The British Library isn’t just a scholarly collection of 14 million books in a building where no one has spoken louder than a whisper for centuries. It also puts on exhibitions that show parts of its holdings in context along with loans from other museums and collections. The current show is Terror and Wonder – the Gothic Imagination which looks at the history of British Gothic literature and shows its influence on other art forms.
Horace Walpole by John Giles Eccardt, 1754 © National Portrait Gallery
It is 250 years since Horace Walpole wrote the first Gothic novel The Castle of Otranto and introduced us to castles, spectres, mistaken identities and the general air of doom that pervades the genre. He wrote the book in eight weeks, having been inspired by a dream in his Gothic folly Strawberry Hill, just visible in the portrait above. HIs personal copy of the novel is on display, as is the only attempt to bring the book to the screen – a version by Czech surrealist Jan Svankmajer. This is 17 mins long but is badly presented as a projection in a hallway. There are no seats and if you stand to watch you are blocking the corridor.
The whole exhibition is displayed in a suitably darkened room. The exhibits are mainly books, though there are some objects including a Thomas Beckett casket owned by Walpole and a miniature travelling library that belonged to Julius Caesar. Not that Julius Caesar, this one.
Some of the inspiration for Gothic’s supernatural goings-on comes from Shakespeare’s witches and ghosts, but it also drew on the later Graveyard Poets such as Thomas Parnell. The writings on the sublime by Edmund Burke also had an influence, particularly the idea that there was a terror at the heart of human appreciation of nature.
Not everyone was enthusiastic about the new genre. Wordsworth condemned gothic as ‘frantic novels, sickly and stupid German tragedies and deluges of idle and extravagant stories in verse.’
The Library has included manuscript pages of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, which shows additions and alterations by her husband. There are also two hard to read letters from Shelley and the early celebrity Lord Byron.
Many Gothic first editions are on display, including Jane Austen’s spoof novel Northanger Abbey and the seven Northanger Horrid Novels – books mentioned in the novel as being the most horrid of the genre…
‘…when you have finished Udolpho, we will read The Italian together; and I have made out a list of ten or twelve more of the same kind for you.”
“Have you, indeed! How glad I am! — What are they all?”
“I will read you their names directly; here they are, in my pocket-book. Castle of Wolfenbach, Clermont, Mysterious Warnings, Necromancer of the Black Forest, Midnight Bell, Orphan of the Rhine, and Horrid Mysteries. Those will last us some time.”
“Yes, pretty well; but are they all horrid, are you sure they are all horrid?”
“Yes, quite sure; for a particular friend of mine, a Miss Andrews, a sweet girl, one of the sweetest creatures in the world, has read every one of them.”
After a thorough grounding in the literary origins of Gothic the show moves on to lurid editions of the Illustrated Police News, film and video. Dracula, Nosferatu and The Hound of the Baskervilles all get a mention. There is even a letter purporting to be from Jack the Ripper.
Gothic is shown to continue today in the modern horror of Clive Barker’s Hellraiser and vampire productions such as Twilight, but the heart of the show is in the historical manuscripts and information. With so many books on display you will be probably be inspired to read something. It might not be how Walpole intended his novel to be read, but I went home and downloaded Otranto to my Kindle. You can get this and many other Gothic novels completely free from Project Gutenburg. You can also download the British Library’s own free Gothic podcast read by Charlie Higson here. Dally not, the show is only on until 20th January.