Review of The Castle of Otranto (1764)


Horace Walpole (writer).

Read in 2022.

In Italy at the time of the Crusades, a wicked feudal lord causes trouble for his family after his only son is suddenly killed by a knight’s helmet, 100 times larger than a real one, miraculously falling out of nowhere.

Like Cervantes in Don Quixote (1605), Walpole removed himself from his fiction by a couple of layers of extra fiction. Unlike Cervantes or Lucian of Samosata, Walpole initially did not attach his real name to the work as its author, pretending like Cervantes to be its translator, and equivocated somewhat as to its fictional nature. The truth, which he acknowledged in the second edition, is that Walpole made it all up.

It’s the first Gothic novel, a mashup of the (real) life story of Manfred of Sicily with William Shakespeare and a dream Walpole once had. I suppose Walpole distanced himself from it less for the sake of a hoax than because he was embarrassed by its fabulism. It is a weak melodrama, readable only for its historical significance. Magic is thrown in willy-nilly, loosely attributed to the Christian gods with no attempt to make it credible and surprisingly little function to the narrative. There is a rudimentary anti-feudal, anti-establishment impulse in the unclear origins of the hero Theodore, the imperfect virtue of Jerome, and the villainy of Manfred, but it’s all too confused.

The fake origin story of the work made it a hit. The readers, like Walpole himself who lived in a kind of architectural folly, were fascinated by the medieval period, but understood little of it, confusing Walpole’s archaicisms for an important breath of ancient genius. Both Romanticism and full Victorian medievalism were still decades away. Perhaps, if The Castle of Otranto had been different, the true romantics would have picked other topics, less obsessed with hereditary hierarchy and the Christian gods.

References here: Fantasy with and without consistency, The Coming Race (1871), Gosick (2011).

text fiction