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Angela (Olive) Carter (1940-1992)

 

English short story writer, novelist, journalist, dramatist and critic. Carter was a notable exponent of magic realism, adding into it Gothic themes, postmodernist eclecticism, violence, and eroticism. Throughout her career, Carter utilized the language and characteristic motifs of the fantasy genre. "A good writer can make you believe time stands still," she once said. Her work represents a successful combination of post-modern literary theories and feminist politics. Carter died in 1992 at the age of fifty-one.

"-Then the city vanished; it ceased, almost immediately, to be a magic and appalling place. I woke up one morning and found it had become a home. Though I still turn up my coat collar in a lonely way and am always looking at myself in mirrors, they're only habits and give no clue at all to my character, whatever that is.
--The most difficult performance in the world is acting naturally, isn't it? Everything else is artful."
(from 'Flesh and the Mirror' in Fireworks, 1974)

Angela Olive Stalker was born in Eastbourne, Sussex, to Olive (Farthing) Stalker and Hugh Alexander Stalker, a journalist. During the war years, she was removed by her grandmother to South Yorkshire. After rejoining her mother she suffered from anorexia. However, Carter has described her childhood as carefree: "life passed at a languorous pace, everything was gently untidy, and none of the clocks ever told the right time". At the age of 20 she married Paul Carter, and moved with him to Bristol. Before starting her English studies at the University of Bristol, Carter worked for the Croydon Advertiser and wrote features and record reviews. After graduating, she began her literary career.

Carter's first novel, SHADOW DANCE (1966), was a kind of detective story, written during a summer vacation. THE MAGIC TOYSHOP (1967) developed further the themes of sexual fantasy and revealed Carter's fascination with fairy tales and the Freudian unconscious. It tells a modern myth of an orphaned girl and the horrors she experiences, when she goes to live with her uncle and grows through a rite of passage into adulthood. The book won the Jon Llwellyn Rhys Prize in 1967. For SEVERAL PERCEPTIONS (1968) Carter received the Somerset Maugham Award. THE INFERNAL DESIRE MACHINES OF DOCTOR HOFFMAN (1973) was a story of a war fought against a diabolic doctor, whose aim is to demolish the structures of reason with his gigantic generators. "I can date to that time and to that sense of heightened awareness of the society around me in the summer of 1968, my own questioning of the nature of my reality as a woman. How that social fiction of my "femininity" was created, by means outside my control, and palmed off on me as the real thing."

In 1970, having separated from her husband, Carter went to live in Japan for two years. During this period she worked at many different jobs, among others as a bar hostess. The experience of a different culture had a strong influence on her work. In 1979 Carter published THE SADETAN WOMAN, where she questioned culturally accepted views of sexuality, and sadistic and masochistic relations between men and women. Surprising some of her readers, Carter defended the Marquis de Sade's images of women. After this novel Carter's fiction was described by some less enthusiastic critics as "entertainment for boys and girls who like their De Sade mixed with Suchard chocolate."

In the late 1980s Carter's writings occupied a central position within debates about feminist pluralism and post-modernism. In her novels Carter dramatized how the old orders of the Western world were breaking down. "I am the pure product of an advanced, industrialized, post-imperialist country in decline,'' she wrote. Her interest in changing gender roles formed the basis for novels HEROES AND VILLAINS (1969), set in the post-holocaust world, and THE PASSIONS OF NEW EVE (1977). The protagonist, Evelyn, comes to a futuristic New York, the City of Dreadful Night, where Leilah performs a dance of chaos for him. Evelyn finds his promised job extinguished. He undergoes deranging adventures and is captured in the desert by a cold-blooded female scientist, who calls herself Mother and has assembled in her person various attributes of the goddess. She intends to rape Evelyn, change his sex, and impregnate him with his own seed, so that he may give birth to an ambivalent new messiah. In the end, Eve, having transcended the various impersonations s/he has passed through metamorphosis, takes ship westward, en route maybe to Eden. In Heroes and Villains professors and scientist live in guarded cities. Outside live tribes of Barbarians. Marianne escapes from the city to the wilds and is adopted by a Barbarian tribe.

Concern with sexual politics was central to Carter's burlesque-picaresque novel NIGHTS AT THE CIRCUS (1984), which first begins in a gaslight-romance version of London, moves for a period to Siberia, and returns home. Fevvers, the heroine, is not like other people, she has wings, but her freedom to fly is limited on the stage. In this work the dystopia of The Passions of New Eve is replaced by humor and re-creation of the 19th-century bourgeois novel. Her other works include translations of Charles Perrault's fairy tales (1979), BLOODY CHAMBER (1979), a collection of stories retelling classic fairy tales, and an anthology of subversive stories by women. Samples of her journalism are collected in NOTHING SACRED (1982) and EXPLETIVES DELETED (1992). Carter's screenplay for THE COMPANY OF WOLVES (1984), based on THE BLOODY CHAMBER (1979) was a bloodthirsty, Freudian retelling of the 'Little Red Riding Hood' story, directed by Neil Jordan. This visually groundbreaking film studied the wolf-girl relationship in the light of sexual awakening. Re-writing fairy-tales from a feminist point of view, Carter argued that one can find from both literature and folklore "the old lies on which new lies are based." However, her critics saw that using the old form, Carter produced the "rigidly sexist psychology of the erotic".

BLACK VENUS (1985) featured Carter's fictionalization of historical characters, such as Lizzie Borden and Baudelaire's syphilitic mistress. In 1987 Carter was called in New Socialist the "high-priestess of post-graduate porn." WISE CHILDREN (1991), her last novel, which focused on the female members of a theatrical family, was was marked by optimism and humor. Dora and Nora Chance, the "wise children" of the title, are twins, illegitimate daughters of an famous Shakespearean actor. The story is narrated by Dora Chance, already an old dame:. "Sometimes I think, if I look hard enough, I can see back into the past. There goes the wind, again. Crash. Over goes the dustbin, all the trash spills out... empty cat-food cans, cornflakes packets, laddered tights, tea leaves... I am at present working on my memoirs and researching family history - see the word processor, the filing cabinet, the card indexes, right hand, left hand, right side, left side, all the dirt on everybody. What a wind!" Full of references to Shakespeare's plays, the characters of the novel have similarities with Shakespearean characters and scenes, but Carter also challenges the reader's narrative expectations.

Carter taught, and was writer-in-residence at universities in America and Australia, and spent two years in Japan, writing essays for New Society. For 20 years she was a major contributor to the magazine, the current affairs and culture weekly, which is now part of the New Statesman. Durin the period 1976-78, Carter served as Arts Council fellow at Sheffield University, England. She was also a visiting professor of creative writing at Brown University, Rhode Island, USA, taught in Australia and at East Anglia University, UK, and held writing residences at Austin, Texas; Iowa City, Iowa, and Albaby, New York State in America. She died of cancer on February 16, 1992, in London. "English literature has lost its high sorceress, its benevolent witch queen," wrote Salman Rushdie. BURNING YOUR BOATS, a collection of the author's short stories, appeared in 1996 with an introduction by Rushdie. Her journalism was collected under the title SHAKING A LEG (1998). Carter often wrote as if she was a fearless tourist examining oddities of the Western culture, and asked such unfeigned questions as ''why is a nice girl like Simone [Beauvoir] wasting her time sucking up to . . . boring old . . . J.-P.? [Jean-Paul Sartre].'' Merja Makinen has called Carter in her essay 'Angela Carter's The Bloody Chamber and the Decolonisation of Feminine Sexuality' the "avant-garde literary terrorist of feminism." (see Angela Carter, ed. by Alison Easton, 2000) "The amazing thing about her, for me, was that someone who looked so much like the Fairy Godmother... should actually be so much like the Fairy Godmother," wrote Margaret Atwood of Carter in the Observer.

For further information: Angela Carter and the Fairy Tale, ed by Danielle M. Roemer, Cristina Bacchilega (2000); Angela Carter, ed. by Alison Easton (2000); Cult Fiction by Andrew Calcutt and Richard Shephard (1998); Angela Carter: The Rational Glass by Aidan Day (1998); Critical Essays on Angela Carter, ed. by Lindsey Tucker (1998); Angela Carter: Writing from the Front Line by Sarah Gamble (1998); Angela Carter by Linden Peach (1997); Angela Carter by Alison Lee (1997); The Infernal Desires of Angela Carter: Fiction, Femininity, Feminism, ed. by Joseph Bristow, Trev Lynn Broughton (1997); The Encyclopedia of Fantasy, ed. by John Clute and John Grant (1997); Angela Carter by Lorna Sage, Isobel Armstrong, ed. (1996); Eroticism, Ethics and Reading: Angela Carter in Dialogue With Roland Barthes by Yvonne Martinsson (1996); The Reader's Companion to Twentieth Century Writers, ed. by Peter Parker (1995); Women's Literature, ed. by Claire Buck (1992); 'The Journey of the Subject in Angela Carter's Fiction' by R. Schmidt in Textual Practice (Spring 1985); 'Re-imagining the Fairytale' by P. Duncker in Literature and History (Spring 1984) - "Some critics have seen Carter as a follower of magic realism; yet she is, even more, the natural heiress of a northern Gothic tradition. Her stories look back to the baroque fantasies of Irish and British writers like Lord Dunsany, Arthur Machen and Walter de la Mare -- and beyond them to Thomas De Quincey's ''Confessions of an English Opium Eater.'' The 20th-century writer Angela Carter most resembles, however, is the Danish author Isak Dinesen, whose ''Seven Gothic Tales'' features a similar mixture of bizarre, haunted northern scenes and bejeweled prose." (Alison Lurie in The New York Times, May 19, 1996)

Selected works:

  • SHADOW DANCE / HONEYBUZZARD, 1966
  • THE MAGIC TOYSHOP, 1967 - Maaginen lelukauppa
  • SEVERAL PERCEPTIONS, 1968
  • HEROES AND VILLAINS, 1969
  • LOVE, 1971 (rev. 1987)
  • THE INFERNAL DESIRE MACHINES OF DOCTOR HOFFMAN, 1972
  • FIREWORKS, 1974
  • THE PASSION OF NEW EVE, 1977
  • THE BLOODY CHAMBER, 1979
  • MARTIN LEMAN'S COMIC AND CURIOUS CATS, 1979
  • translation: THE FAIRY TALES OF CHARLES PERRAULT, 1979
  • THE SADEIAN WOMAN: AN EXERCISE IN CULTURAL HISTORY, 1979
  • NOTHING SACRED, 1982
  • MOONSHADOW, 1982 (with J. Todd)
  • NIGHTS AT THE CIRCUS, 1984 - Sirkusyöt
  • screenplay: THE COMPANY OF WOLVES, 1984 - film dir. by Neil Jordan, starring Angela Lansbury, David Warner, Stephen Rea, Tusse Silberg, Sarah Patterson. - "Even more than Picnic at Hanging Rock, this film expresses the painful and confusing sexual yearnings of young girls. Not for all tastes, but definitely worth a look (in a theater, not on the small screen." (Danny Peary in Guide for the Film Fanatic, 1986)
  • BLACK VENUS, 1985
  • radio drama: COME UNTO THESE YELLOW SANDS, 1985
  • SAINTS AND STRANGERS, 1986
  • ed.: WAYWARD GIRLS AND WICKED WOMEN, 1986
  • WISE CHILDREN, 1991
  • translation: SLEEPING BEAUTY AND OTHER FAVORITE FAIRY TALES, 1991
  • EXPLETIVES DELETED: SELECTED WRITINGS, 1992
  • ed.: THE VIRAGO BOOK OF FAIRY TALES, 1990-92 (2 vols.)
  • AMERICAN GHOSTS AND OLD WORLD WONDERS, 1993
  • BURNING YOUR BOATS: COLLECTED STORIES, 1996
  • SHAKING A LEG: COLLECTED WRITINGS, 1998 (ed. by Jenny Uglow)


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