Carter’s final two novels, Nights at the Circus (1984) and Wise Children (1991), retreat from the savagery that had marked her previous work. The first, set in a fin de siècle traveling circus, was an exuberant fantasia about a winged Cockney trapeze artist meant to represent the “New Woman” of the 20th century; the second was a celebration of music-hall and working-class British culture narrated by a pair of illegitimate chorus girls. Both wear their politics on their sleeves—Fevvers, the heroine of Nights at the Circus , is both a protofeminist and a Bolshevik agent—and both feature strong and principled female characters who seem deliberately crafted to be nothing like “Mrs. Thatcher.” 27 Reviewing Carter’s body of work for The New York Review of Books after her death in 1992, the critic John Bayley infamously accused her novels of succumbing to “political correctness.” In the essay’s most cutting turn of phrase, Bayley wrote that “whatever spirited arabesques and feats of descriptive imagination Carter may perform, she always comes to rest in the right ideological position.” Gordon intelligently contests this claim, pointing out that Carter was always an iconoclast and arguing that to charge her novels with following a party line is ridiculous. But if Carter’s political commitments came into conflict with her literary imagination anywhere, it would be her last two. Fevvers, as well as the Chance sisters in Wise Children , bears no resemblance to the ethereal visions of femininity that Carter loved to puncture. They are vulgar, wisecracking, and cheerfully promiscuous. They eat constantly, swear frequently, and wear off-putting amounts of makeup for shock value. But they are always effortlessly strong and good-hearted; at once loving and autonomous, generous and independent, sensitive and resilient, they are less fully formed characters than idealized expressions of Carter’s hopes for women. 28 “A free woman in an unfree society will be a monster,” Carter wrote in The Sadeian Woman . But the heroines of her late novels are neither victims nor executioners. They transgress the law, but they do not murder. They tell lies, but only innocent ones. They are injured, but never seriously. No matter what happens to them, they pick themselves up and go on, like creatures made of rubber rather than flesh and blood. And thus, despite the novels’ considerable charm, one feels there is something missing from them, as if Carter were telling herself a story she couldn’t entirely believe. 29 Yet if Carter’s heroines remain frustratingly indistinct, it’s hard to blame her too much. In some ways, they are placeholders, reserving a space for the new kind of woman she envisioned was waiting just over the horizon. The Sadeian Woman ends with an extended quotation from Emma Goldman on the “true conception of the relation of the sexes.” A world where both men and women are truly emancipated, Goldman wrote, “will not admit of conqueror and conquered; it knows of but one great thing: to give of one’s self boundlessly, in order to find one’s self richer, deeper, better. That alone can fill the emptiness, and transform the tragedy of woman’s emancipation into joy, limitless joy.” 30 Namara Smith Namara Smith is an editor at N+1 .