The Invention of Angela Carter: A Biography by Edmund Gordon – review

This thorough life of the late novelist isn’t true to the spirit of its iconoclastic subject

At the fag end of the 60s, the novelist AS Byatt attended a recording of a BBC programme at which the poet Stevie Smith read from her Novel on Yellow Paper and answered questions from an audience gathered in a circle around her. Byatt seems not to have enjoyed it much – the atmosphere was “like a bullring” – and perhaps this set the tone for the night, for as she was leaving she was accosted by another writer, one rather more full-blooded than Smith, if no less spiky. Her encounter with this “disagreeable woman” went like this: “She said, ‘My name’s Angela Carter. I recognised you and I wanted to stop and tell you that the sort of thing you’re doing is no good at all, no good at all. There’s nothing in it – that’s not where literature is going.’ That sort of thing. And off she stomped.”

It’s hard to imagine such a confrontation – heartfelt, but a bit unnecessary – taking place now, sincerity in the matter of art having since become, for complicated reasons and depressing ones, somewhat embarrassing; in 2016, even the most grumpily earnest of writers tend to politeness backstage at literary festivals. But the 60s and 70s – even the 80s, to a degree – were different. One young novelist could roundly insult another’s work in public, and not even her victim would hold it against her. “I knew she was shy when she said that,” Byatt told Edmund Gordon, author of the first full-length biography of Carter, some 24 years after her death. “It was something she believed and she just thought she should make it clear.”

What to do, then, with Carter in the 21st century? How to delineate her cheese plant and macramé times – if there were open marriages, there were also chilblains and long conversations about poetry and the means of production – while simultaneously attempting to rescue her from the dreary reverence that has turned her, among our more verbose feminists, into something of a plaster saint? Gordon’s approach is to fight sincerity with sincerity. His book, serious-minded and meticulously researched, treats her novels and stories, if not her journalism, with deep respect and intelligence, and allows itself, if not to have a stand-up row with those critics who did not “get” her, then at least to feel a measure of indignation on her behalf. But oh, it is inordinately traditional. It begins at the beginning with her South Yorkshire grandparents, and it ends at the end, with the hacking cough that was the first sign of the cancer that would kill her in 1992 – a structure that leaves little room for its subject’s iconoclasm, for the intellectual wildness that colours every line she ever wrote.

Carter was born in 1940. Her father, Hugh, was a journalist; her mother, Olive, stayed at home, where she cosseted her daughter obsessively, dressing her like a doll and refusing to allow her to go the lavatory alone until she was 11. Thanks to this, Carter developed a strong need for solitude: a useful quality for a writer, if not for a lover. But how to secure such a thing with Olive breathing down her neck? In the late 50s, the only practicable solution was marriage, and so it was that, aged 19, she got hitched to an industrial chemist called Paul Carter, and swapped south London for the more bohemian confines of Clifton, Bristol. Was it bliss, this “very seedy and picturesque” new realm? Not at first. Paul, who refused to talk to Gordon for this book, was a depressive, and while he was at work, Angela was marooned at home. Eventually, though, she performed another escape. First, there was Bristol University, where she belatedly studied for a degree; then there was Japan, to which she fled on the back of the £500 she received when her third novel, Several Perceptions, won the Somerset Maugham award in 1969.

The Japan years make up the most interesting section of Gordon’s biography: her life in Tokyo, strange and sometimes sleazy – she worked for a time in a hostess bar – was a thing apart, her contentment somehow inseparable from her loneliness (she never learned Japanese). There were two lovers: Sozo Araki, an aspiring writer several years her junior who was congenitally unfaithful (“an ambulant penis”, she called him), and Mansu Ko, a 19-year-old Korean (“a piece of sexual bric-a-brac”). What intrigues the reader about these relationships isn’t their unlikeliness, their dependence on Carter’s fantasies (all that sex! How it makes you want to cheer). Rather, it’s their power structure. The men she left behind – which is to say: almost all of them – were winded by her self-determination. Andrew Travers, one of the ditched, referred in a letter to her “basic shiftiness”, as if she’d pulled a con trick on him – and perhaps she had, given that it was 1973. Was this ruthlessness on her part, or was it simply that by attending to her own needs, there would inevitably be collateral damage? Most likely it was both.

Back in Britain, however, Gordon’s narrative wants for an engine – it is about to become, as literary biographies often do, a list: of books published, of academic posts taken up, of prizes won and not won – and perhaps because of this he’s less in tune with the times, the places. It just isn’t true, for instance, that in Sheffield, where Carter taught in 1976, everyone ate tripe and black pudding and it was impossible to get hold of garlic – and if people told him otherwise, he should have shot down their cliches (the university was then smack in the middle of one of the richest constituencies in Britain). London, where Ian McEwan and Salman Rushdie are now in the ascendant, seems always to be calling to Gordon, and while I understand the lure of all that rivalry and gossip, it encourages him to define Carter in relation only to male writers, when he might have done better to put her in a wider context (what a pity, too, that he dismisses the novelist Barbara Comyns in a single sentence).

Like Paul Carter before him, Mark Pearce, the rather silent younger man with whom Angela had a son, Alex, at 43, is an absence rather than a presence – though her indefatigable and brilliant women friends, among them the publisher Carmen Callil and the academic Lorna Sage, are all cheeringly present and correct, fags in hand.

Has Gordon successfully demolished the Carter “mythology”, his stated aim in his introduction? Well, he has certainly dented it, especially when it comes to her attitude to feminism (though if people read her more closely, and wrapped in fewer of their own prejudices, they might be aware of those particular contradictions already). His book seems to me not to speak to her violent, restless spirit. But then, as he writes himself, it is only a “first step”. The next biography won’t start at the beginning, with coal mines and terraced houses and tinned fruit. It will start in the middle, with sex and arguments and blood.

The Invention of Angela Carter is published by Chatto & Windus (£25). Click here to buy it for £20.50


Rachel Cooke

The GuardianTramp

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