Behind the myth of white-witch feminist
Since her death almost 25 years ago, Angela Carter has become only more mythologised. Thanks to a recent outpouring of critical revision of her work, in particular on landmark books The Bloody Chamber and The Sadeian Woman, the English writer is now tied to much of the mythical themes of her famous fiction. To Salman Rushdie, Carter was a “benevolent white witch”. To contemporary Margaret Atwood, she was a “Fairy Godmother”. To Carmen Callil, she was an oracle.
Yet in The Invention of Angela Carter, a magnificent new biography, Edmund Gordon attempts to dismantle much of the myth-making: “I’ve tried to complicate the one-dimensional image of a ‘white witch’ or ‘fairy godmother’ by illuminating … the self she worked so hard to establish and protect.”
With comprehensive access to Carter’s personal archives, and even greater access to her former friends and family members, Gordon provides a compelling, rich and humanising portrait of a fabled writer.
The book’s premise is how Carter spent a lifetime experiencing multiple reinventions, psychic and real, many of which were acted out through her writing. Gordon provides key insights into her personal life, much of which has been overlooked to prioritise her fiction.
Born in 1940 on the south coast of England, Carter spent her formative years living with her maternal grandmother Jane during the London Blitz. Jane was a key influence on Carter, enlivening a preoccupation with fantasy and fairytales as well as an appreciation for the power of matriarchies, a subject Carter later examined in The Magic Toyshop.
After initially forgoing university, Carter started as a journalist on a local newspaper. But, told she “stretched the truth” in her reporting, she abandoned journalism in favour of writing fiction full time. She later went to the University of Bristol, where she studied medieval literature before moving to Japan in her late 20s. It was there she experienced a momentous psychic and cultural rediscovery that greatly shaped her writing to come.
But it was not until the late 1970s that Carter achieved national attention. When The Bloody Chamber and The Sadeian Woman came out in 1979, Carter finally appeared on the critical radar, despite having already published half a dozen novels.
The Bloody Chamber was a collection of fairytale retellings — reformulations to Carter, resuscitations to critics — that embraced many of the subliminally darker and more sexual elements of the stories, creating a powerful kal- eidoscope of subversive images around desire and female sexuality. The Sadeian Woman explored the writing of Marquis de Sade, arguing he was “terrorist of the imagination” who used pornography to represent a vision of society in which sex was at the mercy of political power. Many regarded the book as a critical companion to The Bloody Chamber, a kind of guidebook to understanding Carter’s psychoanalytical approach to classic fairytales and her motivation to extract their latent sexual subtext.
But unlike The Sadeian Woman, Carter never saw The Bloody Chamber as an intentionally feminist work, which it has since become. It was first prompted by her translations of Charles Perrault’s 17th-century collection of fairytales, later published as The Fairy Tales of Charles Perrault in 1977. While translating Perrault’s stories, Carter had begun to read much psychoanalytical and Freudian literature and allowed this interest to bleed into her understanding of these fairytales. The translated stories proved exhilarating to Carter since their “vivid images of sex and violence”, all lurking in the familiar narratives of fairytale, alerted her to the repressed sexuality within many of them, which psychoanalysis sought to uncover.
Carter took the story of Little Red Riding Hood and reshaped it along darker lines. She had been drawn to hallowed fables since her early childhood: “Mother Goose” tales is what she called them. But according to Gordon she never planned for them “to subvert … a patriarchal form”. But after its reception as a “crusading feminist book”, The Bloody Chamber has since become a watershed work in the canon, unmasking the latent tensions of classic fairytales and reconfiguring these into powerful allegorical tales about sex and power.
The strength of this biography is Gordon’s demythologising of Carter. Although there is the temptation to engage in the hyperbole that inflates her legacy, Gordon’s antidote is to map out much of her inner world — her failures, obsessions, limits — and enrich our understanding of an elusive literary figure. He argues Carter is far more than the few works that define her, and offers detailed analysis of other important novels such as The Magic Toyshop, Nights at the Circus and The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman.
The Invention of Angela Carter is a robust and nuanced reconsideration of the complex — and often contradictory — life and legacy of one England’s greatest female writers. “Angela Carter lived to an unusual extent … in her own fantasies. She wasn’t a reliable witness to her own life,” Gordon writes. Thanks to this biography, however, it feels as though we now can bear witness to one life so defined by myth and fantasy. Melbourne. is an arts writer based in
From the cover of The Invention of Angela Carter