I don’t always agree with Angela Carter, but I adore her (similarly, I am very glad that the contemporary fiction by other women that Carter made more publishable exists, though I do not always want to read it). I wish I’d known her! She is like the friend who rescues you from the abyss of loneliness. She always writes with the distinctive combination of generosity to her audience, scintillating wit and uncompromising forthrightness that makes her fiction such a feast, like a dinner party with a charismatic and considerate host.
This fat volume took me two weeks to read. I’m a soup-to-nuts person and I struggle not to eat everything on my plate whether I want it or not; other readers (like my mother) might find this book fun to dip into, or read one piece a day – there are about 145. The book is equipped with a helpful index, so certainly amenable to browsing.
Carter’s analysis is sometimes so mercilessly acute it makes your eyes water. She cuts through any and all stuff and nonsense like a hot machete through a block of margarine, and she squashes snobbery underfoot, along with the agents of patriarchy. D H Lawrence, so often lauded for ‘understanding women’ (my eye! His contemporary and close acquaintance Katherine Mansfield saw through the ruse), gets no quarter; especially in ‘Lorenzo the Closet Queen’ in which his fascination with women’s clothing is ridiculed (and exposed as a device mistaken for insight). Her piece on Gone with the Wind ‘The Belle as Businessperson’ offers razor sharp critique, deep understanding of the appeal, and consoling feminist wish-fulfilment.
Her insight is often strikingly original and thought-provoking. Her essay on Playgirl style male pornography is very funny, but goes much further then laughing at absurdly nude sky-divers. Carter points out the contrast between female and male nudes in European-Christian art history – while a woman has only to take off her clothes to step into a time honoured (though obviously problematic) role, the male nude is historically a tormented dead or dying martyr, and to avoid evoking such imagery naked men must look alive even at the cost of looking kitsch. Of course, we can go right back to the ancient Greeks, but with them the male nude is unacceptably homoerotic. So, while women wield such influence and control as they have unveiled, men’s power is in their clothes, in their status; without them they are ridiculous, like the emperor in the story. Carter points out that this tale would have a wholly different meaning were the empress to walk out naked: her appearance would be read as an audacious flaunting of erotic power.
Carter disliked the idea that her writing had a ‘mythic quality’ because ‘[myths are] extraordinary lies designed to make people unfree’. ‘I’m in the demythologising business’ she asserts, and she describes The Passion of New Eve as an anti-mythic novel. The unwriting and rewriting of myth is, I guess, her speciality as a feminist writer. In contrast, she seems to savour vernacular and folk culture everywhere, not ‘eating the other’ as a coloniser (she is too aware generally to fall into that mode – she is in that minority of white writers who own their privilege and think critically about whiteness) but deconstructing, reweaving, reflecting. ‘Folklore is a much more straightforward set of devices for making real life more exciting and is much easier to infiltrate with different kinds of conciousness’ This sensibility gives bite and clarity to writing on Japan, where she lived for a while. She is at once richly appreciative of, fascinated by, some aspects of her experience in Japan, such as irezumi tattooing, and resistant to the mythologyzing exotification of Japan that Westerners normally indulge in. She writes about Yukio Mishima as a fascist – she is not seduced. Her travel writing on all places is amusing, illuminating, idiosyncratic.
In the omnivorousness of her interests, and especially her folklore fancies, Carter reminds me of Cerys Matthews, who, I feel, is gentle and generous, and sometimes gleefully ascerbic in her lyrics. Matthews also seems to manage the difficult act of avoiding being contained in a gendered box as a public figure. If you love Angela, I advise you to look up Cerys’ radio show.
My favourite piece of the collection is, I think, ‘Alison’s Giggle’. I have never made the effort to read Chaucer, though I once heartily enjoyed observing (and participating in – the teacher allowed me the indulgence of reading the final product in a USian accent, to the kids’ delight) a year 8 lesson in which we translated a comic excerpt into modern English and then a south USian dialect, so reading this was an illumination. Carter uses The Miller’s Tale as a jumping off point to discuss the changing representations of women’s sexualities in literature. In many ways, it was largely downhill from Alison for several hundred years, but thanks to Carter and a clutch of others, not entirely without exception.