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4 posts categorized "Romantics"

05 January 2017

Lessons in Vampires and the Gothic

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by guest blogger Emma McEvoy Senior Lecturer in English Literature, University of Westminster

Last year, the British Library launched a new adult learning programme, providing short courses that bring together guest specialists, Library curators and its unique collections.

I was invited by the Library to develop a pilot course exploring Gothic literature in context, which ran in April and May. For five evenings we explored and debated a range of texts from Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto to Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, and considered the development of Gothic through a variety of media and over a couple of centuries. We also encountered a wonderful array of collection items with curator Greg Buzwell, from Walpole’s own copy of Otranto to Bram Stoker’s cut-and-pasted and handwritten playscript for Dracula.

Following the success of Gothic the Library commissioned a second course to start at Halloween, and I decided that Vampires would make a suitable follow-up. Vampires are undoubtedly glamorous (despite their inauspicious beginnings as something more closely related to what we’d consider a zombie), and they have a sturdy literary history to their name (though sometimes – as is arguably the case in Coleridge’s Christabel – the name isn’t one that is mentioned). 

Gothic course

On Gothic I had been the sole academic lead but for Vampires, I decided to invite three other academics with expertise in the field to share the teaching. Professor Alexandra Warwick talked on ‘Vampires, Victorians and Women’, Dr Stacey Abbott introduced us to ‘The Cinematic Spectacle of Vampirism’, and Dr Catherine Spooner discussed ‘Contemporary Vampires: Comedy and Romance’. In our final session we were joined again by curator Greg Buzwell, who talked us through some other exciting items from the Library’s collections.

So on 27 October, I was back in the Library’s Learning Centre to start a five-week exploration of vampires. As with the Gothic course we had a nice mix of participants, with a variety of working backgrounds and interests (postcolonialism, folk horror and the Double, for example) to bring to the discussion.

I led the first session, in which we looked at vampire texts from the Romantic period. We started by examining early 18th-century newspaper reports on the vampire panic, before turning to the often-quoted passage from Dom Augustin Calmet’s treatise (on angels, demons, spirits etc).

Dom Augustin Calmet

Dom Augustin Calmet (engraved 1750)

(To my mind, Calmet – Catholic writer on vampire lore – is an early prototype of Stoker’s Van Helsing.) After this, we sprinted through some vampire texts from German literature – marvelling at how early some of the enduring motifs are established. Already in 1748, for instance, Ossenfelder’s short poem “The Vampire” associates erotic love with vampirism and pits the power of a mother against the vampire lover. Needless to say, in these cases, mothers seldom win. Fathers do occasionally, but – as in the case of Carmilla – it’s rather a pyrrhic victory. 

Carmilla

Carmilla image by D M Friston from The Dark Blue (1872)

It was interesting to see the strands that were to recur throughout the course. Christabel, unsurprisingly, refused to be quietened.  The cross-fertilization with the German tradition was apparent, not just in the first seminar but in the third, when Stacey showed us extracts from Dreyer’s Vampyr (1932) and pointed out that some of those working on early Hollywood vampire films were German emigrés with roots in Expressionist cinema.  Both Alex and Catherine talked about the anxieties provoked by the figure of the female reader/viewer – in relation to Victorian novels and Twilight, respectively.  It’s interesting that the figure of the female fan can be encountered in one of the first British mentions of the vampire phenomenon – in a report in The Craftsman in May, 1732. What struck me as another prominent vein (apologies) in vampire representation is the melding of literary tradition with the idea of celebrity and biography. Polidori’s literary success (though he was repeatedly not credited for it, see the image below) was achieved by drawing not only on literary tradition (including Byron’s own myth-making) but also on celebrity gossip.  (He also, of course, drew on Byron’s ghost-story idea).  Clement and Waititi’s vampire house-share mockumentary What We Do in the Shadows (2014), which we looked at in Catherine’s session, is one of the latest examples.

  The Vampyre

1884 edition of Polidori’s (not Byron’s) “The Vampyre”

One of the best aspects of an evening short course is that everyone has chosen to take it out of interest and for enjoyment – no one is having to worry about formal assessment. I was struck by how much productive conversation takes place at the tea break. People not only start swapping text recommendations, and drawing in references to things they’ve recently seen or heard, but will also try out ideas that might feel too ‘large’ to raise in the slightly more formal seminar setting. Wandering towards a tea-table liberates a lot of thought. There were lots of high points.  I particularly enjoyed the ire that the revelation scene from Twilight provoked.  Everyone seemed to love hating it. Dreyer’s Vampyr, on the other hand, went down very well.

Our final session was the one I was looking forward to most. Having experienced Greg Buzwell’s sessions for the Gothic course (and having visited the Library’s Terror and Wonder exhibition that he’d curated), I knew that some really fascinating works would be brought out and that Greg would instigate some lively discussion. I was not to be disappointed.  Amongst many other items, there was a map of Transylvania used by Stoker for plotting the action in Dracula, the volume containing the celebrated wood-cut of Vlad the Impaler, and some wonderfully lurid (and censored) artwork in Kine Weekly (January 1970) [LOU.1575 1970] for The Vampire Lovers (1970).

For me – and for many of the students – the highlight was Byron’s letter referring to the Diodati happenings, with its vigorous underlining of all the allegations Bryon is supposed to be refuting – “incest” and “promiscuous intercourse”.

Byron-lord_george_gordon-letter-B20131-45

 Letter from Lord Byron to John Murray  15 May 1819 © GG Byron. Ashley MS 4740

by Emma McEvoy Senior Lecturer in English Literature, University of Westminster

For more information on adult courses, visit www.bl.uk/events/adult-learning-courses

05 June 2014

Reading Shelley’s Ashes and Byron’s Hair

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By guest blogger Julian Walker

Shelley-ashes
The ashes of Percy Bysshe Shelley, contained within a British Library manuscript (Ashley MS 5022)

Ten years of being a reader have not blunted my delight in handling important editions of major literary works; the delight is even more noticeable when handling manuscripts. It is widely recognised that there is a particular kind of excitement when handling manuscripts by the major figures of the past - a letter written by Shelley to Byron, a notebook kept by Jane Austen, a draft made by H G Wells. But what exactly is the nature of that physical contact, and how does it affect our reading of the words? What happens when the ink and paper as ‘thing’ meets the words as ‘literature’?

As part of the research for the Discovering Literature website published by the British Library I recently examined a letter written by Byron to his publisher, John Murray, (Ashley 4753) from February 1824, two months before Byron’s death. The letter shows the signs of having been baked in transit for the purposes of disinfection; on the outside of the letter are the words, ‘Zante 25 February 1824 Received from our quarantine officer, resealed and forwarded by your very obedient servant, Samuel Carff.’ The object that proposes the desirable thrill of touching what Byron touched simultaneously presents the concept of contagion by disease, which both counters and mirrors that thrill. 

DL Ash 4753

Byron's letter to John Murray showing the signs of having been baked in transit for the purposes of disinfection (Ashley MS 4753).

Two other volumes take this idea forward, Ashley Ms 4752 and Ashley Ms 5022. The first contains letters to Murray from Byron, to Byron from Claire Clairmont (his onetime lover, and step-sister of Mary Shelley), to Claire Clairmont from Edward Trelawny, witness to Shelley’s cremation and perennial supporter to the Byron/Shelley circle, and from Augusta Leigh, Byron’s half-sister, to the Countess of Blessington. It also contains a lock of the hair of Byron, a lock of Claire Clairmont’s hair, and a lock of hair from their daughter, Allegra.

Byrons hair
A lock of Byron's hair (Ashley MS 4752)

C clairmont and allegras hair
Locks of hair from Byron's daughter Allegra, and Allegra's mother Claire (Clara Mary Jane) Clairmont (Ashley MS 4752)

The second volume contains letters from Mary Shelley to her friend Maria Gisborne, from Trelawny to Claire Clairmont, and a deed of conveyance, together with various certifying documents. What the documents certify is that the enclosures in Ashley 5022 contain a lock of the hair and some of the ashes of Percy Shelley, and a lock of the hair of Mary Shelley.

Hair of PB Shelley

A lock of P B Shelley's hair, enclosed in a British Library manuscript (Ashley MS 5022)

 

Shelley hair cartouche
Mary Shelley's hair is contained in the same manuscript as that of her husband. Her lock of hair appears beneath that of P B Shelley (Ashley MS 5022).

How are we to read these items, in the context of the elaborately finished volumes in which they lie together with handwritten documents?

After their deaths parts of the bodies of Byron and Shelley were separated, used as symbols, even sold. The lock of Byron’s hair was given by Augusta Leigh as a gift in recognition of help, while Claire Clairmont’s niece Paola sold Shelley’s hair in 1879. Byron’s larynx and lungs were removed from his corpse for interment in Greece, with the claim that these signified how the poet had ‘used his breath and voice for Greece’, according to Pietro Capsali, one of his comrades-in-arms in the Greek War of Independence. Byron feared this happening, asking, ‘Let not my body be hacked …’

Despite Fournier’s celebrated painting of the funeral of Shelley, his face and hands were unidentifiable after ten days in the water, a circumstance that perhaps intensified the value of his heart and skull. According to one of Trelawny’s accounts (there were several, with contradictions) Byron, present at Shelley’s cremation, had wanted to keep Shelley’s skull. Byron’s corpse, minus the lungs and larynx, was transported to Britain for burial, while the separated ashes and other remains of Shelley’s corpse lie in a number of sites; Mary was presented by Trelawny with Shelley’s heart, or its ashes, which she kept for the rest of her life preserved in a copy of Shelley’s Adonais, itself now in the Bodleian Library. Are these keepsakes, mementoes, attempts to preserve the physical in order to retain the past, objects to concentrate mourning, ways of acknowledging or of cheating death?

The hair, instantly recognisable as such, allows the projection of some kind of animation onto the personas of the people. These are things which ‘have been alive’, and therefore serve as proof of the people’s ‘aliveness’ - they make the person real rather than just a name in a book. The ashes of Shelley animate the myth of Shelley, so strongly energised by his mysterious death and the myths that sprang from it. Locks of Byron’s hair became as desirable as the single lock of Lucrezia Borgia’s hair evidently was to him (he stole it from a reliquary in the Biblioteca Ambrosiana in 1816). But if the hair animates Byron the person, is this anything to do with the poetry – can it in fact divert our attention from Byron the body of work towards Byron the person? Does the myth of Shelley, so real on seeing the ashes, detract from the Shelley corpus. Even the available English words show how difficult it is to avoid mixing the two aspects.

We may not now touch the living people, but we can touch the things they touched with so great an effect – the manuscripts of The Masque of Anarchy or Don Juan. We cannot touch the hair or ashes, but we can touch the volumes in which they lie, and we can touch the glass bubbles holding the hair and ashes. Within the context of relics the number of links in the chain of contact between saint and supplicant, reader and genius, is largely irrelevant, provided the individual links can be known. Medieval relics were ‘created’ by laying cloths on the bones of saints – the cloths would have the same power as the bones. Pilgrims kiss reliquaries, with the same effect as would be gained from kissing the relics themselves. Bede, writing in the eighth century, tells the story of the death in battle of the Christian king Oswald, whose body was mutilated and set on a stake; people took soil from the place, put it in water, and used this to relieve the sick. Maybe it cured people, maybe it made them very much worse, but in providing an exact mirror to germ theory (the concept of infection by germs rather than poisoned air), it proposes that contagion and healing walk side by side.

 

Shelley-percy-masque-ashley_ms_4086_f001r

The first page of Shelley's draft of 'The Masque of Anarchy' (Ashley MS 4086)

Just as healing and contagion cancel each other, and merge in the process of inoculation, Byron’s and Shelley’s bodies – their lives – merge into their work. Byron is the superlative Byronic hero, acknowledging in the preface to Childe Harold Canto 4 the minimal difference between himself and his hero – ‘slightly, if at all, separated from the author speaking in his own person’; Trelawny’s retelling of the cremation of Shelley’s body, 36 years after the event, has the drowned body as ‘entire’, tying in with Matthew Arnold’s assessment of Shelley the poet as ‘beautiful and ineffectual angel’. Our physical contact, at one remove, with their bodies simultaneously obstructs, mirrors and merges with our engagement with their work.

Byron Childe Harold
Byron's manuscript for Childe Harold, (Egerton MS 2027)

One last thought - a meeting in 1816 between four of the people whose body parts are mentioned above – Byron, Claire Clairmont, Mary and Percy Shelley (and Claire Clairmont was pregnant with the fifth, Allegra) - produced a famous story in which a whole extraordinary being is made up of disparate body parts: Frankenstein.

Ashley MS 5022 and Ashley MS 4752 can both be seen on the Discovering Literature website, alongwith other important literary manuscripts, including a letter from Shelley to Byron, praising his Don Juan, Leigh Hunt’s account of the death and cremation of Shelley, and parts of the manuscript of Byron’s Childe Harold.

 

This is the third in our Discovering Literature blog series, introducing the British Library's new website for Romantic and Victorian literature. Read our previous blogs here.

29 May 2014

'That is an amazing horrid book, is it not?'

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With its sex-crazed monks, dissolute noblemen, mad scientists, shambling monsters and blood-sucking vampires - not to mention its apparently endless fascination with innocent young ladies in diaphanous gowns being pursued around crumbling castles - it is easy to see why Gothic literature has often been regarded as somewhat disreputable. Gothic fiction lurks in the shadows. It may be devilishly handsome and charismatic but it is not the sort of literary genre you would wish to bring home to meet your mother. On the other hand, and for the very same reasons, it is easy to understand why it has always been extremely popular. Morally-improving literature certainly has its place but, let's be honest, mad scientists and shape-changing vampires are considerably more interesting. Even better, in the hands of a genuinely great author such as Ann Radcliffe or Robert Louis Stevenson, you get the best of both worlds. You get the rattling good yarn and you get a fascinating insight into contemporary fears as well.

On the British Library's new Discovering Literature website there is a whole swathe of Gothic to enjoy, not only in terms of the novels themselves but also in terms of the inspirations and ideas lying behind them. Beginning with Horace walpole's deliciously strange The Castle of Otranto (1764) Gothic set out to put imagination and emotion at the forefront of literature. Authors such as Ann Radcliffe added a fascination with landscape: the sublime wonders of mountains and lakes, ruins and abbeys. Matthew Lewis wrote his brilliantly lurid (and yes, admittedly rather disreputable) novel The Monk (1796) in response to the horrors of the French Revolution while Mary Shelley was partly inspired to write Frankenstein (1818) as a result of discussions into the power of galvanism to cause corpses to twitch with a ghastly semblance of life.

Monk

(Above: an early 19th-century edition of The Monk, complete with a full plot outline - ending in 'Most Ignominious Death' - on the right-hand page)

Gothic fiction has always possessed the ability to adapt itself in order to reflect the latest ideas and concerns of society. Early Gothic novels were set in exotic European Catholic landscapes and in distant, seemingly unenlightened times. Later the Victorians brought Gothic imagery into the urban landscapes of the present day - Oliver Twist, for example is, on one level, a Gothic tale of an innocent pursued by menacing figures through a terrifying urban landscape of slums and criminal enclaves. Sensation fiction meanwhile, which reached its peak in the 1860s, used Gothic plot elements such as mistaken identities, secret wills, doubles and locked rooms and wove them into labyrinthine plots set in the drawing-rooms and parlours of apparently respectable society.

With the Victorian fin de siècle Gothic mutated again. This time it was the human mind and body which provided the landscape for horror. Robert Louis Stevenson's Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886) played upon the nightmarish implications of evolutionary theory while Bram Stoker's Dracula (1897) used vampirism as a parallel for syphilis and moral degeneracy.

Dracula 03

(Above: The cover to a 1919 edition of Dracula)

Gothic fiction, for all its seeming playfulness, provides brilliant and imaginitive insights into the fears of the times in which it was produced. By its very nature Gothic literature makes imaginative leaps denied to its more sober counterparts. And yes, as a bonus, it also frequently features sex-crazed monks, mad scientists, vampires and Pre-Raphaelite beauties with an eye on the main chance. I mean, seriously, what's not to like?

15 May 2014

Discovering Literature - British Library literary treasures go digital

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Today is the launch of our amazing new resource, Discovering Literature!

Discovering Literature

Discovering Literature features some of our greatest literary treasures through original manuscripts, first editions, and letters and other documents like newspaper cuttings that help to place the work in an historical context. Our aim was to bring the literature to life and to give people an insight into how some of these incredibly iconic works were created.

Blake Tyger ms

William Blake - draft of 'The Tyger' in his notebook

Library staff have been working with teachers, university professors and other experts for months to develop the resource, and it features detailed explanations and essays about the various authors, works and themes. There are also some documentary films, made on location at places like the Bronte Parsonage, Haworth, and the Dickens Museum.

The website currently covers the Romantic and Victorian era but we'll be expanding it in the future to cover the whole of English literature from Beowulf to the present day. One of our aims is to get young people inspired by the UK’s literary heritage, at home and at school, and many of its selected texts support the UK curricula for GCSE, A Level and undergraduate teaching of English Literature. But we're also hoping that there'll be something for everyone to be interested in on the site.

 Here are some of the highlights:

  • Manuscripts of Jane Eyre, the preface to Dickens’s Oliver Twist, Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles, Jane Austen’s Persuasion, an early draft of Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest, and the poetry of Shelley, Wordsworth and Keats
  • An 1809 dictionary of criminal slang including words found in the works of Charles Dickens, for example ‘twist’ - meaning ‘hanged’ – from  Oliver Twist
  • Papers of Jane Austen, including her notes detailing other people’s opinions of her work, including one peer describing Pride and Prejudice as ‘downright nonsense‘
  • William Blake’s notebook, including drafts of his iconic poems ‘London’, ‘The Tyger’ and ‘The Chimney Sweeper’ and many of his drawings
  • The largest collection of Brontë childhood writings, including miniature notebooks detailing their fantasy worlds of Gondol and Angria, diary entries and letters describing their family life
  • A lock of Percy Bysshe Shelley’s hair

Over the next few weeks we'll be featuring some of the amazing items you can find on Discovering Literature, and telling you about them in a bit more detail.