Saving Carter from clutches of academia
Biography: The Invention of Angela Carter, Edmund Gordon, Chatto & Windus, hdbk, 544 pages, €25
The vibrant palette used to bring the author behind a number of postmodern classics back to life runs dry, turning this initially insightful biography into a grey procession of social engagements
It's unusual for a biography to begin with a warning that its contents might not be entirely reliable; but then Edmund Gordon has an unusual subject. As a novelist, Angela Carter was a magic realist before the phrase was invented; as a woman, she believed that identity was merely a series of masks to be donned at will or whim. Her own private journals give differing accounts of the same events. Gordon even warns that "her closest friends… have told me things that can't be true".
Happily, his book doesn't suffer as a result. On the contrary, it brings the woman behind such late 20th-century postmodern classics as Nights at the Circus back to life more than 20 years after her untimely death at the age of 52, just as it seemed that she was really hitting her creative peak.
Angela Olive Stalker, as she was then, had an inauspicious start, leaving school at 18 and going to work at the Croydon Advertiser, where her tendency to drop literary allusions into news reports irritated sub editors. She smoked and swore gloriously, and male colleagues regarded her fondly as "one of the lads", though that didn't please her either. As far as she could tell, no one fancied her in the slightest, so when she met someone who did, she took the chance to shuffle off unwelcome celibacy and escape a stifling home life at the same time.
Marriage to Paul Carter, an industrial chemist with a passion for folk music, was far from idyllic. They were both demanding individuals. Worse, he suffered from periodic depression, which she found tiresome. In those early days they lived in Bristol, which had a burgeoning Bohemian scene. She began to go out more, dressing for effect in fur coats and floppy hats. After a few years, she went to university to read English, starting to refine her own style and tastes in literature.
What she hated most was a certain kind of female writing, where "being a woman was presented as a condition of victimhood". Women were complicit in their own oppression, Carter felt, by not being assertive enough. She thought By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept would have been better off called By Grand Central Station I Tore Off His Balls.
"My first husband wouldn't let me get a job after I graduated from university," she later wrote. "So I stayed at home and wrote books instead, which served the bugger right."
Typically, that's an exaggeration, too. Paul wasn't keen on her writing, but he did want her to earn money; it was she who longed to "stay snugly by the fire and scribble, scribble, scribble because, when I'm in the mood, this is my deepest pleasure". Her first book, Shadow Dance, was published when she was only 26. A second, The Magic Toyshop, quickly followed. They were well received, but she wasn't a big name by any means.
Eventually, the inevitable happened. She had her first affair. Then, with the proceeds of a literary prize, she fled to Tokyo, where she quickly got involved with a Japanese man and informed Paul that their marriage was over. Years later, she told friends that she'd had "more meaningful relationships with people I'd sat next to on aeroplanes". On her return to England a few years later, she continued to write, but work was harder to come by and she was always struggling with money.
It was the burgeoning 'Women's Lib' movement, as it was then known, which opened new doors. The founding of Spare Rib magazine, and later Virago Books, gave her new homes for her journalism and fiction, though hers was an uncomfortable voice for many feminists. She didn't like being pigeonholed. "I snipe from the sidelines and get attacked a lot," as she put it, though that's also what made her stand out. As the 1980s began, Carter was well established on the London literary scene, part of a set of writers who, despite having an "operatic" hatred of the Thatcherite individualism of the period, took full advantage of the opportunities it provided to hugely grow their earnings.
Finally, she had the recognition and admiration that she'd always longed for. Working with Neil Jordan on his 1984 film adaptation of her Gothic fairy tale The Company of Wolves brought her even greater acclaim.
Carter's life may have taken a turn for the better. Unfortunately, her biography does the opposite. The insightful and sympathetic study of a brilliant, non-conformist mind suddenly becomes a dull procession of book launches, reviews, minor literary controversies, award ceremonies; TV and radio appearances are dutifully catalogued, as are the articles she contributed to various publications, and the creative writing courses she taught in British and US colleges.
It all feels oddly impersonal. By this point, she had married again, to Mark Pearce, 18 years her junior, who she'd met in Bath when he was mending the roof of a house opposite. They had a son together, but their relationship remains much more sketchily explored than the others in her earlier life.
The vividly real, multi-faceted woman who dominated earlier sections of the book inexplicably vanishes. Where did she go? Even the lung cancer which killed her is dashed off in a brief, final 13-page chapter, though that period lasted over a year.
It feels almost like two different biographies welded together. The first is a rollicking, insightful, accomplished profile of a young woman coming into her own. The second is a humdrum checklist of a famous woman's achievements, as seen from the outside.
It's a shame because that first half is extremely fine. It could be enjoyed by any reader unfamiliar with her work, and it was a surprise to learn afterwards that this is Gordon's first book.
With luck, it might save Carter from the dead hand of academia, whose clutches she always strived to escape but which seems to have laid claim to her since her death.