It’s impossible to know what the brilliant British writer Angela Carter would have thought of any biography of her life, let alone Edmund Gordon’s meticulous but at times exhausting The Invention of Angela Carter. The title alone might have elicited a snort, considering Carter was best-known for two books—a classic collection of feminist folktales, The Bloody Chamber, and the influential nonfiction tract The Sadeian Woman—that, in part, interrogate the way women are viewed by men. Gordon’s effort clearly comes from a place of respect and appreciation, but if it succeeds, it does so in part because his wall of detail and his attempts to fact-check Carter’s assertions provide a staid, sometimes unintentionally hilarious, frame for the raucous, unapologetic glimpses of Carter the reader receives through direct quotes from the subject.
So then, why should readers pick up a biography on her life? The obvious answer is that her work has been immensely important to second-wave feminism. But Carter is also essential because her writing remains surprising and transgressive, exemplified by the fact that even feminists today aren’t always in agreement about its meaning. Despite her lush style, Carter’s fiction shakes people up because it recalls punk rock and Chaucer’s The Miller’s Tale as much as it does Shakespeare’s most elevated and mannered scenes. Carter also helped to bring Surrealism into the literary mainstream through early novels like The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman that still feel fresh and dangerous today.
Perhaps because of these unique qualities, even the popularity of 1979’s The Bloody Chamber, with its necessary correction on traditional gender roles, didn’t bring her as many readers as some of her contemporaries. As Gordon details, despite critical acclaim, stalwart tastemakers like the Booker Prize remained indifferent to her work; the literary critic Valentine Cunningham expressed the opinion of many when he wrote in The Observer in 1984 about Carter’s penultimate novel Nights at the Circus—that “it goes without saying that the Booker Prize judges want their heads and their critical standards examined for not putting this stunning novel on their shortlist.”
It wasn’t until Carter’s death in 1992 and the subsequent rediscovery of her work by professors—and thus their students—that she gained a measure of the fame she had hoped for while alive. Meanwhile, other parts of the world are still catching up; it won’t be until this year or the next, for example, that Italian readers will for the first time be treated to translations of the majority of her fiction.
In this context, Gordon’s biography is very welcome: It’s well-researched, with strong, clear writing throughout. He adeptly hits the highlights of pivotal literary and personal moments in Carter’s life, though at times his exhaustiveness is baffling or ventures into the absurd. Did readers really need to know that the café attached to the zoo where Carter once worked “sold ham or pork pie, with a side of chips or salad, or chips and salad: a notice informed customers that ‘the management regrets it is unable to serve chips alone’”?
Gordon’s attention to detail, however, is critical to the success of the biography, particularly when it is dealing with important personal moments in Carter’s life. We truly are made to understand the improbability of (and the sheer effort involved in) Carter’s transformation from a shy, uncertain girl to a full-blown bohemian writer cocooned within a circle of like-minded friends from college: artists and writers mostly, some with money and some without. Gordon also excels in documenting Carter’s fraught relationship with her controlling mother, Olive—who wanted her daughter to stay closer to home, among other disputes—and how it affected both Carter’s life and her work.
Olive’s death leads to this heart-breaking observation by Gordon, magnified because it applied to both Carter’s interpersonal relationships and her place in society: “It was a horribly literal manifestation of the thing Angela had always feared: that striking out for herself would leave her with nobody to fall back on; that her only choice was between engulfment and abandonment.”
Of particular beauty and clarity, too, is the section on how Carter met her second husband, the quiet but handsome and strong Mark Pearce, and why she fell in love with him. He literally came to fix her pipes, as if acting out a clichéd scene from a 1970s porn flick, and, Carter told her friends, “never left.” She thought he looked “like a werewolf,” in a good way, and Gordon notes how Pearce’s silence in contrast to Carter and her friends was “comfortable and self-contained.” In her journal, Carter wrote in a dramatic and yet touching, romantic way, “When I hold him in my arms, I hold all of this country’s sadness … Your gentleness, your innocence, your sweetness, like the taste of rain and tears ... I do not see you with my eyes but with my heart.” They would never be apart, separated only by her death.
Other highlights include how Gordon handles documenting Carter’s education, especially her trips to Japan, the initial one funded by her winning the Somerset Maugham Prize, which changed her life and her perception of feminism; the middle years leading up to The Bloody Chamber, when she established herself as a true original in a fabulist vein after a series of more realistic works; her instrumental involvement with Virago Press, devoted to resurrecting forgotten women writers; the influence of her nonfiction, including The Sadeian Woman; her teaching at various universities in the United States; and, of course, her fierce and uncompromising fight against lung cancer, this last documented in an illuminating way that harkens back to other formative events in Carter’s life.
Of tremendous help to Gordon and to the reader is Carter’s decades-long personal journal, which Gordon generally makes good use of. It crossed my mind that Carter likely didn’t mean this mishmash of thoughts, fragments of fiction drafts, and other notes to ever be read by anyone. On the other hand, Gordon is correct that there was a performative tenor to certain aspects of Carter’s life, nowhere more on display than when he shows the close connection between a journal entry and a passage from Carter’s short story “Flesh and the Mirror.”
The journal factors into one of the most necessary and yet perhaps less successful parts of the book: Gordon’s portrayal of his subject’s doomed first marriage to Paul Carter. We need to understand that dynamic—even the banal, usual things, like Angela’s waning of interest in, and Paul’s obliviousness to the deterioration of, the relationship—because it affected her writing and her views on feminism. But the relationship is dissected and analyzed and rehashed to such an extent that the reader may begin to wonder if there would be as much Paul if Angela Carter had been a man and Paul in fact Paulina.
It’s also worth noting that despite a sometimes messy personal life, Carter displayed considerable discipline throughout her career—the published evidence suggests that she was highly motivated and organized and prolific, even when the biography describes her as disorganized or under stress behind the scenes. Carter was also ambitious, like most writers. When she writes in a letter to a colleague, “I’m not giving autographs until I get my Nobel Prize,” Gordon admits it’s a joke but also that it “betrays a measure of egotism.” It seems odd to call Carter egotistical in a context in which women needed to be bold and expend much more effort just to carve out an equal place in the literary world and society alongside their male colleagues.
Perhaps the worst example of Gordon’s sometimes nit-picky interrogation is a too-long passage questioning whether Carter actually had anorexia at one point (“we should be cautious about accepting her testimony too readily”), before concluding, “Even if Angela didn’t become quite so emaciated as she later claimed, her weight loss had obviously reached a point at which it was damaging her health.” In that case, why did we just have to read a laborious section debating back and forth exactly how much weight she had lost?
Similarly, in noting a former lover’s “furious letter” to Carter that accuses her of being a plagiarist and “having poor standards of personal hygiene,” Gordon writes that this letter is “worth considering” as an “alternative way of inventing Carter” because it is at odds with the views of her long-time friends. But is it really worth considering? Personally, I didn’t think so, for the obvious reasons—I can’t recall Vladimir Nabokov’s biographer Brian Boyd ever giving the thumbs up to any kind of quote about that writer’s hygiene—but also because Carter didn’t exactly try to pretend she was a perfect person.
The biography is much better when we get Carter’s blunt appraisals of people and situations, as when she wrote, “I think women admire Marlene Dietrich so much because she looks as if she ate men whole, for breakfast, possibly on toast.” Or as when Carter describes, in her journal, meeting Arthur C. Clarke at the first International Science Fiction Symposium and calls him “probably the most boring man in the entire universe.” Thankfully, Gordon doesn’t waste any time trying to corroborate or dispute either assertion.
In other sections, the reader is not quite so lucky. Exploring Carter’s romance with Sozo Araki in Japan—which led to some of Carter’s most openly autobiographical stories, collected in Fireworks (1974)—Gordon notes that “They slept with each other only nine or ten times … It was a remarkably short acquaintance on which to base important decisions about the future.” Gordon goes on to write, “Though she worked in the [Japanese hostess] bar for just one week … she later spoke of it as if it had been a major component of her Japanese experience.”
Unless Gordon has ever worked at a hostess bar, it seems presumptuous to reach a conclusion about how long it would take for that to become a “major component” of someone’s life experience. Nor am I sure studies have been done on whether, on average, it’s on the ninth time sleeping together or the twelfth that one begins to make major life decisions.
What The Invention of Angela Carter does particularly effectively is to weave into the biographical mix a thoughtful discussion of Carter’s work and her place within the canon. I appreciated that although Gordon covers her more popular fictions (like The Bloody Chamber, which has been analyzed to death over the years), he devotes plenty of space to her earlier and lesser-known works. Wisely, he doesn’t deliver the analysis in one thick passage, but unfurls it as he documents the entire editorial process, from Carter’s writing of the material to her editor’s responses to the particulars of publication.
His examination of the perverse counterculture novel Shadow Dance (1966), with its sadistic killer Honeybuzzard, notes the Nabokovian influence in a phrase like “happy bicycle” and also “gusts of Poe, Dostoevsky, Swift.” In a more nebulous vein, Gordon notes that a description of “dregs of brown liquor spilled” leaves “a nasty taste in the mouth,” perhaps because Carter continues by writing that the bottles gleamed “like the shiny backs of a nest of disturbed beetles.” (In my reading of the line, it’s less a nasty taste than a too-elongated simile.) Gordon concludes, perhaps too reductively, that Shadow Dance is “palpably not the creation of a happy person” because it is a “dark, spiky, misanthropic piece of work.”
More on point is his discussion of Love (1971)—about a quirky threesome, rife with echoes of Brontë—because he turns the critical responses into a platform to talk more generally about Carter’s impulses. Most critics thought Carter identified with the female character, Annabel, rather than the brothers Lee and Buzz, which Gordon refutes, writing that “her fiction can’t be boiled down to a set of neat intellectual perspectives.” He bemoans the “scholarly sarcophagi” in which “her reputation has been so firmly interred” since her death and quotes Carter herself on the subject: “I had no intention, when I first started being published, of writing illustrative textbooks of late feminist theory … I stopped enjoying museums when I realized they were places where beautiful things go when they die.”
He also ably traces Carter’s influences, from the way Andre Breton’s Surrealist Manifesto provided the “earliest stirrings” for The Magic Toyshop (1967) to how her novel The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman (1972) is the purest expression of Surrealism in her fiction. That movement’s idea of convulsive beauty and its use of images to jolt the reader or viewer out of complacency—in the pursuit of liberating the imagination—certainly helped free Carter of the constraint of realism. But outside of the short fictions of the painter Leonora Carrington, surrealist writings were so experimental that they alone wouldn’t have been the sole literary influence on Carter’s stylized, yet very structured, fantastical writings.
What Gordon explores to a lesser extent is how the Decadent-era writers like Baudelaire and Rimbaud are reflected in Carter’s work. Her early bohemian novels, as well as Nights at the Circus and many of her short stories seem steeped more in a transgressive, visceral Decadent sensibility than in Surrealism. But Gordon reserves, for example, his mentions of a Decadent precursor, De Sade, for his analysis of The Sadeian Woman, which focused on the relationship of sexuality to power.
Another influence, alluded to but not fully analyzed, comes from the realm of science fiction. Gordon devotes only half a page to Carter’s discovery of New Worlds magazine and the New Wave science fiction movement, including writers like J.G. Ballard and Michael Moorcock (themselves influenced in part by the Decadents). Both these influences help characterize Carter’s work beyond simply calling it a descendant of Surrealism with hints of magical realism, and could have used more space. Still, Gordon’s overall range is impressive and his acumen admirable, and readers will come away from these passages with a deeper understanding of Carter’s unique talent for both innovation and renovation.
I was 20 when I first read The Infernal Desires of Doctor Hoffman, and it blew the back of my head off, rewired my brain: I had never encountered prose like that before, never such passion and boldness on the page. Along with writers like Nabokov, Carter inspired me to be a better writer. Novels like Nights at the Circus just made me more impressed, because of the fearlessness—that she didn’t bother to explain how the high-wire circus performer Fevvers could fly, but in fact teased readers, dared them, to disbelieve. I had not known such things were possible, but once Carter showed me they were, I tried to be fearless in my own work, as best I could; I doubt the inexplicable flying bear in my novel Borne could have come into being without Carter’s example.
Maybe Carter would’ve appreciated the heartfelt way in which Gordon defends her legacy, and laughed off how he sometimes second-guesses his subject. Or perhaps not. But ultimately too much detail is better than not enough. The thoughtful literary analysis makes up for a lot, and brings into relief the book’s excellent opening and closing passages, where Gordon expresses a sense of loss and sadness about Carter’s too-early death that I found moving. But most of all, it is illuminating, and an absolute pleasure, to hear from Carter herself, speaking out from these pages: direct, no-bullshit, bloody-minded, curious, and forever grappling with the world.