A Queer Blindspot: Terror and Wonder at the British Library

I visited the British Library’s new exhibition, ‘Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination’ last week and don’t think I’ve ever had such strong feelings about an exhibition. The objects are beautiful and plentiful – the exhibition covers so much in terms of content and time-scale. It’s aesthetically breathtaking, and as with Georgians Revealed, hosted in the same gallery earlier this year, makes incredible use of the space.

It’s also one of the queerest exhibitions I’ve ever seen. Walking around was, at times, like walking through a ‘who’s who in queer history’.

But.

It’s only queer if you already know the history, know the historical figures and are looking for the connections between queer history and the gothic genre. Queer history was the elephant in the room, rendered invisible by complete omission from interpretation and labelling.

The exhibition opens with Horace Walpole, author of the first gothic novel The Castle of Otranto. There is no hint that Walpole was rumoured to be (what we would now call) queer, nor any mention that his gothic castle at Strawberry Hill is considered aesthetically queer.

William Beckford (WikiCommons)

William Beckford (WikiCommons)

The exhibition moves on to William Beckford’s Vathek. I know Beckford through my own research and have travelled to see Beckford’s Tower and Museum in Bath, and Powderham Castle in Devon, the home of his supposed young lover William ‘Kitty’ Courtenay. Beckford and Kitty were reportedly caught in a sexual act at Powderham in 1784, and the consequences of their relationship stayed with both of them for the rest of their lives.

The fact that two authors of the earliest gothic novels are a significant part of queer history (whether they were indeed ‘queer’ or not) shouts out from the interpretation panels if you already know this. The place of both Walpole and Beckford in queer history cements the link between the gothic genre and queer themes, and places a marginalised history into a mainstream narrative. However, at the British Library this link remains a blind-spot, as it also does in the book that accompanies the exhibition, which notes that,

the parallels between Horace Walpole and William Beckford…are too striking to ignore. Both were Members of Parliament, collectors of curiosities, francophiles, architects and linguists.

Beckford and Walpole may have shared a strong interest in the French but so too, according to rumour at least, shared a sexual interest in men. The omission of any discussion of their sexuality is poor history, and perpetuates the invisibility and marginalisation of queer history. In The Art of Gothic, the TV series produced to accompany the exhibition, however, the link between queerness and the gothic style is made. The presenter, Andrew Graham-Dixon, notes that Lytton Strachey said that what Walpole loved about the gothic style was “not its beauty, but that it was a bit queer.” That this is included in the TV show makes it even more surprising that queer themes are eradicated from the exhibition.

As you continue through the exhibition, queer history jumps out at you as if you were walking through a haunted house. But not to the whole audience. Much like trawling through archive catalogues for queer history, you have to already be in the know to find it – you have to know the coded words and be looking for queer to see it there.

Take Frankenstein, for example. Mary Shelley’s novel features themes of body modification and otherness. I went with a friend who is studying trans* representation in comics, and they explained that Frankenstein has been embraced by some in queer academica as aligning to the trans* experience. This connection is missed in the exhibition, though it would add another layer of context to the nature of gothic and Shelley’s novel, as well as ensure representation of a marginalised group.

We also meet Oscar Wilde and his Dorian Gray in the exhibition. Dorian was rumoured to have been based on the poet John Gray, with whom Wilde had an affair. The novel itself is one of the queerest I’ve read and was used against Wilde during the trials that led to his conviction for ‘gross indecency’. And not a mention, not a hint, of Wilde’s sexuality nor the homoerotic undertones of A Picture of Dorian Gray in the display.

I’ve highlighted these missing queer examples here because I know them through my own research, but once I’d noticed these connections were not made, I noticed too that there was no inclusion of disability, nor race, not even immigration or anti-semitism in discussions of ‘Jack the Ripper’, barely any mention of mental health or social classes and often a silencing of women and their historical significance. The consequences of both silencing and keeping information from Mrs Danvers are grave, and the consequences of silencing these marginalised voices and thus keeping information from visitors are equally so.

It is so important for exhibitions to strive for social justice. This exhibition could have discussed the history of disability, queer history, racial and ethnic history, religious history and the history of gender – even if through the addition of a few lines of interpretation to signpost these themes to the visitor. For example, indicating the importance of A Picture of Dorian Gray to Wilde’s conviction would further highlight the significance of the novel and make its place in queer history visible. By including marginalised voices and histories in mainstream narratives, exhibitions can ensure they are heard, contextualised and understood.

Without attempts to include such silenced voices, marginalised histories will always remain the elephant in the room, seen by those in the know, denying many a direct personal connection to the past and ensuring that ignorance of hidden histories continues.

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