Angela Carter. Dealing with an infinitely complex organisation

Angela Carter
Dealing with an infinitely complex organisation

When we deal, we trade. Trading with Angela Carter is not an easy deal!

But dealing is also approaching and what we are presenting here are different approaches to her work.

Angela Carter’s own words in her exercise in cultural history The Sadeian Woman – ‘My anatomy is only part of an infinitely complex organization, my self’ (1979) 9 – have inspired us for the opening moment of this meeting, as she is one of the writers who, in the last decades of the twentieth century, moved away from a basically masculine cultural tradition. Such a withdrawal consists in subverting this tradition, opposing to it what it intends to construct, in a double and complex act of presentation and denunciation, of conformity and resistance. In the postmodern era, Carter, as an exponent of ‘magical realism’, took up a form of realistic writing, subverting and transforming it into another, more appealing form.


Accordingly, Carter places herself in the ‘demythologising business’ (“Notes From the Front Line” 1983), even if she recognises some approaches had undergone visible changes throughout her work: ‘I’ve been publishing fiction since 1966, and I’ve changed a lot in the way I approach the world and in the way that I organize the world.’ 9 Nonetheless, a fierce and unaccommodating nature permeates Carter’s work. Intended to provoke unease, she reworked fairy tales in a unique and disruptive way in The Bloody Chamber (1979) 9, presenting a Little Red Riding Hood who freely casts her cloak into the fire and seduces a handsome hunter-turned-werewolf – ‘She knew she was nobody’s meat.’ 9 Other fantastic characters populate her undomestic fiction – an English man who undergoes sex-change surgery in a dystopian United States so that a new messiah may be gestated from his own sperm (The Passion of New Eve 1977)9, a six-foot-tall winged acrobat female character in (Nights at the Circus 1984)9, and a larger-than-life twin who embodies magic realism and the carnivalesque, personifying Hollywood (Wise Children 1991). 9 

Carter’s narratives evoke so much through extreme and surreal events, flamboyant and outlandish characters, intense and heightened emotions, superb and appalling obscenities and through astonishing, highly decorated language. She raises a myriad of social and political issues in her fiction and non-fiction works, as she does not restrict herself to particular genres.9 This versatility and hybridity is clear through her poetry, 9 dramatic works (collected in The Curious Room: Plays, Film Scripts and an Opera, 1996, along with The Holy Family Album, 1991)9 and children’s books. Moreover, we cannot forget the relevance translation,9 her role as editor and journalist (Nothing Sacred: Selected Writings 1982) had in Carter’s work, even if this has been relegated to the background of criticism. It is in two of her journalistic pieces published in New Society in 1977 that she depicts her visit to Portugal with Shirley Cameron and Roland Miller, 9 described as ‘something gripping, twelve days of exhibitions, debates, films, performances and God knows what else besides’ (“Bread on Still Waters”). 9 9 She did performed with Shirley Cameron in Washing the Twins, at Quartos Encontros Internacionais de Arte em Portugal in Caldas da Rainha.9 In the other piece, “A Petrified Harvest”, Carter best questions the relation between the impact of displaying work in the museum and sell it in the market place in a post-revolution country.


We have witnessed such a tendency to place Carter in her historical context since 2012 and that has immensely contributed to other readings. What clearly contributed to this development of Carter’s studies was the British Library’s recently archived collection of Carter’s private papers, journals, and letters/postcards, which became a new way for researchers to view Carter’s oeuvre,9 evident in various presentations during the Get Angela Carter conference late January in Bristol.9 In a brief note, the ephemeral 1960s, as later stressed by Carter in “Truly, It Felt Like Year One” (1988), proved to be ‘a laboratory – or perhaps, rather, a battlefield – in the relativisation of all kinds of values: aesthetic, moral, spiritual, economic, political’ (O’Day 1994), whereas she unquestionably sides herself with the 1970s as a period of change, when she experienced Japan – even if in the second half of the decade she ends the piece “D’You Mean South?” (New Society 1977) showing some the coexistence of divergent states: ‘And I try to pretend I’ve never been away’. What Carter had been doing in most of her narratives from the 1970s onwards was ‘mimicking in fiction what she was also doing with her own life story’; just as her autobiographical essays, these narratives turn into a means of disguise, rather than revelation, for they create ‘a crafted persona for public display’. Carter did go for the proliferation rather than the death of the author, as her friend Lorna Sage stated, and this very multiplicity is precisely the most effective disguise: the creation of a narrative that functions as a hall of mirrors reflecting multiple images’ (Gamble 2006). Appropriately, the first official biography by Edmund Gordon portrays how Carter invented herself, as both a new kind of woman and a new kind of writer.9

When we consider Angela Carter one of the most unusual and talented writers of the 20th century, her words eco a concern with simultaneously sabotaging and invigorating the past, as texts are intrinsically self-dismantling and open to new readings:

‘Reading a book is like re-writing it for yourself. And I think all fiction should be open-ended. You bring to a novel, anything you read. All your experience of the world. You bring your history and you read it in your own terms’. (1985) 9

For Carter, writing is as creative as reading, and a new intellectual development rests on the new interpretations of earlier texts: ‘I am all for putting new wine into old bottles, especially if the pressure of the new wine makes the old bottles explode’ (“Notes from the Front Line” 1983). The rewriting of the myths themselves is due, according to the writer, to the fact that they are more easily denounced and deconstructed than history, a discourse of evidences.

Maria José Pires
ULICES / Estoril Higher Institute for Tourism and Hotel Studies
CEAUL / Escola Superior de Hotelaria e Turismo do Estoril