‘The skull beneath the skin’ – Angela Carter in Bath
Several female writers have spent fruitful periods in the city of Bath. In this month’s Musings, our guest blogger Dr. Gabrielle Malcolm looks at Angela Carter’s four years in the city – a time span that mirrors Jane Austen’s
The city of Bath is a great host for female writers. Jane Austen, Mary Shelley, Angela Carter, three female authors of Gothic persuasions, all had a short but fruitful period in the city. There are also a lot of assumptions made about their time in the city and their voices are sometimes discounted, despite the evidence from their output.
Austen had an inventive time in Bath, marred by tragedy with the death of her father. But we can’t discount it. Likewise, Mary Shelley. Although burdened with her pregnant stepsister, expecting Lord Byron’s illegitimate child, she composed the first half of Frankenstein in her rooms that overlooked the Abbey. Angela Carter, a graduate of Bristol University’s literature programme, and newly returned to England from Japan, made Bath her home from 1972-1976, mirroring Austen’s four years in the city.
So, what did Bath mean to Carter? Like other authors, the city represented a haven and sanctuary in which to write. She enjoyed a prolific period of producing articles, short stories, the outlines for The Bloody Chamber and The Company of Wolves, as well as her vampire stories and other game-changing compositions.
Carter is known as the ‘Queen of Contemporary Gothic’, and the ‘Godmother of Feminist Magic Realism’. Her time in Bath however – despite the invention and creativity of her work – has been labelled the time ‘before she was ‘Angela Carter’…’ and as being ‘away from the action’. London, it seems, has always held the attention of the publisher and the critic.
But Carter enjoyed a period of freedom and creativity in Bath. She set out her apartment at no. 5 Hay Hill to be a blank canvas. Plain walls were the backdrop for erotic prints and posters. She called her home there a ‘carapace of bricks and mortar …’. It was a one-woman sanctuary for writing, in which the telephone was put in a place it could not be heard. She had no doorbell, ‘for reasons of misanthropy …’ in her own words. Professor Christopher Frayling’s account of their friendship records late-night conversations there that subsequently appeared in her published works. She was irreverent and bold.
The skull beneath the skin’ was how Carter described the Royal Crescent and the general impression of the façade of architecture in Bath. The elegance of the front façade – ‘the dreamscape’ – was all very well, but Carter was fascinated by the ‘back … with its shantytown of loos and bathrooms and ductwork … The skull beneath the skin.’
Carter, in her short time living in the city, really understood its atmosphere, and this was filtered into her writing. Often, she was cold and broke. Professor Frayling recalls facts about her life, such as when she tried to have a gas fire installed but the men installing it managed ‘to break the thing’. He is conscious that Carter’s time living in Bristol, Japan, and London have more impact than her time in Bath when it comes to her reputation nowadays. But he, and others who knew her well, cannot deny the productive period she spent in the city. It gave her some breathing space between her teaching and travels before she made a splash and became ‘Angela Carter’ on the literary scene in London. Every author needs some respite from the pressure and attention in order to reinforce their creativity and confidence before the onslaught of critical reception.
And what did Carter think of Austen?
Well, interestingly, she had quite a sparse reflection on her work. Her focus was on Austen’s lack of sexual knowledge and experience. She knew more about ‘table manners’, Carter declared. This is not surprising, given Carter’s context. She was a vanguard for second wave feminist writing, preoccupied with the sexual revolution and sexual expression. It’s not for nothing that she wanted people to know about her erotic poster collection.
In Carter’s time, women’s domestic and private history was not a field of research or publication as much as it is now. The 1960s and 1970s did not witness the investigations into women’s domestic history and writings as an academic discipline. Now, we have the research and broadcasts of Lucy Worsley and a proliferation of intimate biographies. The polite, persuasive image of ‘dear Aunt Jane’ was still the standard reception in Carter’s time.
Carter’s pioneering work articulated the subjects of female desire, women’s intimate lives, and the personal struggles of female characters. She helped to create the language that now reveals the struggles and perseverance of Austen, Shelley, Wollstonecraft, and others.
Carter is a member of the literary sisterhood of Bath, a city of inspiration, society, and refuge. Her achievements in writing now populate school and university programmes throughout the world, with The Company of Wolves and The Magic Toyshop as major adaptations along with her work for theatre and radio. Only 51 when she died in 1992, gone too soon, like her fellow Bath residents she has only grown in stature since her passing.
Carter wrote an article for New Society in 1975. She called the city ‘a masterpiece of town planning’, and a place with ‘the theatrical splendour [and] the ethereal two-dimensionality of a town of dream.’ Her relationship with Bath was just as conflicted and complicated as that of Austen with the city.
Let’s finish with Carter’s words:
“Marvellous, hallucinatory Bath has almost the quality of concretised memory; its beauty has a curious second-order quality, most beautiful when remembered, the wistfulness of all professional beauties.”