Monday, July 04, 2022

GUEST POST The essays and reviews of Angela Carter

Writer and rebel Cathy Kirby celebrates the essays and reviews of Angela Carter.

Angela Carter is seldom talked about these days yet at the time of her death in 1992, at the age of 51, she was on the cusp of stardom. Her writing had huge influence. She wrote about a diverse range of subjects as a novelist, essayist, and critic. 

She first drew me into her world when I was 18 years old, with her book of short stories: The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories. The stories are retellings of fairy tales, with a subversive, feminist twist. Her retellings were the first of their kind, in what has become a popular and profitable genre. 

Her final novel, Wise Children printed shortly before her death, is about the lives of identical twin chorus girls and her penultimate novel, Nights at the Circus, has a winged female trapeze artist as the protagonist. Her writing is seductive, as are her female characters and she relished writing magical realism and burlesque. 

A lot has been written about her novels and her ground-breaking short stories The Bloody Chamber has been taught on the English Literature GCSE syllabus. Yet her essays and reviews are seldom mentioned. Carter started her writing career as a journalist, following in the footsteps of her father. 

In the introduction to her book Expletives Deleted (1992) an anthology of her reviews and essays printed in the press, we get a sense of what Carter was about. She states that a good writer makes you, the reader, believe that time stands still. She references the female storyteller Scheherazade, who kept spinning another story out of the bowels of her last one. 

Facing her own death at the time, Carter equates storytelling to life itself; she believed that at the end of a story there is a death where time stops short. In true Carter style she claimed, "We travel along the thread of narrative like high wire artistes."

This reminds me of her heroine, Fevers, the winged acrobat in Nights at the Circus, whose life is nothing short of a high wire act. Carter lived her own life as if she was on the circus high wire; she was a quiet-spoken woman with the vowels of Queen’s English, but who could swear like a trooper if sufficiently incensed. She was a paradox that kept people guessing, rather like the heroines in her novels and short stories. 

Her essays and reviews give us a more straightforward insight into who she was; she usually wrote openly about her views when penning as a journalist. These essays, printed in the press were entertaining and often a little rude. 

The section in the anthology of her journalism, Expletives Deleted entitled, Tomato Woman, puts together a set of five reviews (written between 1977-87) about the trendy "foodie" cookbooks popular at that time. She took a particular dislike to the cookbook English Bread and Yeast Cooking, by Elizabeth David. 

Born in 1940, Carter grew up at a time when to be a competent housewife and cook was the single biggest accolade a woman could seek. She was irked by the pretentions of the middle-class foodies of the late 70s and 80s because she remembered rationing after the second world war. 

Most of her recipe book reviews at this time focused on the snobbishness surrounding food which was out of the reach of the average income of families. One essay in the Tomato Woman section, instead of being a review on a cookbook, focuses on a tome entitled The History and Social Influence of the Potato, by Redcliffe Salaman (published in 1949.) 

For me, this essay is Carter at her finest; her narrative voice is at its most entertaining and intelligent. We can sense her witty yet mischievous character leaping off the page. She admires this book and goes as far as to claim:

that in its inflammatory humanitarianism, the book may also stand as a moment to the sensibility of the period of welfare socialism voted in at the end of the Second World War.

Carter could make any subject interesting and believed that everything we say and do is political in its widest sense. She was a woman after my own heart, which is undoubtable why I like her writing so much. 

One laugh out loud line from this essay that got me giggling was one of her many witty retorts and goes as follows:

Even Redcliffe Salaman himself, impregnably decent as he is, can only see a degraded peasantry sunk in sloth and intellectual darkness, locked in a hopeless symbiosis with the tuber.

She even managed to bring in the cookbook author, Elizabeth David at the end of this essay. She calls her to task over the fact that David mistakenly believed Salaman did not include recipes in his treatise on the potato. 

Carter enjoys correcting David by stating that Salaman did include an eighteenth-century recipe from the Epping Workhouse. This recipe is for a gruel of the most devastating meanness. Carter hated the bourgeoisie and believed David to be one of them. Nothing enraged her more than the cold-hearted ignorance of the middle classes in the ‘yuppie’ London of the 1980s.

Cathy Kirby blogs at The Crow's Nest.

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