Wish you were here

A Card from Angela Carter, by Susannah Clapp, Bloosmbury, RRP£10, 112 pages

Soon after Angela Carter died in 1992 at the age of 51, her literary executor and friend Susannah Clapp visited her home to sort through her papers. In A Card from Angela Carter, Clapp describes passing through the familiar kitchen, with its violet and marigold walls, decorative hanging kites and pet birds, to Carter’s study. This, she notes, was far more orderly: “Not so much carnival as cranial.”

The duality, Clapp suggests, is pertinent to any reading of Carter’s fiction, which melds the grotesque with the cerebral and the kitsch with the classical. Calling to mind the slogan of Fevvers, the cockney aerialist of Carter’s novel Nights at the Circus (1984), Clapp observes in this affectionate homage that the outlandish Carter might herself have been described with the same motto: “Is she fact or fiction?”

Carter wrote nine novels, six collections of short stories, several screenplays and collections of essays, but was never a literary celebrity (her omission from the Booker shortlist is said to have led to the foundation of the Orange Prize for female authors). Indeed, there has never been a biography written about her. Carter was, according to Clapp, “10 years too old and entirely too female to be mentioned routinely alongside Martin Amis, Julian Barnes and Ian McEwan” and “20 years too young to belong to what she considered the ‘alternative pantheon’ of Iris Murdoch, Doris Lessing and Muriel Spark”.

She was also, perhaps, simply too much; as her friend, novelist Salman Rushdie, once wrote, “some of her puddings, her most ardent admirers will concede, are excessively egged”. She herself admitted to embracing opportunities to overwrite (“Embrace them?” she wrote, “I half-suffocate them with the enthusiasm with which I wrap my arms and legs around them.”)

A Card from Angela Carter, which began as a programme for Radio 3, takes as its starting point the 14 postcards sent to Clapp by Carter over the dozen years she wrote for the London Review of Books, when Clapp was her editor. The postcards are casually dispatched, but Clapp, with her deep knowledge of Carter’s personality and stylistic ticks, rustles up surprising insights from small details.

A photo sent in 1990 from Le Beausset in the Var of a bare bottom floating above the sea brings to mind that bawdy muse, Chaucer’s Wife of Bath. Pondering an image of five china dolls leaning against a wall, Clapp is reminded of Carter’s novel The Magic Toyshop (1967): “they are showcases of femininity, made-up versions of the sex that makes itself up.”

Born in Eastbourne into the “examination-passing working classes”, Carter later blamed her overbearing parents for her anorexia; her mother threatened to follow Carter to Oxford University if she got a place there, upon which Carter gave up on her A-levels. After marrying her first husband in 1960, she read English at Bristol, where she decided that literary criticism was “about taste – and it’s about class, actually”. She spent the proceeds of one of the few prizes she received with a determination to rewrite her own plot: “I used the money to run away from my husband, actually. I’m sure Somerset Maugham would have been very pleased.”

That “actually” is given a pleasing exegesis by Clapp, who neatly characterises Carter’s polite mannerisms as “accuracy parading itself as irony – and none the less ironic for that”. Clapp’s own prose, by contrast, is more restrained, stylish but arch (“few would argue that Angela’s writing had an extensive acquaintance with litotes,” she quips) – designed, like the formal structure of this book, to keep Carter, and Clapp herself, at a careful distance.

Far from being a confessional memoir about friendship, this book is poised and elegant, and conspicuously slender – as if it has shed everything but its most presentable self. Perhaps it’s no bad thing that it should leave the reader ready to turn to something bigger, messier, and altogether more bawdy.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved. You may share using our article tools. Please don't cut articles from FT.com and redistribute by email or post to the web.