“The Nightmare” by Henry Fuseli (1781). Print made by Thomas Burke (1783).
Given the way in which the Gothic foregrounds bodily sensations (in the eyes of both its devotees and detractors), I’ve decided I’m not pushing the parameters of The Victorian Clinic too far in choosing to review the British Library’s current exhibition on this remarkable genre: Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination, currently in its closing weeks (running to 20 January).
The exhibition – which documents the history of this extraordinarily resilient genre from the mid-1700s to present day – launched in 2014, marking the 250th birthday of Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto (1764), widely considered the first Gothic novel.
“Gothic Beginnings”, the first section of the exhibition, dwells on this seminal text in considerable detail, exploring the ways in which Walpole was inspired by literary stalwarts such as Shakespeare and Spenser and how his passion for the Gothic influenced him more widely, particularly in the design of his extraordinary home, Strawberry Hill House. I was especially pleased to find so much on this Gothic villa (which Walpole opened to the public), given I’d visited for the first time just last year. Strawberry Hill, which is in Twickenham, is now sadly bereft of many of its original objects, so I welcomed the fact the British Library had managed to track down some treasures owned by the author, including a reliquary that was once purported to contain a fragment of Thomas Becket.
Terror and Wonder then looks at early responses to, and reimagingings of, the genre, with a nod to authors such as Ann Radcliffe, Jane Austen, Matthew Lewis, and Mary Shelley. By charting the Romantics’ complex relationship with the Gothic, the exhibition also opens up questions about the genre’s relationship with other literary movements, and its shifts between attaining critical respectability and mass-market appeal – questions which remain pertinent throughout the exhibition.
Unsurprisingly, I was pleased to see that the Victorians held considerable sway here. The exhibition considers how authors such as Charles Dickens, Wilkie Collins and the Brontës were influenced by Gothic conventions, refashioning them to reflect their own personal and political concerns, while also creating their own archetypes, such as shadowy urban slums and the madwoman in the attic. As well as looking at canonical authors, Terror and Wonder also gestures towards manifestations of the Gothic in popular culture, showcasing a selection of penny dreadfuls and pointing towards how characters such as Spring-Heeled Jack influenced later comic book culture.
The fin de siècle also dominates, with the exhibition centring on late Victorian Gothic greats such as The Picture of Dorian Gray, Doctor Jekyll and Mr Hyde and Dracula, as well as considering the ways in which the real-life exploits of Jack the Ripper became entwined with the Gothic tradition.
Given this is the British Library the exhibition inevitably focuses largely on Gothic literature and many of the featured objects are manuscripts and early editions. (Worth a mention is the fact the exhibition brings together the ‘Northanger Horrid Novels’, the seven works of fiction recommended by Gothic aficionado Catherine Morland in Austen’s wonderful parody Northanger Abbey (1818).) Nevertheless, the exhibition repeatedly crosses media. There’s a nod towards Gothic architecture, fashion (from 1800s outfits to Alexander McQueen’s astonishing Dante dress) and painting, including Henry Fuseli’s astonishing works of art, such as his iconic The Nightmare (1781). Most prominently, perhaps, the exhibition also features numerous film clips and sound recordings which help to document the genre’s potent influence on film and television.
Since the exhibition charts later adaptations of early Gothic classics, at times it necessarily breaks free of the restraints imposed by its chronological framework. On occasion, this seems almost seamless, such as when we’re treated to a haunting clip from the BBC’s Bleak House while reading about Dickens’s flirtation with the Gothic. However, at other times it seems more problematic. For instance, visitors might have mixed responses to the fact that Hammer Horror’s revisioning of the Frankenstein myth is discussed immediately after the story of Mary Shelley’s quasi-mythical stay at the Villa Diodati (where she and John Polidori penned their Gothic novels) rather than appearing alongside other allusions to the production company’s considerable output.
The chronological structure seems least satisfactory towards the end of the exhibition, in the section entitled “Modern Horrors”. Rather than the pleasingly languorous journey offered by the early parts of the exhibition, this is more of a hurried whistle-stop tour, which races through works as varied as 70s horror flick The Wicker Man and Sarah Waters’ The Little Stranger, with gestures towards zombies, punk music and young adult fiction (from Lemony Snicket to Twilight). This outpouring seems even more disjointed given the section is also peppered with allusions towards earlier writers such as M.R. James, Henry James and Arthur Conan Doyle, who aren’t dealt with among their contemporaries.
This part of the exhibition threatens to become somewhat unwieldy, and thus it’s refreshing when the visitor emerges into the large, stark white space given over to a series of photographs from the Whitby Goth weekend of April 2014. This room, which will no doubt generate mixed responses to the modern Gothic movement (diverse as it is), enables the visitor to pause and gather together some final thoughts.
Nevertheless, I think that – overall – the ambitious nature of the exhibition should be applauded. Although the Telegraph’s three-star review of the exhibition found it “slightly dry” in places (though “fascinating” in others), I felt that the huge cornucopia of material – a veritable explosion of all things Gothic – helped convey the enormity of the impact of, and appetite for, the genre. Together the text and visual media powerfully illustrate how the conventions of the genre have evolved, in response to socio-cultural phenomena as diverse as the French Revolution and the growth of technology. The exhibition manages to encompass how the Gothic draws on both the sublime and violent, and both physical and psychological horrors. It also charts how Gothic infiltrates spaces as divergent as the home, the city and the countryside.
The exhibition itself also uses space rather masterfully, with its wonderfully labyrinthine layout. Although the gallery is rather large it is divided into different sections, and its black walls help foster a claustrophobic feel, presumably in a nod towards the genre’s interest in themes of entrapment and incarceration. At times it feels like walking through dark streets or a haunted house. The audio-visual material – from screams to hushed exchanges – generate suspense, while the way in which one film clip plays upon a hanging curtain seems like a clever homage to the horror of the veil that dominates Ann Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho. The only thing marring the atmosphere is how crowded the exhibition can become, with other visitors – and their backpacks – jostling for space.
Nevertheless, it seems fitting for an exhibition about a genre with mass-market appeal to draw in the crowds. For me, the enduring and widespread allure of the Gothic is exactly what Terror and Wonder illustrates. In its four-star review, The Guardian builds upon the exhibition’s self-conscious interest in the Gothic imagination, arguing that “beyond the paraphernalia, we are left with the written word and the flickering image, and their effect on our minds. The gothic happens in us”. While the reviewer – Jonathan Jones – rightly emphasises how the exhibition asks questions about the psychological appeal of the Gothic, I think it’s almost impossible to move beyond the objects. The Gothic happens not only in us but around us. To me, the materiality of the exhibition, the physicality of our experience as a visitor, is intrinsic to its message.
Images reproduced with kind permission of The British Library.
“The Nightmare” by Henry Fuseli (1781). Print made by Thomas Burke (1783). On loan from the Trustees of the British Museum.
Spring-Heeled Jack Penny Dreadful No.32. Photography by the British Library Board.
Visiting the exhibition
Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination runs until 20 January 2015 at the British Library.
Price: £10 / £8 and £5 concessions / Free for Under 18s
Opening hours vary.
See www.bl.uk/events/terror-and-wonder–the-gothic-imagination for details.