For my latest interview, I recently sat down with Rosie Hordon-Clark, a PhD student at Dublin City University whose research focuses on the relationship between Angela Carter’s writing and feminism. In the course of our conversation, we discuss Rosie’s recent trip to the British Library to look through the Angela Carter Papers, her perspective on Carter’s relationship to feminism, and her experiences as a doctoral student.
Caleb Sivyer: When we first met, I believe you were finishing your MA. You’ve since started a PhD focusing on the work of Angela Carter. Could you start by telling me a little about your project? What aspect of Carter’s work are you focusing on and which texts are you working on?
Rosie Hordon-Clark: My PhD project is slightly different to my MA. My Master’s thesis was a socio-literary study which explored issues of Second-Wave feminism, such as marriage, female sexuality, and reproductive rights, and discussed how these, among many others, were addressed within much of Angela Carter’s fiction. For my PhD thesis I aim to uncover to what extent can Angela Carter be fully identified as a feminist; what kind of a feminist was Carter; and what areas of her work are at odds with feminist thought? I will provide a chronological analysis of a selection of Carter’s work spanning her remarkable twenty-five year literary career, including The Magic Toyshop, The Bloody Chamber, The Passion of New Eve, and Wise Children, which also happen to be my favourite works of hers. Thanks to the recent publication of Edmund Gordon’s The Invention of Angela Carter (2016), the thesis will also have a biographical focus which will aid answering the above questions, as I believe much of Carter’s decision making when it came to her writing was highly influenced by personal experience.
CS: We first met at an event organised by the British Library to celebrate the publication of Gordon’s biography. As I recall, he was wary of reading Carter’s writing as feminist since he believed this reduced the richness of her work. Given your thesis topic, I presume you disagree somewhat?
RHC: I like to think of it as healthy academic debate. I completely understand the reasons as to why Gordon and some other critics have taken up this position with regards to Carter’s writing and feminism. When you read someone’s work, it is very easy to get caught up looking specifically at one thing, which leads you to totally overlook another, and Carter’s writing is anything but one-dimensional – there is so much going on in it which deserves consideration. However, personally I read Carter’s work predominantly through a feminist lens because I am so interested in the topic which means I am instantly attracted to anything in fiction which contains feminist elements. To me, the more I read Carter’s work, the more I notice how rich the topics, the characters, the plots are in feminist elements. For me, it’s impossible to ignore. Something I find of significance is a comment Carter made about the importance of the feminist movement to both herself personally and as a writer: “The Women’s movement has been of immense importance to me personally, and I would regard myself as a feminist writer, because I am a feminist in everything else and one can’t compartmentalise these things in one’s life”. To me, this remark lends support to the idea of her writing as a deeply feminist project and does not necessarily reduce the richness.
“[The Bloody Chamber] was the first text I ever read of [Carter’s], and from the outset I was enthralled by her daring characterisation, bright and bold imagination, controversial plot development, and her simply stunning […] prose”.
CS: How did you first come across Carter’s work? What was the first text by her that you read and what were your impressions?
RHC: I first came across Carter’s work during my time at college, where The Bloody Chamber was, thankfully, part of the A-level syllabus. This was the first text I ever read of hers, and from the outset I was enthralled by her daring characterisation, bright and bold imagination, controversial plot development, and her simply stunning and incredibly clever use of prose. The Bloody Chamber was the text which captivated my attention and very easily persuaded me to read her other work, all of which I loved. However, my favourite text remains to this day The Bloody Chamber because I feel I am indebted to this work of fiction for introducing me so wonderfully to such an author. However, this is very closely followed by The Magic Toyshop. It’s tough trying to choose just one favourite!
CS: Have you been to any conferences where you met other Carter scholars? If so, what have your impressions been of the Carter community? Have you presented your work yet, and if so, what feedback have you received?
RHC: As you mentioned, I was fortunate enough to meet you as well as another Carter scholar, Helen Snaith, in person at the event organised by the British Library in November 2016. I have yet to meet other Carter scholars, though I very much hope to later this year at any conferences which may arise. I have, however, talked to several other scholars and avid fans of Carter’s work via your website, Angela Carter Online, all of whom have expressed interest in and support of my work. It is wonderful to be a small part of a very welcoming community. In terms of presenting my own work, I am hoping to give a paper for a research seminar at my institution, Dublin City University, later this year. I look forward to receiving feedback on my work.
CS: You recently returned to the British Library, I believe, to look through some of Carter’s manuscripts and journals. What was this experience like? Has it impacted your research in particular ways?
RHC: I thoroughly enjoyed my time at the British Library. In fact, I plan to visit the archive again later this year, as there is more material I want to consult. It was a surreal experience sat reading through some of Carter’s original manuscripts, albeit quite sad at times in discovering how isolated she felt during the early years of her first marriage, which is documented in some of her journals. I find that archival research aids the originality of your own research. While it’s brilliant having such a wealth of scholarship to refer to, there is so much material in the archives that there are bound to be things that someone has missed, or something that you might interpret somewhat differently to another scholar. It makes your research journey all the more exciting.
“It was a surreal experience sat reading through some of Carter’s original manuscripts, albeit quite sad at times in discovering how isolated she felt during the early years of her first marriage.”
CS: You might not want to talk about this now, but did you find anything useful in the archives for your project?
RHC: Yes, I did. Her early journals were of particular interest to me and I did take a lot from them to elaborate on in my thesis. The journals provided me with insight into her thoughts and feelings which were very helpful for the argument I develop in the first chapter of my thesis. However, as I only spent a short time in London, and as it was my first time there, it all took a bit of getting used to. Now I’m going down for a second time, the process will be so much easier in terms of accessing the journals I wish to look through. I’m also spending slightly longer there than the first time, meaning I will have extra time to get through a lot more, as there is a wealth of things available there. Hopefully, this time I will come away with more even more useful material that I can use for my second chapter.
CS: Which scholarly texts about Carter have influenced you and why? Do you think Carter scholarship has changed much in recent years?
RHC: Since my interest is predominantly in feminism, I am interested in any scholarly work which addresses feminism in relation to Carter’s work. I find Sarah Gamble one of the best in terms of Carter scholarship but also for feminism, since she was the editor of The Routledge Companion to Feminism and Postfeminism (2000). One of the texts I find myself referring to again and again is her book Angela Carter: Writing from the Front Line (1997) because it contains some fantastic close readings of Carter’s fiction, non-fiction, and short stories, all of which give a great deal of insight into how she deliberately subverted a variety of issues including conventional social codes, particularly those surrounding women and their ‘place’ in society of the time. Since Carter is, as Gamble notes, a subversive writer, there has been so much to say about her and her work, meaning that scholarship has continuously evolved, rather than changed.
CS: The last couple of years have seen almost an explosion of works about Carter, from Edmund Gordon’s biography to the recent BBC documentary Angela Carter: Of Wolves and Women. Do you think there are reasons why Carter’s popularity seems to be on the rise? Why might she be relevant today?
RHC: Edmund Gordon’s biography is now probably my favourite piece of Carter scholarship. I find it so interesting and informative, very well researched and written, and will help me develop my own research over the coming years. It is essential for any Carter scholar, or indeed anyone who just loves her work. I also watched Of Wolves and Women, and it’s great to see that her work is gaining popularity. For me, though, the reason behind this is because her work, from the outset, has addressed sensitive and complex issues about all manner of things, particular issues concerning women and feminism. Her writing addresses the issues of rape, domestic violence, sexuality, and pornography to name but a few, all of which come under the broad discussion of feminism. As we have seen over the past few years, feminism is still a very important topic in the world, for both women and men, and it has been endorsed by so many including celebrities like Emma Watson, who fronted the HeForShe gender equality campaign in 2014, and most recently the #Metoo movement in 2017, which campaigned against sexual harassment and sexual assault and was met with success with high-profile celebrities such as Uma Thurman, Gwyneth Paltrow, and Jennifer Lawrence. All of the issues which Carter discusses in some way fit in with things that are still happening in the world now, proving that feminism is still very much needed and could possibly be why her work resonates so much with people today.
“If an ideology that you truly believe in is challenged in some way, especially one like feminism where there has been a great deal of personal investment, it can often feel like a direct attack if another woman is seen to be ‘doing feminism wrong’. I think this was what Angela Carter experienced”.
CS: What do you make of Carter’s own comments about her relationship to feminism? I’m thinking, for example, of her comment that she got into trouble “with the sisters” as she put it over her publication of The Sadeian Woman.
RHC: Even today, feminism remains a very complex topic, and there’s a great deal of confusion around it because it’s gone through, and continues to go through, many shifts, or rebirths, if you like. ‘Feminism’ is often treated as a ‘dirty’ word and terms such as ‘feminazi’ have been created to demonise women’s movements. I’ve spoken to many friends, both male and female, who won’t even entertain the idea of feminism because they don’t understand that in its most basic terms, it is simply a project to bring about equality between the sexes. I suppose that because there is so much confusion around the term, people often just believe what they have been told, and as a result are afraid to say anything other in order to avoid any nasty confrontation. But not Angela! Angela was a self-proclaimed feminist, hence why she uses the phrase ‘with the sisters’, suggesting she felt a sense of belonging within the feminist movement and identified with those involved. The problem is, feminism is not a clean cut ideology. It’s about choice: all human beings are different, all women are different; they have different needs, and therefore inevitably sometimes disagree. If an ideology that you truly believe in is challenged in some way, especially one like feminism where there has been a great deal of personal investment, it can often feel like a direct attack if another woman is seen to be ‘doing feminism wrong’. I think this was what Angela experienced: in saying that a pornographer such as Sade was actually a positive figure for women’s liberation was very unorthodox. To me, it proves the confidence that Angela had in her own beliefs about feminism, emphasising that there is no single right or wrong way to approach it.
“As a PhD student, the progression of your research is ultimately down to you, and so both a good support network and a helpful set of resources are essential.”
CS: As a young scholar, what do you see as the challenges of doctoral research? What resources and support have you found useful so far?
RHC: As a doctoral student, you are very much ‘on your own’, by which I mean you are the only person working on a particular aspect of research, and at times the process can seem both daunting and isolating. As an undergraduate, and even a Master’s student, you have the constant support of your peers with whom you share lectures, seminars, and study groups. As a PhD student, the progression of your research is ultimately down to you, and so both a good support network and a helpful set of resources are essential. I’m so fortunate to have the support of an excellent supervisor, who is there to offer constant guidance, should I need it, but their time is precious and must be distributed evenly. As well as a supportive supervisor, what I also feel is extremely important to a PhD student is communicating with other doctoral candidates, not necessarily with those with the same research interests. It is always a comfort knowing that you have people you can talk to who are going through the same process and who can sympathise and offer help for any challenges you may face. However, I have been fortunate enough to become a member of Angela Carter Online, a group dedicated to the wonderful world of Angela Carter with members who range from avid fans of her work to esteemed scholars, and it is a great feeling knowing there is a friendly and helpful resource directly relevant to the research I am undertaking.
Rosie Hordon-Clark is a second-year PhD student at Dublin City University, Ireland, and whose research focuses on the relationship between Angela Carter and feminism. Her doctoral thesis is informed by a biographical study of Carter’s life, in particular drawing on archival material held at the British Library, and examines the importance of Carter’s work for contemporary debates around feminism. Having been a fan of Carter’s for many years prior to beginning her doctorate, she was delighted when she was able to combine her love for all things Angela Carter with her passionate interest in feminism to form the basis of her PhD research. In her free time, Rosie can be found enjoying the outdoors on a farmyard near her hometown of Sunderland, riding her horse and walking her dog.