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Carter, Angela (Olive, née Stalker)

CARTER, Angela (Olive, née Stalker)

Nationality: British. Born: Eastbourne, Sussex, 7 May 1940. Education: The University of Bristol, 1962-65, B.A. in English 1965. Family: Married Paul Carter in 1960 (divorced 1972). Career: Journalist, Croydon, Surrey, 1958-61. Lived in Japan, 1969-70. Arts Council Fellow in creative writing, University of Sheffield, 1976-78; visiting professor of creative writing, Brown University, Providence, Rhode Island, 1980-81; writer-in-residence, University of Adelaide, Australia, 1984. Awards: Rhys Memorial prize, 1968; Maugham award, 1969; Cheltenham Festival prize, 1979; Maschler award, for children's book, 1982; James Tait Black Memorial prize, 1985. Died: 16 February 1992.

Publications

Collections

The Curious Room: Plays, Film Scripts, and an Opera. 1996.

Short Stories

Fireworks: Nine Profane Pieces. 1974; revised edition, 1987.

The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories. 1979.

Black Venus's Tale. 1980.

Black Venus. 1985; as Saints and Strangers, 1986.

American Ghosts and Old World Wonders. 1993.

Burning Your Boats: Stories. 1995.

Novels

Shadow Dance. 1966; as Honeybuzzard, 1967.

The Magic Toyshop. 1967.

Several Perceptions. 1968.

Heroes and Villains. 1969.

Love. 1971; revised edition, 1987.

The Infernal Desire Machines of Dr. Hoffman. 1972; as The War of Dreams, 1974.

The Passion of New Eve. 1977.

Nights at the Circus. 1984.

Wise Children. 1991.

Plays

Vampirella (broadcast 1976; produced 1986). Included in Come unto These Yellow Sands, 1984.

Come unto These Yellow Sands (radio plays; includes The Company of Wolves, Vampirella, Puss in Boots). 1984.

Screenplays:

The Company of Wolves, with Neil Jordan, 1984; The Magic Toyshop, 1987.

Radio Writing:

Vampirella, 1976; Come unto These Yellow Sands, 1979; The Company of Wolves, from her own story, 1980; Puss in Boots, 1982; A Self-Made Man (on Ronald Firbank), 1984.

Poetry

Unicorn. 1966.

Other

Miss Z, The Dark Young Lady (for children). 1970.

The Donkey Prince (for children). 1970.

Comic and Curious Cats, illustrated by Martin Leman. 1979.

The Sadeian Woman: An Exercise in Cultural History. 1979; asThe Sadeian Woman and the Ideology of Pornography, 1979.

Nothing Sacred: Selected Writings. 1982.

Moonshadow (for children). 1982.

Sleeping Beauty and Other Favourite Fairy Tales. 1982.

Expletives Deleted: Selected Writings. 1992.

Shaking a Leg: Journalism and Writings. 1997.

Editor, Wayward Girls and Wicked Women. 1986.

Editor, The Virago Book of Fairy Tales. 1990; The Old Wives' Fairy Tale Book, 1990.

Translator, The Fairy Tales of Charles Perrault. 1977.

*

Critical Studies:

Revisionist Mythmaking: The Use of the Fairy Tale Motif in the Works of Angela Carter, Margaret Atwood, and Anne Sexton by Helen Marion Horne, 1993; Angela Carter: Writing from the Front Line by Sarah Gamble, 1997; Angela Carter by Linden Peach, 1998; Angela Carter: The Rational Glass by Aidan Day, 1998.

* * *

The early death of Angela Carter in 1992 cut short the career of one of the most inventive and wide-ranging English writers of the late twentieth century. A brilliant essayist and critic (whose article on D. H. Lawrence and women's clothing, for instance, is unforget-table in its wit and insight), she also wrote nine novels, a book of cultural studies, radio plays, four volumes of short stories, and was a lively collector and editor of fairy tales. Whatever she gave her attention to came back from her sensibility to her readers in unexpected and challenging forms.

Her first volume of short stories, Fireworks, is characteristic of her strange and sometimes disconcerting range of interests. The nine stories vary considerably in mode: "A Souvenir of Japan" is a comparatively realistic retrospective survey of the love affair of a European woman and a younger Japanese man, but the perception of Japanese culture as alien and "dedicated to appearances" gives the story a peculiarly self-reflexive quality. "The Executioner's Beautiful Daughter" is, by contrast, a disturbing fable about a society located somewhere "in the uplands" where repression and sexual savagery are the norm. Realism and the fable are the poles between which these stories move, but Carter's imagination is drawn much more strongly to the latter. However, what gives force and significance to the fables is their way of suddenly seeming to allude to life as we know it: they appear to be fantasies, but only in the sense that fantasies are parts of real life. "Master" is perhaps the most powerful story, that of "a man whose vocation was to kill animals" and of his relationship with a pubescent girl from a tribe in the South American jungle, where he has gone to kill "the painted beast, the jaguar." Nemesis finally occurs (as the reader wishes it to do), but by the time the girl shoots him with his own rifle, she has the "brown and amber dappled sides" of the creature the hunter has come to destroy. A victory for nature? The reader is challenged, but cannot find an easy reassuring answer. This is true of the effect of the volume as a whole.

It was followed by the outstandingly successful The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories, which retells some of the fairy tales familiar within our culture; I almost added, "from a feminist point of view." But that would be debatable. Some feminists objected to the terms of the rewriting, finding the depiction of women politically incorrect. This is part of Carter's appeal: she is an exploratory writer, and the reader never knows where the path will lead. "The Bloody Chamber" itself is the most elaborate, taking the horrific story of Bluebeard as its starting point and telling it from the point of view of his latest bride. The whole story is an extraordinary achievement, mingling old fable, new psychological insight, and parodic inventiveness with great panache. Its wit seems to deny moralistic interpretation, but certainly we can see in the girl's courage and the mother's decisive action a story enabling and encouraging for the woman reader (and disturbing for the male, unless he is prepared to accept the "blind"—castrated?—role of the piano-tuner).

All the stories—there are nine others—share the energy and inventiveness of "The Bloody Chamber." The last three deal with that standby of the Gothic imagination, the wolf. "The Werewolf" is very brief: on the way to visit her sick grandmother, the girl-child wounds a wolf, cutting off one of his paws, but when she arrives at her grandmother's she sees that one of her grandmother's hands is missing. No doubt she is a witch, who must be punished, killed, and replaced. "The Company of Wolves" is a more elaborate version of the Red Riding Hood story, with an inspiring conclusion in which the girl's courage triumphs. When the wolf threatens to eat her, "the girl burst out laughing; she knew she was nobody's meat." "Wolf Alice" is a girl brought up by wolves (a Freudian figure) and taken to the household of the duke, the "damned Duke" who "haunts the graveyard." Their consummation is as unexpected as it is positive. Here, as so often throughout this wonderfully imaginative and superbly written sequence, the reader is led to see human relations in the mirror, the "rational glass," of these traditional stories retold. He or she will certainly react differently according to gender, but both will find much to enjoy as well as much to puzzle and challenge.

The same imaginative energy and intellectual curiosity is at work in the nine stories of Black Venus. The opening story concerns Baudelaire's mistress Jeanne Duval, and combines cultural history with psychological insight: Carter has no hesitation about mixing the modes. The choice of subjects suggests something central to her writings, a concern with wider horizons than those of the main tradition of English fiction with its preference for social realism. Other stories in this volume evoke a seventeenth-century North America where an English woman becomes part of an Indian tribe; the theatrical world of Edgar Allan Poe's mother, read back from its legacy to him; the characters (and actors) about to take part in a performance of A Midsummer Night's Dream; the horrific folk-world of "Peter and the Wolf"; the kitchen of a great house in the north of England where the cook is seduced while making a souffle but doesn't forget to slam the oven door; and the world of the murderess Lizzie Borden in Fall River, Massachusetts, in August 1892. This final story powerfully evokes the stifling world of a New England miser and his family, making the murders all too inevitable. The "angel of death roosts on the roof-tree" of the family home. Carter brilliantly integrates fiction, myth, and human reality.

This is true also of her posthumously published volume American Ghosts and Old World Wonders, which contains nine pieces. Four of these are related to the United States. "Lizzie's Tiger" deals again with the world of Lizzie Borden, but this time she is a strong-willed four-year-old, taking herself to see the tiger at the traveling circus. Her confrontation with it, and its tamer, leads to a "sudden access of enlightenment" about power and its exercise in the world. Two stories are something like scenarios for Western films, one based on the coincidence that the name John Ford is that of a seventeenth-century playwright as well as a twentieth-century director. "The Merchant of Shadows" vividly describes the visit of a researcher to the remote home of a Garbo-like recluse, with a trick ending that is connected with Carter's delight in the artificial. "The Ghost Ships" contrasts the Puritanism of early New England with the pagan legacies of Europe. "In Pantoland" is an affectionate commentary on the imaginary world of the pantomime and its inhabitants. "Ashputtle" offers three versions of the Cinderella story, one particularly disturbing. "Alice in Prague" is a fantasy of seventeenth-century Prague with allusions to Jan Svankmayer's film Alice. And the last piece reflects on the figure of Mary Magdalene as represented by Georges de la Tour and Donatello. Its final emphasis on the skull, placed where a child would be if this Mary were the Virgin, is particularly grim in the context of Carter's early death. But the volume as a whole is worthy of a writer of great variety and inventiveness, a writer for whom the short story form was often especially enabling.

—Peter Faulkner

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