The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole

Horace Walpole’s much referenced, ghoulish and unrelentingly grim The Castle of Otranto is considered the first gothic novel. Published in 1764, The Castle of Otranto purports to have originally been printed in 1529 and found in the library of an ancient catholic family in the north of England.” The preface to the first edition, included in my copy, includes a facsimile of the title page along with the name of its fictional translator (William Marshal, Gent.) and its fictional author, Onuphrio Muralto. This is followed by the preface to the second edition which acknowledges the deceit and Walpole begs his readers’ pardon “for having offered his work to them under the borrowed personage of a translator.”

castle of otrantoThe extensive introduction by Nick Groom  in my Oxford World Classics edition provides a lot of background information about “eighteen century discussion and debate about the Goths and ‘Gothick.‘” If I’d read the book without the intro, I would have missed a great deal of the novel’s historical and political context, and probably scratched my head a lot more as I read the archaic language. In this edition, there’s a chronology of Horace Walpole’s life in the context of his times and extensive explanatory notes. The Castle of Otranto, a story set in Medieval times and laced with lust, incest and the supernatural, explores the question of legitimacy and succession–a most relevant topic for Walpole & his peers.  The book turned out to be nothing like I’d expected; a little background info goes a long way.

The book’s plot is simple enough: Manfred, Prince of Otranto has two children, a son Conrad and a daughter, Matilda,  by Hippolita, an obedient, now aging woman. Manfred, in order to secure his title, has arranged a marriage between the orphan Isabella and his sickly son, Conrad. Manfred managed to persuade Isabella’s guardians to hand her over, and she’s in his castle so that Manfred  “might celebrate the wedding as soon as Conrad’s infirm state of health would permit.” Hippolita occasionally objects at the haste, but she’s rewarded with “reflections on her own sterility.” So the wedding day is fixed even though the match seems incongruous given Conrad’s youth and poor health.

On the day of the wedding, as everyone gathers for the ceremony, Conrad is missing, and a search leads to the discovery of Conrad squashed under a giant helmet. Isabella is secretly relieved that the marriage will not take place, but her relief is short-lived when Manfred summons her to his chamber and announces his intentions to marry her himself. Isabella, horrified, and basically at Manfred’s mercy, flees into the subterranean passages, a “long labyrinth of darkness,” under the castle and eventually finds sanctuary at a convent.

All of this is on the back of the book, so I’m hardly giving away any plot secrets here. The rest of the book includes various twists, turns and complications in the plot as relationships are dramatically revealed and several characters are unmasked. One of the features of the plot that must be mentioned is the use of archaic language:

Madam, said Manfred, what business drew you hither? Why did not you await my return from the marquis? I came to implore a blessing on your councils, replied Hippolita. My councils do not need a friar’s intervention, said Manfred–and of all men living is that hoary traitor the only one you delight to confer with? Profane prince! said Jerome: is it at the altar that thou choosest to insult the servants of the altar?–But, Manfred thy impious schemes are known. Heaven and this virtuous lady know them. Nay, frown not, prince. The church despises thy menaces. Her thunders will be heard above thy wrath. dare to proceed in thy curst purpose of a divorce, until her sentence be known, and her I lance her anathema at thy head. Audacious rebel! said Manfred, endeavouring to conceal the awe with which the friar’s words inspired him; dost thou presume to threaten thy lawful prince?

That long quote gives not only a sense of the language used in the book but also the formatting–a complete lack of quotation marks and line breaks in the dialogue.

Written in 5 chapters, this gothic story is packed with strange events, unexpected, shocking, dramatic revelations, mysterious sounds and dark, secret passages. The morbid, eerie atmosphere of the castle reinforces the plot elements–we know, as dread builds, that anything can happen, and whatever it is, it will be bad. On the question of Manfred’s marriage to Hippolita, and his desire to divorce her (with the help of the church) and marry Isabella (thus producing, he hopes more male heirs), it’s impossible NOT to think of Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon, and with the tricky questions of inheritance and hidden/mistaken identities, of course, it’s also impossible not to think of Shakespeare. The macabre castle itself becomes almost a central character as the tragic events unfold.

To the modern reader, The Castle of Otranto presents a challenge, and the more fantastic events which occasionally occur with a generous dollop of deus-ex-machina seem almost laughable were we not to consider that this is a ground-breaking tale which no doubt shocked the 18th century audience for which it was intended. Any book should stand on its own merits without an explanation to make it readable, and standing on its own The Castle of Otranto possesses the gloomy melodrama you’d expect from a Jacobean tragedy but in this instance, the tale is seeped with the Gothic. Reading the introduction reinforces the political nature of the novel and the author’s intentions.

The brutal Battle of Culloden (anyone seen the brilliant film by Peter Watkins?) in which the Jacobite forces of Bonnie Prince Charlie were defeated by the loyalist troops commanded by the Duke of Cumberland took place in 1746, and it was this battle that decisively ended any hopes for the Stuarts to regain the throne. This significant battle took place less than two decades before the publication of the Castle of Otranto–a book with a plot mostly concerned with legitimacy and succession.  The excellent introduction delves into the politics of the time and argues that “Walpole was [therefore] perhaps positioning the text to be read in its first incarnation as a Tory justification for Stuart rebellion against the House of Hanover, as ‘Jacobit Gothick. The revelation that it was written by a Whig, however reverses the politics of the novel, which then becomes a study of usurpation and the corrupting extension of a sovereign’s power.” Nick Groom’s illuminating intro also analyzes Walpole’s social, financial and political position at the time of the novel’s authorship. I liked The Castle of Otranto because it was so over-the-top, shamelessly melodramatic, milking every opportunity to twist the plot into further knots, but the introduction argues for the novel’s subversive intent. Political background aside, this is the novel that jump-started a fantastic genre, and it’s certainly clear that the Gothic novel had to exist before the Sensation novel made an appearance. …

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Filed under Fiction, Walpole Horace

39 responses to “The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole

  1. Jonathan

    I’m sure I’ve read this but it’s probably one of those books where I took very little in. I like gothic books, both old and new, so I should like it; I don’t think I did though. But maybe a re-read is in order. I read The Monk a year or so ago and though it was brilliant.

  2. I remember this as a silly book, but later writers sure did a good job of stripping-mining it for images and ideas.

    Jonathan – Guy, too – have you tried Melmoth the Wanderer? Ha ha ha ha!

  3. Fascinating Guy. I read this a few years ago, but a Kindle version without as I recollect an introduction like this. I was reading it for my Jane Austen group so was focused on its role as a Gothic novel. A hoot of a read, but with a number angles a modern reader can talk about. My reading suggested a more general idea that gothic novels, like crime novels, were about the restoration of order. How does that fit in with Groom’s intro?

  4. This sounds like such a fun book to read.

    I am OK with needing to do a little background research in order to fully appreciate a book. This is especially true with older works as we may otherwise miss a lot of context.

    • I certainly would have missed a lot of context. I read the book first before reading the intro, and this is one of the rare instances when I think I should have read the intro first. I’d seen a film about the Battle of Culloden, so I made the connection about succession without the intro, and then when I saw the reference in the intro, it just confirmed the connection.

  5. I’m sure I read this novel when I was in my twenties and recall it being gloriously over-the-top and atmospheric. Fascinating commentary. The introduction to Oxford World Classics edition sounds excellent – they seem to do a great job with their intros.

  6. I’ve read a whole lot about Culloden, but I’ve never made the connection. Thanks for that – it’s a fascinating connection indeed.

    I don’t suppose this was in your Introduction, but an English literature student I once discussed this book with told me that the helmet is apparently meant to symbolise the penis. I didn’t press her for further details.

    I read Otranto after I’d read Mervyn Peake’s Goremnghast, and the influences of the former upon the latter are very palpably obvious.

    • I’ve seen the Gormenghast film–haven’t read the book but didn’t make the connection to be honest. Now that you point it out, I can see what you mean.
      The helmet…. I don’t know where people get this symbolism from, but a professor once told a class (in which I suffered) that the Elizabeth lute was a symbol of the penis. It’s endemic!

  7. I like reading about this and know how influential it was but I don’t think I could read it. But I’m quite interested in Gormenghast. I didn’t know about the connection either.

  8. I would think that this is still read a lot in university classes since the book is seminal to the genre. I’ve been meaning to get to Gormenghast after seeing the series.

    • Peake is rapt and gradual; the TV series is a prinky circus. Walpole reminds me of Amanda McKittrick Ros in that he throws his emphases around however they occur to him; Conrad dies under that helmet and the author behaves as though you want to form an estimate of the plumes. “He beheld his child dashed to pieces, and almost buried under an enormous helmet, an hundred times more large than any casque ever made for human being, and shaded with a proportionable quantity of black feathers.” Peake pulls focus like that too, but he’s doing it on purpose.

  9. Titus Groan differs from Otranto in that it is a great work of literary art.

  10. Picking up on your comment, Guy, about more general, human ‘anxieties and traumas’ – for any readers interested in the ripple effect of the Gothic novel on Australian literature, there’s a fantastic essay on the subject by Evelyn Juers. (It’s in HEAT 15, a bit hard to track down but worth the effort.)

  11. Yes, HEAT is a magazine (now extinct, unfortunately). Sorry for the confusion. The magazine came out in two series. The Juers’ article is in number 15, first series, and it’s called ‘She Wanders: An Essay in Gothic’. A bit out of the way for your readers, probably, but Juers makes some interesting points about Gothic writing at the time of the first fleet, and then continues, mainly discussing Australian fiction by women.
    I haven’t read ‘Under Capricorn’. Must look it up.

  12. Great review and interesting comments, very educational. (What’s good when you read posts after everyone is that you get to read the comments)

    That’s not for me, even in French. I can see where Notre Dame de Paris comes from, so it’s really interesting to read about Walpole. You lost me in the historical references but that’s normal, I don’t know much about the history of UK.

  13. OWC are on a roll with their intros at the moment it seems. A good intro really does add light to a book doesn’t it? A bad one spoilers and a slight sense from the intro writer of “will that do?”

    I’m not sure if I’ll read into the gothic novel or not. If I do this is essential, if not though perhaps something of a curio. The historical background from the intro though does make it more interesting.

    Castle Rackrent I imagine everyone thought gothic because it has such an incredibly gothic title.

    Helmet is a common slang term for the head of a penis, at least in the UK, and has been for a long time so that link doesn’t surprise me.

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