‘I knew how to sell my body and maintain a sense of reality’: Drag King pioneer’s private letter to Angela Carter

‘I knew how to sell my body and maintain a sense of reality’: Drag King pioneer’s private letter to Angela Carter

This story begins with a serendipitous find at the British Library, during a research trip to examine the archives of writer Angela Carter. Carter’s correspondence attests to the friendships and literary connections that she formed during her life. But on that particular trip it was a single letter sent to Carter by performer, activist and Drag King pioneer Diane Torr that caught my attention.

More than just fan mail, Torr’s six-page letter is a powerful narrative of her life, as well as fascinating evidence of how Carter’s work effectively empowered her readers. The letter begins:

I have been composing letters to you in my head since I first read your book ‘The Sadeian Woman’ 2 years ago but now I really have to do it as I leave for England in a week & I was hoping to maybe have the opportunity to meet you. [sic]

Angela Carter’s book The Sadeian Woman and the ideology of pornography.

Dated March 1, 1983, Torr’s letter, sent from Berlin, makes for arresting reading. Torr recounts her life as a temporary office employee struggling to make a living from her real craft, dance, and tells of how she moonlights as a go-go dancer to boost her earnings. What is most striking about the letter is its sense of urgency. Torr’s writing demands that her reader – Carter – bear witness to her life’s fight for recognition. The letter seems to have been written feverishly, in one sitting, with the ink changing colour mid-sentence about halfway through the pages.

Torr tells of how the writer’s 1978 polemic The Sadeian Woman allowed her to reconcile the different aspects of her life: her position of subjugation in the office, her desire to be a performer recognised for her skills, and her nightly transformation into the object of male sexual desire. As Torr states:

By the time I had finished your book, I was really transformed – not exactly a Juliette, but I knew how to sell my body & at the same time how to maintain a sense of my own subjective reality within each strange place I would travel to.

Pornography and the feminist movement

In The Sadeian Woman, Carter uses the pornographic writing of 18th century French nobleman Marquis de Sade as a model to analyse women’s position in society. De Sade was famous for his deeply unsettling portrayal of sexuality, in which men and women would play the role of torturer or victim in intricately elaborate orgies.

In De Sade’s 1791 novel Justine ou les Malheurs de la Vertu (“Justine, or The Misfortunes of Virtue”), Justine, the titular character, is repeatedly subjected to violent rapes and humiliations. Her sister, Juliette, the heroine of the accompanying book Histoire de Juliette, ou les Prospérités du vice (“Juliette, or The Prosperities of Vice”), portrays the obverse of this tale of suffering femininity.

Carter’s polemical analysis of femininity owes much to her reading of psychoanalytical theory. While she depicts Justine as a passive figure equally unable to rebel or embrace the possibility of pleasure, Juliette has her mind bent on maximising her own sexual satisfaction at the expense of others.

As Carter notes, both women are “a description of a type of female behaviour rather than a model of female behaviour”. As a result, her essay doesn’t fully pick a side but reads as an indictment of the myths of femininity, and of women’s participation in patriarchal structures. The book made waves in the feminist movement when it came out, with some critics accusing Carter of privileging aesthetics at the expense of politics, and of falling for de Sade’s trap.

Reading herself as “not exactly a Juliette”, Torr reveals how The Sadeian Woman helped her identify and name her own position, at a time when other authors in the feminist movement only left her with “a sense of hatred & self-ridicule” due to their condemnation of Torr’s participation in the sex trade. She contrasts her experience of discovering Carter with the isolation she felt reading feminists such as Andrea Dworkin, and the essays published for anti-sexual violence movement Take Back the Night, in which pornography was presented as an instrument of patriarchal domination.

From page to stage

Torr goes on to explain to Carter that she eventually turned her go-go dancing experience into a performance, Go-Go Girls Seize Control, before embarking on a European tour. Her shows elicited such violent responses that the tour had to be cancelled, forcing Torr and her co-performers to return to go-go dancing to support themselves financially:

We were back to straight go-go dancing for entertainment. We had attempted to be Justines but we were clearly too tainted for the other good girls so we had to revert to the Juliette roles.

While the tour ended on a bitter note, this is not the tone of Torr’s letter, nor was this her last performance. The rest of Torr’s career, before her passing in 2017, was dedicated to questioning the definition and experience of gender. She went on to found the pioneering Drag King workshop, Man for a Day, based on a collaboration with trans artist Johnny Science.

Torr’s letter is tangible documentation of Carter’s unique position in the feminist movement at the time, seen through the eyes of a woman “on the front line”. While no explicit reference is ever made to Torr in Carter’s writing, it is tantalising to speculate on whether the towering performer figures at the centre of her later novels – aerialist Sophie Fevvers in Nights at the Circus, the twin performers Nora and Dora Chance in Wise Children – could have been created with Torr in mind. Reaching us from the 1980s, the letter enriches our image of Carter’s many connections with the world of the performing arts.