Terror and Wonder: the Gothic challenge

Jekyll and Hyde illustrationsIt’s a real thrill to announce the latest writing challenge on Young Poets Network, in collaboration with the British Library – we want your poems on a Gothic theme! From Frankenstein’s monster to Dracula to Dr Jekyll’s transformation into the brutal Mr Hyde, take inspiration from this mysterious and macabre tradition.

The British Library currently has a great exhibition called Terror and Wonder: the Gothic Imagination. The exhibition traces the evolution of the Gothic in the popular and literary imagination, from the first Gothic novel in 1764 to the annual Whitby Goth weekend. If you can’t visit the exhibition in London, check out the BL’s website Discovering Literature, where you can explore the Gothic through manuscripts, pictures, videos and more.

Below you will find an intriguing introduction to the Gothic tradition from the curators at the British Library, and some items from the exhibition. Have a read through, brood a little, and then send us your thrilling, chilling poems in response.

A Gothic introduction

A dark medieval castle, terrifying spectres, mistaken identities, battling knights and a general air of doom – these are some of the key elements of the first Gothic novel, Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto, published 250 years ago. Although this set the blueprint for Gothic literature, since then it has evolved into many forms, adapting its terror and sensation in order to continually shock and excite audiences.

Many elements of the novel reflect the cultural concerns of 18th-century Britain. This was a time of renewed interest in the early imaginative writings of key British authors like Spenser and Shakespeare and, inspired by this rich indigenous literature, writers attempted to add to it with forgeries of undiscovered texts. The period also witnessed greater attention being paid to the nation’s ‘Gothic’ or medieval past and, with this, a growing fascination with death and the supernatural.

Gothic flourished during the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Inspired by The Castle of Otranto, authors often set their novels in late medieval and Renaissance times. They located the action on the cusp between the superstitious past and the dawning age of Enlightenment. Castles, abbeys and ruins featured prominently, as did passionate noblemen, tyrannical fathers, scheming monks, virginal heroines and resourceful heroes.

Gothic dealt imaginatively with themes of imprisonment and escape, of the younger generation attempting to free itself from the constraints and injustices of the past. Writers also began taking Gothic in new directions. Ann Radcliffe’s brilliant use of language gave Gothic a certain critical respectability while the French Revolution inspired a more graphic and disturbing form of Gothic literature.

The final decades of the 19th century heralded a dark renaissance in Gothic fiction. The 1880s and 1890s – commonly known as the Victorian fin de siècle – witnessed the volatile transition between the old order and the modern world. Decadence and degeneration went hand in hand. The former, with its emphasis on the senses and the pursuit of pleasure, was seen by many as inevitably leading to moral and physical decay.

The human mind and body, rather than the physical landscape, became the new location for Gothic horror. In London’s Whitechapel a real-life monster stalked the streets in the form of Jack the Ripper. In fiction, Dr Jekyll, Mr Hyde, Dorian Gray and Count Dracula cast long shadows into the 20th century.

Take a closer look…

The first Gothic novel

HoraceWalpole-Otranto1 resized

Waking from a dream in the summer of 1764, Horace Walpole put pen to paper and wrote solidly for two months. The end result was The Castle of Otranto – the first Gothic novel – published on Christmas Eve of the same year.

The story revolves around a labyrinthine medieval Italian Castle and its lord, Manfred. It is a tale of mistaken identity, supernatural happenings and tense pursuits, and is Walpole’s deliberate attempt to protest against the unimaginative fiction of his day. Otranto harks back to the entertainment and improbability found in medieval romances and by subtitling it ‘a Gothic story’ Walpole invented the genre of the same name that still exists today.

This is Walpole’s personal copy of the second edition of Otranto. It was published four months after the successful first edition and identifies Walpole as the author for the first time. When deciding where to set his novel Walpole referred to a map of Italy and chose the town of Otranto at random. In 1786 he was alerted to the existence of an actual castle in Otranto when he was given the watercolour drawing by Willey Reveley which is now bound into this copy. Walpole was so pleased with the accidental similarity between the real castle and his imagined one that he had the drawing engraved for use in later editions of the novel.

Free from known copyright restrictions. See more at the British Library website

Scenes from The Monk

MatthewLewis-BleedingNunfromMonk2 resizedIn many Gothic novels from the late 18th century, the seemingly supernatural events portrayed actually turn out to have rational explanations. The ‘explained supernatural’ became a means whereby the ghostly could be evoked to create atmosphere and suspense, but then explained away so as not to offend the Protestant audiences who associated the supernatural with Catholicism. Matthew Lewis’s novel The Monk (1796), however, turned this expectation on its head. In The Monk the genuinely supernatural is everywhere.

The most famous of these supernatural episodes concerns ‘The Bleeding Nun of the Castle of Lindenberg’ – the ghost of a woman who, in life, had displayed lustful and murderous tendencies. The Bleeding Nun epitomises the sin of erotic desire, and her appearance serves throughout as a warning against the perils of surrendering to passion. The ghost also plays a key role in the plot of the novel. When the virtuous heroine Agnes attempts to elope with her admirer Raymond, her plan involves disguising herself as the Bleeding Nun. Unfortunately, the real Bleeding Nun appears and chaos and confusion ensue. In a cruelly ironic twist, Agnes, having impersonated the spirit of a dead nun in an attempt to find happiness and freedom, subsequently finds herself confined to a living death in the crypt of a monastery.

The episode of the Bleeding Nun was extremely popular, and various cheap editions (known as ‘chapbooks’ or ‘gothic blue books’ ) lifted the story from The Monk and presented it as a separate, stand-alone tale. The edition shown here dates from 1823 and contains hand-coloured illustrations depicting key moments from the story.

Free from known copyright restrictions. See more at the British Library website

Charlotte Brontë’s manuscript of Jane Eyre

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In Jane Eyre (1847), Charlotte Brontë created “a heroine as plain, and as small as myself, who”, she told her sisters, “shall be as interesting as any of yours”. Though Emily and Anne Brontë had already completed their first novels when Charlotte began writing her story of the headstrong governess, it was Jane Eyre that was the first of the sisters’ novels to be accepted for publication. Charlotte took a year to write the manuscript, submitting it to publishers Smith, Elder and Co in August 1847. It appeared in print two months later, to great acclaim (mixed with some controversy over the perceived immorality of the central character).

How did Charlotte Brontë compose the novel?

The manuscript shown here is Brontë’s autograph fair copy. It is remarkably neat, with very few corrections: “She would wait patiently” her biographer Elizabeth Gaskell noted, “searching for the right term, until it presented itself to her”. Of the few revisions that Brontë made, the most significant serve to emphasize Jane’s strength of will in her encounters with Rochester.

For instance, Brontë chose to play down Jane’s physical imperfections, crossing through Jane’s self-deprecating comparison of her physical form with Blanche Ingram’s, and deleting Rochester’s corresponding remark: “I will graciously excuse deficiencies”. Also cancelled is a line further on, in which Jane declares Rochester to be her “alpha and omega of existence”. In another scene she hastily withdraws her hand from contact with Rochester’s, but in the revised passage she crushes his hand “and thrust it back to him red with the passionate pressure”. These changes underline Jane Eyre’s refusal to be subjugated to anyone, even Rochester.

What else does the manuscript reveal?

At the top of the title page can be seen Brontë’s pen name, ‘Currer Bell’. She expressed a number of reasons for wishing to be anonymous. Firstly, that it would “fetter me intolerably” when writing, to know that acquaintances would read the works, and perhaps identify the real people and places behind their fictional counterparts. She was also conscious of a “vague impression that authoresses are liable to be looked upon with prejudice”.

The copyright status is unknown. Please contact [email protected]  with any information you have regarding this item. See more at the British Library website.

Illustrations of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde

These illustrations are from an edition of Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde published in 1930. They are by S G Hulme-Beaman, who was better known as a children’s book illustrator.

The images include sometimes incongruous or unexplained details, such as the sculpture on the mantelpiece, the bricks tumbling from the wall. What is left is something not dissimilar to a German expressionist film and theatre set with disorienting planes and disruptive or unknown light-sources, which echo the disruption within Jekyll/Hyde’s identity.

Free from known copyright restrictions. See more at the British Library website

The challenge

We want your poems on a Gothic theme. You can respond to these specific objects, or others from the exhibition or website, or you can write inspired by the general mood of Gothic literature, art and architecture. We can’t wait to see what you come up with – though we are a little nervous too…

This challenge is now closed. You can read the wonderful winning  poems by following the links on the top right hand side of this page.

Published Decemebr, 2014

18 thoughts on “Terror and Wonder: the Gothic challenge

    1. Hi Zak, we only send confirmation if people ask for it in their email – but I can confirm we have received your poem!

    1. Hi there, poets will be notified and winners announced in the next few weeks. We got lots of poems so it will take the judges a little while to decide!

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