‘She was concerned with unpicking the mythic roles and structures that underwrite our existences – in particular various myths of gender identity – and during the last decade of her life she was beginning to emerge as a feminist icon’.
The Invention of Angela Carter by Edmund Gordon, Pg.xii
Angela Carter has long been a favourite author of mine since I picked up Nights at the Circus as an unassuming and curious teenager. Unaware of what an impact her books would have on my life, I devoured Nights at the Circus purely on a superficial level. I enjoyed the luxurious and beautifully written prose – dripping in fanciful language and symbolic imagery – and I enjoyed the magical elements to her book that lifted it from the mixture of Victorian and YA literature I was undoubtedly reading at the time. To me Carter was a force to be reckoned with, she was completely new and exciting – like nothing I had ever read before. It is a testament to her enormous talent that she still remains fresh and exciting now, two decades after her last book, Wise Children, was published.
That’s why it’s so surprising that The Invention of Angela Carter by Edmund Gordon is one of the first fully comprehensive attempts at a biography of the legendary writer – as he points out numerous times throughout his book. How have there not been any biographies of Angela Carter before? True, there have been bits and pieces from close friends and a wealth of literary criticism, but there hasn’t been any attempt to write a fully-realised account of her life. And this is shocking because she is such an important writer of the twentieth century and she also had an extremely fascinating (though regrettably short) life.
Born in 1940 to Hugh Stalker and Sophia Farthing, Angela Carter’s early childhood was punctuated by temporary stays and short visits to her maternal grandmother. A larger-than-life Yorkshire woman with many colloquialisms, Carter’s grandmother reappears time and again in her fiction – most notably in Wise Children. However, growing up under the care of an overprotective and emotionally dependent mother, Gordon brings to light Carter’s omission of mother figures in her novels. Whether intentional or not, Carter’s heroine’s tend to be motherless, orphaned or, in the case of Fevvers, completely elusive in origin. More often than not, her character’s have no rootedness to family or origins. Although she returns to familiar settings (for example, the ‘Bristol trilogy’ books in the sixties, a south London setting in The Magic Toyshop, Nights at the Circus and Wise Children) Carter doesn’t allow her characters to be easily categorised, just like her writing.
‘[Carter] was exorbitantly various, resistant to being absorbed into any movement or genre, perpetually trying on new roles and identities, both in her life and her work. ‘I would regard myself as a feminist writer, because I’m a feminist in everything else and one can’t compartmentalise these things’, she wrote, and several of her novels and stories do take the experience of women as a standout theme. But just as every action she performed wasn’t a mimed commentary on gender inequality […] so her fiction can’t be boiled down to a set of near intellectual perspectives. Neat is the last thing she ever was or wanted to be’.
The Invention of Angela Carter by Edmund Gordon, Pg. 130-1
One of the aspects of Carter’s life I find particularly interesting is the time she spent travelling and living in Japan. Having read some of her journalism on Japan and her short stories Fireworks, I was intrigued to learn more about the circumstances surrounding her move there. I already knew that she was able to travel with the prize money from the Somerset Maugham Award for her novel Several Perceptions in 1969, but I originally thought she travelled alone and that the prize money enabled her to leave her premature and unhappy marriage to Paul Carter. However, it turns out she originally travelled to the USA with her husband to follow the folk scene there with plans to move on to Japan on her own afterwards. Although the split may not have been as dramatic as I originally thought, her experience in Japan did act as a catalyst in her divorce from Paul Carter. It was also intriguing to learn of her opinions on the countries she visited or lived in for short periods of time, from Japan, Hong Kong, Australia and in particular the USA. Although writing in her journal, ‘I think of the United States with awe and sadness, that the country has never, ever quite reneged on the beautiful promise inscribed on the Statue of Liberty … and yet has fucked so much up’, it is clear that the USA inspired a lot of her fiction, especially The Passion of New Eve which begins in a New York that is void of morals and on the brink of economic collapse.
The Invention of Angela Carter covers so much ground, from the writer’s personal love life to her views on prostitution and feminism, that I could go on and on. Gordon’s humble approach to his subject is a satisfying perspective. He knows the challenges he faces in demythologising Carter and recognises, acutely, his position as a man writing the life of an extremely talented and self-assured woman. He also realises that he is just scratching the surface of what will inevitably be a deluge of Angela Carter biographies in the years and decades to come. I think that, combined with the life force that is Angela Carter, has made Gordon’s book an extremely interesting and engaging read. He has certainly inspired me to pick up the remaining Carter novels and writings on my shelf sooner than I would have done.
‘At forty, she would allow herself to exhibit a symptom of ageing which women twice as old took pains to conceal. It was perhaps the most outwardly dramatic touch in her lifelong project of self-invention: a visible rebuff to the prescriptions of a masculine society, and a sign that she was entirely comfortable with herself’.
The Invention of Angela Carter by Edmund Gordon, pg. 302-3