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.