One Wise Woman
Twenty five years ago today (16 February 1992), British novelist Angela Carter died at the age of 52. She had been diagnosed with lung cancer. I vaguely remember a news report about it; people on the television explaining that she was one of our best writers, that it was a tragedy. But, it would be another two years before I understood why.
That happened while working as an assistant at Waterstone’s. I was applying to study English Literature at university and two of my colleagues took it upon themselves to educate my reading – apparently my diet of Michael Crichton and Minette Walters was a little fatty for their tastes. I was reading the classics too (another Waterstone’s memory: me sitting in the staff room reading Pride and Prejudice for the first time and another colleague telling me how she wished she could re-read it for the first time again, such was her love).
But, for Stuart and Michael, my modern reading list lacked a little heft. First up was Ben Okri’s The Famished Road – a suggestion for which I became eternally grateful roughly eight months later when one of Okri’s poems turned up on my A-Level poetry appreciation paper. Hot on his heels, though, was Carter’s Wise Children. I distinctly remember Stuart telling me that I must read this, that I would love it.
I cannot now fathom of a world where I have not read Carter and, more specifically, Wise Children. If an entire book can be a hero, then this is mine. It was Carter’s last novel before she died and it tells the story of twin, illegitimate chorus girls, Dora and Nora Chance. Their birth father, Melchior Hazard, is of good acting stock – think the Redgrave family – while Dora and Nora have spent their lives treading the less-venerated music hall boards. The book opens on Nora and Dora’s 75th birthday. It also happens to be Melchior’s 100th and the same day as Shakespeare’s birthday.
This second coincidence is anything but. Throughout the novel Carter plays with opposites and twins and identity and legitimacy in ways that would make the Bard proud. It is a joyous novel – laugh-out-loud hilarious, touching and often as wise as its title suggests. It is also generally considered Carter’s most accessible novel.
That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t read the others – The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman is a dizzying, dream-like whirl of a novel that deals in magic realism, surrealism, romanticism, feminism – in fact, almost any literary ‘-ism’ you can think of – while The Bloody Chamber, her feminist reworking of famous fairy tales such as Little Red Riding Hood, have shocked and inspired countless readers and writers. In fact, Carter herself did not see them as re-workings, but as new stories borne out of a shared history.
And then there is Nights At The Circus: the story of a six-foot tall aerialiste named Sophie Fevvers who would have you believe that she is a Cockney virgin hatched from an egg and about to develop fully-fledged wings. It is bonkers and beautiful. It’s like someone beckoning you to physically step inside their imagination, saying: ‘Come in, welcome. You think that's crazy? Watch this.’ Underpinning it all is a clarity of language – “Amongst the monsters, I am well hidden; who looks for a leaf in a forest?” – that I can only dream of.
Carter was also a fine critic and essayist, but it is Wise Children to whom my heart belongs. It is a book that I return to again and again, each reading a re-remembering of how much I loved it that very first time when I was a teenage bookworm with no clue that writing like this could exist. It is the novel that I wish I could have the imagination, wit and skill to have written.
Widely acclaimed as one of Britain’s finest authors, cut down in her prime, Carter often turns up on the English Literature syllabus these days. But when I got to university there was no sign of her. As a consequence, my exploration of her work (which is still to be completed) is haphazard and completely unacademic. But, perhaps, this is why my love for her endures. She is a writer who belongs to me and – at a push – the man who suggested I read her. I guess Stuart can share her, too.