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. But if in the latter species Nature has cramped imagination, she did but take her revenge, having been totally excluded from old romances. The actions, sentiments, conversations, of the heroes and heroines of ancient days were as unnatural as the machines employed to put them in motion.
The author of the following pages thought it possible to reconcile the two kinds. Desirous of leaving the powers of fancy at liberty to expatiate through the boundless realms of invention, and thence of creating more interesting situations, he wished to conduct the mortal agents in his drama according to the rules of probability; in short, to make them think, speak and act, as it might be supposed mere men and women would do in extraordinary positions. He had observed, that in all inspired writings, the personages under the dispensation of miracles, and witnesses to the most stupendous phenomena, never lost sight of their human character: whereas in the productions of romantic story, an improbable event never fails to be attended by absurd dialogue…
My inability to make any forward progress in 2013 continues unabated as, rather than move onto the next novel in the timeline of the development of the Gothic novel, I succumb to the inevitable and step back to examine the genre’s undisputed progenitor work, The Castle Of Otranto: a short novel which, due quite as much to its artistics failures as to its strengths, inspired and provoked the composition of a number of key works that ultimately paved the way for the birth of the Gothic novel proper.
It is important to recognise at the outset that the use of the word “Gothic” in the subtitle of The Castle Of Otranto carried for readers of 1764 none of the literary implications that it did and does for readers of later times. Prior to Horace Walpole’s rehabilitation of the word, “Gothic” was a pejorative term, used to imply that something was primitive, even barbaric. Walpole didn’t care: he was an antiquarian with a passion for earlier styles of architecture, particularly that of medieval Europe, which was dominated by dramatic vertical lines, high ceilings, pointed archways, turrets and spires. Used predominantly in churches and cathedrals, the Gothic design was employed to create a sense of reaching up to heaven.
Horace Walpole’s enthusiasm for this long-superseded architectural style led him to adopt its tenets in the design and construction of a villa eventually known as Strawberry Hill, which – to its owner’s mingled pride and exasperation – eventually became a popular tourist attraction. It was living within this Gothic “castle” of his own imagining that inspired Horace Walpole to pen what he would eventually dub “A Gothic Tale”.
As with the first work to be written in response to The Castle Of Otranto, Clara Reeve’s The Old English Baron, these days it may be fairly argued that the preface (or in this case, prefaces) to the novel are of almost as much value as the novel itself. Upon its first appearance, The Castle Of Otranto was presented as a “found manuscript”, supposedly originally penned in 1529 by one “Onuphrio Muralto, Canon of the Church of St Nicholas”, and translated into English by “William Marshall, Gent.” It also carried a preface by “William Marshall”, in which he explains how he happened to come across the manuscript in the first place, and offers his own views upon its contents.
For today’s informed audience, this preface is an amusing mixture of self-exculpation and self-promotion. It panders to the likely anti-Catholic prejudices of its readers, in particular pointing out where Father Onuphrio’s Catholicism may have overcome his judgement and/or veracity, while offering some fairly fulsome praise of the work in general:
It is natural for a translator to be prejudiced in favour of his adopted work. More impartial readers may not be so much struck with the beauties of the piece as I was… However, with all its faults, I have no doubt but the English reader will be pleased with a sight of this performance. The piety that reigns throughout, the lessons of virtue that are inculcated, and the rigid purity of the sentiments, exempt this work from the censure to which romances are but too liable…
The problem is, all this piety, virtue and sentiment exists within a framework of the supernatural. “Marshall” is skating on thin ice here, and knows it. He therefore offers an apriori apology of sorts, which tries to deflect potential criticism on the grounds of artistic integrity:
The solution of the author’s motives is however offered as a mere conjecture. Whatever his views were, or whatever the effects the execution of them might have, his work can only be laid before the public at present as a matter of entertainment. Even as such, some apology for it is necessary. Miracles, visions, necromancy, dreams, and other preternatural events, are exploded now even from romances. This was not the case when our author wrote; much less when the story itself is supposed to have happened. Belief in every kind of prodigy was so established in those dark ages, that an author would not be faithful to the manners of the time who should omit all mention of them. He is not bound to believe them himself, but he must represent his actors as believing them.
While it is doubtful than anyone believed that The Castle Of Otranto was indeed a true account of events from 13th century Italy, the secret of its authorship was kept, and Horace Walpole had the pleasure of seeing the work he had sent out into the world so hesitatingly become a runaway best-seller. The Age of Reason, supposedly so coldly rational, so contemptuous of anything that fed the emotions, ate up this story of ghosts and miracles and curses coming home to roost. Quite inadvertently, Horace Walpole had struck the nerve that was quivering under the surface detachment of his times.
The phenomenal success of The Castle Of Otranto gave Walpole the courage to drop his mask. When his novel was reissued, it carried both a different title page and a different preface. The pretence of “William Marshall” and his translated manuscript was gone; in its place was an explanation of what Horace Walpole had intended when putting pen to paper in 1764 (quoted above), and a quick mea culpa for the deception practised:
The favourable manner in which this little piece has been received by the public, calls upon the author to explain the grounds on which he composed it. But before he opens those motives, it is fit that he should ask pardon of his readers for having offered his work to them under the borrowed personage of a translator. As diffidence of his own abilities, and the novelty of the attempt, were his sole inducements to assume that disguise, he flatters himself that he shall appear excusable. He resigned his performance to the impartial judgement of the public; determined to let it perish in obscurity, if disapproved; nor meaning to avow such a trifle, unless better judges should pronounce that he might own it without a blush.
The mock-modesty of this new preface fooled no-one in 1765, any more than it fools us today. In reality preening himself upon his “trifle”, Horace Walpole was unprepared for the virulence of the attack that followed his unmasking. Some of it was, undoubtedly, genuine anger at the deception—but most of it was personal or political dislike of Walpole himself masquerading as literary criticism. From being very generally, and warmly, praised, The Castle Of Otranto became almost overnight the target of ridicule and contempt, a work too flawed in execution and foolish in premise to have any entertainment value, let alone literary merit.
History is on the side of Horace Walpole in this respect: his fame today rests largely upon his authorship of his sole novel; and nor, for that matter, did the abrupt switch in critical tone have any real effect upon the success of his book at the time, which continued to be read and enjoyed by a wide audience in spite of those suddenly obvious “flaws”. What the criticism did do was make Horace Walpole retreat into his shell (or at least into his Gothic villa). Apart from penning a single play, The Mysterious Mother, which was not performed in his lifetime, The Castle Of Otranto was his only venture into fiction.
The obvious agenda in most of the criticism of The Castle Of Otranto following the revelation of authorship renders it worthless for informational purposes (in the literary sense, at any rate). However, one significant exception is the preface to Clara Reeve’s The Old English Baron, in which, like a good critic should, she keeps her eyes chiefly on the text – capturing the contemporary mindset with admirable clarity in the process. Reeve is blunt about what she considers the artistic successes and failures of Otranto: she praises in particular the characters and dialogue, and the structure of the story. However, while admitting the attraction of the story’s supernatural elements, she feels that Walpole took them took far, and that his extravagance in this respect ultimately undermines the effectiveness of his tale.
It is unlikely that modern readers will agree with Miss Reeve’s criticism—or rather, it is unlikely that they will feel that Horace Walpole’s extravagance detracts from his story. On the contrary: it is precisely the frequency – and, I might add, magnitude – of the supernatural manifestations in Otranto that holds the reader’s interest. In spite of what both Walpole and Reeve thought at the time, the characters of Otranto are almost uniformly one-dimensional; their behaviour is largely improbable; and their dialogue is some of the most unnatural on record. It is incredible that even the most partial author could have thought otherwise. Horace Walpole could not have summed up his novel better than he did in attempting to describe what it was not:
The actions, sentiments, conversations, of the heroes and heroines of ancient days were as unnatural as the machines employed to put them in motion…
(In the Oxford University Press release of The Castle Of Otranto, the editor W. S. Lewis also shakes his head over Walpole’s authorial blindness, quoting the line, “Stop, audacious man, and dread my displeasure!” as an example of the novel’s extreme unnaturalness of dialogue. My own favourite example of unnatural behaviour and dialogue comes when Theodore and Isabella, he in danger of his life and she of her virtue, are hiding in an underground cavern from their pursuers. When Theodore tries to persuade Isabella that they should go deeper into the cave, her reaction is outraged propriety: “Alas! what mean you, sir? Though all your actions are noble, though your sentiments speak the purity of your soul, is it fitting that I should accompany you alone into these perplexed retreats? Should we be found together, what would a censorious world think of my conduct?”)
On the other hand, one might safely defy the modern reader not to react with startled delight to The Castle Of Otranto‘s bizarrely Monty Python-esque opening scene, in which the young Conrad, only son and heir of Manfred, Prince of Otranto, is crushed to death on the morning of his wedding-day when a gigantic, black-plumed helmet suddenly drops from the sky.
(Python-esque indeed: the more we learn of the unfortunate Conrad, the more we are put in mind of the “almost embarrassingly unattractive” Prince Herbert of The Holy Grail.)
Manfred’s reaction to this inexplicable tragedy puzzles the shocked witnesses: he is clearly more interested in the helmet than he is in his dead son, on whom he bestows hardly a glance as the mangled corpse is carried into the castle. Furthermore, the only orders he issues concern not Conrad, nor his bereaved wife and daughter, Hippolita and Matilda, but Conrad’s fiancée, Isabella.
A gawping crowd quickly around the helmet, the circumstances of Conrad’s death reminding the local peasantry of an ancient prophecy:
That the castle and lordship of Otranto should pass from the present family, whenever the real owner should be grown too large to inhabit it…
Many speculations are offered on the helmet’s origin. One ill-starred young man is overheard by Manfred when he comments that the helmet itself looks exactly like the one that sits upon the statue of one of the previous princes of Otranto, the saintly Alfonso, in the nearby church of St Nicholas. To the astonishment of all, Manfred flies into a rage, accusing the young man of treason and trying to stab—sorry, to poignard him. While this kerfuffle is being broken up, some of the spectators run off to St Nicholas’s, and come back with the unwelcome news that the helmet is indeed missing from the statue of Alfonso. The charge against the young man, Theodore, abruptly switches from treason to necromancy: on Manfred’s orders, he is placed in a makeshift prison – under the helmet – and left without food or water, on the grounds that his “infernal arts” can no doubt supply his wants in that respect. (Prompting the inevitable, Yes, but if he really is a necromancer— reaction from the reader.)
Inside the castle, Isabella is helping Matilda to look after the devastated Hippolita. Although sorry for Conrad’s demise, Isabella is less than heartbroken on her own account; but her hopes of avoiding a marital connection with the house of Otranto are abruptly shattered when, before the unfortunate Conrad is even cold, Manfred is proposing – literally proposing – an alternative husband to her:
Dry your tears, young lady—you have lost your bridegroom:—yes, cruel fate, and I have lost the hopes of my race!—But Conrad was not worthy of your beauty… Think no more of him; he was a sickly puny child, and heaven has perhaps taken him away that I might not trust the honours of my house on so frail a foundation. The line of Manfred calls for numerous supports. My foolish fondness for that boy blinded the eyes of my prudence—but it is better as it is. I hope in a few years to have reason to rejoice at the death of Conrad… In short, Isabella, since I cannot give you my son, I offer you myself— Hippolita is no longer my wife; I divorce her from this hour. Too long she has cursed me by her unfruitfulness: my fate depends on having sons,—and this night I trust will give a new date to my hopes.
Isabella is shocked and horrified – by Manfred’s callousness, by his cruelty to the devoted Hippolita, and by the overtones of incest in the proposal – and she is not the only one:
…the moon, which was now up, and gleamed in at the opposite casement, presented to his sight the plumes of the fatal helmet, which rose to the height of the windows, waving backwards and forwards in a tempestuous manner… At that moment the portrait of his grandfather, which hung over the bench where they had been sitting, uttered a deep sigh and heaved its breast… Manfred [was] still looking backwards on the portrait, when he saw it quit its pannel, and descend on the floor with a grave and melancholy air… The vision sighed again, and made a sign for Manfred to follow him. Lead on! cried Manfred; I will follow thee to the gulph of perdition. The spectre marched sedately, but dejected, to the end of the gallery, and turned into a chamber on the right hand…
The supernatural manifestations in The Castle Of Otranto are, as we have said, plentiful and frequent: the gigantic helmet is soon joined by an equally gigantic foot and leg, and a gigantic hand resting on a bannister. The ensemble is almost complete when the entire formal entourage of a certain knight demands entrance at Otranto; the knight has come to Otranto to defend the rights of Frederic, Marquis of Vicenza, the father of Isabella, who is presumed dead in the Holy Land. Amongst the parade intended to support the dignity of the newcomer are, An hundred gentlemen bearing an enormous sword, and seeming to faint under the weight of it.
(As for the knight himself, he gives no actual name, but has himself announced as “The Knight Of The Gigantic Sabre”. You can only admire his chutzpah.)
Meanwhile, the plumes on the helmet continue to express approval and disapproval of various events by bowing gravely or waving in an agitated manner. Similarly – in a touch that even the biggest fans of Otranto felt was an artistic blunder – when Manfred confronts Hippolita inside the church of St Nicholas and demands a divorce, the statue of Prince Alfonso reacts by bleeding from its nose. The novel’s climax involves the various gigantic bits and pieces resolving themselves into a suitably gigantic apparition of Alfonso who, after pointing out his true heir, literally ascends to heaven.
For the most part, however, subsequent novelists rejected Horace Walpole’s enthusiastic deployment of ghosts (whole and partial). Indeed, even Clara Reeve’s single, briefly-appearing spectre, which haunts only the site of its body’s secret burial, was disapproved by many, with most Gothic novelists either settling for the overt terrorisation of their heroines by their evil characters, or following Ann Radcliffe’s lead by explaining away any apparently supernatural phenomena. In this respect, The Castle Of Otranto‘s influence upon the development of the Gothic novel was almost entirely negative.
Conversely, the various plot devices lifted by Clara Reeve from Horace Walpole – none of which orginated with him, although you probably wouldn’t find them all in one place before Otranto – would go on to become staple elements of the Gothic genre. One of these devices is the anti-hero central character, who wages a desperate battle against his fate. It is soon made clear to the reader of Otranto that Manfred is a usurper-prince, and that his continued occupation of his throne is dependent upon certain conditions—including having sons. Isabella, meanwhile, is the last of the blood of Alfonso; by marrying her into his family one way or another, Manfred hopes to forestall his manifest destiny.
Other elements of Otranto are still more familiar, including the vocabulary. Isabella becomes the persecuted heroine, literally pursued by Manfred through his gloomy castle and threatened with a fate worse than death. Fleeing him, she finds herself first in “several intricate cloisters” that make up “the lower part of the castle”; one of these opens into “a cavern”, which in turn has in its floor the “hidden trap-door” that leads to a “secret passageway”, a “subterraneous passage which led from the vaults of the castle to the church of saint Nicholas”. By the church itself is a forest, where Theodore seeks out “the gloomiest shades, as best suited to the pleasing melancholy that reigned in his mind”. Behind the forest are the caves already mentioned, “which had formerly served as a retreat to hermits, and were now reported round the country to be haunted by evil spirits”.
Theodore himself is, perhaps, the novel’s most typically Gothic character. Supposedly a peasant, from the moment he frees himself from the grasp of the furious Manfred “with a mixture of grace and humility”, the reader casts upon him a suspicious eye. His dialogue – you couldn’t really call it “conversation” – with Isabella, who he helps to discover and use the secret trap-door, is hardly that of a peasant – “I will never quit you till I have placed you in safety—nor think me, princess, more generous than I am: though you are my principal care…” – and it is no surprise whatsoever when he turns out to be quite other than he appears. Indeed, the novel pulls a double-whammy here, having Father Jerome recognise Theodore as his own long-lost son (courtesy of his distinctive birthmark, of course), before further revealing that before taking his vows he was himself the noble Count of Falconara. And the secret identities don’t end there…
Meanwhile, a Gothic novel would hardly be a Gothic novel without an overwhelming yet completely chaste passion. Here, too, Otranto outdoes most of its followers by managing to construct an overwhelming yet completely chaste love triangle—with Isabella falling in love with the mysterious stranger in the cloisters, Matilda and Theodore falling in love at first sight, Isabella thinking that she is the object of Theodore’s affections and then realising her mistake, Father Jerome aka the Count of Falconara going ballistic over Theodore’s “guilty passion” for Matilda, and Theodore committing the profound novelistic sin of defying the father he met for the first time about five minutes ago.
It’s all done with a completely straight face, of course.
The majority of the characters in The Castle Of Otranto are simply one-dimensional puppets pushed around by Walpole as his plot requires. This is particularly true of the women, who are all so perfect and self-denying that you just want to slap them; Hippolita’s determination to sacrifice herself to Manfred’s immoral ambition is particularly exasperating. It comes as a thorough relief from all this sickening nobility when Isabella and Matilda, formerly BFFs and almost sisters, recognise each other as rivals and begin having a well-mannered but quite determined tug-of-war over Theodore, one charged with mixed motives and self-deception. Likewise, Theodore being temporarily led astray by his passion (“The lovely Matilda had made stronger impressions on him than filial affection”) is a welcome ripple of reality in someone who is otherwise the most cardboard of heroes.
However, to Horace Walpole’s credit, when it comes to Manfred there is a definite if not quite successful attempt at psychological complexity, which points forward to the often conflicted villains of the Gothic novel proper. To be fair to Manfred, he is not himself the usurper: it turns out to be his grandfather, Ricardo (he of the walking portrait), who murdered and forged his way to the throne of Otranto; it is upon Manfred and his children, however, the proverbial third and fourth generations, upon whom his sins are visited. Knowing full well that he has no right to it, Manfred is nevertheless determined to hang onto his ill-gotten throne. When a string of related prophecies start coming true, he reacts with a mixture of anger, fear and hilarious why-me self-pity.
So obsessed with his situation is Manfred that he begins to read confirmation of his worst fears into the most innocent words and gestures of others, culminating in a scene in which he interrogates Matilda’s maid, Bianca, and takes her incoherent admissions about Matilda’s secret feelings for Theodore as proof positive of an illicit passion between Theodore and Isabella. He also manages to convince himself that Father Jerome is not only privy to the relationship between Isabella and his son, but encouraging it.
The novel’s only other mixed character is – *snicker* – The Knight Of The Gigantic Sabre, who turns out to be Frederic of Vicenza himself, not dead in the Holy Land after all and in pursuit of both his daughter (bought from her guardians by Manfred) and what he considers his rights: his own grandfather, in the absence of a direct heir of Alfonso, should have inherited Otranto. A dying hermit, encountered in Joppa, both directed Frederic to the whereabouts of the giant sword – which has another prophecy regarding Otranto engraved upon it – and informed him that he was destined to play a part in restoring Alfonso’s rightful heir to his throne.
At first full of righteous rage and challenging Manfred to combat in order to prove his right to the throne, Frederic quickly becomes infatuated with Matilda and begins to think that maybe being related to the throne will be enough. Manfred, for his part, is willing and eager to sell Matilda to get what he wants, and starts hinting at a double wedding—making it quite clear that Frederic won’t get Matilda unless he gets Isabella. Frederic agrees, subject to Manfred securing his divorce, of course—only to be terrified into retraction and repentance by a supernatural encounter of his own (the novel’s best and most unexpected):
The marquis, expecting the holy person to come forth, and meaning to excuse his uncivil interruption, said, Reverend father, I sought the lady Hippolita.—Hippolita! replied a hollow voice: camest thee to this castle to seek Hippolita?—And then the figure, turning slowly around, discovered to Frederic the fleshless jaws and empty sockets of a skeleton, wrapt in a hermit’s cowl… Wast though delivered from bondage, said the spectre, to pursue carnal delights? Hast thou forgotten the buried sabre, and the behest of heaven engraven on it?
So much for a double wedding.
Frederic’s subsequent repulse of Manfred pushes that already unstable individual almost to breaking-point. He reaches it when word reaches him of a secret meeting in St Nicholas’s between Theodore and a lady, which seems to him the confirmation of his darkest suspicions. Overcome by rage and seeing his world toppling around him, Manfred rushes to the church:
Manfred, whose spirits were inflamed, and whom Isabella had driven from her on his urging his passion with too little reserve, did not doubt but the inquietude she had expressed had been occasioned by her impatience to meet Theodore. Provoked by this conjecture, and enraged at her father, he hastened secretly to the great church. Gliding softly between the aisles, and guided by an imperfect gleam of moonshine that shone faintly through the illuminated windows, he stole towards the tomb of Alfonso, to which he was directed by indistinct whispers of the persons he sought. The first sounds he could distinguish were—Does it, alas, depend on me? Manfred will never permit our union.—No, this shall prevent it! cried the tyrant, drawing his dagger…
At the time of its publication, The Castle Of Otranto was a complete anomaly: a work of romantic fiction that unabashedly lent itself to conventions and beliefs that the Age of Reason had supposedly banished once and for all; its success was a clear indication that the reading public’s taste for wonders and terrors had not in fact been banished, but merely temporarily suppressed. “Reason”, it appeared, was not the be-all and end-all of it; in literary terms at least, “miracles, visions, necromancy, dreams, and other preternatural events” were not quite as “exploded” as William Marshall’s original preface assumed.
It is a commonplace these days to hear The Castle Of Otranto called “the first Gothic novel”, but in truth there was another twenty-five-years’ worth of literary trial and error to go before the Gothic genre as we now understand it appeared upon the stage. However, though it differs in intent, execution and tone from its distant offspring, it is inarguably possible to trace a line of descent from Horace Walpole’s architecturally-inspired tale of supernatural vengeance, and Ann Radcliffe’s works of polite terror: a line that passes through some strange and unexpected territory…
Strawberry Hill, Twickenham, after its restoration in 2012