Angela Carter's unknown poems reveal the celebrated writer's passion for verse
The discovery of unpublished work by the feminist writer sheds new light on her literary developmentVanessa Thorpe, arts and media correspondent
Sunday 13 March 2011 00.04 GMT
A series of unknown poems by the novelist and subversive essayist Angela Carter, discovered at her former London home, have revealed a previously unknown passion that casts new light on her development as a novelist.
Carter, who died of lung cancer at the age of 51 in 1992, was one of Britain's most celebrated authors and remains a leading voice in feminist fiction, but her poetry has never been professionally published or widely studied. In the 1970s and 1980s she was at the forefront of fabulist or magical narrative work. She is perhaps best remembered for the collection of short stories, The Bloody Chamber, which Carter later adapted successfully for the screen as The Company of Wolves, directed by Neil Jordan.
Carter's friends, including Salman Rushdie, former poet laureate Andrew Motion, publisher Carmen Callil, and the writer and historian Marina Warner, had no idea the author had started out in the 1960s with determined ambitions as a poet. "She came out of the very un-English tradition of Grimm fairy stories and European Gothic and then made a kind of English version of this," said Rushdie. "I did always think of her as a magical writer and in these poems you see how much she was already there. All the iconography of her later fabulism seems to be there."
Friends and admirers of Carter assess her newly unearthed poems in a Radio 4 programme broadcast this afternoon and presented by the writer's literary executor, Susannah Clapp, the Observer's theatre critic.
"After Angela died I went into her office inside her house in Clapham. I found an old, grey filing cabinet jammed with work. I hoped, of course, I would find a few new short stories or a novel. But then I found her journals," said Clapp this weekend. "These are largely work journals, rather than diaries, and they list what Angela was reading and watching at the time. But embedded in them are more than a dozen poems, some completely scored through and some delicately revised."
The poems were written at the beginning of Carter's life as a writer, before her first novel, Shadow Dance, was published in 1966. The journals that contain them are school exercise books decorated with a collage of old product labels, cocktail recipes and advertisements for patent medicines. A few of her early verses appeared in her university magazine in Bristol, but Clapp was surprised to find written evidence of her friend's youthful pledge to become a serious poet who would bring imaginative freedom to verse.
Carter's later prose writing has what Clapp describes as an "unforgettably sensuous" voice, coupled with the "sardonic wit" that was to earn her the title of the "White Witch of English Literature". The recovered poems display the same contrasting voluptuousness and sense of humour.
"The striking thing about them, as Andrew Motion says, is that she really does seem to have been a poet, rather than just writing lines that would prefigure the novels she was to write," said Clapp. "Although there are many of the same themes there, such as the importance of fairytales and the sceptical treatment of the relationships between men and women, and language that is very sensual, there is definitely an intensity that her fans will recognise."
Motion, who worked as Carter's literary editor at the publishing house Chatto and Windus, recalls seeing the writer arrive at their London offices, looking "as if she had been blown in by a hurricane". She had strong opinions and a naturally questioning stance. "You weren't going to get away with anything. And this was a very strong and very appealing thing about her," said Motion.
The poet believes the discovery of the poems will bring new readers to Carter's work. Ten years ago, he says, the writer was the subject of more academic theses and doctorates than perhaps any other British writer. "This is not true any more and we need to remember her," he adds. The poems are worthy of study, he says. "It is difficult, though, not to think she is looking around for things she could do later, probably more successfully, in the novels." The earliest poems are prolix, or full of what Motion calls "word eruptions", but he finds the later poems strike a "balance between the murkiness and the clarity".
Motion sees Carter as a comic writer who saw the life of the universe as an awful joke, "or rather, awful and a joke". When appointed literary executor, Clapp was instructed by Carter simply to "make money for my boys" (her son and her second husband Mark Pearce). Inside the bulging filing cabinet Clapp also found an unproduced version of Frank Wedekind's Lulu, the libretto of an unfinished opera based on Virginia Woolf's surreal novel Orlando and several screenplays. Her other main find was a rich stash of Carter's paintings.
"I did know that she painted, but I found lots of her lovely, brightly coloured work. It is a little like Georgia O'Keefe's work, with lots of open flowers and some pictures of cats too, which she loved."
Carter's great love of verse was evident at her funeral when Salman Rushdie read Andrew Marvell's poem On a Drop of Dew at her own request.