RogerBW's Blog

The Castle of Otranto, Horace Walpole 15 December 2018

1764 gothic horror, and the prototype for the gothic novel. Conrad, the sickly son of the Lord of Otranto, is killed on his wedding day by a giant helmet falling from the sky, so his father Manfred plans to marry the intended bride himself; things get more foreboding from there.

Of course, it's not good. But it's great fun. By modern standards it's too talky and too melodramatic, but in its context one can see how revolutionary it was; it blended explicit supernaturalism with, at least in theory, plausible characters… even if they do suffer from rather an excess of sensibility, readily fainting at the slightest provocation (and that's just the men).

Until Jerome should return at night, Theodore at length determined to repair to the forest that Matilda had pointed out to him. Arriving there, he sought the gloomiest shades, as best suited to the pleasing melancholy that reigned in his mind.

The book is presented as a translation of a discovered manuscript, in the tradition of Malory's "old French boke"; the next year, in the second edition, Walpole admitted authorship, and came under a great deal of attack (perhaps for the deception, but mostly for personal and political reasons). On the other hand, this meant many more people were talking about the book, which helped it to be a continuing success.

The well-meaning priest suffered him to deceive himself, fully determined to traverse his views, instead of seconding them.

So Manfred goes after Isabella; Isabella's guardian Frederic turns up ("The Knight of the Gigantic Sabre", and no, that's not a euphemism), and is soon induced to pay court to Manfred's surviving child Matilda as part of a complex plot to make Manfred's political position more secure. Of course this double wedding means Manfred's wife Hippolita will have to be divorced, but she doesn't seem to raise much objection. Indeed, one can't help but notice that all the trouble here is caused by men wanting things and people that are not theirs.

"My lovely children," said the touched Hippolita, "your tenderness overpowers me—but I must not give way to it. It is not ours to make election for ourselves: heaven, our fathers, and our husbands must decide for us.

Meanwhile the gigantic helmet, lying in the courtyard of the castle, is joined by giant hands and feet manifesting in implausible places (the reportage of these by the servants shows that Odious Comic Relief wasn't invented in the twentieth century), by portraits that step out of their frames, by skeletal hermits, and even by a Portentous Nosebleed.

"It is done," replied Manfred; "Frederic accepts Matilda's hand, and is content to waive his claim, unless I have no male issue"—as he spoke those words three drops of blood fell from the nose of Alfonso's statue. Manfred turned pale, and the Princess sank on her knees.

Yes, the characters are cardboard, but they do show occasional flashes of complexity, and the women share the centre of the plot with the men in a way that most writers of the time didn't manage. Yes, the supernaturalism is wildly inconsistent, and for all the occasional digs at the Church it comes out of this relatively well, leaving the narratorial attitude uncertain. But there's a sense of enjoyment and enthusiasm here which often goes with original works, and is almost always missing from the cash-ins and copies.

But Theodore's grief was too fresh to admit the thought of another love; and it was not until after frequent discourses with Isabella of his dear Matilda, that he was persuaded he could know no happiness but in the society of one with whom he could for ever indulge the melancholy that had taken possession of his soul.

Freely available from Project Gutenberg.

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