Stephanie Gallon interviewed Dr Dale Townshend. Dr Townshend is a Senior Lecturer of English at the University of Stirling and the director of the renowned MLitt The Gothic Imagination. He also worked in collaboration with the British Library for an exhibit on the Gothic. His published works include: Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination and Ann Radcliffe, Romanticism and the Gothic.
Q: You recently teamed up with the British Library to celebrate 250 years of the Gothic with an exhibit. What was the aim of the exhibit?
Yes, indeed. Over the past 2 years or more, I have been working with Tim Pye, Tanya Kirk and Greg Buzwell, all of the British Library, on a major exhibition entitled Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination. The aims of the exhibition are numerous. First, we wished to tell the ‘story’ of the Gothic aesthetic, its developments and its changes across time, from the eighteenth century through to the present day, to a general, non-academic audience, thus seeking to capitalise on the considerable cultural interest that the Gothic garners in our times. In doing this, we also sought to showcase some of the British Library’s extraordinary Gothic holdings, from letters and manuscripts of Gothic import, to images, sounds and editions of rare Gothic works. A large part of this endeavour sought to acknowledge, and commemorate, the 250th anniversary of the publication of Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto in late 1764, this marking the formal ‘advent’, in fiction at least, of what has turned out to be British culture’s long-term love-affair with all things dark and spectral. By strange coincidence, the year 2014 also marked the 250th anniversary of the birth of Ann Radcliffe, undoubtedly the most influential writer of Gothic romance in late eighteenth-century culture; consequently, there is much in the exhibition that serves as an ‘homage’ to ‘the Great Enchantress’ Though much of the exhibition, in keeping with its host institution, celebrates the distinctly British nature of much Gothic writing, we were also keen to showcase some of the important Gothic texts, films and writers from other national traditions.
Q: How do you think Gothic has remained popular and relevant for 250 years?
This is a difficult question to answer, but critics often link the return of the Gothic in any given historical context to a sense of economic and political decline. By this way of reasoning, Gothic returns perennially because it has a lot of cultural work to do, registering and articulating moments of cultural and historical crisis or anxiety. But there’s also the often overlooked matter of sheer entertainment-value: Gothic is, and always has been, so popular because of the type of singular entertainment that it offers its readers of audiences, the shock of horror or the thrill of terror that remains particular to the mode. On the other hand, the answer might be a lot more prosaic than this: Gothic is so popular because it is a mode that never fails to sell. Perhaps the issue remains, fundamentally, one of pure economics. Still, it’s nice to think that there is something a lot more significant about its relevance and popularity than that. Perhaps our task as critics is to show precisely how and why this is so.
Q: What was your favourite part of the exhibit to research?
Being deeply interested in the eighteenth-century, I thoroughly enjoyed working in the early parts of the exhibition – that is, those portions that tell the story of the Gothic from Horace Walpole through to the 1820s, though reaching back, where relevant, to Shakespeare and other earlier eighteenth-century figures. The Victorian material, too, I found fascinating, particularly the rare penny dreadfuls that the exhibition has on display.
Q: Which part of the exhibit do you think is the most interesting to the general public and why?
I would guess, though it’s hard to say, that the modern material – that is, the twentieth century and beyond – is the most fascinating to many people, if only because this is the material with which they might already be most familiar. I think it’s important to access viewers at the point of absolute familiarity, and once you have done this, to lead them back down an historical line of reasoning that shows the point of origin for some of the most familiar Gothic tropes and figures. To my mind, this is precisely what the exhibition succeeds in doing. Though most viewers are familiar with such iconic Gothic figures as Bela Lugosi’s Dracula or Boris Karloff’s Frankenstein’s Creature, fewer, I think, would be au fait with, say, earlier, Romantic and Victorian manifestations of the vampire figure, or even with the extraordinary textuality of Mary Shelley’s novel itself. So, perhaps the more modern material provides visitors with a point of access to a Gothic history that, in the end, proves to be more complex and more intriguing than they had initially imagined.
Q: Your main research field is Romantic Gothic. Can you give us a brief summary of what Romantic Gothic is and what makes it different to other forms of the Gothic?
By the phrase ‘Romantic Gothic’ I mean, simply, various forms of Gothic textuality that were produced in what we now think of as the ‘Romantic’ period in Britain, that is, roughly from the 1760s to the 1830s. But more particularly, I am interested in the ways in which the cherished distinctions between the ‘Romantic’ and the ‘Gothic’ often appear to be unsustainable. In other words, despite the extent to which they have structured literary history since the mid nineteenth century, the terms ‘Romanticism’ and the ‘Gothic’ often reveal themselves to be literary-critical fictions that are based on little more than the ‘Romantic’ poets’ disavowals of the Gothic, and, as such, terms that repress or deny the extent to which ‘Romantic’ poets themselves often experimented and engaged with the aesthetic mode that we would now designate as ‘Gothic’. For early nineteenth-century poets themselves, it has to be said, the term ‘Gothic’ would have meant a range of other things that are quite remote from current literary-critical usages – Englishness; certain formal considerations — and this, too, is intriguing to consider within the context of ‘Romantic Gothic’. Angela Wright and I are about to publish a collection of essays entitled Romantic Gothic: An Edinburgh Companion (2015), in which we and a number of other critics explore some of these issues.
Q: You’ve published research on Ann Radcliffe. What do you feel was her biggest contribution to the Gothic genre?
Where do I start? In a word, I think that she lent to the Gothic a certain critical respectability. While contemporary critics often decried Gothic romance, the ‘trash of the circulating libraries’, in the most hostile of terms, Radcliffe enjoyed considerable praise and recognition in her day. Though her status was somewhat overlooked in the Victorian period, Radcliffe, to my mind at least, galvanised the ‘conventions’ of Gothic to a far greater extent than Walpole did in The Castle of Otranto. My hunch is that, without Radcliffe, Gothic would have seeped away into relative obscurity in the last three decades of the eighteenth century; Radcliffe, however, brought it alive again, and actively created the cultural taste for horrors and terrors, spectres and sprites. I could go on about this for ages, you understand.
Q: You’re also prevalent in studies on Gothic Shakespeare. What marks his works as Gothic? Are there any plays which are more Gothic than we expect from Shakespeare?
Well, I don’t think it’s fair to say that Shakespeare is a ‘Gothic’ writer in the sense that we use that term today. What intrigues me, though, is the ways in which he is, and always has been, germane to the Gothic aesthetic. That is, Shakespeare is tirelessly appropriated, in the eighteenth century as now, as a figure of horror and terror. His plays lend themselves as crucial intertexts, particularly the darker tragedies such as Macbeth, Hamlet and King Lear; in some senses, Shakespeare’s own preoccupations with ghosts authorise ways of ‘ghost seeing’ that are still in place in Gothic novels and films today. But I don’t think that Shakespeare is, in himself, ‘Gothic’ in the modern sense, despite the fact that his plays teem with ghosts and goblins, witches and sprites. Undoubtedly, though, he’s ‘manufactured’ or ‘produced’ as a Gothic writer in and through the incessant act of appropriation. He is as central to the Gothic aesthetic today as he was when Horace Walpole wrote The Castle of Otranto – a text that, in several respects, is impossible to imagine without Shakespeare.
Q: What’s your favourite Gothic text?
Undoubtedly, something by Ann Radcliffe. I’d be hard-pressed to choose between The Romance of the Forest and The Mysteries of Udolpho. Or The Italian, or A Sicilian Romance, or The Castles of Athlin and Dunbayne, or her travelogue, or Gaston de Blondeville for that matter. I’m obsessed with the Great Enchantress. After Radcliffe, it would be something by Henry James: either The Turn of the Screw, one of his shorter ghost stories, or even Portrait of a Lady.
Q: Jekyll or Hyde?
Jekyll. I am often as guilt-ridden and self-divided as Jekyll himself is, despite the efforts that he does through to create Mr Hyde. After all, I think that Stevenson’s novella is not about doubles so much as triples, or, beyond that, about the sheer multifariousness of human subjectivity: Jekyll, Hyde, and the crippling divisions that remain within Jekyll himself. ‘I am Legion, for we are many’.
Q: Vampires or Werewolves?
I’d have to say vampires, I think, even though they’re not my favourite Gothic trope. But this is only because most werewolf narratives make me guffaw with laughter.
The Terror and Wonder exhibit is on until 20th January at the British Library. The accompanying book is available for purchase on Amazon or at the British Library store.