English and Drama blog

24 posts categorized "Gothic"

16 December 2014

Jane Austen and the ‘very horrid’ Northanger Abbey

Jane Austen, whose 239th birthday is today, has another anniversary this month – at the very end of December 1817, after her death, her novel Northanger Abbey was published.


Northanger Abbey is a joyously playful satire on the gothic novel of the 1790s, and was written in around 1798-9, when Austen was in her early 20s. It was the first of her novels to be submitted for publication, and was bought by a London publisher for the princely sum of £10 in 1803 – but for unknown reasons lay unpublished until 1816, when Austen’s brother bought it back for her. She made a few revisions, changing the heroine’s name from Susan to Catherine Morland, and also the title (which had been ‘Susan’) perhaps to tie it more firmly to the gothic tradition it pastiches.

In the first half of the book, set in fashionable Bath, Catherine meets with a new friend, Isabella Thorp, a flighty young woman. When Catherine opines that she wishes she could spend her whole life in reading Ann Radcliffe’s hugely popular and influential Gothic novel, The Mysteries of Udolpho, Isabella replies that she has “made out a list of ten or twelve more of the same kind for you…  Castle of Wolfenbach, Clermont, Mysterious Warnings, Necromancer of the Black Forest, Midnight Bell, Orphan of the Rhine, and Horrid Mysteries.”

For some time in the 19th century, it was generally believed that Austen may have made up these titles, so preposterous did they sound to later, non-Gothic readers. However, later scholarship revealed that the novels did all exist, and they are on display together for the first time in Terror and Wonder. You can read more about the seven horrid novels on the British Library European Studies blog here.


The second half of Northanger Abbey features Catherine’s visit to the Abbey itself, the home of her friend Eleanor Tilney and her brother Henry. On the journey Henry teases Catherine about what she expects the house to be like (as it is called an Abbey, Catherine has of course imagined a full-on Radcliffian dark, brooding, mazelike building stuffed with secrets): "And are you prepared to encounter all the horrors that a building such as 'what one reads about' may produce? Have you a stout heart? Nerves fit for sliding panels and tapestry?" Henry then proceeds to distil various key plotlines from the complete work of Ann Radcliffe into a single, very entertaining narrative at what is to happen at the Abbey during Catherine’s visit. His intention is to entertain, but Catherine is both frightened and immediately expects the worst – or, the most exciting – to happen.

Austen draws the line between the gothic novels of the 1790s (usually set centuries in the past, in continental Europe) and England in the 1790s when Henry reminds Catherine that she should “Remember the country and the age in which we live. Remember that we are English, that we are Christians…. Does our education prepare us for such atrocities? Do our laws connive at them?” By the end of the novel, Catherine has at last learned not to take novels (or herself) so seriously.

Another theme of the novel which, perhaps strangely, links to our exhibition Terror and Wonder, is that of consumerism. Isabella Thorp, when she recommends the seven horrid novels to Catherine, admits that she hasn’t read them herself but has in turn been given the list by Miss Andrews. Isabella’s interest seems to be more that she keeps up with the fashion and is able to make these recommendations than in her own enjoyment of novel-reading. Amongst many other references to the consumer culture of the 1790s (whose lace trimmings are nicer, whether a muslin will wash well) one stands out – the fact that Northanger Abbey itself has a Rumford fireplace. Designed by Count Rumford in the mid- 1790s, this new style of fireplace increased the heat to a room by narrowing the vent.  On display in Terror and Wonder is a parody of an advertisement for a Rumford, in which a young lady reading the scandalous gothic novel The Monk by Matthew Lewis, has a lovely time by her RumPford fire. Scandalous indeed.

Lady reading The Monk by Charles Williams.

Terror and Wonder is on till the 20th January, and you can buy tickets here

Read more about our Jane Austen collections here

Final image courtesy of British Museum Department of Prints and Drawings, 1935,0522.7.12

18 November 2014

The Face in the Glass: Mary Elizabeth Braddon and the Victorian Gothic Tale

Imagine, if you will, an Italian villa, its walls baked by the sun and its gardens surrounded by orange groves. What could be more welcoming and delightful? There is, however, a room at the back of the villa; a room, lined with old leather-bound books, which catches little of the light and always seems dank and cold. Curiously it is with this stale and sunless room that the successive owners of the villa become fascinated. Fascinated indeed to the point of obsession. It is also within this room that an antique mirror made of a distinctive dark glass can be found, a glass that, perhaps, reflects something a little more mysterious than a bland representation of reality. Those who gaze into the mirror's depths become entranced, beguiled, morbidly enraptured, but they also lose vitality, finding themselves ageing prematurely and hurtling towards the grave. There is sunshine outside the villa, but a contrasting haunting darkness within.

Face in the Glass
(Above: The Face in the Glass and Other Gothic Tales, a selection of Mary Elizabeth Braddon's finest tales of the macabre and the uncanny. Published by the British Library)

The above synopsis sounds like something by Edgar Allan Poe but it is actually the outline of an enigmatic and extremely unsettling short story called 'Herself' by Mary Elizabeth Braddon (1835-1915), one of the many brilliant and enigmatic Gothic tales that she wrote throughout her life. The Victorians and the ghost story go hand in hand but, even in such a brilliant and crowded field including authors such as Charles Dickens, Elizabeth Gaskell and Oscar Wilde, Braddon stands out as a particularly fine writer of the beautifully crafted tale of terror. Her stories are always inventive, always challenging and they exhibit a terrific range and variety. Braddon had a gift for evoking atmosphere and an ability to induce that delicious, creepy sensation of something being 'not quite right'.

Today Braddon is best known for her brilliant sensation novel Lady Audley's Secret (1861), a book which turned conventional expectations on their head by having, at its heart, a beautiful, blue-eyed, seemingly 'butter-wouldn't melt' blonde woman as the villain and a man as the victim. At the time this was highly innovative and radical. In Gothic literature, of which sensation fiction is a quintessentially Victorian offshoot, the women were there to swoon and the men were there to be diabolical - not the other way around. Villany had never before been presented in such a subversive and beautifully beguiling fashion.

Although several of Mary Elizabeth Braddon's novels are coming back into print her Gothic tales remain somewhat neglected, a situation which a new publication by the British Library - The Face in the Glass and Other Gothic Tales - aims to redress. The volume gathers together a selection of Braddon's sinister tales, each of which highlights a particular facet of her brilliant imagination. Just as with her longer fiction her short stories endlessly turn conventional expectations upside down. For example, Braddon's female characters are spirited and independent,often railing against the restrictions imposed upon them by Victorian (and distinctly male) society. Similarly she had little time for the conventional happy ending. Many of her short stories have genuinely chilling conclusions while others are veiled in enigma and mystery.

The stories within The Face in the Glass feature visitations from beyond the grave; tales of haunted houses and mirrors that distort the truth. There is a tale of an island inhabited by the spirits of the departed and a story of an elderly woman, Good Lady Ducayne, with claw-like hands who cares little for the qualifications and experience of her attendants provided they have youthful blood flowing through their veins.

Good Lady Ducayne
(Above: Good Lady Ducayne, as depicted in the original publication of the story in The Strand Magazine. 1896)

There is plenty of darkness within the pages of The Face in the Glass, but there is also considerable humour, invention and imagination. The Victorians knew how to tell ghost stories, and Mary Elizabeth Braddon told some of the finest ghost stories of all. The best of her tales such as 'Eveline's Visitant', 'Her Last Appearance', 'The Ghost's Name', 'The Island of Old Faces', 'Herself' and 'Good Lady Ducayne' bear comparison with the acclaimed supernatural tales of Poe, Dickens and Wilde.

The Face in the Glass and Other Gothic Tales is available from the British Library Shop, while sensation fiction, ghost stories and many more Gothic-tinged horrors are explored in detail in the Terror and Wonder exhibition and the assoctiated exhibition book.



14 November 2014

History at Stake! The Story Behind Vampire Slaying Kits

One particular item in the British Library's Terror and Wonder exhibition has inspired more cries of amazement, shivers of fear and gasps of delight than any other. I refer, of course, to the vampire slaying kit which is on loan to the British Library from the Royal Armouries for the duration of the exhibition. In this guest post the curator who looks after the item, Jonathan Ferguson, talks about the origins of the kits and the strange history that lurks behind them.

Vampire New 02
Above: The vampire slaying kit, on loan from the Royal Armouries and currently on display at the British Library.

*****     *****     *****     *****     *****     *****     *****     *****     *****     *****     *****     *****

As Curator of Firearms at the Royal Armouries I deal with everything from medieval hand cannon, through finely decorated works of art, to the latest military assault rifles. But some of my favourite objects are the unusual; the technological dead ends, the experiments, and the whimsical pieces. In parallel with my professional interest in arms and armour is a fascination with the paranormal, though I am not myself a believer in its objective reality. As much as I grew up with Dracula, Ghostbusters and Beetlejuice, I am by nature a sceptic, tending toward the debunking of extraordinary claims. It was in this capacity that I came across my first 'vampire killing kit' on the internet some seven years ago. It was essentially a cased Victorian percussion pistol with accoutrements for loading; so far, so typical. However, this also included a hammer, stakes, a crucifix, and other classic tools of the fictional vampire slayer. It purported to be 19th century in date, but was rather obviously of recent manufacture. Nonetheless, it attracted a lot of interest and intrigue online. Looking into it, I discovered that there were many more of these kits (over 100 are known to exist), and many of them quite professionally made and wholly antique in appearance.

I decided to use my museum training to investigate these unusual pieces, in particular those labelled as having been created by a 'Professor Blomberg'. It is usually stated that these, and vampire kits in general, are late-Victorian novelties or souvenirs, sold to tourists travelling to eastern Europe in the wake of the publication of Dracula in 1897. Some sellers and media outlets even claimed that they were made for believers in vampires, for self-defence purposes. I suspected that they were indeed novelty items, but were rather more recent than many believed. I conducted a survey of the folklore surrounding 'real' vampires, that is, dead bodies exhumed by a troubled community and ritually 'killed' as scapegoats for whatever malaise might be affecting people. Nowhere was there evidence to support real vampire slayers carting about one of these kits. I persisted, revisiting the fictional stories and movies of my childhood and beyond, noting the development of the various ingredients in the typical vampire killer's toolbox. It became clear that the 'Blomberg' kits, with their focus upon silver bullets, were very unlikely to have existed prior to about the 1930s at the earliest. Though constructed from antique boxes and contents, they were most likely not produced until the era of the classic Hammer vampire movies. Other kits are harder to pin down in terms of date and could be older, but there is as yet no evidence of this. Varney 01
Above: An illustration from Varney the Vampire; or, The Feast of Blood (1845 - 47). Varney was actually susceptible to bullets, but would be revived by moonlight. The situation with Count Dracula was rather different.

To some this might come as a disappointment, or even as a reason to decry the kits as fakes as some do. Would-be buyers should certainly not purchase under the apprehension that they are buying a Victorian antique as my own research has shown. So why acquire such an object regardless? Museums do collect deliberate fakes as comparators and for their own artistic and cultural merit, yet vampire kits are not fakes per se, because there is no evidence of a Victorian original. In the case of historical artefacts for which the original does not survive, we will also display reproductions. In this case, there very likely isn't an original. Self-defence against the supernatural was for many in history (and indeed today) a matter of life and death, but the weapons they used were ephemeral. The wooden stakes, guns, and agricultural implements that they attacked vampires and other revenants with either no longer survive, or have lost their provenance and are unable to tell us their story.

So, if they're not fake, and not reproductions, what are they? The answer is that they are 'hyperreal' or invented artefacts somewhat akin to stage, screen or magician's props. They can also be regarded, and indeed have been sold as, pieces of modern art. Formerly the preserve of art galleries and of course libraries, contemporary collection is now also a staple of museum collecting policies. Our profession collects the artefacts of modern war, of medical science, communications technology, even of people's pastimes. 'High art' in the form of contemporary artworks has been joined in museum collections by 'low art' props fabricated for our favourite movies and plays, just as Twilight takes its place next to Dracula in the British Library's stacks. Curators and visitors alike now recognise that objects do not have to be ancient to be interesting and important, as the Were-Rabbit also displayed as part of Terror and Wonder shows! Such immediate and intriguing pieces can also attract new audiences to our respective fields; in the case of the Royal Armouries, that of arms and armour. For all these reasons, we at the Armouries sought to acquire the vampire killing kit that you can now see on display at the British Library.

Vampire New

So, although I had set out to 'debunk' their very existence, I came to realise that these enigmatic objects transcend questions of authenticity. They are part of the material culture of the gothic; aspects of our shared literary and cinematic passions made physical. Lacking any surviving artefact of vampirism either folkloric or fictional, fans of the gothic had created one to fill the gap. So whilst we at the Armouries still plan to scientifically test our vampire kit, and there is the possibility that it's early rather than late 20th century in date, for me the outcome has almost become moot. Vampire killing kits are genuine artefacts of the Gothic fiction that still provides sustenance to our most beloved monsters.

Jonathan Ferguson

*****     *****     *****     *****     *****     *****     *****     *****     *****     *****     *****

The vampire slaying kit will be on display at the British Library until 20th January 2015. There's an opportunity to learn more about vampires as depicted in Victorian literature via our Discovering Literature website. Also, on the British Library's website, you can help conserve a classic Gothic novel for future generations via Adopt a Book and discover more about our series of Terror and Wonder Gothic Events to tie-in with the exhibition.

08 November 2014

Happy Birthday Bram Stoker!

The 8th of November is always an occasion for celebrations within Gothic literary circles, marking as it does the anniversary of Bram Stoker's birth. And yet, at first sight, when you look at the details of Stoker's life it seems odd that he should have produced so many fine Gothic novels. Indeed, with Dracula, he produced arguably the most enduring and influential Gothic horror story of them all.

Bram Stoker
(Bram Stoker - mathematician, athlete, theatre manager and a creator of fine Gothic horrors)

The details of Stoker's life are interesting in themselves but give little insight into why his imagination should have produced so many dark, supernatural tales. He was born in Dublin on the 8th November 1847, the third of seven children. His childhood and youth were a paradoxical mixture of extreme illness (he was largely confined to bed until the age of seven) and vigour (he was a noted athlete during his time as a student at Trinity College Dublin, from where he graduated with a degree in Mathematics). It was during his time as a student that he became interested in the theatre and it is perhaps here that the darkness creeps in. For a while he was the theatre critic for the Dublin Evening Mail, co-owned by the author Sheridan Le Fanu whose novels such as The House by the Churchyard (1863) and Uncle Silas (1864) contributed so much to the popularity of Sensation Fiction during the 1860s, and whose short story 'Carmilla' (1871), telling the tale of a predatory female vampire, was undoubtedly an influence on Dracula. It was while working as a theatre critic that Stoker first met the actor Henry Irving, a man whose charisma and brooding presence is often thought to have been in Stoker's mind when he created the character of the Count.

In 1878 Stoker married the celebrated beauty Florence Balcombe. One of her previous suitors had been Oscar Wilde and although Wilde and Stoker, who had known each other at Trinity College, fell out over the marriage Stoker was ultimately able to resume his friendship with Wilde in later years. Oscar Wilde, of course, went on to write one of the few Gothic novels able to bear comparison with Dracula - namely The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891).

(Florence Balcombe, society beauty and, from 1878, the wife of Bram Stoker)

Upon moving to London after his marriage Stoker became acting manager, and then business manager of Henry Irving's Lyceum Theatre, a post he held for 27 years. Through Irving Stoker met Arthur Conan Doyle, the future author of such Gothic tales as 'The Adventure of the Speckled Band' (1892) and The Hound of the Baskervilles (1902). While he was at the Lyceum Stoker oversaw a stage adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson's brilliant novella Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886). The play, which began its run on the 3rd September 1888, caused controversy due to its perceived similarities to the Whitechapel murders carried out by Jack the Ripper, murders which began at almost exactly the same time. The more you look into Stoker's life, and the more you look at the people with whom he built friendships and working relationships, the more you begin to see the all-pervading air of Gothic drama that fed into Dracula.

Of course Dracula rather overshadows the rest of Stoker's work as an author. To some extent this is inevitable, it is, after all, by some distance his most powerful work. Even so his other novels deserve respect. In particular I have always had a soft spot for The Jewel of Seven Stars (1903), a novel about an archaeologist's attempts to revive Queen Tera, an ancient Egyptian mummy. Like Dracula the novel offers valuable insights into fin-de-siècle themes such as the rise of the New Woman; Imperialism and the way in which the old world of tradition and superstition clashes with the new world of scientific progress. The book was also the basis for one of Hammer's finest and most under-rated movies - Blood from the Mummy's Tomb. The title may be daft, but with its striking lead performance by Valerie Leon and its distinctive visuals the film is most definitely a gem.

(The Jewel of Seven Stars - not as iconic as Dracula, but a fine book all the same)

There is, of course, plenty more to discover about Bram Stoker and Dracula in our major exhibition Terror and Wonder; and there is a wealth of information about Gothic novels and themes on the British Library's Discovering Literature website. There is also an opportunity to help conserve an iconic Gothic novel via Adopt a Book.

So, in conclusion, happy birthday Bram! For those of us who love Gothic literature he really was one of the finest exponents of the chilling tale and, on his birthday, perhaps we should raise a glass of something dark and red in his honour. Thank you for the novels, and thank you for all those dark, hauntingly beautiful memories.


14 October 2014

Carry on Screaming

Autumn ushers in chill winds, falling leaves and lengthening shadows. Mornings and evenings are darker, mists become heavier, spiders scuttle from dark corners and carved pumpkins appear in windows as Halloween looms. All of which makes it the perfect time of year to talk about ghosts and vampires and things that go ARRRRRGH in the night.

Gothic 03

(Above: The entrance to Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination. Photo by Tony Antoniou)

Where better to start when it comes to discussing autumnal shivers than the British Library's major new exhibition, Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination. The exhibition explores two hundred and fifty years of Gothic literature, beginning with Horace Walpole's The Castle of Otranto and running through to the present day. The show provides plenty of insight into novels such as The Mysteries of Udolpho, Frankenstein, Northanger Abbey, Dracula and Rebecca but it also explores, among many other themes, the use of Gothic imagery by authors such as Charles Dickens and the Brontës; our fascination with hauntings; the rise of Gothic literature for children and the macabre appeal of the zombie as the monster of choice in the late 20th century. The exhibition also examines the influence of Gothic literature in other fields including fashion, music, art, architecture and, crucially, film.

Gothic literature and film owe a great deal to one another. The second most frequently portrayed fictional character in film and on television is Count Dracula (the most frequently portrayed is Sherlock Holmes - and given the nature of stories such as The Hound of the Baskervilles and 'The Speckled Band' there is also a considerable amount of Gothic associated with Baker Street's finest). Max Schreck's shadow gliding up the stairs in Nosferatu (1922) provides one of cinema's defining moments; just as Christopher Lee's first appearance as Count Dracula in 1958 altered our mental image of Bram Stoker's creation for ever, changing him from the decayed aristocrat of the novel into a suave and imposing individual possessed of considerable charm. Subsequent adaptations of Dracula have continued the trend for reinventing the Count, portraying him as something akin to a romantic hero, as in Frank Langella's performance from 1979, or as a conflicted but noble figure effectively contracting a deal with the devil in order to save his people as in Dracula Untold, released in 2014.

Gothic 07

(Above: Another iconic portrayal of the Count, this time by Bela Lugosi, seen here with a vampire slaying kit from the Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination exhibition. Photo byTony Antoniou)

Indeed Count Dracula provides a particularly striking example of how cinema adapts characters from Gothic fiction and reflects them back in new forms to highlight changing tastes and attitudes. One film company, Hammer Films, made several movies featuring Bram Stoker's immortal creation and each portrayed the Count in a different fashion. Hammer's first adaptation, Dracula (1958), played fairly freely with the source material, placing the action entirely in a somewhat vaguely defined mittel-Europe of forests, huts and taverns where the locals all go very quiet as soon as the newly-arrived stranger asks for directions to the castle. Certain characters, such as the fly-eating lunatic Renfield were removed altogether while the Count, played by Christopher Lee, is a model of charm, elegance and icy menace. He is also a curiously shadowy figure - dominating the film and yet only speaking thirteen lines of dialogue throughout. The critics were sniffy - with the reviewer in the Daily Worker claiming 'I came away revolted and outraged' - which highlights another common theme: Gothic has never been entirely respectable. It has always been too dark, too transgressive and too challenging to ever find a comfortable home within the realm of the drearily acceptable.

Dracula 1958

Subsequent Hammer films moved the Count away from his East European roots. Taste the Blood of Dracula (1970) placed the Count in fin-de-siècle England, and set him against three debauched and hypocritical members of 'respectable' society. In this scenario the Count actually becomes something of a sympathetic character for a younger generation reacting against the staid traditions and restraints imposed upon them by their parents. In Dracula A.D. 1972 the Count prowled through contemporary London, turning the thrill-seeking hippies who haunted its more colourful locations to the dark side. The Count and decadence do seem to go together - somehow he is at home amongst the dandies and the aesthetes and those on the margins of society whether they date from the 1890s or the 1970s.

Like all of the best villains you can't keep the Count down. Dracula continues to stalk our television shows and cinema screens, not to mention our imaginations. He really is a monster for all times and seasons. A nightmare for all ages and places. Happy screaming.

Learn more about Gothic literature on our Discovering Literature website while the Events programme for Terror and Wonder can be found here. Enjoy, and please don't have nightmares.




15 August 2014

Living the Victorian Nightmare: The Damnation of Theron Ware

The Devil, so the theory goes, has the best tunes. In literature it is probably fair to say he also has the majority of the best books. Even when he doesn't take centre stage himself the Devil's calling cards - lust, envy, temptation, the lure of wealth and power - usually make for fascinating themes with which to drive forward plot and character. In such a diabolically crowded field it is hardly surprising that certain elegant Faustian tales have slipped through the net and fallen into undeserved obscurity. One such tale however, The Damnation of Theron Ware (1896) by the American author Harold Frederic is surely ripe for rediscovery. Not only is it an excellent story in itself, it also reveals a great deal about the anxieties, doubts and fears - as well as the glorious freedoms - of the Victorian fin de siècle. As a one-volume summation of troubling late-Victorian themes the book can hardly be bettered. After all, Robert Louis Stevenson's Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886) featured a meddling scientist; Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891) depicted a man in thrall to his own brilliant potential and Bram Stoker's Dracula (1897) featured, in the figure of Lucy Westenra, a predatory New Woman capable of seducing men at the drop of a neat little handkerchief. The Damnation of Theron Ware, on the other hand, features all three.

Theron Ware

(Above: the original cover for The Damnation of Theron Ware. If you only read one unfairly neglected masterpiece in your life, make it this one)

What makes The Damnation of Theron Ware so brilliantly perceptive is the way it plays upon doubt, temptation and the desire to experience the intoxicating pleasures of life to the full. In the course of his work as a Methodist pastor in small-town America Theron Ware comes into contact with people very different, and to his mind considerably more exciting than he is himself. Take Celia Madden for example (that's her on the cover above): flame-haired, free-spirited and stunningly beautiful. Unsurprisingly when Celia takes Theron back to her heavily-draped rooms full of religious art and erotic sculptures and plays him Chopin nocturnes on her piano he emerges, sometime later, bewitched, bothered, bewildered and besotted. The poor chap is never quite the same again: at one point he even has a mystical vision of Celia's face overlaid upon that of the Virgin Mary in a stained glass church window.

The Victorian attitude to the New Woman, the generic term for the independently-minded women who came to prominence in the 1880s and 1890s, was curiously contradictory. For her critics, who were by no means all male, she was stereotyped - in an extremely contradictory fashion - as either a mannish, child-hating lesbian or else as a sexually predatory vamp. Celia Madden, with her charm, charisma and disregard for convention, is the embodiment of the latter variety. Similarly Theron's encounter with the atheist scientist Dr Ledsmar, a man who performs sinister experiments upon his collection of lizards and bees and who dopes his Chinese manservant with increasingly heroic doses of laudanum simply to observe the consequences leaves Theron questioning his drearily out-dated notion of morality. The local Catholic priest, meanwhile, Father Forbes, has a very free take on theological doctrine which reduces Theron to feelings of hopeless inferiority. In his attempts to be more like his new friends Theron abandons the very traits - respect, decency, diligence - that first brought him success. In turn Celia Madden, Dr Ledsmar and Father Forbes find Theron's plays at being more progressive both feeble and embarrassing. Morality clashes with amorality; the past clashes with the future; small town America clashes with the birth of the modern and the desire to do good works for the many clashes with the pursuit of individual desire and pleasure.

Harold Frederic

(Above: Harold Frederic, barely-known author of unfairly-neglected masterpiece. Life can be cruel ...)

The English title for Harold Frederic's book was Illumination. The twist being that the 'illumination' Theron achieves comes at the cost of spiritual and moral decay and only serves to leave the surrounding darkness more profound. As a morality tale on the dangers of temptation it is a fine novel. As a depiction of fin de siècle fear, anxiety and hedonistic pleasure it is up there with the very best.



16 July 2014

Aleister Crowley on record

The British Library's summer exhibition Comics Unmasked: Art and Anarchy in the UK is the UK’s largest ever exhibition of mainstream and underground comics. Many of the works on display, particularly those published from the late 1960s onwards, uncompromisingly address political issues, gender issues, drugs, sex and violence, among other subjects.

A modest section located towards the exit acknowledges the interest in magic and mysticism of comics writers such as Alan Moore, who has famously stated that he regards himself as a magician first and a writer second.

Visitors can view Moore's work alongside the magic book (c. 1581-3) of Elizabethan occultist John Dee, and a notebook (c. 1899) kept by Aleister Crowley while in magical training with the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, whose other members included the poet W. B. Yeats, and the writers of supernatural fiction Algernon Blackwood and Bram Stoker (more about them in the Library's next big exhibition - on Gothic literature).  

Born in Leamington Spa, Aleister Crowley (1875-1947) was a poet, writer and mountaineer (also, according to Somerset Maugham, 'the best whist player of his time'1).

He is best known however as the twentieth century's most influential exponent of the practice of 'magick' (Crowley added a 'k' to differentiate his practice from stage magic).

The Oxford English Dictionary defines magic as 'the use of ritual activities or observances which are intended to influence the course of events or to manipulate the natural world, usually involving the use of an occult or secret body of knowledge; sorcery, witchcraft'.

In his lifetime Crowley's activities attracted highly negative reports in the press: a front-page Sunday Express article from 4 March 1923, for example, painted Crowley as 'a drug fiend, an author of vile books, the spreader of obscene practices' and  'one of the most sinister figures of modern times'.

At around the same time the weekly journal John Bull ran a series of anti-Crowley articles with titles such as 'The King of Depravity' and 'The Wickedest Man in the World'. The latter phrase has stuck ever since, cropping up almost without fail whenever Crowley is mentioned in the mainstream media.


Should you be interested, the articles mentioned here can be consulted in microfilm format in the British Library's new Newsroom

Years after his death, Crowley's dictum 'Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law', and his rejection of conventional religious and societal mores, attracted the attention of the rock and pop generation: in 1967 the Beatles included an image of Crowley on the front cover of their Sgt. Pepper LP sleeve; the Doors posed with a bust of Crowley on the reverse of their 1970 compilation LP 13; Led Zeppelin had Crowley's 'Do what thou wilt' inscribed into the run-out groove of their third album; and unlikely followers Eddie and the Hot Rods used Crowley's image and the 'Do what thou wilt' quote on the sleeve of their 1977 single 'Do Anything You Wanna Do' (i.e. 'Do what thou wilt' rendered in rock'n'roll argot) .

Underground musical artists such as Psychic TV, Coil, and David Tibet's Current 93, have likewise made their interest in Crowley evident in various ways.

When the curators of the Comics Unmasked exhibition requested an audio sample of Crowley speaking, we thought it a good time to take a closer look at the recordings that circulate of his voice.

The first question, naturally, was: are they authentic?

Within the Library's sound archive, suspicions had been aired some years ago that a circa 1990s CD issue of the Crowley recordings (the same set of recordings has been issued over the years by various labels, as we shall see) was unlikely, for various technical reasons, to have been, as stated on the product, a collection of recordings originally made on wax cylinders.   

I sent a speculative email to David Tibet, who was the first person to produce an LP-length collection of the Crowley recordings ('The Hastings Archives', GOETIA 666, 1986). David replied immediately, explaining where he had sourced the tapes used for his release ('a Thelemite group run by Kenneth Grant'), and stating unequivocally that the recordings 'are absolutely genuine and absolutely Crowley'.

'The Hastings Archives' is an unusual record in many respects: there is no written information on the outer sleeve beyond the label/catalogue number and the handwritten limited edition number (the Library's copy is numbered 105/418); neither the title nor the name of the artist appears on the sleeve or label at all; one side plays at 45 rpm, the other at 33; and the paper label on mint copies covers the centre hole and has to be punctured so the record can be played. Finally, a contemporary promotional flyer/insert states that 'the plates for LP manufacture have now been destroyed'.

David Tibet put me on to William Breeze of the Crowley Estate who kindly shared with me some liner notes he had previously prepared towards a possible authorized release of the recordings.

These notes quote Crowley's diary entries of 1936 onwards, which make several references to recording sessions, and a letter to the HMV company, in which Crowley, trying to interest HMV in a commercial arrangement, mentions that his recordings were  made 'privately in Coventry Street', presumably in a walk-up DIY recording booth. The resulting products would have been 78 rpm lacquer discs (sometimes referred to as 'acetate' discs) not wax cylinders as has been claimed on some issues of the material.    

William Breeze says that the original discs are believed lost or possibly in a private collection, but that at least one copy (as in dubbing) of one of the original discs does exist in the Estate's holdings.

I don't know which titles are featured on this disc but it may perhaps have served as the source for the first commercial issue of a Crowley voice recording: a 7" vinyl disc (Marabo UPS 500, 1976), the A-side of which features Crowley reciting two poems, 'La Gitana' and 'Pentagram'. The sound quality here is slightly superior to any subsequent issue of these tracks. The disc is backed with 'Scarlet Woman', a spooky Leonard Cohen-ish rock song performed by a group called Chakra. An insert that comes with the disc (missing from the Library's copy unfortunately) suggests the Crowley recordings were made in the 1940s.


I asked British Library audio engineer Tom Ruane to compare four versions of the same recording, drawn from: (a) the Marabo 7";  (b) 'The Hastings Archives' LP; (c) 'Aleister Crowley' LP (OZ 77, 1986); (d) 'The Great Beast Speaks' CD (DISGUST 1, 1999).


The image above is a screen grab from Wavelab 7 software showing a comparison of the four sound waves. The top one (the Marabo 7") is the 'cleanest' and closest to the source; the next one down ('The Hastings Archives' LP) is a slightly quieter version - and the sound wave is now 180 degrees out of phase, as it is on version (c), which is probably a straight copy of (b).

Though versions (c) and (d) clearly come from the same source (or one that is a generation or two removed), they have had differing levels of compression and equalization applied, to bring out the 'top end' (higher frequencies).  All three later versions play very slightly faster than the Marabo 7".

Tom tells me that the noise profiles are in tune with the kind of groove distortion one expects from a 78 rpm disc.

In the world of sound archiving, final judgements on provenance and authenticity sometimes have to be suspended to a degree, especially if one does not have access to the original master copy of the recording under scrutiny. But the circumstantial and technical evidence in this case is fairly persuasive and there seems no reason to doubt that these are indeed recordings of the voice of Crowley.

Copyright regulations do not allow us to post any sound clips here but all the recordings discussed may be consulted at the Library free-of-charge by appointment. 


1. Crowley served as the model for Somerset Maugham's character Oliver Haddo in his 1908 novel The Magician

With thanks to William Breeze, David Tibet and Tom Ruane.

12 June 2014

Portraits Behaving Badly: Decadence, Degeneration and The Picture of Dorian Gray

In the very first Gothic novel, Horace Walpole's The Castle of Otranto (1764), a figure steps down from a painting and enters the action, instigating an enduring trend for portraits in Gothic novels to behave rather strangely. In Melmoth the Wanderer (1820), for example, written by Oscar Wilde's great uncle Charles Maturin, the eyes in a particular portrait appear to follow one of the characters around a room. Nathaniel Hawthorne's The House of The Seven Gables (1851) contains a portrait that hides - quite literally - a family secret while Edgar Allan Poe's 'The Oval Portrait' (1842) features a model who becomes increasingly pale and still while her portrait blossoms with a lifelike radiance. Sensation fiction, which reached its peak in the 1860s joined in the pictorial mayhem - Mary Elizabeth Braddon's novel Lady Audley's Secret (1862) features a painting of the dazzling - and deadly - Lucy Graham with her lips twisted into a sneer; something the artist has unconsciously sensed rather than seen in Lucy's flawless beauty. Even poetry features the occasional disturbing portrait-related incident. In Christina Rossetti's 'In an Artist's Studio' the artist obsessively pores over the face of his model, gazing at her with an almost vampire-like intensity; something which leads to one of the most disturbing lines in all of Victorian poetry -  'He feeds upon her face by day and night'.

Then, of course, there is Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray, a novel about a painting that bears the weight of its subject's debauchery and has to be hidden away from prying eyes.

Oscar Wilde Harry Keen 1925

(Above: Dorian Gray on his way to view the latest indications of disgraceful behaviour as manifested on the painting in his attic. Taken from a 1925 edition of the novel illustrated by Harry Keen)

The British Library's new Discovering Literature website features a wealth of material on both Oscar Wilde and The Picture of Dorian Gray, as well as articles on  Aestheticism and Decadence - schools of thought and ways of life that came to define so much of Wilde's work. The Picture of Dorian Gray, rather like Robert Louis Stevenson's slightly earlier novella Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886) is a tale that reveals a great deal about the age in which it was written.

Many Victorians believed that sinful and shameful acts left a visible record upon the faces of those guilty of such activities. Dorian's ability to indulge every vice he dares to imagine while remaining forever youthful and unblemished frees him from suspicion. His soul may rot, in the form of the sodden and unclean painting, but he himself can maintain his position in society without so much as a single blemish on his visible character. This ability to lead a double life - respectable on the surface but disgraceful in private - was a notion that troubled many in Victorian society. What if politicians, clergymen, scientists and so on - so morally upstanding and  respectable when judged by their day-to-day appearances - were monsters of depravity behind their front doors? It was a terrifying idea, and one that came back to haunt Wilde himself.

Lippincott's Monthly Magazine. July 1890

(Above: Lippincott's Monthly Magazine for July 1890, the first appearance in print of The Picture of Dorian Gray)

When The Picture of Dorian Gray first appeared in Lippincott's Monthly Magazine reviews were harsh. The story was described as 'effeminate', 'unmanly' and - most damningly of all in the opinion of the British press - openly French in its aesthetic. Nothing, in late-Victorian conservative opinion, reeked quite so potently of filthy decadent practices as French literature. The yellow book, given to Dorian by his friend Lord Henry and which aids in his corruption is usually thought to be Against Nature, a novel first published in 1884 by the French author Joris-Karl Huysmans depicting the activities of a dissolute aristocrat, Des Esseintes. At one point Des Esseintes encrusts jewels onto the surface of a tortoise's shell so he can watch the dazzling rays of reflected light as the creature crawls across his carpets.  Des Esseintes, with his desire for perverse private pleasures was, whatever else, certainly not a prime example of healthy behaviour. No wonder, then, that the Scots Observer review of Dorian Gray denounced the book as fit 'for none but outlawed noblemen and perverted telegraph boys', a reference to a homosexual brothel recently raided by the police on London's Cleveland Street.

Just as Dorian Gray becomes doubled with his portrait, and just as the Lippincott's version of the novel became doubled with the toned-down volume edition published the following year, then so did Wilde's public image become doubled with his private life.

Bard of Beauty 1880. Time Magazine 1880

(Above: The Bard of Beauty, by Alfred Thompson. Time Magazine, 1880)

Oscar Wilde played up, and played up brilliantly, to the idea of 'art for art's sake'. In an early cartoon The Bard of Beauty, which appeared ten years before the publication of Dorian Gray, Wilde was caricatured as being every inch the dandy. When scandal caught up with him in the form of allegations about his private life Wilde's novel The Picture of Dorian Gray, and especially its first incarnation as published in Lippincott's, was used in evidence against him. Just as Dorian's portrait revealed the real nature of the man then so was Oscar Wilde's brilliant but troubling novel regarded by prosecuting counsel as revealing the true nature of its creator. Wilde's preface to the book, which included the lines - 'There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written, or badly written. That is all'  - sadly cut no ice.

Art and the artist remain, for good or ill, two sides of the same coin in the eyes of many.

English and Drama blog recent posts



Other British Library blogs