“I’m the witch. You’re the world!”
INSPIRATION:ANGELA CARTER THE “THE HIGH SORCERESS, AND BENEVOLENT WITCH QUEEN OF ENGLISH LITERATURE.”
“OK, I write overblown, purple, self-indulgent prose. So fucking what?”
Angela Carter. My favorite author and one of my most treasured storytellers – she always delights me with her fierce, witty, gothic, jaunty tales – in her short stories, and novels are dripping with sex, danger and intelligence. Angela Carter was a notable for her unaplogetic use of magic realism – adding into it her delicious gothic themes, postmodernist eclecticism, violence, and sheer eroticism. I will never forget discovering her work at 17 years old and being thrilled, and inspired at her daring, evocative boldness – underneath the magical description and unique stories was a voice, it was commanding me to be myself and not give a flying fuck what others think of you.
Throughout her career, Carter utilized the language and characteristic themes of the magical 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 newfound 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 Eastborne, Sussex. 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, and is also one of my favorite stories, dark, inviting and mysterious.
At Bristol University, Carter became familiar with the French Symbolists and Dadaists, and with Shakespeare and medieval literature before moving to Japan for two years – a country I long to visit, it culture, history and sense of fantasy mystify me.
Whilst in Japan, Carter first came across the work of the Marquis de Sade in a second-hand bookshop, my friend Audie and I recently stumbled upon his novel ‘Philosophy in the Boudoir’ given our taste for romance novels, we were shocked and safe to say it goes far beyond anything you a likely to read in the painfully obvious and badly written ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’. In The Sadeian Woman (1978) she questioned culturally accepted views of sexuality, and sadistic and masochistic relations between men and women
A 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’ (That’s Feathers in a cockney accent), the heroine, is not like other people, she has wings, but her freedom to fly is limited on the stage, it is a deeply beautiful humorous re-creation of the 19th-century bourgeois novel.
“Lor’ love you, sir!” Fevvers sang out in a voice that clanged like dustbin lids.”
This novel doesn’t start so much as launches – What follows is a grippingly good read, full of invention, humor, earthiness and magic realism. This is a circus world in which chimps take over the management of their act, tigers waltz, a pig acts as management consultant to the circus owner spelling out advice in alphabet cards, clocks repeatedly strike midnight and of course a buxom Cockney aerialist hatched from an egg and now flies on dyed purple wings. Or do they? As Fevvers wonders at one point “Am I fact or am I fiction”
The most potent work of hers is the earthy, sensual, passionate and groundbreaking collection of re-told fairy tales The Bloody Chamber (1979), in which she celebrated the power of female desire to re-imagine the world and turn it on its head. Carter’s fairy-tale heroines reclaim the night. She rewrites the conventional script formed over centuries of acclimatizing girls – and their lovers. Another American poet and champion of women’s liberties, Adrienne Rich, coined the term “re-visioning” for such writes – Carter herself sometimes called them “reformulations”. The Bloody Chamber starts with a darkly erotic reworking of Bluebeard’s Castle, I remember sitting between my boyfriends legs as we sailed across the Caribbean as he read this to me, feeling Carters words resonate through his chest, feeling his warmth and heart beat while living in that gothic, sensual world is a memory that will never die – only with me. As I was walking along the beach in Cornwall I found myself standing on the shore of this story looking into Carters imagination and seeing the world of this story come to life as I looked at St Micheal’s Mount across the sea. I was back in that cabin, swimming in the warmth of his heartbeat and drowning in the vibrations of his voice.
“The faery solitude of the place; with its turrets of misty blue, its courtyard, its spiked gate, his castle that lay on the very bosom of the ssea with seabirds mewing about its attics, the casements opening on to the green and #purple, evanescent departures of the ocean, cut off by the tide from land for half a day … that castle, at home neither on the land nor on the water, a mysterious, amphibious place, contravening the materiality of both earth and the waves, with the melancholy of a mermaiden who perches on her rock and waits, endlessly, for a lover who had drowned far away, long ago. That lovely, sad, sea-siren of a place!” – The Bloody Chamber
Next is bawdy Puss in Boots and a sado-masochistic version of Little Red Riding Hood amongst many others – it is her subversive take on traditional fairy stories and is as shocking today as when the collection first appeared back in the 70’s. Carter knew from the start that she was drawn to “Gothic tales, cruel tales, tales of wonder, tales of terror, fabulous narratives that deal directly with the imagery of the unconscious”. The Bloody Chamber is like a glittering diamond reflecting and refracting a
variety of portraits of desire and sexuality. Everytime I read them she nodds to me, relates to me and tells me its ok to be myself – she gives me a wonderful feeling of unrestrained exploration in her storytelling, she is brave and seems to write with a great sense of abandonment and freedom. A way a want to lie my life and love, the way I love the man who’s heartbeat let me swim in her stories.
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.”
Next is one of my favorite novels of all time, how do I begin to describe ‘Wise Children’ (1991) which was finished during Carter’s final battle with cancer. It focuses 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!”
Wise Children is a ‘rollicking’ (as my friend Annabel would say) story with satirical wit and wry, bawdy observation. Even without analysis, it stands on its own as an engaging story, 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. The text is packed with allusions: it affectionately satirizes the “showbiz” scenes of the era, often in the most unexpected ways – it contains both vivid and subtle peices of her famous use of Magical Realism.
She died of cancer on February 16, 1992, in London.
“English literature has lost its high sorceress, its benevolent witch queen,” wrote one of my of my other favorite authors Salman Rushdie about Carter, a stunning quote to remember her by.
Merja Makinen called Carter the “avant-garde literary terrorist of feminism” in her essay ‘Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber “
“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.
Stars on our door, stars in our eyes, stars exploding in the bits of our brains where the common sense should have been”
Angela Carter, Wise Children
The Last Midnight – ‘Into the Woods’, Music and Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim