Recent MA English graduate Sophie Raine tells us about Spectral Visions’ trip to the British Library for the Terror and Wonder exhibition.
When the exhibition ‘Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination’ came to London this October, we knew that this was not an opportunity to be missed! The exhibition boasted of over 200 rare objects traced back to 250 years of Gothic history so it was decided that in the last week of November we should all go and marvel at their monstrous wares.
We arrived to find that it most certainly did not disappoint and in fact reaffirmed everything that we love about the Gothic and excited that morbid curiosity that exists within all us all. It would be fair to say that we were like excitable children in a sweetshop but instead of children we were adults and instead of sweets there were… well, vampires, dopplegangers and a whole consort of monsters.
What was particularly special about this exhibiton is that it has something for everyone, no matter what your specialist interest is within Gothic as, with its vast time span, it caters to everyone. If we take the vampire for example, it covers every stage of the metamorphosis of the vampire that has occurred over centuries from the monstrous degenerate Dracula to more sexualised vampires once we move into sensation fiction.
It was interesting to see original copies of the texts including The Monk by Matthew Lewis, which included the writer’s own editing from when he was instructed to remove passages from the text that readers would find upsetting with his notes attached. This seemed to really bring everything to life in the way that we can see a reflection of the society through their use of censorship. Interestingly enough, this copy of The Monk was near some propaganda pamphlets cautioning impressionable women from reading these sexual and scandalous tales.
And now, onto my favourite section… sensation fiction! Here, I rekindled my love of all that is so terribly bad. The plethora of penny dreadfuls, shilling shockers and bad vampire rip-offs is enough to make any Gothicist weak at the knees. I perhaps got a bit too carried away when I squealed at Dr Alison Younger upon seeing a copy of A String of Pearls, only to get scolded by a man at the exhibition. We initially thought he was a member of staff, but it turned out he was just a fun vampire, sucking all of the joy of true Gothic passion.
Alison, in true Alison style, defended me with a glare which was (as another gentleman put it) ‘the most Gothic thing seen all day’. Said gentleman later explained to us that he had been following us around the exhibition, as he’d been learning so much from our micro-lectures at regular intervals. With our honourary Visionary in tow and feeling validated by my excitement, we continued on with the same amount of enthusiasm as we had done previously.
Sensation fiction was definitely the pinnacle of this exhibition in my opinion, as it gave such an insight as to the people that consumed these penny dreadfuls and how they were marketed to please their audiences. Amongst this wondrous collection we found a copy of Varney the Vampire and Spring-heeled Jack with different covers that alternated depending on the current trend in Gothic.
So whatever it is you’re currently doing, whatever plans you have made I urge you to drop everything and go see this exhibition whilst it is still here! Where else will you see original advertisements for Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, a script for the Dracula play or a vampire-slaying kit? With a collection that is as exciting as it is informative, it is clear the amount of effort and passion that has gone into putting together the exhibit that has covered so much of Gothic Literary history. I would recommend taking the entire afternoon to get around the exhibition due to the sheer quantity of items on display.
This exhibition truly reaffirms all that is worth being excited about in Gothic Literature and how this love of all that is dark and deadly has resurfaced and been reborn into every era, adapting to every taste and trend over the past 200 years. Yes, ‘Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination’ confirms that the monster will always return.