8th May 2012
Bookish Birthdays: Angela Carter
Yesterday would have been Angela Carter’s 72nd birthday, so we’re taking a minute to consider the glory of her work, the immensity of her influence, and the tragedy of her early death at the age of 51.
My adoration of Carter is a well-known fact. From my dissertation based upon her early work, to a feature about my three favourite Angela Carter characters for this very site, I simply cannot get enough of her writing and love learning about her life.
Born as Angela Olive Stalker in Eastbourne, Carter was evacuated to live with her maternal grandmother in Yorkshire where in her teenage years she began a life-long battle with anorexia and a certain level of body dysmorphia that lasted until her later years.
After attending the University of Bristol studying a degree in English Literature, she married her first husband Paul Carter in 1960. While she never outright stated her oppression, her comments about the nine year marriage suggests a turbulent and suppressed chapter in her life.
She left Paul and “ran away” to Japan with the money won from the Somerset Maugham Award in 1969 where she lived for two years and “learnt what it is to be a woman and became radicalised.” You can see the heavy influence of Japan in her short stories that form Fireworks: Nine Profane Pieces (1974).
Carter had an intense taste for travel, working her way across Asia, Europe and the United States, in which she was a writer in residence at many American universities. In 1977 Carter married her second husband Mark Peace with whom she had her only child, Alex.
There are hundreds of reasons why I adore Carter’s work and the woman herself, only a few of which I can go into here. She completely radicalised what feminism meant, taking controversial approaches to pornography and women’s sexuality that caused outrage amongst the leading feminists of the time.
To find out some of the reasons why her opinions were considered so outrageous, check out The Sadeian Woman: the Ideology of Pornography (1979).
The first Carter book I read was Wise Children (1991) as part of my A level literature course, and the beauty of the book alongside a brilliant teacher who had a clear love of Carter sparked a desire to read more.
Wise Children is hilarious and moving novel that introduced me to the power of magic realism, and despite it being Carter’s final masterpiece, I’d always recommend it for a first-time reader.
The Magic Toyshop (1967), Carter’s second novel with which she received her first literary award, shows a far darker side of Carter that would be explored further in later novels.
It depicts Carter’s intrigue with puppets, incest and Sadeian, domineering characters that are presented time and time again in her short stories.
The Bloody Chamber (1979), a series of re-imagined fairy tales taken back to their roots and given a violent feminist twist, is often considered the greatest collection of work that she produced, primarily for the radical feminist thinking sewn into each story.
Around a year before she died, Carter was diagnosed with lung cancer that swiftly became terminal. Carter maintained her twisted sense of humour throughout the majority of her illness.
When phoning a friend to announce her illness she said “Oh, a man’s coming to the door”. After a pause, she revealed “It’s alright. I’ll let him in. He hasn’t got a scythe”.
Angela Carter died 16th February 1992. I fear I cannot do the loss of her genius justice, so I recommend reading Salmon Rushdie’s tribute to Carter in the New York Times, Angela Carter 1940 – 92: A Very Good Wizard, A Very Dear Friend, in which he states he “cannot bear it that she is dead.”
I was an infant of one year when Carter died, and for much of my early life I was completely unaware of her work and her brilliance. So many people name Carter as their favourite author and for good reason.
Post-modernism, magic realism, tragedy, comedy, psychoanalysis, feminism, orientalism, fairy tales…these titles just scrape the range and style of her work, which progressed and developed with each new narrative.
We love you Angela Carter, with your beauty mane of grey hair, violent sense of humour, and powerful approach to feminism. Where ever you are, whatever you’re doing, we wish you a very happy birthday.