As the winds of October blew, five classicists set off for the British Library to take its exhibition Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination.
The exhibition covers roughly two centuries of works described as “gothic”, from Horace Walpole’s 1764 novel The Castle of Otranto to contemporary authors like Susan Hill and Sarah Waters. The exhibition is laid out more or less chronologically, with rooms dedicated to the major authors/works in the genre. It begins with Walpole, looking at not only editions and manuscripts of his novel, but also his letters which deal with the various events that may have inspired the novel, as well as various small items attesting to his antiquarian interests.
From Walpole, one moves through the early nineteenth century explosion of gothic literature (including on display of the “seven horrid novels” referenced in Jane Austen’s send-up of the gothic, Northhanger Abbey) to a display dedicated to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. I found particularly effective the way in which the much-mythologized origins of that work were presented. The ghost-story competition in the Villa Diodati at which Shelley came up with the idea for the work is introduced through letters from Percy Shelley and Lord Byron – the latter accompanied by an audio recording of the letter, an extremely effective device that is used to good effect several times throughout the exhibition. This method allows us to see the degree to which the gathering of “outcast” poets and their hangers-on was already becoming legend in its own day, and the difficulty in separating fact from fiction when dealing with the lives of authors.
Moving into the later nineteenth century, the exhibition, with brief forays into the Brontes, Poe, Dickens and Stevenson, focusses on vampire literature with Bram Stoker’s Dracula taking centre stage. Perhaps as a result of the exigencies of preservation, the Dracula exhibit focusses much less on contemporary documents, and more on the reception of the text in the century following its publication. There is, of course, no shortage of such material, but compared to the earlier author-focussed exhibits this seemed to lack focus. One highlight of this collection, however, was a series of paper stage-sets for Dracula created by Edward Gorey – which were in fact on sale in the gift shop, and which at least one member of our party would have bought had his accommodation been more permanent.
The exhibition began to run into trouble as it moved into the twentieth century. The exhibition certainly captured the fragmentation of the genre over the last 100 years – southern gothic, weird tales, and psychological horror stories are all represented, and convincingly argued to partake of the gothic legacy. But there seems little organization or narrative to this section; even the chronological principle is abandoned, with Arthur Machen’s works from the early 20th century coming after those by Susan Hill and Sarah Waters from the early 21st. After this point, the exhibition more or less fizzles out. After a brief mention of zombie literature (whose gothicness was a point of question in our party), we have tiny cabinets of children’s and young adult literature (Goth Girl, Twilight, a copy of Wuthering Heights with a hideously Twilight-esque cover), a brief display of cover art from Goth bands, and then some photos of participants at the annual Goth gathering in Whitby. There is little to no explanation of how and why modern Goth culture emerged, or how it draws on the earlier literature. Indeed, from the twentieth-century material on, the exhibition seemed largely to abandon analysis in favour of simply declaring “this is also a thing.”This was particularly jarring because, prior to this point, the documentation had been excellent.
The labels provided good background information on the works discussed, giving good overviews to those who have not read them without seeming patronizing to those who had. Particularly striking were displays that linked trends in gothic literature to reactions to contemporary events. So, for example, a display of pamphlets on the horrors of the French Reign of Terror was used to discuss how the increasingly bloody revolutions in Europe challenged Enlightenment optimism and focussed the minds of British writers on the darker aspects of the psyche; another display of the media circus that surrounded the Whitechapel Murders and “Jack the Ripper” was linked to the images of urban violence found in Dracula and Doctor Jekyll and Mister Hyde.
Less successful were attempts to integrate film into the exhibition. The various works were often accompanied by posters and indeed clips of film adaptations. While potentially useful for discussing reception, these tended to be under-analysed and ended up largely as distractions. A notable exception to this was one of the first clips, a response to The Castle of Otranto by Czech animator Jan Švankmajer.
The short film jumps between Monty-Python style animated illustrations of the novel and an “interview” with a mad Czech doctor who has concluded that the castle in question is not in Otranto in Italy but in fact in a Czech village of similar name. His bizarre linguistic and archaeological arguments sounded depressingly familiar to an audience of classicists. Also of note was a clip from The Wicker Man, whose chief villain bore a shocking resemblance to one senior member of the classics faculty. . .
One interesting aspect of the exhibition, whether positive or negative, was that, though discussions of individual works were extremely thorough, little was explicitly said about broader patterns. Perhaps most strikingly, no comprehensive definition of “gothic” was attempted. Whether this was a strength or weakness is difficult to say. While it may be partly responsible for the lack of focus toward the end of the exhibition, I think that it was to some degree a strength. Rather than being artificially imposed, an idea of the gothic was permitted to emerge cumulatively and organically from the material itself. On a smaller scale, little was done to trace the shifts in the genre. So, for example, the change in setting of gothic stories from the countryside in the early nineteenth century to the city in its latter half was not remarked upon; nor was there discussion, for example, of the role of women in gothic fiction – where earlier gothic fiction saw women like Ann Radcliffe and Mary Shelley highly influential, for much of the nineteenth century women seem largely to have vanished as authors of gothic fiction, only to reappear strongly in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries as the leading gothic revivalists. On the other hand, the fact that I perceived these trends without their being explicitly mentioned perhaps means that specific mention is unnecessary, as the logic of the exhibition will naturally produce these conclusions.
These concerns aside, the exhibition was highly effective, and stimulated a great deal of reflection on the idea of the gothic, and its broader application. Can Hamlet, Macbeth and Lear be considered gothic? And what about further back? Did the ancients themselves have a “gothic” of their own? Stay tuned. . .