Gothic in Birmingham

Gothic Poster 150dpiI’m very excited to be organising an event and exhibition on Gothic at the Library of Birmingham. With help from students, I’m putting together a day of talks on Gothic from literature to Goth culture, open to everyone and free to attend, while an exhibition will feature work from BCU students which relates to Gothic. I haven’t yet got a completed programme for the day, but below is the press release, plus the beautiful poster designed by Grace Williams, who is also curating the exhibition. If you’re interested, please follow us on twitter @gothicinbrum, find us on facebook ( or look at the blog:

Library of Birmingham turns Gothic for an exhibition hosted by Birmingham City University.

Press Release by Holly Barry, student in the School of Media.

On Saturday 2nd May 2015, BCU will be hosting an Interdisciplinary Gothic Event  at the Library of Birmingham, showcasing all things Gothic. There will also be an exhibition, running from 7th April – 2nd May to accompany the main event, both organised by Dr. Serena Trowbridge from the School of English with support from second year English student Bex Price.

The event will consist of several talks about different areas of Gothic – fashion, architecture, literature, photography and more. The exhibition is being curated by Grace Williams, a PhD student in the School of Art, and will include a wide range of works by BCU students.

Serena Trowbridge, the organiser, tells us about how the event came about: “I’ve just started teaching a new module on Gothic as part of the BA English, which has been really popular with students. The subject has such a broad appeal as Gothic reinvents itself for every generation.”

Shannon Kooner, a student of the School of English agrees: “Whilst studying the Gothic, I felt the texts specified for us to study were extremely interesting as well as covering a diverse range of topics which worked interchangeably with the Gothic. I would gladly study this module over again!”Gothic Icon

Another student also confirmed: “One of the most interesting modules I’ve studied. I was really surprised by the texts- when you think of Gothic you expect everything to be very cliched, which was absolutely not the case! Great range of ideas and texts covered, extremely interesting.”

Serena says the event should prove popular with the public: “Gothic is a very interdisciplinary subject which also has a wide popular appeal so it’s ideal for a public event. I’m extremely excited about it!”

Dr. Trowbridge’s book, Christina Rossetti’s Gothic, which was published in 2013, grew out of her Ph.D. thesis which she completed at BCU.

As well as the exhibition itself, there will also be a blog dedicated to this event where there will be regular posting of news, updates and any written work revolving around the Gothic theme. You can read it at, or find more information on twitter @gothicinbrum. There is also a facebook group: for contributors and attendees.

Serena adds: “The event and exhibition as a whole will be an incredible way to showcase work for BCU students, to network across the Faculty and to be involved in a fun cultural event. We have some fantastically talented students in the Faculty and it will be great to display their work to the public.”

The event will be open to anyone and admission is free.

Book Review: The Undiscovered Country: Journeys among the Dead

The Great Day of His Wrath 1851-3 by John Martin 1789-1854Is there life after death? What happens to the body, and the soul, after death? The Undiscovered Country by Carl Watkins, a medieval historian, explores these biggest of questions and asks how our beliefs surrounding these issues affect the rituals we practice after a death. This is, I’ll admit, not the cheeriest of subjects, but it’s written with such enthusiasm and depth of research that it’s difficult not to enjoy the book.

Watkins’ idiosyncratic approach is to discuss the topic of death and the body chronologically whilst moving around the British Isles giving examples of different treatments of the corpse. Opening with a discussion of the fall from popularity of John Martin’s enormous, vivid picture ‘The Great Day of his Wrath’ (1851-3) as belief in hell became less widespread, the book covers a great deal of ground. I’m researching graveyard poetry – such as Gray’s ‘Elegy’ – and consequently have been thinking quite a bit about ways in which we memorialise, reflect on and anticipate death, and reading this book helped me to crystallise some of my thoughts as wBury-St-Edmunds-1697ell as entertaining me with some anecdotes and little histories. For example, while I know that the Reformation changed a great deal in Britain, including ways of worship and the rites of death, I hadn’t really thought about it in the detail Watkins offers: suddenly, if not quite overnight then still rapidly, Purgatory didn’t exist any more. For the reformers, this was obvious and they had seen it coming; for working-class worshippers a long way from London, this was a horrible shock. It became illegal to say prayers for the souls of the dead, which seemed spiritually wrong, if not blasphemous, to many. It also put severe pressure on the church, which no longer received the same level of donations and sponsored chantry chapels, since while the dead could be remembered, to pray for their release from Purgatory was forbidden.

Tomb_of_the_Unknown_Soldier_8The end of Purgatory also meant, in many ways, the ‘death’ of ghosts and spirits. If hauntings were carried out by souls trapped in Purgatory, who required freeing in some way, then suddenly they were vanished too. Examples of early hauntings and their possible interpretations abound in this book, and provide interesting examples of how the belief in the afterlife reflects different tenets of theology as well as other social mores. One’s view on the issue of the resurrection of the body was also reflected in the treatment of the corpse after death, with a widespread belief that the body should be buried intact in holy ground to ensure its reunion with the soul at its resurrection (hence the punishment of burial in non-sacred ground for suicides and criminals).

Moreover, Martin Luther’s insistence that salvation was through faith rather than good works altered the approach to death of many worshippers. Memorials were now perhaps less memento moris, exhorting others to remember their own approaching death with massive tombs, cadaverous statues, and for the wealthy, alms to the poor. Yet such transitions in belief did not come easily, as Watkins explains, using historical examples to illustrate his points.

From Yorkshire to Cornwall, the book goes on to explore the desire of humans to be remembered; how the loss of faith means that different rites may be observed, and how cremation gradually became socially respectable. In a chapter on edwardVictorian spiritualism and its religious purposes we are offered space to reflect on how supposedly scientific advances might combine with religious belief to provide a new story of the afterlife – a way of contacting the dead, both for enhancing earthly wisdom and for consolation for the bereaved. A strength in this and many other chapters is that while some of the ideas expressed may be outlandish to modern minds, Watkins does not judge or mock such a serious subject. The book concludes with the Great War and its mass-memorialisation of a generation of dead men, an interesting exercise in national mourning which encompassed a wide range of beliefs. And as Watkins explains, although the social and religious milieu in which we now live (and die) is very different to that of earlier times, ‘the emotional need for a narrative about the dead remains.’

Insanity and the Lunatic Asylum

insanity and the lunatic asylum_frontInsanity and the Lunatic Asylum in the Nineteenth Century was published in December, a book which grew out of a conference I organised back in 2010 (you can read a report here), and which I’ve been editing with a colleague, Thomas Knowles. It’s a project which has been a long time coming, but we’re delighted with the final book and immensely grateful to our contributors, who have produced some outstanding chapters for the book, and to our editors at Pickering & Chatto. We’ve just had our first review, on the Criminal Lunacy blog written by David J. Vaughan, and I’m delighted it’s so positive about the book. Among other things, it says ‘it opens up a fascinating treasure chest of anecdotal and statistical material,’ and ‘as a collection of thought on the heavily nuanced subject of insanity and its place in – or, more accurately, beyond – nineteenth century society, it delivers with alacrity and aplomb. It was a pleasure to read.’ Details of the book are below.

The nineteenth-century asylum was the scene of both terrible abuses and significant advancements in treatment and care. The essays in this collection look at the asylum from the perspective of the place itself – its architecture, 5730033486_c9bf43c1ecfunding and purpose – and at the experience of those who were sent there. Fictional as well as historical sources are used in order to present a study of the asylum both as it was and as it was perceived in the popular imagination.


Introduction – Serena Trowbridge and Thomas Knowles
Part I: Literary
1 ‘Horrible Dens of Deception’: Thomas Bakewell, Thomas Mulock and Anti-Asylum Sentiments, c.1815–58 – Rebecca Wynter
2 ‘This Most Noble of Disorders’: Matilda Betham on the Reformation of the Madhouse – Elaine Bailey
3 The Legacy of Victorian Asylums in the Landscape of Contemporary British Literature – Thomas Knowles
Part II: Quantitative
4 Building a Lunatic Asylum: ‘A Question of Beer, Milk and the Irish’ – Bernard Melling
5 ‘Just Can’t Work Them Hard Enough’: A Historical Bioarcheological Study of the Inmate Experience at the Oneida County Asylum – Shawn Phillips
6 ‘Always Remember that you are in your Senses’: From Keeper to Attendant to Nurse – Claire Chatterton
7 ‘Atrophied’, ‘Engorged’, ‘Debauched’: Muscle Wastage, Degenerate Mass and Moral Worth in the General Paralytic Patient – Jennifer Wallis
Part III: Cultural
8 ‘Attitudes Passionelles’: The Pornographic Spaces of the Salpêtriére – Amanda Finelli
9 ‘The Poison that Upsets my Reason’: Men, Madness and Drunkenness in the Victorian Period – Kostas Makras
10 ‘Madness and masculinity’: Male Patients in London Asylums and Victorian Culture – Helen Goodman
11 ‘Straitjacket’: A Confined History – Will Wiles

Book Review: The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters

downloadI’ve enjoyed all of Sarah Waters’ novels; she is a writer with a sure touch when it comes to characterisation and an appealing taste for the dramatic and sensational in plots. I recently taught her previous novel, The Little Stranger, as part of a module on Gothic literature, and am struck both a range of differences and parallels between this and her latest novel. The Paying Guests is set in the 1920s, and carefully depicts the situation of many women after the war – genteel but impoverished, disturbed by the gradual dissolution of class boundaries and the world they knew, much as the family of Hundreds Hall in The Little Stranger felt after WW2. The Paying Guests also features a mother and daughter, living together in a house haunted by the past – in this case, the two brothers killed in the trenches – and with a difficult relationship bound up in duty and occasional mistrust or even dislike, though tempered with love. Into this household, so poor they cannot keep a servant, come the ‘paying guests’, a young couple of the ‘clerk class’. Frances, the daughter, though tentatively seeking liberation with the new wave of feminism which dawned after the Great War (she once threw her shoe at an MP), is also ‘cross-grained and unmarriageable’, not always able to behave as she is expected to.

By contrast, the Barbers who take lodgings in the house seem, at first, a cheerful young couple, interested more in Sarah-Watersmusic and socialising than in recent history, looking forward to the future rather than dwelling on the past. Yet as Frances overcomes her little snobberies to make friends with Lilian Barber, it seems as though a positive step forward has been taken for women’s lives, paving the way to a brighter future not just for these women but for all women of the period. Waters seems to be drawing on women’s fiction of the period for her style and approach in the book, and does so with a mostly authentic voice; there are passages which might have been drawn from novels by Elizabeth Bowen or Winifred Holtby.

The attraction between Lilian and Frances is clearly based on more than friendship, however, and things soon go seriously wrong: the majority of this novel is a crime novel, of sorts, but not of the ‘whodunnit’ variety – rather, ‘who will pay?’ is the question. Without wishing to give too much away, the effect of a series of investigations and trials take their toll on Frances and Lilian, and the tension of this and the impossible situation in which the women find themselves is played out over a large part of the novel (perhaps, if I’m honest, this took a little too long). Yet the sensational plots with which Waters is so adept are manimagesifest here: there is blood and gore, characters defamed, families hounded by newspaper men – it has a distinctly period feel to it, and yet it works well for a modern audience (perhaps partly because of the addition of blood, and sex). This isn’t just a story about a crime, though: it is also one which depicts the anxieties of a period of unrest, the difficulties faced by many after the war, the rigid gender and class stereotypes which bind the participants in the story, and the difficulties faced by those who do not conform. This novel is in some ways a return to Waters’ earlier works, such as The Night Watch, where relationships between women are examined in a historical context. All her novels play with different aspects of literary history, from Gothic to thriller, but all seem rooted in close attention to detail and a remarkable sense of reality, manifested here in the routine of Frances’ grindingly dull housework. As the review in The Guardian suggests, this is a domestic drama, but not at all in the way one might expect: the domestic world is depicted as shifting, disintegrating, on uncertain foundations as the world readjusts itself after the seismic shock of the war.

The Importance of being William Morris

IMG_1531When William Morris died, his doctor said that he died of being William Morris – of doing the work of ten men. The enormous endeavours of his lifetime, the things he achieved, are nicely represented in the exhibition ‘Anarchy and Beauty: William Morris and his Legacy 1860-1960′ at the National Portrait Gallery. At first, looking at the familiar faces of his circle in the portraits on display, seeing the swathes of familiar Willow pattern fabric, the beautiful Prioress’s Tale wardrobe, it’s easy to be overwhelmed by the comfortable familiarity of it all. The sheer versatility aIMG_1533nd energy of the man is apparent in his craft, his politics, and his writing – but we also get a sense of the man himself, from delightful small exhibits such as his membership card of the Hammersmith Branch of the Socialist League, or the cartoons of ‘Topsy’ by Burne-Jones. Possibly one of my favourite items here was Morris’s leather and canvas satchel, battered but serviceable, in which he carried books, tools, lecture notes etc; somehow its sturdy, practical beauty seemed to sum up the man himself.
The early part of the exhibition, then, is inspiring. Even though I know quite a lot about Morris, it was appealing to see so many objects relating to aspects of his life, and so many of his friends and acquaintances featured. Aspects of his work, from his subversive gender politics to his anarchic socialism, his rehabilitation of craft as a form of art, his emphasis on the accessibility of education for all and his interest in social conditions and housing, are all touched on here. The exhibition gives you a real sense oIMG_1534f how connected the nineteenth century world was, where one man’s life could touch so many others.
And this, of course, is the point of the exhibition. Morris’s legacy began during his lifetime, and spread outwards rapidly. Like John Ruskin, his energies were spread wide, and he had a huge effect on the world around him. But as the exhibition moved on, I must confess I was disappointed. Though there are some clear links to Morris’s ideas about design in the Festival of Britain, for example, or his ideas about social living in the garden city movement, not enough was made of these, particularly visually (apart from a chair by Terence Conran, and a few pieces of fabric by Lucienne Day, the Festival of Britain section seemed to mostly include photographs of men sitting at desks). Outside the exhibition there were some photographs of and quotations from artists and others who have been inspired by Morris, including the writer A S Byatt, who comments on the inspiration of how he lived his work, and how she now lives with his designs.AS Byatt
I must confess that I did find the exhibition lost impact, then; there is so much more that could be said about the direct influence of Morris’s work and ideas right up to the present day, and so although I was inspired by the early parts of the exhibition, by the end it left me with the impression that Morris’s legacy was not as vibrant and alive as I know it to be. Nonetheless, it was encouraging to see a final board which reminded those leaving the exhibition of Morris’s relevance today, for a revival of craft skills, issues of the environment, and ‘art as a vital force within society’ which crosses cultural divides.



Poems to celebrate Christmas

carollersIt’s Christmas, and what better way to get the festive feelings going than by reading some Christmassy poems? I’m looking forward to hearing Simon Callow reading ‘The Night Before Christmas’ on CBeebies (yes, I know) this evening, and I have a list of other poems I’ll read today. But poems about Christmas are often somewhat conflicted: what does Christmas mean to us – poet and reader? What are we celebrating? John Betjeman’s poems capture this conflict, especially ‘Advent 1955‘ and my particular favourite, ‘Christmas‘. This seems to both celebrate and slightly mock the things we enjoy about Christmas:

The holly in the windy hedge
And round the Manor House the yew
Will soon be stripped to deck the ledge,
The altar, font and arch and pew,
So that the villagers can say
‘The church looks nice’ on Christmas Day.

Typically, for Betjeman, the poem satirises class, society, popular culture – and yet points out that the meaning of Christmas is (for the poet, and indeed for me) a religious one: the things we love about Christmas, such as being with family, the carols, the cosiness and comfort of it all, are significant but are part of a greater truth:1m

No love that in a family dwells,
No carolling in frosty air,
Nor all the steeple-shaking bells
Can with this single Truth compare –
That God was man in Palestine
And lives today in Bread and Wine.

The Burning Babe‘ by Robert Southwell is a much earlier, and much stranger, visionary poem which also points to the Christian origins of Christmas, in a hallucinatory style in which the babe is aligned to the angels which appeared announcing the birth of the Christ child: ‘A pretty Babe all burning bright did in the air appear’. This is a mystic, fierce poem which emphasises the reason for Christmas: the redemption of souls. The poem was itself forged in the furnace of religious conflict; Southwell was a Catholic priest who was executed for his faith during the reign of Elizabeth I, and the fervour of his belief which sustained him is evident in this unusual poem.

Nativity-Scene-300x187W H Auden’s poem ‘At the Manger Mary Sings‘ offers a rather different perspective: this is the view of the new mother, Mary, manifesting an anxiety perhaps familiar to all new parents, and torn between reflecting on the perfect beauty and innocence of the infant Jesus and the future which lies ahead of him:

Why was I chosen to teach his Son to weep?
Little One, sleep.

In fact this poem is part of a much larger poetic work, ‘For the Time Being’, which explores in remarkable poetic language the significance of the Incarnation – the concept of God made Man.

John Milton’s ‘Ode on the Morning of Christ’s Nativity‘ also dramatises the Christmas story, in a very Miltonic way, with the grandeur of language and occasional opacity of form which makes Milton’s poetry so splendid. Combining classical and biblical references, juxtaposing power and weakness in the form of a baby (‘Our Babe, to show His Godhead true, Can in His swaddling bands control the damnèd crew’), Milton’s poem is both a form of worship and a devotional reminder of the joy of Christmas, free of the consumerist conflicts which trouble Betjeman. medeival0_2435981b

Noel: Christmas Eve 1913‘ by Robert Bridges is a poem weighted with subsequent historical events for the modern reader. The speaker sees Christmas from his own simple, rural perspective, yet relates it to the birth of Christ in his own way, suggesting that we all have our ways of marking the birth of Christ. This is the poem that first introduced me to Bridges, perhaps one of Britain’s less memorable Poet Laureates, but for his precise, perfect turns of phrase (‘mad romping din’, for example), well worth reading. Enjoy!

A frosty Christmas Eve when the stars were shining
Fared I forth alone where westward falls the hill,
And from many a village in the water’d valley
Distant music reach’d me peals of bells aringing:
The constellated sounds ran sprinkling on earth’s floor
As the dark vault above with stars was spangled o’er.
Then sped my thoughts to keep that first Christmas of all
When the shepherds watching by their folds ere the dawn
Heard music in the fields and marveling could not tell
Whether it were angels or the bright stars singing.
Now blessed be the towers that crown England so fair
That stand up strong in prayer unto God for our souls
Blessed be their founders (said I) an’ our country folk
Who are ringing for Christ in the belfries tonight
With arms lifted to clutch the rattling ropes that race
Into the dark above and the mad romping din.
But to me heard afar it was starry music
Angels’ song, comforting as the comfort of Christ
When he spake tenderly to his sorrowful flock:
The old words came to me by the riches of time
Mellow’d and transfigured as I stood on the hill
Heark’ning in the aspect of th’ eternal silence

If you’re feeling inspired, here are some other Christmas poems:victorianchristmastree

T S Eliot, ‘The Journey of the Magi

Christina Rossetti, ‘In the Bleak Midwinter

Robert Herrick, ‘Ceremonies for Christmas

S T Coleridge, ‘A Christmas Carol

Walter Scott, ‘Christmas in the Olden Time

Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good night!


Pantomime magic

IMG_1621The pantomime is considered a great British tradition, a concept I find both fascinating and slightly mystifying. This year we took my small son to the pantomime for the first time, and in my first visit to the pantomime for about thirty years I was struck by how little has really changed. Going to the pantomime was a much-anticipated Christmas treat for me as a child: I wholeheartedly believed in the magic of the pantomime, found the jokes hilarious, the mock-pathos moving, the action thrilling, and I desperately wanted to be the fairy godmother (usually played by one of the senior girls from the ballet school). Subsequent weeks would be spent re-enacting parts of the pantomime, with focus on the ballet.

The pantomime we went to was in the same place (The Elgiva in Chesham, if you’re interested) as the pantomimes I attended in the early 1980s, which made me think even more about how things have changed over time. The pantomime tradition demands that the basic story be that of a fairytale (Jack and the Beanstalk, in this case), but which must include a hero, a princess, a fairy godmother, Widow Twanky (a man dressed up as a woman), a villain who must be boo-ed, and a set pattern of events, beginning with trials to be overcome and ending with a marriage. Along the way, the audience can sing, express loudly their delight or disapproval, and leave their usual, restrained selves at the door (this goes for adults more than children, of course). The set is always full of glitter and sparkle, the brighter the better – any ideas of restraint or taste must necessarily be replaced with a fearless drive towards a complete cheerfulness overload.IMG_1620

A new book on The Golden Age of Pantomime by Jeffrey Richards, which I’ve read several reviews of recently, explores why pantomime was so important in the nineteenth century, and one aspect of the Victorian pantomime is the way in which it constructed childhood as something innocent and ethereal, though later in the century combined with music-halls acts which attracted the crowds over Christmas. This combination is perhaps why the modern pantomime has a patchwork effect, in which songs, romantic interludes, jokes and audience participation all combine with both pathos and slapstick to create something unlike anything else you might see in the theatre. It won’t surprise you to hear that Charles Dickens was fond of a pantomime, though perhaps it is more surprising that John Ruskin also did.

In some ways, I found myself thinking how different this pantomime was from those I remembered – the music is WarnePantomine1890louder and more contemporary, the special effects more special, and the dancing more modern. Yet of course these are minor, surface differences: though the performance was well-rehearsed and performed, there was still a sense of very British amateurishness about it which is necessary in pantomime, I think. And though I was conscious of the innuendo in some of the terrible jokes, that’s because I’m older, not because panto has changed. Pantomime is by its very nature both timeless and of its time: different every year, only put on for a fleeting festive season, it reflects the trends and concerns of its time (for example, references to Strictly, Frozen and austerity abound) – but the way in which it makes contemporary references don’t really change, and the sort of awful, punning jokes which raise a groan are both rooted in contemporary ideas and in much older concepts. Making us laugh is a complex business, but one which in many ways doesn’t seem to have changed much over time. I’m no expert (though the V&A pages on the history of pantomime are very helpful) but it seems to me that at this festive time of year, a panto, full of cringe-making jokes, loud music with the occasional off-note, and clunky plots, is just what we need to raise the Christmas spirit.