Wednesday 25 April 2012

The Gothic Imagination?

Theseus : The best in this kind are but shadows; and the worst are no worse, if imagination amend them.
Hippolyta : It must be your imagination then, and not theirs.

I love this exchange from Midsummer Night's Dream - both the sentiment expressed by Theseus, and Hippolyta's waspish response. They're talking about the inept but well meaning theatrical performance put on by Bottom and his fellow artisans to celebrate the royal wedding, but both could equally apply to books.  The writer creates the shadows, for stage or page, but the reader brings something to the party too - their own imagination.

Monday was World Book Night (As well as being Shakespeare's birthday) and I attended an event held by Cardiff University's BookTalk - a king-size version of a book group -  which celebrated with a discussion of one of the books on the Book Night list  - Daphne Du Maurier's Rebecca.

I've frequently speculated about writing a Gothic romance, and a trip to Walpole's Gothic mansion at Strawberry Hill is high on my list of Places I Really Want To Visit. Anything to do with what is possibly the most famous Gothic novel of them all has an irresistible pull.
Before the discussion of Rebecca, expert speakers took us on a fascinating canter through fashion, architecture and the Hitchcock film.  For me it threw  new light on the working of the imagination in relation to the book and the film, particularly about the creative power of the imagination.
Manderley, Maxim De Winter's home, is virtually a character in the book. I would hazard a guess that most people who have read Rebecca would be able to describe it in detail, but apparently the physical description of the house in the novel is minimal - I shall be checking that one out on my next reading. The Gothic image might be fixed from the Hitchcock film, but the house in the famous film does not exist either - they could not find a real building suitable, so Manderley was created from models and stage sets.(The fact that the filming took place in California, not Cornwall, might have contributed!) I would also have been prepared to swear that there is a depiction of Rebecca in the film - it is so strong in my mind that I can see her standing on the deck of the sailing boat, laughing - but she is actually never portrayed, except on some of the posters advertising the film. Hitchcock uses clever technique to suggest her presence, without ever making her real. An eponymous  ghost, hovering over Maxim and his new wife, recreated by her clothes, her rooms and possessions, her costume for the ball, but never in person. It was all the power of my imagination, as reader and viewer.

There is frequently debate about the fashion for headless heroines, and heroes - the book cover that depicts a figure from the chin or neck down, or from the back. But cover artists and publishers have a point - the reader can imagine whoever and whatever they  want, without having their image fixed by someone elses's taste. And if I'm anything to go by, the reader can imagine quite well for themselves.

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