- A Card from Angela Carter by Susannah Clapp
“I’m just finishing this off for the girls,” Angela Carter explained, with a nod to the manuscript of The Second Virago Book of Fairy Tales lying on her hospital bed; it was January 1992, the month before she died of lung cancer at the age of 51. Ever since her seminal 1979 collection The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories, Carter’s multifaceted fairy-tale revisioning has played a vital role in the development of fairy-tale scholarship and, more than two decades after her death, continues to offer illuminating insights into the interpretation and the uses of this polymorphous genre. [End Page 206]
Susannah Clapp’s A Card from Angela Carter sketches an intimate and evocative portrait in the form of a series of vignettes sparked by the postcards Carter sent Clapp during the 1980s from places as far apart as Texas, Taormina, and New South Wales. The book is compact in both length and format, not much larger than the postcards themselves, whose images are also reproduced here. The two women’s friendship began when Clapp invited Carter to write articles for the London Review of Books, of which Clapp was a founding editor. In her final illness, Carter appointed Clapp her literary executor.
Readers are first led to Carter’s study, the writer’s innermost space. The contrast Clapp makes between Carter’s study and the rest of her house vividly encapsulates her double-edged character, which is illuminated from different angles throughout the book. Clapp’s description leads us through the kitchen and sitting room, with “violet and marigold walls, and scarlet paintwork,” where pet birds “were released from their cages to swirl through the air, balefully watched through the window by the household’s salivating cats,” to Carter’s study which is far more austere and organized: “Not so much carnival as cranial,” Clapp notes. This juxtaposition of over-the-top extravagance and cool-headed analysis is reflected in Carter’s writings.
Clapp’s book does not claim to be a biography; rather, it is a memoir based on the personal experience of a close friend. Clapp uses the postcards, rather than the letters that she also received, as a starting point for her reminiscences because of their unpremeditated and laconic nature—exactly the opposite of the style of Carter’s own writing—and this method allows us to catch unexpected glimpses into Carter’s character and private thoughts.
The greater part of the portrait is dedicated to Carter as a journalist, the aspect of her life through which Clapp first became acquainted with her, reminding us that Carter, having started her writing career as a local newspaper reporter at the age of 18, continued to write journalism all her life. But Clapp also talks about the various other aspects of that life which she came to know personally: fiction writer, university teacher, wife, mother, telephone chatterer, and cook. Especially interesting for a fairy-tale researcher is the connection Clapp makes between the drafts of early poems, which she found in Carter’s diaries from the 1960s, and her later interest in fairy tales. One poem, “The Magic Apple Tree,” she calls “an early fierce fairy tale, an anteroom to The Bloody Chamber.” There is also a postcard sent from Auckland with a crude, sentimental comic strip of a Maori creation myth, about which Carter scoffs, “A likely story.” Clapp takes this as a glancing criticism of her own enthusiasm for Bruce Chatwin, whose biography she would later write. Carter’s interest in folktale and mythology, Clapp believes, was different from Chatwin’s anthropological search for the origins of human instincts and beliefs. Carter’s skepticism about this kind of universalizing [End Page 207] project, which she might well have expressed in a grotesquely exaggerated parody in her fiction—Zero and his harem of “primitive” women nursing pigs in The Passion of New Eve (1977) come to mind—is expressed here in the elliptical form of a picture postcard to her close friend.
The last card Clapp writes about...