Angela Carter: Clever, sexy, funny, scary

A dangerous energy crackles in the writing of Angela Carter which is why, 14 years after her death, she remains avidly read and still maddeningly provoking. Paul Barker surveys her curious life and pyrotechnical works
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The Independent Culture

Let's not be mealy-mouthed. Angela Carter is one - some would say the only one - of the truly great among English prose writers of the late 20th century. So many of her more acclaimed contemporaries have faded away. Her all-too-brief career, from 1966 until her untimely death in 1992, lit up the literary scene like a gaudy firework display. Baroque around the clock.

Already 2006 looks like being a year of Angela Carter celebration - and hopefully, a reaching-out to a new generation of fans. This week the Lyric Hammersmith unveils its stage version of her 1980s novel, Nights at the Circus. The National Theatre is beginning work on a dramatisation, by the playwright Bryony Lavery, of her last novel, Wise Children. In July, the Vintage paperback house, which publishes much of her writing, brings out new editions of six of her books, with fresh introductions by, for example, the novelist Sarah Waters and the science-fiction writer Michael Moorcock.

Despite her fame, there remains something of a puzzle about her. Both about her life - there is no full-scale biography - and about how far she is read by a younger age-group. But then, she always enjoyed tantalising people.

"It's always disputed: what is a classic?" says Rachel Cugnoni, publishing director of Vintage. "At a certain point does a writer sink slowly into dignified oblivion?" Angela Carter has leapt clear of this fate as skilfully as the ribald, pyrotechnic heroines she loved to write about. Last year, Vintage sold 13,000 copies of Wise Children and 3,500 of Nights at the Circus. Almost all her writing remains pretty steadily in print, either from Vintage or from Virago.

Nights at the Circus was specifically written as her pitch at the 1984 Booker Prize. I remember her cursing when she wasn't even shortlisted. She knew her own worth. The prize went to Anita Brookner's Hotel du Lac which, for all its charm, is hardly top-of-the-range. At least, though, Neil Jordan's much-praised film The Company of Wolves - based on The Bloody Chamber, Angela's ferocious reworkings of fairy tales - was also released that same year. To celebrate the movie, she and I sipped champagne together at the Notting Hill home of her long-time publisher Carmen Callil. "There wasn't a lot of this around when we were a lad," she said, sardonically. Her father, a Fleet Street journalist, was Scottish. Her mother, a former cashier at Selfridge's, was a polite South Londoner. But her grandmother was very Yorkshire. Angela was evacuated to her grandmother's house near Rotherham, away from London's Second World War flying bombs and V2s. In the way she spoke she liked to slide between all these geographies.

I first met Angela in the late Sixties. She tried at that stage to dress as much as possible like a 1950s existentialist from the Left Bank. Jean-Luc Godard was, for her, "some sort of touchstone". I'd recently become the editor of the weekly magazine New Society, where most of her incandescent essays were to appear. Dressed all in black, with a large floppy hat, she walked into our Covent Garden offices very erect, and spoke with a mixture of hesitancy and point-blank self-assurance. I couldn't entirely concentrate on what she said. There were dark gaps where two of her front teeth were missing. I never found out why. It may have been merely dental. On the other hand, when Callil met her for the first time, not long after this, Angela began the conversation by saying that the man she lived with had thrown a typewriter at her, and would she advise her to leave him? On the shelves at her grandmother's house there'd been three copies of Foxe's Book of Martyrs. Apart from the King James Bible, this used to be the only book in many non-affluent Protestant households. I've always suspected that the horrific accounts of martyrdoms, and the even more horrific illustrations, influenced her fiction, through which violence runs like a red thread. At school, she devoured the blood-and-guts Jacobean tragedies of John Webster, which were not on the curriculum.

She always went her own way. When she took an English degree at Bristol University, she concentrated on medieval literature. It kept her out of the grip of the moralistic followers of the Cambridge guru F R Leavis, then dominant in universities. She thought Leavisites belonged to the "eat up your broccoli" school of literary analysis, and plunged into romances and legends. She loved Boccaccio and Chaucer. Her friend, the cultural historian Marina Warner, sees in Nights at the Circus the influence of The Canterbury Tales, especially Pasoloni's ultra-bawdy 1972 film version.

In the 1970s, Angela was a "fairy godmother" to Callil's newly launched feminist publishing house Virago - one of the iconic group whose names appeared opposite every title page under a stern injunction to women "to start to organise in large numbers" and "become a political force". But though Virago retains the rights to two of her best, most startling books, The Magic Toyshop and The Sadeian Woman, this failed to preserve its independence. It's now a subsidiary of the US-based Time Warner books division. The revolution was over.

Angela would have been sad but not, I'd guess, surprised. Born in 1940, she was a child of the early Welfare State - "all that free milk and orange juice and cod liver oil," she said. She was also a child of the first era in British history in which the influence of America was all-pervasive. The tug-of-war between America and England is part of the tension within Nights at the Circus. Fevvers, the Cockney winged acrobat, is wooed and won by the American yellow journalist Jack Walser. No wonder she performs on the high wire.

But Fevvers isn't all Cockney. She owes a lot to the wise-cracking career of Mae West. Angela adored the cinema, especially the kitsch grandeur of the Granada Tooting, in South London. Thinking perhaps of Mae West, Emma Rice, artistic director of the Kneehigh theatre group, began her Lyric Hammersmith casting by looking for someone "in their forties, and huge". Next week, though, Fevvers will be played by 21-year-old Natalia Tena. "She's thin and tiny," Rice says. "But she is a force of nature, truly wild and rude." Tena has been devotedly learning the trapeze.

Rice, now in her late thirties, says that, as a student at the Guildhall drama school, she was "fantastically impressed by Carter's joyous expression of femininity, raw sexuality and sheer naughtiness". At the time, Angela was often attacked, even boycotted, by orthodox feminists, especially in America. But Rice says, rightly, "She has survived, because she isn't banging a drum. She's a rule-breaker." Rice hopes her production will "do her proud" and reach out to younger women who mayn't have read her. Men, too, I hope.

Rachel Cugnoni is less worried about any generation gap, given that Angela is now on many GCSE and university syllabuses. Marina Warner includes The Bloody Chamber in a course she teaches on fairy tales at Essex University. She finds that students devour Angela's books, once they're introduced to them. Academically, somewhere in the world, a book on Angela Carter is published every year, plus a flurry of dissertations.

Does it matter if she risks being penned into a campus corral? Maybe not, now that so many in each generation go on to college. Jenny Uglow, biographer and editorial director of Vintage's hardback affiliate Chatto & Windus, worries that the surprise of personal discovery will be lost: "If teacher says, 'Read this,' young people get bored with it." Michael Wood, literary critic and a professor at Princeton, disagrees. He too teaches an undergraduate course on Carter. "When books reach a certain age," he says, "they are read if they're taught. I don't think Milton would do very well if he wasn't a set book." Angela was never easily corralled. In Waterstone's flagship Piccadilly store, I see that Nights at the Circus has been turned on the shelf so that the cover faces you: a wonderfully camp Art Deco photo of Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake, performed by the Monte Carlo ballet. The novel is a staff choice by "Janet". She recommends it as "funny, moving and ultimately thought-provoking... At times both whimsical and macabre... Contemporary fiction at its best."

Angela's reputation, like her life, has been a roller-coaster ride. When she died of lung cancer in 1992, at the age of 51, the obituaries she received were longer and more generous than most reviews she received in her lifetime. In the following days there was a sudden upsurge in sales of her books. Wise Children, competed during her final illness, sold 80,000 copies in paperback. Academically, in Britain, 40 proposals for doctorates on her writing were submitted in 1992-93: more than for the entire 18th century.

"There is a popular necrophilia," Marina Warner said. This effect has faded somewhat. Susannah Clapp, Angela's literary executor, acknowledges "a dip". There may even have been a backlash. The Arts and Humanities Research Council reports that it is currently funding no Carter-related theses in England and Wales. I know, though, of one still going through the academic mill. The research council is keen to state that it isn't ruling others out.

She was ahead of her time in so many things. She had her own Gothic and erotic take on science fiction, for example, in novels such as The Passion of New Eve and The Infernal Desire Machines of Dr Hoffman. She loved the annual SF get-together at Brighton: a star in an almost wholly masculine universe. An astonishing essayist as well as novelist, she wrote with wild grace, like a dandy. Among the authors she admired was the aesthete Ronald Firbank, about whom she wrote a radio play. She also admired the surrealists. One critic called her "the Salvador Dali of English letters". She delighted in paradox. She was a feminist, but she detested the puritanical aspect of such beliefs. She had a soft spot for the Marquis de Sade, but she deplored the concept of woman as victim.

She was a writer, not a public voice. She seldom appeared on radio or television. Partly because of a slight stammer, but also because she peppered her conversation with wild, far-reaching allusions. She once told Ian McEwan that she found her feet as a writer when someone at Bristol asked her "why she didn't write the way she talked". Her first published novel Shadow Dance (1966) was written in her early twenties during a summer vacation. The ferocious vigour of her language already leapt off the page.

Looking back at the 1960s, she wrote: "Truly it felt like Year One." It was an era whose liberations she never denounced: "Pleasure has always had a bad press." She won the Somerset Maugham prize with her third novel (Several Perceptions, 1968) and used it to leave her first husband and go to Japan. She joined a lover there. I think he was Korean. He told her he'd never forget her which (as she noted) "is not the kind of thing one says to a person with whom one proposes to spend the rest of one's life". In Tokyo, she did anything and everything. She was a bar hostess for a time in the Ginza where, she told me, "I could hardly call my breasts my own." I was never sure how close she got to prostitution.

Japan was then an unknown land to most Westerners. She mailed back to me essays on Tokyo's blend of sadism and masochism, especially in comics. "Why isn't this girl fighting back against gang rape?" she wrote. "Because they have thoughtfully dislocated all her limbs first." Marina Warner says that when she first read Angela's essays and novels, "I felt a terror of someone who knew so much. She really did have carnal knowledge. She knew about how emotions change: love, sex, cruelty." In her reworkings of Grimm and Perrault - some of her very best work - pretty young girls regularly fall into the clutches of evil but irresistible men. Faced with the Beast, Beauty feels a frisson of temptation towards trans-species copulation.

Much of Angela's three-year stay in Japan remains a mystery. Throughout her life she made use of her own experiences in her fiction. But, like an alchemist, she also transmuted them. Some eventual biographer will have to disentangle this. Her second husband, Mark Pearce, was 18 years younger than Angela. He'd been mending the roof of the house opposite when she settled again in South London in the mid-1970s; came in to paint her ceiling; and never left. He has re-married, to the novelist Rosie Boyt, a daughter of Lucien Freud, with whom he has two children. When, a few days ago, I spoke to him about any possible biography, he said, "I just try to get on with the rest of my life." But he also said that there are plans to sell some papers of Angela's, including journals, to a library. These could help a biographer.

There had been a crammed toy box in the Carter-Pearce household long before there was a child. Alexander, who is now 22, was a late, much-loved son.

Angela told the short-story writer Helen Simpson: "Sometimes, when I read my back pages, I'm quite appalled at the violence of my imagination. Before I had a family and so on." (She often spoke of Mark and Alexander as "my boys".) Her later writing, as in Nights at the Circus and Wise Children, is much gentler than before. Less cruel, less bejewelled, but still reverberating with energy. At about the same time, she suddenly stopped hennaing her hair or pursuing fashion. Her appearance abruptly changed from wicked sprite to wise witch from a fairy tale. No matter. As a storyteller she was always magic.

'Nights at the Circus', Lyric Hammersmith, opens next Thursday (08700 500 511). Paul Barker's 'Arts in Society', which includes essays by Angela Carter, will be reissued in a new edition in June (Five Leaves Publications)