Angela Carter: Greatest Hits
Posted by Anna Thornton
To commemorate our ‘Author of the Month’ Angela Carter, we had a dig through the LRB archives to explore the critical essays of this great writer: some humorous, some serious, most of them somewhere in between. All of these pieces engage with politics, literature, feminism and our relationship with language. Here are five of our favourites, each of which sheds light on the mind of a prolific but oft misunderstood writer.
One of her earliest pieces for the LRB, this is an exploration of Colette, a writer who had a continual influence on Carter's writing.
And yet those memories, this experience, is organised with such conscious art, such lack of spontaneity! She must have acquired from Balzac her taste for presenting those she loved best and admired most, including herself, as actors in tableaux vivants, beings complete in themselves, as if unmodified by the eyes of an observer who is herself part of the tableau; she describes finished objects in a perfect perspective, almost trompe l’oeil, stuck in the lucid amber of her prose.
Carter's review of Adorned in Dreams: Fashion and Modernity by Elizabeth Wilson shows us how she viewed her place as a woman who enjoys fashion within the framework of feminism and patriarchy in contemporary society.
‘Nothing female is alien to me.’ Because women do love to dress up, and also to dress down: we dress to cheer ourselves up, to reward ourselves, to transform ourselves, to amuse ourselves, to incur the admiration and/or envy of other women, to pass unnoticed in the crowd, to pass messages about ourselves, to pass the time. ‘Women do not always dress for men,’ as Elizabeth Wilson observes tartly. ‘The belief that they do has confirmed many fashion writers in their view of women as essentially silly.’
An enlightening and amusing engagement with food writing and how it can encompass different cultural spheres. Carter demonstrates and critiques how food writing has shaped and defined an outlook on life in English culture. 'Wolfing It' analyses honestly the fetishisation of poverty, while engaging with the sincerity behind the words.
This combination of material asceticism and passionate enthusiasm for the sensuality of the everyday is at the core of the tradition from which Mrs Gray springs, with its obvious affinities to the style of Bloomsbury, where it was a moral imperative that the beautiful should always take precedence over the comfortable. Though ‘beautiful’ is not quite the right word – it is a kind of authenticity which is invoked here, as though water is more authentic, more real, wetter, drawn from an open-air cistern than from a city tap.
This cutting review of Arthur Marwick’s Beauty in History: Society, Politics and Personal Appearance c. 1500 to the Present is worth reading simply for its dry, irreverent take on the historian’s unintentional but harmful ‘fuddy-duddy’ sexism.
It is surely the kindest thing to regard this bizarre trip around yesteryear’s pin-ups as a one-off aberration from a perfectly reputable historian who has stretched out a simple, if debatable proposition – that, through Western European history, all human beings have always fancied the sort of people he fancies – to accommodate a degree of, to me, incoherent theorising which is not without its unintentionally comic side.
I never went to Whitechapel until I was 30, when I needed to go to the Freedom Bookshop (it was closed). The moment I came up out of the tube at Aldgate East, everything was different to what I was accustomed to. Sharp, hard-nosed, far more urban than what I was used to. I felt quite the country bumpkin, slow-moving, slow-witted, come in from the pastoral world of Clapham Common, Brockwell Park, Tooting Bec. People spoke differently, an accent with clatter and spikes to it.