Sunday, 7 December 2014

The British Library. Terror and Wonder: the Gothic Imagination

Friday 5 December 2014

Euston Road, NW1 2DB

Everyone knows the British Library, but Mary had not visited it before, so she and I went, while Linda was busy with domestic tasks.  We went to the current exhibition, which is about the long history of Gothic literature, and I do warmly commend it to everyone.  You have till 20 January, so get down there!

I did not take any photos, because it is dimly lit and flash photography is not allowed, but I still wanted to write about it, because it is one of the best curated exhibitions I have ever visited, in that it provides a clear and cogent narrative and is also great fun. The few illustrations here are from the BL website. It starts, as British Gothic did, with Hugh Walpole and the Castle of Otranto.  There is a section about other so-called ancient documents (as Walpole claimed his novel was) including Ossian and Chatterton.  We were amazed by a souvenir handkerchief after the death of Chatterton, which suggested that it was Walpole's contempt which made him take his own life.  And then it's on for a brisk outline of the spate of Gothic novels that filled the 18th and early 19th century, starting with the prolific Mrs Radcliffe. There is a lovely case displaying
all the 'Northanger Horrids': the novels which, as Isabella Thorpe assured Catherine Morland, were 'really horrid!

It seemed to Mary and me that these unfortunate middle class girls, kept indoors and only meeting suitable men (if any!) would find horrible tales of dangerous hero/villains particularly alluring.  And while Jane Austen parodied them, the Bronte sisters (there is a bleak picture of Haworth Parsonage in the exhibition) were happy to invent Heathcliff and Rochester, ghosts tapping on windows and demented first wives in the attic.  

It wasn't just novels:  buildings in the 'Gothic' style, and amazing artworks are also recorded here.  'That' picture by Henry Fuselli, which the serial killer Paul Spector has on his laptop in The Fall, is reproduced in the exhibition, together with several other of his works.

The story of the rainy days at the Villa Diodata (where Mary Shelley invented Frankenstein and his monster) is here (with a letter from Byron to his publisher denying that there is anything indelicate about Don Juan) This is one of several places you can don headphones and have the illegible scrawl of some great mind read to you!)

The story then moves, as so much of the population did, into the cities, and Gothic becomes urban, with Jekyll and Hyde, and Jack the Ripper linked firmly to the genre. There were play bills and newspaper articles, including extracts from the Police Gazette, which was a tabloid before tabloids really existed.  Next comes the cinema.  There are brief film loops of 'Bride of Frankenstein' and other Hammer Horrors (the sound of the woman screaming every few seconds can be heard all over the exhibition, which helps the atmosphere) as well as clips from the TV Bleak House and more modern films like The Wicker Man. Mary and I were a bit concerned that school party children were able to watch these X rated clips, but then agreed that they were probably less spooked than we were.

A nod in the direction of Goth fashion, and some discussion of the gothic nature of some superheroes, Batman, Spiderman and so on brought us up to date.

I could go on and on, but I won't.  The only thing I would add is that virtually all of what is in the Exhibition comes from the British Library itself, rather than being borrowed in.  Yes, all these amazing things belong to us!

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