Author and broadcaster Bidisha on Angela Carter
Unique author Carter is the subject of an Aye Write event looking at her life and work
Within the many pages of Angela Carter’s fiction the ancient and the utterly innovative engage in a fast, sexy pas de deux. Myths, legends, folklore, ancient creatures, seemingly timeless impulses, transgression and dynamics are broken down, reconfigured and reinterpreted with a wholly modern intelligence, critical faculty, wit, audacity and dazzling brilliance.
Angela Carter died 20 years ago at the painfully young age of 51, leaving behind 15 works of brilliantly inventive fiction and skin-flayingly sharp non-fiction. She also wrote highly successful radio plays and an intriguing amount of recently-discovered poetry. Her novels and short stories gained a passionate loyal following for their dramatic spectacle and striking, bold narratives. The characters are archetypal yet classically macabre Freudian figurations: think of the sleazy, controlling puppet-masters and toy impresarios in The Magic Toyshop and The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman or the winged giantess heroine and carnival sidekicks of Nights at the Circus. Think of the strange repetitions, doubles and symmetries in her last, wonderful novel, Wise Children.
Angela Carter’s work is loved by lay readers, academics, critics and other writers and artists. Her interest in and absolute mastery of multi-genre speculative adventure, spanning science fiction, fantasy, epic and spectacular mythical legend has been in the background of the success of JK Rowling, Amanda Hocking, Carrie Ryan, Holly Black, Susanna Clarke and Stephenie Meyer as well as aiding a resurgence of interest in Ursula Le Guin, Octavia E Butler and Diana Wynne Jones.
Carter’s fictions are like a dressing-up box where, as ever, characters’ chosen disguises tell us everything we need to know about them. She is kitsch but deep, prancing but political, camp but canny, steeped at once in high speculation and base impulses, combining sparkling fantasy and crude reality. Nights at the Circus and Wise Children are the highlights of her already-dazzling longer fiction. In shorter fiction, her flawless masterpiece is The Bloody Chamber, her classic collection of original fairytales, which are often misleadingly billed as ‘rewritten’ or merely inverted tales.
Carter won many prizes during her career, but was omitted from the shortlists of all Booker prizes. It was the last Booker omission, for Wise Children, which prompted the creation of the Orange Prize. Twenty years on, there is still no full-length biography of her work. Still, interest in her genius is stronger than ever. Theatre critic Susannah Clapp, Carter’s friend and editor (at the London Review of Books) has just released a mini-biography, A Card from Angela Carter, to universal acclaim. This year major literary events at Bath, Bristol and London as well as Glasgow, will be discussing the importance of her work which was, in the words of another genius, writer Helen Simpson, ‘a multifaceted glittering diamond reflecting and refracting’.
Bidisha will appear at Aye Write alongside Susannah Clapp and Marina Warner for A Celebration of Angela Carter, 17 Mar, 6.30pm, £8 (£7); Bidisha also appears with Selma Dabbagh for Palestine Now, 17 Mar, 2pm, £8 (£7).