The Shape Shifter: Sarah Waters Pays Tribute to Angela Carter, 20 Years after Her Death

Article excerpt

My first encounter with Angela Carter's fiction came in 1984, when I was 18. This was the year that Carter collaborated with Neil Jordan on the film The Company of Wolves. Quite by chance, I caught a radio programme promoting the film and discussing Carter's collection of rewritten fairy tales, The Bloody Chamber, on which it was based. The idea of a book that seemed to mix Perrault and Grimm with Hammer Horror impressed me enormously. On a trip to Cardiff soon after, I went into a bookshop and sought out The Bloody Chamber.

Carter's writing was unlike anything I'd ever come across before: vivid, theatrical, full of dazzlingly rococo narrative swoops and a startling sexual bluntness. I read every bit of her writing I could lay my hands on. The Passion of New Eve and Heroes and Villains I discovered to be baroque apocalyptic fables, stories of sex change, sorcery, the epic struggle between civilisation and chaos. The Magic Toyshop I read as a Gothic story of adolescent awakening, of pleasure and fear. The Sadeian Woman, a piece of cultural criticism, daringly recast the Marquis de Sade as a clear-sighted analyst of sexual relations, the feminist's "unconscious ally".

Nights at the Circus was published in the autumn of 1984, as I was starting life as an English student, too poor to afford a hardback. I bought the novel the following year and begged the university bookshop to give me the poster that had been sent out as part of the publicity campaign; and I stuck it to my college bedroom wall, as I might have pinned up other iconic 1980s images - the film poster for Betty Blue, or stickers saying "Coal not dole".

I had to wait until 1991 for Carter's next novel, the rambunctious Wise Children. I had no idea that this would be her final work. I did not know that she was already becoming ill. This was years before I ever thought of writing myself and the literary world was a closed and very distant one. I was familiar with a much-reproduced image of her, which showed an appealing-looking, handsome woman with strikingly high cheekbones and white hair, but I had never seen her speak or read from her work. Then, one evening in February 1992, a friend rang me to say that he had just heard on the radio that Carter had died of lung cancer. We were both floored by the news - both, absurdly, as upset as if we'd known her personally.

Our reaction was, I suspect, far from unique. Carter's literary reputation had been relatively slow to build - there had been a surge of popular interest in her work, at exactly the time I'd first heard of her, as a result of the release of Jordan's film - buther audience remained a fiercely devoted one. Her writing had a particular resonance, I think, for women readers. She wrote, always, with a distinctly feminist agenda. Many of her literary preoccupations - the challenging of the canon, the rewriting of fairy tale and myth, the imagining of female Utopias and dystopias - lie at the heart of much feminist writing and thought from the 1970s and 1980s. But few other writers had her imagination or literary audacity. Few had her power to unsettle as well as to inspire and console.

Nights at the Circus is her masterpiece; it's also the most engaging and accessible of her fictions. It is a sprawling, garrulous book, a picaresque story of Rabelaisian proportions, with a suitably larger-than-life heroine: Fewers, the winged Victorian "Cockney Venus", six foot two in her stockings, with a voice like clanging dustbin lids and a face as "broad and oval as a meat dish".

Fewers's extraordinary life story - given in the form of an interview to a sceptical American journalist, Jack Walser - makes up the novel's substantial first part. …