A New Kind of Being - Angela Carter

In 2006, the British Library bought a huge archive of Angela Carter’s papers from Gekoski, the rare books dealer, for £125,000.​* It includes drafts, lots of them, a reminder that in the days before your computer automatically date-stamped all your files book-writing used to be a clerical undertaking. It has Pluto Press Big Red Diaries from the 1970s, and a red leatherette Labour Party one, tooled with the pre-Kinnock torch, quill and shovel badge. There are bundles of postcards, including the ones sent over the years to Susannah Clapp, the friend and editor Carter would appoint as her literary executor, which formed the basis of the memoir Clapp published in 2012; there’s also one with an illegible postmark, addressed to Bonny Angie Carter and signed ‘the wee spurrit o’yae Scots grandmither’. And there are journals, big hardback notebooks ornamented with Victorian scraps and pictures cut from magazines, and filled with neat, wide-margined pages of the most nicely laid-out note-taking you have ever seen. February 1969, for example, starts with a quote from Wittgenstein, then definitions of fugue, counterpoint, catachresis and tautology. Summaries of books read: The Interpretation of Dreams, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, The Self and Others. All incredibly tidy, with underlinings in red. And exploding flowers and nudie ladies stuck on the inside cover, as if in illustration of The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman, which Carter would have been working on at the time.

What was I looking for when I went to look at the Angela Carter Papers? To begin with I didn’t really know. Partly it was professional completism. Journalists are supposed to do as much research as possible, so it was part of the job, I decided, to take a look at this amazing public resource. Partly there was something cultic about it. There aren’t many places I love more than I love the British Library or writers I love more than I love Angela Carter, so of course I was going to take this chance to sniff at the sacred stationery, served on huge wooden trays by hushed BL staff. But mostly I was looking for an approach. Carter was 51 and at the height of her fame and family happiness when she died in 1992. Her instructions for the work she left behind were that it should be used in any way possible – short of falling into the hands of Michael Winner – ‘to make money for my boys’: Mark Pearce, her second husband, and Alexander, the couple’s son, born in 1983.

As Edmund Gordon says towards the beginning of his biography, Carter was never so widely acclaimed in life as she would be in the weeks and years after her death. The tributes were long, sometimes fulsome, always affectionate, and full of great table talk and funny stories from Carter’s ‘flotillas’ – Carmen Callil’s word – of famous friends. That happens when a well-liked person dies before their time, especially when the death has the long lead-in afforded by cancer treatment, and when they leave a younger partner and small child. It’s probably why Clapp’s memoir feels a bit overstuffed as it gets started. All those cats and birds and scarlet skirting boards, as if to hide and plug the hissing hole.

Except that Carter the mythological being was already up and running when Carter was alive and well. One of her ‘most impressive and humorous achievements’, Lorna Sage, her friend and cleverest critic, once wrote, ‘was that she evolved this part to play: How to Be the Woman Writer. Not that she was wearing a mask exactly: it was more a matter of refusing to observe any decorous distinction between art and life.’ One aspect of this, Sage wrote, was the ‘fairy godmother’ act that Carter performed more and more as she grew older and more settled: the woman of independent means who has done quite well for herself, as Carter described Charles Perrault’s version of the figure, who waves wands and make things happen, transcending biological relatedness and bourgeois property law. Carter, Sage proposes, ‘birthed herself’ into that position through years and decades of intellectual and emotional labour, and it’s that labour that interests me more than the final effect, and so I was hoping the archive would give me a way of getting a bit of air in.

‘Writing … certainly doesn’t make better people, nor do writers lead happier lives,’ Carter wrote in the 1980s in probably the first thing of hers I ever read, a dashed-off contribution to one of the many feminism-and-writing anthologies that were being published at the time. She gave Baudelaire as an example, the discovery of whose poetry, she once said, had been ‘like having my skull opened with a tin opener and all its contents transformed’. Manifestly not, however, the work of a happy person – ‘and he was a shit to boot’. Her other male literary heroes, Carter continued, were Melville and Dostoevsky, ‘both rather fine human beings, as it turns out, but both … so close to the existential abyss that they must often, and with good reason, have envied those who did not have inquiring minds.’ Was she saying that it seemed to her impossible to do good work, and be a decent person, and experience just about tolerable levels of peace of mind?

‘The sense of limitless freedom that I, as a woman, sometimes feel is that of a new kind of being. Because I simply could not have existed, as I am, in any other preceding time or place.’ Being, she went on, ‘the pure product of an advanced, industrialised, post-imperialist country in decline’ – and with the boon of birth control to free her from puerperal fever and multiple pregnancy – ‘I feel free to loot and rummage in an official past, specifically a literary past’ which ‘for me has important decorative, ornamental functions’ but is also a ‘vast repository of outmoded lies’. An art that rummages in dead falsehoods sounds depressing, except that Carter is describing the method of Nights at the Circus (1984) and Wise Children (1991), both comedies of confused parentage and obfuscated reproductive function, and the two of her novels most often described as ‘joyous’ and ‘carnivalesque’.

‘But, look, it is all applied linguistics. But language is power, life and the instrument of culture, the instrument of domination and liberation. I don’t know.’ In a life and work through which Carter made and unmade all sorts of things, root and branch, it sometimes seems that the one constant was the pride she took in being a good socialist of a quite straightforward sort. (It seems, from Gordon’s account, that socialism was just about the only thing Carter wanted to inherit from her mother, a lifelong Labour supporter. Unlike her adored father, who had been, she was pained to discover, a secret Scottish Tory – she found his membership card in his papers after he died.)

A lifelong believer in writing as a public, material art form, a proud member of the ‘inquiring rootless urban intelligentsia’ brought into being by the 1944 Education Act, would Carter have been pleased to find her papers in public ownership? Better that than pawed at by some oligarch collector, like the creepy Grand Duke in Nights at the Circus, but whether she would have been pleased or not isn’t really the point. The point is, so much of Carter’s work was so polished by the time she finished it, and further polished by time and praise, it becomes easy to miss the force and effort that made it, the work, the strength of mind. The BL’s archive is a record of that labour, marvellous and daunting, sometimes upsetting. And the letters in particular record an extraordinary social circle. There’s as much to learn from the letters people wrote to Carter as from Carter’s writings themselves.

Angela Olive Stalker was born to a London mother and Scottish father in Eastbourne in May 1940 and raised in Balham in South London. She married Paul Carter in 1960 when she was just twenty, then moved with her husband to Bristol, where she wrote four novels in quick succession and started publishing her journalism in New Society magazine. Her third novel won a travel award of £500, which Carter used to leave her husband and move to Tokyo, where she was based for the next two years. She returned to Britain in 1971, settling at first in Bath and then from 1976 in Clapham, where she lived with Pearce and raised her son and became ill with the lung cancer that would kill her in February 1992.

Her early books ploughed a lonely, unconscionably peculiar furrow between kitchen-sink realism, cheesy sci-fi gothic horror and a sophisticated, scholarly speculative fiction of the sort that readers found easier to manage when authored by distinguished-looking foreign gentlemen – Nabokov, Calvino – rather than a scruffy young lady in a combat jacket with a curly Jimi Hendrix crop. But the world caught up with her in the 1970s with the spread of women’s liberation and the founding in Britain of the feminist Virago Press.

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