Joseph's Reviews > Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination

Terror and Wonder by Dale Townshend
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it was amazing

Between October 2014 and January 2015, the British Library hosted an exhibition entitled “Terror and Wonder – The Gothic Imagination”. This major event presented around 200 exhibits, tracing the development of the Gothic tradition from its heyday in late 18th Century to its contemporary manifestations.

The exhibition could be seen a vindication of the Gothic. Throughout its history, Gothic literature’s obsession with “the ghostly, the ghastly and the supernatural” had been variously treated with disgust, condemned as immoral and unwholesome, lampooned for its excesses. Here, however, was a leading institution – the British Library, no less – recognising the continued centrality of the Gothic to wider social concerns. Far from being merely a “fringe genre”, elements of its dark sensibilities seeped into more mainstream culture. Indeed, the
“pleasurable terror” of the Gothic was, very often, the vehicle for the expression of society’s anxieties at any given time – whether the shadows of the Revolution in the 18th century, colonial guilt in the late Victorian age or the fear of terminal illness in our secular, scientific age.

This volume was issued by the British Library as a companion the exhibition. It is, however, a much more ambitious publication than a mere “exhibition catalogue”. Dale Townshend, who is also the editor, contributes a preface and an introduction about the various meanings of the term “Gothic”. This is followed by six essays, each by an eminent scholar in the area exploring, in a more or less choronological order, the various expressions of this dark tradition. Although the essays are academic in approach, they are highly engaging, even to the general reader.

The first chapter, by Nick Groom, is one of the most challenging since it tries to tease out the different influences and philosophies, some of them wildly contradictory, which set the scene for the birth of the Gothic, represented (for want of a more symbolic watershed) by the publication of Horace Walpole’s 1764 The Castle of Otranto, widely regarded as the first Gothic novel.

In the ensuing essay, Angela Wright discusses the flowering of the genre in works of subsequent authors (mostly, and significantly, women). These include Ann Radcliffe , Reeve Clara 1729-1807, the notorious Matthew "Monk" Lewis and, last but not least, Mary Shelley who, in Frankenstein created one of the most enduring Gothic characters ever.

Alexandra Warwick then considers how the Industrial Revolution and the rapidly growing cities of the 19th Century – with their associated social problems – led to the development of a different sort of Gothic, no longer set in a medieval (and often darkly Catholic) past but, rather, in poky urban dwellings and foggy city streets. Dickens’ Bleak House is perhaps one of the best examples of this genre – its title itself an indication of what we should expect of it. Warwick however draws a further interesting link between the Gothic and the new Victorian genre of “sensation fiction” exemplified by Wilkie Collins and Mary Braddon. Supernatural terrors are replaced by domestic ones – what is retained is the Gothic’s ability of using shock tactics to undermine bourgeois social norms.

In a chapter entitled Gothic and Victorian fin de siecle 1880-1900, Andrew Smith notes that the sense of decadence and the prevailing apocalyptic mood fed into the weird fiction of the time, which very often expresses a fascination with “body horror”, physical degeneration and the fluid demarcation between man and beast (Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray and H.G. Wells' The Island of Dr. Moreau are cases in point).

Lucie Armitt contributes an overview of the Gothic in the 20th Century, especially its expression in new art forms (particularly film) whilst Catherine Spooner brings this survey up to date with a chapter on the seemingly new flowering of the genre in the 21st Century.

One of Spooner’s interesting observations is that one of the earliest and most central Gothic tropes – the “book” as artefact – has once again become particularly relevant in a digital age where the physical book feels under threat. It is therefore particularly appropriate that this volume itself invites us to treat it as an artefact. Generously and gloriously illustrated, its plates are essential to the enjoyment and understanding of the text. This is most evident in the concluding section of each chapter, entitled “From the Crypt”, in which curators of the exhibition choose and discuss a particular exhibit. The book itself concludes with a photo-essay by Martin Parr portraying a Goth gathering at Whitby.

The Gothic is generally held to be a peculiarly British literary phenomenon and this volume, mirroring the Exhibition, more or less retains this British perspective, even though, since the Romantic Era, similar concerns were also expressed in Continental literature. Otherwise, the book is very comprehensive and takes a multi-disciplinary approach. Thus, in the first chapters, architecture plays a major role (not surprising giving the genre’s obsession with space and setting), whereas the final two chapters address the manifestation of the Gothic in fields and media as diverse as fashion, film and popular music.

This book is a must not only for all fans of the Gothic, but also for anybody interested in the cultural history of the past couple of centuries.
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Reading Progress

July 7, 2016 – Shelved
July 7, 2016 – Shelved as: to-read
August 2, 2016 – Started Reading
August 2, 2016 –
page 53
August 6, 2016 –
page 108
August 7, 2016 – Finished Reading

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