With the festive season approaching it’s a good time to focus on some historic Victorian ‘cautionary tales’ – it was Queen Victoria who was largely credited with introducing the concept of the Christmas tree to western society. A belief in the occult pervaded the Victorian era, in parallel with Christianity. Rites and superstitions were used as a way of dealing with grief, at the same time instilling moral values. This field of so-called ‘female mythology’ likely stemmed from post-natal trauma and experiences of fear and guilt. Alongside rituals such as warding off ‘evil spirits’, a flood of cautionary tales emerged, spoken as a means of evading moral degradation. These tales evolved into more sinister folkloric stories, such as the Sandman, who became a menacing character that was used to threaten children who wouldn’t sleep; their refusal to sleep led to their eyes be taken by the Sandman and fed to his children on the moon!
Gothic tales also served to expose the underbelly of Victorian society, those marginalised characters who were misunderstood or who threatened a ‘wholesome’ way of life. The bleak realism of the writings of the novelist Charles Dickens drew attention to the larger social questions of Victorian England, including acute poverty. In some of his writings he used the devices of the ghost story and the fairy tale to evoke a phantasmagorial imagery, with the aim of promoting a political response to the dire social conditions, particularly those of children.
One Dickensian moment in the Gothic Beauty exhibition includes a digitised rare set of Magic Lantern Slides from the collection of Museums Victoria featured in the Dickens compendium ‘A Christmas Tale’. The slides illustrate the tale of Gabriel Grub, an ill-mannered alcoholic sexton (grave digger) who – after demonstrating he is not going to make merry at Christmas - is pulled underground by a group of goblins. While underground Gabriel is shown tableaux of the world above that he had always held in scorn: the lives of everyday people, who despite their poverty and sufferings, harbor nothing but good cheer and goodwill. As the story progresses Gabriel begins to understand the error of his ways, he appears back on earth as a reformed man, espousing his story to the community.
Gothic Beauty; Victorian Notions of Love Loss and Spirituality runs until February 10 2019. Free entry.
Bamforth & Co Britain c. 1850–90, Lantern slide: Gabriel Grub, or the story of the goblins who stole a sexton c. 1890, Collection of Museums Victoria