I was in a Wandsworth public library in the late 1990s when I read the line, “Angela Carter lives in London.”
The office lunch hour had sprung me, and I’d needed sanctuary more than a sandwich.
There’s no memory of how I came to be holding a book by Angela Carter, or even which one. But there I was, transfixed by this lonely sentence at the end of the introductory preamble.
And my first thought was, why don’t they say south London? Or more precisely, Clapham because I’d read elsewhere: “Angela Carter lives in a tall, thin, red-painted house in Clapham.”
I wanted the words ‘Angela Carter lives in London’ to unfold because I lived in a black-painted house in south London. Angela Carter- I used to tell myself-well we’re almost neighbours.
And then those five black words twinkled darkly, and I remembered Angela Carter was dead. She’d died in 1992. Angela Carter didn’t live near me at all. She didn’t live near anybody any more.
Discovering a page where Angela Carter was defiantly still here, a move more spectacular than rising from the dead (which we might have expected) was I decided a Cartesque triumph. But who would believe in such a miracle? And I knew those words would soon vanish; they’d be brought into the light and Angela Carter would, in the next book, be dead again. So I took a relic, a souvenir of suspended disbelief; I photocopied the page. I have it still; a sooty sheet trimmed with black edges, proof that words do keep a writer alive, even when they’re dead.
But being dead is good for literary business. Lorna Sage in her obituary essay on Angela Carter, ‘Death of the Author’ wrote: “A living writer is part of the unsatisfying, provisional, myopic, linear, altogether human present, but add a full stop and you can read the work backwards, sideways, whatever, because now it’s an oeuvre, truly finished.”
Angela Carter’s work lends itself to being read “backwards, sideways”. She created a palette of beginnings and endings, cause and effect, life and death, then threw them at the wall. Hers was a project of literary reclamation, of language, genre and gender. “I feel free to loot and rummage in a literary past” she’d said.
There was something of this purposeful discontinuity in her personal life. Lorna Sage wrote: “By the end [Angela’s] life fitted her more or less like a glove, but that was because she had put it together, by trial and error, bricolage, all in the (conventionally) wrong order”.
My photocopied page is symbolic of the bricolage. It begins mid-sentence: “…was born in 1940”. I’m sure if I’d copied the preceding page it would have confirmed she began life as Angela Olive Stalker. Stalker! Such a name for a writer of bedevilment. Oh if only she hadn’t married Mr P. Carter twenty years later. It took twelve years before that entangling was undone but by then the marital name was firmly affixed to the front of novels: Shadow Dance, Several Perceptions and The Magic Toyshop.
The Magic Toyshop set the seal on Angela Carter’s reputation. Published before the divorce that restored Ms Stalker to herself, it’s hard not to read it as a morality tale for girls on the perils of dressing up in wedding dresses. Especially those of white satin that slither over you “cold as a slow hosing with ice-water….” Particularly if the dress was Mother’s.
It’s a theme revisited in the short story ‘The Lady of the House of Love’. The vampiric Countess Nosferatu is attired in her dead mother’s “antique bridal gown”. Her night-time pastimes stain the lace: “Crouching, quivering, she catches the scent of her prey. Delicious crunch of the fragile bones of rabbits and small, furry things she pursues with fleet, four-feeted speed; she will creep home, whimpering, with blood smeared on her cheeks.”
Angela Carter’s imagination pursued its muse with “fleet, four-feeted speed”. Fellow fabulist Salman Rushdie wrote that if her novels are “like nobody else’s… the best of her is in her stories [where] she can dazzle and swoop, and quit while she’s ahead”. ‘The Lady of the House of Love’ is collected in The Bloody Chamber which Rushdie believes is “Carter’s masterwork”. She described it as “on the dark side of romanticism”. The title story oozes this bitter twinning: a 17- year- old virgin marries a murderous Marquis and is whisked to the “faery solitude” of his castle “with its turrets of misty blue, its courtyard, its spiked gate….”
And then there are the mirrors. The night before they marry, our heroine (she truly becomes one) sees her future husband looking at her: “I caught sight of myself in the mirror. And I saw myself, suddenly, as he saw me, my pale face, the way the muscles in my neck stuck out like thin wire…And, for the first time in my innocent and confined life, I sensed in myself a potentiality for corruption that took my breath away.” It is well she senses it at the beginning for she must use it fully at the end.
It is not the last time mirrors reflect morbidity in this or other Carter tales. ‘The Fall River Axe Murders’, describes the day when “after breakfast and the performance of a few household duties, Lizzie Borden will murder her parents….” She will look at the “distorting mirror’ on her dresser ” in which she sometimes looks at those times when time snaps in two and then she sees herself with blind, clairvoyant eyes, as though she were another person.
‘Lizzie is not herself, today.’
There’s probably less ‘dazzle and swoop’ in this and the other stories that make up the collection American Ghosts and Old World Wonders published posthumously. Although I rather like the cooler more controlled tone; it makes the language more dangerous. In an Angela Carter story, calm is often followed by a storm. According to Rushdie, her “revisionist imagination has turned towards the real, her interest towards portraiture rather than narrative.” I suspect she was double bluffing. ‘In Pantoland’ is her meditation on Pantomime but when she wrote: “… sometimes, as if it might be the greatest illusion of all, there might be an incursion of the real”, she could have been describing the landscape of ‘Carterland’, where she cross-threaded delusion and truth and let us make of it what we will.
And the smoke and mirrors of Carterland include her non-fiction. In The Sadeian Woman, she refused the party line on the Marquis de Sade’s sexual predilections, believing he had “put pornography at the service of women.” Giving an interview shortly after the book was published she said: “You know what Melville said after writing Moby Dick. I have written a very wicked book, and I feel as pure as a lamb.” She did too.
But fiction was the main arena in which she fought the “slow process of decolonising our language”. She thought it “enormously important for women to write fiction as women”. It was, she said, “to do with the creation of a means of expression for an infinitely greater variety of experience than has been possible…to say things for which no language previously existed.” It’s polished polemic and it doesn’t match her dandiest prose, but it was her manifesto on what the imagination and words can do if you let them.
And it’s why I slipped my pence into a municipal photocopier all those years ago. Because in one sentence, Angela Carter late of south London, was suddenly back among us. I could believe, if only for a moment, she was still tapping away in her red painted house in Clapham, and had written that line herself.
Angela Carter died at age fifty-one on February 16, 1992.