Angela Carter – ‘See how she glows’

LAUREN BOWES considers the work of Angela Carter, following the release of her newest publication, Unicorn.

Adrienne Rich once wrote of her father’s library that, ‘I came to believe – a child’s belief, but also a poet’s – that language, writing, those pages of print, could teach me how to live, could tell me what was possible‘. A wonderful answer to anyone who dares to question the relevance of literature, this mantra also serves as a perfect explanation for why my favourite author is Angela Carter. Carter has become well known to literature students in recent years, with The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories forming the most risqué part of the A Level Gothic course; which of us didn’t get a thrill from hearing our seemingly sterile sixth form tutors talk about erections and menstruation?

For many, however, Carter’s work is more than just a giggle about seeing the word ‘cunt’ in a set text; her usage of the word alone can prompt hundreds of debates about censorship, the misogyny inherent in our dislike for the word, and the tension between what we perceive as high and low forms of erotica. Despite being thirty years old, Carter’s style of feminism, which we might now brand as sex-positive, is certainly still enlightening to those at the impressionable yet still comparatively mature age of seventeen, dispelling secondary school ideas of man-hating and instead revealing to us ‘what was possible‘.

Carter’s work is important to any reader for more than her sociological guidance. She resented that some considered The Bloody Chamber an ‘adult version’ of fairy tales, and rightly so. What she does with the tales is not merely throwing some sex in there to make it more appealing; she examines the sources for these stories which we all know so well, and draws out the ‘latent content’ which we are at first reluctant to accept. The Disney Prince and Princess get married, and the film ends. Carter aims to discover what comes afterwards, and why.

Intertextuality is perhaps one of the many defining aspects of her astonishing style. Her final novel, Wise Children, takes the work of Shakespeare and fucks with it, to put it as bluntly as she probably would. Twins and doubles run amok, events unfold as farcically as The Bard’s, and the protagonists even feature in a film version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The allusions are everywhere, enough to make a Renaissance expert question what is parody and what is praise. As she does throughout The Bloody Chamber, Carter picks up on the ‘latent content’ of Shakespeare’s oeuvre, pointing out the illegitimate children, the cross-dressing, the class division, and of course, the sex, throwing it all together in a raucous celebration of the unspoken.

Photo credit: Jane Bown for the Observer
Photo credit: Jane Bown for the Observer

A book of Carter’s previously uncollected poetry was released this month. The lack of verse in her bibliography is particularly noticeable, especially when considering her talent for shoving meaning and resonance into the smallest of phrases. Unicorn opens with a trio of poems on the subject of the eponymous beast, leaving no disappointment for fans of her folkloric work. The work, of course, contains her signature phallic imagery, and Carter is able to turn the idea of passive female virginity on its head: ‘You think you are possessing me – / But I’ve got my teeth in you’. Yet what is particularly striking about these poems, and typical of her work as a whole, is her refreshing sense of humour. She continually refuses to be bound by the gravity of her subject matter; the Unicorn trio poems end rather bathetically, breaking out of the established metre with ‘You can put your knickers back on in a minute, dear’.

The collection features her original poems with their post-publication alterations, and even two versions of one poem, ‘Poem For A Wedding Photograph’. Through these, we can chart her poetic process as she removes images and experiments with form, revealing a more hesitant side to Carter that we generally don’t see in her bold narratives. Her interest in the literary is also prevalent, with poems based on Carroll’s Alice, Robinson Crusoe, and even a modern translation of Langland’s Piers Plowman.

The book concludes with an essay on Carter herself and her poetry in the context of her other writing, as well as the period in which she wrote. Rosemary Hill writes, ‘Today it is her originality more than her typicality of any genre she might fit – feminism, magic realism, Gothic, to choose the most obvious – that make her work live’. This is perhaps why she appeals to so many – her reluctance to be categorised results in a hugely varied canon of work, from the sci-fi vibe of Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman, to the fiercely magical Nights at the Circus, and finally to the literarily rich poems of Unicorn.

Unicorn was published in November by Profile Books.