Angela Carter 1940-1992
(Full name Angela Olive Carter) English novelist, short story writer, nonfiction writer, scriptwriter, and author of children's books.
The following entry provides criticism on Carter's works from 1988 through 2000. See also Angela Carter Criticism.
Carter is best remembered for writings in which she undertakes a feminist critique of Western history and culture. Combining components of Gothicism, surrealism, eroticism, myth, science fiction, 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 noted, for “twining the macabre and unlikely with the possible.” 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, but 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 evacuated herself and 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 married. From 1962 to 1965 she attended the University of Bristol, studying the traditional canonical works as well as topics 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 Carter visited Japan for the first time; she then went to live there for two years, after divorcing her husband. 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 had a son, and for the remainder of her life divided her time between her home in South London and her travels. She served as a judge for contests and literary awards, edited collections, compiled anthologies, and wrote introductions and essays. Carter died of cancer on February 16, 1992.
Carter's early novels Shadow Dance (1966), Several Perceptions (1968), and Love (1971) introduce the Gothic elements in her work. Carter's vivid descriptions of Great Britain's counterculture create a surreal atmosphere in which strange incidents are commonplace. The protagonist of Shadow Dance 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. Several Perceptions concerns a suicidal young man and his encounters with various eccentric individuals. Love, 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. Carter's feminist and philosophical concerns are woven into her fantasy novels. 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. Heroes and Villains (1969) is a futuristic tale of Earth a century after atomic devastation has splintered its population into antagonistic factions. 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 for female oppression and liberation. Here Carter offers a symbolic portrait of the female condition, placing her story amidst the bizarre characters of a traveling circus and focusing on the personal liberation of a six-foot-tall winged woman. Carter's short stories have been collected in three volumes: Fireworks: Nine Profane Pieces (1974), The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories (1979), and Black Venus (1985). Each volume contains thematically linked stories, many derived from fables, fairy tales, and mythology. In her nonfiction work The Sadeian Woman: An Exercise in Cultural History (1979) Carter examined the two feminine stereotypes 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, and Come Unto These Yellow Sands (1985) collects various scripts she adapted from her fiction. Carter's final novel, the posthumously published Wise Children (1991), is also considered her most thematically joyful work, recounting the attempts of its narrator Dora—an elderly dance-hall girl writing her memoirs—to reconcile with her father, a famous Shakespearean actor.
While writers as diverse as Anthony Burgess, Salman Rushdie, and John Hawkes expressed great admiration for Carter's writing, other reviewers were unimpressed, greeting it with incomprehension or revulsion. The elements of the fantastic upon which she focused her narratives were confusing and unbelievable to many critics. Additionally, while Carter's revisions of traditional fairy tales were 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 Carter's unwavering honesty and commitment to her social and political standards in her works.