‘The Alchemy of the Word’ and ‘Notes on the Gothic Mode’ by Angela Carter


Throughout her career as a novelist, Angela Carter wrote journalism. After a brief spell at the Croydon Advertiser when she left school, Carter’s first ‘serious’ journalism began in 1967 for New Society magazine.

Whether her subject is food or fashion, literature or art, the writing carries Carter’s recognisable voice: gutsy, dynamic, often satirical, always thoughtful. Each subject is examined from new angles, unpacked and deconstructed – an approach we can recognise in Carter’s fiction, such as the short story collection The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories, a retelling of traditional fairy tales.

Carter’s journalism is published in Nothing Sacred (1982), Expletives Deleted (1992) and Shaking a Leg: Collected Journalism and Writings (1997).

‘The Alchemy of the Word’

Like her friend and contemporary J G Ballard, Carter was fascinated by the French Surrealists in her early career. In 1978 she wrote an essay on Surrealism titled ‘The Alchemy of the Word’ for the magazine Harper’s & Queen.

‘Surrealism celebrated wonder, the capacity for seeing the world as it is for the first time’, Carter writes. The essay highlights Carter’s meticulous research and knowledge, offering the reader a condensed history of Surrealism that sketches out the movement’s principles and influences.

It is only at the end of the essay that Carter offers a more personal take on the Surrealists. She describes how she ultimately ‘had to give them up’ because she found their gender politics dissatisfying and constricting:

They were, with a few patronised exceptions, all men and they told that I was the source of all mystery, beauty, and otherness, because I was a woman – and I knew that was not true. I knew I wanted my fair share of the imagination, too. Not an excessive amount, mind; I wasn’t greedy. Just an equal share in the right to vision.

The thrill that Carter first experienced has not altogether disappeared, however. It flares up, like when she recalls ‘the most important of all surrealist principles: “The marvellous alone is beautiful”’ – a principle that Carter surely upholds in her own fiction.

‘Notes on the Gothic Mode’

Carter wrote ‘Notes on the Gothic Mode’ in 1975. It addresses the categorisation of her early work as ‘Gothic’, and her deliberate attempt to create a Gothic novel with Heroes and Villains. The ‘non-naturalistic formula’ of the ‘Gothic mode’, Carter writes, provided ‘a wonderful sense of freedom’.

Further on, Carter defines her current ambitions as a writer in relation to the Gothic. Arguing that all art is political, Carter characterises the Gothic as a radical genre. She, ‘believe[s] that a fiction absolutely self-conscious of itself as a different form of human experience than reality (that is, not a logbook of events) can help to transform reality itself.’ Unlike naturalism – which, in Carter’s view, tends to affirm the status quo – the Gothic offers imagined alternatives. It draws no moral lessons but has a single moral function: ‘provoking unease’. It also never commits ‘the greatest crime against the human spirit’ – to be boring. Quoting the Marquis de Sade, Carter concludes by declaring that she aspires to ‘“the perpetual immoral subversion of the established order”’.

The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories was published four years later in 1979.

Full title:
Angela Carter Papers: Articles, etc
1978, c. 1975; whole volume 1964–92
Periodical / Manuscript / Draft
Angela Carter, Harper's & Queen
Usage terms

© Displayed with the permission of the Estate of Angela Carter c/o Rogers, Coleridge & White Ltd., 20 Powis Mews, London W11 1JN. Angela Carter’s work is published in the UK by Vintage, Virago, Penguin Classics. You may not reuse the material for commercial purposes.

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Add MS 88899/1/65

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