Angela Carter: Making Women Magical

Ellie Rowe shares her love for the works of novelist Angela Carter.  

As an English student, I like to pretend that I am widely read, enthusiastic and proactive when seeking out authors that reflect my interests. Yet, I didn’t come across Angela Carter by myself, but rather through my A-Level English teacher. After reading the kooky, beautiful and shadowy fairy tales of The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories, I was instantly in love.

Angela Carter was born in Eastbourne in 1940 and was a graduate of the University of
Bristol. Although this may seem a rather trivial fact, it struck a chord with me; one of my
favourite authors had attended the same university that I wanted to go to. Not only was she a woman, but she was a successful prize-winning author, and used her books to assert feminist perspectives through beautiful prose and fabulous magic and whimsy. I found myself thinking that maybe one day, I could be just like her. Carter is the author of several novels, her most famous being Nights at the Circus, winner of the James Tait Black Memorial Prize. Unfortunately, I have to confess that I haven’t quite managed to read it yet, but my swift digestion of The Bloody Chamber and many more of Carter’s works is a testament to her status as a great feminist author.

What Carter does, throughout all her novels, is explore areas of femininity that are painful, murky and taboo. The Bloody Chamber re-imagines our classic fairy tales, particularly ‘Red Riding-Hood’, ‘Snow White’ and the more obscure ‘Bluebeard’ (this one might need a google), subverting the original, happily-ever-after storyline to explore how women are in reality, dark, complicated and quite often bloodthirsty. Written in 1977, The Passion of New Eve is a powerful exploration of gender fluidity; published at a time well before gender fluidity was widely discussed, this work is just one of many that define Carter as remarkably ahead of her times.

The Sadeian Woman is one of her most controversial works; Carter examines the explicitly pornographic and sadomasochistic works of the Marquis de Sade (whose name is the root of ‘sadism’) to examine his view of female sexuality, and how it may not be as damaging as critics of his work suggested. She asserts that women can feel pleasure from pain, and she argues that the Marquis de Sade’s work is one of the few that actually gives women sexual agency without judging them, a pretty powerful claim to make during a radical feminist war on porn and exploitation in the 1970s. What is most astonishing about Carter, however, is how little she is known or studied within literature. Whenever I recommend a book to someone by her or tell people she was who I studied at A-Level, I’m often met with dead stares and a feeling that I should’ve told people I studied Sylvia Plath instead.

Angela Carter

Having said that, a 2017 Guardian article by John Dugdale examines the influence Carter’s work has had on subsequent modern literature, suggesting her presence remains hugely significant, even 25 years after her death. Dugdale writes, “by revitalising fairy tales in The Bloody Chamber … Carter initially emboldened other literary authors to tackle supernatural themes afresh”. He cites that her reinvented fairy tale heroines have become a standard trope in modern literature, spanning Buffy the Vampire Slayer to The Hunger Games to Disney princesses who are independent of the damsel-in-distress in Frozen and Brave. He explores many links between Carter and the modern world, the most interesting being how the indie band Wolf Alice take their name from her short story of the same name. Carter’s enduring legacy is just another reason that her books should be at the top of your 2018 must-read list!

Angela Carter will forever be one of my favourite feminist authors and is in my eyes a
feminist icon because she dared to shed light on issues that other feminists of her day
wouldn’t. She advocated pleasure and pleasure-seeking, and she understood that women
can have troubling or outlandish sexual desires just as frequently as men. She explored how women and men can feel a fluidity between the genders and did it all before us. On top of all of this, her novels are also funny, tear-jerking and often dark and enigmatic. In her own words, “a book is simply the container of an idea like a bottle; what is inside the book is what matters”, and if you’d like to read something that matters, Angela Carter’s works are a good place to start.

Illustration by Eve Burke-Edwards.

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