This year we’ve got two — two! — exhibits for attendees to view at Wilson Library. Read on for a guest post on our “Northanger Abbey” display by teaching fellows Taras V. Mikhailiuk and Carlie N. Wetzel, and a sneak peek at our exhibit on “Frankenstein.” Both exhibits will be open on Thursday, June 14, so make sure to make your way to UNC’s campus to view these great treasures. (The “Frankenstein” exhibit runs through Aug. 26.)
‘Northanger Abbey: Imagination & the Gothic’
This year’s exhibit is “Northanger Abbey: Imagination & the Gothic.” Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey (1817) and the texts that surround it engage with one or both of these concepts. We celebrate the bicentennial of Austen’s novel with this rare-books exhibit. Like Frankenstein, Northanger Abbey examines the tangles and twists of imagination and pushes against the limits of the Gothic as a literary genre.
To exemplify this theme in the novel, we selected this 1907 edition of Northanger Abbey, which boasts delicately colored illustrations by Charles Edmund Brock (1870–1938), a famous English painter, line artist and book illustrator. The frontispiece image shows the unexpected meeting of Mrs. Allen and Mrs. Thorpe in Bath. It seems a moment after the initial excitement of their surprise has subsided and the ladies settled into a happy conversation catching up on everything that happened since they last met.
Other images in this edition similarly represent a particular episode or moment in Northanger as an excerpt caption guides the reader to the appropriate place in the novel. This precise pairing of the illustration and the text is striking, carefully drawing our attention to the vividness of Austen’s language. We enjoy the artist’s imagining of particular scenes, while each illustration also directs our pleasure back to the enjoyment of Northanger. Just like these images visualize the novel for us, they also showcase the Edwardian fascination with the novel’s power to stimulate imagination almost a century after its first publication.
William Gilpin’s Observations formulated the picturesque in a way that shaped aesthetic ideas, promoted domestic tourism, and stimulated a widespread interest in Gothic architecture—what art historians term the Gothic Revival. Henry Tilney’s talk of “foregrounds, distances, and second distances—side-screens and perspectives—lights and shades” displays this popular taste.
Gilpin’s Observations also promoted a fascination with remnants of the Medieval past that permeate Gothic literature. Catherine Morland absorbs this cultural trend through her reading of Ann Radcliffe’s Gothic novels and can’t wait to visit Northanger Abbey. Although Henry’s discussion of the picturesque baffles her, Catherine is a beneficiary—or perhaps a victim—of a wider cultural iteration of Gilpin’s idea of the picturesque and the Gothic.
The exhibit also features a collection of reproduced fashion plates titled Gallery of Fashion, 1790-1822. These beautiful fashion plate series were decorated with watercolor and metallic embellishments, and they depict the English and classic influences on dress after the French Revolution, particularly the popularity of high-waisted garments.
Many discussions about dress appear in Austen’s Northanger Abbey, and Doris Langley Moore’s note on the fashion plate pictured here describes it as “a perfect illustration for the novels of Jane Austen.” The garment is a “promenade pelisse of gros de Naples,” meaning an outer garment of silk, with “vandyked epaulettes,” or shoulder pieces with decorative edging, and a “patent lace ruff” at the neck. The woman depicted also sports a “black silk bonnet with full plume and cerulean silk under the brim.” One might imagine Mrs. Allen dressing in this fashion at the pump room in Bath and happily noting that “the lace on Mrs. Thorpe’s pelisse was not half so handsome as that on her own.” Here a history of fashion helps us visualize the microcosm of the novel created by Austen’s imagination.
About the curators:
Taras V. Mikhailiuk is a Ph.D. student and Teaching Fellow in English at UNC-CH. His research focuses on the unsayable in English Romantic poetry. Taras also serves as an Assistant Editor for the Keats-Shelley Journal. He lives in Durham, NC, with his wife and their four young children.
Carlie N. Wetzel is a Ph.D. student and Teaching Fellow in English at UNC-CH. She earned her B.A. at Colgate University in 2014. Her research focuses on elegiac English Romantic poetry. Carlie also serves as Editorial Intern for the Keats-Shelley Journal.
‘Reconstructing Frankenstein’s Monster: Mary Shelley’s World in Print’
“Reconstructing Frankenstein’s Monster: Mary Shelley’s World in Print,” an exhibit of rare books and medical instruments that illuminate the contexts of Frankenstein, opened April 26 in the Melba Remig Saltarelli Room at UNC’s Wilson Library. It was curated during Spring Semester 2018 by nine honors students in Jeanne Moskal’s English 295H undergraduate research seminar, with the help of Grant Glass, the course’s graduate research consultant, and of Wilson Library’s Emily Kader and Rachel Reynolds, who designed its museum-studies approach. Emily Sferra produced two audiocasts to accompany the exhibit, one for adults and one for children.
Here is an excerpt from Jeanne Moskal’s welcome at the opening celebration. “With considerable envy, Mary Shelley’s step-sister characterized Frankenstein as ‘a novel that by its originality knock[ed] all other novels on the head.’ In its 200 years, Frankenstein has given Western culture its go-to metaphor for humanity’s relationship to science, as the word ‘FrankenFoods’ attests. It has inspired innumerable reboots in film, TV, and material culture. This exhibit returns us to sources of the 1818 novel, walking us through the plot, quoting salient passages, and displaying carefully-chosen objects that illuminate Mary Shelley’s world. Mary Shelley was the same age as our undergraduate curators when she wrote and published Frankenstein. Most days this semester, I have witnessed firsthand the curators’ creativity, their smarts, and their ability to ask hard questions. And, many evenings this semester, I have been riveted by screens where young student activists prick our gun-numbed consciences. These contrapuntal experiences have fostered a new hope in me for the future our students and their nationwide cohort will lead. On its bicentenary, we reflect on Frankenstein’s strength, its uncanny ability to address generations of readers and viewers in new ways. Frankenstein is strong, in part, because it strips away the daily routines that distract us from the wonder that life itself deserves. Since the scientist’s experiment could easily have failed, we feel more keenly its triumph when his 1931 cinematic avatar exclaims: ‘It’s alive! It’s alive!’ For most of us this awareness is fleeting, prompted by contact with newborns, say, or with the freshly bereaved.
“With more stamina, Martin Heidegger wrote a weighty philosophical tome that began, ‘Why is there something, instead of nothing?’ The experiment could have failed but did not. More recently, Lin-Manuel Miranda has renewed Mary Shelley’s invitation to marvel—and to tremble—at life itself. His character Eliza Hamilton sings: ‘Look around, look around, how lucky we are to be alive right now. … The fact that you’re alive is a miracle.'”
This exhibit and the 2018 Jane Austen Summer Program contribute to hundreds of worldwide celebrations of Frankenstein‘s bicentenary, which culminate in “FrankenReads,” marathon readings of the novel on (when else?) Halloween. The Keats-Shelley Association of America has a complete list of events, as well as suggested teaching materials, and ideas for organizing your own celebration, at https://frankenreads.org/.