Angela Carter (1940-1992) is one of the most original writers of the 20th century, her work drawing on fairy tales and gothic fantasy to subvert taboos and create a powerful female voice. In the quest for this subversion, Carter often played with themes of metamorphoses, cross-dressing, sexual liberation and theatricality, all through the lens of folklore and mythology.
She is best known for The Bloody Chamber (1979), a collection of short stories which transform familiar fairy tales and legends into tales of sex and violence. The imaginative scope of this alternative world created the possibility for change, reflected literally in the metamorphic shifts that occur. In ‘The Courtship of Mr Lyon’, for instance, the Beast is transformed by Beauty, while in ‘The Tiger’s Bride’, Beauty is transformed by the Beast, presenting female agency over identity and conveying the idea that human nature is always shifting. The unnamed heroine of the title story at first appears a sacrificial virgin, dressed in white, destined for death; but her entrance in the torture chamber triggers a change, and she ultimately defeats the Marquis, with the help of her mother, in a display of shared female empowerment. There is often a transition from submission to empowerment, within the framework of an identity journey. In ‘Wolf-Alice’, for example, the last tale in the collection, Carter focuses on the experience of a girl who comes into contact with human society, only after living with wild wolves for years. Reversing the typical role of the male saviour in fairy tales, she humanises the Duke, a werewolf, through a kiss (or, more accurately, a lick). She discovers her own humanity and sexuality, tracing a discovery of womanhood; and she is implicitly connected to the first heroine through her white dress, creating a cyclical bond.
Carter’s experimentation with ideas of change included a fascination with female impersonation as a literary device. She drew on a literary history of cross-gender disguises: from Shakespeare’s Rosalind and Viola dressed as boys and played by boys cross-dressed as girls, Carter adopted the entertainment of double drag to break through societal barriers. Her novel The Passion of New Eve (1977) parodies restrictive notions of gender, identity and sexual difference from a post-feminist perspective, presenting the marriage of Tristessa, a screen goddess and really a man in disguise, and the protagonist ‘New Eve’, who transitions from Evelyn, a young Englishman, to Eve, a woman involved in a mythic drama. Nights at the Circus (1984) is similarly committed to discussing social and political issues through fantastical scenarios, using magical realism to question truth and reality. The American journalist and hero, Jack Walser, speculates at the start that Fevvers, the winged trapeze artist, might be a man in disguise, re-invoking the fluidity of gender through the context of a circus, with its practice of performance and illusion. Feminism is also at its center, particularly in the way Lizzie, adoptive mother to Fevvers, rejects the patriarchal structures of marriage.
Carter always challenged convention, which is certainly clear in her controversial essay, The Sadeian Woman (1978), which is a feminist analysis of the work of the Marquis de Sade, a French aristocrat famous for his literary depictions of a libertine sexuality, unrestrained by morality or law. Carter’s essay does not endorse the sadism, horrendous violence and misogyny in de Sade’s writings; she uses his work to criticise traditional, confining views of women, arguing that he was one of the few to claim the rights of free female sexuality at the time, by presenting them as powerful and not just breeding machines. She brings these ideas into contemporary culture, and in her own work through the patriarchal Marquis in The Bloody Chamber.
Angela Carter’s work is entirely unique, creating imaginary worlds where limits on identity, gender and sexuality do not exist; her fiction is often dark and full of horror, but infused with the liberal energy of the 1960s. After her death in 1992, interest in her work has skyrocketed, and she has become one of the most widely taught and researched writers of British fiction. It is clear to see why, her mythological explorations of feminism and metamorphoses forming a bold, ever-present message.
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