The shape shifter

Sarah Waters pays tribute to Angela Carter, 20 years after her death.

My first encounter with Angela Carter's fiction came in 1984, when I was 18. This was the year that Carter collaborated with Neil Jordan on the film The Company of Wolves. Quite by chance, I caught a radio programme promoting the film and discussing Carter's collection of rewritten fairy tales, The Bloody Chamber, on which it was based. The idea of a book that seemed to mix Perrault and Grimm with Hammer Horror impressed me enormously. On a trip to Cardiff soon after, I went into a bookshop and sought out The Bloody Chamber.

Carter's writing was unlike anything I'd ever come across before: vivid, theatrical, full of daz­zlingly rococo narrative swoops and a startling sexual bluntness. I read every bit of her writing I could lay my hands on. The Passion of New Eve and Heroes and Villains I discovered to be baroque apocalyptic fables, stories of sex change, sorcery, the epic struggle between civilisation and chaos. The Magic Toyshop I read as a Gothic story of adolescent awakening, of pleasure and fear. The Sadeian Woman, a piece of cultural criticism, daringly recast the Marquis de Sade as a clear-sighted analyst of sexual relations, the feminist's "unconscious ally".

Nights at the Circus was published in the autumn of 1984, as I was starting life as an English student, too poor to afford a hardback. I bought the novel the following year and begged the university bookshop to give me the poster that had been sent out as part of the publicity campaign; and I stuck it to my college bedroom wall, as I might have pinned up other iconic 1980s images - the film poster for Betty Blue, or stickers saying "Coal not dole".

I had to wait until 1991 for Carter's next novel, the rambunctious Wise Children. I had no idea that this would be her final work. I did not know that she was already becoming ill. This was years before I ever thought of writing myself and the literary world was a closed and very distant one. I was familiar with a much-reproduced image of her, which showed an appealing-looking, handsome woman with strikingly high cheekbones and white hair, but I had never seen her speak or read from her work. Then, one evening in February 1992, a friend rang me to say that he had just heard on the radio that Carter had died of lung cancer. We were both floored by the news - both, absurdly, as upset as if we'd known her personally.

Our reaction was, I suspect, far from unique. Carter's literary reputation had been relatively slow to build - there had been a surge of popular interest in her work, at exactly the time I'd first heard of her, as a result of the release of Jordan's film - but her audience remained a fiercely devoted one. Her writing had a particular resonance, I think, for women readers. She wrote, always, with a distinctly feminist agenda. Many of her literary preoccupations - the challenging of the canon, the rewriting of fairy tale and myth, the imagining of female utopias and dystopias - lie at the heart of much feminist writing and thought from the 1970s and 1980s. But few other writers had her imagination or literary audacity. Few had her power to unsettle as well as to inspire and console.

Nights at the Circus is her masterpiece; it's also the most engaging and accessible of her fictions. It is a sprawling, garrulous book, a picaresque story of Rabelaisian proportions, with a suitably larger-than-life heroine: Fevvers, the winged Victorian "Cockney Venus", six foot two in her stockings, with a voice like clanging dustbin lids and a face as "broad and oval as a meat dish".

Fevvers's extraordinary life story - given in the form of an interview to a sceptical American journalist, Jack Walser - makes up the novel's substantial first part. After that, Walser signs up alongside Fevvers as a clown and parts two and three transport us, unexpectedly, to imperial Russia, first to the barely controlled mayhem of the St Petersburg circus and then to the dizzying white wastes of Siberia. As the landscape grows more extreme, so Carter pushes at the limits of the novel form itself. By the end of the book, personalities will have been reformed, social and gender dynamics rewritten, by "the radiant shadow of the implausible".

The novel treads an agile path between realism and fantasy. Its historical setting is very specific: the action takes place at the "fag-end" of the 1890s and Fevvers is utterly a woman of her time, a woman who's been painted by Lautrec, had supper with Willy and Colette, been troubled by the psychoanalysts of Vienna and courted by the Prince of Wales. The outrageous name-dropping becomes more sly and more exuberant as the novel proceeds. Carter's pen trips with wonderful breeziness through the western literary canon, offering us echoes of Goethe, Shakespeare, Poe, Swift, Baudelaire, Mozart and Blake; but giving nods, too, to Yeats, Laurel and Hardy, Foucault and Anita Loos. As these flagrant anachronisms hint, Nights at the Circus does not belong to "au­thentic history". It offers, instead, a kind of fantasy history, weaving its stories in and across the gaps, silences and pregnant shadows of recorded fact.

It's a tribute to Carter's skill as a novelist that her characters can inhabit this gloriously artificial universe and yet remain so emotionally compelling and physically convincing. Even Fevvers's feathers convince us. Carter clearly gave them an awful lot of thought. "Really," she once said, in interview, "how very, very inconvenient it would be for a person to have real wings, just how really difficult."

Carter was committed to telling tales of transformation throughout her career. In The Bloody Chamber, women are transformed into beasts, beasts are changed into men, in allegories of power and desire. Like all her fictions, Nights at the Circus has its share of villains and victims, female and male, but the narrative ultimately celebrates liberation, the casting off of myth and mind-forg'd manacles, the discovery of voice, empathy, conscience, the making of a "new kind of music". The novel ends with Fevvers's laughter, with an affirmation of life.

Carter's prose is something to smile at, too. It is a celebration of language and all the marvellous things that language can be made to do. It's this combination of lushness and tremendous optimism that made Nights at the Circus so memorable for so many readers in Margaret Thatcher's Britain in the 1980s; and it's something that renders the novel inspiring right now, in another bleak political era and at a time when so much British fiction seems to affect an affectless style, and to be interested in themes of failure, decay and disappointment.

She was one of the great late 20th-century British writers, producing novels, short stories, journalism and plays that spoke to a shared cultural climate but in a style that was entirely her own. She was also enormously influential. Rereading Nights at the Circus recently, I could see, in a rich and original form, many of the themes and preoccupations that have surfaced in my own work. I could never have written the novels I have without having read the fictions of Angela Carter first. I'm still sorry that I shall never get to meet her, and thank her.

This is an edited extract from Sarah Waters's introduction to a new edition of Angela Carter's "Nights at the Circus" (Vintage, £8.99)

This article first appeared in the 20 February 2012 issue of the New Statesman, How do we stop Iran getting the bomb?