Tuesday, September 11, 2018

The Invention of Angela Carter

Why read writers' biographies? The aspect of their lives that we most want to know about—"the unique motivations and the psychological origins of literary production," as one critic has written, or as I would put it, "How did they do it?"—is one that is largely inaccessible to an external observer. If the goal of literary biography is to "help us to comprehend. . .how literary art happens," another critic writes, "this admirable objective never seems to be reached." It's telling that a recent book on literary biography is entitled The Impossible Craft. [1]

So it was in full consciousness of the inevitability of disappointment that I began reading Edmund Gordon's The Invention of Angela Carter (Oxford University Press, 2017). The title refers, of course, to her self-invention as a writer and a person, but it could also apply to the posthumous growth of her reputation and the accretion of distorting myths around her. Gordon writes in his epilogue that his biography "is intended as a first step towards demythologising Angela Carter." [2]

Ironically, Carter is far more widely read, appreciated and studied now than at any time during her tragically truncated life. As a sign of this change, in 2012 Nights at the Circus (Chatto & Windus, 1984) was named the best novel ever to have won the nearly century-old James Tait Black fiction prize. Previous winners had included novels by D. H. Lawrence, E. M. Forster, Robert Graves, Graham Greene, Evelyn Waugh, Muriel Spark, Nadine Gordimer, John Berger, Iris Murdoch, John le Carré, J. M. Coetzee, J. G. Ballard, Salman Rushdie, Zadie Smith, and Cormac McCarthy: heady company.

I don't remember when I first encountered Angela Carter's work, or even which of her books I read first. I suspect that it was her short story collection The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories (first published by Gollancz, 1979), parts of which were adapted into a striking film directed by Neil Jordan, The Company of Wolves (1984). Other early encounters included her second novel, The Magic Toyshop (Heinemann, 1967), adapted into an excellent film in 1987, and her book-length essay on the writings of the Marquis de Sade, The Sadeian Woman and the Ideology of Pornography (Pantheon, 1978). With the film adaptations, her extensive journalism, and the success of her novels Nights at the Circus and Wise Children (Chatto & Windus, 1991), Carter had begun to achieve some popular acclaim in the early 1990s when she was diagnosed with inoperable cancer. She died in February 1992 at age 51, less than a year after her diagnosis.

Gordon has produced a thoughtful, thoroughly researched and well-written biography; if you are interested in Carter's writing you will find that it provides much to reflect on. But on occasion in describing connections between Carter's life and work he can be reductive, and there are other areas that he simply doesn't investigate fully—leaving as an exercise for the reader questions that perhaps he should have probed more deeply.

In the first category is Gordon's tendency to identify Carter's fictional characters as versions of her family and acquaintances. Carter wrote that "all fiction is symbolic autobiography" (a quote she later attributed to Balzac, although I have been unable to trace it). [3] Gordon, though, often seems to discount or ignore the modifier "symbolic."

For example, he asserts that Uncle Philip in The Magic Toyshop "was a grotesquely exaggerated version of [Angela's first husband] Paul Carter." [4] Angela had married Paul when she was only 20 to escape her stultifying family home; later in her journal she described this act as a "flight from a closed room into another one." [5] According to Gordon, Paul was undemonstrative, uncommunicative, and resented Angela's initial success, but he was not an ogre. During their marriage he had at least one serious bout of depression; perhaps it was during that period that Angela came to feel that "he needed me for a mother." [6]

Uncle Philip, in contrast, isn't dependent, withdrawn or depressed. Instead he is a creepy, controlling and perverse father-figure. Even if Paul matched Uncle Philip's attributes more closely, though, to attempt to map the character so directly onto a real person is to turn the sinister, dreamlike atmosphere of the novel—in my view and Gordon's one of her best—into that of a mundane domestic drama.

If at places Gordon can be too insistent about making direct connections between Carter's fiction and her life, though, what about the many characters in her novels who are orphans? (Her mother was, if anything, overprotective rather than absent.) And what are we to make of the many scenes in her fiction of incest and rape? Incest features in her short stories "The Events of a Night," "The Executioner's Beautiful Daughter" and "Penetrating to the Heart of the Forest," and in the novels The Magic Toyshop and Wise Children. Should we assume that these motifs are thinly fictionalized versions of her own experience, or is their significance purely imaginative? Carter herself wrote approvingly of "a fiction absolutely self-conscious of itself as a different form of human experience than reality." [7]

There are also moments where Gordon makes some odd, or at least superficial, judgments. The screenplay Carter co-wrote for The Company of Wolves employs as a framing device the dream of a teenaged girl, Rosaleen, about the terrors and allurements of adolescence.  Gordon writes that this "is largely an excuse to bombard the viewer with strange and disturbing scenes and images. A lot of it wasn't intended to signify anything in particular."

To illustrate this lack of meaning Gordon describes the following scene:
At one point, Rosaleen runs away from an 'amorous boy' and climbs a tree towards a stork's nest in the crook of a bough. The bird flies away, and Rosaleen looks into the nest, which contains four eggs and a small mirror with a gilt handle. She begins applying her lipstick in the mirror. As she does so, the four eggs burst open to reveal four statuettes of babies. [8]
Far from signifying "nothing in particular," this scene seems if anything overdetermined with meaning and oversaturated with symbols of sexuality and fecundity. If Gordon didn't tell us that Carter was pregnant while writing the screenplay, we might have guessed it from this scene.

Gordon interviewed the film's director (and screenplay co-writer) Neil Jordan, but he is a bit too ready to accept what Jordan tells him. Gordon writes,
The only constraints on the writing of the film were those of the medium of cinema itself. Angela wanted it to end with Rosaleen waking from her dream and diving into her bedroom floor, as into a pool of water. 'It was such a simple image, it would be easy to do now,' Jordan reflected in 2014. 'But then it was impossible.' [9]
Really? Somehow the "constraints. . .of the medium of cinema itself" did not prevent Jean Cocteau from showing a character plunging through a mirror as if into a pool of water in his film Blood of a Poet, made in 1929. More than five decades of cinematic innovation later, and such a shot was "impossible"? Permit my skepticism, and my suspicion that Jordan preferred his ending, in which a pack of wolves bursts into Rosaleen's bedroom and she screams in fear.
Angela was dismayed: 'When I went to the screening I sat with Neil and I was enjoying the film very much and thinking that it had turned out so well—just as I had hoped,' she told an interviewer a few years later. 'Until the ending, which I couldn't believe—I was so upset. I said, "You've ruined it."' [10]
It's been many years since I've seen The Company of Wolves, but I don't remember feeling that the ending had ruined the film. It is, though, the mirror image, as it were, of the ending Carter had wished for. In her version, Rosaleen wakes from her dream only to choose to plunge deeper into the unconscious; in Jordan's version, the dream-world (in the form of the wolf pack) terrifyingly irrupts into Rosaleen's reality.

I don't want to be too negative; Gordon's book is very worthwhile, and future writers about Carter's life and work will rely heavily on his interviews with Carter's intimate friends and on the many letters and journal passages he has unearthed. And it will undoubtedly inspire readers to discover or rediscover Carter's writing, which is the greatest compliment that can be paid to a literary biography. But as Gordon himself acknowledges of his subject, "She's much too big for any single book to contain." [11]

One of those readers that Gordon has inspired to rediscover Carter's writing is yours truly. In future posts I hope to discuss my re-reading of two of my favorite of her works, The Magic Toyshop and The Bloody Chamber, and two novels I found disappointing when they were first published, Nights at the Circus and Wise Children.

Update 22 December 2018: For my responses to re-reading Angela Carter's fiction, please see:
The Invention of Angela Carter was selected for my Favorites of 2018: Books.

  1. "Unique motivations": John Richetti, "Writing about Defoe: What is a critical biography?" Literature Compass 3/2 (2006): 65–79, 10.1111/j.1741-4113.2006.00302.x; "help us to comprehend": Daniel Green, "Literary Biography," The Reading Experience: On Contemporary Literature and Criticism, http://www.thereadingexperience.net/tre/literary-biography.html; Scott Donaldson, The Impossible Craft: Literary Biography. Penn State University Press, 2015.
  2. Edmund Gordon, The Invention of Angela Carter. Oxford University Press, 2017, p. 420.
  3. Angela Carter, Introduction to Walter de la Mare, Memoirs of a Midget. Oxford University Press, 1982.
  4. Gordon, p. 90.
  5. Quoted in Gordon, p. 48.
  6. Quoted in Gordon, p. 113.
  7. Quoted in Helen Simpson, "Femme fatale: Angela Carter's The Bloody Chamber." The Guardian, 24 Jun 2006. https://www.theguardian.com/books/2006/jun/24/classics.angelacarter 
  8. Gordon, pp. 335-36.
  9. Gordon, p. 336.
  10. Gordon, p. 336.
  11. Gordon, p. 421.