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Closer to fiction: a look at the unreliability of autobiographies

How accurately do writers depict themselves? Through researching the life English writer Angela Carter, Edmund Gordon discovered an interesting difference between what biographies and autobiographies can provide.

In this excerpt from The Invention of Angela Carter, Gordon discusses the distinct purposes behind biographies and autobiographies.

The way people look, how they speak, the quality and frequency of their laughter – all these things help shape our understanding of them, for if we invent ourselves, we also invent one another. Writer Angela Carter knew this. In 1969, she wrote: “I feel like Archimedes and have just made what seems to me a profound insight – that one’s personality is not a personal thing at all but an imaginative construct in the eye of the beholder.” Even so, she loathed it when people constructed her in ways that weren’t compatible with how she saw herself. Several witnesses recall the party at which an editor at a national newspaper–a woman who had idealised her as “a New Age role model, an earth mother”–asked her to write something on the summer solstice at Stonehenge. Angela looked “pityingly” at the woman and said: “You just haven’t got me, have you dear?”

Add. 88899/5/17, Angela as a child
Photo provided by the Angela Carter Estate.

But writers continue to be invented and reinvented by their readers, long after their own last words on the matter. As Auden wrote of Yeats’s death: “he became his admirers.” Angela Carter has become hers in ways that have often ignored her wish not to be defined by her roles. Her obituaries demonstrated an impulse towards myth-making and sanctification. They emphasized her gentleness, her wisdom and her “magical” imagination, at the expense of her intellectual sharpness, her taste for violent and disturbing imagery, and her exuberant sensuality. “She had something of the Faerie Queene about her,” wrote the novelist and cultural critic Marina Warner in the Independent, “except that she was never wispy or fey.” That nod towards complexity was rare. In the New York Times, Salman Rushdie identified her straightforwardly with “the Fairy Queen,” adding that “English literature has lost its high sorceress, its benevolent white witch.” In the Sunday Times, her editor and confidante Carmen Callil described her as “the oracle we all consulted,” and her friends as “an enchanted circle.” The novelist Margaret Atwood, writing in the Observer, went even further in flattening this complicated modern writer into the shape of an age-old female archetype: “The amazing thing about her, for me, was that someone who looked so much like the Fairy Godmother…should actually be so much like the Fairy Godmother. She seemed always on the verge of bestowing something – some talisman, some magic token you’d need to get through the dark forest, some verbal formula useful for the opening of charmed doors.”

Sometimes this mythic version of Angela Carter has taken on a life of its own.

During the five years I’ve spent researching Angela Carter’s life, her closest friends have told me things that can’t be true. Fantasy has a habit of corrupting memory. This is something that biographers – who invent their subjects out of various kinds of evidence, including testimony – need to bear in mind. A further consideration in this case has been that Angela lived to an unusual extent (even by the standards of her profession) in her own fantasies. She wasn’t always a reliable witness to her own life. “I do exaggerate, you know…I exaggerate terribly,” she once admonished a friend who she feared had taken her too seriously. “I’m a born fabulist.” But she believed that even the most imaginatively sculpted confession could reveal truths about the confessor’s experience:

Autobiography is closer to fiction than biography. This is true both in method – the processes of memory are very like those of the imagination and the one sometimes gets inextricably mixed up with the other – and also in intention. “Life of” is, or ought to be, history: that is, “the life and times of.” But “my life” ought to be (though rarely is) a clarification of personal experience, in which it is less important (though only tactful) to get the dates right. You read so-and-so’s life of somebody to find out what actually happened to him or her. But so-and-so’s “my life” tells you what so-and-so thought about it all.

I’ve tended to rely on her account when I haven’t encountered anything that obviously undermines it. My guiding principle has been one of the last things she ever wrote: “the really important thing is narrative . . . We travel along the thread of narrative like high-wire artistes. That is our life.”

Featured image: Blur bookcase by Lum3n.com. Public Domain via Pexels.

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