Since her untimely death in 1992 there has never been a full length biography of the English writer, feminist and socialist Angela Carter. Thankfully this first foray into biography by author Edmund Gordon manifestly rights that wrong.
Carter famously described herself as “a born fabulist”, and Gordon takes that as his cue to deconstruct many of the myths that have sprung up around his subject, delineating Carter’s deliberate reinventions of herself with unprecedented access to her diaries, letters and manuscripts.
The narrative is as epic and picaresque as one of her novels: escaping from her mother’s tyranny by marrying young, Carter’s literary talent rises slowly but surely in a post-war environment of grasped opportunities and relentless honing of her skills. Gordon vividly brings to life a time when women (from certain backgrounds at least) had real access to learning amid the post-war economic boom of the early 1950s, but is clear to undercut any sense of inevitability about Carter’s success by demonstrating the obstacles set in her way — a stifling first marriage, near-poverty, rejection of her work, the daily domestic grind.
Her metamorphosis from aspiring unknown to internationally acclaimed author takes place against a backdrop of cultural, political and societal ferment, a journey traversing everything from New Left politics in the 1960s to her involvement in the landmark founding of the feminist imprint Virago in the 1970s.
The book is full of surprising details, such as John Berger’s encouragement for her controversial book The Sadeian Woman, and the influence of the theories of psychiatrist R D Laing on some of her early works. Likewise her passionate, anti-censorship defence of her great friend Salman Rushdie’s book The Satanic Verses in the late 1980s. The literary world that allowed Carter’s talent to develop is long gone. The book is littered with references to obscure journals and magazines that were once the energetic training ground for writers like her, all now defunct and forgotten.
Gordon’s careful prose sometimes betrays itself, placing Carter within “the Rushdie generation” — the gilded cage of the UK literary establishment — rather than placing her in a wider context of global literature. She has more in common with fellow renegade Kathy Acker than Ian McEwan. Carter’s male contemporaries are amply rewarded by the Thatcherite greed and commercial overdrive of the 1980s book world, but critically, she is not. However, the contrast between Carter’s material comforts amid the emerging neoliberal clampdown that decimated so much during that brutal decade is glaring, and the sudden onset of her illness brings the book to a shuddering stop. Ultimately this excellent biography should reignite an interest in the body of work created by one of literature’s great subversives.