I finally managed to make it to the exhibition Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination at the British Library before it closed. It extended its opening hours during the final week, which was handy for me because I turned up on Monday (the exhibition space is normally open until 8 pm only on Tuesdays) to find the space almost empty. This made it a very pleasant experience to go round.
The exhibition, which opened in 2014, was designed to mark the 250th anniversary of the publication of the first Gothic novel. This was Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto, which made its debut in 1764. The exhibition covers the history of Gothic over the last two and a half centuries, and I found it fascinating. Many of the books on display and much of the information imparted were things I was already familiar with, but plenty of others were not.
In the eighteenth century, Gothic – which encompassed such authors as the aforementioned Walpole (who lived in a Gothic villa in Twickenham, Strawberry Hill), Matthew Lewis (author of The Monk) and Ann Radcliffe (author of The Mysteries of Udolpho) reflected the cultural concerns of the period, with ruined castles and abbeys, upstanding young noblemen, virginal heroines and mad monks. Renewed interest in sixteenth century writers such as Shakespeare and Spenser, and a growing interest in the “Gothic” or medieval past, combined with a growing interest in death and the supernatural led to many novels being set in medieval or Renaissance times, the era between the superstitious past and the dawning of the Age of Enlightenment.
I was excited to see a first edition of The Castle of Otranto, as well as copies of the “Horrid Novels” mentioned in Jane Austen’s satire of the Gothic craze, Northanger Abbey. I hadn’t realised that they really existed, so I left determined to track them down.
The French Revolution inspired more disturbing forms of Gothic literature, and the Romantic era borrowed from Gothic – most particularly in 1816 when the famous stormy night at the Villa Diodati resulted in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Polidori’s The Vampyre. However, in the Victorian era Gothic was largely set in urban areas and in contemporary times – Dickens in particular used Gothic imagery to emphasise the plight of the poor. The later Victorian period saw penny dreadfuls take centre stage, and lurid stories such as The String of Pearls by James Malcolm Rymer (which introduced the character of Sweeney Todd) became popular, as well as the eternal classics Dracula and The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. In the twentieth century, graphic novels, film and TV allowed the genre to develop further, and the exhibition ended with a display of recent photos taken at the Whitby Goth Weekend, which is now entering its third decade.
I loved the exhibition – it was a brilliant exploration of Gothic through the ages and it gave me plenty of ideas of what I would like to read next.