Rebecca Munford’s Re-visiting Angela Carter: Texts, Contexts, Intertexts

I first discovered the works of Angela Carter when I was a teenager growing up in upstate New York. I can’t remember which book it was, though it was probably, knowing my teenage appetite for horror and gothics, The Bloody Chamber. In those dark days before Amazon.com, locating other works by Carter was a challenge because no one seemed to know quite how to define her as a writer or in which section of the bookstore or library her books should be shelved (those were the days when anything vaguely reminiscent of the fairy tale form would find itself shelved in the young adult section, though Angela Carter’s books seemed to reside there with the smug air of a fox finding itself amongst the chickens).

It has been a decade and a half since Angela Carter’s death from cancer, and yet the question of what to do with Angela seems to still complicate the categorization and interpretation of her work. Most of the literary criticism on Angela Carter’s writing seems to continue to suffer from this same problem, with most collections of literary criticism focusing on a single facet of genre or form — feminist, postmodern, fairy tale — while Carter’s many radio plays and screenplays (The Curious Room), or her non-fiction (Nothing Sacred and Shaking a Leg) are rarely referenced by those critics interpreting her fiction.

The challenge has been to find a mode for interpreting Carter’s large body of work which is capable of representing it as a multi-faceted whole, rather than flattening the kaleidoscope of color and detail through a one-sided perspective.

Re-visiting Angela Carter is a collection of literary criticism which directly addresses this lack of an integrated approach to Carter’s work by examining Carter’s literary and film allusions and contextualizing such allusions within radical cultural movements such as feminism and surrealism. Each of the eight articles focus on one of Carter’r’s literary or filmic influences, Jean-Luc Godard, Marcel Proust, William Shakespeare, Jonathan Swift, Charles Dickens and Edgar Allan Poe, using these influences as a basis for analyzing Carter’s references and appropriations as a radical aspect of Carter’s writing strategy.

Initially, I was skeptical of this approach because I thought it would result in one of those lackluster attempts to legitimize a renegade female writer by associating her with traditional texts from the Western canon. Happily, this turns out to not be the case. Indeed, the thesis of the articles in the collection is that Carter played “intertextual games” (p. 15) by using traditional texts to intentionally create ambiguities which challenged the “competing realities” (p. vii) contained in the fictive myths of the Western (white male) canon:

“. . .the fragments of high culture create not a nostalgic yearning for better, more ordered times, as in The Waste Land, but a vigorous and abrasive celebration of ambiguity. The security of our knowledge totters in the face of ‘the fictionality of realism’). The reality of reality becomes problematic . . . While for earlier highly allusive writers, for John Webster, Alexander Pope or Eliot, the ability to deploy intertextual reference marked our knowledge of and our ability to control the world, for Carter it is part of a project which combines a lively appreciation of the literature of the past with a radical demythologizing project which challenges our confidence in our social, cultural and psychic structures and the nature of reality itself (pp. vii-viii).”

In addition to the eight articles, there is a foreword by Jacqueline Pearson and an introduction by Rebecca Munford, both of which stand out as articles in their own right, and these two articles serve double-duty as coherent overviews of Carter’s career as a writer while also providing thorough explanations of how she used intertextuality as an intentional writing strategy

Rebecca Munford is to be congratulated for her work as editor for putting together a collection of literary criticism which is both coherent and surprisingly new. Most of the contributors selected have had or are currently working on publications on Carter, and their articles typically reflect their familiarity with the broad range of commentary both about and by Angela Carter. Additionally, the fact that a number of the contributors possess backgrounds in media and theatre assured that the cinematic and theatrical elements of Carter’s work receive more attention than in most collections.

Such unexpected connections are a large part of what makes this collection both surprisingly fresh and academically robust. The depth and breadth of the articles also highlights how much ground the critics had to cover, faced as they were with the challenge of discussing not only Carter’s literary and filmic allusions, but Carter’s own voluminous non-fiction writing on her many influences and sources.

Another one of the surprises in this collection is how it recasts the use of fantasy in the Western canon. One of the critical threads which runs throughout these articles is how Carter used fantasy as a mode of framing radical appropriations of traditional texts to create intentional ambiguity, and yet such ambiguities have always been one of the elements of Carter’s writing style, which left her open to misreadings and misinterpretations because her allusions were often interpreted through the same mode of realism in which the male writers were assumed to be writing (and through which male critics continued to interpret such writing).

One of the most notable articles in the collection is Robert Duggan’s “‘Circles of Stage Fire’: Angela Carter, Charles Dickens and Heteroglossia in the English Comic Novel,” which explores the connections between Carter’s and Dickens’s use of the fantastic as a mode of exploring social issues. An unexpected pleasure in reading Duggan’s article is that it is through Carter’s work that the reader can reclaim the fact that fantasy was a strong ingredient in Dickens’s narratives, as is apparent from the Ruskin quote which gives this article its title:

The essential value and truth of Dickens’s writings have been unwisely lost sight of by many thoughtful persons merely because he presents his truth with some colour of caricature. Unwisely, because Dickens’s caricature, though often gross, is never mistaken. Allowing for his manner of telling them, the things he tells us are always true […] But let us not lose the use of Dickens’s wit and insight, because he chooses to speak in a circle of stage fire.

Rebecca Munford’s Re-visiting Angela Carter should be considered a necessary text for any scholar of Angela Carter’s work. Due to the density of the lit crit language, the this book is probably not for the general reader, although the dedicated Carter fan with a familiarity with literary criticism terms may wish to acquire a copy. It would also be wonderful to find this text being used in classes which focus on feminist approaches to film, radio, and other media.

(Palgrave Macmillan, 2006)

About

Kestrell Rath, reviewer, is a bibliophile, owner of the Blind Bookworm page, and runs a mailing list for blind readers using new technology. She attends college in Boston.