I hadn’t known about the plays till an academic in Bristol told me about them, and I discovered they were all in the BBC archive. I’ve used excerpts from all five, with interviews with various people who were connected with her back then, including Susannah Clapp, Marina Warner and Carmen Callil, and I’ve tracked down the studio manager who worked on the plays who talks about what fun it was putting them together in studio.Please tune in and enjoy Carter's imagination and genius afresh.]
I don’t think many people know this side of Angela’s work, and the plays are such a riot!
I have long wanted to write a book of accessible essays, one about each of Angela Carter's major fictions, expressing my fannish enthusiasm, which is effusive and profuse. I'd envisaged it coming out this year, fully embossed, emblazoned and engilded, illustrated and illuminating, a Christmas gift for the literate. I’d call it Magical Democracy, after a phrase used in the Carter obituary written by Lorna Sage, another genius who died too young... and who also edited a wonderful book of essays on Carter, called Flesh and the Mirror, which includes contributions from Ali Smith and Marina Warner.
The picture shows a black cauldron trying to pass as a saucepan. Bubbling with beans and frighteningly red beef, it was sending off a swirl of blue smoke.On the back – and how I wish Bloomsbury had just turned the card over in the photocopier and given us a glimpse of Carter’s handwriting – the novelist has written,
Carter’s reply to the critics! Texas chilli, it goes through you like a dose of salts. I would like to forcefeed it to that drivelling wimp…preferably through his back passage.
It has always bothered me that Carter’s work is often described in terms of stylistic effect, symbolic resonance and folkloric influence rather than mental effort or thematic craft. She is depicted (as Clapp acknowledges) as a literary aerialist exulting in costume, a dazzler magicking up a false yet apposite paradox-world of masquerade and bewitchment, of things pretending to be other things in an infinite hall of mirrors, references refracting off references. It is as though, if one were to smash the mirrors, there would be nothing behind them but stage lights and severed puppet strings. Carter’s fiction is presented by critics as one of high theatricality and loosely picaresque plotting, wild abandon held together with the strands of an unravelling devorée shawl and a spot of false eyelash glue. The books and their characters seem to survive on sheer guts and willpower.
Her card was a photograph of an armadillo, a curved creature picking its way, like an elderly millionairess, through prickly undergrowth.
There is not one great mind here, there are two, and both have been undersold. Susannah Clapp’s previous book, With Chatwin, is a superlative personal memorography of the travel writer and explorer Bruce Chatwin, whom she was close to. It was praised fulsomely by all the major papers when it came out some years ago. These lines of praise are to be found, rightly, on the back of A Card From Angela Carter. But Clapp has not produced a major full-length work since, despite her tremendous talent and huge fanbase, obvious from her popular theatre reviews for the Observer, her erudite wit as a theatre critic for Night Waves on Radio 3, her pedigree as a co-founder of the London Review of Books (for whom Angela Carter was a longtime writer) and the support and joy which has greeted the publication of A Card from Angela Carter. It has only been out a week and it’s been covered with great positivity in The Observer (who gave it their Review section cover) and The Guardian, flagged up as a must-buy in ES magazine, reviewed well in The Independent and made a Radio 4 Book of the Week.
[Carter] was not acclaimed in the way that the number of obituaries might suggest. She was ten years too old and entirely too female to be mentioned routinely alongside Martin Amis, Julian Barnes and Ian McEwan as being a young pillar of British fiction. She was twenty years too young to belong to what she considered the ‘alternative pantheon’ of Iris Murdoch, Doris Lessing and Muriel Spark in the forties...
Until I complete that magnum opus of trenchant literary criticism and squealing sycophantic hagiography, A Card From Angela Carter by Susannah Clapp can be purchased everywhere, published by Bloomsbury.