Sunday, 19 October 2014

Review: Terror and wonder: the Gothic Imagination at British Library

This week I was lucky to have work stuff in London, so I had a spare afternoon to visit 'Terror and Wonder: the Gothic Imagination' at the British Library. Bearing in mind that this is a library, not a museum, and the majority of the exhibits are books, you might be forgiven for expecting it to be a bit unchallenging. About four minutes in, I thought so too, then two hours later I was still there, poring over the exhibits.

The exhibition begins with the Castle of Otranto, by Walpole, the original British Gothic Novel written in the 18th Century, and works its way through the Romantics, the influence of Gothic on Jane Austen, the Brontes, Victorian sensationalism, Dickens and Robert Louis Stevenson, Dracula and the history of vampires, Hammer Horror and modern gothic, and finishes with an exhibition of photos by Martin Parr, of Goth Weekend in Whitby, 2014.

I was totally blown away by seeing original manuscripts of Frankenstein and Jane Eyre. Seeing them in their handwritten state is akin to looking at the innards of a bomb, as one suddenly realises what a massive effect such a small, fragile-looking thing may have when it explodes into being. Shelley was only 19 when she wrote Frankenstein, and it is chaotic and scribbled, with Percy Shelley's nerdy, pedantic handwriting in the margin, like the annoying boyfriend who thinks he knows better. Frankenstein is a book about technology and about nightmares, and was written when both the horrors and wonders of the industrial revolution were steaming into full gear. Looking at the manuscript, I felt a moment of unease, a lurching sideways like the deck of an unsteady ship, and I thought, what an upending of the old order, what a moment of terror, that nineteen-year-old girls might be let loose to document our fears and dreams, and set down the ghosts of the future, and all the the things that frighten us. I have seen all the usual things and images that anyone in the 21st century has, but I honestly can't remember seeing anything more transgressive than those scribbles by Shelley and the Brontes, scraped away with a quill pen, in candlelight and darkness.

I was less fascinated by Dickens but it is interesting to be reminded that what now seems like cosy old-worldy Victorianism was actually written with the intention of revealing injustices and horrific poverty, and that he faced complaints and lawsuits because of it. Also, as the exhibition points out, how the background of gothic changed from one of rural horror to a very urban one. I was startled to find links between things that I was familiar with, but hadn't connected: that the play or Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde premiered at the theatre at the exact time that the Ripper murders were happening, and that the manager of said theatre was Mr Bram Stoker, author of Dracula. 

Some lovely non-book items from the 20th century included costume and set design from theatre and horror movies, as well as a brief section detailing the rise of modern 'goth'. Martin Parr's photographs give their subjects dignity without concealing any flaws or oddities, and the homemade outfits portrayed are far more interesting than the one underwhelming dress by Alexander McQueen.

There was actually a huge amount to take in and think about, but what I particularly liked was that there was no attempt to dumb down a whistlestop tour of the subject, which nonetheless only touched on half the material it could. The subject is dealt with chronologically, not thematically, so you can see how the genre developed and changed as it went on, but that it keeps being rolled around to deal with the same issues – deep-seated unease around change, cultural identity, sexuality, and social conflict, that it first did right at the start of the industrial revolution. Also how, as a form of art often dismissed as 'trashy' – suitable for impressionable females and excitable poor people – it has consistently dealt with the big questions in society, like gender and sex, technology and colonialism, in the way that 'respectable' literature has not.

I really feel that the British Library should congratulate itself on this exhibition. It's like the kind of public communications that fell out of fashion a few decades ago, when somebody very intelligent and expert just explains something they know a hell of a lot about, with some fabulous and fragile objects, but no CGI. It made my brain hurt, in the best possible way. Also, I now have a reading list as long as my arm.

Finally, to go off at a tangent, if you think all this is only interesting in a historical, literary, intellectual sense, I have to point out you're wrong. Why? I'll tell you a story. Like a proper gothic story, it starts with a country bumpkin (me) who gets lost somewhere alien and terrifying (London underground). At night, obviously. I passed through Westminster, where the bomb blast doors protect the politicians, and up from the Jubilee Line, which looks like something designed for the set of Aliens. I ended up at Blackfriars, under the foot of the shard, where the cranes still worked at ten at night, and a human feels ant-sized, and the City squats like the operating headquarters of some alien invaders, over an older, more human-sized version of London. And then another station, I'd lost track of names by then, brand new and brutally designed in concrete and lit by a violent blue light. Why? Why has someone made these things like this? I am not an especially anxious person in foreign environments, but these places made me afraid. Because somebody made up a nightmare, then built it. These things are not frightening by accident, but because someone designed fear right into it. 

Humans are one big mush of fear and wonder, really, and we don't like to admit to it. But if you are able to recognise the shapes and tropes of it - and give those things names - then you will better see the strings and ropes of it. And remember that monsters always, have a weakness. 



  1. Sounds very cool! When does it run until? I may get across to London again one of these days, weeks, months...

  2. Jan 20: and it's every bit as good (and more!) as described above!