Open The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter and you know right away you’re reading a masterpiece — not something one expects with a modern collection of retold fairy tales. Electric, hypnotic, dizzying, occasionally hallucinatory — paragraph by paragraph, you are in the presence of an author in total control of her prose. That the stories — versions of Bluebeard, Beauty and the Beast, Little Red Riding Hood, etc. — are so familiar is part of the collection’s paradoxical force. The spell is irresistible. I say that as someone who finds fairy tales and their modern retellings highly resistible: They’re inherently sentimental, precious, and overwrought (that’s why children read them). But Carter’s talent overwhelms these qualities, ironizes them, turns them on their heads and sets them twirling. The sensation is something like reading Poe for the first time, except The Bloody Chamber appeared in 1979, the same year that Carter, then 39 and a self-described “radical feminist,” published her polarizing study The Sadeian Woman: And the Ideology of Pornography.
If the two books had a common mission it was to puncture, deflate, defang a set of myths about female sexuality to do with virtue and vice — the Madonna and the Whore in Catholic parlance, though those weren’t her terms. “Myth deals in false universals, to dull the pain of particular circumstances,” she writes in The Sadeian Woman. To critics like Richard Gilman in the Times Book Review her view of pornography was too limited to Sade’s violent and exploitative version to break new ground in the ongoing and bitterly contentious 1970s debates about porn; to feminists like Andrea Dworkin it was insufficiently strident and condemnatory. “Pornographers are the enemies of women only because our contemporary ideology of pornography does not encompass the possibility of change,” Carter wrote, “as if we were the slaves of history and not its masters, as if sexual relations were not the result of social relations, as if sex itself were an external fact, one as immutable as the weather, creating human practice but never part of it.” For Gilman this was behind the times; for Dworkin a form of denial.
Carter’s real subject was social relations; pornography was just a way in. “The notion of a universality of experience is a confidence trick. The notion of universal female experience is a clever confidence trick,” she wrote. Her view was antiessentialist: “I don’t see much difference between men and women. The variations between people of the same sex are usually much greater.” Thus, she resented being called a writer of myths. The stories she told were anti-myths.
But ideas that met dismissal or resistance when delivered as polemic animated what’s turned out to be Carter’s best-loved work, The Bloody Chamber — loved intensely, not widely, at least during her lifetime. As Edmund Gordon relates in his exhaustive and enchanting new biography The Invention of Angela Carter, only a raft of reverent obituaries and a BBC television profile that aired just after her death of lung cancer at age 51 in 1992 made Carter a household name.
In execution, de-universalizing fairy tales is largely a matter of granting their heroines psychology, imbuing them with desires, giving them what we’d these days call erotic agency. They have personality too. So the bride in “The Bloody Chamber” wakes from losing her virginity missing her husband and wanting him again (he’s been called from Brittany on business to sail to New York); she unlocks his forbidden secret room out of an urge to know him, and finds the remains of his three previous wives. Carter’s version of Little Red Riding Hood, “In the Company of Wolves,” ends not with the Big Bad Wolf eating the girl or the woodcutter rescuing her but like this:
What big arms you have.
All the better to hug you with.
Every wolf in the world now howled a prothalamion outside the window as she freely gave the kiss she owed him.
What big teeth you have!
She saw how his jaw began to slaver and the room was full of the clamor of the forest’s Liebestod but the wise child never flinched, even when he answered:
All the better to eat you with.
The girl burst out laughing; she knew she was nobody’s meat. She laughed at him full in the face, she ripped off his shirt for him and flung it into the fire, in the fiery wake of her own discarded clothing. The flames danced like dead souls on Walpugisnacht and the old bones under the bed set up a terrible clattering but she did not pay them any heed.
Carnivore incarnate, only immaculate flesh appeases him.
She will lay his fearful head on her lap and she will pick out the lice from his pelt and perhaps she will put the lice into her mouth and eat them, as he will bid her, as she would do in a savage marriage ceremony.
The blizzard will die down.
Carter had translated the tales of Charles Perrault. She knew her Brothers Grimm but also Dickens, Lawrence, Joyce, Borges, Marquez, Burgess, Barthes, Freud, R.D. Laing, and of course Sade. She came of age in the 1960s and was the first exemplar of magic realism in Britain. She arrived between the Angry Young Men of the 1950s (Kingsley Amis, John Osborne) and the enfant terribles of the 1970s (Martin Amis, Salman Rushdie, Ian McEwan). In her lifetime she was never as popular or as well-paid as either cohort, or as her friend and rival J.G. Ballard. The Booker Prize eluded her; there was never a nomination.
Carter’s career had three phases. There was a flurry of five apprentice novels published between 1966 and 1971, including the post-apocalyptic Heroes and Villains, and the lowlife nightmare love triangle Love. Across these books and in her early stories you can watch her talent form in the blissed-out, burnt-out crucible of hippie England. Carter’s novels are the furthest thing from autobiographical in the conventional sense, but Gordon finds bits of the life, places, and people especially, that found their way into the fiction, often in reversed or inverted forms, like photo negatives. Carter spent these years married to Paul Carter, a chemist and folk-music scenester given to the sulks. Many assumed the depressive wife in Love was Carter’s self-portrait, but she’d reversed the roles, casting herself as the leonine husband Lee. Money from a prize for her third novel, Several Perceptions, funded a trip around the world, and she brought Paul with her to San Francisco, then left him to go on to Japan. In Japan she met a seducer called Sozo Araki, a younger aspiring novelist who talked with her for hours about Dostoevsky and took her to love hotels. She returned to England for a divorce, came back for Araki, and moved to the Pacific coast of Japan with him. After some months, she returned to England, came back again to Japan, but Araki wasn’t waiting for her at the station. It was over. (Gordon found Araki in Tokyo: He never wrote a novel but is the dapper author of several books of romantic advice and a die-hard Elvis fan.)
Carter remained in Japan, where she seduced a 19-year-old virgin named Mansu Ko, son of Korean immigrants, lived with him, and then broke his heart by going back to Britain. Gordon writes that Carter was always looking for “a romantic relationship in which her identity was sacrosanct.” But it turned out that a traditional marriage wasn’t the only threat to spouses’ individuality; repeated declarations and demonstrations of independence could also make things difficult. “She could see, now, that her own attempts at ‘making myself utterly memorable’ were as much of a threat to her identity (certainly if that project failed) as someone else attempting to dominate her.” She described Ko in a letter home: “He is a minor Fellini character, in a purple Indian shirt & trodden down baseball boots. He has also all the Holden Caulfield characteristics — a suddenly luminous turn of phrase; a history of running away from home; a confession of mental instability (as if I hadn’t known).” She would learn that he’d jumped off a building to his death a few months before her own death. Her memories of him were a source of guilt in her last days. Perhaps, she wrote to a mutual friend, she’d made herself too memorable.
It was in Japan that the second phase commenced as she worked on the story collection Fireworks, and her sixth novel, The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman, a picaresque that from the first pages has you convinced you’re reading some Anglo cousin of Calvino. The difference from the early work is astonishing. There’s a charm and a liveliness to the prose in, say, Love, but it’s plagued by murkiness — an almost structureless quality. She knew she’d found a new style: “I’d developed this highly decorative, very tightly structured prose that could almost fit anything, and I was quite consciously utilising it,” she said later. “I mean it was lovely, it was beautiful, because I was in control of it.” In the picaresque, anything goes: Bonds of class, family, and gender are stretched or broken; heroes can become whatever they make of themselves. Which is what the divorced Carter was doing too. Her next picaresque, The Passion of New Eve, followed a man across an America torn by civil war as he’s captured by women from an all-female subterranean city and given an unwanted sex-change operation, then escapes and finds himself in the clutches of a Manson Family–like cult. (The Australian critic James Ley has said she rewrote Gulliver’s Travels twice with these books.)
The Bloody Chamber and the subsequent collection, Saints and Sinners, with fictionalized versions of Lizzie Borden’s murders and a portrait of Poe, were the culmination of this. Carter’s home life was at last happy. She’d started living with Mark Pearce, a contractor who’d been working on a house across the street when she needed a tap fixed. He was 14 years her junior and looked “like a werewolf,” she said. “[M]y dear, I know words are not your language,” she wrote to him while teaching abroad. They had a son together, which prompted Carter, long a chain-smoker, to kick the sticks at age 41.
Carter’s income became less precarious in the late 1970s as she started teaching creative writing at the University of East Anglia, where Kazuo Ishiguro was one of her first students, and as far afield as Brown University, the Iowa Writers Workshop, the University of Texas, and the University of Adelaide. She liked Iowa but hated Texas and preferred Australia’s founding myths to America’s because they seemed more truly egalitarian. Her two novels of the 1980s, Nights at the Circus and Wise Children, were wide-ranging works of magical realism drenched in Shakespeare and drawing on her working-class grandparents love of music halls. (Encyclopedic knowledge of the bard among common people was a form of “class revenge,” she said.) They should have marked the start of an expansive middle phase. Instead they were an endpoint.
All along Carter had worked as a journalist, and the essays collected in the 640-page volume Shaking a Leg are a marvel. Carter had been an exemplary student, won a London-wide essay prize when she was 11, and state grants to attend a private high school. But she soured on the prospect of going to Oxford when her overbearing mother suggested that she and her father would rent a flat there and join her. Aside from English, Carter botched her exams, deliberately, Gordon suspects. But her father, a Fleet Street night editor, pulled strings to get her a job as a reporter on the Croydon Advertiser, a local newspaper in South London. She was the youngest reporter in the newsroom and the only female journalist (the other women in the office were secretaries). Most of her contributions were anonymous, at first, but she started to insert the word “I” into her copy to ensure she’d be granted bylines.
Journalism was always a way to make ends meet in between the, if not meager then not quite sustaining, advances for her novels and story collections. In the 1960s and ’70s she wrote mostly for New Society, a magazine that cast itself as “self-questioning, anti-metropolitan, anti-Westminster gossip, anti-literary … Humane, rational, unsnobbish.” (John Berger was another frequent contributor.) Her home in the 1980s was the London Review of Books, and her collection Shaking a Leg is the artifact of a cultural omnivore. Carter was a sharp literary critic, a brilliant travel writer, and a great fashion writer. Of a poster on the Underground typical of the “aesthetic of poverty” that had taken hold in the wake of punk, she wrote in 1983: “If you didn’t know she was a fashion model, the girl in the poster would, in fact, look like nothing so much as a bag lady (or rather, person), in her asexually shapeless jacket, loose trousers and sagging socks, with a scarf of dubiously soiled color wrapped around her head, like a bandage beneath a hat jammed firmly down. Indeed, you can sometimes see, slumped on benches beneath this very poster, people in much the same get-up, utterly unconscious of their daring, or their involuntary dandyism, or anything at all.”
Carter’s literary taste cut against the English tendency toward middlebrow anti-intellectualism — the most common criticism on any episode of the BBC’s execrable Saturday Review is that a writer, artist, or filmmaker is trying to hard. Her fiction — especially her historical fiction and fairy tales — is the opposite of the costume dramas that dominate the airwaves and are so beloved of Booker judges. She’s now recognized as one of the great postwar English writers because she showed the English they’d been living in another, stranger country all along.