ANGELA CARTER (1940 - 1992)
(Full name Angela Olive Carter) English novelist, short story writer, nonfiction writer, scriptwriter, and author of children's books.
Carter is best remembered for her science fiction and fantasy writings in which she undertakes a feminist critique of Western history and culture. Combining components of Gothicism, surrealism, eroticism, pornography, myth, and fairy tales, Carter explores such themes as violence, the distribution of power in contemporary society, and female sexuality. Carter's work is distinguished by its display of unrestrained imagination, colorful imagery, and sensuous prose. Equally notable are the Dickensian eccentricities of her characters and her talent, as one critic has noted, for seamlessly infusing realistic narratives with elements of the macabre and fantastic. Although alternately praised and faulted for her extravagant Gothic approach, Carter is highly regarded as a writer of unique and imaginative fiction and sharply political and insightful feminist nonfiction.
Carter was born in London, England, on May 7, 1940. Her journalist father, Hugh Stalker, came from Scotland, and her mother, Olive, from a mining district in South Yorkshire. During World War II, Carter's grandmother took her grandchildren to the village of Wath-upon-Deare. A working-class suffragist and radical, this grandmother may have served as a model for Carter's later narrative and public persona. After leaving school, Carter worked briefly as a junior reporter for a London local newspaper and then married. From 1962 to 1965 she attended the University of Bristol, where she studied traditional canonical works of literature as well as subjects ranging from psychology and anthropology to science fiction and horror comics. After graduating, Carter began writing cultural criticism and observation for New Society and the Guardian. In 1969, after divorcing her husband, she went to live in Japan for two years. This marked a turning point for Carter both professionally and personally, as she went on to draw from the experience in her writing and found her voice as a woman and a social radical. In the 1980s Carter moved to South London with her partner and began traveling around the world to teach writing and present public readings of her works, which she came to appreciate as a means of dramatizing the power of the narrator and providing an added dimension to the written word. In 1983 Carter gave birth to a son, and for the remainder of her life she divided her time between living in South London and traveling. She served as a judge for literary contests, edited collections, compiled anthologies, and wrote introductions and essays. Carter died of cancer on February 16, 1992.
Carter described herself as a Gothic writer, and early on in her works she displayed a fondness for decadent opulence, squalor, darkness, and sexual violence, elements that she intertwined with feminist and philosophical concerns. Carter's vivid descriptions of Britain's counterculture create a surreal atmosphere in which strange incidents are commonplace. The protagonist of Shadow Dance (1966) is portrayed as the embodiment of the apathy and amorality of his generation. Acting on impulse, he disfigures his beautiful girlfriend and eventually commits murder. The Magic Toyshop (1967) depicts the sexual coming-of-age of a young woman who loses her parents and must live in a household of eccentric relatives. Several Perceptions (1968) concerns a suicidal young man and his encounters with various strange individuals. Heroes and Villains (1969) is a futuristic tale of Earth a century after atomic devastation has splintered its population into antagonistic factions. Love (1971), a bleak story of the obsessive nature of love, centers on a young man whose suicidal wife and drug-abusing brother are dependent upon him. The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman (1972) recounts the efforts of the protagonist to restore reality in a world where machines give unconscious images concrete form. In The Passion of New Eve (1977), a fervent denunciation of sexism and machismo, a man experiences rape and other brutalizations after being surgically transformed into a beautiful woman. A number of the characters in Nights at the Circus (1984), winner of the James Tait Black Memorial Prize, are archetypes of female oppression and liberation. In this novel Carter offers a symbolic portrait of the female condition, populating her story with the bizarre characters of a traveling circus and focusing on the personal liberation of a six-foot-tall winged woman.
Carter's numerous stories, which, like her novels, are derived from fables, fairy tales, and mythology, have been collected in three volumes: Fireworks: Nine Profane Pieces (1974), The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories (1979), and Black Venus (1985). In the oft-cited "Afterword" from Fireworks, which many critics have cited as her literary manifesto, Carter argued that the tale, unlike the short story, "interprets everyday experience through a system of imagery derived from subterranean areas behind everyday experience." In that essay, Carter also defines the gothicism that informs her work, stating that the tradition "grandly ignores the value systems of our institutions; it deals entirely with the profane." She notes too its themes of cannibalism and incest, its exaggeration of reality, its ornate and unnatural style, and black humor—all of which seek to provoke unease. The sense of unease in Carter's tales is derived from her use of violence and eroticism and the startling images she presents of female sexuality. The image of blood, for example, as a symbol of female menstruation and defloration is featured prominently in her short fiction. In a story from The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories, Carter describes a necklace as a "bloody bandage of rubies," thus emphasizing the violence of sexual intercourse and the loss of virginity through the image of a slit throat while at the same time pointing out the economic value society attaches to chastity. Carter also wrote a fictionalized reconstruction of parts of the life of Edgar Allan Poe, entitled "The Cabinet of Edgar Allan Poe," which was published in the magazine Interzone in 1982.
In her most often discussed nonfiction work, The Sadeian Woman: An Exercise in Cultural History (1979), Carter examines the two feminine stereo-types of pornographic literature: the dangerous temptress and the innocent victim. Carter argues that the writing of the Marquis de Sade, whose characters Justine and Juliette embodied these stereotypes, can be read as feminist satire of the sexual roles men create for women. Ultimately, however, Carter finds de Sade's quest for the limits of acceptable behavior a failure, believing that he succumbed to an acceptance of traditional sexual roles. Nothing Sacred (1982) is an anthology of Carter's feminist and political articles. Carter's nonfiction illuminates many of the themes and ideas about the dark side of human nature and society that she sets forth in her fiction.
While writers as diverse as Anthony Burgess, Salman Rushdie, and John Hawkes have expressed great admiration for Carter's writing, other reviewers have responded with incomprehension or revulsion. The elements of the fantastic upon which Carter focuses her narratives have been assessed as confusing and unbelievable by many critics. Her extravagant Gothic approach has been alternately praised and faulted by commentators. Additionally, while Carter's revisions of traditional fairy tales have been lauded overall, some commentators have lamented the absence of concrete alternatives for her heroines. Such critics argue that because Carter rewrote the tales within their original structures, she robbed her protagonists of any real sense of choice and actually perpetuated patriarchal precepts. Feminist critics, however, have embraced what they characterize as Carter's unwavering honesty and commitment to her social and political standards in her works.
Today Carter's stories are widely anthologized and she is studied in schools and universities as the most important English fantasist of her generation. Those who admire her works point to their humor, wit, and pathos even in presentations of horrific situations and depictions of disturbing characters. Carter is regarded too as the most subversive and radical proponent of a modern neo-Gothic movement, as she celebrates the imminent collapse of traditional notions of order. Carter uses gothicism to provoke unease in the hopes that misguided patriarchal assumptions about women and sexuality might be overturned. Thus she uses horror, violence, pornography, surrealism, and dark humor to criticize and dismantle patriarchal cultural conventions, offering a uniquely vivid feminist critique of Western history and culture.