Angela Carter (1940–1992) is one of the boldest and most original writers of the 20th century. Her work draws on an eclectic range of themes and influences, from gothic fantasy, traditional fairy tales, Shakespeare and music hall, through Surrealism and the cinema of Godard and Fellini. Carter’s work breaks many long-established taboos and mores, not least in her forthright realigning of women as central to, and in control of, their own narratives. Her perfectly crafted stories are often provocative and subversive and many contain graphic and violent content.
She was born Angela Olive Stalker in 1940 in Eastbourne, to journalist father, Hugh Alexander Stalker and mother, Olive, who had been a cashier at Selfridges. Much of her childhood was spent with her grandmother in Yorkshire, where she was sent to escape wartime bombing. After the war, she went to school in Balham, south London. Trips with her father to the Granada Cinema in Tooting instigated a life-long love of cinema and film which features strongly throughout her work. On leaving school, she worked briefly at the Croydon Advertiser before she married Paul Carter in 1960 and moved to Bristol where she studied English at Bristol University, specialising in medieval literature.
Her first novel, Shadow Dance was published in 1966 and quickly followed by The Magic Toyshop (1967) and Several Perceptions (1968), which won the Somerset Maugham award. Heavily imbued with elements of gothic fantasy and horror, these early novels are also shot through with the libertarian energy of the 1960s.
In 1967 Carter began writing her distinctive, often acerbic, essays for New Society magazine and continued the collaboration for 20 years, her essays being collected firstly in Nothing Sacred (1982), in Expletives Deleted (1992) and, together with her other journalism, after her death, in Shaking a Leg (1997). A condition of the Somerset Maugham award was that it be used for foreign travel and in 1969 Carter travelled to Japan.
Japanese culture had a huge impact on Carter. She wrote some powerful essays during her Japan years, and her experiences also inspired her collection of semi-autobiographical short stories, Fireworks (1974), where the influence of Edgar Allan Poe’s Gothic fiction is also evident. Her novels Heroes and Villains (1969) and The Infernal Desire Machines of Dr Hoffman (1972) – both written in Japan – together with The Passion of New Eve (1977) signalled a change of direction towards a sinister form of science fiction.
Carter’s controversial work of cultural analysis, The Sadeian Woman (1979) also has its roots in her experiences in Japan where her experiences of working in hostess bars intensified her feminism. In what was the first non-fiction title to be published by feminist publishers Virago, Carter re-evaluates the work of the Marquis de Sade arguing that, unlike other pornographers, he claimed the ‘rights of free sexuality for women, and in installing women as beings of power in his imaginary worlds’.
Published the same year as The Sadeian Woman, Carter’s The Bloody Chamber (1979) was one of her most successful books. Carter finely draws out the latent sexual and violent content of the traditional tales of Bluebeard’s castle and Red Riding Hood, creating a collection of new fiercely subversive tales. In 1984 she worked with Neil Jordan to develop some of these stories into a horror film, The Company of Wolves.
In the mid-1970s, Carter settled in south London again and got together with Mark Pearce, with whom she had a son, Alexander, in 1983. During the late 1970s and 80s, Carter taught at a number of universities; including Sheffield and East Anglia in Britain, Brown in the US and the University of Adelaide in Australia. Her novel, Nights at the Circus (1984), won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize and in 2012 was declared the best book to have ever been awarded that prize. Her last novel Wise Children (1991), tells the story of twin chorus girls Dora and Nora Chance and their bizarre family, bringing together high and low culture, with elements of music hall and Shakespeare.
After Angela Carter’s death from lung cancer in 1992 interest in her work suddenly increased, with a rapid rise in sales of her books and a plethora of stage adaptations of her work in Britain and abroad. She also became one of the most widely taught and researched writers of British fiction. Her writing occupies a unique place in 20th century fiction, a place where myths around gender and sexuality are debunked and where not even the deepest darkest recesses of human imagination are off-limits.
Further information about the life of Angela Carter can be found here via the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.
- Article by:
- Literature 1950–2000, Gender and sexuality, Exploring identity, Fantasy and fairy tale
The last three stories in Angela Carter's The Bloody Chamber all feature wolves. Bidisha considers how these tales use wolves to explore sexual and gender politics, social violence and the possibility of liberation.
- Article by:
- Marina Warner
- Literature 1950–2000, Exploring identity, Fantasy and fairy tale
Marina Warner describes how Angela Carter collected, reimagined and borrowed from fairy tales and folklore.
- Article by:
- Margaretta Jolly
- Gender and sexuality, Exploring identity
The women’s movements of the 1960s and 70s gave rise to a new era for women’s writing. Women also took over the means of production by setting up feminist printing houses such as Virago Press. Margaretta Jolly takes a tour of women’s writing, publishing and literary criticism of this period and explores the work of some of its key players.
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Related teachers' notes
Examine Angela Carter's writing process and her treatment of the Gothic and fairy tale genres.
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Nights at the Circus is the penultimate novel by Angela Carter; published in 1984, it marked a change of direction ...
The story revolves around the twin Chance girls, music hall performers and illegitimate daughters of the great ...