The white witch

Commentary - More research degrees are written on Angela Carter than on any other writer.Ilyse Kusne

For prospective postgraduate students all over Britain, spring is a time to bring out the academic begging-bowl and hope that the Arts and Humanities Research Board will give them some more. In 1992, I was a new postgraduate researching a PhD on Angela Carter, who had died, sadly, of cancer earlier that year. I had little idea how popular her work would become, or how ubiquitous its presence would be on future English literature courses. Nobody could have predicted the extraordinary number of research degrees to which her work would give rise. But what exactly is her appeal to scholars and general readers alike?

Carter's work inspired, delighted and sometimes offended with its unflinching confrontation of traditional taboos. Drawing from literature, psychology, politics and popular culture, she offered a satirical, irreverent undressing of patriarchal myths, stripping each one bare until the skeleton of its ideology lay shivering and exposed. As a novelist, she was extraordinarily eclectic. She could portray the most strategically imagined post- apocalyptic societies - as in Heroes and Villains and The Passion of New Eve. But she wasn't above tossing in the odd bit of gratuitous buggery, too.

While her interest in the fantastic led critics to explain her as a "magic realist", Carter's work examined the very unmagical process of misogyny. She took pleasure in dismantling the most virulent female stereotypes - which both idealised and demonised women - while, at the same time, showing that femininity itself was an elaborate masquerade. In The Passion of New Eve, the actress Tristessa de St Ange - Carter's tongue-in-cheek embodiment of the perfect female - is the essence of femininity and romance. Tristessa exists solely as the collective, projected fantasy of others, but is, in fact, a transvestite.

Despite the challenges she posed to patriarchal thought, Carter disturbed many feminists by showing that, wittingly or not, women could act complicitly in their own sexual exploitation. While this knowledge often lends her work a violently erotic edge, she was not a pessimist when it came to theorising about relations between the sexes. Characters such as Fevvers, the lusty, bird-woman and trapeze artist of Carter's penultimate novel, Nights at the Circus (1984), and the identical twins Nora and Dora, the bawdy septuagenarian showgirls of Wise Children (1991), radiate a sense of optimism and possibility.

Carter represented feminism writ large, bristling with irony and wit. For both women and men, her writing represented a celebration of the fluidity of gender roles and sexual identity. Her exploration of the interplay between the sacred and the profane in this domain led the New Socialist magazine to christen her "the high priestess of postgraduate porn". In The Sadeian Woman (1979), a detailed study of the Marquis de Sade's pornographic writings, Carter offers a blistering condemnation of pornography's most damaging and repugnant side; but, more controversially, she also speculates about its revolutionary potential.

"The moral pornographer", Carter reflects, "might use pornography as a critique of current relations between the sexes." Moral pornographers would accept and reproduce in their art "the logic of a world of absolute sexual licence for all the genders".

Carter's popularity rose significantly after the publication, in 1979, of The Bloody Chamber, her feminist rewriting of fairy tales. After her death, however, Carter was perceived in certain respects as an unsung heroine, and a choir of admiration rapidly formed. In her obituary of Carter, Margaret Atwood characterises her as a "fairy godmother", while others canonised her as a benevolent "white witch of English literature", a "wizard", a "spellbinder".

Carter's premature death at the age of 51 confirmed her cult status and, ironically, allowed her to be remade as if in the image of one of her own subversive, fantastical characters. It was, in fact, a process begun by the author herself. As Lorna Sage said in her perceptive biography of Carter, "you cannot, in the end, separate the woman and the writer [ . . . ] Refusing to observe any decorous distinction between art and life", Carter provided others with the material to create a legend from her own life.

As the legend that launched a thousand PhDs, Carter exists as an intriguing counterpoint to other women writers such as Virginia Woolf and Sylvia Plath. Woolf and Plath also sparked a huge academic following, but their respective suicides provided fuel for speculation about their inability to cope with the pressures and expectations of a society that stressed traditional, misogynistic gender roles. Having experienced women's resistance from her position further down the historical line, Carter could laugh at the ridiculousness of such roles, and enjoy their demystification. Unlike Woolf and Plath, in this instance, the real woman behind the sorcerous art went out writing, and that - combined with her sublime, irrepressible talent - might just make Carter herself her most enduring character.