"The Benefits of Watching the Circus Animals Desert: Myth, Yeats and Patriarchy in Angela Carter’s Nights at the Circus" in Metafiction and Metahistory in Contemporary Women’s Writing

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Chapter in a Book

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Angela Carter wrote an essay ‘Notes from the Frontline’ (1983) for a collection entitled Gender and Writing, a relatively short while before one of her most acclaimed novels, Nights at the Circus (1984),1 appeared to the public. While many critics, clued in by some of Carter’s own interviews, have looked to understand Carter’s novel by reading it through The Sadeian Woman, which she had published in 1979, it seems clear to me that Carter, while thinking through her own career as an author in this essay, anticipated the issues she was to take on in the forthcoming novel. In particular, Carter discusses the relationship between her own writing and myths and folklore, conceding that she ‘become[s] mildly irritated… when people… ask me about the “mythic quality” of my work’, since she ‘believer[s] that all myths are products of the human mind and reflect only aspects of material practice’.2 The implication seems to be that while myths purport to a kind of timelessness, they cannot and should not be seen as transcendent of the material conditions of their own creation, and they are dangerous: myths ‘are extraordinary lies designed to make people unfree’.3 In fact, rather than seeing herself as a writer who perpetuates myths by incorporating them in her work, she considers herself to be ’in the demythologizing business’.4