Thursday, 30 October 2014

Terror and Wonder at The British Library

I've never actually been to The British Library before, which seems like a huge oversight for a bibliophile that lives close to London. So to rectify this, me and mum took a trip over to see an exhibition, 'Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination'. The event is Halloween appropriate, but will running until the 20th January, so you have plenty of time to catch it.


The British Library is a fairly unimpressive building from the outside, I was expecting it be old and grand (like the nearby St. Pancras station) but it actually looks like a 1970's fire station, a square building pained a ghastly shade of red.

Unfortunately the library doesn't allow photography in either the exhibition or the main library, so I'm going to have to turn to my old friend google to illustrate my points.

Terror and Wonder is set out chronologically, from 1764 the year in which the first gothic novel was published, Horace Walpole's The Castle of Oranto, right up to contemporary alternative fashion and teenage-vampire fiction, Twilight. 

Early gothic literature in 18th Century Britain was inspired by a renewed interest in Shakespeare and Edmund Spenser. Shakespeare's ghosts (Hamlet) and witches (Macbeth) and the pastoral landscape of Spenser's Faerie Queen   had an impact on Walpole and his contemporaries. Writers and painters were also influenced by the medieval period, castles, knights and damsels all feature in fiction and art of the time, and sparked both Gothicism and Romanticism.

Chivalry, Frank Dicksee
picture source 
What I liked to see was the early adoption and success of female authors of this genre, Ann Radcliffe was an early pioneer. Themes of imprisonment and escape were common, which appealed to women writers and readers, trapped as they were by the constraints of a patriarchal society.

The French Revolution became an inspiration for the more gory novels. The very real fears of the aristocracy, the upheaval of social order and blood in the streets was re-imagined in a supernatural and fantastical way.

During the Victorian era, Gothicism moved from a pastoral, rural landscape to an urban environment. Slums, criminals and the infamous Newgate prison replaced the castles and villainous counts of ealier work. Penny dreadfuls, serialised stories became increasingly popular, and introduced vampires, murderous barbers and seances to the working class. Springheel Jack, was a well received character, developing from a devil-like character, to an anti-hero.

Key authors in this section of the exhibition include Charles Dickens and Wilkie Collins.
Springheel Jack
Picture source 
 We found the exhibition interesting to a degree, there are a number of first editions and original manuscripts from all the big names in Gothic literature; including a first draft of Frankenstein by Mary Shelly, with annotations by her husband. The books are interspersed with paintings that illustrate the novels  or which were influenced by them. There are also a couple of videos of classic horror films, which I thought were comically bad.

The downside of the exhibition is that there is an assumption that the visitors already have some knowledge about the subject. The information could have been expanded on. It would have been good if something could have been included about modern analysis and theories about gothic fiction, for example the rise of  female vampires came during a time when women were gaining more independence.  Or for example, Dracula can be read as a fear of female sexuality, Lucy and Mina represent the whore/virgin dichotomy and Lucy is punished severely for her flirtations. 

Also, whilst I do love books, I admit they can be not the most visually diverse of dynamic items. Just looking at displays of illegible handwriting didn't really do anything for me.

I did enjoy seeing what books I'd read and

Still, I'm glad I went to the exhibition and feel like I cam away with a refreshed knowledge of Gothicism (I did a bit about it in Uni). I think it costs about £9 for an adult ticket, and me and mum spent about an hour and a half there. We could have stayed slightly longer, we had to rush the last bit as we were meeting my sister for lunch.  

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