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8 posts categorized "Gothic"

11 November 2015

Mechanics not Magic

From the flint axe to the electric washine machine, human beings have generally tried to lighten the physical load in their lives and increase comfort and pleasure. In 18th-century Europe, new technologies burgeoned for ever more purposes. From Jethro Tull’s seed drill to increasingly sophisticated mechanical clocks, new inventions were both discussed in learned journals and sold at various metropolitan and provincial fairs throughout France and England. That science and technology were servants of a wider humanity was an idea that Revolutionary France extensively explored and implemented. The imposition of the kilometre and kilogram brought order, uniformity and mutual understanding and, indeed, the guillotine itself replaced protracted, labour-intensive methods of execution with an instantaneous and humane one.

This idea also explored in the literature of the Revolution and a curious example of it is the novella Le miroir des événemens actuels, ou La belle au plus offrant, histoire à deux visages by François-Félix Nogaret (1740-1831). The British Library has recently acquired a copy of this extremely rare work. Combining shades of the Gothic, Romantic and erotic, it is science fiction aspiring to be science fact. It evolves into a political tract advocating an alliance between applied science and rational thought in order to enhance human well-being and happiness.

NogaretTitle-page of  François-Félix Nogaret, Le miroir des événemens actuels, ou La belle au plus offrant, histoire à deux visages (Paris, 1790) British Library C.188.b.98

The story develops through the person of Aglaonice – a young, intelligent woman – who offers to marry the man who will create the most ingenious machine to win her heart. Six suitors then come forward. The first two discredit themselves by the scientific incompetence and pointlessness of their inventions. The third and fourth suitors reveal themselves as fraudsters intent only on swindling the gullible. The fifth suitor is named Frankestein, as comely in person as he is in character. He offers a self-locomoting statue which plays a range of music of exquisite beauty. Understandably, Aglaonice desires him but accepts his advice to see the sixth suitor before making her decision. This final suitor’s machine is also an automaton which manufactures jewels. Since his invention combines superior technological ingenuity with financial stability and wealth generation, Aglaonice chooses him as her husband. Her sister marries Frankestein.

The mechanism to make these automata function is not described but Aglaonice’s examination of each invention is strictly rational and scientific. If it fails against its scientific claims, she rejects it. Her criteria are also ethical, requiring the betterment and greater happiness of human beings and not just simple scientific achievement without social purpose. Therefore, only that which brings wealth and beauty into the world wins Aglaonice’s heart. Frankestein’s ethics match Aglaonice’s. By not pressing his initial advantage but wanting the sixth suitor’s invention to be seen, he ensures the greatest good of the greatest number. He thus exemplifies the “new man” advocated by so much Revolutionary rhetoric - devoted to the general welfare rather than to private benefit and reflecting the social optimism which was so strong in the first phase of the Revolution.

In the text, both the fictional and factual interweave rather awkwardly but are humorous and serious by turns with occasionally the texture of journalism. The French reading public of 1790 would have immediately understood the social and political events and technological developments to which the many puns, leitmotifs and wordplays refer. The author also supports his purpose with frequent digressions into science and natural history. The story ends with an unsurprising attack on the obscurantism and authoritarianism of the Catholic Church and a demand for its exclusion from all social and political power.

Since 1818 and the first publication of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, there is also the teasing question of the relationship, if any, between her novel and Nogaret’s novella. Certainly, the name of  Frankestein echoes in Frankenstein and unnamed beings are artificially created in both cases. Otherwise, these two works mirror each other only in their points of opposition.

The creatures made by Frankestein and the sixth suitor serve what La Mettrie believed to be the purpose of human nature which is the search for and creation of hedonism and delight in life. These automata are made to bring exclusively these things to human beings. They cannot do otherwise. The medical scientist Dr Victor Frankenstein, however, assembles and reanimates a human corpse just because he can. The scientific achievement is justification enough for his actions.  The being that he creates inherits the fullness of human nature. It demands love but is physically unlovable and Dr Frankenstein denies it any possibility of love. In return and of its own free will, it chooses to destroy the loving relationships of others.

Frankensteinc0382505 Frontispiece from Mary Shelley, Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus (London, 1831). 1153.a.9.

There have been suggestions that Shelley’s Frankenstein may be a story describing how the French revolutionaries lost control of the Revolution which became a deadly behemoth and that Nogaret’s novella was a possible source for her story. Without firmer evidence, these must remain suggestions.

Des McTernan, Former Curator, French Collections


09 April 2015

The Eyes Have It

Some of the most disturbing scenes in literature have been evoked through imagery of the eyes. They mirror the soul, they express love and loathing, joy and sadness, courage and fear, and encompass so much of what is human in us. Yet with their precious complexity comes a dreadful vulnerability. King Lear has one of the most shocking scenes in drama when Gloucester’s eyes are gouged out by Cornwall. In the Japanese ghost story, The Eyes! The Eyes! a young man dares to stay the night in a derelict temple with a decaying Shoji screen believed to be impregnated with the eyes of evil spirits. The next morning only his eyes are found wrapped in a dirty rag. The blue eyes of Dracula in Bram Stoker’s novel flame red with a horrible vindictive look, and in Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre Rochester’s violently insane wife Bertha is “like a foul German spectre, a vampire, with fiery red eyes”.

I recently came across a short story by E.T.A. Hoffmann, the German writer, composer and painter, who was an early exponent of this kind of imagery. In Der Sandmann of 1816 he portrayed a folkloric figure who sprinkled sand in the eyes of mischievous children to make them sleep when they wouldn’t go to bed. Nathanael, a child and the main protagonist, associates the Sandman with a mysterious character called Coppelius who regularly visits his father to conduct alchemical experiments. The essence of the story is Nathanael’s progression into mental illness, born of a naturally unstable mind and exacerbated by the stories of the Sandman as a child.

Drawing of E.T.A. HoffmannE.T.A. Hoffmann, based on a self-portrait reproduced in Ludwig Zacharias Werner, Aus Hoffmann’s Leben und Nachlass (Berlin, 1823). 10706.b.41.

While the other examples I have given relied on graphic scenes for their effect, apart from one such description at the start of the story the threat to the eyes is maintained by Hoffmann more obliquely, and competes with other strong motifs such as mechanical devices and laughing. For example, when Nathanael is discovered hiding in the room where Coppelius is carrying out an experiment, he is referred to by Coppelius as ‘eyes’ rather than a boy: “‘Augen her, Augen her!’ rief Coppelius mit dumpfer dröhnender Stimme … ‘Nun haben wir Augen – Augen – ein schön Paar Kinderaugen’.” (‘”Eyes here! Eyes here!” cried Coppelius with dark roaring voice … “Now we have eyes – eyes – a beautiful pair of children’s eyes.”’)

Illustration of a boy hiding behind a curtain watching two men
Nathanael hiding during Coppelius’s experiment; drawing by Hoffmann, reproduced in Ludwig Zacharias Werner, Aus Hoffmann’s Leben und Nachlass

But his one explicit example is strikingly frightening, particularly as it involves children, whose only half-formed minds struggle to rationalise the fear they experience. Their nanny tells them that if they won't go to bed the Sandman will come and throw sand in their eyes. Their eyes will bulge, drip blood and fall out. They will be taken away to the Sandman’s own children who live in a nest and have curved beaks like owls which they use to peck at and eat children's eyes. The hard vowels in German reinforce the image – “damit picken sie der unartigen Menschenkindlein Augen auf”.

The eyes motif is sustained throughout the story. Clara, Nathanael’s fiancée, has eyes that “springen in Nathanaels Brust wie blutige Funken sengend und brennend” (“spring into Nathanael’s breast, burning and sizzling like bloody sparks”) and, when their love fails and Nathanael becomes infatuated with Olimpia, whom he has only seen at a distance through a telescope, she is finally revealed as merely a mechanical doll which ends up shattered on the floor, its eyes lying randomly amongst the remnants of the wooden corpse: “Nun sah Nathanael, wie ein Paar blutige Augen auf dem Boden liegend ihn anstarrten, die ergriff Spalanzi … und warf sie nach ihm, daß sie seine Brust trafen”. (“Now Nathanael saw a pair of bloody eyes lying on the floor staring at him, which Spalanzi seized and threw at him, hitting him in the chest.”)

Hoffmann’s use of eye imagery creates powerful pictures in the reader’s mind and helps to sustain the brooding menace of the Sandman throughout the story. Sigmund Freud was so impressed by it that he wrote an essay, Das Unheimliche (‘The Uncanny’), wherein he interpreted it as a fear of castration. The story has become an important work as an early 19th century example of the horror short story genre.

Trevor Willimott, former Cataloguer, West European Languages

19 January 2015

Afterthoughts on the Spanish Gothic

Despite the success, in their time, of works such as Agustín Pérez Zaragoza y Godínez’s Galería fúnebre de espectros y cabezas ensangrentadas (1831), the Gothic presence in the canon of 19th-century Spanish literature is not great. José Cadalsoʼs Noches lúgubres (British Library 1480.a.27), published in El Correo de Madrid (o de los ciegos) in 1789-90 must have been the first and most successful Spanish imitation of Edward Young’s works, but they remained, in their time, an isolated phenomenon. José María Blanco White’s Vargas: a Tale of Spain (1822; N.98), which could have been an apt example for our purposes, was written in English and published in London, and did not circulate much in Spain. Later in the century we could cite José de Espronceda’s longer poems, El estudiante de Salamanca (1837- ; published in book form in 1840) and El diablo mundo (1841;, or pick some of the Leyendas that Gustavo Adolfo Bécquer published from 1858 onwards in magazines such as El Contemporáneo. The names and titles are conspicuous enough, but none of these canonical texts seems to match the rich concept of the Gothic imagination that the Terror and Wonder exhibition has illustrated.

Yet by the mid-19th century, stormy nights, deserted streets, dark and lonely churches, convents and palaces had become commonplace in Spanish literature; more specifically, they had become a must for the opening scenes of any fictional text that intended to reach and seduce a wide audience. Judging by the number of texts that open on these notes it might seem that, despite the apparent lack of a local Gothic tradition, certain sections of the ever-growing reading public had fallen under the spell of terror and wonder. Indeed, many contemporary critics saw the new readers as avid consumers of any kind of cheap thrills that the publishing industry would produce. Although no single phenomenon can explain by itself the spread of Gothic imagery in Spain, the so-called popular novel did play an important part in bringing it closer to the historical present. Eugène Sueʼs novels Les Mystères de Paris and Le Juif errant were widely read in Spain during the 1840s and 1850s, and his poetics of urban phantasmagoria were quickly appropriated and utilised by, among others, Wenceslao Ayguals de Izco. Ayguals, a prolific writer and literary entrepreneur, took Sue’s texts as a model for his own Historias-Novelas, which dealt with what he considered to be the main (political, moral, religious) concerns of his Spanish contemporaries.

Though Ayguals used the label Historias-Novelas to advertise many of his works, it is rarely as accurate as in El Tigre del Maestrazgo, o De grumete a general (1846), a sort of novelized biography of the Carlist general Ramón Cabrera (1806- 1877), who had nearly led his troops to victory in some campaigns of the First Carlist War (1833-1840). The second edition of the novel (12490.g.7)  was published in 1849, in the wake of the Second Carlist War (1847-1849) that led Cabrera into exile, first in Marseille, then in Wentworth, near London.

Title page of El Tigre del Maestrazgo with a vignette of a crouching tiger
Title page of El Tigre del Maestrazgo (Madrid, 1849) 12490.g.7.

The first pages of the book set the scene. The novel is dedicated to the memory of Ayguals’ brother, Joaquín, who fought in the First Carlist War on the Liberal side, and was killed by “the ferocious Cabrera” in 1835 alongside 62 other Liberal soldiers.

The second hall the readers will have to cross before they enter the realm of fiction is an emphatic funeral poem that the author wrote when a cenotaph was erected in his home town to honour the memory of the 63 Liberal soldiers:

A poem in Spanish with four stanzas above an illustration of a chapel among trees
A prologue follows where the author explains his reasons for writing the novel and paints a first portrait of Cabrera – known everywhere by his nom de guerre, el Tigre del Maestrazgo – as a daredevil tactician and a “ruthless terrorist, arsonist and murderer” driven not by his ideals or his sense of strategy but by sheer thirst for blood.

And then the novel itself starts, with the description of a stormy winter night in Tortosa, Cabrera’s home town: the howling wind, lightning and thunder, fire and flood all suggest that something terrible is about to happen. “Sighs of agony and doleful cries for help resounded everywhere”; and in the house of a poor and honest fisherman, a heavily pregnant woman feels as though she is bearing “a beast that tears my insides out”. She is about to give birth to Ramón Cabrera, el Tigre del Maestrazgo.

The topics and devices of such an opening scene served the author’s aesthetic and ideological purposes well: the troubles and catastrophes that attend Cabrera’s birth in December 1806 – Ayguals evokes the flooding of Tortosa in previous years, but no such event seems to have occurred in 1806 – are a sign of what his life and deeds will mean to his contemporaries. Within the narrative structure of the novel, this scene acts as a sort of overture, but in the act of reading, it seems to serve the same purpose as the dimming of lights at the theatre as the curtain goes up and the spectators enter the dark realm of fiction.

Gothic imagery in the rest of the novel seems restricted to the description of the clergy and the religious institutions that supported the Carlist movement. Ayguals identifies the binary opposition of Liberals and Carlists with the binary opposition of Progress and Fanaticism, which soon becomes one of the driving forces of his novel (the other being melodrama). Despite this narrative turn, reading El Tigre del Maestrazgo we get the impression that the engravers who illustrated it were keen to return to Gothic imagery whenever the occasion arose, as the following image (from vol. I, p. 146) shows:

Illustration of a priest being assailed by winged skeletons and ghosts
Although the face does not really resemble other portraits of his that we find throughout the novel, this is supposed to be Cabrera, on the scaffold, about to be executed, and haunted by the ghosts of the people he had murdered. The description of this nightmare takes barely three lines in the text, yet the image it suggested was too fascinating to let it go.

Santiago Díaz Lage, Universidade de Santiago de Compostela/Université Paul Valéry – Montpellier 3

08 December 2014

‘Say “Dracula” and you smile. Say “Nosferatu” and you’ve eaten a lemon’

Introducing the Germanness of all things Gothic in an earlier post, Susan Reed draws the borderline between the South – ‘fine art, classical civilisation and the Renaissance’ - and the gothic North, concluding that ‘it’s harder to be gothic under a blue and sunny sky.’ This separation has a lot to do with meteorological, agricultural and gastronomical particularities – the vines simply stop growing by the time you get to the North.

What this means for Northern life and its artistic and cultural responses is something quite different to the restrained pietism and often ideal imagined worlds of classicism. As Jonathan Meades has it, in his 2008 documentary Magnetic North, ‘The North is the unpromised land of darkness, the gothic in all its forms, the thrilling grimness, exhilarating harshness, inky canals, fog, glistening cobbles – of buildings which respond to vast lands and skies with spires.’ One needs only to compare, for instance, the Isenheim Altarpiece (Matthias Grünewald 1512-1516) to a Raphael alternative – take Crucifixion with the Virgin, Saints and Angels. The German representation of the crucifixion is plague-ridden, screaming pain, whereas the Italian version shows an almost peaceful death. The hostile conditions of the Northern world are, therefore, tangibly transmitted into its art forms, which seek to escape the same world through a fantastical imagination always already informed by everyday horror.

The Gothic Exhibition is tinged with, if not haunted by, this hostile northernness (and its particular German variety). Once you navigate around the black spaces of the exhibition, brushing past black diaphanous dividing curtains, you reach the Dracula room, separated off in a dark corner, to be greeted by the black and white of a film projection – F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu: Eine Symphonie des Grauens (1922). Murnau’s film is self-consciously based on Stoker’s Dracula and yet critics argue that, had Murnau not admitted his source, the works differ so much that it might have been easy to forget the connection (Mayne). Anders Larsson – firmly in the pro-Nosferatu camp – understands Stoker’s Dracula as ‘sophisticated, culturally aware, aristocratic, and seductive’ even engaging in ‘banter, seduction, small talk.’ In other words, Dracula is decidedly a human type, an intelligent, attractive one at that.

Cover of a 1901 edition of 'Dracula' with a picture of Count Dracula crawling down the wall of his castle
Dracula, from the first illustrated edition of Bram Stoker's novel (London, 1901) C.194.a.862

A quick glance at the list of actors in the English-speaking role only confirms this Anglo-American conception of the monster: Bela Lugosi, Christopher Lee, Gary Oldman, and Luke Evans (who is in this year’s Dracula Untold). Nosferatu, or Count Orlok, as he is known, is rather ‘repulsive in every way’ and certainly ‘not a sexy vampire’. Bald-headed, grotesquely exaggerated facial features, ever-lengthening fingernails, Orlok is (deliberately) rodent-like, far from conventional notions of beauty, yet perhaps far closer than Dracula to a shared concept of monstrosity. The difference is best articulated in the words of the film critic Roger Ebert: ‘Say “Dracula” and you smile. Say “Nosferatu” and you've eaten a lemon.’

Nosferatu (played by Max Schreck) standing in his castle gateway, from the 1922 film
Max Schreck as Count Orlok in Nosferatu (1922)

Countering the critical idea that Nosferatu is somehow Dracula avant la lettre, Saviour Catania attempts to show the already extant German romanticism and mysticism in Stoker’s work itself. The story is then Germanized both before and after the fact. Stoker has the vampire say, ‘I love the dark and shadow’, which Catania sees as a German romantic obsession with the ‘shadowy self, fragmenting into a more insubstantial parallel realm.’ If the story is indeed a play of dark and shadow, we begin to see the reasons for Nosferatu’s appeal, as film itself, in its earliest, silent, monochromatic form, is already a vampyric medium – a play of light and dark. In the scratchy, sketchy imprint of the remaining copies of Murnau’s film, the modern viewer is disturbed by default. Blackness engulfs the frame. Orlok becomes shadow, always hiding in them, rarely appearing in close-up, and Catania understands Murnau’s achievement as precisely the ‘ingenious ways of incarnating in visual images Stoker’s verbal descriptions of what is visible but incorporeal.’

Like the gruesome artworks of Grünewald, Bosch and northern Gothic in general, Nosferatu is inventive, fantastical and self-reflexive; it draws attention to its artifice, showing that both the horror and its representations are all the work of man, confining the horror to the ever-alienating and deadly potential of our world. We cannot escape. Shadow encroaches onto the edges of the film and re-asserts our uncertainty and the very real fears of the viewers’ worlds.

Florence Stoker, the wife of the author, immediately sought legal action after the appearance of Murnau’s film. A long drawn-out battle eventually saw the court order the destruction of all copies of the film. Living up to its name, Nosferatu (Romanian for ‘un-dead’), could not be destroyed and the film re-surfaced two years later. The film continues to haunt the legacy of Dracula as well as the Dracula room in the Gothic exhibition. We may even read the strong presence of (black and white) film in the exhibition, with its flickering play of projected light (and dark), as a nod to the ‘death-mask’ (André Bazin, in Catania) that is cinema itself, and the intangible shadowiness of our underlying horrors. However we understand the Dracula story and in whichever German, English, literary, or filmic mode, the vampire is here to stay, forever haunting the imagination. We can join Jonathon Meades in concluding, the Gothic ‘never went away, it never will.’

Pardaad Chamsaz, Collaborative PhD Student

References/Further Reading

F. W. Murnau, Nosferatu. Eine Symphonie des Grauens.  Sound collections 1DVD0006027

Henrik Galeen, ‘Nosferatu. eine Symphonie des Grauens: Scenario adapted from Bram Stoker's Dracula’ in Masterworks of the German cinema. Introduction by Dr. Roger Manvell (London, [1973].). X.989/24324.

Jackson, Kevin, Nosferatu : eine Symphonie des Grauens  (London, 2013.) YC.2014.a.7043

Thomas Elsaesser, ‘Six degrees of Nosferatu’,

Wayne E. Hensley, ‘The contribution of F. W. Murnau’s Nosferatu to the evolution of Dracula’. Literature Film Quarterly, 30 (1), 2002, pp. 59-64. 5276.721100

Judith Mayne, ‘Dracula in the Twilight: Murnau’s Nosferatu (1922)’, in German Film and Literature, (New York; London, 1986). YC.1986.b.2491

Roger Ebert, ‘Nosferatu’,

Anders Larsson, ‘Nosferatu as 20th century German zeitgeist’,

Saviour Catania, ‘Absent Presences in Liminal Places’, Literature Film Quarterly, 32 (3), 2004, pp. 229-236.

Jonathan Meades, Magnetic North, (BBC4, 2008). (available online at:


28 November 2014

‘All Horrid’ – but not all German

One of the display cases in our current Gothic Exhibition shows a collection of books whose fame today rests largely on their being mentioned in a novel by Jane Austen (much like Kotzebue’s Lovers’ Vows, discussed in an earlier post).  These are the ‘Horrid Novels’ which Isabella Thorpe recommends to her new friend Catherine Morland in Northanger Abbey as the two girls embark on a spree of gothic fiction reading.

The titles Isabella lists are:  ‘Castle of Wolfenbach, Clermont, Mysterious Warnings, Necromancer of the Black Forest, Midnight Bell, Orphan of the Rhine, and Horrid Mysteries.’ Unlike Ann Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho and The Italian, which the girls also read, these titles had pretty much sunk into obscurity by the time Northanger Abbey was posthumously published, and early literary critics believed that they were inventions of Austen’s, parodying typical titles of the genre. Later researchers, however, established that, although Austen (or Isabella) made some minor errors in transcribing the titles, all seven books were genuine products of the time.

However, one thing less than genuine about some of them is a claim to be of German origin. Of the seven, only Clermont offers no hint of German-ness on its title page. The Orphan of the Rhine clearly indicates a German setting, but goes no further, while the other five are all billed as ‘a German story/tale’ or ‘From the German.’ However, this is only strictly true of two: The Necromancer is an adaptation of Karl Friedrich Kahlert’s Der Geisterbanner, and The Horrid Mysteries is a translation of Carl Grosse’s Der Genius. The Castle of Wolfenbach, The Mysterious Warning and The Midnight Bell are only ‘German stories’ insofar as their action is at least partially set in Germany – and this was probably not all that the authors meant to imply

Title page of 'The Castle of Wolfenbach'
Title-page of The Castle of Wolfenbach, [not] a German story. (London, 1794) British Library C.192.a.187

Claiming a false (and often foreign) origin for a work of gothic fiction was not uncommon. The first gothic novel, The Castle of Otranto, purported to be translated from an Italian manuscript (and the device of an invented source goes back further still). Indeed, the original German editions of both Der Geisterbanner and Der Genius claim to be based on other sources: Danish accounts collected by ‘Lorenz Flammenberg’ and the ‘papers of the Marquis C* von G**’ respectively.

Title page of 'Der Genius'
The German title-page of Carl von Grosse, Der Genius (Halle, 1791) 12547.b.22.

But why such a German flavour in a list of English gothic novels? After all, the gothic novel began with Walpole’s supposedly Italian tale, and Ann Radcliffe’s novels also tend towards Italian settings. Italy, France and other southern, Catholic countries of Europe were popular backdrops for British gothic writers since sinister, conspiratorial monks, nuns and priests could be introduced as villains, pandering to the prejudices of a Protestant audience. Yet a German source was clearly a sign of gothic credibility for readers like Catherine and Isabella.

One reason is that there was a definite German influence on English gothic fiction. This came partly via the works of the Sturm und Drang movement and partly from the translations of the more popular and less literary ‘Schauerromane’ (literally ‘shudder novels’), themselves often influenced by British gothic models. (The false translation traffic could go both ways, too: a number of German gothic novels were ascribed to Ann Radcliffe in the first years of the 19th century.)  This German influence was not always welcomed. In 1807 the writer Charles Maturin wrote of literary ‘horrors’ reaching British shores on a ‘plague-ship of German letters’. Two years earlier The Critical Review had rather sarcastically described Matthew Lewis’s The Bravo of Venice as a ‘Germanico-terrific Romance’. The Bravo was an adaptation of a real German work, Heinrich Zschokke’s Abällino, although the reviewer, ‘not acquainted with the original’, and obviously on his guard against false claims of translation from the German, casts doubt on this. Nonetheless he still has some harsh words for the ‘writers of the German school’ and their constant desire to shock.

Frontispiece of 'The Mysterious Warning', showing a jug pouring water while suspended in mid-air, to the amazement of onlookers
Gothic goings-on in the frontispiece of The Mysterious Warning (London, 1796) 1153.f.32.

Apart from actual literary influences, the fact that ‘Gothic’ was still a synonym for ‘Germanic’ or Teutonic’ was no doubt another factor in the identification of Germany with things gothic, as was the Germans’ continued use of ‘gothic’ type. Interestingly, the Minerva Press, which published six of Austen’s ‘Horrid Novels’ and many other gothic works, printed its name in gothic type on its title pages – an early example of this kind of typeface being used as a kind of branding for the demonic and supernatural.

But perhaps another, although less easily demonstrable, explanation is that Germany simply lent itself more readily to gothic imagery in the popular imagination, with all the necessary forests, mountains and mediaeval buildings to furnish the scenery. Italy, despite its suspect Catholicism and its fair share of mountains and bandits, also carried connotations of fine art, classical civilisation and the Renaissance, all the antithesis of gothic. Perhaps even the idea of lowering North European skies as opposed to the sunshine of southern climes played a part: it’s harder to be gothic under a blue and sunny sky.

The continuing identification of German and gothic probably explains why Mary Shelley’s Victor Frankenstein, despite coming from rational, Protestant, French-speaking Geneva, has a German surname, and conducts his anatomical experiments while studying in Germany.  And it survives to this day, not least in the use of gothic lettering (and oddly superfluous umlauts) in the marketing of heavy metal and gothic rock bands.

Susan Reed, Lead Curator Germanic Studies

References/Further reading:

The seven ‘Horrid Novels’ as displayed in the current British Library exhibition are:

Eliza Parsons, The Castle of Wolfenbach, a German Story (London,  1794) C.192.a.187

Regina Maria Roche, Clermont, a Tale (London, 1798) 1152.h.1.

Eliza Parsons, The Mysterious Warning, a German Tale (London, 1796) 1153.f.32.

Karl Friedrich Kahlert, The Necromancer: or The Tale of the Black Forest: founded on facts, translated from the German of Lawrence Flammenberg by Peter Teuthold. (London, 1794)  C.175.i.8.

Francis Lathom The midnight bell, a German story, founded on incidents in real life… (London, 1798) C.117.ff.31.

Eleanor Sleath, The Orphan of the Rhine, a Romance (Dublin, 1802) Loan from University College Cork Library

Carl von Grosse Horrid Mysteries, a story from the German of the Marquis von Grosse, translated by P. Will (London, 1796) Loan from the Taylor Institution Library, Oxford


Michael Sadleir, Things Past (London, 1944) 12359.f.26.

Patrick Bridgwater, The German Gothic Novel in Anglo-German Perspective (Amsterdam, 2013) ZA.9.a.5563(165)


26 November 2014

Are you afraid of the fairies? You should be.

A visit to the Gothic exhibition and reading reviews of Marina Warner’s latest book, Once Upon a Time: A Short History of Fairy Tale  have spirited me away to the popular literature which Dillon’s University Bookshop in Torrington Place used to keep in the section labelled “Folk and Fairy”.

The corpus of old Spanish folk ballads (in Spanish, romances) is vast. They are known from early printed books, from the oral tradition (recorded from the 19th to the 21st centuries) of communities including the Sephardi of Salonika (victims of the Nazis) and North Africa (still surviving) and from a tiny number of medieval manuscripts.

The assumption is that they were conveyed by word of mouth from illiterate poet to illiterate listeners and finally consigned to paper. It is also sometimes thought that ballads started out as reports of the latest news of battles etc. fought on the frontier with Moorish Andalusia (the parallel is often drawn with the English-Scottish border ballads). And it was also commonly thought that Spanish literature, like the Spanish people, had a granite strain of realism in it, unlike the exaggerations of the French.

There is also a huge body of ballads composed by learned authors such as Góngora and García Lorca.

They’re often studied on Spanish courses in British schools and universities, as they are usually quite short, the language is direct and the themes of love, sex and violence are of immediate interest.

Special attention is paid to the ballads on magical themes, but these are only a tiny proportion of the corpus. Smith’s student anthology has 15 ‘novelesque’ ballads (nos. 56-70), of which only two feature otherworldly beings.

My two favourites are Conde Arnaldos and La Infantina.

On the morning of St John’s Day (the summer solstice) Count Arnaldos is out hunting with his hawk on his hand on the coast. He spies a faery-ship: its sails of silk and its rigging of gauze, its anchor of silver and its decking of coral.  Aboard a sailor’s song is so powerful that it calms the waves of the sea and draws the birds to settle on the mast. Arnaldos says to the sailor: ‘Tell me your song.’  The reply: ‘I do not tell my song but to him who comes with me’ (‘Yo no digo esta canción / sino a quien conmigo va.’)

The ballads often break off at a point of mystery.  Did Arnaldos ever find out what the song was, and at what price?  

Woodcut illustration of a sailing ship at seaSailing ship from Llibre de Consolat dels fets maritims … (Barcelona, 1627) British Library 501.g.6.

My second has an explicit ending, and it’s not good news:

A knight goes hunting: his dogs grow tired and he loses his hawk. He takes cover under an oak (are you listening, Sir James Frazer?) and in the highest branches he sees a little princess (infantina).  ‘Do not be alarmed, Sir Knight, I am the daughter of the King and Queen of Castile: seven [NB] fairies [fadas] put a spell on me when I was in my nurse’s arms to spend seven [NB] years alone on this mountain. I beg you, Sir Knight, take me into your company, if you wish as your wife, or, if not, as your mistress [llévesme en tu compañía,/ si quisieres por mujer, / si no, sea por amiga].’  The knight asks her to wait while he consults his mother. She replies: ‘Woe be to the knight who leaves the girl alone.’  

Illustration of a knight on horseback with a hawk in his handA king out hawking, from British Library MS Royal 10 E IV

Mother advises him to take her as his mistress (she obviously doesn’t want a fairy in the family). When he returns, the knight finds that the princess is with another knight and his company.  He faints, and when he comes round the last words he hears are from the fairy princess: ‘The knight who loses such a thing deserves a mighty punishment. I will be the judge, I will be the executioner: cut off his feet and hands and drag him through the town.’

Barry Taylor, Curator Hispanic Studies


Harriet Goldberg, Motif-index of Folk Narratives in the Pan-Hispanic Romancero (Tempe, AZ, 2000)  5534.264500 vol 206

Colin Smith (ed.), Spanish Ballads, 2nd edn. (Bristol, 1996), nos. 67 and 70.  YC.1996.a.5047.

17 November 2014

Mysterious Manuscripts, lost and found

In the current British Library exhibition ‘Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination’, pride of place is occupied by Horace Walpole’s foundational 1764 shocker, The Castle of Otranto.

Walpole’s preface reads:

The following work was found in the library of an ancient Catholic family in the north of England. It was printed at Naples, in the black letter, in the year 1529. How much sooner it was written does not appear. [...]. The style is the purest Italian. [...]

Whatever [the author’s] views were, or whatever effects the execution of them might have, his work can only be laid before the public at present as a matter of entertainment. Even as such, some apology for it is necessary. Miracles, visions, necromancy, dreams, and other preternatural events, are exploded now even from romances. That was not the case when our author wrote; much less when the story itself is supposed to have happened. Belief in every kind of prodigy was so established in those dark ages, that an author would not be faithful to the manners of the times, who should omit all mention of them. He is not bound to believe them himself, but he must represent his actors as believing them.

It is natural for a translator to be prejudiced in favour of his adopted work [...]  yet I am not

One day, as I was in the Alcana of Toledo, a boy came up to sell some pamphlets and old papers to a silk mercer, and, as I am fond of reading even the very scraps of paper in the streets, led by this natural bent of mine I took up one of the pamphlets the boy had for sale, and saw that it was in characters which I recognised as Arabic, and as I was unable to read them though I could recognise them, I looked about to see if there were any Spanish-speaking Morisco at hand to read them for me; nor was there any great difficulty in finding such an interpreter, for even had I sought one for an older and better language I should have found him. In short, chance provided me with one, who when I told him what I wanted and put the book into his hands, opened it in the middle and after reading a little in it began to laugh. I asked him what he was laughing at, and he replied that it was at something the book had blind to my author’s defects.

So Walpole is but the translator from a found (and then lost) original, and therefore cannot be held responsible for its contents.

Where could Walpole have drawn inspiration for this preamble? Perhaps in one of the best-sellers of his time: Don Quixote. In Book I, chapter ix, Cervantes breaks off his narrative, or rather, he comes to the end of his original:

In the First Part of this history we left the valiant Biscayan and the renowned Don Quixote with drawn swords uplifted, ready to deliver two such furious slashing blows that if they had fallen full and fair they would at least have split and cleft them asunder from top to toe and laid them open like a pomegranate; and at this so critical point the delightful history came to a stop and stood cut short without any intimation from the author where what was missing was to be found. [...]

This reflection kept me perplexed and longing to know really and truly the whole life and wondrous deeds of our famous Spaniard, Don Quixote of La Mancha [...] The discovery of it occurred in this way.written in the margin by way of a note. I bade him tell it to me; and he still laughing said, ‘In the margin, as I told you, this is written: ‘This Dulcinea del Toboso so often mentioned in this history, had, they say, the best hand of any woman in all La Mancha for salting pigs.’

When I heard Dulcinea del Toboso named, I was struck with surprise and amazement, for it occurred to me at once that these pamphlets contained the history of Don Quixote. With this idea I pressed him to read the beginning, and doing so, turning the Arabic offhand into Castilian, he told me it meant, ‘History of Don Quixote of La Mancha, written by Cide Hamete Benengeli, an Arab historian’. It required great caution to hide the joy I felt when the title of the book reached my ears, and snatching it from the silk mercer, I bought all the papers and pamphlets from the boy for half a real; and if he had had his wits about him and had known how eager I was for them, he might have safely calculated on making more than six reals by the bargain. I withdrew at once with the Morisco into the cloister of the cathedral, and begged him to turn all these pamphlets that related to Don Quixote into the Castilian tongue, without omitting or adding anything to them, offering him whatever payment he pleased. [...]

And from then on Cervantes cites Cidi Hamete as his source.

Where did Cervantes get this idea for framing his text? We need look no further than the romances of chivalry of which Don Quixote is in large part a critique. Such subterfuges were a staple of the genre. This section from Baldo has all the elements which Cervantes picked up. In summary:

We three masters and three great rabbis, knowledgeable in herbalism, set sail in search of a great antidote. Off Alexandria we saw an island, more the work of artifice than of nature.  There we found splendid buildings overgrown with wild vegetation: lizards and snakes fled from our sight.  In time we reached a cave, unlit by the sun, where darkness and dampness reigned.  Inside we found a great hall, and in it tombs of marble, one of which showed a statue of an old man with a scroll in his hand reading ‘Here lies Merlino Cocayo, poet of Mantua’. His other hand pointed to a cavity in the wall, with a iron chest labelled ‘Here are the books of the poet Merlino’.  Inside were many books on magic, astrology, medicine and alchemy. At the sound of a great thunder we fled, taking the chest of books with us: these were the herbs we sought. I gave this book to the printers so that it could be better known, in translation.  (Baldo (Seville, 1542); Alvar and Lucía 79-83).

While the author of Baldo uses the lost manuscript to tease the reader in right at the start,  Cervantes was too canny to waste the topos of the lost manuscript right there in the prologue, where he slily says he is not Don Quixote’s father but his (its?) stepfather: he waits until he’s built up the suspense before breaking off to give a false origin to his book.

By way of pictorial illustration  we can only offer a fanciful portrait of  Cidi Hamete, as no authentic likeness of him is known: not is there any authentic portrait of Miguel de Cervantes.

  Imaginary portrait of Cide Hamete BenengeliCide-Hamete Benengeli, from Jacinto María Delgado,  Adiciones a la historia del Ingenioso Hidalgo Don Quijote de La Mancha, continuación de la vida de Sancho Panza (Madrid, 1845), facing p. 205. British Library Cerv. 480 (H. S. Ashbee’s copy)

Barry Taylor, Curator Hispanic Studies


Horace Walpole, The Castle of Otranto, A Story. Translated by William Marshal, Gent. From the Original Italian of Onuphrio Muralto, Canon of the Church of St. Nicholas at Otranto (Dublin, 1765). RB.23.a.5931

A. Ramos García Rojas, ‘Variciones en centro y periferia sobre el manuscrito encontrado y la falsa traducción en los libros de caballerías castellanos’, Tirant, 11 (2012), 47-60

Sir Henry Thomas, Spanish and Portuguese Romances of Chivalry. The revival of the romance of chivalry in the Spanish peninsula, and its extension and influence abroad. (Cambridge, 1920).  011853.s.70.

Carlos Alvar and J. M. Lucía Megías (ed.), Libros de caballerías castellanos: una antología (Barcelona: Debolsillo, 2004)

Miguel de Cervantes,  The ingenious gentleman: Don Quixote of La Mancha: a translation with introduction and notes by John Ormsby. (London, 1885). 12489.k.4. (Available online at

31 October 2014

A Variety of Vampires

The average English-speaking reader, if asked to draw a picture of a vampire, would probably be inspired by Bram Stoker’s description of Count Dracula as portrayed in our current exhibition Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination – a suave, sinister figure inhabiting a mysterious castle from which he makes nocturnal sorties to spread terror throughout Transylvania, returning at daybreak to lurk in his coffin, replete with blood which trickles from a corner of his mouth. But Transylvania does not have a monopoly on vampires – and not all vampires have fangs.

Stoker, of course, was an Irishman, from a country with a rich tradition of eerie stories of its own. However, much closer to the home of Dracula (remember those sheepskin-clad Slovaks whipping up their horses to carry their mysterious load on the first stage of the Count’s voyage to Whitby), two authors writing in Czech conjured up their own versions of the legend – as different as the writers themselves.

At first sight Jan Neruda (1834-91)  seems an unlikely character to spin tales of the supernatural. Although he is best known today to non-Czech readers for his short stories, it is his Povídky malostranské (‘Tales of the Lesser Quarter’) which secure his reputation, with their lively accounts of the people and streets of old Prague. However, he was also a widely-travelled writer of feuilletons, and it is not Prague but the Greek island of Prinkipo which provides the setting for his story Vampýr (‘The Vampire’), published in an 1880 edition of his collection Arabesky (British Library YA.1997.a.13960(2)).

The narrator and a friend have been enjoying a holiday in Istanbul, and at the end of their stay they decide to make an excursion by boat to Prinkipo, accompanied by a Polish family – father, mother, a delicate daughter with a slight dry cough, and her fiancé. Neruda describes the idyllic landscape, with its leaping dolphins and the fragrance of the ancient pines, in detail, and the party decides to take lodgings in a local hotel run by a Frenchman. While relaxing in the sunshine, they catch sight of a mysterious artist, a Greek with flowing black hair, pale face and deep-set dark eyes, sketching nearby; he had travelled on the same boat, but slips away almost unnoticed, only to be heard quarrelling with the innkeeper as they return. The latter explains that he is known as  ‘the Vampire’ because whenever anyone dies in the area he appears at once with a likeness captured in advance, ‘like a vulture,’ as the disgusted innkeeper remarks. At a sudden shriek from the mother, holding her fainting daughter in her arms, the bridegroom races after the artist and hurls him to the ground. From his portfolio flutters a sheet of paper – a sketch of the young girl, eyes closed, a myrtle wreath encircling her brow.

Karel Hlaváček (1874-98), who himself succumbed to tuberculosis at the age of 23, might appear a more likely creator of vampires despite being one of the founder members of the athletic Sokol movement and the president of its Libeň branch in Prague. He was also, however, a representative of both the Decadent and Symbolist movements, and published several collections of poems in this spirit. One of these, Pozdě k ránu (‘Late towards morning’; Prague, 1896; X.907/10067, published in a limited edition of 200 copies), includes a poem entitled ‘Upír’ (The Vampire), in which the poet describes his vision of an unknown country ‘without shadow, without light’ which no-one had ever visited before. Here a strange being appears ‘in the pale colours of a delicate old lithograph’, his heavy brows overshadowing green eyes with pupils huge and black as if from atropine, hovering on black wings at once velvety and metallic. The last descendent of a once mighty line of dukes, kings and magnates tremble before him, and their daughters long for him silently and secretly. The poet apostrophizes him as a ‘proud white barbarian, lover of all that is sick and pale … living off the vital force of the juices of virgins … symbol of decadence!’, returning  ‘late towards morning from mystical orgies’ just as ‘in the accursed yesterday and rotten tomorrow’…

Frontispiece from 'Pozdě k ráno' with a rear view of a reclining nude male figure watching the moon rise over a landscapeFrontispiece from Karel Hlaváček, Pozdě k ráno; X.907/10067.

The haunting nature of these lines, at once alluring and repellent, encapsulates the spirit of Decadence and reveals the qualities which make the figure of the vampire so irresistible to members of that movement. With no need to resort to gory exaggeration, both Neruda and Hlaváček evoke a figure whose compelling blend of the erotic and the morbid continues to exert a lasting fascination.

Susan Halstead, Curator Czech and Slovak

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