In Bristol in her twenties, all in black with a Jimi Hendrix haircut under a floppy-brimmed hat, reading Freud and medieval romances in tandem, writing her first novels at phenomenal speed, Angela Carter was already acting on what she acknowledged to herself as a “need to be extraordinary”. Then she took an improbable leap from a constraining marriage to a passionate affair in Japan. She thanked her friend Carole Roffe for giving her the courage: for “prodding & pushing & propagandising me so that I took my life into my own hands”. She wanted to be author of her own story, she wanted “a bit of flash”, she wanted to experiment and to startle.

This gripping biography, brimming with new material, comes 24 years after Carter’s death and is the first full account of her life. It is not by anyone who knew her, or a feminist of her generation, but by the young literary critic Edmund Gordon, now a lecturer at King’s College London. He was granted access to 30 years’ worth of journals and mounds of correspondence, all the stores of writing and remembrance that readers have so far had to do without. He has undertaken feats of scholarship and written an admirably clear-sighted book.

The Invention of Angela Carter is much more about purposeful choices and intellectual energy than about sorcery or fairy charms. Carter’s gleeful whimsicality is here (among the Victorian bric-a-brac in her study and the circulating budgerigars) but it’s a grace note. Gordon mistrusts the tendency to mythologise Carter as a white witch of modern literature, and thinks the provocative, high-risk elements of her feminism have too often been flattened to fit political readings of her work. His response is to emphasise her exhilarating intelligence and astute wit, the complex balance between her generosity, carefulness and cruelty, the resilience she shared with the tough comic heroes she most admired, and the extreme self-consciousness she manipulated into a happier kind of self-possession.

Carter’s young life was shaped by a mother who would not let her go. She was dressed up, cosseted, watched over in ways more damaging than protective. University promised no release because, dreadfully, when Angela considered applying for Oxford, her mother spoke of coming too. Later she would keep writing (as in The Magic Toyshop) about airless Edens where innocence lasts too long.

Marriage seemed the only sure means of escape, but her years with Paul Carter were fraught with mutual resentment. She joked grimly that she had had more meaningful relationships with people she sat next to on aeroplanes. Looking back on her 1971 novel Love from “the plump cheerfulness of middle-age”, she was pained to remember the “thin, unhappy young woman who wrote such a violent, anguished book about the savage landscape of the human heart”.

Carter’s move to Japan started as a short trip on a Somerset Maugham Award, but over two weeks in Tokyo, the “most absolutely non-boring city in the world”, she began a liberating relationship with Sozo Araki. She left her wedding ring in an ashtray at Tokyo airport. That last detail surfaces in another of her letters to Carole Roffe, who kept them all, and waited for a biographer to come calling. With sources like this, Gordon’s book takes flight.

There are silences, as one might expect. Paul Carter wanted nothing to do with the biography; other important figures in her life are dead. But at the centre is a comfortably quiet presence: that of Mark Pearce, the man with whom Carter settled. As a 19-year-old builder sorting out her plumbing, “he came in and never left”. In unspoken ways, it seems, he made possible the contentment of her mature writing life.

Like Pearce first catching sight of her through a window, we get glimpses of Carter engrossed in her work. She is a sixth-former discovering Baudelaire and Rimbaud, and an undergraduate racing though the canon from Emma (“Ugh!”) to Molloy (“why can’t I write like bloody Beckett”). As she worked on Love, she kept returning to her chosen teachers: Nabokov “for precision” and Emily Brontë “for passion”. Dedicating a copy of Heroes and Villains (1969) to her friend John Hayes, she called it “an attempt to cross-fertilise Jean-Jacques Rousseau & Henri Rousseau”. It’s a fugitive flyleaf note, but it splendidly conjures the wigged philosopher with a lion in the giant lushness of the painter’s forest.

Given the sheer quantity of her published fiction, journalism and drama, it seems implausible that she left her desk to do anything except make love, cook from Larousse Gastronomique, and talk on the phone (which she did for hours at a time, swearing profusely, interrupting herself with changes of mind). But she also taught regularly on university courses. We find her discussing “manipulative suspense techniques” with the young Kazuo Ishiguro and making short shrift with the students who hadn’t read enough. She explored the world on visiting fellowships and might have succeeded as a travel writer had she not preferred to be in Clapham. At Brown University in Providence, feeling a hairy barbarian among polite non-smokers, she longed for “the sheer rudeness — the vile obscene funny rudeness — of everyday life at home”.

Gordon’s attentiveness to Carter’s professional timetable (teaching, book advances, dealings with her agent) is part of his effort to “demythologise” her. Fairy godmothers don’t generally worry about money, but Carter’s house wasn’t purchased by magic. The increase in earning power mattered, and so did the limits of that power: she wasn’t one of those who attracted six-figure advances in the 1980s, and nor did she feature on the major prize lists. Gordon asks why she did not achieve in her lifetime the fame of Martin Amis or Ian McEwan or, especially, her great friend and champion, Salman Rushdie.

There have been, and will be, more cracklingly brilliant discussions of Carter’s fiction than Gordon gives here. And if you want a biography like a Carter novel, with striking contrasts and luxuriant prose, all “blood and brains”, flair and fiesta, you may need to look elsewhere. Gordon’s achievement, however, is tremendous. From baroque entanglements of material and controversy, he brings living contours into view.

If he is a little euphemistic about what Carter endured as she died of lung cancer at the age of 51 in 1992, the result is to ensure that her life is not overshadowed by its ending. The early deaths of women writers have too often doomed them to tragic reputations. Carter refused “to play in tragedy” and summoned gallows humour to the last. It was comedy she loved to write, superlatively so in Wise Children, and in the Omnibus programme made while she was ill, she wanted to talk about it. “Comedy stands for, you know, fertility, continuance . . . the unappeasable nature of appetite and desire.” A quarter century on, this new biography should renew our readerly appetites for Carter. I hope someone is preparing an edition of her letters, large enough to appease a new generation’s desires.

The Invention of Angela Carter: A Biography, by Edmund Gordon, Chatto & Windus, RRP£25, 544 pages

Alexandra Harris is author of ‘Weatherland: Writers & Artists Under English Skies’ (Thames & Hudson)

Photograph: Getty

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