Horace Walpole, The Castle of Otranto

The Castle of OtrantoThe Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Published pseudonymously in 1764 by an English politician, The Castle of Otranto is usually praised as the first Gothic novel. It not only set off a craze for novels about haunted castles and abbeys, about predatory dukes and scheming monks and fainting maidens, all necessary popular accompaniments to Romanticism’s more philosophical critique of Enlightenment rationality, it also changed the novel form. And this was its author’s explicit goal. In his preface to the second edition, to which Walpole appended his own name, he writes:

It 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. Invention has not been wanting; but the great resources of fancy have been dammed up, by a strict adherence to common life.

Walpole here observes the same trend noted by Dr. Johnson in his Rambler, No. 4: the movement of fiction toward realism, a mode that aspires to tell invented stories about common people in a style that emphasizes social and psychological verisimilitude. Unlike Johnson, who praises this development for making literature morally relevant to its audience and raising it above mere entertainment, Walpole laments the loss of “fancy” that characterized prose fiction—romance—from late antiquity to the 17th century.

The formal solution Walpole devises to this problem of how to write fantastic fiction in a realist age is one that is still with us today: he recommends that authors use both plausible external detail and naturalistic human behavior to make the supernatural events of their fiction more believable. Walpole lives on in every meticulous horror-movie attempt to create a real world for the the monster or the demon to reduce to ruins. The most recent example that comes to my mind is the family psychodrama at the heart of the film Hereditary, complete with a stagey set-piece dinner-table argument that belongs, in terms of dramatic mode, to the realist theater.

Walpole’s theory is better than his practice, however. The Castle of Otranto is not very good qua novel. While its supernatural episodes have an intriguing surrealism—the book’s inciting incident occurs when a prince is “dashed to pieces, and almost buried under an enormous helmet”—the narrative’s brevity coupled with its complexity makes it read like farce. Walpole’s idea of realistic human behavior seems to have come from sentimental fiction, so much of the novel consists of tearful arias by the confusing profusion of heroines, Matilda, Isabella, and Hippolita, as they struggle under the tyranny of the novel’s villain, Prince Manfred.

The plot is not worth recounting in full: it essentially concerns the supernatural means by which the rightful heir to the titular castle comes to succeed the usurping Manfred. The story is in constant motion—Walpole uses a five-chapter structure that mirrors Shakespearean plotting, and his method is more dramatic than novelistic, comprised mostly of action and dialogue—which means that we never come to care about any of the characters, who exist only as types (cruel tyrant, pious mother, young brave, etc.); granted, the types are moody and changeable in another superficial borrowing from Shakespeare, but Walpole lacks Shakespeare’s gift for creating characters who introspect in language so rich that they come to seem not mechanically unpredictable but humanly complex.

The bulk of Otranto‘s plot consists of a love triangle among the mysterious peasant hero Theodore, Manfred’s daughter Matilda, and his would-be daughter-in-law (spared marriage by the aforementioned helmet-crushing of his son) Isabella. Because the characters are uninteresting, many of the novel’s sentences read like word problems; you could substitute letters for the characters’ names, and it would still make as much sense:

Theodore, under pretence of expressing his joy at being freed from his apprehensions of the combat being fatal to Frederic, could not resist the impulse of following Matilda. Her eyes were so often cast down on meeting his, that Isabella, who regarded Theodore as attentively as he gazed on Matilda, soon divined who the object was that he had told her in the cave engaged his affections.

By blending a supernatural tragedy with a sentimental love story, Walpole fulfills his mandate of combining ancient and modern fiction-writing techniques. To the same end, and again following Shakespeare, he uses the castle’s servants to leaven the tragedy with humor. Bianca, a dim and loquacious maid who comes across as a youthful version of Juliet’s nurse, steals the show, as in a late scene when Manfred tries to pry information from her despite her stream of naive and self-serving prattle.

Everything about this novel leads me to believe that Walpole’s real literary gift was a comic one. How seriously are we supposed to take this quasi-Shakespearean tragedy anyway? The preface to the first edition casts it as a manuscript “found in the library of an ancient Catholic family in the north of England. It was printed at Naples, in the black letter, in the year 1529.” Our author, posing as translator and editor, goes on:

The principal incidents are such as were believed in the darkest ages of Christianity; but the language and conduct have nothing that savours of barbarism. The style is the purest Italian.


It is not unlikely that an artful priest might endeavour to turn their own arms on the innovators, and might avail himself of his abilities as an author to confirm the populace in their ancient errors and superstitions. If this was his view, he has certainly acted with signal address. Such a work as the following would enslave a hundred vulgar minds beyond half the books of controversy that have been written from the days of Luther to the present hour.

This solution of the author’s motives is, however, offered as a mere conjecture. Whatever his views were, or whatever effects the execution of them might have, his work can only be laid before the public at present as a matter of entertainment.

In other words, this story of haunted castles and sinister monasteries and the underground labyrinths linking them may once have been dangerous: it might have served to reawaken belief in all the Catholic superstitions the Renaissance and the Reformation (the “innovators” named above) had so successfully dispelled. But now that this danger has passed, now that we definitely don’t believe that nonsense anymore, we can read such a story as a lark or a game, especially if its style is a pleasing one. From the aesthetic distance of Enlightened England, the barbarous past of Italy and “the Orient” (the novel, at least in recollection, spans both settings) can be enjoyed in good fun.

Walpole, son of England’s first prime minister, spent much of his life as a Whig politician, despite his predilection for the arts. In his introduction to this Oxford edition, W. S. Lewis notes that, to discharge the stresses of politics, Walpole devoted his free time to proto-Romantic artistic pursuits, famously renovating his house on Strawberry Hill into a neo-Gothic villa as well as building in prose The Caste of Otranto.

It takes a Whig, not a Tory, to invent the Gothic genre. To recast the barbarous brutal past, Catholic and Oriental, as light, if shocking, relief, a nerve-titillating escape from the workaday world of the modern, you would have to belief in that past’s absolute supersession, or at least that it deserves such supersession. Once aestheticized in a pure literary style, the beauties and the terrors of the Old World, its aristocrats and monks and visionary maidens, become a theme park and a tourist trap, as well as an occasion for self-congratulation—an assertion of who is on the right side of history.

On the other hand, Walpole’s formal innovation of combining the supernaturalism of the old-style romance with what the age of sentimentality considered a realistic portrayal of character tends to have the opposite effect: if the people undergoing these ghostly experiences are just like us, then why can’t the repressed return to us as it does to them? If character is so unchanged across time and space, then how can we moderns be sure we have evaded what we were obviously too quick to mock as the Latin barbarisms we supposedly left behind with Luther?

Because the Gothic grounds its terrors in everyday emotion and naturalizes them through the techniques of realistic fiction, it works against its own ideological presupposition that we have thrown off the dead hand of history. Lewis in his introduction writes that Walter Scott, inventor of the modern historical novel, praised Otranto for its well-researched detail in the description of architecture and costume; this presumably inspired Scott’s own innovations in fictionally recreating a past that feels different from the present, a quality absent from prior historical novels and dramas. Yet insofar as Lewis combines period costume with perennial psychology, he creates an anti-historical novel and gives the Gothic its counter-Whiggish political edge.

Walpole borrowed from Shakespeare, and moreover defends Shakespeare in his second preface to the novel against the neo-classical and Enlightened criticism of Voltaire. Whereas Voltaire had chastised the English playwright for his mixed modes, mingling high tragedy with low farce to create a disordered aesthetic effect, Walpole hails Shakespeare as “[t]hat great master of nature,” which presumably does not obey the schematic dicta of French literary theory. Again, though, Walpole implies that what is natural is universal: nature holds true in modern England as in medieval Italy, under Protestantism as under Catholicism, in 18th-century novels as in 16th-century tragedies. Can you be a Whig and think that Shakespeare copied nature in all its grotesque, chaotic copiousness of mood and meaning? Can you read Macbeth or King Lear—or even Richard II—and believe that history is, or at least should be, moving toward a telos of enlightenment?

We may be crushed at any moment by an uprising of what we thought was settled history; we may be undone today or tomorrow by secrets that suddenly seize us and, without our understanding, control our passions. Ironically, to be modern is to feel always insecure in our modernity, which is to say unsure that we are in rational command of our lives or others’. We all live in the castle of Otranto.

As a much later Gothic novelist will so famously propose, “The past is not dead. It is not even past.” When Walpole finds a fictional form for those elements of the mind and of history that rational realism cannot contain or explain away, he invents more than just modern genre fiction with its attempts at verisimilitude. He finds the neglected road that leads from Shakespeare to Faulkner and to Freud—to modernism.


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