Fairytales Punish the Curious - Angela Carter

In the spring of 1977, Angela Carter met the Canadian writer Elizabeth Smart in London at the launch of Bananas, a new literary magazine. A prolific writer at the age of 37, Carter was already the author of eight novels, two collections of poetry, and one collection of short stories—“profane pieces,” as the book’s subtitle proclaimed. Her story in the issue, titled “The Company of Wolves,” was a feminist retelling of “Red Riding Hood,” in which the adolescent girl, unafraid of her foe, ends up sleeping sweetly “between the paws of the tender wolf.” Smart’s 1945 novella By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept, the story of a disconsolate, abandoned woman, was about to be reissued by Virago press, where Carter was on the editorial board.

Carter admired Smart’s “exquisite prose,” but she was scornful of the book’s wrenching, self-punishing descriptions of erotic love. (A representative line: “But what except morphine can weave bearable nets around the tigershark that tears my mind to shreds, seeking escape on every possible side?”) In a review, Carter described the book as “a masochistic season in hell.” She was similarly skeptical of Smart in person. “She clearly wanted to talk in polished gnomic epigrams about anguish and death and boredom,” Carter later recounted to a friend.
I honestly couldn’t think of anything to say. Except, I understand why men hate women and they are right, yes, right … And I began to plot a study of the Jean Rhys/E. Smart/E. O’Brien woman titled “Self-Inflicted Wounds.”
Carter had no time for female melancholy. A woman whose quiet demeanor belied her forceful mind, Carter was that rarest of things—a happy writer. She followed her desires—for travel, for learning, for (younger) men—with little hesitation or regret. She was not naïve about sex; she argued that any sexual relationship must be considered in light of the way power works. Still, she believed in the emancipatory power of erotic love. She was attracted to fairytales both for their violence and their strangeness; she adjusted archetypes and tweaked myths until they came to mean something entirely new. Her fiction celebrated the couplings of a wide range of characters: teenage girls, wizened old women, circus performers, wolves.

This is the Carter that comes through in Edmund Gordon’s The Invention of Angela Carter: A Biography. Gordon’s biography, the first in-depth treatment of Carter’s life, is both thorough and careful. Gordon is primarily concerned with emancipating her from the mythologizing descriptions that proliferated, especially after her death in 1992: “the Fairy Queen” (Salman Rushdie), “the Fairy Godmother” (Margaret Atwood), a “benevolent white witch” (Rushdie again). To Carter, the worst thing one could do to a person would be to render her archetypical, which is to say anonymous; she devoted her formidable creative mind to freeing men and women from the strictures of myth. “Mother goddesses,” Carter wrote in 1979, “are just as silly a notion as father gods.” She believed men and women were more alike than unalike. Her feminism, Gordon demonstrates, consisted of acts of imagination and self-assertion.

For Carter, sexuality and personal autonomy had long been intertwined. Born in 1940 in Eastbourne and raised in South London, Angela Olive Stalker spent the first few weeks of her life moving around England in an effort to avoid the Blitz. The second of two children, she was doted on by both her parents: Hugh, a journalist, and Olive, a homemaker. Olive was a nervous, superstitious woman who voted Labour but who was strikingly conservative on social issues. She cringed at cursing; she turned off the TV whenever a divorced actor came onscreen. The only time she broached the subject of sex with her children, she confessed, “I wish God had thought of a better way of making babies.”

Carter used to say that she was “spoiled” by her mother, but “suffocated” might be a better word. Olive stuffed her daughter full of hoarded butter and chocolate—goods rationed during wartime—as well as canned fruit and condensed milk. Carter became obese. Olive didn’t seem to mind; the extra weight was both a sign of her only daughter’s dependence on her and a fleshy barrier that warded off potential sexual interest. Friends of the family remembered that Olive “didn’t want Angela to grow up.” Gordon describes Carter’s childhood and adolescence as a “state of artificially prolonged innocence … a state of grace from which she had longed to fall.”

At the age of 17, Carter didn’t fall so much as leap. With the help of a doctor, she lost a dramatic amount of weight. (Her older brother, Hughie, was agog when he encountered “this sylph … this slinky thing that was Angela”). She bought flashy, revealing clothing and took up smoking and swearing. Her mother was horrified and tried to squash this rebellious display, but Carter refused to be infantilized. She fought horribly with her mother, sometimes provoking her needlessly. Still, her project of self-creation could only go so far while she was living in her parents’ house. She toyed with the idea of studying at Oxford, but Olive promised that she would rent a flat in the small town in order to stay close. Soon, like some kind of fairytale princess, Carter saw marriage as the only means of escape.

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