Be­hind the myth of white-witch fem­i­nist

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Nathan Smith

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

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