Publishers race to republish her work; students clamour to write essays about her. Three years after her death, Angela Carter has become a literary giant. One of her first editors examines th e origins of her pre-eminence She was ahead of her time in so many things, and not just in her fiction. She wrote with a wild grace, like a dandy From raven-haired she becomes white-haired, moving (it seems) straight from adolescent to grandmother, smart sprite to sapient witch

Paul Barker
Sunday 08 January 1995 00:02

IT IS like a fairy-tale, but not the kind you would rush to tell your children. A young girl grows up in Northland with her beloved grandmother. She is clever but fat (her nickname is "Tub"). After she goes back to the Southland with her mother, she decides to starve herself into thinness, fail her exams and run away to Westland. She starts to write.

She writes beautiful, perverse stories, often about pretty young girls who fall into the clutches of evil but irresistible men. But fame is slow to come. She travels far and wide. At length she settles back in Southland, has a child of her own, and changes her appearance a second time, as if by magic but in fact, as before, by her own choice. From raven-haired she becomes white-haired, moving (it seems) straight from adolescent to grandmother, from smart sprite to sapient witch. She writes gentler stories now. But still she has not achieved real fame.

She dies untimely, and everyone suddenly bursts out weeping. The obituaries give her better notices than anything she ever wrote received in her lifetime. Her books sell out within three days of her death. She becomes the most read contemporary author onEnglish university campuses. Her last story, finished during her final illness, sells 80,000 copies in paperback. She has arrived. But she is dead. No magic, and no fame, can alter that.

Angela Carter is everywhere. Virago recently republished her first novel from the Sixties, Shadow Dance, and her third, Several Perceptions, is reissued this week, three years after her death. (Her second novel, The Magic Toyshop, has seldom been out of print.) Later this year, Chatto will bring out her collected short stories. This will be followed by her collected dramatic writing (mainly radio plays, but also an adaptation of Wedekind's Lulu), and her collected essays and journalism. Step hen Woolley, who produced the film The Company of Wolves, based on her re-woven fairy-tales, is negotiating for the rights to that last novel, Wise Children. Last autumn, academic students of her work thronged to a conference at the University of York. T hey were told that the British Academy, which distributes grants for postgraduate literary research, has identified "an Angela Carter effect". Forty proposals for doctorates on her writing in 1992-93, for example: more than for the entire 18th century.

"It took her to die for this to happen," says her literary executor, Susannah Clapp. "There is a popular necrophilia," says Marina Warner, whose latest book, From the Beast to the Blonde, refers to her writing throughout. Others make comparison with the posthumous fame of Sylvia Plath. But her publisher, Carmen Callil, says: "Her time had come." She was ahead of her time in so many things, and not just in her fiction. She was one of our best contemporary essayists, with a bejewelled, Gothic sty le that drove out any hint of Charles Lamb. She wrote with wild grace, like a dandy.

I first met Angela in the dying days of the Sixties. She was dressed all in black, topped with a large black floppy hat. I had recently become editor of the weekly magazine New Society. We had an office tucked away at the back of a building, flanked by fruit and veg wholesalers, in the old Covent Garden. She walked in, very erect, and spoke with an odd mixture of hesitancy and point-blank self-assurance. But I couldn't entirely concentrate on what she was saying. There were black gaps where two of her f ront teeth were missing. Only Angela, then in her late twenties, would have made no attempt to hide the blanks. I never found out why they were missing. She did, I later discovered, have trouble with her teeth. On the other hand, when Carmen Callil meth er for the first time, about five years after this, Angela's opening gambit was a remark that the man she lived with had just thrown a typewriter at her, and would she advise her to leave him? The black thread that ties love to violence ran through all h er work until she turned 40, and had a late and much-loved son.

When we met, I had already printed her first classic essay, "Notes Towards a Definition of Sixties Style". I knew by now that here was a quite extraordinary writer. It cemented what became a 20-year editorial relationship. "Velvet is back, skin anti-skin, mimic nakedness," that essay began. "Like leather and suede, only more subtly, velvet simulates the flesh it conceals . . ." When she reprinted this in her 1982 selection, Nothing Sacred, she observed (always her best critic) that "it is over-written and over-literary, but a person can only walk one way and that is the way I still walk." But some of her essays, I would argue, are as good as, or better than, some of her fiction.

Her fiction is now often seen as pure fantasy. To her annoyance, Gollancz invented a new category, "Fantasy & Macabre", when they published the novel she said was her own favourite, The Passion of New Eve, in 1977. But her early work contains large elements of the acute, direct observation that you find in her essays. She lived in the provincial bohemia of Bristol, modelling herself on images of Fifties Paris, garnered from favourite films such as Godard's A Bout de Souffle; Godard was for her "some sort of touchstone".

She was an intellectual, she said, in the first period of British society when you could talk of such a continental idea: "a full-blooded, enquiring, rootless, urban intelligentsia". Sartorially, in her twenties and thirties, she looked like someone off the Left Bank. But her screen idol - as much for the dangerous way she lived as for the way she looked - was Louise Brooks, the heroine of Pabst's silent film version of Lulu. Angela also lived dangerously.

"Truly it felt like Year One," she wrote, looking back at the Sixties. It was an era whose liberations she never denounced. "Pleasure has always had a bad press in Britain," she wrote. She looked askance at a later, puritanical feminism which saw this assimply handing women over to men's pleasure. "What an odd way of looking at it. This seems to deny the possibility of sexual pleasure to women except in situations so hedged around with qualifications that you might as well say, like my mother used to say, `Don't do it till you've got the ring on your finger.' "

She had written three novels at precocious speed by the time I met her, and won the Somerset Maugham prize, which was intended to finance travel. She used the money to leave her husband and go to Japan. (As a teenager she rebelled into anorexia and earlymarriage.) She thought Maugham would have approved. It is hard now to appreciate how strange a decision this was. Japan was then simply a place that made cheap toys, imitation Western branded goods, and had done many horrible things in the war. No one knew anything about it. I simply said that I would like to read something that would tell me what Japan was like. She delivered that, in spades.

Her life in Japan was bizarre. She joined a lover there. I think he was Korean, and Koreans are as despised in Japan as (say) Poles are in Chicago. He told her he would never forget her, which (as she noted) "is not the kind of thing one says to a personwith whom one proposes to spend the rest of one's life." She worked briefly for a broadcasting company, but then did anything and everything. She was a bar hostess on the Ginza, where, she told me, "I could hardly call my breasts my own." In one short story collection, there is what seems like direct reportage of being picked up in the street and taken back to a be-mirrored cheap hotel for an instant seduction. I was never sure how close she got to prostitution in Tokyo. Male sex ual response, she wrote, "is the other side of the moon, the absolute mystery, the one thing I can never know."

She mailed back amazing reports on Japan's blend of sadism and masochism, especially in comics: "Why isn't this girl fighting back against gang rape? Because they have forethoughtfully dislocated all her limbs, first." It was always hard to believe that these obsessions were entirely abstract. A mutual friend recently told me that they were not. At the York conference last October, Marina Warner said that, when she first read her writings, "I felt a terror of someone who knew so much. She really did have carnal knowledge. She knew about the way emotions change: love, sex, cruelty."

In the 1970s, she became a "fairy godmother" to Carmen Callil's new publishing house, Virago. She was one of the iconic advisory group listed opposite the title pages, under a stirring quotation which called on women to "start to organise in large numbers" and "become a political force". Virago commissioned its first non-fiction book from Angela. This turned out to be The Sadeian Woman, which, as Callil observes in magnificent under-statement, "got her into a lot of trouble."

Angela saw Sade's books as (among other things) a celebration of what women could get out of sex when it was untrammelled by any connection with procreation. And there was another moral she found in Sade, which she expressed most clearly in her essay on sado-masochistic comics: "Whichever way the women go, they all go through the mangle - unless they are very wicked indeed; when they follow the Sadeian law and live happily ever after." In a critical study in the British Council's newly revi ved "Writersand their Work" series, Lorna Sage says: "She feared and loathed and found hilarious the spectacle of the suffering woman, and her cruelty is a measure of her fear." Angela suggested to Virago that they should publish Juliette, Sade's horrif ic tale of wickedness rewarded, but they didn't.

She was never a party-liner. "She was attacked by feminists," Susannah Clapp says, "for not being dogmatic enough." When she taught at New York State University in 1988, she wrote back to Lorna Sage that she was boycotted by the department of women's studies. Her new versions of fairy-tales - most famously in The Bloody Chamber - might drip with blood, but they could still permit the princess to marry her prince and live fairly happily ever after. In her novels, rape is just one of those things that happen, not a definition (as radical feminists preferred) of the essential nature of the relationship between women and men. Annabel, the heroine of the novel called Love, tries to model her expression on the "bland, white, motionles s face" of women in pornographic photographs. (Jeanne Moreau, heroine of so many Left Bank films, was rumoured to get her celebrated deadpan look from a past in blue movies.) One of Annabel's bouts of love-making is described as "mutual rape". When her l over, Lee, seduces an older woman, he describes it as "like screwing the women's page of the Guardian". Nothing sacred. Not even feminism.

Her first essays, from 1966 on, all reached me in envelopes with West Country postmarks. Her husband had taken a job in Bristol, and she went to university there, belatedly, to read English. She studied medieval literature especially. It kept her out of the way of the moralistic followers of FR Leavis, who, she thought, belonged to the "eat up your broccoli" school of literary analysis. She plunged into romances and legends. She loved Chaucer and Boccaccio. But she also emerged with a weakness for the riskiest of literary forms, the allegory, where concepts are given wings, but seldom manage to fly. (In her only novel of the 1980s, Nights at the Circus, she gave her heroine actual wings.)

I went to the York conference, to talk about her essays. She would, I think, have been both amused and pleased by the event. She was praised to the skies, but some of the academic analysis was unintentionally comic. I found myself sitting in a library one wet afternoon, for example, listening to a long, dry examination of the significance of multiple homosexual rape, as enacted in her novel, The Infernal Desire Machines of Dr Hoffman. All very odd.

The burgeoning academic industry of Carterology tends to focus on the most allegorical of her books - Heroes and Villains, The Passion of New Eve and The Infernal Desire Machines. They analyse more easily than her best - meaning, I suppose, The Magic Toyshop at the start of her career; the blood-spattered tales of The Bloody Chamber in the middle; and Wise Children, an affectionate multi-layered tribute to Hollywood, to Shakespeare and to South London's vaudeville tradition, at the end. And those keen-eyed essays.

Born in 1940, she was a child of the early Welfare State, bred on "all that free milk and orange juice and cod liver oil". But she was also a child of the first era in British history in which the influence of America was all-pervasive. She was in love with Hollywood films. Her journalist father took her to the Granada Tooting, later a bingo hall, but then a place of mirrors and magic. "Journalists have a curious marginality of their own," she once wrote; but added, thinking perhaps of her own journalism: "Alienated is the only way to be, after all."

She spent a large slice of her childhood in Yorkshire, near Rotherham, where her grandmother lived, away from wartime bombing. The sheep on the hills, she told me, were always black. Her uncle worked in the pit. In the miners' strike of 1984-85, she was unshakeably on one side. She always claimed allegiance to the Protestant work ethic - sometimes in unexpected ways. "Fine art, that exists for itself alone, is art in a final state of impotence." Pornography, she argued, was art with a job to do.

Angela Carter is now so popular, I suspect, especially among young readers, because she deals in polymorphous perversity with a youthful vitality and rebelliousness. She also writes succinctly. (Her two last, rather baggy novels are exceptions.) Here youhave what later became known as magic realism, without having to plough through vast Latin American or Indian tomes.

In her essays, she wrote dandyishly, which means fetishistically, about sex. She discussed, at length, a book on tight corseting, which I doubt received any other notice in a serious publication. She admired the intellectual pornography of Georges Bataille. She took revenge on Leavis by proxy - he being celebrated for thinking DH Lawrence the only 20th-century author worthy of the Great Tradition of English novel-writing - by a wondrous onslaught on Lawrence's obsessions about clothes. Hardly anyt hing was left standing of the reputation of Eastwood's most famous son by the time she had finished. "Lawrence is a stocking man, not a leg man," she declared with ribald chapter and verse from Women in Love. For him, "stockings have supplanted legs; clo theshave supplanted flesh. Fetishism."

Style mattered. It had, she thought, "a heartless innocence". The vigour of her best essays came from a collision between her stylishness and her radical eye on the world. They were important in keeping her in touch with a reading public. By going to Japan, she broke off the pattern of her growing reputation. For several years, after her pyrotechnic start, she didn't get much notice. She was probably known to more readers through her essays than through her novels.

From about 1980, she began to spend more time on various campuses in England and the United States. She loved reading her stories there, a teller of tales. She also taught creative writing. Her current campus supremacy owes something to the seeds she sowed then. At the time, however, teaching was principally an income, which she desperately needed. She was good at it. But this didn't give her the same input of wide observation. There was less of the wicked eye on the way we lived. A generou s and perceptive obituary in the Times wondered if her best work was done by the age of 40, and there is something in this. She once 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." In a story which has the ring of reportage, she writes of the pains of turning 40, and trying to decide to give up henna, which she abruptly did.

As an editor, I was always exhilarated by the pungency of her essays. She was a writer who seldom appeared on radio or television. In this, and other ways, she had something in common with the journalist Julie Burchill. Angela had a slight stammer. JulieBurchill has an awkwardly high-pitched voice. But this meant that, at the typewriter, there was a ferocious energy, a glorious scything-down of pretensions. Every essay of Angela's would be preceded by a long telephone conversation in which each of us would throw in every joke we could think of, that had anything (or sometimes nothing) to do with the subject she proposed.

For more than 10 years, until her death in February 1992 at the age of 51, she lived in south London again, with Mark Pearce, a potter, who became her son's father and her second husband. The house had a crammed toy-box long before there was a child. Mark was much younger than her, and her grandmotherly change of appearance made that defiantly obvious. He was almost always silent, while Angela talked. They would wear identical surplus navy greatcoats and explore the hidden sides of London in a canal boat: "mile after mile of abandoned factories returning to the wild. It was like Ozymandias."

In 1984, The Company of Wolves, directed by Neil Jordan, gave her some welcome publicity. Until then, many people, like Helen Simpson, had come across her books by chance (in her case, in a jumble sale), and thought of them as their own private discovery. "I couldn't find anyone who'd heard of her," Simpson says. "I loved the quality of the prose, so violent and so erotic." Not until after the film did Angela make it into Who's Who, 15 years after her near-contemporary, Margaret Drabble, whose novels she detested. She hoped the film would also bring in plenty of money, which it didn't. After the American success of The Crying Game and Interview with the Vampire, both also produced by him and directed by Jordan, Stephen Woolley may try to have it re-released there.

She was always ahead of the game. Lawrence was a marble hero when she aimed her foot at his clay plinth. When she first became fascinated by fairy-tales, it was still commonplace for child-care experts to say that they should be avoided because they weren't "real". Hers are now much anthologised. (Even so, in inner-city schools, children are often fed dismal, supposedly realistic stories with a heavy-handed moral, rather than something that might take them out of their lives and fill them with wonder.) When she wrote her sexually strange tales, it hadn't become usual for bookshops to stock pornography written by women writers. (Was this what liberation meant?) Like Freud, she regarded the question, "What do women want?", as intrinsic ally hard to answer. It was no accident, she thought, that Jane Eyre's Mr Rochester shared a name with the most notorious poet of the Restoration. What did Beauty see in the Beast?

Her books are brilliant with artifice: "There was nearly nothing `natural' about them," in Lorna Sage's words. It is the language and the imagery you remember, not character or dialogue. A woman rapes a man, throwing herself on him "like a quoit on a ring". Her essays fly through your mind like birds, but her fiction is hard to read much of at once. It is as highly coloured as a Pre-Raphaelite painting. A Romanian delegate at the York conference, who had translated it, described her fiction-writing as "embroidery". I think Angela would have liked that.

She saved some her sharpest needles for her essays. Looking back through them now, my eye falls on "The Wound in the Face", in which she analyses the imagery of women's faces in magazines. "The revival of red lipstick," she observes in 1975, "indicates, above all, I suppose, that women's sense of security was transient." Red lipstick is back again, I see.

"Several Perceptions", by Angela Carter, is re-issued by Virago on Thursday. Lorna Sage's critical study of Angela Carter is published by Northcote House in association with the British Council.

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