Sunday, October 05, 2014

Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination

I can feel diffident posting about exhibitions that some of you might not be able to visit like Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination, which has just opened at the British Library. Fortunately, the British Library, in partnership with BBC 2 and BBC 4, will be celebrating all things Gothic this autumn with a series of exciting programmes exploring the literature, art, architecture and music – not to mention the famous people associated with the Gothic over the last 250 years. So, dear reader, you won’t be losing out.

At the preview, the curator Tim Pye defined the essentials for a Gothic novel: a dark medieval castle, terrifying spectres, mistaken identities, battling knights and a general air of doom. One could also add moonlight seen through clouds, bats, ivy and owls.

  1. Tintern Abbey
The above picture of Tintern Abbey from 1812, shows a gentleman and a lady visiting the ruined abbey at night. Naturally, there is ivy, a full moon (and clouds) to add to the frisson of terror. Note the servants holding up flares to cast shadows and enhance the Gothic experience.

The exhibition opens with Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto (1764), the first Gothic novel. I enjoyed the lively Czech cartoon film of the novel, done as a magic lantern show – very atmospheric, and full of what Walpole called ‘gloomth’. And there are a couple of painted prints of ruined abbeys, designed to be back lit by candles flickering behind the Gothic windows.

 2.  Castle of Otranto

A spate of Gothic novels followed in the 1780-90s, the most famous of which was Ann Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho. Mrs Radcliffe was a skilled writer and the book gave the genre literary respectability. The exhibition also has a case containing all seven of the ‘Northanger Horrids’ which Isabella Thorpe recommended to Catherine Morland in Northanger Abbey, published by the Minerva Press with creepy titles like The Castle of Wolfenbach (1794) by Eliza Parsons, and The Necromancer (1794) by Carl Friedrich  Kahlert.  

3. Nathaniel Grogan The Mysteries of Udolpho

Interestingly, perhaps as a result of the French Revolution, the genre began to change, the first of many transformations in its 250 year history. Tim Pye suggested that the French Revolution was so frightening in its own right that the Gothic novel had to up its game: you can’t have reality being more blood-curdling than the Gothic novels specifically written to terrify.

The genre moved from spectres in ruined castles to monsters in human form; for example, Frankenstein’s monster in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818), and later, Dr Polidori’s The Vampyre, inspired by Lord Byron’s fragment written whilst they were all staying at the Villa Diodati on the shores of Lake Leman in the Alps. Now the monstrous came in human form and, worse, the vampire could be someone one knew – in disguise.

4. Frankenstein

There is also a terrific clip from the 1935 film The Bride of Frankenstein with Boris Karloff and Elsa Lanchester. Her screams (at about three minute intervals) pierce the air as you go round the exhibition.

The exhibit which probably attracted the most press attention was the mid-Victorian Vampire Hunting Kit borrowed from the Royal Armouries. One can only speculate as to why they own such a thing – unholy disturbances in the Bloody Tower, perhaps?

The handsome box contains everything a respectable vampire-hunter could possibly want: wooden mallet and stakes, crucifix, rosary, Book of Common Prayer, bottles of Holy Water, crushed garlic, a pistol, an iron mould for making bullets, and some bullets.

5: Vampire Hunting Kit. 

I cannot resist ending with a splendid poster from 1890 of the decidedly Gothic melodrama Manhood. It has all the elements of a Gothic play: noble hero with clinging heroine, Gothic ruins, moonlight, ivy, bats, an owl, a graveyard, and a man with a gun, loaded one presumes with a silver bullet, who has just shot another man – probably a vampire in disguise.

6: Manhood poster.

I’m looking forward to the BBC programmes.

Elizabeth Hawksley

The British Library exhibition, Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination runs from 3 October, 2014 to 20 January, 2015.

1.  Tintern Abbey, 1812, courtesy of the British Library Board
2.  Watercolour of The Castle of Otranto from Walpole’s personal copy of the book, courtesy of the British Library
3.  'Lady Blanche crosses the ravine’ from The Mysteries of Udolpho by Nathaniel Grogan, late 1790s, courtesy of the National Gallery of Ireland
4.  Frankenstein’s monster from the first edition of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein or The Modern Prometheus, courtesy of the British Library
5.  Vampire Hunting Kit, courtesy of the Royal Armouries
6.  1890 theatre poster for Manhood, performed at the Elephant and Castle Theatre, courtesy of the British Library Board


Fenella J Miller said...

Interesting post -I wish I could visit the exhibition but don't get to London much nowadays. My next novel is a ghost story - so a bit Gothic, I suppose.

Unknown said...

A ghost story definitely counts as Gothic, I think. The exhibition also covers the 1930s haunting of Borley Rectory, for example. I hope you will keep an eye out for the BBC programmes

Amanda said...

Wonderful post, Elizabeth. I'm looking forward to the BBC programme, too. Do you know when it's on?

Elizabeth Hawksley said...

So far, all they say is, 'this autumn'. But they add that 'A host of famous literary faces will look back on Frankenstein's creation in 'A Dark and Stormy Night When Horror Was Born.' And there will be programmes with Andrew Graham-Dixon looking at Victorian Gothic-inspired art and architecture; Dr Jamira Ramirez on Perpendicular Gothic, and Dan Cruikshamk on Victorian Gothic; not to mention Goth at the BBC with 'classic performances' from the likes of Souxsie and the Banshees, etc.

Hope that helps. Doubtless they'll be promoting it beforehand pretty heavily. And I'm sure they'll include items from the British Library exhibition. After all, one doesn't often get the chance to see a genuine Vampire Hunting Kit!