Angela Carter: Breaking the Spell

Breaking the Spell

For Angela Carter, literature had the power to upend the fictions that regulate our world.


The title story in Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber, the collection of reimagined fairy tales that contains her best-known work, is based on the legend of Bluebeard. Carter updates the story’s setting to the late 19th century—the widowed husband smokes Cuban cigars, the young wife wears a Poiret shift to dinner—but otherwise retains its traditional contours. The familiar plot unfolds with a sense of inevitability, as if every action were preordained. The heroine drifts through the story like a sleepwalker, hypnotized by her husband’s “heavy, fleshy composure,” the rhythmic motion of the train that carries her to his castle in Brittany, the scent of the lilies that fill her bridal suite. Even when she discovers the bodies of his previous wives laid out in a gruesome tableau and it becomes clear that she is his next victim, the mood remains dreamlike.

The spell isn’t broken until the story’s final pages. In the 17-century version of the fairy tale by Charles Perrault, the bride is saved by her brothers-in-law; in Carter’s, it’s her mother, a military widow who comes galloping up the causeway, armed and dangerous, just as the killer is about to cut off the young wife’s head. Carter narrates his reaction with a typical flourish: “The puppet master, open-mouthed, wide-eyed, impotent at the last, saw his dolls break free of their strings, abandon the rituals he had ordained for them since time began and start to live for themselves; the king, aghast, witnesses the revolt of his pawns.” His authority shattered, the husband is reduced to “one of those clockwork tableaux of Bluebeard that you see in glass cases at fairs.”

Variations on this scene—the moment when the strings are cut and a familiar story suddenly veers off course—recur throughout Carter’s fiction. The strongest emotions in her work are elicited by the prospect of a leap into the unknown, the event that could not be predicted or controlled. Unlike many writers shaped by the upheaval of the 1960s, Carter never disavowed the politics of that period or treated them as a temporary madness; she remained committed, throughout her life, to the possibility of radical change. Her novels tend to conclude with either a wild party, an act of violent destruction, or a combination of the two. Although her fiction drew heavily on traditional folklore, she saw herself as being in “the demythologizing business.” Myths, Carter asserted, are “extraordinary lies designed to make people unfree,” and she adopted their conventions in order to blow them up. At the end of her second book, The Magic Toyshop, a Gothic reworking of Paradise Lost, the two main characters look at each other “in a wild surmise” as their house burns to the ground. “Nothing is left but us,” the heroine says. She doesn’t seem unhappy about it.

As Edmund Gordon emphasizes in his new biography, The Invention of Angela Carter, the allure of remaking oneself remained a constant throughout her life. Her notebooks and letters are filled with plans for self-improvement projects: to learn Gaelic as well as “the French they speak in France”; to work out how to “live off the land”; to dye her hair a different color; to redo the kitchen. Carter was enthralled by fashion, particularly its potential to antagonize others. At her first job—reporting for a local newspaper—she wore green lipstick until her colleagues complained. Decades later, when she bought her first house, she painted the outside blood red.

In the journal she kept as a young woman, Carter wrote a sentence from André Breton’s First Surrealist Manifesto over and over: “The marvellous alone is beautiful. The MARVELLOUS alone is beautiful. The marvellous ALONE is beautiful.” She loved storms, pyrotechnics, circuses. When she was 30, she moved to Tokyo to live with a Japanese man she had met and fallen in love with six months earlier. Two years later, after the relationship dissolved (she’d found another woman’s lipstick on his underwear), she returned to London alone. Carter knew they weren’t compatible, she told a friend, when she made him take her to a fireworks display and he was bored by it. Who could be bored by fireworks?

The first of Carter’s transformations came in 1958. Born Angela Olive Stalker in 1940, she grew up in London, the only daughter of an overprotective mother who dressed her like “a doll” and refused to let her out of her sight. (Carter later said that she wasn’t allowed to use the bathroom with the door closed until she was a teenager.) Food was rationed in postwar Britain, but Carter’s mother set aside her own portions of sugar, butter, and milk for her daughter until Carter was, 
according to a family friend, “enormous.”

When she was 17, in a dramatic assertion of autonomy, Carter began dieting ruthlessly. Within the span of a few months, she lost more than 40 pounds, took up smoking, and adopted a wardrobe calculated to shock her mother: tight black skirts, black stockings, black buckled boots, black fox-fur collars. Her father, a journalist known as “the Scheherazade of Fleet Street” for his romantic imagination, found his increasingly independent daughter work at a local newspaper. Considered too unreliable to report stories, Carter was assigned to write music reviews, something for which she showed surprising talent. She cultivated a taste for avant-garde jazz—another thing for her mother to hate—and began dating a man named Paul Carter, a 27-year-old industrial chemist moonlighting as a clerk at a cult record store. Their relationship might have unfolded differently if he hadn’t insisted that they wait to have sex until they were engaged; as it happened, they were married by the time she was 20.

Carter once called Wuthering Heights “one of the greatest, if not the greatest, love stories ever written,” and in her fiction the male romantic leads tend to be feral, violent, and encrusted with dirt. Paul, by contrast, had the soul of a record-store clerk. Self-enclosed and painfully serious, he was described by Carter after they first met as a “simple, artsy Soho fifties beatnik”; one of her friends called him “an amiable teddy bear.” In her later years, Carter tended to downplay the importance of the marriage (she claimed to have had “more meaningful relationships with people I’ve sat next to on aeroplanes”), but Gordon makes it clear that Paul influenced her considerably. What he offered wasn’t just an escape from her mother, but a gateway to the counterculture. A passionate music fan, he was an amateur record producer with a folk-music label; his specialty was mostly in recording traditional singers and fiddle players, but he was established enough to have worked with Peggy Seeger, sister of Pete and the queen of the British folk revival. After the wedding, the Carters moved to the suburbs of Bristol, where Paul started a traditional-ballad night in a local pub and the couple became locally established as “the Folk Singing Carters.”

Paul and Angela were also both politically active. They were enthusiastic members of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, which had strong ties to the folk scene. Some of Carter’s “most moving and beautiful memories” were of going on the annual antinuclear Aldermaston March with him. “It seemed, then,” she wrote, “that in the face of those immense shows of serene public indignation—exhibitions of mass sanity, as they were…protest might change things.”

In unexpected and significant ways, the folk revival of the late ’50s and early ’60s had a formative influence on Carter’s fiction as well as her politics. She took from it an enduring commitment to folk traditions as a democratic and anti-elitist form that expressed “the creative urge of the anonymous masses.” The traditional songs that Paul collected gave her access to an older, weirder Britain, a world of highwaymen, orphans, carnivals, sacrificial virgins, cunning animals, and wise grandmothers, whose imagery and themes she made use of throughout her work.

While Carter’s early novels unfolded against the backdrop of postwar austerity—cold-water flats, shared bathrooms, cheap and starchy food—these mundane descriptions were punctuated by extravagant flights of imagination. When her first book, Shadow Dance, came out in 1966, it was unlike anything else being published at the time. Set in the “semi-criminal, semi-beatnik fringe” of a provincial city, it told the story of a bohemian junk dealer named Honeybuzzard who strangles a woman and then lays out her corpse with gold coins covering the eyes. Reviewers praised the book for its “strangeness.” Although anchored in the social realism that was the dominant literary style of the early ’60s, Shadow Dance was less a kitchen-sink novel of British alienation than one of those folk ballads whose “savagery” (a favorite word of hers) Carter admired.

This savagery seemed to slip into her home life. Carter resented being saddled with the domestic work in her marriage. “It never ends, the buggering about with dirty dishes, coal pails, ash bins, shitbins, hot water, detergent,” she complained. She was an indifferent housekeeper (at one point, the dust in the kitchen was so thick guests could write their names in it), but she taught herself to cook and made ratatouille and coq au vin for the endless stream of folk musicians who passed through the house—doing “the earth mother bit,” as she later called it. But this wasn’t enough for Paul, who became quietly furious when she didn’t do the dishes and who tried to discourage her literary ambitions. (After Shadow Dance was published, he didn’t talk to her for three weeks.) Carter doesn’t seem to have been particularly easy to live with herself: She wanted constant attention, emotional and sexual, which Paul was unwilling or unable to provide. His main weapon against Carter, the stronger personality, was silence. When she confronted him directly, he withdrew.

As their marriage soured, Carter began to feel that what she’d imagined as an escape route had become its own kind of prison. “Marriage,” she wrote in her journal, “was one of my typical burn-all-bridges-but-one acts; flight from a closed room into another room.” Her growing dissatisfaction expressed itself in her writing. Reviewing the notorious 1966 UK tour of Bob Dylan, the former hero of the folk revival who’d become its Judas after electrifying his guitar, Carter pointedly took the singer’s side. The performance she saw in Cardiff was “exhilarating,” the jeering, discordant sound of “Like a Rolling Stone” a model of “mature savagery.” Once a “Wonder Kid of Protest,” the singer had reinvented himself as a “prophet of chaos,” sweeping away old illusions to make room for something new. His acoustic songs had been “a comfort” for earnest, politically committed young people, but the electric Dylan was no longer comfortable. “People like comforts,” Carter wrote. “But maybe comfort finally doesn’t help very much.”

By the end of the decade, as she grew estranged from Paul and the folk scene, Carter’s work took on a harder edge. She started reading the Frankfurt School and the French poststructuralists, and her books began to explore the idea of the self as a contingent creation with no stable essence or spiritual home. When she won a prize for her third novel, Several Perceptions, she decided to use the money to travel to Japan. She wanted to go somewhere free of “the Judeo-Christian tradition.” She also wanted a reason to finally leave her husband. In 1970, with her divorce settled and preparing to leave for Tokyo, Carter wrote in her journal: “No home. Nothing familiar anymore. I feel quite empty…like the newborn wanting to retreat back to the womb, knowing it is impossible and knowing there is no womb-surrogate anywhere, now.”

In her essay “Notes From the Front Line,” Carter dates the beginning of her interest in feminism to this period. As she began to question what she called “the social fictions that regulate our lives,” she grew increasingly interested in the social fiction that concerned her most directly: “the nature of my reality as a woman.” Feminism was always connected to her insistence that nothing ever stands still; everything—even our oldest and most basic social arrangements—are subject to the forces of history and human agency. This thought remained a source of continual exhilaration. In a remarkable passage midway through the essay, she suddenly bursts out: “The sense of limitless freedom that I, as a woman, sometimes feel is that of a new kind of being. Because I simply could not have existed, as I am, in any other preceding time or place.” The undercurrent of delight running through her work, even in its bleakest moments, is connected to this sense of possibility. If so much could change, what else was up for grabs?

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Carter’s relationship with the organized women’s movement was thorny. Having come to feminism through Marcuse and Adorno, she considered herself a socialist before she was a feminist and saw women’s liberation as part of a larger struggle for human freedom. She didn’t have patience for goddess 
worship, which she dismissed as “consolatory nonsenses,” or for what she called the “self-inflicted wound” school of women writers, by which she meant Jean Rhys and Joan Didion. Femininity was not an unchanging essence but a social role, and therefore something one could refuse to perform. Instead of bemoaning their fate, she thought, women should try to change it.

Carter’s most extended elaboration of her views on feminism was her book-length essay The Sadeian Woman. An incendiary intervention in the sex wars of the late 1970s and early ’80s, The Sadeian Woman seemed calculated to provoke anti-porn activists like Andrea Dworkin. (“If I can get up…the Dworkin proboscis,” Carter observed, “then my living has not been in vain.”) In the essay, Carter didn’t bother defending porn from critics like Dworkin on the grounds of free speech or sex positivity. Instead, she went on the attack: Not only should feminists not ban pornography, she argued, but the Marquis de Sade—the most notorious pornographer of all time—was probably a better feminist than Dworkin and her allies were. Using the same argument she’d made for Dylan’s embrace of the electric guitar, she insisted that Sade’s writing was emancipatory precisely because it was violent and unpleasant. His great virtue was that his work “rarely, if ever, makes sexual activity seem attractive as such,” and therefore opens the way to “the total demystification of the flesh” and the destruction of the myth of feminine virtue.

Carter’s main exhibit regarding Sade’s value for feminism was his particularly graphic illumination of the virgin/whore dichotomy in the novels Justine and Juliette. Justine, the angelic blonde, attempts to be virtuous and is raped and mutilated; Juliette, the evil brunette, cheats, lies, tortures, and murders, and becomes a wealthy and powerful woman. What this revealed, Carter argued, was the double bind that women face in a patriarchal society: Follow the law and become its victim, or break the law and be rewarded.

Bringing Sade’s dichotomy into the 20th century, Carter identified Justine as Marilyn Monroe or Jayne Mansfield, the dumb blonde who naively believes whatever she is told and suffers for it. Juliette, on the other hand, is the Cosmo girl, “hard, bright, dazzling, meretricious,” sitting in an executive office making phone calls to her stockbroker. As models for women, both were flawed and incomplete: Justine was capable only of pathos, Juliette only of calculation. Yet of the two roles, Carter preferred the latter. Justine was unable to help herself, let alone others. But by using her reason, “an intellectual apparatus women themselves are still inclined to undervalue,” a woman who followed Juliette’s example might manage to free herself from “some of the more crippling aspects of femininity.”

Carter had originally been commissioned to write The Sadeian Woman by Virago in 1975. But she struggled with it, off and on, for several years. Of all her books, it was the one that seemed to give her the most trouble. The work was making her “agitated and depressed,” she wrote to a friend in 1975; she worried that she had “bitten off more than I could chew” and that publishing it would be a mistake. A year later, she was still gripped by “the profound dread inspired by the idea that the book does not, maybe, work.”

Some of this ambivalence is apparent in the finished essay. The overall thrust—don’t be too good—is a familiar feminist exhortation. But in using Sade to make this point, Carter was also drawing attention to the dark side of daring to be bad. Juliette, the original #girlboss, was plainly a monster. In seeking only her own advantage, she couldn’t be part of a political community; because she obeyed no law other than that of her own self-interest, she foreclosed the possibility of solidarity with others. And yet, if you had to choose—and Carter’s point was that, one way or another, every woman would be forced to eventually—wasn’t it better to seek some measure of control over your situation than to suffer for no purpose?

Carter vacillates between praising Juliette for her autonomy and condemning her for her selfishness. In the end, she settles on a compromise: Juliette wasn’t a model for the future, but perhaps she represented a temporary stage for the feminist movement. By adopting her take-no-prisoners tactics and “fucking as actively as they are able,” Carter wrote, women might “be able to fuck their way into history and in doing so change it.”

This theme is echoed in the stories that Carter was working on at the time and that were collected in The Bloody Chamber. “The Company of Wolves,” her version of Little Red Riding Hood, concludes with the heroine discovering her own inner wolfishness; instead of letting the wolf eat her, she laughs and crawls into bed with him. In another version of this story, “The Tiger’s Bride,” Carter is even more explicit: “The tiger will never lie down with the lamb; he acknowledges no pact that is not reciprocal. The lamb must learn to run with the tigers.” In each case, the moral of the story is clear: Be Juliette, not Justine.

After The Sadeian Woman and The Bloody Chamber were published, Carter began work on a longer treatment of a Juliette-like character, a novel about Lizzie Borden that imagined her murder of her parents as a desperate act of self-assertion. In the fall of 1980, however, she found herself “quite quickly, utterly repelled by the subject matter” and dropped the idea. Gordon doesn’t speculate on why. Perhaps it was because Carter had fallen in love with a carpenter named Mark Pearce a few years earlier and was in a happy relationship with the man, who eventually became her second husband. But it may also have been because Margaret Thatcher was now prime minister, and it had suddenly become more difficult to write sympathetically about female ax murderers.

Carter had always defined herself against all forms of conservatism, but Thatcherism was something new and it seemed to catch her off guard. Everyone around her was getting rich. Her London neighborhood was in the second stage of gentrification, and the artists and writers who had settled there were being bought out by yuppies. Carter’s housemate moved out to live with a banker “with an income roughly the equivalent of the GNP of a small Central American republic,” leaving behind all her back issues of the New Left Review. Carter’s protégé, Salman Rushdie, abandoned the literary agent that he and Carter shared for Andrew Wylie, who managed to sell the American rights to The Satanic Verses for $750,000. Carter remained with her agent and never made a six-figure publishing advance, but she admitted, in a letter to her former student Rick Moody, that she too was “earning more money under Thatcher than I have ever in my life before.”

In response to the country’s rightward shift, Carter became one of the new prime minister’s most vocal antagonists. Before the general election of 1983, she wrote a withering essay on “the Thatcher phenomenon” in which she accused the Iron Lady of “low animal cunning,” compared her to Countess Dracula, and—somewhat oddly for a writer whose fiction made such use of artifice—criticized the “artificiality” of her self-presentation. But though Carter got in some good one-liners, it is difficult to shake the impression that she was playing defense. In The Sadeian Woman, she had provisionally endorsed the idea of women doing whatever it took to gain power; now here was a woman forcing her way into the history books by any means necessary, and it was impossible to look upon the spectacle without horror.

Carter’s final two novels, Nights at the Circus (1984) and Wise Children (1991), retreat from the savagery that had marked her previous work. The first, set in a fin de siècle traveling circus, was an exuberant fantasia about a winged Cockney trapeze artist meant to represent the “New Woman” of the 20th century; the second was a celebration of music-hall and working-class British culture narrated by a pair of illegitimate chorus girls. Both wear their politics on their sleeves—Fevvers, the heroine of Nights at the Circus, is both a protofeminist and a Bolshevik agent—and both feature strong and principled female characters who seem deliberately crafted to be nothing like “Mrs. Thatcher.”

Reviewing Carter’s body of work for 
The New York Review of Books after her death in 1992, the critic John Bayley infamously accused her novels of succumbing to “political correctness.” In the essay’s most cutting turn of phrase, Bayley wrote that “whatever spirited arabesques and feats of descriptive imagination Carter may 
perform, she always comes to rest in the right ideological position.” Gordon intelligently contests this claim, pointing out that Carter was always an iconoclast and 
arguing that to charge her novels with following a party line is ridiculous. But if Carter’s political commitments came into conflict with her literary imagination anywhere, it would be her last two. Fevvers, as well as the Chance sisters in Wise Children, bears no resemblance to the ethereal 
visions of femininity that Carter loved to puncture. They are vulgar, wisecracking, and cheerfully promiscuous. They eat constantly, swear frequently, and wear off-putting amounts of makeup for shock value. But they are always effortlessly strong and good-hearted; at once loving and autonomous, generous and independent, sensitive and resilient, they are less fully formed characters than idealized expressions of Carter’s hopes for women.

“A free woman in an unfree society will be a monster,” Carter wrote in The Sadeian Woman. But the heroines of her late novels are neither victims nor executioners. They transgress the law, but they do not murder. They tell lies, but only innocent ones. They are injured, but never seriously. No matter what happens to them, they pick themselves up and go on, like creatures made of rubber rather than flesh and blood. And thus, despite the novels’ considerable charm, one feels there is something missing from them, as if Carter were telling herself a story she couldn’t entirely believe.

Yet if Carter’s heroines remain frustratingly indistinct, it’s hard to blame her too much. In some ways, they are placeholders, reserving a space for the new kind of woman she envisioned was waiting just over the horizon. The Sadeian Woman ends with an extended quotation from Emma Goldman on the “true conception of the relation of the sexes.” A world where both men and women are truly emancipated, Goldman wrote, “will not admit of conqueror and conquered; it knows of but one great thing: to give of one’s self boundlessly, in order to find one’s self richer, deeper, better. That alone can fill the emptiness, and transform the tragedy of woman’s emancipation into joy, limitless joy.”

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