Rosemary Hill on Angela Carter by Rosalind Fairclough

This review was written by a member of the Ilkley Literature Festival review team. The Review Team take part in a special reviewing workshop at the start of the Festival before attending Festival events.


It is fitting, Rosemary Hill tells us, that her forthcoming volume of Angela Carter’s poems, Unicorn, is being talked about here because Angela Carter was a writer in residence at the Ilkley Literature Festival in the 1980s.

In 2012, The London Review of Books requested that Hill review Susannah Clapp’s memoir, A Card From Angela Carter and she breathed a sigh of relief at the brevity of the volume. Not enough, she was admonished, could we have an essay please?

This was the inception of Unicorn, Rosemary Hill’s gathering together of Carter’s poetry written between 1963 and 1966 and the sum total (as far as is known) of Carter’s poetic work. Carter, Hill asserts, wanted to make the familiar strange – and the strange familiar, and she certainly did that in works such as Nights at the Circus and The Bloody Chamber, leading one of her friends to complain, “Surely there must be less to life than this!” In the early sixties her slim volume of poetry, Five Quiet Shouters came out and it was the poems in this work that Lucy Campbell (ex-RSC now of Dark Horse) read aloud during the evening. This is only the second time that Angela Carter’s poems have been read aloud for an audience and Campbell read them in rich, ringing tones that I found brought the words into a much sharper clarity for me than a simple reading off the page ever has.

The sixties was a great time to be a woman writer and Carter shared the stage with many of the names we still read, including of course, Plath, but she dropped into a feminist hinterland in the seventies, dismissed as “just another feminist writer”, but there was so much more in her strangeness and her darkness, and her ability to poke fun and to shock. (Her poem, The Horse of Love, is the first mention in literature of the sanitary towel.) Her reputation was redeemed with The Bloody Chamber, and she reflected pointedly that dressing up the dark and perverse in the mantle of the fairy tale as Christina Rossetti had with Goblin Market, allowed her to appear acceptable to mainstream literary marketing.

Carter’s death at the age of 52 was terribly premature, or as she put it, “The fin has come rather early in this siècle.” Susannah Clapp had hoped to find one last manuscript in her friend’s well-organised filing cabinet, but there was none. Nonetheless, Unicorn brings new life into already published work and is due out on the November 5th. Grove Books are doing an advance order list, so get your name down for it and perhaps for the biography currently being written. I’m very glad that the critical appraisal of Carter’s work is seeing a resurgence and I hope we’ll hear her stories, poems and plays again.

Rosalind Fairclough read Theatre at Dartington, and is a poet, performer and dog walker whose work has been collected into anthologies by Other Poetry and Otley Word Feast Press. She has been a reviewer for Book Time magazine and for the Ilkley Literature Festival, and enjoys reviewing as a way to sharpen her prose. She gains inspiration for her writing while doing the washing up and walking in the Yorkshire countryside. She suspects some of her poems were found growing near footpaths while out and about and is worried the dog may be a better poet than she is, being so much lower to the ground. Her first pamphlet, The Flank of a Fish, is available from Otley Word Feast Press


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