Last month Birnam Wood came to Putney Vale Crematorium. Or so it seemed. As the attenders at Angela Carter’s funeral emerged from the chapel, surrounding trees began to rearrange themselves. They shifted and they sprouted feet. They marched – and they dispelled themselves. They shook themselves free of foliage and dwindled. They changed into Special Branch men, moving forward to enclose Salman Rushdie, who had been speaking at his friend’s service. The hullabaloo they evoked bore out a Carter point which had been cited by Rushdie as an example of her genial frankness. When her lung cancer was diagnosed a year ago, he had volunteered his assistance: ‘I don’t think,’ she replied in her meticulous way, ‘I need any help from you ...’
Angela Carter would have liked the phantasmagoria, the shape-changing aspects of the scene, and the whiff of apocalypse. And she would have loved its comic absurdity. Ever since she died on 16 February things have been happening which she would have enjoyed. The Tories have been getting into tangles. Her eight-year-old son Alexander has invented an amiably malevolent game called Killer Baby. And Angela Carter has turned into a celebrity. Her reputation has soared like her trapeze-artist heroine Fevvers, the ‘Cockney Venus’ of Nights at the Circus, ‘shaking out about her those tremendous red and purple pinions, pinions large enough, powerful enough to bear up such a big girl as she. And she was a big girl ... Now all London lies beneath her flying feet ...’ Three days after she died Virago sold out of her books. She has become, to use words from the two poles of her vocabulary, an aerialiste and a celeb.
It is not, of course, that her novels and stories went unacknowledged in her lifetime. Angela Carter was no Barbara Pym. She was not neglected or rejected (except by the National Theatre, who turned down her version of Lulu a few years ago). She was given solus reviews and publishers’ parties; she went on telly; she was courted by universities and nobbled by fans. But she was never treated as the object of automatic acclaim and deference that the welter of huge obituaries might suggest. She was a decade too old and entirely too female to be mentioned routinely alongside Amis-Barnes-Ishiguro as among the younger pillars of British fiction. She was two years too young to receive a full entry in Margaret Drabble’s 1985 edition of The Oxford Companion to English Literature, which featured only writers born before 1939. She wrote feelingly in 1984 about J.G. Ballard, who was, she rightly predicted, about to be turned by critics from an SF cult figure into a main-stream literary person: ‘Ballard is rarely, if ever, mentioned in the same breath, or even the same paragraph, as such peers as Anthony Powell or Iris Murdoch. Fans such as Kingsley Amis and Anthony Burgess praise Ballard to the skies but they themselves are classified differently, as, God help us, “serious writers” in comparison.’ She won the Somerset Maugham Award in 1968 (and described with some pleasure how she used the money to run away from her first husband: ‘I’m sure Somerset Maugham would have been very pleased’), but she never won the Whitbread, was not once even shortlisted for the Booker Prize. Three months before her death she announced that she had a plan to put this last omission right: she had cracked what made a Booker Novel and she was going to write it. It would feature a philosophy don, his mistress, a bit of time-travelling, and many pages, and was to be called ‘The Owl of Minerva’. She knew it would win.
Her prizelessness needn’t be taken, as some obituarists have seemed to take it, as a self-evident proof of her work’s value – though it shows yet again that the best books often go ungarlanded. Angela’s ten works of fiction had something brilliant on every page, something which couldn’t have been produced by anyone else. But they aren’t easy books: from time to time the sheer freighting of allusion and wordplay can stop her pages in their tracks, freezing the narratives of which she was so fond into a series of prose poems. Angela once remarked that she finished reading Philip Larkin’s work feeling that ‘there must be more to life than this.’ With that remark in mind, the writer and critic Francis Wyndham observed that rich prose such as her own might make one feel that ‘there must be less to life than this.’ Angela, who liked ‘a bit of flash’ and was ‘all for pretension’, would not have minded the point.
Her fiction is voluptuous, political, fantastic, snarling, erotic, learned. It is allusive, parodic and playful. It was characteristic of her – Angela did not study fairy-tales and Medieval literature for nothing – that in order to talk about her last novel, Wise Children, she should use an emblem, disguised as a parenthesis: ‘Can I digress,’ she asked in an interview, with the elaborate politeness that brooked no opposition, ‘about the Granada Theatre Tooting?’ She did so, explaining that the Granada – a Thirties supercinema with a hall of mirrors and a cyclorama of the night sky projected onto a ceiling – had been important to her as a child. She had thought it terrifically beautiful; it had also given her an intimation of what it was to play with style: ‘it’s a very, very difficult mix of real crafts-personship, real marble and fake ... you never quite know what’s what until you touch it ... the stairs are real fabulous marble but the pillars are painted plaster ... it’s a masterpiece of kitsch but in a hundred years’ time no one’s going to be able to tell that it’s kitsch.’
Playing with style, making fairy-tale and fantasy tell new truths, were part of the point of her stories. ‘Is she fact or is she fiction?’ was Fevvers’s slogan, and it could have been Angela’s, on the page and in life. She was not at first easy to make out, and never easy to second-guess. Her face was strong-boned, but fluid, almost fuzzy; she was a great curser (a message left on my answering-machine at the outbreak of the Gulf War consisted entirely of oaths), but byzantinely courteous – an icily disarming ‘forgive me’ accompanied by a salaam and a chuckle was a favourite introit. She had exceptional verbal acuity but surrounded her trenchancies with long pauses, huge wheezes of silent laughter, verbal flutters in which South London slang took over from her usual piping tones. She skidded into some of her best mots through a series of hesitancies which were a world away from diffidence: I remember her some years back stunning a television books panel who had been reverencing D.H. Lawrence, by announcing, after a long goose-pimpling pause: ‘I’ve always thought that Gudrun was, well, the vasectomy queen of the North.’
Angela shot straight. She saw clearly and she spoke up, and this is what, more than anything else, I admired about her. When Wise Children was published last June, she was widely and rightly praised for its ingenuities: for dramatically depicting the divided condition of Britain in the Eighties; for encapsulating the plots of all bar two of Shakespeare’s plays. I think the best and boldest thing she did in the novel was simpler and more fundamental: she put the narrative reins into the hands of a working-class woman who is allowed to tell her story eloquently and colloquially without being patronised by authorial comment. The same cannot be said of many more obviously politically correct novelists (Angela came in for some stick from the sisters for being an Uncle Tom). Discussing narrative and closure and ‘real novels’ (the sort in which ‘people drink tea and commit adultery’), Angela wrote; ‘If a comic charlady obtrudes upon the action of a real novel, I will fling the novel against the wall amidst a flood of obscenities because the presence of such a character tells me more than I wish to know about the way her creator sees the world.’
She was bold and brave, and the more brave because she was not fearless: given the way the world is, she pointed out, it is not unnatural to mistake psychic good health for psychosis; a settled cheerfulness can seem sinister. Everyone who saw her in the year before she died came back with different stories. There was Angela on the phone, a few days after she had been told her tumour was inoperable, breaking off to note that there was a man coming up the garden path – then returning to add: ‘It’s all right, he hasn’t got a scythe.’ There was Angela in bed at home, with a pink ribbon in her hair and a Blossom Dearie tape on her cassette machine, demanding more precise party gossip. There was Angela in the Brompton Hospital a month before she died, pointing to the manuscript of the second Virago Book of Fairy Tales and confiding: ‘I’m just finishing this off for the girls’ – her Virago friends. Everybody came away with different stories about her, because everybody had a different part bestowed on them: queenly to the end, and also kind, Angela orchestrated her friends to make a last living story.
She never stopped being herself, and the self that she was is forcibly expressed in her journalism. During my 12 years on the editorial staff of the London Review of Books – which I leave this month – hers was the copy I was keenest to read. She saw things no one else noticed. In Women in Love she saw:
Stockings, stockings, stockings everywhere, Hermione Roddice sports coral-coloured ones, Ursula canary ones. Defiant, brilliant, emphatic stockings. But never the suggestion the fabric masks, upholsters, disguises living subversive flesh. Lawrence is a stocking man, not a leg man.
And she made points about these observations that no one else has made. In the Lawrence (‘Lorenzo as Closet-Queen’) essay, for example: ‘details about clothes are just the sort of thing a man would put into a book if he wanted the book to read as though it had been written by a woman.’ Her elastic syntax veered from the baroque to the punchy, her mode of address from the abstruse to the anecdotal; her vocabulary was both exotic and demotic. She was never slow to give her view and, for all her magnificent humorousness, wasn’t frightened of appearing socialist and solemn. When the London Review asked Angela to review The Official Foodie Hand-book she tore into the idea of food as art: ‘there is an implicit reprimand to greed in the constantly televised spectacle of the gaunt peasants who have trudged miles across drought-devastated terrain to score their scant half-crust. (“That bread alone was worth the journey,” they probably remark, just as Elizabeth David says of a trip to an out-of-the-way eatery in France.)’ This provoked disdain and wrath on the Letters page, and a response from Angela in the shape of a postcard from Austin, Texas. On the front was a picture of a violently steaming saucepan. On the back ran the legend ‘Carter’s reply to the critics! Texan chili, it goes through you like a dose of salts.’
A collection of essays, some of which first appeared in this paper, will be published by Chatto in April under the title of Expletives Deleted. The Second Virago Book of Fairy Tales will be published towards the end of this year; in 1993 there will be a collection of short stories. But we won’t get Adela, the novel about Jane Eyre’s stepdaughter for which she’d submitted an outline, nor the opera of Orlando. And we won’t have Angela, showing how exhilarating it can be to try to tell your own truth. ‘The fin’, as she put it, ‘has come a little early this siècle.’