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by Bamber Gascoigne

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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, 1967)

Angela Olive Stalker was born in Eastbourne, Sussex, the daughter of Olive (Farthing) Stalker and Hugh Alexander Stalker, a journalist. During the war years, she was removed by her grandmother to South Yorkshire. After rejoining her mother, she suffered from anorexia. However, 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". 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 and wrote features and record reviews. She later said that her career as a junior reporter was hampered by a "demonic inaccuracy as regards fact." After graduating, Carter began her literary career.

Carter's first novel, Shadow Dance (1966), 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 for two years. During this period she worked at many different jobs, among others as a bar hostess, and wrote essays for New Society. The experience of a different culture had a strong influence on her work.

Whilst in Japan, Carter first came across the work of the Marquis de Sade in a second-hand bookshop. In The Sadeian Woman (1978) she questioned culturally accepted views of sexuality, and sadistic and masochistic relations between men and women. Surprising some of her readers, Carter defended de Sade's images of women. After this novel Carter's fiction was described by some less enthusiastic critics as "entertainment for boys and girls who like their De Sade mixed with Suchard chocolate."

The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman (1973) was a story of 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.

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. 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), which 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. Black Venus (1985) featured Carter's fictionalization of historical characters, such as Lizzie Borden and Baudelaire's syphilitic mistress.

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 using the old form, Carter produced the "rigidly sexist psychology of the erotic."

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!" Full of references to Shakespeare's plays, the characters of the novel have similarities with Shakespearean characters and scenes, but Carter also challenges the reader's narrative expectations.

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. "English literature has lost its high sorceress, its benevolent witch queen," wrote Salman Rushdie. 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. Samples of her journalism were collected in Nothing Sacred (1982) and Expletives Deleted  (1992). She often wrote as if she was a fearless tourist examining oddities of the Western culture, and asked such unfeigned questions as ''why is a nice girl like Simone [Beauvoir] wasting her time sucking up to . . . boring old . . . J.-P.? [Jean-Paul Sartre].''  Merja Makinen called Carter the "avant-garde literary terrorist of feminism" in her essay 'Angela Carter's The Bloody Chamber and the Decolonisation of Feminine Sexuality'  (see Angela Carter, ed. by Alison Easton, 2000). "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 of Carter in the Observer.

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 . . . the social context in which sexual activity takes place, that modifies the very nature of that activity."

For further information: 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); 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); The Encyclopedia of Fantasy, ed. by John Clute and John Grant (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 Writing, 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)

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