She Escaped to Become Original

Angela Carter, 1976; photograph by Fay Godwin
Estate of Fay Godwin/British Library/National Portrait Gallery, London
Angela Carter, 1976; photograph by Fay Godwin

The relationship between a biographer and his or her subject often takes the form of a one-sided love affair. When the subject is a person of ill repute or a criminal the chances of an attachment are of course less—the most that may usually be managed is a fascinated repulsion. But with a writer, ardent involvement is almost always present, at least at first. After all, the lover and the beloved already share a profession, and the biographer cannot help but feel that he or she understands the subject’s inner life and professional struggles. The fact that this is in effect a love affair is often confessed in public and also in print, at the very end of the acknowledgments in the finished book, when, after thanking interviewees and researchers and editors, the biographer apologizes to his or her spouse or partner for what sounds rather like an adulterous affair, one that diverted time and attention, if not affection and passion, from a real-life partner.

These imaginary adulteries are not one-night stands. The average serious literary biography appears to take about five years of research and writing, and ten years or even more are common when it runs to two or three volumes. Almost always the task involves extensive travel, hours hunched over a computer while your partner or family go on with their lives, and long conversations with strangers in expensive restaurants, bars, and coffee shops.

Edmund Gordon is clearly a serious and gifted biographer. He has worked hard, traveling all over the world to speak to people who knew Angela Carter and reading every scrap of her writing he could find. His title, The Invention of Angela Carter, announces both that Carter was a tremendously original writer with a marvelous gift of invention and that, as he puts it, “The story of her life is the story of how she invented herself.”

Gordon discusses Carter’s writing with skill and sense. He also manages to make her self-invention understandable and even sympathetic. He does not leave anything out, but he does sometimes include so much prosaic detail—the names of people she knew, the geography of the places she lived—that astonishing information sometimes flares up like a burst of flame on a damp log. You put the book down, asking yourself: Wait a second. Did he just say that after she slept with the husband of one of her best friends, Jenny, Carter wrote in her journal:

It is good for my ego (happiness is ego-shaped) to see myself as [John] sees me, a sweet, cool, flower in the sun; &, especially as [Jenny] sees me, an exotic, treacherous femme fatale…. I wish Jenny would try to kill herself.

One way to understand this sort…

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