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by Bamber Gascoigne

Angela (Olive) Carter (1940-1992)


English short story writer, novelist, journalist, dramatist and critic. Angela Carter was a notable exponent of magic realism, adding into it Gothic themes, postmodernist eclecticism, violence, and eroticism. Throughout her career, Carter utilized the language and characteristic motifs of the fantasy genre. "A good writer can make you believe time stands still," she once said. Carter completed nine novels. She died in 1992 at the age of fifty-one.

"The summer she was fifteen, Melanie discovered she was made of flesh and blood. O, my America, my new found land. She embarked on a tranced voyage, exploring the whole of herself, clambering her own mountain ranges, penetrating the moist richness of her secret valleys, a physiological Cortez, da Gama or Mungo Park." (from The Magic Toyshop, published by Heinemann, 1967)

Angela Olive Stalker was born in Eastbourne, Sussex, the daughter of Olive (Farthing) Stalker and Hugh Alexander Stalker, a journalist. The war years she spent in South Yorkshire with her grandmother. Upon returning back home, she was pampered by her mother. Carter has described her childhood as carefree: "life passed at a languorous pace, everything was gently untidy, and none of the clocks ever told the right time". (Nothing Sacred: Selected Writings by Angela Carter, 1982, p. 14) Extremely overweight, she went on a diet: "at the start of 1958, she weighed something between 13 and 15 stone; by that summer, she was around 10 stone." ('Angela Carter: Far from the fairytale' by Edmund Gordon, The Guardian, 1 October 2016)

At the age of 20 she married Paul Carter, and moved with him to Bristol. Before starting her English studies at the University of Bristol, Carter worked for the Croydon Advertiser. She later said that her career as a junior reporter was hampered by a "demonic inaccuracy" as regards facts. "She was good at capturing the atmosphere of a court case, but would leave crucial details (such as verdicts) out of her reports." (The Invention of Angela Carter: A Biography by Edmund Gordon, 2017, p. 41) After graduating, Carter devoted herself to literary pursuits.

Shadow Dance (1966), Carter's first novel, was a kind of detective story, written during a summer vacation. The Magic Toyshop (1967) developed further the themes of sexual fantasy and revealed Carter's fascination with fairy tales and the Freudian unconscious. It tells a modern myth of an orphaned girl and the horrors she experiences, when she goes to live with her uncle and grows through a rite of passage into adulthood. The book won the Jon Llwellyn Rhys Prize in 1967. For Several Perceptions (1968) Carter received the Somerset Maugham Award.

At Bristol University, Carter became familiar with the French Symbolists and Dadaists, and with Shakespeare and medieval literature. Though Bristol was never named as the city in which Shadow Dance, Several Perceptions and Love (1971) were set, they have been labeled collectively "The Bristol Trilogy." In 1970, having separated from her husband, Carter went to live in Japan. ". . . Paul is a selfish pig, lousy in bed & shockingly insensitive . . . I don't want to see him again, ever," she said in a letter to a friend. (The Invention of Angela Carter: A Biography by Edmund Gordon, 2017, p. 142) Carter had an affair with a twenty-four-year-old Japanese man, an aspiring novelist. She recalled this period as "my First Real Affair." 

Carter took many different jobs, a bar hostess, etc., and wrote essays for New Society. The experience of a different culture had a strong influence on her work. As a feminist, she was appalled by the old-fashioned gender roles in Japan. While visiting a second-hand bookshop, Carter first came across the work of the Marquis de Sade. Surprising many of her readers and especially other feminists, Carter defended de Sade's image of women in The Sadeian Woman: And the Ideology of Pornography (1978): "he was unusual in his period for claiming rights of free sexuality for women, and in installing women as beings of power in his imaginary world." (Ibid. p. 36) However, Sade was not the issue, but pornography, "a language we accept as universal because, since it has always been so, we conclunde that it must remin so." (Ibid., p. 4)

"I fail to see why she has tried to harness Sade to the cause of Women's Lib," said a reviewer in the Observer. Rickhard Gilman argued in the New York Times Book Review that "[a]t the heart of what's wrong with her assault on pornography and her related critique of Sade is her inability or refusal to see that pornography, like any form of imagination, is an effort at compensating for finiteness, at getting past limitations." ('Carter, Angela (Olive)' in World Authors 1980-1985, edited by Vineta Colby, 1991, p. 143) 

The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman (1973) told about a war fought against the diabolic Doctor. His aim is to demolish the structures of reason with his gigantic generators, fuelled by sexual longings of a bureaucrat named Desiderio, the narrator. Ironically, Carter ends her first pure fantasy novel in a triumph of dreamless reality when Desiderio kills the Doctor. Carter made a clear distinction between the story and the tale in her first collection, Fireworks (1974): "Formally, the tale differs from the short story in that it makes few pretenses at the imitation of life. The tale does not log everyday experience, as the short story does; it interprets everyday experience through a system of imagery derived from subterranean areas behind everyday experience, and therefore the tale cannot betray its readers into a false knowledge of everyday experience." (Ibid., p. 133)

In the late 1980s Carter's writings occupied a central position within debates about feminist pluralism and post-modernism. Carter dramatized in her novels how the old orders of the Western world were breaking down. "I am the pure product of an advanced, industrialized, post-imperialist country in decline,'' she wrote. (Shaking a Leg: Collected Journalism and Writings, 1997, p. 40) Her interest in changing gender roles formed the basis for novels Heroes and Villains (1969), set in the post-holocaust world, and The Passions of New Eve (1977). The protagonist, Evelyn, comes to a futuristic New York, the City of Dreadful Night, where Leilah performs a dance of chaos for him. Evelyn finds his promised job extinguished. He undergoes deranging adventures and is captured in the desert by a cold-blooded female scientist, who calls herself Mother and has assembled in her person various attributes of the goddess. She intends to rape Evelyn, change his sex, and impregnate him with his own seed, so that he may give birth to an ambivalent new messiah. In the end, Eve, having transcended the various impersonations s/he has passed through metamorphosis, takes a ship westward, en route maybe to Eden. In Heroes and Villains professors and scientist live in guarded cities. Outside live tribes of Barbarians. Marianne escapes from the city to the wilds and is adopted by a Barbarian tribe.

Although Carter was reknowed for her novels, she was also labeled as the "high-priestess of post-graduate porn." Concern with sexual politics was central to the burlesque-picaresque novel Nights at the Circus (1984), Carter's penuntimate work. It first begins in a gaslight-romance version of London, moves for a period to Siberia, and returns home. Fevvers, the heroine, is not like other people, she has wings, but her freedom to fly is limited on the stage. In this work the dystopia of The Passions of New Eve is replaced by humor and re-creation of the 19th-century bourgeois novel. John O'Connell has called this work as "one of the most underrated British novels of the 1980s." (Bowie's Bookshelf: The Hundred Books that Changed David Bowie's Life by John O'Connell, 2019, pp. 84-87) David Bowie had a copy of the book in his library. 

Carter's screenplay for The Company of Wolves (1984), based on stories from The Bloody Chamber (1979), was a bloodthirsty, Freudian retelling of the 'Little Red Riding Hood' tale. Directed by Neil Jordan, this visually groundbreaking film studied the wolf-girl relationship in the light of sexual awakening. Re-writing fairy-tales from a feminist point of view, Carter argued that one can find from both literature and folklore "the old lies on which new lies are based." However, her critics saw that she just writes within the strait-jacked of the rigid formula: Carter "merely explains, amplifies and reproduces rather than alters the original, deeply, rigidly sexist psychology of the erotic" as Patricia Duncer wrote. (The Infernal Desires of Angela Carter: Fiction, Femininity, Feminism, edited and introduced by Joseph Bristow and Trev Lynn Broughton, 1997, p. 12)

Black Venus (1985) featured Carter's fictionalization of historical characters, such as Lizzie Borden and Baudelaire's syphilitic mistress. Wise Children (1991), finished during Carter's final illness, focused on the female members of a theatrical family. The work was marked by optimism and humor. Dora and Nora Chance, the "wise children" of the title, are twins, illegitimate daughters of a famous Shakespearean actor. The story is narrated by Dora Chance, already an old dame: "Sometimes I think, if I look hard enough, I can see back into the past. There goes the wind, again. Crash. Over goes the dustbin, all the trash spills out... empty cat-food cans, cornflakes packets, laddered tights, tea leaves... I am at present working on my memoirs and researching family history – see the word processor, the filing cabinet, the card indexes, right hand, left hand, right side, left side, all the dirt on everybody. What a wind!" 

Carter taught, and was writer-in-residence at universities in America and Australia. For 20 years she was a major contributor to New Society, the current affairs and culture weekly, which is now part of the New Statesman. During the period 1976-78, Carter served as Arts Council fellow at Sheffield University, England. She was also a visiting professor of creative writing at Brown University, Rhode Island, USA, taught in Australia and at East Anglia University, UK, and held writing residences at Austin, Texas; Iowa City, Iowa, and Albany, New York in America. She died of cancer on February 16, 1992, in London.  Salman Rushdie said that "English literature has lost its high sorceress, its benevolent witch-queen, a burlesque artist of genius and antic grace. Those of us who have lost a friend can scarcely believe that there will be no more two-hour telephone chats with that voice that could soar to heights of scatological passion or swoop, at her most lethal moments, down into a sort of little-girl coo." ('Angela Carter, 1940-92: A Very Good Wizard, a Very Dear Friend', The New York Times, March 8, 1992) Burning Your Boats, a collection of the author's short stories, came out in 1996 with an introduction by Rushdie. 

Carter's other works include translations of Charles Perrault's fairy tales (1979), Bloody Chamber (1979), a collection of stories retelling classic fairy tales, and an anthology of subversive stories by women. The Virago Book of Fairy Tales (1990), edited by Carter, presented some of the most famous fairy tales in different guises: there is, among others, a Chinese 'Cinderella' entitled 'Beauty and Pock Face,' the Armenian story 'Nourie Hadig' is a version of the 'Snow White'. The stories have been picked up from all over the world, from  Europe, the USA, the Arctic, Africa, the Middle East and Asia; "the collection has been consciously modelled on those anthologies compiled by Andrew Lang at the turn of the century that once gave me so much joy". ('Introduction,' p. xiv)

All the stories centre around a female protagonist. Regarding the spinners of these tales, Carter suggests that it was women (the archetypal female storyteller, "Mother Goose") who made them. "Old wives' tales – that is, worthless stories, untruths, trivial gossips, a derisive label that allots the art of storytelling to women at the exact same time as it takes all value from it." (Ibid,, p. xi)

Samples of Carter's journalism were collected in Nothing Sacred (1982) and Expletives Deleted  (1992). An iconoclast of the first, she could ask a question such as, ''why is a nice girl like Simone [Beauvoir] wasting her time sucking up to a boring old fart J.-P.? [Jean-Paul Sartre].'' (Nothing Sacred: Selected Writings by Angela Carter, 1982, p. 176) Merja Makinen said in her essay 'Angela Carter's the Bloody Chamber and the Decolonisation of Feminine Sexuality' that "you never knew what was coming next from the avant-garde literary terrorist of feminism." (Feminist Review, No 42, Autumn 1992) "The amazing thing about her, for me, was that someone who looked so much like the Fairy Godmother . . . should actually be so much like the Fairy Godmother," wrote Margaret Atwood in the Observer. (Angela Carter by Lorna Sage, second edition, 2007, p. 1)

Carter's work represents a successful combination of post-modern literary theories and feminist politics. She held the view that the biological differences between men and women are themselves influenced by ideas about gender. In The Sadeian Woman Carter argued that "pornography reinforces the false universals of sexual archetypes because it denies, or doesn't have time for, or can't find room for, or, because of its underlying ideology, ignores, the social context in which sexual activity takes place, that modifies the very nature of that activity." (Ibid., p. 16)

For further information: Space, Mirrors, Subjectivity in Angela Carter's Fiction by Xiaobo Jiang (2023); Angela Carter and Folk Music: "Invisible Music", Prose, and the Art of Canorography by Polly Paulusma (2022); Angela Carter's Critique of Her Contemporary World: Politics, History, and Mortality by Yutaka Okuhata (2021); A Poetics of Plot for the Twenty-first Century: Theorizing Unruly Narratives by Brian Richardson (2019); The Invention of Angela Carter: A Biography by Edmund Gordon (2016); Inside the Bloody Chamber: On Angela Carter, the Gothic, and Other Weird Tales by Christopher Frayling (2016); Unicorn: The Poetry of Angela Carter by Rosemary Hill (2016)  Angela Carter and Decadence: Critical Fictions/Fictional Critiques by Maggie Tonkin (2012); A Card From Angela Carter by Susannah Clapp (2012); Angela Carter: New Critical Readings, edited by Sonya Andermahr, Lawrence Phillips (2012); Writing on the Body: Sex, Gender and Identity in the Fiction of Jeanette Winterson and Angela Carter by Richard Hobbs (2004); Angela Carter and the Fairy Tale, ed. by Danielle M. Roemer, Cristina Bacchilega (2000); Angela Carter, ed. by Alison Easton (2000); Are They Fact or Are They Fiction? The Sadeian Women of Angela Carter by Catherine Gall (thesis, 1999); Cult Fiction by Andrew Calcutt and Richard Shephard (1998); Angela Carter: The Rational Glass by Aidan Day (1998); Critical Essays on Angela Carter, ed. by Lindsey Tucker (1998); Angela Carter: Writing from the Front Line by Sarah Gamble (1998); Angela Carter by Linden Peach (1997); Angela Carter by Alison Lee (1997); The Infernal Desires of Angela Carter: Fiction, Femininity, Feminism, ed. by Joseph Bristow, Trev Lynn Broughton (1997); Angela Carter by Lorna Sage, Isobel Armstrong, ed. (1996); Eroticism, Ethics and Reading: Angela Carter in Dialogue With Roland Barthes by Yvonne Martinsson (1996). "Some critics have seen Carter as a follower of magic realism; yet she is, even more, the natural heiress of a northern Gothic tradition. Her stories look back to the baroque fantasies of Irish and British writers like Lord Dunsany, Arthur Machen and Walter de la Mare -- and beyond them to Thomas De Quincey's ''Confessions of an English Opium Eater.'' The 20th-century writer Angela Carter most resembles, however, is the Danish author Isak Dinesen, whose ''Seven Gothic Tales'' features a similar mixture of bizarre, haunted northern scenes and bejeweled prose." (Alison Lurie in The New York Times, May 19, 1996)

Selected works:

  • Shadow Dance, 1966 (US title: Honeybuzzard, 1967)
  • The Magic Toyshop, 1967
    - Maaginen lelukauppa (suom. Leila Ponkala, 1984)
    - film 1987, prod. Granada Television, dir. David Wheatley, screenplay by Angela Carter, starring Tom Bell, Caroline Milmoe, Killiam McKenna, Patricia Kerrigan, Lorcan Cranitch
  • Several Perceptions, 1968
  • Heroes & Villains, 1969
  • The Donkey Prince, 1970 (illustrated by Eros Keith)
  • Miss Z, the Dark Young Lady, 1970 (illustrated by Eros Keith)
  • Love: A Novel, 1971 (rev. 1987)
  • The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman: A Novel, 1972 (US title: The War of Dreams, 1974)
  • Fireworks: Nine Profane Pieces, 1974 (US title: Fireworks: Nine Stories in Various Disguises, 1979)
  • Vampirella, 1976 (radio play)
    - Vampyrella: ett hörspel av Angela Carter (översättning: Erik Ohls, 1991)
  • The Fairy Tales of Charles Perrault, 1977 (translated from the French and with a foreword by Angela Carter; illustrated with etchings by Martin Ware)
  • The Passion of New Eve, 1977
  • The Sadeian Woman: And the Ideology of Pornography, 1978 (UK title: The Sadeian Woman: An Exercise in Cultural History, 1979)
  • The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories, 1979
    - Verinen kammio sekä muita kertomuksia (suomentaneet Kirsi-Marja Kekki & Jukka Heiskanen, 1994)
  • Comic & Curious Cats, 1979 (illustrated by Martin Leman)
    - Kissankuria (suom. teksti: Kaarina Helakisa, 1981)
  • Nothing Sacred: Selected Writings, 1982
  • Moonshadow, 1982 (illustrated by Justin Todd)
  • Nights at the Circus, 1984
    - Sirkusyöt (suom. Kimmo Rentola, 1986)
  • Sleeping Beauty & Other Favourite Fairy Tales, 1984 (chosen and translated by Angela Carter; illustrated by Michael Foreman)
  • The Company of Wolves, 1984 (screenplay)
    - film 1984, prod. Incorporated Television Company (ITC), Palace Pictures, dir. by Neil Jordan, starring Angela Lansbury, David Warner, Stephen Rea, Tusse Silberg, Sarah Patterson. "Even more than Picnic at Hanging Rock, this film expresses the painful and confusing sexual yearnings of young girls. Not for all tastes, but definitely worth a look (in a theater, not on the small screen." (Danny Peary in Guide for the Film Fanatic, 1986)
  • Black Venus, 1985 (US title: Saints and Strangers, 1986)
  • Come Unto These Yellow Sands: Four Radio Plays, 1985
  • Wayward Girls and Wicked Women, 1986 (editor)
    - Pahoja tyttöjä, villejä naisia (suom. 1993)
  • The Old Wives’ Fairy Tale Book, 1990 (edited by Angela Carter; illustrated by Corinna Sargood)
  • Wise Children, 1991 
  • Expletives Deleted: Selected Writings, 1992
  • The Virago Book of Fairy Tales, 1990-92 (2 vols., edited by Angela Carter; illustrated by Corinna Sargood)
  • Strange Things Sometimes Still Happen: Fairy Tales from Around the World, 1993 (Second Virago Book of Fairy Tales; edited by Angela Carter; illustrated by Corinna Sargood
  • American Ghosts & Old World Wonders, 1993
  • Burning Your Boats: The Collected Short Stories, 1996 (with an introduction by Salman Rushdie)
  • The Curious Room: Plays, Film Scripts, and an Opera, 1996 (with an introduction by Susannah Clapp; edited and with production notes by Mark Bell)
  • Shaking a Leg: Collected Journalism and Writings, 1997 (with an introduction by Joan Smith; edited by Jenny Uglow)
  • Sea-Cat and Dragon King, 2000 (illustrated by Eva Tatcheva)
  • Angela Carter’s Book of Fairy Tales, 2005 (edited by Angela Carter; illustrated by Corinna Sargood; afterword by Marina Warner)
  • Little Red Riding Hood, Cinderella, and other Classic Fairy Tales of Charles Perrault, 2008 (translator; introduction by Jack Zipes)
  • Unicorn: The Poetry of Angela Carter, 2016 (with an essay by Rosemary Hill)
  • The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories: Wise children: Fireworks, 2018 (with an introduction by Joan Acocella)

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