This week saw International Women’s Day, the release of the Bailey’s Fiction Prize and the new title from Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. So, it’s been a pretty good week for feminism (let’s just pretend that idiocy with Emma Watson’s breasts didn’t happen, shall we? She’s a feminist. Get over it).
In light of all this positive female attitude, I thought I’d share my views on one of the most influential feminist authors: Angela Carter.
I’ve read two of Carter’s works now: The Bloody Chamber and Other Stoires and The Passion of New Eve. The first is a collection of short fairytale re-imaginings that delves into the darkest corners of male and female sexuality – both positive and negative. Eve is a post-apocalyptic novel which finds it’s narrator, Eveleyn, transformed from a man to a woman by a goddess of the American desert. Both are rich, metaphor-laden powerhouses of literature that are so supremely intelligent they are beyond any boxes I could try to put them into.
What amazes me about Carter’s works is their uncompromising nature. There is nothing she wouldn’t discuss, no stone she left un-turned for the sake of her readers – or anyone else for that matter. She had ideas she wanted to impart in the way she wanted to impart them. The results are brutal, complex, sometimes harrowing, sometimes beautiful. Reading Eve felt like walking into a tornado and enjoying the views, but feeling so battered about the head that by the time it set me down again I had no idea where I’d ended up.
Stretched metaphor aside, what I find key to Carter’s work – and this is where you can jump in and disagree with me if you want to – is that they are not meant to be enjoyed. You don’t ‘enjoy’ a book by Angela Carter.
They are experiences. They are trials you have to go through in order to see the world more clearly, or to be shown something you hadn’t known was there in the first place. There is nothing easy about any of Carter’s works, nothing that makes you want to sit in front of the fire with a blanket and relax.
No. You need a heavy dose of whisky and a reference manual to make your way through it. Her works are epic journeys – odysseys in the Grecian sense – and should be treated accordingly.
Reading The Bloody Chamber and then having to study it were two different experiences. The collection set me on edge. It was brutal. Sometimes gross. I didn’t really ‘get it’. And then I studied it, studied her, and it was the most incredible collection of short stories I have read. It came alive. The complexity Carver weaves into her stories are borderline genius. But it was only through a very rough Academic lens that I could see it.
Carter’s relationship to the Marquis de Sade (she studied him at great length before writing The Bloody Chamber) is apparent, and caused a lot of sensation in feminist literature circles. Many found her association with his writings, and her parallels between the feminine experience and his views on pain and sex to be grotesque. And yet this is exactly what makes her work resonate so deeply. Her expression of sex and violence in conjunction with these ideas and the layered brutality of traditional folklore and fairytales brings feminism to a new level. I also greatly appreciate her understanding of intersectionality for feminism – that the experiences of women of colour and and LGBTQ+ background are just as valid, are just as necessary to be included. It almost transcends anything else you will read by more ‘conventional’ authors.
You just have to put in the work beforehand. And it’s a lot of work. The Passion of New Eve has, if I’m being completely honest, utterly confused and terrified me, even with it’s moments of true brilliance and insight. Cosy, it ain’t. But the thought of being able to sit down in a library one weekend with every book available to me makes my heart skip a beat. My little inner-English-lit student is simply a-buzz with the possibility of scouring shelves and highlighting pages and dissecting the whole thing. It’s freaking fascinating.
Many people may read this and roll their eyes. What on Earth would possess anyone to delve into this kind of reading, never mind writing? This is all just pretentious snobbery, surely? I just want to read a book, dammit! I don’t want to have to have read an entire library to enjoy something.
Then you and I may have to part ways, my friend, because for all of the uncomfortable, bizarre, gross, indecent, brutal, weird, unfathomable stuff that goes on in Carter’s books, they are extraordinary pieces of writing that deserve to be as exalted as they are.
Literature of this kind is necessary for us to expand our minds. To experience our world through another’s eyes – no matter how disturbing that may be for us. To explore the mysteries of not only those dusty tomes on the back shelves, but our humanity and our environment.
And Carter is a genius of it all.
So, would I recommend Angela Carter?
Yes. But go carefully, my friend. Take a torch, plenty of food and water. Maybe some alcohol and a security blanket. And a sweet little book about unicorns if it all becomes too much for you…
I’d love to throw this open to people. It is a discussion after all! So let me know your thoughts in the comments.
Next in this little series, I’ll be looking at JG Ballard’s High Rise and the dystopian world he creates. That’ll probably be up in a few weeks, so if you enjoyed this keep your eyes peeled for that!