Angela Carter’s first novel, Shadow Dance, is a bold, leathery, coarse book. It summarises thinly its author’s later adventures and preoccupations, as the chapter headings in a picaresque novel do its hero’s: Gothic entropy, sexual ambiguity, personality as masquerade, the theatre of theatre. It is a first wispy cloud in what would become a boiling sky; it casts a small shadow.
The novel is not remotely likeable, and, like a hated teacher, it shows no interest in being likeable. This confidence in the value of its varied punishments is its most striking attribute. It does not read like the first novel of a 25-year-old (it appeared in 1966); there is very little gaucherie or unsureness.
Shadow Dance tells the story of Morris, a failed painter and antique-collector, and his ruthless, fraudulent partner, Honeybuzzard. Honey, like the wicked uncle in Carter’s next novel The Magic Toyshop (1967), is more interested in puppets than in humans: he manipulates humans like toys, he likes to wear masks, false noses and vampiric teeth. He has a ‘flamboyant and ambiguous beauty’. One of his human toys is the beautiful Ghislaine, a former lover, whom he has attacked and horribly scarred. Her ruined beauty haunts Morris, who is in thrall to the charismatic Honey but who feels guilty about his association with him. The novel ends with Honey’s murder of Ghislaine, and Morris’s loyal decision not to betray his friend.
Already Carter’s language is rich and bright-buttoned. One marvels at the confidence with which she rolls up the old heavy carpet of detailed narration and dangles instead her own brighter mat: menacing fairytale. Often, Carter’s prose is brilliantly suggestive, at once playful and black: ‘May progressed slowly. The white lilacs in the churchyard where Honey said Ghislaine had been raped and hurt browned at the edges and reeked of halitosis and finally dropped down dead.’ This was Carter’s great gift – this stab of surrealism, this sharpness of detail. It is a Dickensian extravagance. In Shadow Dance, Morris imagines the mouth of a hated rival, imagines storming his ‘ivory castles’ and knocking out his teeth ‘so that they would fall out one morning as he chewed his good-morning toast and clatter, like eroded, blackened clinker, all across the family breakfast table.’ More brilliantly, Melanie in The Magic Toyshop sees Finn yawning, and glimpses ‘the ribbed red cathedral of his mouth and all the yellowed teeth like discoloured choirboys’.
One forgives a writer much who can write sentences like that. And there is much to forgive. The greatest weakness of Shadow Dance is its odour of meaninglessness. There is something here about the danger of living life as display, and the evil of collecting humans as things, of course. But this dissolves into the texture of the novel itself, which is intensely histrionic: ‘smiling her tremulous, shy, disingenuous smile and saying Halloo with the dying fall of an F. Scott Fitzgerald chick spinning giddily to hell’. Carter establishes her dirty atmospherics with superb swiftness and confidence – some extravagant and dangerous players, a seedy Gothic neighbourhood both real and set-like. But she seems not to know what to do with it. Most of her early novels expire in exotic spasms: her first ends with a murder, The Magic Toyshop with a house fire, Love (1971) with a suicide.
Into these wavering constructions, Carter inserts explicit statements, like the steel rods in skyscrapers. It was a habit she fell in and out of, depending on the weight of programme in each book. Her last two novels, Nights at the Circus (1984) and Wise Children (1991), are relatively free-standing. But in Shadow Dance, it is surely a mistake not only to grant Honey his collection of false noses (we can decipher his will to manipulation without such help), but to lend him the gift of self-commentary. At one point he tries on a striped waistcoat worn in a film of The Fall of the House of Usher. ‘ “I like,” he said obscurely, “I like – you know – to slip in and out of me ... Me and not-me.” ’ But this is not quite ‘obscure’ enough, is it? Love, which is a portrait of a lost and wayward middle-class depressive, Annabel, and which explores Joan Riviere’s notion of femininity as masquerade, is almost actuarial in its fondness for statement. Annabel drifts between her working-class husband and his brother, painting surreal pictures, trying on their clothes and attempting suicide. She plucks roles like fruit. ‘No longer bewitched, she became a witch’; ‘as if she was determined, now, to inhabit only incongruous places, her disinterested career in the world took her to work in a local ballroom, one of a chain which operates throughout the provinces.’ At the end of the book, she lies dead in her gas-filled room, ‘a painted doll, bluish at the extremities’. This is surely a lot of masquerade (dressing, dancing, doll) for a hundred-page novella. Annabel is called, at one point, unreality’s connoisseur; by contrast, the reader quickly becomes its vandal.
Carter’s need to deliver messages becomes comic in The Passion of New Eve (1977), which is itself an entire postal system of messages: a cathedral of hints. It is difficult not to laugh – and perhaps this is the intention – when Eve, who was captured as a man by the radical group, ‘Women’, and turned into a woman, is raped by Zero, the one-legged poet. Happily, Eve feels like a woman but also remembers being a man, and this division ‘forced me to know myself as a former violator at the moment of my own violation’. Even the distinguished Nights at the Circus, a much ampler book, with a proper lining of gratuity, cannot help itself. When Fevvers, the Victorian Cockney aerialist and performer, discovers as a child that she has wings, she is told: ‘Oh my little one, I think you must be the pure child of the century that just now is waiting in the wings, the New Age in which no women will be bound to the ground.’
The source of these weaknesses was Carter’s love of allegory, whereby the fabric of her fiction becomes its subject: the form is both fluid and duct. In one of her essays, Eudora Welty has written wittily about symbol in fiction: ‘One way of looking at Moby Dick is that his task as a symbol was so big and strenuous that he had to be a whale.’ Thus Welty aerates form, for she seems to see Melville asking not ‘what shall the whale represent?’, but ‘what necessary form will my flailing material assume?’ Carter, one gathers, felt the opposite to Welty. She told John Haffenden, in 1984, that in The Passion of New Eve, she created Tristessa, the transvestite movie star, ‘in order to say some quite specific things about the cultural production of femininity’. Her training in medieval literature had given her a liking for allegory: ‘Certainly I was using straightforward allegorical ideas in parts of Nights at the Circus. Mignon, for example, is supposed to be Europe.’ Of course, she admitted, there is a need to frustrate allegorical cleanliness with the odd aesthetic mud-bath: ‘From The Magic Toyshop onwards I’ve tried to keep an entertaining surface to the novels, so that you don’t have to read them as a system of signification if you don’t want to.’
But Carter’s fictions souse us in signification; and much of this has to do with her notion of narrative as symbolic fairy-tale or allegory. (The relative freedom from allegory of the last two novels lets them breathe.) The Magic Toyshop, for instance, is a good book, and an extraordinarily good book for a 27-year-old. It is touching and sinister and its language is both controlled (in a fable-like way) and richly abandoned. But, in the nicest way, the book is a set-up. It is a fairy-tale: a little girl (she is 15) is orphaned, and she leaves her magical family home for a sinister Gothic house on a hill in South London. In this house is a gentle but utterly mute aunt, who communicates by chalking on a board. As soon as we meet her, we know that by the end of the book she will suddenly talk, for this is the way fairy-tales are. There is a sinister patriarchal uncle, who runs the toyshop of the title. And there are two young men. One of them, Finn, explains the rules of the house: ‘He’ – the uncle – ‘likes, you know, silent women.’ Indeed, on Sundays, the sinister uncle forces his wife to wear a monstrous silver choker that he made, in case we were disinclined to believe Finn. We hope, in the fairy-tale way, that good will triumph and that the little girl will escape from the nasty house on the hill (several times likened to Bluebeard’s Castle). She does.
Of course, much literature tends to the fairy tale: Tolstoy’s fable, Master and Man, Chekhov’s Gusev, Cynthia Ozick’s The Messiah of Stockholm. Céline’s Journey to the End of the Night is a dystopian fairy tale, and the Africa and New York that appear in it are hallucinatory horrors rather than real places. ‘Unreality’ is not the issue; but perhaps coercion is. Eudora Welty has also written that ‘plausibility’ is less important than ‘validity’, and she defines validity thus: ‘It is that by which each writer lets us believe – doesn’t ask us to, can’t make us, simply lets us.’
Carter, one feels, does not let us believe often enough. John Bayley said something like this in an essay on Carter in the New York Review of Books in April 1992, nine weeks after her death, and he is the wicked uncle of Lorna Sage’s collection of critical essays, Flesh and the Mirror. Hermione Lee, in an intelligent and warm-hearted defence of Carter, calls Bayley’s essay ‘a striking exercise in insidious disparagement’; Elaine Jordan, in a less eloquent contribution, calls it ‘a nasty piece of work’. Bayley accused Carter of ‘political correctness ... whatever spirited arabesques and feats of descriptive imagination Carter may perform she always comes to rest in the right ideological position.’ Bayley’s emphasis on ideology is unfortunate, I think, because Carter’s coercion is more often formal than ideological (and no better for that). Several of Sage’s contributors rightly note that Carter’s work is often ideologically self-mocking and various. Perhaps it is not that Carter’s fictions always end up where you’d expect them to, but that – until her last two books – they tend to exclude the contradictory, the gratuitous.
Lorna Sage’s introduction tells us that in 1992-3 there were more than forty applicants to the British Academy wanting to do doctorates on Carter, ‘making her by far the most fashionable 20th-century topic’. A little later, she suggests by implication – but does not state – why Carter’s work might be so amenable to current theoretical scrutiny: all her characters ‘are pretty consistently treated as role-players, assemblages of gestures and ready-scripted lines who are liable at any moment to flatten out into shadows’; they are ‘constructs ... not born but made’. Elaine Jordan, in her essay, embraces just this: she praises Nights at the Circus because it ‘offers a range of possible roles and identifications’. The tone of her essay is free but also stern – oddly governmental. Carter’s work is ‘reponsive but not random fun’.
Flesh and the Mirror is a patchy book, and most of the essays are so far from the spring of creativity that it does little more than sprinkle them with the occasional generous droplet. Marc O’Day, discussing antique-collecting in Shadow Dance, bewilderingly writes about the cult of ‘rubbish’ in the Sixties and the wonderful freedom from category that bric-à-brac allows. His busted prose is a hospitable dustbin for these concerns. Isobel Armstrong, usually reliable, has an odd essay about all the ways in which Angela Carter is not like Anita Brookner; trapped by this initial division, her piece becomes a stutter of differences, as she grinds her chalk in one hand and smoothes her cheese in another: ‘Unlike Hélène Cixous, Anita Brookner is not a celebrant of the flow of desire and feeling.’ Armstrong does, however, admirably define Carter’s central theme: ‘she writes in a stylised, objectifying, external manner, as if all experience, whether observed or suffered, is self-consciously conceived of as display, a kind of rigorous, analytical, public self-projection which, by its nature, excludes private expression.’
Nicole Ward Jouve struggles with her early dislike of Carter’s work in a brave but wildly incoherent piece of autobiography that sometimes reads like stand-up comedy: ‘And now here was this angelic-sounding Englishwoman, wading into it all as if nobody had been there before. Cool as a cucumber. I felt robbed. Who’d just waded into my bloody chamber?’ The best essays are by Laura Mulvey (on the cinematic in Carter), Marina Warner (an exemplary study of sexual ambiguity in Carter’s characters) and Hermione Lee.
Much of the book, in the current manner of post-structuralist theory, appears a terrified unwillingness to evaluate. Armstrong’s description of Carter, quoted above, is hardly different from John Bayley’s, for instance, except that one assumes – though on what evidence? – that Armstrong approves of her subject in a way that Bayley does not. Marc O’Day permits himself the sugary delicacy of evaluation – but, one senses, too much of it might spoil the figure: ‘I personally prefer The Passion of New Eve, but in many respects it just isn’t – to draw on an impressionistic aesthetic notion – as achieved as Love.’
Hermione Lee accuses John Bayley of asking, ‘in a cunning coda’, whether Carter’s fiction will stand rereading. Isn’t this central rather than cunning? ‘Somehow never wrote something to go back to,’ wrote Robert Lowell gloomily (and unfairly) in his poem ‘Reading Myself’. Does Carter give us something to go back to? Tolstoy’s late parables coerce us, of course; but they also touch our lives with what Henry James, in his Notebooks, called ‘something important, something intimate, something vital’. Cynthia Ozick’s The Messiah of Stockholm is suggestive, as Carter’s The Passion of New Eve is suggestive. But Ozick’s fable suggests life, and Carter’s suggests theory. Bayley is right to ask: what sustenance do these fictions provide?
Most of Carter’s writing until Nights at the Circus seems to me to be coercive, theoretical in ambition, over-fermented. The same kind of detail that Christina Stead (a writer admired by Carter) lavished on her captivating egotists and eccentrics is, in Carter’s work, painted onto what Sage calls ‘shadows’ and what Jordan calls ‘roles’. And often the reader longs to escape this gilded cage. The tragedy of Angela Carter is that she died just as her work was beginning to make that escape.