Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination at the British Library

I've been told that using the British Library as a library can be a challenge, never having had to try I can neither confirm or deny that information, but as a tourist destination it's amazing. An English teacher friend persuaded me to visit with her about a decade ago, since when it's become a favourite destination; it has a lot to recommend it. First off it's very convenient for St Pancras (where I get on and off the train) so it's very easy to fit in a quick visit on the way to or from other things. Then it's well supplied with cafés, comfortable places to sit, a peaceful atmosphere, and toilets you don't have to pay to use or queue for ages for. Physical needs met, the permanent (free) exhibition of treasures is very good indeed, and the gift shop is basically a very nice bookshop (what's not to love).

And then there are the exhibitions. This Gothic show is the second I've seen at the BL (the first was the Georgians at the beginning of the year) and it's confirmed that their exhibitions are another thing to love them for. As much as I'd like to see the Rembrandt's at the National the really big blockbuster exhibitions aren't always much fun to look at, mostly because so many other people are trying to look at the same time that it's really hard to see anything very much. 'Terror and Wonder' was by no means empty when I went (about 11am on a Tuesday morning) but quiet enough to really look at things, read about them, listen to the audio clips at various points, go back and look again, and generally take it all in. Consequently I spent a lot longer going round this exhibition than I normally do and feeling like I'd got rather more from it than I might generally expect.

The set up worked for me too, I like the space used for these exhibitions, in this case broken up into a series of rooms partly through the use of floating black muslin curtains (very atmospheric) and the occasional bit of dramatic velvet. The lighting was good, the colour scheme effective (an attractive Strawberry Hill appropriate blue leading into sepulchral black, a nice juicy crimson, and finally a stark white, all of which helped mark different developments in our gothic imagination) and effective film and audio clips.

It all starts with Horace Walpole's 'The Castle of Otranto', the first Gothic novel - though even this has it's roots in a much older tradition (the exhibition draws specific links to Shakespeare, Spencer, and others). It then moves on to the likes of Ann Radcliffe, concerns around the French Revolution, the works of the Minerva Press (my favourite single exhibit may have been the collection of Northanger Horrids - the 7 titles Austen mentions in her Gothic parody) and a look at some aspects of the romantic poets work. After that it's the Victorian take on Gothic with penny dreadfuls, Christmas ghost stories and a move into a more urban contemporary setting - the dark streets of London slums rather than unlikely Italian castles before bringing us up to date with the popularity of the Twilight saga, zombie mash ups, and goth culture.

This is an exhibition with a sense of humour (a vampire slaying kit would be my second favourite exhibit) which does an excellent job of charting our flirtation with the dark side of the imagination and some of the directions in which it's flourished. There's a lot to think about here with the definite bonus that an exhibition based around the contents of a library comes with an obvious (and enjoyable) reading list. Disgorged back into the gift shop there's a whole pile of books for sale to consider so you can really immerse yourself in the experience, in some ways it feels like a continuation of the actual exhibition, as does the view of the St Pancrass hotel as you leave the BL. I really recommend it, tickets are £10 for adults - it was money well spent.


  1. Valancourt Books have reprinted the Northanger Horrids in recent years
    I'd love to see the exhibition, it sounds great.

  2. I'll check those out, though I wonder how readable they'll be. I must admit I failed with The Monk when I tried it some years ago (but I was convalescing at the time so maybe I'd do better with it in a more robust state). It really is a fantastic exhibition Lyn, you would love it! It's worth googling images of it as you'll see a lot of the things exhibited. I think the bit that considered how Victorian writers took Gothic elements and reworked them into urban and suburban horror was particularly good. I hadn't really considered sensation fiction in quite that light before, or Dickens for that matter - though I've always thought of Wilkie Collins as being a bit on the dark side. I'll make a point of going to BL exhibitions from now on, as the 2 I've seen this year have just been brilliant. They certainly send me home with a new enthusiasm for my own books.