Horace Walpole, The Castle of Otranto

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

* 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.