Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination

After 17 days of sightseeing, my last morning in London was spent at the British Library drawn by the Terror and Wonder exhibition. As the posters describe it – ‘Two hundred rare objects trace 250 years of the Gothic tradition, exploring our enduring fascination with the mysterious, the terrifying and the macabre. ‘  Of course, my interest was the connection with Jane Austen’s novel Northanger Abbey.

Greeted by dim lighting, diaphanous black curtains and the soundtrack and film clips of a Boris Karloff horror movie, I was immediately into the mood.  The first exhibits were the book and the pictures that started it all -  Horace Walpole’s ‘romance’ novel The Castle of Otranto in 1765 - and early editions are featured along with paintings of his home.   I read how his story, set in a dark medieval castle, inspired many others to write ‘romances’ in the same style, with outlandish plots, wild landscapes, ruined castles and abbeys, virginal heroines in great danger, and resourceful heroes to save them. The term ‘Gothic romances’ was first used to describe them in 1777.

On show were the early, illustrated editions of Ann Radcliffe’s books – The Mysteries of Udolpho and The Italian – and Matthew Lewis’ book The Monk. Lewis’s book was controversial but remained incredibly popular. These novels play a pivotal role in the plot of Northanger Abbey and the seven novels mentioned in the text are labelled as the ‘Northanger Horrids.’ Jane’s brilliant satire on the perils of reading too much Gothic fiction has her heroine Catherine Morland losing touch with reality, asking ‘Are you sure they are all horrid?’

If you are going to be in London before January 20 2015, go along as there is so much more to see and experience.

This is the First Edition cover of The Mysteries of Udolpho by Ann Radciffe (image from Wikipedia) a much discussed book in Northanger Abbey.