These reports were written by Sophie Clarke, who graduated from BCU with a First in English last year, and who is soon to commence an MA in English Literature.
On Saturday 2nd May, I was lucky enough to be invited to ‘Gothic in Birmingham’, an interdisciplinary convention and exhibition organised by Birmingham City University lecturer, Serena Trowbridge. The event comprised of a gallery of artwork and several talks that took place in Birmingham Central Library. The event was an immense success, and proved to be an interesting and informative day.
Throughout the day, there were two panels running simultaneously. I was able to attend nine panels, all of which discussed the various manifestations of Gothic, including literature, architecture and dress.
Sanserif – the Face of the Grotesque and the Gothic – David Osbaldestin
David began his talk by defining the difference between Gothic typeface (script implemented in the Guttenberg Bible and characterised by exaggerated cursive stroke and black letter) and Sanserif, an unassuming typeface (compared to the flamboyant strokes of the Gothic) influenced by early British grotesque printing types. Ironically, despite the influence of Gothic typefaces in many parts of the world, Sanserif script was most often used in book typography, and thus usurped Gothic typefaces to become the de-facto font of choice for Gothic pieces. Despite this wide use of Sanserif script, twentieth-century typographic classification and the utilisation of traditional Gothic typefaces on the front covers of books reinforced the general misconception of Gothic typefaces. The Sanserif typeface also gained popularity in the world of advertising, and by the mid-nineteenth century, new Sanserif typefaces were being created, and were widely used by jobbing printers. Given its affinity with the values of certain movements, such as Industrialism and Romanticism, the Gothic Sanserif typography acts, as David so concisely puts it, as a ‘moral compass’, which is ‘simple, bold and uncomplicated.’ I, personally, found the talk rather refreshing and untypical of the genre. Often, this display of the Gothic is overlooked (perhaps because contemporary fonts are housed on computer software – technology which is worlds apart from the dungeons and castles of traditional Gothic lore!) and it was interesting to discover the origin and influence of what became one of the most prominent tools of advertising.
Contemporary Gothic: Poems by Gregory Leadbetter
The next session was conducted by Dr Gregory Leadbetter, in which he read a selection of his own poetry, and discussed the circumstances and imaginary workings surrounding each one. Greg defines Gothic as being irrevocably intertwined with the Romantic, both of which are marked by an obsession with superstition and its influence on ‘the wilderness of life’ and ‘the wilderness of imagination’. He discussed the idea of our living in a ‘second Gothic’, in which contemporary poets attempt to revive and reinvent poetry based on the philosophy of these elder poets. Greg’s poetry follows this tradition accordingly, and is peppered with powerful imagery centred on the uncanny, superstition and myth, amongst other themes. Much of his poetry was influenced by personal incidents, and this helped inject a realistic element into otherwise sublime pieces. It was fantastic to hear a contemporary take on Gothic, as I’m sure so many are of the belief that Gothic poetry is an art confined to past centuries. The reading proved that Gothic literature is very much still a part of the contemporary sphere, and belongs to the beautiful as well as the haunting.
Narratives of Dress: A Beautiful Life, A Beautiful Death – Louise Chapman
Naturally, I was quite intrigued by this next session. What red-blooded woman doesn’t like a good dress (and a nineteenth-century one at that!) This talk focused on the possibility of dress (and clothing in general) acting as a narrative separate from the corporeal being. The dress that Louise presented is part of an archive that contains 170 items from the eighteenth century, and was a beautiful example, made more so by its very apparent deterioration marks. Similar to other traditional Gothic tropes, clothing becomes almost animate because of its exposure to social and cultural changes – over time, it becomes a vivid narrative, aided by the tears and stains that hint at the mysterious life that once wore it. At the end of the talk I had an opportunity to examine this particular dress up close. It was a strange experience which raised many questions: what kind of woman had worn this dress? And what trauma had caused the back to become so shredded? Such questions make it a compelling narrative that demands further exploration.
New Gothic Writing: Charlotte Newman, Abigail Cooper, Joanna Packwood and Bex Price.
This session featured readings by several BCU students, and was a session that I feel was particularly valuable, as it gave greater insight into the complexities of writing Gothic, as well as displaying how the Gothic can be translated through different mediums of writing and performance. I asked two participants, Charlotte Newman and Bex Price, how they felt their work contributed to the contemporary world of Gothic:
Charlotte Newman: ‘The Restorer’ (Prose) and ‘Red Wolf’ (Poem):
‘’The Restorer’ was placed within the contemporary setting of Birmingham, which is surrounded by Gothic features. At night, these daunting buildings are more stark and alluring. I wanted to place my story in an enclosed environment, within safe walls, but surrounded by silent images, hence the location of the Museum and Art Gallery. The form of Gothic I chose to illuminate was the psychological torment and madness within one’s mind that was escalated by the anxiety of the Man’s folly when he smudged the painting in restoration. The quick decision to use his own blood to temper the folly shows the transitive darkness within four walls. The poem ‘Red Wolf’ is an alternate perspective on a Jack-The-Ripper type tale. It describes a woman being followed by a stranger, and the rising awareness of her surroundings creates a psychological tension. That tension is not necessarily detrimental or the fault of the woman, rather, the anxiety can produce heroic qualities and independence, to fight back against the ‘stranger who lingers’– a whatever or whoever that may be.’
Bex Price: ‘The Break’ (Poem) and ‘In Nomine Patris, et Filii, et Spiritis Sancti’ (Prose):
‘They are built around the tropes of Gothic, to create a sense of displacement and unease, particularly ‘The Break’, which is disjointed with a rushed feeling – the words themselves are not as important as the pace and rhythm. ‘In Nomine Patris, et Filii, et Spiritus Sancti’ questions religion – as is common in today’s society – and is therefore a reflection of peoples fear, and is represented retrospectively (set during the Industrial Revolution)’
Medieval Architecture and the Gothic Revival – Christian Frost
This talk concentrated on the advent of the Gothic revival in architecture, and the ethical and cultural consequences of its immense transition from medieval ideals. Christian began by highlighting the different attitudes to the past that emerged in the late eighteenth century. History began to be viewed as individual epochs of time, rather than a continuous stream of events. Architecture was naturally influenced by this view, and became focused on constructing concepts of art through archaeology, enriching the present with reference to an idealized past. This formed a modern and unique architectural style – namely, the creation of the picturesque and representation of nature through construction. One such revolutionary construction was James Gibbs’ ‘Temple of Liberty’, named as such because of its belief in the freedom of the lands ancestors, including Germanic tribes and Goths. As such, the Gothic became associated with the notion of freedom and movement, promoting the idea that individuals are more likely to flourish in an urban setting. The Gothic revival was not only concerned with aesthetic appeal, but promoted a ‘just, ethical society’, creating buildings that benefited the populace – e.g: replacing church spires with chimneys. Emphasis was placed on industrialisation and progression, with the belief that architecture could change society, and effect the mental state of individuals in a positive way. Christian’s talk was accompanied by a slideshow of examples, and it really motivated me to investigate Gothic architecture further, and its complex relationship with medieval ideals.
Copy Gothic: Experiments in Contemporary Gothic – Alessandro Columbano
Alessandro’s talk continued to focus on the Gothic revival, but concentrated more on the technological evolution of printing, and the effect of combining medieval ideals with the Victorian hunger for progression. One of the most innovative qualities of advanced manufacturing was its ability to disseminate information to the wider populace, through various machines and equipment. The Guttenberg Bible, as the first mechanically printed bible in the west, became one of the first of its kind to do just this. This type of technology proved to not only be a commercial success, but a striking marker of human progression, as it boosted ecclesiastical popularity by creating an autodidactic order of the priesthood. This need for religious and intellectual progression was reflected in public institutions that promoted this technology – The John Rylands library, which houses one of the few remaining copies of the Guttenberg bible was designed in the Gothic tradition, and combined ‘monastic qualities’ with technological innovations, such as electric lighting and ventilation, which created an atmosphere suitable for scholarly activity.
Although the John Ryland’s library served its purpose originally, it has undergone several iterations, and much of its space, including the reading room, is no longer in use. Thus, one may question how genuine technology and new interventions can be if original activities no longer occur. Alessandro concludes that, despite technology seeming to lose track of its original source (particularly in the evolution of printing), innovation is necessary to compete in new, contemporary societies.
Gothic and Victorian Sensation Fiction – Anne-Marie Beller
Anne-Marie’s talk focused on Victorian Sensation fiction, a branch of controversial literature popularised in the 1860s by authors such as Wilkie Collins and Mary Elizabeth Braddon. Harnessing many themes of the Gothic, Victorian sensation fiction sought to create a narrative portraying domestic victimization, transforming the decayed buildings which imprison the heroine into demonic versions of the home. Domesticity becomes a warped and insecure domain, harbouring secrecy, transgression and madness. Despite its popularity with the average reader, Victorian Sensation Fiction garnered much criticism, and was accused of infecting middle class idealism with the immorality of low-class fiction. As many Sensation novels typically focused on secrecy in middle-class settings, some suggested that such fictions represented a critical reflection of middle class proprieties and implicated respected members of the ‘higher orders’ in venal dealings and immoral practice. Anne-Marie’s talk offered a vital glimpse into the impact Gothic literature had on society, and proved it could be a very influential factor.
Gothic for Children: The Case of The Graveyard Book – Sarah Wood
Many of the talks thus far have kept the Gothic firmly in the adult sphere – in this talk, Sarah broaches the delicate subject of Gothic for children. Disturbingly, children have often been used in literature as an uncanny Gothic device, from Henry James’ ‘Turn of the Screw’ to contemporary examples such as Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book. Despite some elements of the Gothic being easily associated with children’s literature, many, including sadism and pain, are rather more culturally unacceptable, and this inevitably highlights the ambiguous nature Gothic has with children’s literature. The infiltration of the Gothic in children’s literature acts as a usurper to the innocent child vision idolised by Enlightenment figures; John Locke argued that children came into the world as ‘blank slates’, and it was the parent’s responsibility to imbue them with reason. He cautioned against the influence of an ‘unbridled imagination’, predicting that exposure to terrifying and fantastical ideas would detrimentally alter the impressionable mould of the child, which would inevitably ensure a predisposition toward irrational behaviour and responses. As such, ‘culturally improved forms of children’s literature become everything the Gothic is not.’ Other figures, however, such as Rousseau, believe the child should be allowed to explore the untarnished world of innocence, and be kept separate from the synthetic world of adulthood. In the twenty-first century, the figures typically associated with victimization and blame become distorted as the innocence of children becomes questionable. Although children are often still exploited by adults, it is necessary for weary consideration to be given to how ‘complicit they are in their own exploitation.’ The Graveyard Book reflects this anxiety, as the child of the novel – who is paradoxically both the victim and perpetrator – is preyed upon by an ‘other’ adult. This, along with other contemporary Gothic children’s literature, feeds on our feelings of unease concerning our attitude towards children, forcing the reader to consider the prospect of shattered innocence and behavioural instability. Could this lurid revelation be the modern day monster that we truly fear?
Standing on the Outside: The Outsider in Modern Gothic – Steve Cotterill
The final talk discusses the socio-cultural evolution of the Gothic in recent years, in particular focusing upon the ‘third gothic revival’ of the 1970s. Steve argues that this saw a fracture in the genre along two interlacing – though rather different – lines, between traditional Gothic and the Gothic subculture that emerged from it. Literature of the subculture was infused with traditional Gothic tropes but differed in some important respects from mainstream Gothic; although the outsider remains a focus, there are significant differences in the nuances that shape their role in the novel. Just as British gothic in the early nineteenth century displayed a disdain of the European over the American, and the Aristocratic over the bourgeoisie, reflecting the decline of the Ancient Regime and the rise of the middle classes to political and civil hegemony, modern Gothic reflects the changing attitudes of wider society. White, straight males are no longer the focus, other figures, namely females, homosexuals and trans-genders occupy the protagonists position. The outsider in traditional gothic is perhaps most epitomised in the novel Dracula – all of the typical Gothic tropes including fear, racism and xenophobia are fully displayed as a sinister and sensual eastern Count wreaks havoc in a Britain pushing towards modernity. The protagonists of modern Gothic are less innocent and females are worldly wise and strong. Character’s sexuality in the modern Gothic represents an interesting element to reveal the reflection of societal change inherent in the progressive cultural shift since the traditional days of the genre. As Steve says, heterosexuality is still common in modern Gothic, though it’s portrayed as just one in a plethora of possible preferences.
As I hope this report has shown, the Gothic is a genre characterised by chimeric qualities, unrivalled in its ability to accommodate new cultural expectations and modify itself to influence a variety of mediums. Gothic in Birmingham proved to be a catalyst in projecting Gothic into the contemporary sphere; the diversity of panels and exhibition helped emphasise that the Gothic need not be a deviant topic, but a mode of thought and expression that continues to influence many aspects of our lives.