Keeping up appearances

Paul Barker celebrates a dandy who wrote the best essays since Orwell; Shaking a Leg: collected journalism and writings by Angela Carter, Chatto & Windus, pounds 25
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Style is the woman. For some reason, "dandy" is a word used only of men; but Angela Carter was a dandy. In this Aladdin's cave collection of her essays and reviews, she writes of visiting her Giles-like Yorkshire grandmother "in all the atrocious sartorial splendour of the underground high-style of the late Fifties, black mesh stockings, spike-heeled shoes, bum-hugging skirt, jacket with a black fox collar." She loved the Sixties ("truly it felt like Year One"), when she was in her twenties; but the pattern of her life and her style was fixed well before that.

Some of her best, wittiest writing is here. Nothing overtakes her finest fiction (The Magic Toyshop and The Bloody Chamber, especially). But many of her essays are otherwise unbeatable. The dandy knows the deep importance of surface show. He (or she) knows that a joke can penetrate where acres of analysis fail. Dandyism also implies stoicism. In her introduction, Joan Smith notes that Angela Carter "never indulges in self-pity". Writing about her adolescent illnesses (she starved herself into stylish thinness), Angela Carter says that such troubles should be borne "stoically. That is, lightly."

Her eye is unerring. The landscape of South Yorkshire is described as "mucky pastoral". Diana Dors is the "personification of the buxom backside of the other Britain". Poor DH Lawrence is demolished by her gleeful perception of what his fixation on female clothing, in Women in Love, meant sexually: "The stocking covers a hairy, muscular leg."

This was written in 1975, when Lawrence was still, for his many fans, a hero with clayless feet. As this selection confirms, the Seventies were her great decade for such fierce, jewel-like writing. For many years she was probably better known for her journalism than for her novels. She was precipitated into fame (and Who's Who) by the 1984 film of The Company of Wolves - which delighted her. The cinema, another art of surface appearances, was one of her greatest loves. She gives a tender account of going to the Granada, Tooting, with her father. She pays homage - almost heroine- worship - to Louise Brooks, another female dandy.

Most of this writing first appeared in New Society. The magazine published 88 out of these 148 pieces. She became part of its characteristic tone. She could, as Joan Smith says, "detect bullshit at 200 paces". (Hence her uneasy relationship with feminist conformists. She called Marilyn French's The Women's Room "an instruction manual for the older woman postgraduate student.")

The New Society association began when, in 1966, I read and published an article (collected here) that she mailed to the office out of the blue; I was enchanted by her writing. The tie was sealed by her astonishing essay, "Notes For a Theory of Sixties Style," with its very Carterish opening, still alive and kicking 30 years later: "Velvet is back, skin anti-skin, mimic nakedness."

This collection brings together, for the first time, all her extraordinary articles about Japan, to which she went in 1969 - abandoning her first husband on the proceeds of the Somerset Maugham award she won for her third novel. (The money didn't go far enough. She worked for a while in a bar in the Ginza district of Tokyo, where "a hostess can hardly call her breasts her own".) It is hard to realise, today, what an unknown country Japan was then.

She sent back iridiscent reports on the country's "trim dementia", most memorably on its sadistic comics. (Sadism, to her, was a kind of dandyism of sex.) "What is actually going on in these pictures often looks rather odd to me because I cannot read Japanese. When a translation is provided, it usually turns out to be worse than I could have imagined. Why isn't this girl fighting back during a gang rape? Because they forethoughtfully dislocated her limbs, first." In the same essay, she formulated the Machiavellian rule that all women suffer "unless they are very wicked indeed; when they obey the Sadeian law and live happily ever after".

In her grandmother's house - to which she went as a child to escape wartime bombing - she tells us that the few books included Machiavelli and several copies of Fox's Book of Martyrs, with its gruesome illustrations. You do wonder.

She turned the same sharp but friendly eye on England and its "more than Asiatic patience". She was a natural-born iconoclast. "Alienated," she wrote, "is the only way to be, after all." Shaking a Leg contains some of the best essays since Orwell.