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

Truth is disentangled from myth in this finely judged and elegant life of the much-loved author of The Bloody Chamber and Nights at the Circus

Radicalism was in Angela Carter’s blood. Her grandfather, Walter Farthing, was a soldier whose career took him around the Raj to Malabar, Rangoon and the Andaman Islands, a particularly brutal penal colony. What he saw there made him a revolutionary and he once chaired a meeting at which Lenin spoke. Except he didn’t. The truth was less glamorous: Carter’s grandfather, who died five years before she was born, was commended as an “exemplary” soldier, promoted to sergeant and eventually invalided out with an eye injury. The exciting life and times of Walter Farthing was a story by Carter. He was, as Edmund Gordon puts it in his finely judged and elegantly written biography, the “grandfather she would have designed for herself”. “I exaggerate terribly,” she once warned a friend: “I’m a born fabulist.”

Though known for her novels and her journalism, it was as a fabulist that she found her widest readership with the reimagined fairytales of The Bloody Chamber – readers who have generated their own myths about her since her death in 1992. All in all, she is something of a biographer’s nightmare, but, as the double meaning of his title suggests, Gordon is up for the challenge.

Born in 1940, Angela Olive Stalker was the “intensely loved and thoroughly spoiled” daughter of Hugh, a journalist, and his wife, Olive. During the war she lived in Yorkshire with her grandmother, who told her stories. Grandmothers generally come out well in her fiction; mothers less so. Olive was a clinging presence who kept her daughter dependent by fattening her up until she was, her sister-in-law remembers, “enormous”. Carter’s rebellion took the form of anorexia, and it left her with a complicated relationship to food. Gordon makes no trite elisions between the fiction and the life, but it is hard not to look at his illustrations in which Carter balloons and shrinks, becoming by turns vampish, boyish, girlish and bohemian, without thinking of all the metamorphoses and chimeras that recur in her work.

Her writing life began in her early 20s in Bristol, where she and her first husband, Paul Carter, were part of the folk scene. The 60s were only just starting to swing and her early novels are set against a landscape more postwar than pop, of derelict houses and bombsites turning to waste ground. The first, Shadowdance, came out in 1966. Two more followed, establishing her as a promising writer, albeit not one likely to prop up the literary establishment. Shy, with a slight stammer, she veered from gauche to wildly outspoken. After a reading by Stevie Smith in 1968 she buttonholed AS Byatt, who recalled: “This very disagreeable woman stomped up to me and she said, ‘My name’s Angela Carter … and I wanted to stop and tell you that the sort of thing you’re doing is no good at all.’” The “sort of thing” she meant was the realist novel in which “people drink tea and commit adultery”.

That year Carter won the Somerset Maugham Award, which funds young writers to travel. She went to Japan and on the way back left her wedding ring in an ashtray at Tokyo airport. The gesture was dramatically simple, the collapse of her marriage necessarily more complex, and Gordon faces thorny ethical questions in dealing with a life in living memory. Paul Carter, who declined to talk to him, has since died, and Gordon teases out the tangled facts with gentle even‑handedness, setting aside some of what Angela said as bravado, for she had been much in love when she got married. Unfortunately, what she said was often more vivid than the truth: her dismissal of Paul as a man “with a kiddie’s windmill for a heart” is as unforgettable as it is unfair.

The visit to Japan marked a caesura in her writing and her life. She had love affairs, read Borges and found in Japanese culture a combination of delicacy and violence that fed her imagination, opening a way out of the constraints of realism. The work that followed divided critics, though her claim to have gone from being “promising” to “ignored” in two novels was another exaggeration. She became instead something of a cult writer and, as such, was at the mercy of her admirers. Gordon feels free to take issue with the doctrinaire strain of feminist critique that attempts to shoehorn Carter into a politically correct shape she doesn’t fit.

In her lifetime, relations with “the sisters”, as she called them in inverted commas, were volatile. She was a feminist but her views were too peculiarly her own for any orthodoxy, and she was often accused of letting down a side she never joined. The biggest uproar came with her book on Sade, The Sadeian Woman, in which she aimed to “give the old monster his due” for putting “pornography at the service of women”. Gordon thinks more highly of her argument than I do, but the book is certainly a daring raid on areas of sexual experience normally handled with the sterilised tongs of academic theory.

Eventually she found herself in a curious situation whereby, as she told the Sunday Times: “I get a lot of stuff asking me to subscribe to anti-pornography groups and others asking me to subscribe to pro-pornography groups, but very little actual pornography.” Her wit is one aspect of Carter that Gordon brings out in contrast to the ethereal Wise Witch myth that grew around her in middle age. Another is the sheer hard work it took to survive as a freelance writer. At times she seems to have spent almost all her waking hours hunched over a typewriter next to an overflowing ashtray, writing the journalism that made ends meet.

Eventually the fiction paid, but it was years before shared houses and friends’ spare rooms gave way to a home of her own. If she was a little acerbic about the vast enthusiasm and even vaster advances given to the men of the rising Amis generation and thought “poor Ian” McEwan had been “dreadfully overrated”, that was understandable: it was not jealousy. She admired Salman Rushdie, who became a close friend.

Despite the need to be in control in relationships, she was in many ways helpless. She couldn’t ride a bicycle, and on her third and last driving lesson she demolished a brick wall. It was repaired by Mark Pearce, the builder whom she met when he came to mend a pipe and who became her second husband. They had a son in 1983, and, to the disappointment of some of her admirers, she settled happily into family life until she was diagnosed with lung cancer in 1991. She died the following year. “The fin,” as she put it, had “come rather early in the siècle”. Gordon knows he has caught his subject on the wing of posterity, that it will take another generation to see her “in the round” and other biographies will appear; but they will not supplant this one, which has the irreplaceable imprint of a life still warm to the touch of memory.

Unicorn: The Poetry of Angela Carter, with an essay by Rosemary Hill, is published by Profile. The Invention of Angela Carter by Edmund Gordon (Chatto & Windus, £25). To order a copy for £20.50, go to or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min. p&p of £1.99.


Rosemary Hill

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
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

Rachel Cooke

09, Oct, 2016 @7:00 AM

Article image
Angela Carter: Far from the fairytale
The otherworldly figure conjured after her death in 1992 doesn’t do Angela Carter justice. Her biographer Edmund Gordon attempts a more accurate portrayal of a complex, sensual and highly intellectual woman

Edmund Gordon

01, Oct, 2016 @11:00 AM

Article image
Book reviews roundup: London Lies Beneath; The Invention of Angela Carter; A Day in the Life of the Brain
What the critics thought of Stella Duffy’s London Lies Beneath; The Invention of Angela Carter by Edmund Gordon and A Day in the Life of the Brain by Susan Greenfield

04, Nov, 2016 @5:54 PM

Article image
Angela's influence: what we owe to Carter
Angela Carter died 25 years ago, but her legacy lives on – from Fifty Shades to Buffy, from Björk to The Hunger Games

John Dugdale

16, Feb, 2017 @4:30 PM

Article image
A Card from Angela Carter by Susannah Clapp – review
Jenny Turner on a memoir of a bawdy, magnificent writer

Jenny Turner

25, Jan, 2012 @4:05 PM

Article image
Angela Carter webchat – your questions answered by biographer Edmund Gordon
Gordon spent five years writing his acclaimed biography of Carter and joined us to answer your questions about Carter’s thoughts on feminism, ‘modern’ fairytales and which authors she thought were bores...

24, Feb, 2017 @2:07 PM

Article image
2016 – a year of celebrating women writers
In a year that has seen landmark biographies, literary reinventions and the loss of some leading lights, here are six female authors whose work lives on

Alex Clark

30, Dec, 2016 @9:00 AM

Article image
Jessie Greengrass: 'Frog and Toad Are Friends contains one of the best jokes ever written'
The author on underrated ‘great of feminist literature’ Gaudy Night, looking forward to every Ian Rankin novel, and never finishing Middlemarch

Jessie Greengrass

19, Mar, 2021 @10:00 AM

Article image
Helen Simpson on Angela Carter's Bloody Chamber
A darkly erotic reworking of Bluebeard’s Castle, a bawdy Puss in Boots and a sado-masochistic version of Little Red Riding Hood - Angela Carter’s subversive take on traditional fairy stories in The Bloody Chamber is as shocking today as when the collection first appeared in 1979, writes Helen Simpson.

Helen Simpson

24, Jun, 2006 @12:14 PM

Angela Carter

"A fairy tale is the kind of story in which one king goes to another king to borrow a cup of sugar."

22, Jul, 2008 @2:39 PM