Wednesday 4 February 2015

Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination at The British Library


The British Library exhibition Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination began, appropriately enough, with a descent. After a brief introductory film in which four explorers of diverse Gothic realms (Neil Gaiman, Sarah Waters, Ben Wheatley and Mark Daneilewski) outlined the shadowy territory we were about to stumble blindly into, we walked down a set of stairs and entered a gloomy, crypt-like space. The ‘rooms’ we passed through were separated by draped veils of funereal black which shivered in currents of a spectral wind with no evident point of origin (yes, it was the air conditioning, but let’s not break the mood here). Darkness prevailed. It was all is it should have been; as it was fated to have been.

Surrealist Gothic - Jan Svankmajer's The Castle of Otranto
The first room concerned itself almost exclusively with Horace Walpole, his antecedents, friends and those he went on to influence. He was portrayed as an origin figure for Gothic literature and its subsequent cultural offshoots. Most notably, this was due to his anonymous self-publication in 1764 of the novel The Castle of Otranto, which established many of the staples of Gothic fiction to come: the incursions of the supernatural, the medieval castle with its secret vaults, the revivification of buried histories and ancient curses, the menaced and imperilled heroine and the general air of barely suppressed hysteria. It may be a story seldom read today, but its influence can be felt through its still proliferating lineage. The Czech animator, filmmaker and artist Jan Svankmajer paid homage to it in his short 1979 condensation of the novel, which was shown in the upper entrance room. Period illustrations come to animated life as a book’s pages are riffled by an invisible hand. The framing device for the film has a historian and literary archaeologist claim to have discovered the real Castle of Otranto at Otrhany, near Nachod in the Czech Republic. It is this which Walpole used as the basis for his fictional locale, he claims. As well as suggesting a rediscovery of a half-forgotten text, it’s a clever way of having the Gothic world of imaginary derangement infect and invade what is presented as rational documentary realism. Svankmajer is a contemporary inheritor of the surrealist sensibility, and as such his co-option of the Castle of Otranto is an acknowledgement of the prominence of Walpole and the Gothic in general within the surrealist canon, its curated cabinet of curiosities. A 1765 edition of the novel was displayed in the exhibiton, with Walpole, safely assured of the novel’s success, identifying himself as the author. It now bears the subtitle ‘a Gothic story’. Thus the genre was coined.

The exhibition took care to point out Walpole’s own influences, making it evident that The Castle of Otranto didn’t appear magically formed from a pure and untrammelled imagination. Shakespeare’s ghosts and supernatural beings offer a clearly defined precedent (if such a description is apposite for such immaterial manifestations and half-glimpsed sprites). Walpole’s 1728 copy of The Merchant of Venice was included here, as was Henry Fuseli’s highly dramatic and very physical rendering of the appearance of the ghost of Hamlet’s father in a 1796 engraving. A 1529 edition of Malory’s La Morte d’Arthur and a 1617 edition of Spenser’s Faerie Queene further outlined the appeal of antiquity and of a dream medievalism, a fantasy of the past replete with quests and allegorical stories, strange landscapes inhabited by demons and monsters waiting to devour souls which strayed from the righteous path.

Johann Muntz's print of Strawberry Hill
Walpole’s fashioning of his own private Gothic domain at Strawberry Hill on the winding banks of the Thames below Twickenham from 1747 onwards was an attempt at realising this fantasy world in solid, architectural form. He was thus the progenitor of Gothic revival architecture in addition to recasting it in a new literary form. Some of the original plans for the house’s elaborate Gothicisation were included, serving to emphasise its general air of studied artifice. It was pointed out the Walpole intended his home to be a showpiece from the outset, charging visitors for admission once it was completed. It was a series of theatrical sets which the imagination was prompted to fill with shadowy figures and strange happenings. The spirit of Strawberry Hill, the experience of inhabiting the living dream of a self-created Gothic fantasy, inspired the writing of The Castle of Otranto.

Chatterton by Henry Wallis (1856)
Walpole initially published the novel anonymously, claiming that it was a translation made by one William Marshal of a work originally written by an Italian with the florid name of Onuphrio Muralto and printed in 1529. This may partly have been a device designed to shield him from any adverse reaction to the story’s sensational aspects. But once more, Walpole set the trend for the literary work as ‘discovered’ manuscript. Included here were two of the best known 18th century forgeries: James Macpherson’s ‘translation’ of Fingal, an early Gaelic epic by an ancient poet known as Ossian; and the ‘discovery’ of a number of manuscripts by 15th century Bristolian poet Thomas Rowley by the teenage would-be poet Thomas Chatterton, best known today as an exquisite corpse in Henry Wallis’ Pre-Raphaelite painting of 1856. Chatterton’s doctored manuscripts were on display, pasted into a large scrapbook. The crude attempts to make them appear timeworn and antiquated, with brown staining liberally splashed across the vellum he acquired from the attorney’s office in which he worked, now appear charmingly amateurish. That people were prepared to accept them as genuine is testament to the 18th century intoxication with antiquity, the intense desire to commune with voices from the past.

Walpole's Becket Reliquary
Walpole found fulfilment of this desire through his dedicated antiquarianism. He collected objects from centuries past, both in England and on his journeys through Europe, and filled up every niche and corner of Strawberry Hill with his diverse finds. A particularly beautiful 13th century enamelled reliquary chest dedicated to Thomas Becket was included in the exhibition, housed in a glass cabinet in the middle of the room which enhanced its sacrosanct air. This was an object to be circled and gazed at from all angles, but not touched. A certain distance was maintained, as it would have been for pilgrims centuries ago. It must have been thrilling for Walpole to be able to pick it up whenever the fancy took him, to open the small, hinged lid and peer reverently inside, imagining what it once contained. Alongside the reliquary was a book by his friend George Vertue, a catalogue of the antiquities he drew up whilst staying at Strawberry Hill, opened to show the page on which a colour study of the adjacent object was printed.

John Dee's 'shew stone'
Most intriguing, however, was another artefact which Walpole owned, one which, whilst looking fairly unprepossessing, was imbued with great power and mystery. This was John Dee’s spirit mirror. On loan from the British Museum, it is a smooth, flat disc of polished obsidian, darkly and depthlessly reflective. The accompanying tooled leather case bears a handwritten label by Walpole indicating the nature of its content. Walpole bought the mirror in 1777, and it was used by Dee in the late 16th century. But it originally found its way over to Europe from what is now Mexico, part of the plunder of the Conquistadors in the 1520s and 30s. Dee was obviously aware of its provenance as a mirror for divination and conjuration used by the Mexica priests. Dee himself was a magician, mathmetician, alchemist, cartographer and court astrologer to Queen Elizabeth, all disciplines which were regarded as part of an undivided body of knowledge. A fascinating character, he has proved irresistible to a number of writers and artists, and appears prominently in Derek Jarman’s film Jubilee, John Crowley’s Aegypt sequence of novels, Alan Moore’s Promethea comics, Peter Ackroyd’s The House of Dr Dee, Michael Moorcock’s Gloriana and Gustav Meyrink’s The Angel of the West Window. Dee became acquainted with a young man called Edward Kelley, who claimed to commune with angels. Dee spent an increasing amount of his time attempting to make such a communication himself, with Kelley as intercessory bridge. The black reflecting mirror, or ‘shew stone’, was supposedly given to him by an angel and gave him access (via Kelley) to dimensions normally inaccessible to human vision. Whether or not you give any of this the slightest credence (and the question of whether the stone was ever in Dee’s possession is open to debate) there is a thrill in seeing this myth-infused occult object which such a fascinating historical figure firmly believed opened up higher planes of knowledge and existence, and allowed him to make contact with the beings who possessed and inhabited them.

Edward Young's Night Thoughts illustrated by William Blake
Walpole’s shared schooldays and later acquaintance with Thomas Gray also forges a connection between him and the so-called graveyard poets. This short-lived branch of English poetry, epitomised by Gray’s Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard (1751) and Edward Young’s Night Thoughts (1742), gave expression to the morbid musings of young men who wandered around graveyards contemplating mortality, their own and others. The graveyard became the Gothic locus of a strange, inverted form of romanticism, pale, drawn and half in love with Death. The cold idyll of the graveyard, drained of bright colour save for the odd bunch of fading blooms and the red of the poisonous berries on the yew tree, would provide the trysting place for Mary Godwin and Percy Shelley. They would rendezvous by the grave of Mary’s mother in St Pancras churchyard. Neil Gaimain’s novel The Graveyard Book (which features later in the exhibition) also uses the graveyard as a romantic locale within the fenced and gated bounds of which the tale of a young boy’s growth to maturity takes place.

William Blake's Vala or The Four Zoaz
A 1797 edition of Edward Young’s Night Thoughts was illustrated by William Blake, who wrapped his angels, demons and tormented sleepers around a central pane containing the text. Pages of this book, which was only ever partially published, were on display here. It was a troubled commission, and only a fraction of the watercolours Blake produced as sketches for later engravings finished in final printed form. He retained many of the proofs which remained unused and began writing his own poem in the blank, squared-off spaces intended for Young’s words. The night journey undertaken by the figures he had drawn influenced the dark prophecies and troubled invective in Vala, or The Four Zoas, written shortly after the altercation with a soldier in the Sussex village of Felpham which had almost led to his trial for sedition. Never published in his lifetime, it was rediscovered in 1889, surfacing in a fin-de-siecle period the mood of which suited its intensely expressed visions of doom and apocalyptic fire. The pages exhibited here showed that the Gothic was capable of inspiring and encompassing extraordinary visionary height, and even more profound depths.

Fonthill Abbey - the ultimate Gothic folly
As the Gothic form developed, so it expanded to explore and colonise new areas, testing the boundaries of aesthetic, social and even physical tolerance by pursuing new extremes. There was an architectural model of William Beckford’s Fonthill Abbey on display which has long outlasted the extravagant fantasy for which it served as a template. Fonthill was designed to be the ultimate Gothic dwelling, leaving Strawberry Hill in its extensive shadow in terms of its scale and obsessive detail. It proved a hubristic structure, however, built without the accumulated knowledge of the medieval masons. The gargantuan spire, now a fairly obvious symbol of overweening male ego rather than a physical manifestation of heavenly aspiration, was from the beginning an unstable structure, which collapsed several times. Beckford eventually gave up on his expensive dream and built a structure which, perhaps in wry recognition of the true nature of Fonthill, resembled a folly; the tower which still raises its finger on the hills above Bath. Beckford’s novel Vathek (1786), a copy of which was on display in the exhibition, took the Gothic into the realms of the Arabian Nights fantasy. The ‘exoticism’ that this form afforded, its distance from the norms of Western civilisation and from familiar narratives and settings, allowed for new extremes of cruelty, violence and depravity. Naturally, the notoriety which ensued did nothing to harm the success of the book.

The exhibition notes made the observation that the levels of sex and violence in Gothic novels increased markedly in the wake of the French Revolution and the bloody Terror into which it descended in the 1790s. Matthew Lewis’ The Monk was the prime example offered here, which also throws in a good deal of anti-clericalism for good measure. The horrors of the Inquisition and the Counter-Reformation became another staple of Gothic fiction, memorably featuring in Edgar Allan Poe’s The Pit and the Pendulum (another subject of a Jan Svankmajer film). The figure of the depraved or pitiless monk, a terrifying cowled and faceless presence possessed of unassailable power and authority, took its place amongst the repertory of Gothic characters. The English Reformation cast a long shadow, and Catholic institutions and rituals could still be relied upon to elicit a shudder if cast in a suitably sinister light.

German Gothic novels, which drew on a rich heritage of folklore connected with mountains and dense forests, were renowned (or notorious) for being even more graphic than their English counterparts. They were briefly in fashion towards the end of the 18th century. In Jane Austen’s parody of Gothic literature, Northanger Abbey (1818), the heroine is offered a list of seven novels to read after she has finished Ann Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho and The Italian, or the Confessional of the Black Penitents. Some are German, whilst others ape the Germanic style. They are all, however, perfectly ‘horrid’, she is assured. They have therefore come to be known as the Northanger Horrid Novels, and all turn out to have been real, published works. Austen evidently had in-depth knowledge of contemporary Gothic. Editions of these obscure works were laid open side-by-side in a central display cabinet so that we might glimpse something of their appalling nature. The Castle of Wolfenbach (1793) and The Mysterious Warning (1796), subtitled A German Tale (as the former may as well have been too) were both by the English novelist Eliza Parsons. The Orphan of the Rhine (1798) by Eleanor Sleath was another German tale written by an English writer, whilst Clermont (1798) was by the Irish writer Regina Maria Roche. The Midnight Bell (1798) by Dutch author Francis Latham not only claimed to be ‘A German Story’ in its subtitle, but also to be ‘Founded On Incidents in Real Life’. The final two novels were the genuine article, even if they claimed not to be. The Horrid Mysteries (1796), or ‘A Story From the German Of The Marquis Of Grosse’ was actually a translation of the novel Der Genius by Carl Grosse. The Necromancer or The Tale of the Black Forest (1794) by Ludwig Flammenberg sounds particularly intriguing (and particularly German). Disappointingly, the splendidly named Flammenberg turns out to be another pseudonym, a florid mask for more mundanely monickered Carl Friedrich Kahlert.

Henry Fuseli - The Nightmare (1781)
Henry Fuseli was Swiss rather than German, and a long-term resident of the British Isles. There remained something Germanic about the fantastical, grotesque nature of much of his work, however. In 1781 he painted The Nightmare, a print of which was exhibited here. It remains one of the definitive images of the Gothic imagination, and was hugely popular at the time, reproduced in many subsequent engravings. The demonic imp crouching on the chest of the uncomfortably sprawled, restlessly sleeping woman and the marble-eyed, phantom horse materialising from the shadows have been the subject of much pastiche and parody over the years. This powerfully physical representation of a dream state is viewed with disturbing objectivity from a viewpoint exterior to the dreamer, as if these were real demonic beings inducing night terrors in the unknowing sleeper. The sideways stare of the homunculus, meeting the gaze of the picture’s viewer, makes it feel as if we have come across a scene we should not have borne witness to. It is a tableau of temporary suspension, full of the potential for sudden and very rapid subsequent action. The poster for Ken Russell’s 1986 film Gothic, his and writer Stephen Volk’s version of the events of that famously stormy night at the Villa Diodati (which we’ll come to in a moment), restages The Nightmare for a cinematic tableau.

Theodor von Holst's frontispiece illustration for an 1831 edition of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein
The Nightmare is a bridge into the Romantic era. The exhibition notes suggested that the Romantic artists largely diverged from Gothic themes. However, there were exceptions; manuscripts of Coleridge’s Christabel (a forerunner of Poe’s poetry) and Wordsworth’s The Vale of Esthwaite were included to show that they did sometimes descend into the shadows. And it was from the milieu of the Romantic movement that a work would emerge which would profoundly influence the direction which Gothic would take and form the ground from which new generic hybrids would sprout and flourish. Not the least of these would be science fiction, which Brian Aldiss defines, in Billion/Trillion Year Spree, as being ‘characteristically cast in the Gothic or post-Gothic mode’. The work in question is, of course, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818). Included here was an 1831 edition with illustrations by Theodor von Holst. His depiction of the monster bears a resemblance to William Blake’s The Ghost of a Flea. The title page print depicts with stark simplicity the horror Frankenstein feels towards his creation, and his abandonment of the bewildered newborn man, who sprawls like a loose-limbed puppet in the laboratory.

Shelley’s revised manuscript for the 1831 edition was on display, handwritten on blue paper. Also present was a letter written by Lord Byron, protesting that no impropriety had taken place during that storm-wracked evening at the Villa Diodati on the shores of Lake Geneva where he had played host to Mary Godwin, Percy Shelley, his physician John Polidori and Clair Clairmont, his mistress of the moment. Given his reputation, and such protest was liable merely to stoke further salacious speculation, and he would probably have been better advised to hold his silence. That evening, Byron had been reading ghost stories aloud as the storm rumbled and flashed outside (and German ghost stories at that!) He also read lines from Coleridge’s Christabel, which sent the unhinged Shelley fleeing from the room with a wild shriek. The reading led on to the suggestion that everyone should write their own horror story to complement the fearsome atmosphere of the night beyond. This challenge, instantly mythologised by all parties present, resulted in the first outline of Frankenstein. Mary Godwin (soon to be Shelley), who had already lost a child of her own, and whose mother had died as a result of her own delivery into the world, came up with the idea of the blasphemous birth of a new, monstrous man through the generative, galvanic powers of science; powers which wholly excluded motherhood and female agency.

Frankenstein functions as a gateway into the world of modern Gothic, largely via the numerous cinematic variations which have evolved from the central idea. The clip of Bride of Frankenstein playing on a loop was really our first glimpse of Gothic as the major stylistic component of the horror genre as it developed in the twentieth century. Frankenstein’s creation evolved (or devolved) from the tormented haunter of the wilderness, the self-educated outsider abandoned by his father, into Boris Karloff’s innocent, shambling brute, both pitiful and terrifying. Frankenstein provides us with our first classic horror monster. The novel opens a nocturnal window onto the twentieth century, giving us a brief prospect of the encroaching shadows of Gothic horror whose tendrils would extend into every aspect of popular culture. There was a copy of the 1967 Brunswick LP An Evening With Boris Karloff and his Friends, contained soundtrack clips from the great Universal monster movies introduced by the now elderly actor. Also on display were some of Scott MacGregor’s set designs for the late Hammer film Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell (1974). This served as a self-reflective and melancholic conclusion to the studio’s series of Frankenstein pictures, almost invariably starring Peter Cushing as a particularly amoral Doctor, which had been so central to their output. Along with the Dracula films, they were instrumental in building their reputation as purveyors of quality Gothic to the masses. MacGregor’s designs are sketches for a dream film which could no longer be realised with Hammer’s dwindling resources in the bleak years of the mid-70s. Interestingly, Frankenstein and his creation have been conspicuously absent from recent revivals and revisitations of the Gothic canon. The single shambling monster has been largely supplanted by hordes of shuffling, moaning zombies. Maybe it is time for the creature to rise from the slab once more.

Frankenstein was the progenitor of many literary forms and ideas. But it can also be seen as an endpoint in terms of ‘pure’ Gothic fiction, if indeed there is a beast of such pedigree. Its Romantic sensibility and use of landscapes giddy with sublime terror (alpine peaks and Arctic wildernesses) as exteriorised expressions of interior states mark it apart from the more generic Gothic novel. The spectres of 18th and early 19th century Gothic arose from the historical past (real or fabled). Frankenstein’s monster, on the other hand, is created through the application of scientific rationalism, Henry Frankenstein himself the modern Prometheus who fashion his own relentless Nemesis. And so, we leave the 18th and early 19th century Gothic rooms and pass through the doorway into the period which has surpassed them in terms of furnishing the modern imagination with its ‘classic’ Gothic props – the Victorian age. And naturally, the writer who ushers us into this fogbound, gaslit world is Charles Dickens.

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