The Dark, Funny, Subversive Chamber of Angela Carter's Imagination
In this expansive yet detailed and nuanced biography, Edmund Gordon allows the complex and endlessly fascinating Angela Carter to come alive on the page again
Towards the end of The Invention of Angela Carter, Edmund Gordon confesses that writing this biography was a "strange and somewhat eerie process: a haunting, but there were times when I didn't know if the ghost was Angela, or me." I could recognise the feeling of that strange haunting; I wanted to drag out this book as long as I could, but I also knew I had to read it by a specific time because I needed to write a review. So I immersed myself in this book totally, reading only this and nothing else for some days. Even so, when I got towards the final sections and knew how it would end -- she has cancer, and her death follows pretty swiftly after the initial diagnosis -- I was still surprised that Angela Carter had died. She had seemed so alive in my mind. That says as much about Carter herself as it does about Gordon’s biography.
Every biographer has to be a bit of a magician: they have to know when to stage a disappearing act, and when to reappear again to contextualise their subject’s life, to give some grounding to what reads like fiction but is not, and to do what is necessarily human in what involves an appraisal of an artist’s life and their works: to judge and evaluate the works in the question. In this, the first full biography of Angela Carter, Gordon has a lot on his shoulders, but he pulls it off with delicacy and finesse.
The book is organised chronologically, and Gordon begins by giving us some background about her maternal and paternal grandparents. “Angela doesn’t seem to have looked very closely into her grandfather’s military service, but she did show signs of discomfort about being descended from an imperialist,” Gordon writes, in reference to her grandfather being sent on duty to Port Blair in the Andaman Islands in the late 19th century. Later, Carter would have to craft some details out of her imagination, including details that “belong to the biography of the grandfather she would have designed for herself, not the one she had,” as Gordon explains.
Gordon is good at including these details, fairly and without fanfare, neither excusing nor justifying Carter’s behaviour. For the rest of us, it’s the kind of fibbing about a relative’s shameful past that will go into obscurity. For Carter, whose politics were largely socialist and always in common with the working-class, the refugees, the marginalised and the outcasts, this necessity of inventing a more radical lineage is understandable as wish-fulfillment, even as it smacks of the evasive gestures of many radical white people who would prefer to think their ancestors had no role to play in the world-altering systems like colonialism. At the same time, it hints at her capacious sense of imagination, and the blurring of lines between reality and fiction that perhaps all writers are accused of at some point in their lives.
Angela was born the second and youngest child to Hugh and Olive Stalker in 1940. She was indulged as a young child, her elder brother being some 12 years older. “I would say my father did not prepare me well for patriarchy,” she has said. “He was putty in my hands throughout childhood.” Her childhood was spent mainly alone, as she grew into an introvert who lacked confidence in social relations. Her mother’s attentions began to grow oppressive as she grew up, to the point where Carter was made to take showers well into her teens with the bathroom door open. She hated school, the dull, mechanical regimen of it, though as she astutely describes it herself, “perhaps hate is the wrong word, too positive, too passionate, to describe the glum, sullen loathing that overcame me as I daily slouched and dawdled towards the great, grey place.” The claustrophobic intimacy at home combined with the mind-numbing edification of school lessons were the early factors that allowed Carter to start building the foundations of a fantasy life, an imagination that was able to overcome the many vague and acute disappointments of real life.
Through sheer will, Carter was able to shed the pounds that she had accumulated throughout her childhood due to her mother’s overfeeding. After school, she worked as a journalist thanks to her father’s connections, where she was seen as sharply intelligent, eccentric, and “one of the boys” by the male colleagues with whom she could forge a friendship, but Gordon explains that “Angela’s intellectual composure co-existed with intense physical self-consciousness.” To avoid being judged by society’s standards that will doubtless find anyone who doesn’t adhere to strict requirements of gender roles wanting, she crafted an image for herself that was expressly eccentric and in defiant of feminine norms. “By dressing unconventionally, she immunised herself against conventional opinion,” Gordon says.
Carter’s sense of self, and her ability to wrest her image away from her mother’s control in her late teens was due to her defiance. Her early, disastrous marriage to Paul Carter, a person with whom she bonded over their shared commitment to music and music journalism, was embarked upon in defiance of her mother’s suffocating attentions. Later, as Paul’s depressive moods began to wreck havoc upon the marriage, she went to Japan in defiance of what was expected of wives. As Gordon describes it, Paul would get the sulks if Carter didn’t do her wifely duties of house chores. Carter wrote in her journal about the fact that “the buggering about with dirty dishes, coal pails, ash bins, shitbins, hot water, detergent” never ends. “I’m so tired I can’t think, or write, or read. I tumble, glazed and bladderful, from bed & swing into the fire-kettle-porridge-bread routine.” That her husband thought it was appropriate for him to sulk instead of help was a sign of the times, perhaps, and shocking (all over again) in how deep-rooted the ideology of the gendered division of labour is.
These early experiences with her mother and first husband are the bedrock from which her unconventional but always thoughtful form of socialist feminism grew. In Japan, she enters into a sexually-charged relationship with an itinerant dilettante, Sozo, and then embarks upon the seduction of a young man of Korean ancestry when she returns to Japan some months later and finds that Sozo has moved on from her. Interspersed with the volatile changes in her personal life are the many details of her continued and sustained intellectual flowering.
The strongest sections of this biography, or perhaps the bits that I found most invigorating, involve Gordon contextualising the creation of one her novels or stories with the kind of reading and thinking Carter was doing at the time. Breton’s first Surrealist Manifesto was the trigger for The Magic Toyshop, while stuff she was reading in New Worlds magazine while it was under the helm of the editor Michael Moorcock was the catalyst for Heroes and Villains. Gordon writes that her initial notes in 1966 for The Magic Toyshop include:
clockwork cat catching clockwork mouse
a dumb woman with red eyebrows
a toy theatre in which you take part
From those first vague, surrealist images, Carter developed the meat of the story for her novel.
Prior to that, in 1964, she had reread John Masefield’s The Box of Delights, of which The Children’s Hour radio adaptation was “one of the most potent memories of [her] childhood.” These different images and meanings swirled around in her mind before it was transformed into a work that is undoubtedly hers for its style. As Carter wrote in 1968, “I think writing -- or my kind of writing -- is a process of self-analysis, of interpreting one’s imagery and constantly mining inside oneself.” She also believed that “our external symbols must always express the life within us with absolute precision,” and Gordon goes on to make a case for how the character of “the bourgeois virgin” in The Magic Toyshop and Heroes and Villains is an example of an idea by Balzac that Carter was fond of, that all fiction is a form of “symbolic autobiography”. The character of the “bourgeois virgin” in her early novels is an aspect of herself under her mother’s care that she was working to be rid of on one level, in an attempt to forge from its ruins a new kind of self.
Carter’s feminism was based on socialist principles but she valued individual autonomy and she had the tendency to ruffle the feathers of radical feminists. This was most evident in The Sadeian Woman, which as Gordon explains, crystallised her views on pornography as “an expression of power relations”. Still, she struggled with writing The Sadeian Woman, agonising over getting it right and fearing that it was going to be “a very bad book indeed -- half impossibly high-flown and highbrow, half helplessly sexploitative and god-awful.” She was on surer footing in her fiction. “One way of shaking up the intelligentsia was to go against received notions of aesthetic,” Gordon writes, and Angela did not have much regard for the intelligence of reviewers who worried that her style was too vulgar or bawdy or excessive. She tended to view much of this criticism as reactionary. But she was still a writer, and writers are known for having prickly egos -- so much is bound up in the fact of whether one is read, and read fairly.
While she was always a staunch supporter and loyal friend to the likes of Salman Rushdie, who seemed to receive overnight success with Midnight’s Children, she was also privately coming to terms that the literary establishment might praise her but never accept her into its ranks, as her lack of a Man Booker Prize goes to show. Gordon points out how her desire to work through the picaresque form is partly political, as well, based on an interview she gave:
The Infernal Desire Machines of Dr Hoffman, that was when I began to use these ragged, picaresque, rambling kinds of discourses, because I was trying to short-circuit the question of whom I am addressing. Do they have villas, do they have willies, and so on and so on.
Somehow the literary establishment felt fit to shower her radical experimentations with novelistic form and content with praise, but not so much with material rewards.
But the key aspect of her feminism seems to have grown out of her fear of engulfment in relationship to her mother, whose suffocating oppressive love was a form of entrapment Carter was always afraid of in her personal and sexual relationships. Carter’s mother turned towards the wall when her daughter came to see her on her deathbed, and wrote her out of her will when she found out that Angela was divorcing her first husband, Paul. Carter would go on to write after her mother’s death that “I feel so strange. No home. Nothing familiar, any more … like the newborn wanting to retreat back to the womb, knowing it is impossible & knowing there is no womb-surrogate anywhere, now.”
“Tinkering with another person’s autonomy is rather a dreadful thing,” she wrote to Sozo, her lover in Japan, and this underlies her belief of the necessity of freedom for the individual, the ability to live one’s life within one’s terms. These concerns lie behind the energising force in her work, the push and pull between autonomy and the demands of cultural forces. This was also the central force of her feminism, and it enabled her to achieve a fulfilling union with her second husband, Mark, who was younger than her and -- it must be noted -- perfectly willing to do more than “his share” of reproductive labour in the domestic sphere.
Gordon’s sensitivity and empathy allow all of Carter’s contradictions to come through and paints a vivid picture of a truly vibrant and defiant personality who tried very hard to do things on her own terms while also being responsible to others; a quality that has its basis in her socialist leanings and belief that people on the lower end of the pecking order should not be screwed over. As a white woman, there were occasional cringe-worthy remarks about Japanese culture and sexuality that seemed more a product of her time; remarks that became less offensive when one got a glimpse of how much Carter cared for her lovers in Japan and saw them deeply as individuals, as humans, instead of as a collection of cultural characteristics and sexually-attractive traits.
Gordon allows Carter to come alive on the page again, taking care not to engulf her with his own theories and presuppositions as a biographer, but he emerges from the shadows at the correct moments to firmly situate the context of her work and its reception. Gordon does concede that she is “much too big for any single book to contain.” Here’s hoping that this is the first of many close studies on the making of Angela Carter and her imaginative, radical, and expansive writing.