Can you remember reading a book by a particular author for the first time and being hooked? Being so taken in by their writing that you wondered where their books had been hiding all your life? I can, and the author who hooked me was Angela Carter.
It was 2003 and I was half way through the first year of an impulse chosen course at uni. Somebody lent me The Bloody Chamber; a collection of short stories I’d never heard of by an author I’d never read. Imagine how I felt, reading the title story while living among the gothic spires and medieval streets of York. It was the perfect atmosphere for a pagan, alternative-music-loving creature like me to be introduced the fairy tale, gothic, world of these stories.
The Bloody Chamber reads like a rich tapestry of deep red wine, dark forests and innocence ripe for the picking. It takes the fairy tales we grew up with and draws out their latent messages, particularly desire and passion. Gone are the helpless fairy tale princesses, replaced by girls who are authors of their own destiny. For someone who had so recently come through a dark forest, these stories hooked deep into heart. It is not an overstatement to say that this book changed my life.
Within a month of reading it, I had quit my random course at York St John and signed up for a BA in English Literature to start that September at the same uni. I went on to write my dissertation about Angela Carter’s works from a new perspective. While doing this I read many of her other texts, including The Sadeian Woman, her take on the Marquis de Sade’s writing. In this she argues that de Sade was actually a feminist, working to free women from their roles as passive mothers and re-framing them as autonomous beings in control of their own sexuality (should they choose to break free from societal mores). Certainly an interesting interpretation of his themes!
Angela Carter was undoubtedly ahead of her time. If you want to see for yourself, try reading The Passion of New Eve. Published in 1977, it is more relevant than ever, now that the conversation about gender and sexuality has really opened up. Carter was a huge feminist and this is clear in her books. She was all about making her own way and being true to herself, refusing to be defined by society or its institutions. Some of Carter’s writing is challenging and I don’t love ALL of her works. But still, even after all this time, The Bloody Chamber remains my absolute favourite, along with The Magic Toy Shop and Fireworks (another collection of short stories). If you only read one her books, I would have to say read The Bloody Chamber. You’ll see the fairy tales of your childhood in a whole new light!