Angela Carter: Beauty and the beasts

The fantastical author Angela Carter died 14 years ago, but her work has never been more popular. Christina Patterson goes in search of the reasons why her gender-bending fairytales and gothic romances remain so enchanting
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Death, as any biographer knows, can be an excellent career move. Mozart died a pauper, but the nation that spawned him is currently awash with little chocolate balls in his name. The novelist Angela Carter did not die a pauper, but at times she lived like one. For much of her far-too-short life, her books were remaindered and out of print. Less than 14 years after her death, however, she seems set for a whole new lease of life. On Friday, this most theatrical of writers hits the stage of the Lyric, Hammersmith, with an adaptation of Nights at the Circus. In July, Vintage will reissue six of her works with new introductions and in June the South Bank Centre will hold a day of talks on her legacy. 2006 will, it seems, be the year to get Carter. All very nice, but why now?

"It just seemed to me that a lot of her books were cropping up on reading lists around schools and universities," explains Vintage publisher, Rachel Cugnoni. "I think there's a period of time that has to elapse before someone can be recognised as a classic author and I feel she's reached that point." Angela Carter is, in fact, one of the most widely studied contemporary writers in Britain and America. She has launched almost as many PhDs as Sylvia Plath and is a hot topic on many an internet bulletin board. "Hey guys, I really need someone's help," is a pretty standard entry from a desperate A-level student. "I need to write a thematic essay on animal imagery in the Bloody chamber. I am finding it... impossible."

It's a feeling that Emma Rice, director of Kneehigh Theatre, might understand. It took her, she tells me, "about 65 seconds" to come up with the idea of an adaptation of Carter's fifth novel. David Farr, the Lyric's new artistic director, had suggested "something circusy" and Nights at the Circus sprang to mind. Rice had read it as a student in the 1980s. "I was totally inspired and in awe of it," she explains. "I love fantasy, I love theatre, I love lunacy and the book ticks all those boxes." Then she went home and re-read it: "I thought, 'What have I agreed to, this is a monster!' But then I thought, 'Take a deep breath, don't panic and let the book speak now'."

If anyone can do it, it's probably Kneehigh, whose joyful, anarchic reworkings of classics like Cymbeline, The Bacchae and The Red Shoes have won it a reputation as one of Britain's most innovative theatre companies. Their last production, Tristan & Yseult was hailed in this newspaper as "one of the best evenings in theatre you could hope to find." "It made me," said The Guardian's reviewer, "want to gurgle with delight." You can imagine Angela Carter gurgling with delight, too - not just at the prospect of the adaptation, but also at the description of her book as a "monster". She always loved monsters. "It's not a question of do monsters exist or can a monster have a mother?" she once told the audience of a science fiction writers' convention, "it's how does a monster's mother feel?"

For her, fiction was about asking questions. At a time when most British writers were entrenched in the drab realism that she rather disparagingly described as "the low mimetic," she was painting vivid pictures of fairy tale creatures and monsters in complex fusions of fantasy, gothic, science fiction and romance. While her peers anatomised adultery in Hampstead, she was taking her characters on wild journeys into castles and caves, across Siberian deserts and into enchanted kingdoms where nothing was what it seemed. Richly playful, these dense, glittering fictions drew on ideas ranging from Melville to the Marquis de Sade, Barthes to de Beauvoir and feminist theory to Freud, but with the emphasis firmly on the seductive power of the storyteller. It was not, however, a mix that appealed to all. John Bayley, writing in the New York Review of Books nine weeks after Carter's death, claimed that she made "imagination into the handmaid of ideology," castigated her work for its "political correctness" and predicted gloomily that "a process of inflation seems inevitable".

In an age when PhDs are more likely to be on Big Brother than Beowulf, it's an argument that might elicit sympathy. Fairy tales have undergone so many feisty feminist subversions that the old ones now seem refreshing. Literary theory - the Death of the Author, the plurality of the text, language as a system of signs etc - now seems a relic of a bygone age, an age when irony was the province of the enlightened undergraduate and not the default mode of an entire culture. Yes, it was all very radical, all very exciting to piss on those patriarchal monoliths and cackle with laughter, but isn't it all a bit juvenile? A bit dated, in fact?

If energy, exuberance and riotous exploration of ideas are juvenile, then yes, it was. Carter's preoccupation with the self as performer and what she called "the Ludic Game" was a theme in all her work, one which reaches a spectacular climax in Nights at the Circus. Fevvers, the winged trapeze artist whose adventures and tall stories it chronicles, is an archetypal Carter heroine: large, sexy, bawdy and with voracious appetites. She is a busty bottle blonde, a goddess, a fallen angel, a bird woman and an enchantress, one who captures the heart of a world-weary journalist on a mission to expose her as a fake. It's a fiction about fiction, of course, full of allusions to the contract between writer and reader, the ways in which a self is constructed and the possibilities and limits of the act of narration. It's also a glorious, colourful story, a dazzling demonstration of the fact that metafiction can be better fiction.

Sarah Waters, who has written the introduction for the new Vintage edition, agrees. "Nights at the Circus was her masterpiece," she tells me. "She had that fantastic magpie quality, plundering high and popular culture, and this amazing capacity for huge landscapes." Waters' own novels, Tipping the Velvet, which was adapted by television by Andrew Davies and Fingersmith, are both vividly imagined, subversive tales set in Victorian London. It was, she confesses, while rereading Nights at the Circus that she realised, for the first time, the influence Carter had had on her. "But she did it all," she says a touch ruefully, "so much better than me."

For Helen Simpson, the author of four highly acclaimed collections of short stories, "the exuberance carries it through." It was after winning a short-story competition in which she was compared by judge Brian Aldiss to "the young Angela Carter" that Simpson got hold of a remaindered copy of her early short-story collection, Fireworks. She went on to read The Bloody Chamber, the collection of stories that Salman Rushdie described as Carter's "masterwork."

"You couldn't say it wasn't brilliant writing," says Simpson, who is writing the introduction to the new edition. She got to know Angela Carter while living nearby in Balham; when she took her first baby along to show her, the two writers became friends. "I just admire her so much," she confesses. "I don't write a thing like her, but she's invigorating and inspiring. She put steel in my spine."

Even those who found her fiction over-egged, who recoiled at the carnival parade of gothic grotesques, could hardly fail to enjoy Carter's journalism: those piquant, passionate bursts of prose on life, literature, fashion and food. Infused with her own fierce brand of feminism and a passionate sense of social justice, these pieces are as entertaining today as when they were written. Paul Barker, one-time editor of the left-wing journal, New Society, published her for 20 years. "She wrote with great attack," he tells me. "It came straight off the page and we put it right in."

The key features of Carter's journalism, and her fiction, and her life, were energy and passion. I was taught by her, briefly, on an MA course at the University of East Anglia. We were in awe of this large woman with wild grey hair and bovver boots, whose range of interests, and knowledge, we felt we couldn't match. Kazuo Ishiguro, one of the first writers on UEA's Creative Writing programme, remembers that she would speak "as if she had something extremely urgent to tell you. As a teacher what struck me was how open she was. She always spoke to me as though she was fascinated to find out how my imagination worked. As a writer she changed the landscape."

It is hard to imagine the literary landscape without Angela Carter. Hers is a legacy that extends way beyond the bounds of her own work. For Margaret Atwood, she was "the opposite of parochial... She revelled in the diverse." For Salman Rushdie, she was "the most individual, independent and idiosyncratic of writers." For Ali Smith, whose novel, The Accidental, won this year's Whitbread Novel award, she is in a league of her own. "I can't think of anyone who is at that pitch of intellectual commentary, fictional experimentation and fullness of expression," she sighs. "I'm not a patch on her. Jesus, I wish I was."

'Nights at the Circus' opens at the Lyric, Hammersmith, London W6 (0870 050 0511; on Friday