The affectionate sceptic: Angela Carter and Blake

When I was a girl, I thought that everything Blake said was holy, but now I am older and have seen more of life, I treat his aphorisms with the affectionate scepticism appropriate to the exhortations of a man who claimed to have seen a fairy’s funeral. (The Virago Book of Fairy Tales, p.x)

February 16 is the anniversary of Angela Carter’s death. Born on May 7, 1940, she died of lung cancer in 1992, having established a reputation as one of the most imaginative and resourceful writers of her generation.

As an author who appears to have taken to heart the aphorism that “Opposition is True Friendship”, her relationship with Blake was a contrarian one. Lorna Sage, in Flesh and the Mirror (1994), observed that along with the Marquis de Sade, Blake was a favourite source of ideas – but, as with the divine Marquis, the diabolic engraver was a font of opposition as well as inspiration.

Carter’s most directly Blakean novel was The Passion of New Eve, 1977, set in a post-apocalyptic New York where an Englishman, Evelyn, lives a dissolute life until captured and taken to a location called Beulah, “the place where contrarieties exist together”. There he is transformed by the mysterious Mother into a woman, Eve, before being captured by a misogynistic figure, Zero the Poet (an ironic take on Blake’s the Prophet, Los).

The novel is full of Blakean allusions, particularly to Rahab and the Covering Cherub as well as Beulah itself, which, in Blake’s Milton, is a place inferior to the more masculine Eden. Carter, unsurprisingly, rejects this patriarchal vision, yet while she was often a fierce critic of Blake (for example in her essay, “Little Lamb, Get Lost”), she also drew a great deal from the artist responsible for The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, taking great pleasure in his devilish proverbs and oppositional spirit.

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