Angela Carter webchat – your questions answered by biographer Edmund Gordon

Last modified: 02: 07 PM GMT+0

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...

And we're done! Thanks for all your questions

Angela Carter, pictured in 1981.
Angela Carter, pictured in 1981. Photograph: Jane Bown/The Observer

Edmund has to be off - a big thank you to him, for coming on and answering all our questions.

User avatar for Edmund_Gordon Guardian contributor

Right, I'm off. Thanks very much for all your questions - I've enjoyed answering them.

We hope you’ve all enjoyed reading Nights at the Circus this month on the Reading group - next Tuesday, we’ll discuss which book to read by Anthony Burgess, whose centenary falls this coming Sunday (25 February) – do join us!

KatyProsser asks:

How do you think The Bloody Chamber short stories relate to the novel of Frankenstein by Mary Shelley? Are Carter’s and Shelley’s motives similar?

User avatar for Edmund_Gordon Guardian contributor

Well, they were both drawn to the Gothic, of course, and both were interested in subverting traditional modes - but I fear this question requires a doctoral thesis to do it justice...

'Her favourite authors included Borges, Melville, Dostoevsky, Emily Bronte, Joyce...'

GuiltyBystander says:

The first two parts of Nights at the Circus are quite different in tone, but both reminded me first and foremost of her short stories (a good sign of a unique voice). The third part, full of disintegrating and disintegrated personalities, really surprised me however. It reminded me more than anything of Gravity’s Rainbow.

What do you think Carter’s biggest literary influences were, especially on that particular novel?

User avatar for Edmund_Gordon Guardian contributor

She described Nights at the Circus as being "a bit like psychedelic Dickens", and one of the things she was trying to do was to parody the conventions of the nineteenth century literary novel... More generally, her favourite authors included Borges (whose influence on her short stories was enormous), Melville, Dostoevsky, Emily Bronte, Joyce, and French symbolist authors such as Baudelaire. She wore her influences on her sleeve, and you can see the imprint of all those writers and many more on her work...

Ashe97 says:

Whilst studying Angela Carter’s books in school, I came across an interview where she was very insistent her work not be labelled as ‘modern fairytales.’ Why do you think she felt they needed the distinction, considering The Bloody Chamber was clearly inspired by such tales?

User avatar for Edmund_Gordon Guardian contributor

I think what she objected to, certainly in the case of The Bloody Chamber, was adjectives like "modern" - she felt that she was extracting the latent content of the original tales, not creating clever new modern takes on them.

Anbaric asks:

How do you, and how did Carter herself, view the film adaptations of her work? I believe she was directly involved in the adaptations herself - did the finished products adequately realise her intentions?

User avatar for Edmund_Gordon Guardian contributor

The first film adaptation of her work was The Company of Wolves, which she co-wrote with the director, Neil Jordan. She was delighted with it for the most part, but unhappy with the ending. She'd wanted it to end with the heroine waking from her dream and diving into her bedroom floor, as if into a pool of water - but in the mid-1980s, long before CGI, this was impossible, so Jordan ended it with a pack of wolves bursting into the house. Carter was entirely happy with the adaptation of The Magic Toyshop, for which she also wrote the script.

nosuchzone says:

Carter’s focalisations, the personæ of her fictions, started out with a run of several male narrators in her Bristol period works, a good few kidnapped and astray girls in the scary fairy tales, a male bureaucrat turned libertine, a boy-made-into a-manmade-girl, a winged woman and finally a lady much older than Carter ever got to be. Is there a section, or a paragraph, or a sentence, in her writing where you thought – ah, that’s Carter speaking as herself?

User avatar for Edmund_Gordon Guardian contributor

Ha! Great question. I do think it's a mistake to expect writers to make direct statements via their fiction - especially novelists as provocative and ironical as Angela Carter was - but there are a few moments when it's hard not to read her as if she was speaking as herself. One thing that comes (heartbreakingly) to mind is the passage in Wise Children, written shortly before she was diagnosed with cancer, when her domestic life was happier than it had ever been: "Truthfully, these glorious pauses do, sometimes, occur in the disordered but complimentary narratives of our lives and if you choose to stop the story there, at such a pause, then you can call it a happy ending."

IreneLavington says:

I remember one interview in the past where Angela Carter said she enjoyed cutting her small baby’s fingernails by biting them. This rather stuck in my memory. During your research, were there any odd facts that stuck in your memory?

User avatar for Edmund_Gordon Guardian contributor

So many! The one that first springs to mind right now is that she allowed her two pet birds, Adelaide and Chubbeleigh, to fly free in her sitting room, while her two cats, Cocker and Ponce, were relegated to the garden of her south London home...

'My favourite of her books is The Bloody Chamber'

semideponent says:

I’ve meant to read Angela Carter for several years - after finding her quoted to great effect in Caroline Walker Bynum’s Metamorphosis and Identity. What’s the best story to begin with in your view?

User avatar for Edmund_Gordon Guardian contributor

Hmmm... Tastes differ, and she worked in such a great variety of modes and genres that there are hundreds of equally good embarkation points with her work - but speaking entirely personally, my favourite of her books is The Bloody Chamber, her collection of re-imagined folk and fairy tales, and within that, "The Company of Wolves", an incredibly beautiful and creepy version of Little Red Riding Hood.

Samuel_Adamson asks:

Her libretto of ORLANDO for Glyndebourne was completed, correct? Is it conceivable that some enterprising composer could set it to music?

User avatar for Edmund_Gordon Guardian contributor

Yes, I wish someone would!

(You can read more about Carter’s libretto on the OUP blog - Carter was famously negative about Virginia Woolf’s Orlando, calling it “the apotheosis of brown-nosing”.)

love_love96 says:

I am currently writing an undergraduate dissertation locating Carter’s The Bloody Chamber in relation to 18th Century Conduct books and sentimental literature. Do you feel that The Bloody Chamber is a direct call for women to unapologetically ‘behave badly’, i.e to refuse to be passivity? Best wishes.

User avatar for Edmund_Gordon Guardian contributor

Well, "direct call" might be putting it a bit strong, but the book is certainly very concerned with female sexuality, and with the cultural forces that have acted against women embracing those sides of themselves…

'She described Arthur C Clarke as "possibly the most boring man in the entire universe…"'

siancain has a question:

Did Carter read much science fiction? Did she ever see some of her writing coming under that term or did she veer towards the label speculative fiction more?

User avatar for Edmund_Gordon Guardian contributor

Yes, she did! She was hugely influenced by New Worlds magazine in the 1960s, and by the work of J G Ballard and Michael Moorcock in particular. She was guest of honour at various science fiction conferences, and was very flattered to be invited. (When she met Arthur C. Clarke, though, she described him as "possibly the most boring man in the entire universe…")

Michealmack asks:

Firstly I was wondering if Carter knew that Wise Children would be her last novel? And if she did, isn’t it amazing that it’s such a wonderful Shakespearian whirligig, stuffed full of life, riotous, hilarious & heartbreaking zinger of a novel?! At the very least it should have been shortlisted for the Booker. I recall the disappointment at the time it was passed over. Do you think the Booker mattered to Carter? I know (as does Selina Scott) that she was a judge in 1983 when Coetzee won. Do you know if he was her choice?

User avatar for Edmund_Gordon Guardian contributor

No, she didn't know she was ill when she was writing Wise Children - she was diagnosed with cancer between delivery and publication. Coetzee - or, as she always called him, "that boring South African" - was certainly not her first choice for the 1983 Booker! She wanted Rushdie to win for the second time.

(Rushdie was shortlisted for Shame; Coetzee won for Life & Times of Michael K)

Jericho999 asks:

Do you think Angela Carter critiqued magical realism as much as she embraced it? (I’m thinking especially of books like Dr Hoffmann... Oh and how comfortable was she with the magical realist tag?)

User avatar for Edmund_Gordon Guardian contributor

I think Hoffman is the novel of hers that most neatly fits the magical realist corner people often try to put her in... She wrote it after encountering Borges and Garcia Marquez, and was quite open about their influence on it. Later, as magical realism became more fashionable in Britain, she tried to distance herself from it, and in later years she tended to deny that she was a representative of the genre at all.

weegie says:

I fell in love with Angela Carter’s writing when I was in university and I read pretty much everything she wrote; I feel that now she has been almost forgotten. Magic realism, ornate language, and of course feminism have fallen out of fashion or been subject to a powerful backlash.

Do you agree that she has fallen out of favour? Are there any indications that there will be a renaissance of interest in her writing (apart from with your biography)? how are the cultural trends she was a part of still alive?

User avatar for Edmund_Gordon Guardian contributor

I think there's a great revival of interest in Angela Carter at the moment, and not just because of my book. There's an exhibition of art that inspired her, and art that she's inspired, currently on at RWA Bristol - I haven't yet been to see it, but I've heard great things. The Bloody Chamber is currently on the A-Level syllabus. And there's been some talk of a new BBC documentary about her life and work, although I'm not entirely sure what's happening with that… I also think there's a great resurgence of feminist writing and activism at the moment (a lot of it in a spirit much closer to Carter's feminism than many of her contemporaries were…)

(The RWA Bristol exhibition is on until 19 March, if you are a big Carter fan or keen after reading Nights at the Circus with us).

'I think Angela Carter's work has survived - and should continue to survive - incredibly well'

nilpferd asks:

In our discussions on Nights at the Circus there seems to have been a split between people who loved the novel unconditionally, and those who couldn’t get into it at all. Of the latter, some have said they found the style off-putting, while others have considered it too much “of its time”. Yet it seems to me that Carter’s fluid gender politics ought to be ideal for our times.

How do you think she’ll be seen by coming generations? And will she remain an acquired taste, or might her works “cross over” into more mainstream acceptance?

User avatar for Edmund_Gordon Guardian contributor

I think Angela Carter's work has survived - and should continue to survive - incredibly well. That's partly because she was never particularly interested in recording the social minutiae of life in late-twentieth century England - she was more interested in the underlying structures of society, and those change much more slowly. She also has this incredible linguistic vitality, and that ages very well. So to me, her work feels a lot less dated than most other books published in the 1960s, '70s and '80s… Mainstream acceptance, though? Depends what you mean - I'd say she already has a pretty massive readership for such an arty novelist!

GuiltyBystander says:

Hi Edmund! My partner has just bought The Invention of Angela Carter for me for Valentine’s day; I’m very much looking forward to tucking into it.

In Nights of the Circus, which we’ve just read, Carter’s interest in folklore, fairytale and myth is wedded to her feminism and interest in women. Judging by The Magic Toyshop, this was always a combination that factored into her work, and yet Carter herself claims to have had her awakening well afterwards, during her Japanese years.

Was Carter myth-making even her biography, or do you think her work from Love onwards has a marked shift in emphasis?

User avatar for Edmund_Gordon Guardian contributor

Well, Love was actually written before she went to Japan - its appearance was delayed because she moved publisher - and she spoke of herself as a feminist before she moved there, too. I think what happened in Japan was that she was appalled by the absolute polarisation of the sexes and, as she put it, "became radicalised." But her feminist instincts were in place much earlier, and you're right to notice them in novels like The Magic Toyshop.

'Carter was not just one of the most intelligent English writers of the last century, but a human being of exceptional moral and personal courage'

Homonecans asks:

How did you end up feeling about Carter? Anthony Burgess’s biographer famously found out that he despised his subject. Presumably you admired her as a writer before you started, how do you think you can disentangle that skein of regard and admiration to be objective about her?

(The Burgess biographer mentioned is Roger Lewis, if you’d like to read a review of that biography – Blake Morrison did not enjoy it.)

User avatar for Edmund_Gordon Guardian contributor

I found that my admiration for her only increased as I went on. She was a truly remarkable person - not just one of the most intelligent, most imaginative English writers of the last century, but a human being of exceptional moral and personal courage. I don't know if I could have finished the book if I'd grown to dislike her. As a biographer, you spend so much time with your subject, and get to know them so intimately, that it must be an appalling burden if you end up despising them. The Burgess biography that you mention, by Roger Lewis, is a very odd book indeed - brilliant in its way, but actually more interesting as an autobiography than a biography. Andrew Biswell's subsequent biography is better if what you're after is a book about Burgess's life.

'Carter was furious about being overlooked by the Booker prize!'

MythicalMagpie asks:

I have seen it written that Nights at the Circus was Angela Carter’s attempt at a Booker. I was wondering, why do you think she never made it onto a short list for the prize, and was she upset at being overlooked?

User avatar for Edmund_Gordon Guardian contributor

Yes, she was furious about being overlooked by the Booker! I think there were various reasons that she was overlooked - the most important one being the conservatism of some of the judges. (Richard Cobb, John Fuller and Ted Rowlands did for Nights at the Circus when it was nominated - the other judges, Anthony Curtis and Polly Devlin, had put it on their personal shortlists...)

peterob asks:

How did AC decide the shifting levels horror/humour in her works? Instinctively or with planning?

User avatar for Edmund_Gordon Guardian contributor

Well, she planned all her books quite carefully, and they all went through several drafts - but I'm not sure I agree with the distinction you're making. The plans and the revisions must have been made according to her instinct, because what else does an artist have to go on?

'I'm proud of the book, but five years does seem to me to be an awfully long chunk of a life'

Our very own samjordison asks:

Having been hugely impressed with the book, I became jealously aware of your young (for a biographer!) age and that you had dedicated five years to writing about Angela Carter. Did you know at the outset that it would take so long? And how do you feel about the time spent on the book now?

User avatar for Edmund_Gordon Guardian contributor

In the original proposal that I wrote for my publishers, I said I thought that the book would take me around four years - but that was a wild stab in the dark, really, based on nothing much except my awareness that biographies take a long time to write. So I was a year late delivering it, and that final year was fairly stressful... I'm proud of the book, but five years does seem to me to be an awfully long chunk of a life, and I'm keen to do something a bit shorter - or at least something that requires less research - for my second book..

'Her sequel to Jane Eyre would have been pretty damn wonderful.'

campanologist says:

How wonderful would her proposed sequel to Jane Eyre have been?

User avatar for Edmund_Gordon Guardian contributor

Pretty damn wonderful. She envisaged it as being "very sulphurous and over-the-top, more in the style of The Bloody Chamber, but with some laughs."

allworthy says:

Hello Edmund. What a treat for us. Congratulations on having written such an acclaimed book. Heard the Vintage podcast. Could I ask what drew you to write about Carter? Also in writing a biography how do you balance introducing new readers to an author against those who will really know her work? Thanks.

User avatar for Edmund_Gordon Guardian contributor

I was a huge fan of Angela Carter for many years before I became her biographer: I've always loved her prose, the intelligence that crackles through every line she writes, her sense of humour, her imaginative wildness… I was very curious about her life and personality, and I suppose I just wanted to learn more about her, really. I also knew that she wasn't a writer I was going to get bored of, or (worse) grow to dislike, over the many years it takes to write a biography...

In terms of how I went about writing for both new readers and aficionados - I found it very difficult! But I think that if you write in a reasonably fresh way, from a reasonably personal perspective, it should be possible to cover the basics in such a way that those already familiar with them aren't bored out of their minds - so that's what I tried to do. And being her first biographer, I was in the pleasant position of knowing that most of the story I had to tell would be new to almost all my readers.

'Carter was vehement about overturning taboos relating to female sexuality – I can't shy away from that side of her life'

Fourpaws says:

Hello Edmund, congratulations on writing such a wonderful book about Angela Carter. I look forward to your future books. I wondered how you approached writing about such a very private person in detail for public consumption and how difficult it was for you to demythologise a literary heroine? How did you decide what to leave in and what to discard?

You mention that you are her first official biographer and expect others will follow you? What aspects of her life have yet to be written about?

User avatar for Edmund_Gordon Guardian contributor

In terms of how I approached writing about a private person for public consumption, I suppose I tried to balance frankness with sobriety: I was careful not to put anything in for reasons of unadulterated prurience or sensationalism, but only because it revealed something about Carter's personality; at the same time, I tried not to shy away from writing about deeply private matters (I agree with Lytton Strachey's comment that "discretion is not the better part of biography".) Carter was vehement about overturning taboos relating to female sexuality, so it would have seemed a complete dereliction of my duty as her biographer to shy away from that side of her life. And I was conscious that most of the personal material I had was in fact stuff that Carter herself had written down at some stage, either in letters or in her journals. She could have destroyed a lot of that material when she realised she was dying, but chose not to, which suggests she wasn't entirely averse to people reading it…

When I wrote that other biographers are bound to follow me, I didn't mean to imply that I'd left masses out! Of course I made decisions on every page about what to put in and what not to, but I don't think there are any major areas of her life that I neglected. Where I expect future biographies to differ from mine is largely in their emphases and attitudes, rather than their content.

Thanks for your kind words about my book.

nightjar12 says:

Nights at the Circus is the first of Angela Carter’s books that I have read. I particularly enjoyed the heroine Fevvers - was she a reflection of Carter’s own personality in any way?

User avatar for Edmund_Gordon Guardian contributor

Well, she certainly shared Fevvers's sense of humour, as well as her courage and her sensual appreciation of life. And I suppose that all fictional characters are reflections of their creators' personalities in some sense: Carter spoke of her novels and stories as being her "symbolic autobiography", and it's conspicuous that Fevvers, who was created during a newly settled period in her life, is a much happier, more self-confident character than some of her previous heroines. But it would be a mistake to think of her as just an authorial stand-in…

Vasco Resende asks:

I am aware Angela Carter admired Anthony Burgess’s oeuvre and that he reciprocated with warm praise of her books. Do you know which Burgessian novels Carter loved most?

User avatar for Edmund_Gordon Guardian contributor

Yes, she loved Burgess's work when she first read it in the 1960s, and always maintained that he ought to win the Booker Prize at some point... I can't say for certain which of his novels she liked most, but she spoke highly of both Inside Mr Enderby and A Clockwork Orange…

Edmund Gordon is with us now

User avatar for Edmund_Gordon Guardian contributor

Hello - thanks for inviting me to answer your questions about Angela Carter - I'm delighted to be here.

Post your questions in the comments below! He’s with us for the next hour.

Join us at 1pm on Friday 24 February

Edmund Gordon, author of The Invention Of Angela Carter, A Biography will be joining us at 1pm GMT on Friday 24 February for a live Q&A.

The Invention of Angela Carter- A Biography by Edmund Gordon HIGHER RES

Gordon spent five years writing the first major biography of Carter, making use of 30 years’ worth of journals and papers, not to mention countless interviews and published pieces. He received rapturous reviews for his pains. Here at the Guardian, Rosemary Hill called it a finely judged and elegantly written biography. The Independent’s Max Liu said the book “will fascinate” Carter’s admirers. In the Financial Times, Alexandra Harris described it as gripping, saying: “Gordon’s achievement is tremendous. From baroque entanglements of material and controversy, he brings living contours into view.”

What emerges is a portrait of a hugely important literary and cultural figure - and one who remains controversial and hard to place. Carter told all sorts of stories about herself, some more true than others. Her feminism, meanwhile, was always expressed with force, but rarely fitted comfortably into any pigeonhole. She could also be gloriously provocative. “I do not really write like a woman and some men may get upset,” she explained. Her opinions were also often nuanced and complex. This is, after all, someone who wrote a book intending to give “the old monster” the Marquis de Sade “his due” for placing “pornography at the service of women”.

There’s lots to discuss, in other words. Carter is also a writer who seems just now to be – as Rosemary Hill says – “on the wing of posterity”. Hill adds 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”.

So we are lucky to be able to ask questions of its author. Edmund Gordon will be here at 1pm on Friday – but do please feel free to get your questions in early.


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