Review of British Library Gothic Study Day

I’m starting this year by looking backwards towards the end of last year which seems oddly suitable as a scholar of the Gothic. Early in December 2014, though it seems longer ago, I attended the Gothic Study Day at the British Library as part of the Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination exhibition.

It was, as you might expect, very good. I had been a little worried about the level of scholarship (she wrote pretentiously) but one look at the list of speakers allayed my fears. Rather than try to precis the papers I will pick out the titbits that I particularly enjoyed. The abstracts are given on the British Library website which I have linked to above; these give a good impression of the topic that were under discussion.

Dale Townshend’s introduction set the tone for the day. He posed the question of how we can start using the Gothic to look towards an ethical future: one in which the ghosts of the past teach us the lessons of tomorrow. I enjoyed the juxtaposition of the past with the future as I think the beauty of the Gothic is its potential for fluidity or shape shifting. It is able to inhabit a variety of different forms and formats, and is never more terrifying than when it haunts another genre unsettling the narrative status quo.

The opening paper was entitled ‘Terror, Wonder and Sprigged Muslin: Jane Austen and the ‘Horrid’ Novelists’ and was given by Emma Clery. Starting with Northanger Abbey, Clery explored the relationship between consumerism and terror commodities. She moved elegantly from discussing the subversive potential of muslin dresses and the empire-line, drawn from Catherine Spooner’s comments about the ‘vampire-line’, to seeing the Gothic as a product to be consumed within modern culture. My particular highlights were the presentation of muslin dresses as the ‘sartorial equivalent of liminal zones’ in that they were sweetly diaphanous but also drew attention to what lay beneath the clothing. Due respect must also be given to punning on wearing ‘a frayed’ garment and wanting to be ‘afraid’.

Clery moved from Austen towards Twilight, and by extension 50 Shades of Grey, by discussing the relationship between reading Gothic romance and self-pleasuring. Rather than being repressive, Gothic romance can be seen as subversive and Gothic terror as political as it problematizes societal norms. However, if contemporary consumer culture makes Gothic into a commodity does it lose its ability to challenge these norms? Much like the Gothic itself, Clery’s talk ended with ambivalence.

Fiona Roberston’s paper ‘Gothic Thresholds; or, The Passages that Lead to Nothing’ returned to more structural aspects of the Gothic novel. She drew a parallel between the recurring trope of dark passages in creating confusion, such as Emily St Aubert’s discovery of the ‘corpse’ in The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794), and the structural ambiguities of the novel itself. Thus Emily’s discovery misleads the reader as much as the character. The paratextual structures of the Gothic such as the use of the ‘found text’ format both frame the piece but also deny the reader full access to the story. Prefaces and other devices may seem to be trying to bring clarity but instead they force the reader to look in another direction. One of the finest examples of this in recent times is Joyce Carol Oates’ The Accursed which uses scholarly input and multiple story lines in a manner that frustrates the reader’s efforts and draws your eyes away from the true historical horror in the text.

I will admit to having some bias towards the next speakers, Lucy Armitt and Scott Brewster who gave the paper ‘Everywhere and Nowhere: Gothic, Tourism and Travel’. Not only did their paper support one of my chapters without covering the exact topic I had written on, but they had travelled from the University of Lincoln and I am a yellow belly. Their research project on Gothic tourism struck a chord and was very topical. Yesterday, I read an article entitled Walking Dead, Vampire Diaries, others creating tourism in Georgia’ and I am reminded of how we are shaping our real places according to their fictional counterparts every time I travel into university from London King’s Cross. Their paper looked at the Gothic as a staged performance and Gothic tourism as relying on a blend of authenticity and commodification. Something which linked back to Clery’s opening paper.

Armitt and Brewster’s paper also looked forward to Fred Botting’s paper, ‘”Sir Walter Scott Disease”: From “Girly-girl Romance” to the “Southern School of Degeneracy”‘. As the title suggests, Botting explored the roots of the Southern Gothic and overlap between Walter Scott’s tales of chivalry and the archetype of the Southern gentleman versus the darker underside of the Deep South. Having visited New Orleans as a teenager, I am only too aware of the difficulty of separating the seductive charms of the South from the cruel reality. (Something which was made obvious to me as three months after my visit to New Orleans it was hit by Hurricane Katrina which brought to the surface the poverty and racism beyond the façade of the French Quarter).

Following the well-timed and much needed tea break, it was time for something completely different: ‘Music, Absinthe, Lace: Goth Club Culture’ given by Isabella van Elferen. I must confess that I know little about Goth music and culture beyond a desultory nod to Marilyn Manson. It was therefore nice to hear a sensitive and interesting deconstruction of different songs from subsections of Goth music. Van Elferen linked the music back into Goth culture and surmised the issue of dislocation in Gothic subjectivity by using Arthur Rimbaud’s comment: “Je suis un autre”. She suggested that for Goths/ the Gothic there is a sense of homesickness for a present of which you can never truly be a part.

This was picked up by David Punter in ‘Inhabiting a Gothic Future: Nightmares of Modernity’, the final paper. He opened with the statement that the Gothic is ‘the bastard child of Enlightenment progress’ which I may be quoting for some time! He also returned to Townshend’s opening regarding the Gothic scholar by suggesting that there was something innately Gothic about all knowledge, especially that which is within libraries.

It would be hard to surmise all the texts which Punter covered (so I won’t) but what struck me was the convergence of SF and Gothic in the texts he was discussing. Something which linked back to the SF/ Fantasy Now conference which I attended at the University of Warwick. There seems to be a war between the presentation of a linear (future-filled) and circular (past-filled) version of time. Punter suggested that what defines contemporary Gothic is an obsession with the future that is haunted by the sense that ‘something’ will return.

Hopefully, this review will give some sense of how interesting, provocative and engaging I found the Gothic Study Day. I left buzzing with ideas and reinvigorated about the Gothic.

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0 Responses to Review of British Library Gothic Study Day

  1. Fabulous review, Kaja! Concise, yet capturing what seems to be the central arguments of the speakers, and weaving in your own perspective, too. Wish I’d been there!

    • firekrank says:

      Thank you! I’m really starting to enjoy writing reviews. There is definitely a skill to writing a good one. It was a wonderful day. I can still remember how inspired I felt as I left – I went for a really long walk to help me process everything I had heard.

  2. Great review. I really wish I could have attended. I’m a student from South Africa doing a Masters on how history is manifested in contemporary Gothic fiction, and Punter’s statement (that I also definitely want to quote somewhere in my thesis) really strikes to the core of my argument. I’m rather in the wrong country to do a thesis about the Gothic, but thanks to resources like your blog I feel like I can at least stay in touch with what’s happening over there. This was a very informative and enticing review that made me rather jealous and sorry to have missed the event.

    • Hi Karlien–glad you like our blog and Kaja’s review. You might not be in the wrong country at all–I recently met someone who was doing her PhD on South African Gothic!
      Good look with your MA!

    • firekrank says:

      I’m so glad you like my review. It was a great day! You’re definitely not in the wrong country I’ve met quite a few people who are working on South African Gothic, Did you see these post on ‘The Gothic Imagination’: http://www.gothic.stir.ac.uk/guestblog/south-african-gothic/. The author Rebecca Duncan is working in the field of South African Gothic – I met her briefly at a conference and she was very knowledgeable and interesting. She is really engaged with the importance of history in South African Gothic. Maybe email her?

      Your MA sounds so interesting! Are you making any links in terms of methodology to American Gothic? I feel like there might be some overlaps – though neither area is my specialism so I could be very much mistaken.

  3. I have read Rebecca Duncan’s post and thought it very interesting, but you see I am in the wrong country because I’m doing my thesis on popular English and American novels. I’m looking at recent novels that combine Gothic and historical fiction conventions, like Sarah Waters’ The Little Stranger and Elizabeth Kostova’s The Historian. So I will be looking a bit at American Gothic, but I’ll mostly be focusing more on English Gothic and how these newer novels use its conventions because I have more British novels than American ones. I’m still trying to figure most of my thesis out though, so these posts here and on ‘The Gothic Imagination’ are very helpful to see what other people are doing in the field.

    • Dear Karlien,
      I am always looking for new PhD students in this area and so if you can see yourself studying in the UK in future do write to me with your proposal. There are sometimes bursaries available for those students whose work fits within the remit of the OGOM project.
      My email address is s.george@herts.ac.uk
      Thank you for your interest in the site and your lively posts.
      Dr Sam George

      • Dear Dr George
        I would love to one day do my PhD in the UK, but I first want to take a short break after Masters (I’ve been studying continuously since 2010). I will definitely keep this in mind and thank you for the interest and the information.
        Regards
        Karlien

    • Kaja Franck says:

      Ahh, this makes sense. I wouldn’t worry though – thanks to the internet we can communicate relatively easily. What theoretical approach are you using in regards to these novels? I haven’t read ‘The Little Stranger’ but I have written on ‘The Historian’ myself. It’s a wonderful novel but quite conservative in its approach to women.

      In regards to Sam’s reply to your comment, as Sam’s student I am biased but I would highly recommend applying for the PhD place in the future if you are thinking about taking your studies further. Being part of OGOM has been really helpful to me.

      • The internet has of course been a great help. I’m using Derrida’s hauntology and Kristeva’s abjection, as well as a bit of monster theory. Basically, I’m looking at how the supernatural in these texts manifest history and historical issues. ‘The Little Stranger’ is quite good and more complex, I think, than ‘The Historian’ in terms of its representation of gender and class. I would definitely recommend it. I might also be looking at Lauren Owen’s ‘The Quick’, but that’s still quite tentative. What are you working on for your PhD?

        As I replied to Dr George, I really would love to study in the UK one day, but since I’ve been studying continuously for the past five years I want to take a break before I delve into PhD. It sounds rather hectic by all accounts, but I definitely want to attempt it one day. I will keep this in mind and I of course hope to stay in touch with developments in the field.

  4. firekrank says:

    Apologies for the delay in replying. I’m relatively familiar with Kristeva’s abjection but not so much Derrida’s hauntology. Which books are you looking at for monster theory?

    I haven’t read Water’s ‘The Little Stranger’ but did go to an excellent talk on the novel at a conference about reading animals – so it clearly has a lot of breadth and depth as a text. I really enjoyed ‘The Historian’. I read it as an undergrad and gave it to my housemate to read. After a few weeks I asked how she was enjoying the novel and she said that she had stopped because it had scared her too much. I asked why – can’t say it was the scariest text I’ve read – and she pointed out that in the preface it claims to be based on a true story. I found this comment brilliant because it proves that though many of the framing techniques used by Gothic writers may seem old hat to us, they still work on the unintiated!

    I wrote about ‘The Historian’ for my undergrad dissertation. If you want I can dig out the chapter and send it to you – it isn’t excellent but it might give you something to bounce ideas off. When I was writing on it there were only reviews about the text – not sure if there is more secondary criticism now.

    My PhD is looking at werewolves within the context of animal/ human boundaries. It broadly first within ecoGothic criticism. I’m a magpie when it comes to theory, though, so I grab bits from here and there as and when I see fit. I’m also a sucker for some close reading. I am starting with ‘Dracula’ as a way of exploring the idea of how wolves have historically been made exemplars of Gothic nature. Then I jump to the 21st century and am looking at the ‘Shiver’ trilogy by Maggie Stiefvater, ‘The Last Werewolf’ trilogy by Glen Duncan, and ‘The Wolf Gift’ trilogy by Anne Rice. I’m concentrating on how language and the ability to speak has been used as dividing line between humans and animals and how werewolves can challenge this precept.

    I would recommend having a break from studying. If nothing else it confirms your decision to go into academia. I had a year-out before my BA, after my BA, and then two or three years out after my MA before I started my PhD. I found getting a bit office experience really useful in terms of time management and employability.

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