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Fairytales Punish the Curious

How Angela Carter escaped a puritanical childhood and stifling marriage, and reimagined sexuality.

Anita Schiffer-Fuchs / VISUM/Redux

In the spring of 1977, Angela Carter met the Canadian writer Elizabeth Smart in London at the launch of Bananas, a new literary magazine. A prolific writer at the age of 37, Carter was already the author of eight novels, two collections of poetry, and one collection of short stories—“profane pieces,” as the book’s subtitle proclaimed. Her story in the issue, titled “The Company of Wolves,” was a feminist retelling of “Red Riding Hood,” in which the adolescent girl, unafraid of her foe, ends up sleeping sweetly “between the paws of the tender wolf.” Smart’s 1945 novella By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept, the story of a disconsolate, abandoned woman, was about to be reissued by Virago press, where Carter was on the editorial board.

Oxford University Press, 544 pp., $35.00

Carter admired Smart’s “exquisite prose,” but she was scornful of the book’s wrenching, self-punishing descriptions of erotic love. (A representative line: “But what except morphine can weave bearable nets around the tigershark that tears my mind to shreds, seeking escape on every possible side?”) In a review, Carter described the book as “a masochistic season in hell.” She was similarly skeptical of Smart in person. “She clearly wanted to talk in polished gnomic epigrams about anguish and death and boredom,” Carter later recounted to a friend. 

I honestly couldn’t think of anything to say. Except, I understand why men hate women and they are right, yes, right … And I began to plot a study of the Jean Rhys/E. Smart/E. O’Brien woman titled “Self-Inflicted Wounds.” 

Carter had no time for female melancholy. A woman whose quiet demeanor belied her forceful mind, Carter was that rarest of things—a happy writer. She followed her desires—for travel, for learning, for (younger) men—with little hesitation or regret. She was not naïve about sex; she argued that any sexual relationship must be considered in light of the way power works. Still, she believed in the emancipatory power of erotic love. She was attracted to fairytales both for their violence and their strangeness; she adjusted archetypes and tweaked myths until they came to mean something entirely new. Her fiction celebrated the couplings of a wide range of characters: teenage girls, wizened old women, circus performers, wolves. 

This is the Carter that comes through in Edmund Gordon’s The Invention of Angela Carter: A Biography. Gordon’s biography, the first in-depth treatment of Carter’s life, is both thorough and careful. Gordon is primarily concerned with emancipating her from the mythologizing descriptions that proliferated, especially after her death in 1992: “the Fairy Queen” (Salman Rushdie), “the Fairy Godmother” (Margaret Atwood), a “benevolent white witch” (Rushdie again). To Carter, the worst thing one could do to a person would be to render her archetypical, which is to say anonymous; she devoted her formidable creative mind to freeing men and women from the strictures of myth. “Mother goddesses,” Carter wrote in 1979, “are just as silly a notion as father gods.” She believed men and women were more alike than unalike. Her feminism, Gordon demonstrates, consisted of acts of imagination and self-assertion.

For Carter, sexuality and personal autonomy had long been intertwined. Born in 1940 in Eastbourne and raised in South London, Angela Olive Stalker spent the first few weeks of her life moving around England in an effort to avoid the Blitz. The second of two children, she was doted on by both her parents: Hugh, a journalist, and Olive, a homemaker. Olive was a nervous, superstitious woman who voted Labour but who was strikingly conservative on social issues. She cringed at cursing; she turned off the TV whenever a divorced actor came onscreen. The only time she broached the subject of sex with her children, she confessed, “I wish God had thought of a better way of making babies.”

Carter used to say that she was “spoiled” by her mother, but “suffocated” might be a better word. Olive stuffed her daughter full of hoarded butter and chocolate—goods rationed during wartime—as well as canned fruit and condensed milk. Carter became obese. Olive didn’t seem to mind; the extra weight was both a sign of her only daughter’s dependence on her and a fleshy barrier that warded off potential sexual interest. Friends of the family remembered that Olive “didn’t want Angela to grow up.” Gordon describes Carter’s childhood and adolescence as a “state of artificially prolonged innocence … a state of grace from which she had longed to fall.”

At the age of 17, Carter didn’t fall so much as leap. With the help of a doctor, she lost a dramatic amount of weight. (Her older brother, Hughie, was agog when he encountered “this sylph … this slinky thing that was Angela”). She bought flashy, revealing clothing and took up smoking and swearing. Her mother was horrified and tried to squash this rebellious display, but Carter refused to be infantilized. She fought horribly with her mother, sometimes provoking her needlessly. Still, her project of self-creation could only go so far while she was living in her parents’ house. She toyed with the idea of studying at Oxford, but Olive promised that she would rent a flat in the small town in order to stay close. Soon, like some kind of fairytale princess, Carter saw marriage as the only means of escape. 

In 1959, in a record store in Kensington, she met the man who would take her away from Olive’s stifling love. Paul Carter was, in Carter’s words, “a simple artsy Soho fifties beatnik,” a gentle man with dark eyes. He was the first to take a romantic interest in Carter and was her first sexual encounter (which she later recalled as “embarrassing”). They married in September 1960—at 19, Carter was on the younger side for her generation—and moved into their own flat. Toward the end of the year, the couple moved to the Bristol suburb of Clifton so that Paul could take up a job offer. Finally, Carter had separated from her parents and claimed an adult life of her own.

Carter’s new home, however, quickly became as oppressive as the one she had left. Though she and Paul shared political and musical interests and were active in the folk scene—friends referred to them as “the Folk Singing Carters”—their marriage was difficult. Paul was a depressive, and during his worst spells, he retreated into himself, rejecting Carter’s verbal and sexual advances. Carter, then studying at the University of Bristol, felt that her world was opening up, both socially and intellectually; her life with Paul began to feel small and constricting. She harbored resentments and doubts, but she couldn’t imagine addressing them with Paul, let alone ending her marriage. “I don’t think I could stand the emotional tempest of splitting up & there’s this terrible narcissus thing of not being able to bear the thought of P. unhappy without me,” she wrote to a close friend. “So I’ll just have to peg on, I suppose.” She came to define love as a kind of willed dependence.

Carter sublimated her frustrated desires for sex and intimacy into her fiction. During the nine years that she was married to Paul, she wrote five novels. Some of them could be read as allegories for her own experience of love, both familial and romantic. The Magic Toyshop, published in 1967, is, in Carter’s words, “a Gothic melodrama about a sort of South Suburban bluebeard toymaker and his household.” The bluebeard is Uncle Philip, a cruel puppeteer who forces the members of his household to participate in his violent theater. The book’s atmosphere is thick with fear; one senses the claustrophobia of the household, in which the male authority figure suppresses all appetites and desires that are not his. There are little irruptions of joy when Philip is absent—a good meal, a first kiss—but no one is truly safe until he starts a fire that wipes out the family home and, along with it, his twisted vision of the nuclear family. 

Carter’s novel Love, composed during the late 1960s and eventually published in 1971, describes a similarly stifling relationship. It focuses on the unhappy marriage between Lee, a male version of Carter, and Annabel, a female version of Paul. Lee, a schoolteacher, feels engulfed by the art student Annabel, who is vulnerable, jealous, and mentally ill. Lee’s half-brother Buzz later sleeps with Annabel, who then commits suicide. Although in her later work, this kind of bed-swapping story would reappear as farce, in Love, it’s a tragic tale of the conflict between freedom and romantic attachment. Carter would later say of the “violent, anguished book” that its problem wasn’t love so much as “the kind of relationship it forces on people.” She reflected, “Perhaps I should have called the novel ‘Marriage.’”

Whereas Carter had once imagined that romantic love would lead to freedom, she had now seen that it could imprison as well as liberate. She longed for a deus ex machina, something like the fire in The Magic Toyshop that would burn away her domestic life and leave her free to explore. Salvation came, in 1969, in the form of the Somerset Maugham Award for her novel Several Perceptions, a novel set in the Clifton bohemian scene. The prize money was earmarked for foreign travel. Carter planned a trip to Japan, but Paul convinced her to visit America first; he would accompany her on this first part of the trip, then she would go on to Japan alone. That summer, the Carters traveled down the Eastern Seaboard and then, by bus, through the American South, eventually landing in California. They boarded separate flights in San Francisco and headed in opposite directions, planning to reunite in England.

Carter’s arrival in Japan marked the beginning of the second phase of her life. Tokyo was a frenzied, populous city, entirely different from London. It “ought not to be a happy city,” Carter wrote in 1970,

no pavements; noise; few public places to sit down; occasional malodorous belches from sewage vents even in the best areas … But, final triumph of ingenuity, Megapolis One somehow contrives to be an exceedingly pleasant place to life. It is as through Fellini had decided to remake Alphaville.

It was “exceedingly pleasant” for Carter in part because she was in the midst of her “First Real Affair,” with the 24-year-old Sozo Araki. He was a university dropout, charming and well-read, and, to Carter, a “romantic of the most extreme kind.” Carter, then 30, met him one night in September, followed him to a Tokyo ‘love hotel,’ woke the next morning and went to shower and dress, met him several hours later for coffee, then went with him to a different love hotel. She fell in love rapidly—“her attraction to Sozo,” Gordon writes, “had become entangled with her new sense of freedom”—and decided to leave Paul. She returned to England in late October, summarily ended her marriage, and then flew back to Japan in April. The country would be her home for the next two years.

Japan was formative for Carter, both personally and creatively. She experienced both the peace of the Japanese countryside and what she called the “sleaziness” of a hostess bar in Tokyo, where she worked for a week. She produced The Infernal Desire Machines of Dr. Hoffman, an imaginative, Borgesian novel that won her the praise of Robert Coover. She took a trip on the Trans-Siberian railroad, snapshots from which would make its way into her fairytales as well as her 1984 novel, Nights at the Circus. After Araki left her abruptly in July of 1971, she started an affair with a 19-year-old Korean man named Mansu Ko. Ko spoke little English, but he was gentle and sweet, and Carter felt that he didn’t threaten her newfound independence. When she returned to England in April of 1972, Ko took the breakup hard, drifting and drinking. Years later, he committed suicide. Her treatment of Ko was one of the few things Carter regretted.

Upon her return to England, Carter set about making a life of her own. She had an affair with a friend of a friend, and, when that deteriorated, she bought a house in Bath, which she “turned into a one-woman sanctum,” in Gordon’s words. It was here that she worked on The Passion of New Eve (eventually published in 1977), a novel in which a misogynist man is transformed into a woman, with all the cultural pressure and physical risk that being a woman entails. The novel is strange and amusing, but also political; it was written at a time when the women’s liberation movement was transforming Great Britain. But while some feminists of the era saw women’s oppression as unique, Carter, a socialist, saw all oppression as lamentable, including the oppression of men by the conventions of masculinity. The Passion of New Eve deconstructs masculinity and femininity in an effort to free men and women both. 

When she was 34, Carter was living in the house in Bath, and one day her taps burst. She asked a construction worker, who was at work on a nearby house, to come fix it. Mark Pearce was 19 years old, and he had long hair and a beard; Carter said he looked “like a werewolf.” He came in and never left. They were quite different people—he was a strikingly quiet and self-contained man who worked with his hands, she a witty (if nervous) writer who considered herself part of the country’s “intelligentsia”—but their relationship somehow worked. Pearce’s presence calmed Carter, and he handled most of the household tasks, leaving Carter free to write. The couple had a child in November of 1983, when Carter was 43. They didn’t marry until May of 1991, after Carter had been diagnosed with cancer. Ever the kind caretaker, Pearce attended to Carter throughout her illness, until her death at 52.

Somewhat to Gordon’s chagrin, Carter is probably best known for The Bloody Chamber, her slim book of erotic fairytales published in 1979. The title story gives a sense of the collection’s tone. Here’s how it begins:

I remember how, that night, I lay awake in the wagon-lit in a tender, delicious ecstasy of excitement, my burning cheek pressed against the impeccable linen of the pillow and the pounding of my heart mimicking that of the great pistons ceaselessly thrusting the train that bore me through the night, away from Paris, away from girlhood, away from the white, enclosed quietude of my mother’s apartment, into the unguessable country of marriage.

The virgin bride in the story is more self-aware and more eager than the usual fairytale protagonist. Her language is suffused with sex and her attraction to her mysterious and wealthy husband, the Marquis, is both erotic and intellectual—she is curious about what new experiences await her in the palace on the shore. The train journey marks the transition from girl to woman, figured in the same way that Carter herself experienced it: as the flight from family into marriage.

Fairytales often punish the curious and “The Bloody Chamber” is no exception. The narrator arrives at the opulent, turreted castle and is deflowered by her new husband. The Marquis then leaves to attend to some business, leaving his young bride in possession of the castles keys and warning her not to enter one particular room. Readers familiar with the story of Bluebeard know what is locked away in that bloody chamber. “Absolute darkness,” the intrepid narrator reports. “And, about me, the instruments of mutilation.” She discovers the Marquis’s three former wives: one embalmed, one a bloody corpse, and one only bones. She tries to clean the stained key and feigns nonchalance with the Marquis once he returns, but he knows that she’s broken his orders. Her punishment will be death by beheading.

But, right before the sword descends, the young wife’s mother arrives, with “her skirts tucked round her waist, one hand on the reins of the rearing horse while the other clasped my father’s service revolver.” The Marquis is frozen by the mother’s gaze, “as if she had been Medusa,” and, just as he begins to gather himself, the mother shoots him in the head. The narrator, her mother, and a blind piano tuner make a life for themselves on the outskirts of Paris. “Maternal telepathy,” not marriage, is what preserves our young bride. One wonders if the story was in part Carter’s attempt to reconcile with her own mother, who had died in 1969, not long after Carter’s separation from Paul.

In some ways, “The Bloody Chamber” is the most traditional fairytale in the collection. Like the original story of Bluebeard, it is a warning about the dangers of sex. Other stories present sex and romance with a lighter touch. “Puss-in-Boots” is a joyful, raunchy double-courtship plot featuring a trickster and a talking cat. It reminds us that Carter’s literary imagination was, fundamentally, comic. The tropes of comedy—particularly Shakespearean comedy—appear throughout her fiction: twins, mistaken identities, and enchanted forests. Many of her narratives, including most of the stories in The Bloody Chamber, end in marriage. “The Tiger’s Bride,” a version of “Beauty and the Beast,” ends with a scene in the marriage bed, where the beast licks off his bride’s skin until all that is left is her “beautiful fur.”

Carter’s celebration of sex, her willingness to write explicitly about it in The Bloody Chamber and elsewhere, put her at odds with some prominent feminists of the era. The late 1970s and early 1980s saw the rise of what some historians have called the “feminist sex wars,” a debate about the sexual politics of pornography and pornographic literature. Feminist thinkers such as Andrea Dworkin and Catherine Mackinnon argued that pornography was not just the representation of violence against women but violence itself—not just words but action. (Dworkin disliked fairytales as well; she thought they were an irredeemably patriarchal form.) In years to come, anti-pornography feminists would join forces with the Christian Right to suppress the production and distribution of pornography—strange bedfellows indeed.  

Carter took a characteristically iconoclastic stance on the issue of pornography. In her preface to The Sadeian Woman and the Ideology of Pornography, her 1979 critical study of the writings of the Marquis de Sade, she deplored the way that pornography “reinforces the false universals of sexual archetypes.” Still, she believed in the possibility of a “moral pornographer,” an artist who would use pornography as a way of critiquing sexual relations. “His business would be the total demystification of the flesh and the subsequent revelation,” she wrote, “of the real relations of man and his kind.” He might point out the way women are abused and mistreated, but he would do so not to perpetuate the degradation of women but to arrive at sexual equality. To Carter’s mind, Sade came close to being such a moral artist. Arguably, Carter herself came closer to the ideal.

Her approach didn’t always win her fans among certain feminists, but she didn’t seem to care. “If I can get up Susanne Kappeler’s nose,” she wrote, after hearing she’d been condemned by the anti-pornography feminist, “to say nothing of the Dworkin proboscis, then my living has not been in vain.”

Sex may have been Carter’s great subject, but autonomy was her true concern. She called sex “the most elementary assertion of the self.” This isn’t to discount Carter’s attention to non-sexual and non-romantic forms of intimacy. Her later work especially focuses on close female relationships: Her 1984 novel Nights at the Circus centers on the relationship between the unbelievable, winged aerialiste Sophie Fevvers and her foster mother Lizzie. Wise Children, published just a few months before Carter’s death, also portrays a female duo: twins named Dora and Nora, ex-vaudeville stars who, in their 70s, adopt a child, thus recreating the all-female home of their youth. One detects in these stories echoes of Carter’s own intimate friendships with brilliant female academics, writers, and editors. Her letters to these friends—in particular to Carole Roffe—form the backbone of Gordon’s book.

Still, Carter’s enduring interest was the problem of heterosexual love: the ways it transformed and arrested, enchanted and entrapped. Her interest didn’t diminish as she aged; even Wise Children, written by a middle-aged woman about elderly women, features an abundance of sex scenes, including a semi-incestuous encounter between a 75-year-old woman and a significantly older man. This touching scene, two unlovely bodies in the act of love, shows how, to Carter, sex was so much more than the satisfaction of crude, physical desire. She marveled at the vulnerability that sex entails, the way it requires us to bare not just our skins but our selves. “We do not go to bed in simple pairs,” she wrote in The Sadeian Woman.

Even if we choose not to refer to them, we still drag there with us the cultural impedimenta of our social class, our parents’ lives, our bank balances, our sexual and emotional expectations, our whole biographies—all the bits and pieces of our unique experiences.

Everything comes together in this most instinctual of acts, all the stress and mess that weighs down each individual, who is, at any given moment, struggling to become herself.

If one wishes, sometimes, that a bit more emotional complexity had entered Carter’s depiction of romantic love—that she had borrowed some of Elizabeth Smart’s tragic sensibility—one also appreciates her insistence that sex, and love, can offer us a chance at a happy life. Her characters, following their desires, occasionally encounter danger, but they are more often transformed by joy. Some grow silky pelts. Others sprout wings, and fly.