Lit 491 Senior Seminar – Literary Biography
Sept 7, 2010
Angela Carter was a British writer born in Eastbourne, in 1940. As a young woman, she attended the University of Bristol, where she studied English Literature. While in school, she also developed a fondness for French Literature, Sociology, and Anthropology, and these interests would later make their mark on her work. Carter worked as a journalist between 1958 and 1961 before turning her eye toward writing fiction. In 1960, she was married to Paul Carter and divorced nine years later. During this time, she traveled to Japan, where she lived for two years before returning to England. Angela Carter died in 1992 at the age of 51 (Shelton 87).
As a writer, Carter was known for her fantastic novels and short stories. Her work borrowed from traditional storytelling, folk lore and literature from the English cannon. Carter delighted in florid descriptive language, violent and erotic themes, and a gothic style. At the same time, she wrote from a uniquely modern perspective focusing on feminist themes and social critiques. As a result, her style offered readers a body of work that felt both familiar and utterly new. Carter’s work revealed an obsession with the tension between the old and the new as well as fantasy and reality. She argued that stories and the symbolism of traditional literature, when left unexamined, have the power to shape and define our culture profound ways. She was particularly skeptical of representations of women and their role in society, and she argued that the limitations placed on women were corrosive and dehumanizing. In her own work, Carter attempted to examine these traditional symbols, reveal their true meaning, and in doing so, rob them of their power.
Angela Carter's first novel, Shadow Dance, was published in England in 1966, and was published as Honeybuzzard a year later in the United States. The story was a crime novel that focused on the malicious and bizarre Honeybuzzard, who at the opening of the novel, disfigured his girlfriend, and who would eventually commit murder (Shelton 88). Though Angela Carter’s first work contained nothing overtly magical, there was a strangeness to it that hinted at Carter’s preoccupation with the bizarre. The following statement by Anthony Burgess reveals that, even in her first novel, Carter’s talents were on display. He wrote that he "read this book with admiration, horror and other relevant emotions... Angela Carter has remarkable descriptive gifts, a powerful imagination, and... a capacity for looking at the mess of contemporary life without flinching" (Moseley 206).
Her second novel, The Magic Toyshop, told the story of a young orphan named Melanie who was forced to live with her aunt and uncle in a bizarre toyshop. In the story, Melanie was forced to contend with the strangeness of her new life, the abuse of her uncle and the threat of sexual violence. In the end, Melanie learned the secret of the toyshop, and ran away with Finn, her uncle's adopted son. (Shelton 88). While the ending was a happy one, the tone was profoundly modern. At the conclusion of the novel, the toyshop was burned down, and with it the symbols and mythologies it represented. Her third novel, Several Perceptions, won the Somerset Maugham Award and told the story of Joseph, a young man searching for meaning during the turbulent 1960s. With these novels, Carter began to come into her own as a fantasy writer. These stories revealed a distrust of magic and symbolism, and this theme would later be revisited and expanded upon in future novels (Moseley 207).
Heroes and Villains, Angela Carter’s fourth novel, was a speculative allegory where society was divided into two groups—the out of touch professors, who poured over their history books while ignoring the chaos around them, and the Barbarians, who threatened to destroy civilization (Moseley 207). In this work, Carter deliberately attempted to deconstruct the society around her. In speaking of this novel, Carter said, “I have done it consciously, because I do think we’re at the end of a line and. To a certain extent, I’m making a conscious critique of the culture I was born into. In a period like this of conflicting ideologies, when there isn’t a prevalent ideology, really all artists can do is go around mopping up” (Moseley 208). Carter would return to her earlier more realistic form in her fifth novel, Love, which would be set in present day England, but Heroes and Villains signified Carter’s move away from realism. It delved more deeply into the realm of the fantastic, and was not confined to the here and now (Moseley 208).
In her sixth novel, The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman, Carter moved even further into the world of fantasy. In this story, Doctor Hoffman has created apparitions that inhabited the same space as the living. Upon seeing them, many people went mad, and lawlessness ensued. The hero, Desiderio, embarked on a journey to find and assassinate Doctor Hoffman. Desiderio met many strange characters on his way, giving the story a picaresque style that Carter would use again in later works (Shelton 88). In the end Desiderio decided to kill Doctor Hoffman and his daughter, choosing reality over fantasy. This work was Carter’s clearest critique on the dangers of fantasy up to this point (Moseley 209).
Carter’s seventh novel, The Passion of New Eve, told the story of Evelyn, an Englishman who lived in New York. At the beginning of the story, Evelyn was captured and transformed into a woman named Eve by Mother, a harsh goddess figure who created herself through surgery. Evelyn escaped, but time and again she was victimized at the hands of cruel and powerful people. The novel examined gender roles and the power dynamics between men and women. In order to be free, Eve had to transcend the world’s mythologies about women and her own cruel past. Again, the theme of mythology was repeated in this novel, and it was also a searing social critique. More than that, Carter had begun to fashion a new mythology that suited feminist aims (Moseley 211).
In Nights at the Circus, Carter continued to create this new mythology in the character of Fevers, a winged woman who worked as a trapeze artist in a circus. Fevers represented a liberated woman. She was large, boisterous confident. Her wings served as a metaphor for her freedom, but they were also cumbersome and difficult to live with. The novel attempted to address the problem of freedom. Here, Carter asked what it would genuinely look like for women to be liberated and what the potential problems may be. In the relationship between Fevers and Jack Walser, a young journalist who had come to interview the famous performer, Carter examined the changing relationship between men and women in a feminist world. She argued that the creation of a “new woman” would demand the creation of a “new man” as well. While the book offered no definitive solutions to the problems it examined, its outlook was ultimately hopeful. In the end, Fevers and Walser began a relationship that was defined by mutual respect and love where neither attempted to hold power over the other (Shelton 88).
Carter’s final novel, Wise Children, was published in 1991. This novel told the story of twin chorus girls, Dora and Nora Chance, their family and their lives in the theater. The theme of incest was prevalent in the story, and it also drew the contrasts between high art and the legitimate side of the family, when compared to the illegitimacy of the twins and their lives in the dance halls. The story called the idea of legitimacy into question and asserted that these social constructs were no measure of true value (Shelton 88)..
In addition to her novels, Carter also wrote a number of short stories. Fireworks: Nine Profane Pieces was heavily influenced by her time in Japan, and it marked a turning point in her writing. Feminism became a more central theme, and she became a more avid social critic. The stories in this collection included “A Souvenir of Japan,” which told of an affair between a white woman and a Japanese man, “The Loves of Lady Purple,” which focused on Lady Purple, an orphan, murderer and prostitute and “Master,” the story of a European hunter who travels to South America to wreak havoc on nature (Moseley 209).
The Bloody Chamber was a collection of stories that revisited and retold a number of famous childhood fairy tales. Carter focused mainly on retelling the works of Charles Perrault, the French author of Tales of Mother Goose. In this collection, Carter offered readers a set of gruesome and richly imagined stores that allowed us to reevaluate our understanding of the narratives that have become so ingrained in our culture. In her writing, Carter attempted to deconstruct traditional symbolism and reveal a deeper meaning, and she was highly critical of the roles of women in these stories. Her work revealed a tension between realism and fantasy, dominance and submission and the desire for both independence and love. Through fairy tales, Carter attempted to discover what it might mean for a woman to be empowered in a world that has been transformed by feminism (Moseley 212).
The Sadeian Woman and the Ideology of Pornography, was a nonfiction work, which critiqued the writing of the Marquis de Sade. In this piece, Carter examined pornography and its role in shaping our views of women and sexuality. Carter pointed out that pornography can have some value in demolishing the idea that women do not have the same sexual desires as men. She also pointed out that pornography creates a false fantasy about women and is catered to the desires of men rather than true representations of sexuality. Carter argued that de Sade’s work portrayed a more complete vision of female sexuality and could be viewed as liberating. But in the end, de Sade ultimately failed because he fell back on traditional gender roles (Moseley 212).
Carter’s body of work demonstrated a tremendous variety. She was a successful journalist, critic and writer of fiction, and her work revealed a sharp mind and a skeptical attitude. As a feminist author, her writing was invaluable for its complexity. Her willingness to delve deeply into the full implications of feminist ideology rather than jumping blindly into a new social order was one of her greatest strengths. Feminism, like any ideology, needed, and continues to need, artists who display a healthy skepticism. Carter’s stories showed us, in the most fantastic was possible, that equality is not necessarily easy, and that even something as simple as a fairy tale can prove to be profoundly complex and meaningful when examined with an inquisitive eye.
Shelton, Pamela L. Feminist Writers. Detroit: St. James Press, 1996. Print.
Moseley, Merritt. British Novelists Since 1960: Fourth Series. Dictionary of literary biography, v. 231. Detroit: Gale Group, 2001. Print.