Philip Hensher

Thoroughly bewitching

Edmund Gordon’s biography of this breathtakingly imaginative writer should be read by everyone, says Philip Hensher

Angela Carter was a seminal, a watershed novelist: perhaps one of the last generation of novelists to change both the art she practised and the world. Reading this splendid biography, it is hard to avoid the false conclusion that she always knew exactly what she was doing. Her life, in its swerves and unexpected corners, always turns out to be contributing to her work; how clever of her, one starts to think, to get a job on a local news-paper, to go to Japan, to have an array of dotty, oppressive or plain witchy aunts, mother and grandmother…. Of course it was not like that. Carter’s life seems rich and inevitable in the retelling because she made use of almost everything. There was not much that she wouldn’t look at with interest.

Her family background was half south London and half Yorkshire, both of which she revelled in. The wrong side of the Thames provided reckless living, making do and letting rip; Yorkshire provided a relish of feminine plain-speaking moving imperceptibly into witchcraft. ‘Dottiness’ loomed large, and dressing for display, and food and drink — Angela was first immensely fat as a child and then, in a display of self-discipline, thin to the point of anorexia. Food was important because it was what the state doled out to you through rationing, in the 1940s, and also what your terrifying mother chose to give you, to show how much she meant to you. Always afterwards food, even bad food, could call up a sentence of rare vividness. ‘My corner shop sells wrapped, sliced white loaves that at a pinch could poultice a wound’, a book review of hers once kicked off.

There were books, too; she could fillet a book, empty it of what she needed, see through it and inhabit it. Her family knew what it was to go to Oxford, and there was no reason she could not have gone.

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