Chapter Excerpt

The Castle of Otrantowas published pseudonymously in 1765 by Horace Walpole (1717-1797), son of one of England's most influential eighteenth-century prime ministers, Sir Robert Walpole. With its fantastic apparitions, its ominous prophecies, and its complicated underground passages,The Castle ofOtrantoheralded a new genre, the Gothic novel, still present in our literary landscape today. Walpole's novel accomplished what no other novel had attempted before: to delight its readers with a tale of horrors, to make them enjoy what they shuddered to read, in other words to find beauty amidst literary materials ostensibly laced with ugliness and horror. Yet, far from being the fruit of deliberate and painstaking planning or tentative drafts,TheCastle of Otrantowas born of a dream that came to haunt Walpole's sleep one night in June 1764. The next day, all that Walpole could recall of the dream was that "I had thought myself in an ancient castle. . .and that on the uppermost bannister of a great staircase I saw a gigantic hand in armour." Later that evening, Walpole "sat down, and began to write, without knowing in the least what I intended to say or relate." A classic was born.


Horace Walpole was the third son of the prominent statesman and Prime Minister Sir Robert Walpole. Horace Walpole was himself a Member of Parliament from 1741 to 1768, yet he is remembered more for his legacy as a novelist, a builder, and an antiquarian than for his work in Parliament. Walpole worshipped his father and attempted all his life to be worthy of his parent's mighty fame. However, as a younger son, he did not inherit his father's large estate and therefore could never directly rival his father's accomplishments as an art collector or a builder. While Sir Robert amassed an invaluable art collection of old masters that was later to become the core of the Hermitage Museum in Russia, Horace Walpole collected innumerable prints, miniatures, and drawings that soon established him as one of the most knowledgeable antiquarians of his time. While his father built a Palladian mansion of gigantic proportions, Walpole transformed a quaint country house, Strawberry Hill, into a trim "toy" castle whose hodgepodge medieval details made Gothic architecture fashionable with the upper class. Finally, while his father ruled as prime minister, Walpole sat in Parliament and indulged in vicarious dreams of power in promoting the political ambitions of one of his cousins, General Henry Conway.


But most of all, Walpole wroteThe Castle of Otranto, a text which not only pioneered a literary genre, the Gothic novel, but also neatly drew on and sublimated his expertise as antiquarian, builder, and politician. For instance, when Walpole claims in the preface to the 1765 edition that  "[t]he scene (of the novel) is undoubtedly laid in some real castle," one can plausibly argue that Strawberry Hill itself and its eclectic collections lie at the heart of the novel's architectural and narrative constructs. By cleverly quoting himself—under cover of his pseudonym—in his preface, and concluding that "the author had some certain building in his eye," Walpole is daring us to compare Strawberry Hill's and Otranto's respective architectures, as well as to make sense of their overlapping details and tropes.


Similarly, Walpole's experience as a politician also informs the text. Indeed, far from being chancy and random, the dream that inspired the writing ofThe Castle of Otrantoseems to have been prompted by a real-life political incident. In April 1764, Walpole's best friend and closest political associate, his cousin Henry Conway, lost both the command of his regiment and his appointment at court because he voted against the ministry in the Wilkes affair. Walpole was incensed at these retaliations, for they epitomized the type of royal prerogative he and his father abhorred. Disgusted and deeply hurt, he withdrew for a while from the public stage to the privacy of Strawberry Hill where, within a few weeks, he dreamt and wrote his novel.


The Castle of Otrantochronicles the restoration of the principality of Otranto to its rightful owner. At the beginning, Manfred, prince of Otranto, is racing against time to marry his son to the daughter of his rival for the ownership of Otranto, Frederic, marquis of Vicenza. While both Manfred and Frederic back up their supposed legitimacy with their own men, wealth, and possessions, supernatural events and agents disturb from the start the course of this aristocratic contest. Ominous prophecies and apparitions—among others a giant helmet, a hand and foot in armor, and a bleeding statue—seemingly doom both men's ambition. After the mysterious death of Manfred's son, their aristocratic contest becomes a sexual one as well, as each man vows to race the other in producing a male heir to continue the dynastic line. In the end, the twists and turns of the plot reveal yet another claimant whose accession to the title of Prince of Otranto makes wealth and military might momentarily irrelevant and futile.


One may wonder if the writing ofThe Castle of Otrantoconstitutes a clear rebuttal to the retaliations exercised against Walpole's cousin, Henry Conway. On the one hand, the fact thatThe Castle of Otrantounfolds in the distant Middle Ages, in a Catholic land, Italy, reputedly fraught with exotic transgressions and superstitions, makes reading the text along political lines difficult and speculative. Perhaps Walpole, the famous antiquarian and builder of Strawberry Hill, wrote to please himself, indulging in visions of the Middle Ages. In a letter to Madame du Deffand, the famous Frenchsalonleader, Walpole wrote with some glee:

I confess. . .that of all my works. . .[The Castle of Otranto] is the only one in which I enjoyed myself; I let my imagination run wild; visions and passions spurred me on. I wrote in spite of rules, of critics, and of philosophers; and I think it is the better for it.


On the other hand, the novel's running themes, the fall of the "tyrant" Manfred and the identification of Otranto's rightful owner, clearly echo Walpole's Whig agenda. Indeed, as a member of the Whig party, Walpole fought against royal prerogatives and abuses of power, and also worked to insure that the principles of parliamentary politics would always be respected and upheld. Yet his arguments on the balance and sharing of power were evidently grounded in aristocratic and upper-class sympathies: For instance, while he voted for the extension ofhabeas corpus, campaigned against the use of General Warrants, and regularly denounced the Court's "insolence" in its handling of the American colonies, Walpole was a lifelong opponent to leveling ideas and middle-class politics, and abhorred from the start the ideas and accomplishments of the French Revolution. At the end of the novel, Otranto's new prince may be free of the ethical compromises—the crimes, even—that tainted Manfred's reign; yet the supernatural events that herald his accession to the throne—in spite of himself and seemingly without his concurrence—signify more than ever his undisputable, almost divine, aristocratic rule.


Yet for many readersThe Castle of Otrantowill remain first of all a haunting medieval landscape. That the architecture of the castle should be at the center of Walpole's tale should not come as a surprise given the very title of the novel. The architecture and layout of Otranto were born in part of Walpole's imaginative experiments at Strawberry Hill. Interestingly, Strawberry Hill was little less fantastic in the end than Otranto itself. Indeed, with its preposterous mixture of religious and military medieval architecture, and especially with its irreverent use of accurate architectural details recycled out of their historical context, Strawberry Hill was in itself a work of fiction, a pseudo-medieval castle embodying a grown-up's historical daydreams. Similarly, Otranto's subterranean passages, gloomy altars, dark galleries, secret trap doors, and labyrinthine cloisters may not add up to a coherent landscape by most architectural standards, but they powerfully evoke the distant past, just as they promote anxiety and heighten suspense. In drafting Otranto's intricate architecture, Walpole pioneered the Gothic novel's archetypal landscape, a landscape fraught with danger, crime, and mystery, and heavy with the weight of a vengeful past. He pioneered in literature an aesthetic influenced by Edmund Burke's work, in that he delighted his readers with a tale ostensibly full of horror and pain.


The character types who inhabit Otranto's landscape have become staples of the Gothic novel: Isabella (Frederic's daughter) is the novel's maiden in distress, Manfred its lustful villain, and Father Jerome its mysterious holy monk.The Castle of Otrantoalso stages a strange hermit holding secrets in the Holy Land, masked knights mysteriously steeled in their refusal to speak, and numerous portentous apparitions. Symbols too abound. The giant helmet that literally crushes Manfred's dynastic line symbolizes and exalts the very notion of a head of state, while the gigantic hand in armor embodies the inevitable retribution fated to right ancient wrongs and crimes. Otranto's subterranean and dark landscape can also be read as being symbolic of the sins deeply buried in Manfred's family history.


The genre heralded by the publication ofThe Castle of Otrantoin 1765, the Gothic novel, is often described by critics as a precursor of the Romantic movement, as a transition whose main innovation consists in involving the reader's feelings in "deeper and more emotionally complex situations" than in previously known literature. According to this view, the Gothic novel functions as a stepping-stone in the "widespread shift away from neoclassical ideals of order and reason, toward romantic belief in emotion and imagination." The Gothic novel would thus be the paradoxical child of the Enlightenment, "a sign of the resurrection of the need for the sacred and transcendent," in other words a symptom of "the rebellion of the imagination against the tyranny of reason." Other critics favor psychoanalytical readings of the Gothic novel, thus tending to read this genre along ahistorical lines. Yet historical readings are possible too, as the above hints as to the political tenor ofThe Castle of Otrantohave shown.


The genre pioneered by Walpole inThe Castle of Otrantoflourished in the eighteenth century and is still in many ways with us today. The best known Gothic novels published in Walpole’s own time are William Beckford'sVathek(1786), William Godwin'sCaleb Williams(1794), Ann Radcliffe'sThe Mysteries of Udolpho(1794) andThe Italian(1797), Matthew Gregory Lewis'The Monk(1796), and Mary Wollstonecraft'sThe Wrongs of Woman(1798). Yet one might argue that the genre progressively radicalized itself, in that the evils chronicled in these novels became increasingly the exclusive work of human agents. In Ann Radcliffe's tales, for instance, seemingly supernatural events are shown to be the work of human minds and hands, while William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft never even hint at supernatural agents in their novels. Rooting the source of each encountered ill in human psyches and consciences makes for a far more pessimistic and probing critique of the human condition than allowing a few demons to wreak havoc from on high. Jane Austen's parody of the Gothic novel,Northanger Abbey, is therefore less parodic in the end than meets the eye: her protagonist may be foolishly infatuated with silly novels spinning improbable adventures and last-minute rescues; yet the fact that the actual dangers that she faces are domestic ones, plausibly unfolding on English soil, but nonetheless threatening catastrophic outcomes, shows that Austen's take is reconcilable with that of Gothic authors such as Godwin, Wollstonecraft, or even Radcliffe.


In the nineteenth century, many writers continued to look toward eighteenth-century Gothic authors for themes, mood, and archetypes. The works of Mary Shelley, Charles Robert Maturin, Edgar Allan Poe, E. T. A. Hoffmann, and Bram Stoker illustrate the continued influence that the genre exercised after 1800. In the twentieth century, that influence is still palpable in the works of Franz Kafka and Mikhail Bulgakov, for example, in the horror fiction of popular authors such as Stephen King, or the highly productive genre of horror movies. Tales of dread, horror, and suspense still fascinate. Walpole understood the basic mechanisms of that fascination. In his 1765 preface toThe Castle of Otranto, he writes: "Terror, the author's principle engine, prevents the story from ever languishing; and it is so often contrasted by pity, that the mind is kept up in a constant vicissitude of interesting passions." He was aware of having created a new genre, "a new species of romance" (preface to the second edition): his innovation caught on and has endured to our day.


Annie Pécastaingsholds a Ph.D. in English from Tufts University.  She has taught at Tufts University, Clark University, and Ohio University.  She currently lives in France.

Excerpted from The Castle of Otranto (Barnes and Noble Digital Library): A Gothic Story by Horace Walpole
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