The Tempest,” twins substituting for each other with lovers, knockings at the gate, rude mechanicals, a kitschy Hollywood production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” near-incest, fathers belatedly recognizing daughters, the dead returning to life and, on every page, an atmosphere of mummery and carnival where, in the end, every Jack gets his Jill and all’s right with the world — hey nonny-no! I loved it then, and still do.
Nonetheless, Edmund Gordon’s “The Invention of Angela Carter,” while an exceptionally thoughtful and engrossing biography, has left me wondering whether it’s such a good idea to read about contemporary writers one admires. In the case of Carter, Gordon traces an inner life of intense self-scrutiny, marked at times by melancholy desperation, an almost hysterical search for love, and periodic callousness toward family and friends.
Fortunately, Carter mellowed out when she entered her late 30s, found domestic tranquility with a younger man and began to produce her best work, notably the revisionist fairy tales of “The Bloody Chamber”; her controversial study of pornography, “The Sadeian Woman”; and her over-the-top masterpiece, “Nights at the Circus,” a magic-realist novel chronicling the life of that rumbustious “Helen of the High Wires,” the one and only Fevvers, an aerialist with real wings.
Born Angela Stalker in 1940, Carter grew up in a middle-class household, intensely loved and thoroughly spoiled. She once observed that her father — the night editor for a newspaper — “did not prepare me well for patriarchy. He was putty in my hands throughout my childhood.” Her mother, however, could be smothering, and Angela soon longed for freedom. In her teens she began to dress outrageously, wearing wide-brimmed hats, hippie-ish dresses and black fishnet stockings, partly as a way to disguise her innate shyness and insecurity. One afternoon at a record shop she met an industrial chemist named Paul Carter who was prone to depression and deeply passionate about folk music. They were married in 1960, when Angela was 19.
During the subsequent decade, Angela and Paul lived in Bristol, where she studied English at the local university, hung out with a free-spirited crowd and quickly grew more politically conscious, especially of England’s entrenched class divisions. She also read widely — Nabokov and Borges were her two favorite contemporary authors — and began to work on her first short stories, followed by a novel, the often brutal “Shadow Dance.” She described this account of rape, facial scarring and murder as a black comedy. It was published in 1966.
In the next few years Carter turned out “The Magic Toyshop,” “Several Perceptions” and “Heroes and Villains,” and was increasingly acclaimed a leading young novelist. When she received the Somerset Maugham Award, which is to be used for foreign travel, she decided to visit Japan. There, Carter fell madly in love with a Japanese man, brusquely divorced her surprised husband and, once she returned to England, began to live a life free of “engulfment” by others, including the bad-boy “nutters” she often took up with. In the subsequent five years she published the hallucinatory dystopia “The Infernal Desire Machines of Dr. Hoffman” (a.k.a. “The War of Dreams”) and the phantasmagoric extravaganza “The Passion of New Eve,” which features a transgender protagonist. Somewhat to her annoyance, Carter gradually found herself acclaimed a feminist icon, an amalgam of white witch and earth-mother.
As Gordon, a lecturer at King’s College London, repeatedly points out, any hard-line view of Carter as a champion of gender politics diminishes her as a writer. She was, he stresses, never ideologically pure and “never saw the oppression of women as categorically different from other forms of oppression.” As Carter herself complained at the end of her life, “I had no intention . . . of writing illustrative textbooks of late feminist theory to be used in institutions of education and the thought that I’m taught in universities makes me feel rather miserable.”
Today, I wonder if she is spinning in her grave. Carter’s shock treatment of classic fairy tales, in which she spotlights their sexual underpinnings, has made such stories as “The Company of Wolves,” “The Courtship of Mr. Lyon” and “The Bloody Chamber” her defining works for many readers, to the detriment of the more high-spirited and romantic “Nights at the Circus” and “Wise Children.” Not that she ever hesitated to attack sexism. On a personal level, she certainly grew resentful that the “boys”— notably Ian McEwan and her friend Salman Rushdie — were getting all the awards and big advances. Despite the brilliance of her imagination and the gorgeousness of her prose, none of Carter’s books was ever shortlisted for the Booker Prize.
Though constantly reinventing herself, Angela Carter seldom comes across in these pages as happy in her skin, even if friends repeatedly testify to her outward warmth and generosity. She was, however, unquestionably hard-working, cranking out scores of reviews (some for The Washington Post) and regularly teaching at various universities (not very well, I think). She could also be funny. After her son was born, she observed, “You don’t know anything about unrequited love until you’ve had children.” As I finished Edmund Gordon’s admirable biography, it struck me that Carter’s constant refrain of love — yearned for and lost — as well as her use of symbolic autobiography in her fiction and a general approach to life as performance, reminded me of just one other great and daring 20th-century writer: Colette.
Michael Dirda reviews books on Thursday in Style.
March 25 at 6 p.m., Edmund Gordon will be at Politics and Prose, 5015 Connecticut Ave. NW, Washington, DC.
By Edmund Gordon
Oxford. 525 pp. $35