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Horace Walpole, The Castle of Otranto

September 17, 2011
Tower of Horace Walpole's own Gothic house, Strawberry Hill

Tower of Horace Walpole's own Gothic house, Strawberry Hill (Public domain, via Wikipedia)

Would you believe the issue of fact and fiction is consciously raised in yet another novel I’ve read? In his preface to The Castle of Otranto Horace Walpole suggests that it’s possible the story – which he tells us that he “found” and translated – is based on fact. And he concludes that:

If  a catastrophe, at all resembling that which he [the original author, that is!] describes, is believed to have given rise to this work, it will contribute to interest the reader, and will make the “Castle of Otranto” a still more moving story. (Preface to the 1st edition)

Hmm … moving is not quite how I’d describe this Gothic tale but perhaps that’s because I’m a cynical 21st century reader and not a mid 18th century one? I did though enjoy the book, which I read as part of my local Jane Austen group’s preparation for our discussion of Northanger Abbey next month. I had planned to read a Gothic novel by a female author – such as Ann Radcliffe – but time got the better of me and so I settled on The Castle of Otranto which is a novella, but which is also interesting for its pioneer status as the first Gothic novel.

The first thing that entertained me about the novel was the preface and Walpole’s (rather postmodern-like) attempt to pass it off as a story he’d found and translated. He suggests the text had been written in medieval times during the Crusades (between 1095 and 1243). This first edition was well-received by the reading public as well as by some contemporary critics. And so in the second edition Walpole identifies himself as the author, and in its preface claims that the novel was “an attempt to blend the two kinds of romance, the ancient and the modern. In the former all was imagination and improbability: in the latter, nature is always intended to be, and sometimes has been, copied with success…”. This builds, in fact, on an argument he makes in the first edition’s preface that if we ignore the “miraculous” (read “supernatural”) aspects:

the reader will find nothing else unworthy of his perusal. Allow the possibility of the facts, and all the actors comport themselves as persons would do in their situation.

Hmm again … I think he errs on the improbable side of the pendulum, but the characters do, I accept, exhibit a reasonable level of psychological realism.

This change from the first to the second edition is interesting in itself and would be fun to research further … but it’s not something I plan to pursue in this review. I will, though, take up the issue of “the novel” further when I review Northanger Abbey in a month or so since it is in this novel that Austen argues the value of reading fiction.

This brings me to the second thing I enjoyed about the novel, and that was simply experiencing the introduction of the Gothic. Wikipedia says Walpole “introduces many set-pieces that the Gothic novel will become famous for. These includes mysterious sounds, doors opening independently of a person, and the fleeing of a beautiful [usually virginal] heroine from an incestuous male figure”. It also includes the sorts of features that we find in soap operas today – which one could argue are a continuation of the Gothic without the supernatural horror aspect. These features include mistaken identities, people returning from the dead (or, at least, when they are least expected), and love triangles (which are, of course, not only the province of the Gothic). The Castle of Otranto moves at a cracking pace. There’s a lot of dialogue, a good deal of action (human and supernatural), and not too much description.

Another thing that fascinated me is why readers enjoy such over-the-top stories. To prepare for my group’s discussion, I read a critique by Jerrold E. Hogle*. He argues, to put his academic thesis more simply, that the Gothic allows readers to “displace” real fears onto something more fictive. In Walpole and Radcliffe, these fears, he suggests, are somewhat paradoxical: a desire for and rejection of aristocracy and old Catholicism, by the middle class. My group’s discussion raised other reasons too. One is the “excitement” (sexual titillation) roused by these novels, particularly for the young women of the era like, say, Catherine Moreland and Isabella Thorpe in Northanger Abbey. Were Gothic novels that generation’s young adult novels? Another is the idea that, like crime novels, Gothic novels are about the restoration of order: “This is a bad world” says the hero earlier in the novel.

Anyhow, that’s enough of that I think. I haven’t really done a review have I? I haven’t even mentioned the plot. It’s pretty much the usual stuff. There’s Manfred, the lord of the castle, who needs to continue his line to maintain ownership of the castle, but his only son dies on his wedding day. This sets off a train of events in which Manfred decides to divorce his wife, Hippolita, to marry his son’s intended in order to, hopefully, produce more heirs. His plan is intercepted by the appearance of those who claim the castle is theirs. The story includes knights and friars, loving mothers and loyal daughters, helmets and portraits with minds of their own (“the portrait … uttered a deep sigh and heaved its breast”), and, of course, caves and tunnels. The interesting thing about the plot though, in terms of that restoration of order argument, is that not quite the perfect order is restored … but I won’t spoil the story further than that.

As for the opening quote, I’ll leave that for you to ponder …

Horace Walpole
The Castle of Otranto
Originally published 1764
Kindle edition
158Kb

* Hogle, Jerrold, W “Hyper-reality and the Gothic affect: The sublimation of fear from Burke and Walpole to The Ring“, in English Language Notes, 48 (1): 163-176, Spring/Summer 2010.

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14 Comments leave one →
  1. September 18, 2011 1:36 am

    I’m still mulling over the name Hippolita. I’m picturing a hippo wearing a pink tutu

    • September 18, 2011 1:52 pm

      It is a good one … I gather it’s a variation of the Greek name Hippolyta which means “stampeding horses”. Not at all apposite for the pretty submissive gentle character in this book. The other characters have more recognisable names: Mandrake, Frederic, Theodore, Matilda, Isabella, Jerome and so on. A servant is Bianca which I read somewhere reflects the increasing Spanish influence of the times.

      • September 19, 2011 5:57 am

        can you imagine calling a kid that?

        • September 19, 2011 8:49 am

          Probably not. In fact, I can safely say it wouldn’t be on the list of possibilities. As for a character in a book … well, I wouldn’t rule it out!

  2. September 18, 2011 1:01 pm

    Another one on my TBR – and expecting to find it hilarious in ways unintended by its author, as I did with Ann Radcliffe’s Mysteries of Udolpho. As you don’t have time to read that one before your bookgroup meeting, you might like to have a look at my none-too-serious review of it at http://wp.me/phTIP-27f
    Cheers
    Lisa

    • September 18, 2011 1:47 pm

      Ah thanks Lisa, I will read that book one day as I should read a Radcliffe … but the meeting was yesterday! One of our members read Mysteries of Udolpho. As for the humour, I certainly agree! They are hard to review I think in the way we would usually do so …

  3. September 18, 2011 9:20 pm

    “It’s pretty much the usual stuff.” <- And I think that's why I simply can't get too excited about gothic novels? Also, I'm almost positive that I've heard other novels described as "the first gothic novel"…

    • September 18, 2011 10:39 pm

      No me neither, though I’ll probably read one or two more if I can – particularly an Ann Radcliffe. Oh, and I’m sure there are other claims to being the first … there usually is isn’t there!

  4. September 19, 2011 4:26 pm

    I’m trying to think of other novels where the author presents as editor of a found literary object that is possibly fact. One that springs to mind is Laurie King’s The Beekeeper’s Apprentice’, with its double-whammy of fact versus fiction.

    • September 19, 2011 7:37 pm

      Good question Judith. I don’t know Laurie King, but somewhere in the recesses of my mind is at least one other that I’ve read (and it’s driving me mad that I can’t bring it to the fore!) There is a film example though, Fargo.

  5. September 22, 2011 4:57 am

    I finished this a week or so ago and will be writing about it soon too. It did move at a cracking pace didn’t it? I was surprised how it never really slowed down. I found it interesting too how in the introduction Walpole wanted to try and give some veracity to the story. It was an enjoyable read!

    • September 22, 2011 9:16 am

      Oh good, Stefanie. I wondered if you’d finished it. I look forward to reading your review. Glad you enjoyed it too … I was surprised in a way that I enjoyed it as much as I did (not that that means I want to read lots more but it was a great introduction to the genre I think.)

  6. December 30, 2011 1:53 pm

    You’re making me cry with all this dissin’ of the Gothic genre :) Yes it’s OTT but that’s part of the fun. Of course the ultimate Gothic novel, IMO is Jane Eyre. Rebecca is a good modern interpretation of the genre. The OTT stories have their place, the same sort of place that horror movies serve today. I do admit to loving Jane Austen’s critique of silly young ladies who get carried away with the genre though. Hope you enjoyed Northanger Abbey, most certainly an antidote to haunted houses and damsels in distress.

    • December 30, 2011 2:47 pm

      Welcome to the Gums Belinda … but get thee to a castle keep and weep until your hero arrives with steed and sword!

      Seriously though, thanks for joining in here. Jane Eyre and Rebecca are great books … and I love Northanger Abbey … my planned review is still coming (I hope)!

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