‘Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination’ Exhibition at the British Library

As the oranges and browns of October make way for increasingly chilly and dark November, it seems that these first days of the year’s penultimate month are characterised by the sense of anticlimax which inevitably results from the build-up to that most ‘frightening’ of seasonal holidays, Halloween (either that or the after-effects of one too many at spooky-themed house parties…). Gone are the days when All Hallows’ Eve was purely a Christian observance of remembering the dead: I have to admit that as Halloween 2014 dawned I found myself taken aback – perhaps even more so than in previous years – at the level of noise disseminating from crowds of young trick-or-treaters and penetrating through my windows, at the sheer number of ‘scary make-up’ selfies being uploaded to social media sites, and even at the unexpected excitement my friends and I felt as we completed our own preparations for this year’s Halloween parties.

Although it goes against every sense of comfort and reassurance which one may think our human nature should cause us to seek, the popularity of Halloween in fact makes clear that for some reason or other we can’t help but find a certain thrill in the prospect of being frightened, of feeling the adrenaline course through us as our heartbeat quickens and a shiver runs down our backs. Yet this is by no means a new phenomenon, for long before the modern commercialisation of Halloween arrived on our shores there was another source of terror haunting Britain’s households: Gothic fiction. This most spine-tingling of literary genres has long been one that has deeply fascinated me, and so it is of little surprise that I jumped at the chance to begin my Halloween celebrations prematurely by paying a visit earlier this week to the British Library’s current exhibition, Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination, a thorough and deeply interesting journey through the evolution of Gothic fiction.

Considering that it was a Monday morning in late October, the sunny warmth shining over London not only came as a pleasant and highly unprecedented surprise to me as I emerged from the commuter-laden platforms of St. Pancras (this is English weather we are talking about after all), but also seemed the complete antithesis to the stormy skies and flashes of menacing lightning which one more typically associates with Gothicism and which would have made for an entirely more fitting introduction to my day. However, while the natural atmosphere might not exactly have belonged to a scene from a frightening work of fiction, the same can certainly not be said of that which greeted me as I entered the Library’s Paccar Gallery: I almost felt as though I had been transported inside the eerie depths of Dracula’s castle as I descended the steps leading from the bright and airy Library entrance into a whole other world of black walls, spectral gauze curtains and the reverberating screams of Frankenstein’s Bride and Edward Woodward in The Wicker Man. It was this attention to detail which in my opinion really brought the exhibition to life, transforming it from being merely a series of interesting objects into something much more: an experience.

Comprising of six distinct sections, the exhibition was meticulously and thoroughly arranged as a chronological exploration of how Gothic fiction has developed over the centuries, taking its visitors on what can only be described as a truly informative journey through time, right from the genre’s inauguration with Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto in 1764 all the way up to the continuing prevalence of the Gothic in our modern culture through such means as the Whitby Goth Weekend (celebrated in A Weekend in Whitby) and TV shows like the BBC’s In The Flesh. It was these two extreme ends of the time scale – wonderfully encapsulated in sections respectively entitled Gothic Beginnings and Modern Horrors – which I found to be particularly thought-provoking, as prior to attending the exhibition I had never really thought about how the supernatural elements of some of my favourite Gothic novels were greatly influenced by the sense of the occult and mysticism seen in a number of Shakespeare’s plays (Macbeth, Hamlet, The Tempest and A Midsummer Night’s Dream all spring to mind) and Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene, nor about the 21st century’s revived fascination with this hair-raising genre and all the zombies, werewolves and teen-vampire-romances it entails (yes, I realise the latter is highly debatable, but at least Stephenie Meyer has got young people interested in Gothic literature…), as I had personally always thought of this literary form as belonging exclusively to the 18th and 19th centuries.

Undoubtedly one of the aspects of the exhibition which most excited me as I made my way around the gallery was the wealth of unique and fascinating literary artefacts and information to be found in relation to the Gothic fiction of the early 19th century. For indeed, A Taste for Terror housed all that one could ever wish to know or see about the chilling texts which pervaded this period of literary history, from a host of enlightening facts about Jane Austen’s hilariously intelligent parody of the genre’s conventions, Northanger Abbey (a novel which I absolutely love and which you can read my review of here: https://thereadinglight.wordpress.com/2014/06/29/northanger-abbey-by-jane-austen-read-22414-27414/) to an audio version of a letter written by Lord Byron to his publisher regarding the debated authorship of John Polidori’s The Vampyre, and even Wordsworth’s original handwritten manuscripts of his poetry! Given the almost nerdish degree of my love for all things literature-related, I am sure I do not even need to attempt to put into words the utter delight and child-like giddiness which this latter excited within me, yet I have little doubt that had it not been this particular detail then there would definitely have been some other part of the exhibition which would have provoked the exact same reaction just as quickly. For after all, when one is negotiating the wild Yorkshire moors of Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights and the sinister London streets of Charles Dickens’ Bleak House in Victorian Monstrosity, or dodging the shadows issued by the Decadence and Degeneration of Jack the Ripper, Dr. Jekyll, Mr. Hyde, Dorian Gray and Count Dracula, or facing one’s worst nightmares amidst the Modern Horrors that are epitomised in Hitchcock’s films, how is it possible to feel anything but a terror-induced exhilaration? With this in mind, I cannot recommend Terror and Wonder enough to anybody with even the remotest interest in anything horror-related, and would urge you to make the trip to visit the British Library before the exhibition ends on 20 January. And for those faint-hearted among you, never fear: just remember, it’s only fiction…

By Rebecca.

Link to the Terror and Wonder page on the British Library website: http://www.bl.uk/events/terror-and-wonder–the-gothic-imagination


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One response to “‘Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination’ Exhibition at the British Library

  1. Pingback: Book of the Month – February/March: ‘Frankenstein’ by Mary Shelley | thereadinglight

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