Review: James Leyon Edmund Gordon

The Demythologising Business: The Invention of Angela Carter

Buried in the endnotes of an essay on Angela Carter’s fiction by Lorna Sage – Carter’s close friend and one of her most perceptive readers – there is an intriguing misquotation. ‘We think blasphemy is silly,’ Sage credits Carter as saying, ‘but we’re wrong.’

The endnote directs the reader to a short review of Georges Bataille’s pornographic novella Story of the Eye that was first published in New Society in 1979 and posthumously collected in Expletives Deleted (1992). But what Carter actually wrote was: ‘We think blasphemy is silly’ – full stop. The rest of the sentence is not there, either in Expletives Deleted or in the subsequently published collection of her journalism Shaking a Leg (1997).

Sage’s mistake is most likely no more than a slip of the pen: a small lesson in the perils of quoting from memory. And in one sense it is misleading. In context, ‘we’ refers to the sensible, prim and repressed British. Carter’s next sentence is: ‘They are exhilarated by it’ – ‘they’ being outré French intellectuals, for whom sexual explicitness, anti-clericalism and outraging polite society are honourable traditions in themselves. Sage’s misquotation gives the pronoun a wider ambit: ‘we’ embraces all of us who imagine ourselves modern and rational enough to have outgrown such retrograde nonsense.

And we’re not wrong. Blasphemy is silly. There is no higher power or system of belief that is beyond criticism or ridicule. On this point, Carter’s views were impeccably secular. She was a firm atheist, socialist and feminist: someone for whom there were no constraints upon what can be thought, imagined and articulated, only questions of validity and justness. She even titled one of her non-fiction collections Nothing Sacred (1982). Near the end of her life, she narrated a television documentary critical of Christianity that became a source of controversy, to which she responded with the mild observation: ‘I do not think you can blaspheme against something that does not exist.’ One of the last things she wrote before she died of cancer in February 1992 was an unequivocal declaration of solidarity with Salman Rushdie, then under threat of death for having written a ‘blasphemous’ work of fiction. ‘All those who work in the same profession are affected by his dreadful predicament,’ she stated, ‘whether they know it or not.’

This is where Sage’s misquotation is apposite. She was one of the first critics to appreciate the subversive intent behind Carter’s baroque aesthetic. (‘They liked being bad together,’ recalls Sage’s daughter Sharon. ‘They used to cackle a lot, really laugh in a very wicked way that wasn’t always understandable to me.’) We think blasphemy is silly, but we’re wrong because the stories a society elevates to the status of myth and the ideas it considers profane or taboo are reflections of social structures and ideological impositions. Carter’s love of gothicism and grotesquerie, her fascination with myths and the dark subtexts in fairy tales and folklore, her theatricality and music-hall bawdiness, the recurring tropes of rape and incest – these are all strategies to turn familiar acculturating narratives inside-out, to disturb and satirise them, to expose their underlying power relations and their determining and limiting assumptions.

It is a tenet of Carter’s work that our personas are not fixed or inevitable, that stereotypical differences – the perceived differences between the sexes, in particular – are cultural rather than essential. As Edmund Gordon observes in The Invention of Angela Carter, one of the themes she returns to again and again in her fiction is that ‘our selves are neither false nor true, but roles we either master or are mastered by’. This was a view that connected her conception of feminism to her political stance more broadly. ‘The notion of a universality of human experience is a confidence trick,’ she wrote in The Sadeian Woman (1979), her extraordinary essay on the work of the Marquis de Sade, ‘and the notion of a universality of female experience is a clever confidence trick.’ Of perhaps her most overtly political novel, The Passion of New Eve (1977), she remarked:

I wanted to show the absurdity of making generalisations about male and female. I don’t see much difference between men and women. The variations between people of the same sex are usually much greater.

This resistance to essentialism is the reason Carter became irritated when critics attributed a ‘mythical quality’ to her work. ‘All the mythic versions of women,’ she argued, ‘from the myth of the redeeming purity of the virgin to that of the healing, reconciling mother, are consolatory nonsenses; and consolatory nonsense seems to me a fair definition of myth anyway.’ She saw herself as being in ‘the demythologising business’ – a point that Gordon’s biography underscores in multiple ways.

Carter ranks among the most influential fiction writers in postwar British literature. She was genuine innovator who inspired a host of pale imitators – among many other things, she is the begetter of a veritable plague of symbolic wolves that afflicts us to this day. It is thus a little surprising that it has taken so long for the first full-length biography of her to appear. Gordon is modest enough to state in his epilogue that his account should not be considered definitive, that a writer of Carter’s stature is ‘too big for any single book to contain’. But as an exercise in literary biography, The Invention of Angela Carter acquits itself admirably. It not only offers a sympathetic, if not always flattering, portrait of its subject; it is also insightful when it comes to the convergence of personal, intellectual and cultural influences that shaped her unique sensibility.

Carter was born in 1940 and raised in south London. She was the second child of Hugh and Olive Stalker, though the eleven-year age difference between her and her brother Hughie meant that she grew up as a solitary and indulged child, her mother plying her with so much food that she acquired the nickname ‘Tubs’. Her father was an upright and reserved man who was (she discovered to her surprise after he died) a closet Tory; her mother was a socially conservative Labour voter, whose overbearing influence Carter spent much of her childhood and adolescence resisting in one way or another.

The most powerful matriarchal influence in her early life was her maternal grandmother, Jane Farthing, a redoubtable Yorkshirewoman. The Stalkers lived with Jane during the war years to avoid the dangers of London and her blunt assertiveness – what Carter remembered as ‘a natural dominance, a native savagery’ – made a lasting impression. ‘She reared me as a tough, arrogant, and pragmatic Yorkshire child,’ Carter recalled, ‘and my mother was powerless to prevent it.’

As she grew into adolescence, Carter clashed ever more frequently and fiercely with her nosey fussbudget mother. She took to provoking her, ‘saying whatever she thought would go down worst, usually something iconoclastic, blasphemous or obscene’. The habit of dropping verbal bombs into polite conversation was one she carried into her adult life. But as Gordon records, Carter’s desire to escape Olive Stalker’s smothering influence led her to self-sabotage. She nixed the idea of studying at Oxford because her mother was planning to rent a flat nearby. Instead, she rushed into an ill-advised marriage with an industrial chemist and folk music enthusiast named Paul Carter – a union that was happy enough at first, though it soon became apparent that they were a temperamentally mismatched couple.

Gordon is generally measured when it comes to speculating about Carter’s psychology, but in describing her formative years he does allow himself a few pertinent observations. Grandmothers, he notes, are often depicted in Carter’s fiction, while mothers are rare (though their absence is not perfect: the narrator’s mother literally rides to her rescue at the climax of ‘The Bloody Chamber’, one of Carter’s greatest stories). He also observes that psychoanalysts have theorised that children with smothering parents can develop a fear of engulfment, which ‘can inculcate a ferocious individualism as the only means of defence’. When Carter lost her puppy fat in her late teens, she claimed it was because she was suffering from anorexia. Gordon has doubts about this claim, but he does point out (again with reference to psychoanalytical theory) that anorexics tend to have two common features: ‘they have a heightened awareness of the cultural baggage attached to femininity; and they lack a sense of personal autonomy, usually due to having an overprotective mother’.

How far this line of thinking can legitimately be pursued is one of the central dilemmas for any literary biographer, and Gordon is wise not to press the issue. One can hardly avoid the inference, however, and it is one of the valuable features of this book that it recognises the considerable extent to which Carter was self-aware, attuned to precisely these kinds of psychological implications, and able to make creative use of them. Her fiction is rarely autobiographical in any obvious sense, though there are some notable exceptions to this rule – the superb short story ‘Flesh and the Mirror’ from Fireworks: Nine Profane Pieces (1974), for example. Nor is her writing preoccupied with inwardness or overt psychologising. Carter did, however, describe her writing as a form of ‘self-analysis’ and as ‘symbolic autobiography’. And this expressive understanding of her art is echoed by Evelyn (later Eve), the gender-switching narrator of The Passion of New Eve, who derides Rilke’s complaint about the inadequacy of symbolism in similar terms:

He was wrong. Our external symbols must always express the life within us with absolute precision; how could they do otherwise, since that life has generated them? … A critique of these symbols is a critique of our lives.

It is part of the distinctiveness of Carter’s literary vision that she demythologises not to arrive at a hidden truth or underlying reality, but to clear the intellectual and imaginative space for her own rival inventions. And Gordon’s biography is a useful guide to the way in which Carter assembled the basic elements of her aesthetic. As a teenager, she absorbed Great Expectations, taking particular note of the spurned figure of Miss Havisham. Also formative were Baudelaire and Rimbaud, whose extravagant poetry she first heard being read aloud on a borrowed record. ‘It was,’ she recalled, ‘like having my skull opened with a tin opener and all its contents transformed.’ Like many a twentieth-century writer, Carter was drawn to Freud’s ideas about dreams and the unconscious, attracted by the notion that primal forces were at work beneath the surface of everyday life, but without ever becoming an out-and-out Freudian – though she did go on to read, with careful attention, the work of several other psychoanalytical thinkers, most notably Melanie Klein. The Surrealists gave her an added sense of the evocative and disturbing potential of strange imagery. She also developed a love-hate relationship with D. H. Lawrence, being at once compelled by his vitalism and embarrassed by his sexual politics. And she kept an eye on contemporary French thought. Roland Barthes’ essays on popular culture and Michel Foucault’s ideas about power and discourse influenced her thinking when she read them in the 1970s. The portrait that emerges from Gordon’s biography is of a writer who was intellectually inquisitive and driven, but not necessarily a systematic thinker. Ideas were valuable to Carter as creative stimulations and provocations, not as definitive explanations: she ‘tended to jumble up bits of Marxist, feminist, structuralist, postcolonial and psychoanalytical theory in her books, using them because they interested her, rather than seeking to reconcile them’.

One of the notable aspects of Carter’s self-invention is the strong sense of creative direction she possessed from very early in her career. When she arrived at the University of Bristol to study English Literature in 1962, she quickly sorted out her preferences, burning through prescribed and non-prescribed texts at a ferocious rate, absorbing Kafka, Dostoevsky and Beckett, alongside contemporary authors such as Kurt Vonnegut, Iris Murdoch and Anthony Burgess (who was to become an early champion of her work). Classic authors whom she found tedious – Jane Austen, Henry James – were summarily dismissed. W. B. Yeats, she decided, was ‘an utter driveling fool’. Clearly, she was not a person who lacked confidence in her own judgement. Gordon includes a funny anecdote from A. S. Byatt, who remembers a young and relatively unknown Angela Carter ‘stomping’ up to her at a literary soirée in the late sixties, informing her in no uncertain terms that her work was ‘no good at all’, then turning on her heel and ‘stomping’ away.

Singular figure though she was, Carter was in certain respects a woman of her time. Her aesthetic was forged in opposition to the kitchen-sink social realism of the 1950s and 1960s – writing that reflected the drab world of her childhood. As Lorna Sage observes, Carter ‘valued and sought abstraction as an antidote to the climate of foggy realism in which she’d grown up’. The fantastic and iconoclastic qualities of her work can be seen, in this sense, as products of the cultural and sexual revolution of the 1960s, a social movement to which Carter – generationally, at least – belongs (among her earliest published articles are concert reviews of Bob Dylan and The Who), and which she satirised in her early novels Shadow Dance (1966), Several Perceptions (1968) and Love (1971).

Her penchant for abstraction and exaggeration, combined with the age’s spirit of openness and creative exploration, led to her embrace in the 1970s of disreputable anti-realist genres (fantasy, science fiction, fairy tale) and her crucial insight into the expressive potential of pre-modern, which is also to say pre-bourgeois, literary forms. As she argued in a late essay on Jane Eyre, it is precisely because that novel has overtly generic qualities, because its moments of lurid melodrama veer toward trashiness, because there is something unreal and atavistic about the romantic and gothic elements of its narrative, that it has proved to be so potently and enduringly evocative:

The archaic sub-literary forms of romance and fairytale are so close to dreaming they lend themselves readily to psychoanalytical interpretation … As a result, Jane Eyre is a peculiarly unsettling blend of penetrating psychological realism, of violent and intuitive feminism, of a surprisingly firm sociological grasp, and of the utterly non-realistic apparatus of psycho-sexual fantasy – irresistible passion, madness, violent death, dream, telepathic communication.

Carter dated the emergence of her feminist consciousness to the politically tumultuous year 1968. But her awareness of the power imbalances and the element of savagery that can taint relations between the sexes is evident in her earliest work, which is clearly coloured by the experience of her unsatisfactory marriage. Her first novel Shadow Dance, observes Gordon, is ‘dark, spiky, misanthropic’ and ‘palpably not the creation of a happy person’. Near the end of Carter’s second novel The Magic Toyshop (1967), the narrator Melanie, an orphaned teenager roiling with adolescent sexual confusion, who has been compelled by circumstances to become ‘a little mother’ to her younger siblings, observes Finn, a grimy young man whom she nevertheless finds strangely alluring, and has a vision of their future together:

She knew they would get married one day and live together all their lives and there would always be pervasive squalor and dirt and mess and shabbiness, always, forever and forever. And babies crying and washing to be done and toast burning all the rest of her life. And never any glamour or romance or charm. Nothing fancy. Only mess and babies with red hair. She revolted.

So did Carter. At the end of the 1960s, she relocated for a period to Japan, despite not knowing anyone there and not speaking the language, and promptly found herself a Japanese lover. The decision effectively ended her marriage, but fired her imagination. The experience of cultural dislocation sharpened her sense that ‘the mind is a kind of theatre’ – a quote from David Hume she had used as the epigraph to Several Perceptions. She would soon conceive of the metaphysical battle for control of the theatre of mind as a literal war in The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffmann (1972), a novel in which she sought to create a fictional world with the hallucinatory vividness and expressive power of a dream. Gordon contends that the book dramatises the struggle between ‘romanticism and reason’ that was going on within Carter’s psyche. But Doctor Hoffman was also something of a creative breakthrough. ‘I’d developed this highly decorative, very tightly structured prose that could almost fit anything, and I was quite consciously utilising it,’ she told an interviewer. ‘I mean it was lovely, it was beautiful, because I was in control of it.’

Carter was nothing if not independent minded. Her socialism had a decidedly individualistic streak. She regarded social and material inequalities not simply as objectionable in principle, but pernicious because they were impediments to self-determination. She had an aversion to certain women authors – Edna O’Brien, Joan Didion, Jean Rhys – whose writing she felt colluded with the notion that femininity was a condition of passivity or victimhood. ‘She never saw the oppression of women as categorically different from other forms of oppression,’ observes Gordon – indeed, she saw oppressions of gender and class, which entrap women and men alike in regressive ‘behavioural modes’, as closely related and mutually reinforcing. Their inequities will be overcome together or not at all. An important lesson Carter draws from her reading of the Marquis de Sade’s empowered female protagonists Juliette and Eugénie is that ‘a free woman in an unfree society will be a monster’.

It is an indication of the cultural bind in which women find themselves that marriage is associated in Carter’s imaginative universe with the myth of the fall, though it is no less significant that she turns the received meaning of that myth on its head. ‘Eden is evil,’ she declared in an interview, ‘states of grace always are.’ The virginal bride wrapped up like a present in her sumptuous wedding gown embodies a myth of purity, but her marriage also represents a ‘fall’ into carnal knowledge and thus, according to the lapsarian myth, the twinned realities of sin and death. Her innocence is merely another name for ignorance. To the extent that a woman believes in the fairy-tale notion that marriage is a fulfilment or harmonious resolution, she is deluding herself. ‘Marriage? Pah!’ scoffs Liz, the elderly chaperone and ‘foster-mother’ to the outsized bird-woman Fevvers in Nights at the Circus (1984). ‘What is marriage but prostitution to one man instead of many?’

Quite. But for Carter the symbolism of marriage is more intricate and psychologically charged than Lizzie’s jaded view suggests. In the brilliant title story from The Bloody Chamber (1979), for example, Carter rewrites the tale of Bluebeard – itself a version of the lapsarian myth – emphasising the way in which naive romanticism obscures the fatally entwined determinations of power and desire. The relative powerlessness of the story’s young narrator is the result not only of her sex, but the imbalance between her humble social position and that of the fabulously wealthy and much older Marquis whom she unwisely agrees to marry. Like many of Carter’s female protagonists, she also finds herself caught between flesh and the mirror – that is, between the reality of her own inchoate sexual desires and the refined image she presents to the world, which is reflected back at her, enshrouding her palpability in received notions of beauty and delicacy and submissiveness.

All of this is complicated even further by the confusion she feels when she experiences the ambiguous validation of becoming an object of desire. After the Marquis has wooed her with a ruby-studded choker – an ominous allusion to the fate of many aristocrats during the French Revolution – he watches her in ‘gilded mirrors’ with ‘the assessing eye of a connoisseur inspecting horseflesh, or even a housewife inspecting cuts on the slab’. There is a neat ironic inversion in likening the story’s sinister patriarch to a housewife, but of greater significance are the intimations of violence and the way in which the language of romance and beauty is displaced by an anti-romantic language of raw materiality. The ‘sheer carnal avarice’ of his gaze strips away the pretence of social refinement, exposing the sadistic desire to possess and dominate that is coiled at the heart of his lust. Yet when she catches a glimpse of herself in the mirror, when she sees herself as she must appear to him, she also becomes aware her own ‘potential for corruption’.

This Gordian knot of eros and thanatos draws her in nevertheless, ‘as though the imponderable weight of his desire was a force I might not withstand, not by virtue of its violence but because of its very gravity’. And it entraps her. The plot’s definitive twist (the Marquis gives her the key to his secret chamber, then tells her she must never open the door) makes clear the invidious nature of her position. She can choose unquestioning obedience and live in a state of intolerable ignorance, or she can choose disobedience and be punished for her knowledge. After she has (of course) opened the door and discovered her husband’s dark secret, she belatedly realises that the rules have been rigged against her from the start:

I had been tricked into my own betrayal … I had played a game in which every move was governed by a destiny as oppressive and omnipotent as himself; and I had lost. Lost at that charade of innocence and vice in which he had engaged me.

Ironies don’t come much more outrageous than the fact that the Marquis is the murderer, but the narrator has the ‘mark of Cain’ placed on her forehead – even though she does, in the end, manage to escape his clutches, her liberation generating the story’s final irony, which is that she is not simply made wiser but literally enriched by her harrowing fall into knowledge. ‘The blameless woman is for Carter also the unimaginative woman,’ observed Lorna Sage, to which one can add that an unimaginative and blameless woman will also be a disempowered woman.

Carter’s determination to liberate herself from cultural strictures, invent her own rules – her desire to write, as she once said admiringly of Christina Stead, ‘as a woman, not like a woman’ – is one of the reasons her work is so inventive and unusual. It is also why there is something a little monstrous about her. Her justified scorn for the charade of innocence and vice that ensures a woman’s guilt is a fait accompli is coupled with a satirist’s ruthless eye for ugliness and falsity. Her descriptive flair, evident from the very beginning of her career, makes her a natural caricaturist, alert to oddities and irregularities of appearance, but her descriptions also have a symbolic function, which overlaps with her satirical intentions. She recognises the bestial quality of human instincts and desires – something that is literalised in the transformations and anthropomorphism in many folk tales, but which is already present in the metaphors of Carter’s early fiction. The musky redheaded Finn from The Magic Toyshop is curiously vulpine; Joseph from Several Perceptions has a ‘wolfish smile’; in Love, Lee – short for Leon – is leonine.

Carter sees the clutter and squalor and grotesquerie of existence in a manner reminiscent of Hogarth or Dickens. Her stage sets are deliberately rickety. Where there is appearance of elegance and glamour in her fiction, it is invariably revealed on closer inspection to be tacky and frayed and soiled. And she insists on the palpability of her characters in ways that can be downright cruel. Her depiction of the failed actress Mrs Boulder in Several Perceptions, for example, is a blackly comical comment on the futility of trying to maintain an image of feminine beauty and sexual allure against the ravages of time – poor Mrs Boulder’s efforts having transformed her into a pitiful painted ghoul, whose various attempts at propping up her sagging flesh are described, rather unkindly (and with a touch of twentysomething arrogance), as ‘like repairing a sandcastle’.

The unsparing quality of Carter’s gaze is merely one aspect of her ruthlessness. She savages the controlling patriarchs who appear in her novels – Uncle Philip in The Magic Toyshop, the eponymous illusionist in The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman, the Charles Manson-like cult leader Zero in The Passion of New Eve – each of whom is a cracked visionary or artist, each of whom is a manipulator of perceptions, and all of whom meet suitably nasty ends. But she is also savage with her female characters, many of whom are made to suffer in pointed ways. In her first novel Shadow Dance, the waifish beauty Ghislaine is described as ‘the sort of young girl one cannot imagine sitting on the lavatory or shaving her armpits or picking her nose’ – until, that is, the vicious Honeybuzzard slashes her perfect face with a knife. There are few writers as attuned to the hideous symbolism of such a vicious assault, its disturbing psycho-sexual implications. But as Gordon points out, ‘Ghislaine’s disfigurement is in part a metaphor for what Angela Carter is doing to the literary female form – the myth of the perfect sanctified woman that still inhabited most novels and poems of the 1960s.’

What is arresting about Carter’s work throughout the 1960s and 1970s is not that she felt compelled to make this point, but the violence of her negation. She does not simply reject the myths of innocence and purity and immaculate beauty as impossible and thus oppressive ideals; she coolly and deliberately defiles them. The many instances of rape in her novels are presented as initiations into the harsh realities of power and inequality, forced submissions to a social order. In The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman, for example, the beautiful Albertine is initiated into a society of impassive centaurs by being ceremonially gang raped. Near the end of Love, Lee and the wan Annabel, as their unhappy marriage disintegrates once and for all, find that their desires and expectations have become so irreconcilable that they somehow manage to commit ‘mutual rape’. Responding to criticism of what Carter conceded was a ‘distinctly ideologically dodgy rape scene’ in Heroes and Villains (1969), she stated that it was included ‘for reasons of pure sensationalism’, but pointed out that the novel is ‘supposed to share a vocabulary with the fiction of repression’.

This use of sexual violence as a motif reaches something of an apotheosis in the outlandish plot of The Passion of New Eve, in which the lusty male narrator Evelyn – who admires a culturally sanctified image of immaculate female beauty in the form of the movie star Tristessa – is captured by a group of radical women separatists and raped in an underground bunker by an enormous six-breasted mother goddess. Evelyn is then surgically transformed into Eve, who is the semblance of a perfect woman, her new appearance having been modelled on pictures of Hollywood starlets. Eve manages to escape before the separatists can impregnate her with her own harvested sperm, only to fall into the hands of the cult leader Zero, who initiates her into his harem by raping her again. She escapes once more, but is pursued by an enraged Zero to the home of Tristessa, where Zero forces Eve to marry the reclusive screen goddess, who (it transpires) was really a man in drag all along.

One of the themes of Gordon’s biography is that Carter’s work was often misconstrued and underappreciated during her lifetime, that its nuances and its humour were apt to be overlooked, that the literary politics of the time were such that an upstart mediocrity like Ian McEwan (‘dreadfully overrated’ was Carter’s assessment) could be lauded for far less than she had achieved. Though Carter built up a sizeable readership over the years and received her share of critical praise (and deservedly so), her feminism meant that she tended to be pigeonholed – a tendency Gordon attributes to some of her admirers as well as her detractors, contending that much of the posthumous scholarly attention she has received has interpreted her writing in narrowly political terms. ‘She has been reduced to the status of pamphleteer,’ he laments, ‘a writer who created not art but argument.’

Gordon has a point. Carter was committed and forthright, but her instincts were not dogmatic or militant. ‘My position in any revolution,’ she wrote to her friend Carole Roffe, ‘sexual or otherwise, is always bound to be equivocal because I, basically, don’t want to get involved.’  By way of example, Gordon argues that Love has been interpreted as a relatively straightforward allegory of patriarchal oppression, but that Carter’s letters and journals reveal she was, in fact, more sympathetic to the out-of-his-depth husband character Lee and less sympathetic to his psychologically fragile wife Annabel than is often assumed.

It is nevertheless understandable why Carter’s edgy mid-period work, in particular, should be interpreted in light of its sexual politics. The bizarre plot twists in The Passion of New Eve are clearly meant to be farcical, but the surrealist shock-tactics and the raw violence of its satire make the novel something of a jagged pill. And one of the principal reasons for this rebarbative quality is that the figure whose dark shadow falls across Carter’s fiction throughout the 1970s is the Marquis de Sade, whom she described as a ‘terrorist of the imagination’. As her most sustained essay in cultural criticism, The Sadeian Woman is one of the keys to her oeuvre. Its publication in 1979 – the same year as The Bloody Chamber – was not only the culmination of her thinking about sex and power throughout that decade; it represented a triumphant transcending of Sade’s influence, which cleared the way for the liberating picaresque comedy of her last two novels, Nights at the Circus and Wise Children (1991). It is not a coincidence that the title story in The Bloody Chamber is about a woman who escapes the clutches of a sadistic Marquis – in fact, it’s not even subtle.

Gordon establishes that The Sadeian Woman cost Carter enormous effort. She laboured over the book for several years, struggling to keep it within its nominally feminist framework, at times feeling as if its complexity would defeat her. The idea to write about Sade can be traced back to the early 1970s, when Carter contemplated undertaking a PhD thesis, the title of which was to be ‘De Sade: Culmination of the Enlightenment’. She made an early and more or less explicit attempt to vanquish him in The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman, in which a Sade-like character known as the Count leads the narrator astray for a time, only to meet his end at the hands of a tribe of cannibals. But his influence persisted, and a clue to Carter’s enduring fascination with him is to be found in her proposed thesis title. Sade, she writes in The Sadeian Woman, is the ‘last, bleak, disillusioned voice of the Enlightenment … the avatar of the nihilism of the late twentieth century’.

By virtue of his extremity, his absolutism, Sade is at once revolutionary and reactionary. His doctrine is one of radical equality – but an equality that is based, perversely and paradoxically, on the anarchic principle of absolute egoism. The only valid moral law in his universe is that of self-gratification. As Maurice Blanchot observes in an essay that Carter does not cite (though she would certainly have been aware of it, since it is printed as the introduction to the edition of Juliette listed in the bibliography of The Sadeian Woman), Sade confuses an abstracted equality with individual liberty, conflates them in such a way that he conceives of the revolutionary notion of the equality of all human beings as ‘the right to equal use of them all, freedom is the power to bend others to his own will’.

For Carter, Sade is of particular interest because he sets out, in the starkest of terms, both the liberating promise and the potential problem with Enlightenment rationalism and the principle of liberté when these progressive ideals are divorced from the other two (rather important) principles of the French Revolution – when they are stripped of any notion of mutual obligation and become instruments of power. He is, Carter observes, unusual as a satirist and pornographer, in that ‘he is capable of believing, even if only intermittently, that it is possible to radically transform society and, with it, human nature, so that the Old Adam, exemplified in God, the King and the Law, the trifold masculine symbolism of authority, will take his final departure from amongst us’. Thus, on one level, his iconoclasm admits the theoretical liberation of women. The antithetical sisters, Justine and Juliette, each of whom is the protagonist of her own fable-like novel, make this idea plain. Justine believes in the bourgeois notion of virtue, believes that her goodness is determined by her chastity; as a result, she is raped and abused and humiliated at every turn. Juliette, on the other hand, embraces the contrary principle of egoism, embraces sexual libertinism and pleasure, and is consequently rewarded for her vices.

‘The life of Juliette,’ argues Carter, ‘proposes a method of profane mastery of the instruments of power.’ And yet it does so without altering the pre-existing social order. Both Juliette and Justine, as representations of vice and virtue respectively, remain ‘women whose identities have been defined exclusively by men’. This is a crucial point for Carter. In The Sadeian Woman, she muses that the reason so many people find the idea of the emancipation of women threatening may be because the necessary demystification of womanhood would entail the death of the notion of the goddess, the ultimate death of supernatural thinking, and thus would constitute a confrontation with death itself: it would represent the ‘final secularisation of mankind’. This is the step she suggests that even the atheist Sade is unwilling to take, entrapping himself instead in his own inflexible and absolute moral categories and the ‘inbuilt reactionary mechanisms’ of satire and pornography. He understands sex as as a metaphor for power relations (just as the arse-kissing and shit-eating in his novels are literalised metaphors); but for Sade one person’s pleasure is always dependent on another person’s pain. The world of his novels remains determinedly hierarchical and Manichean. For Sade, vice will always prosper and virtue will always lead to suffering. One of his cruelest lessons, Carter observes, is ‘that tyranny is implicit in all privilege. My freedom makes you more unfree …’ And this iron rule leads to the basic contradiction of his thought:

The notion of a natural propensity for vice is essential to Sadeian psychology; vice is innate, as is virtue, if social conditions are unalterable. This straightjacket psychology relates his fiction directly to the black and white ethical world of fairy tale and fable; it is in conflict with his frequently expounded general theory of moral relativity, that good and evil are not the same thing at all times and in all places. So his characters represent moral absolutes in a world where no moral absolutes exist. This is the major contradiction inherent in his fiction, which he never resolves.

The culmination of The Sadeian Woman turns the tables. Carter cites a hideous scene in Philosophy in the Bedroom, in which the teenage Eugénie de Mistival, as part of her initiation into the principles of libertarianism, is encouraged to violently rape her own mother – one of the incorrigibly virtuous who, in Sade’s universe, are fated to suffer at the hands of the incorrigibly wicked. There is a moment in that scene, however, when it seems as if Madame de Mistival is about to orgasm – only for Sade to avoid the issue by having her suddenly lose consciousness. It seems that the shocking possibility that Madame de Mistival might actually take pleasure in her ordeal, the possibility that a virtuous woman might switch sides (as it were) and embrace the Sadeian principle of corruption, is too much even for Sade. As Carter points out, such a turn of events would violate the absolutism of his moral order. ‘The possibility of redemption from virtue,’ she points out, ‘would suggest the reciprocal possibility of a fall from vice.’ The pleasure of Madame de Mistival raises the possibilities of mutuality and transcendence, meaning that Sade ‘might even have to make room for hope’. It would also violate a powerful taboo – something that, in this instance, Carter is willing to countenance, unlike Sade, who retreats into the safety of his Manichean doctrine of absolute selfishness and squalid revelling in the inherent cruelty of privilege. ‘Fuckin aristos,’ spits Liz in Nights at the Circus. ‘Can’t trust fucking aristos.’

Carter’s desire to satirise oppressive cultural assumptions and explore radically different forms of social organisation led her to rewrite Gulliver’s Travels twice – in The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman, and then again in The Passion of New Eve. She saw the episodic form of those novels as having political implications. Citing an interview in which Carter discusses Doctor Hoffman as a picaresque novel, Gordon remarks that it ‘isn’t obvious why she felt that the picaresque was gender-and-class neutral compared to other modes of writing, but it was probably to do with what she saw as the form’s structural affinity with the language of dream’. That is one possibility, though there is perhaps another clue in an essay she wrote about the irrepressible Colette, which suggests the important point for Carter was not that the picaresque novel is a ‘neutral’ genre, but that it describes the kind of freewheeling self-invention that has traditionally been the province of men:

The social limitations to experience in a woman’s life still preclude the kind of unselfconscious picaresque adventuring that formed the artistic apprenticeships of Melville, Lowry, Conrad, while other socio-economic factors mean that those women who see most of the beastly backside of the world, that is, prostitutes, are least in a position to utilise this invaluable experience as art … the life of Colette was as picaresque as a woman’s may be without putting herself in a state of hazard.

The performing twins Dora and Nora Chance in Wise Children, like the celebrated aerialist Fevvers in Nights at the Circus, are not prostitutes, though their disreputable occupations place them at a near remove, since a woman going on the stage has traditionally been regarded as not all that far from prostitution, socially speaking (plus there is the fact that the orphan Fevvers is raised in a brothel). In any case, they get to see quite a bit of the beastly backside of the world. And it is fitting that Carter’s last two novels, her two funniest books and the crowning achievements of her career, should be gleefully picaresque tales bursting with invention and humour.

When she reread The Magic Toyshop in the 1980s, Carter claimed to be ‘embarrassed’ by its badness; when she reread Love, she was moved to comment on ‘its penetrating aroma of unhappiness’. She was being too hard on her early work – there are not many writers in their mid-twenties who could have produced anything as brilliant and concentrated as the opening chapter of The Magic Toyshop, or the sublimely creepy scene in which the teenaged Melanie is forced to play the lead in a performance of Leda and the Swan and her Uncle Philip rapes her with his puppet bird.

There is, nevertheless, a genuine sense of creative liberation in Nights at the Circus and Wise Children. As Gordon records, the writing of these novels coincided with the period of stability and contentment Carter achieved in her personal life during her last decade. But they also express a kind of philosophical liberation, a final triumphant claim to the idea that womanhood can and should be understood a mode of self-invention. ‘Show business, being a showgirl,’ Carter observed, ‘is a very simple metaphor for being a woman, for being aware of your femininity, being aware of yourself as a woman and having to use it to negotiate with the world.’ Her picaresque heroines are not entirely free (no one is entirely free) – the joke with Fevvers is that she can really fly, but has to pretend that it is an act – but they are able to make their way in life with a certain aplomb.

Carter’s final novels are also the culmination of the shift in emphasis over the course of her career, from Hume’s conception of the mind as a theatre, to an embrace of the Shakespearean notion of the world as a stage. Wise Children is, among other things, a novel that sets out to reclaim Shakespeare as ‘the great popular entertainer of all time’ by placing him squarely in the milieu of music hall and pantomime. Characteristically, Carter had a political angle to her audacious appropriation. The novel expresses her somewhat sentimental sense of solidarity with the working class, for whom, she once claimed, loving Shakespeare ‘was a kind of class revenge’. Carter’s best book was to be her last. Her death was premature. But by then she had already well and truly succeeded in writing herself into the history of English literature.


Angela Carter, Black Venus (Vintage, 1985).
The Bloody Chamber (Vintage, 1995).
Expletives Deleted: Selected Writings (Chatto & Windus, 1992).
Heroes and Villains (Penguin, 2011).
The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman (Penguin, 2011).
Little Red Riding Hood, Cinderella, and Other Classic Fairy Tales of Charles Perrault (Penguin, 2008).
Love (Picador, 1988).
The Magic Toyshop (Heinemann, 1967).
Nights at the Circus (Vintage, 2006).
Nothing Sacred: Selected Writings (Virago, 1992).
The Passion of New Eve (Virago, 1982).
The Sadeian Woman: An Exercise in Cultural History (Virago, 1979).
Several Perceptions (Virago, 1995).
Shadow Dance (Virago, 1995).
Shaking a Leg: Collected Journalism and Writing (Chatto & Windus, 1997).
Wise Children (Vintage, 1992).
Marquis de Sade, Justine, Philosophy in the Bedroom, and Other Writings, translated by Richard Seaver and Austryn Wainhouse (Arrow, 1991).
Lorna Sage, Moments of Truth: Twelve Twentieth-Century Woman Writers (Fourth Estate, 2001).