Thunder, lightning, evil princes, crumbling castles, ghostly apparitions, swooning maidens… Crammed to the rafters with cliché, The Castle of Otranto is a 250-year-old bonanza of the Gothic from Horace Walpole, the father of the genre.
I’m fond of the Gothic tradition. Poe, Stoker, Shelley, Radcliffe, Lewis, Maturin – it’s all tremendous fun, the bloodier and the darker the better. So I thought I’d try The Castle of Otranto, the original Gothic novel, and a great influence on the legions of emulators to follow over the next century or so.
In truth, it was a slog. It’s stodgily written and pretty well devoid of thrills, tension or characterisation. But I’m still pleased I read it – it’s fascinating simply for being the first novel to introduce those now well-worn tropes that were so successfully wielded by later authors. It’s amazing to think that, before Horace Walpole cooked it up in his brain, there was really no such thing as a haunted house story, or a ‘Gothic villain’. It must have been an exciting thing to experience at the time.
The plot is straightforward. We have a most tyrannical and dastardly prince, Manfred, whose lordship of Otranto is threatened by a prophecy foretelling the downfall of his line. He has engineered a wedding between his insipid son Conrad and the beautiful Isabella, daughter of a rival nobleman, the Marquis of Vicenza. On the first page, Conrad is suddenly squashed to death on the day of the wedding – by an enormous black helmet no less (one of the more unique aspects of the story!). Manfred, now even more desperate to secure descendants, decides that he must divorce his virtuous wife Hippolita and marry Isabella himself.
As the novel continues, many boxes are ticked. There is a valiant peasant, a damsel-in-distress, a pious virgin, a wise monk, a silent stranger, and ditsy domestics. There are mistaken identities, long-lost relatives, swoons, visions, blood-feuds, passions, and the sins of fathers being visited on descendants. It seems unfair to criticise The Castle of Otranto for being clichéd when it was actually the first novel to ever do these things, but it’s not really something you can help as a reader who’s at least passingly familiar with the genre.
I mentioned before that it’s stodgily written, and a big reason for this is that Walpole in fact wrote the novel in the style of a medieval romance and initially presented it as a translation of an old manuscript discovered in a library, rather than as a work of fiction. This means that it’s written with an absence of metaphor, of developed characters, and, most noticeably, of speech punctuation, leading to blocks of text that flick wearyingly between speakers without making it clear who’s saying what. Luckily it’s not a long book, otherwise it would have been a real ordeal.
Apparently Walpole took some inspiration from Shakespeare, which is clear from his addition of Shakespearian ‘clown’-type characters, the servants Bianca, Diego and Jaquez. Their comic digressions and misunderstandings are meant to be welcome relief from the doom and gloom but (just like with actual Shakespeare) they only managed to irritate me. There’s also striking Shakespearian influence in the appearance of ghosts, which seemingly had only previously been used in fiction as ‘truthtellers’ (à la Hamlet) rather than as figures of horror, as Walpole cast them.
Walpole was aiming to combine the magical fantasies and overblown passions of medieval tales with the repressed realism of ‘modern’ fiction – an ingenious idea and one that he clearly realised in a way that captured the imagination of the general public. The most engaging character in the novel, big bad Manfred, is an embodiment of this blend of styles. His villainous acts are examples of animalistic, European, red-blooded ‘passions’ breaking free from his (presumably) usually restrained and civilised personality, and the closest the novel really gets to depth of character is in the internal struggle between Manfred’s sinful desires and what he knows to be ‘correct’ behaviour. This dichotomy is mirrored in the overall style of the book, which I found very interesting.
I didn’t get drawn into the world of Otranto to the extent that I was with other classic Gothic novels, and the plot held few surprises for me. But it really is a worthwhile read from a literary perspective, as it’s fascinating to see the genre’s origins. And Manfred is a pretty good character. And someone gets crushed by a giant hat, which isn’t something you come across every day.
Pocket Penguin Classics | 2010 | 140p | Paperback | Buy here