Horace Walpole 1717-1797
English novelist, biographer, memoirist, historian, essayist, and letter writer.
For additional information on Walpole's life and works, see LC, Volume 2.
One of the most flamboyant personalities in eighteenth-century English letters, Walpole is often considered the outstanding chronicler and correspondent of his era. His Letters, which date from 1732 to 1797 and number in the thousands, are noted for their remarkable content as well as their distinctive style. In addition to this achievement, Walpole is widely recognized as one of England's first art historians, an influential revivalist of Gothic architecture, and the author of The Castle of Otranto, a work that introduced supernaturalism and mystery into the romance and is regarded as the first Gothic novel.
Walpole was born into a family of old Norfolk stock which could be traced back to the last king of Britons. Horace's immediate family came into wealth during his father's political career; Sir Robert Walpole, who held many influential posts, including secretary of war and treasurer of the navy, served during the reign of George II as England's first prime minister and became the first Earl of Oxford.
From 1727 to 1734 Horace attended Eton. There he became close friends with Thomas Ashton, Richard West, and Thomas Gray. Referring to themselves as the Quadruple Alliance, the four schoolmates prided themselves on their intellectual precocity and delved into Latin classics as well as French and English literature, which they read, translated, and parodied. Along with Gray, Walpole entered Cambridge, but he did not take a degree; in 1739 he left school to travel in Europe with Gray as a companion. They toured for two years but eventually quarreled and returned to England separately. While on the Continent Walpole was elected to Parliament, and he served in that body intermittently until 1768.
In 1747, Walpole moved into a former coachman's cottage near Twickenham. He named this residence Strawberry Hill and began remodeling it in 1753, a project which grew in extravagance year by year. The original Strawberry Hill was a fairly modest dwelling; Walpole turned it into a late-medieval castle designed in the Gothic style. The architectural "committee" responsible for the castle's appearance consisted of Walpole and two of his friends, John Chute and Richard Bentley. Their primary goal was to create a structure that reflected the beauty of older English architecture, but that also captured a viewer's imagination. The result was a museum-like tribute to Gothic detail: the completed Strawberry Hill exhibited lavish examples of Gothic ornamentation, including stained-glass windows, balustrades, loggias, and hidden stairways. Walpole also established a private press at Strawberry Hill in 1757 which operated for thirty-two years and is still recognized for publishing one of the most impressive lists of titles of any private press in England, including Walpole's works and the poems of Thomas Gray.
In 1765 Walpole made the first of four extended trips to Paris, where he was received by members of the French upper class; especially noteworthy is his friendship with the socially prominent Madame du Deffand, who was twenty years his senior and with whom he corresponded until her death in 1780. While in Paris, Walpole was bedridden with a severe case of gout, to which he finally succumbed at age eighty.
Critics generally consider Walpole's letters the masterwork for which he is most deservedly known to posterity. Many commentators support Lytton Strachey's appraisal that "the collected series of his letters forms by far the most important single correspondence in the language." The primary purpose of the letters was to entertain Walpole's readers; their secondary purpose was to inform. Therefore the letters are marked by a highly distinctive style—witty, colorful, and vividly descriptive—but they are not always factually accurate.
The only fictional work for which Walpole is widely known is his novel The Castle of Otranto. Although considered a seriously flawed work, Otranto is credited with introducing a number of important innovations that influenced the development of the Gothic novel, which enjoyed a great vogue during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. According to Walpole, Otranto was inspired by a dream in which he was in a castle and a gigantic armor-clad hand appeared to him at the top of a staircase. Walpole published the book anonymously under the pretense that it was an Italian manuscript written during the Last Crusade and translated by one "William Marshall." Some early reviewers were not convinced or amused by this claim: the novel was generally criticized as being preposterously unbelievable and insulting to its readers. However, the negative critical reception of Otranto did not prevent it from becoming extremely popular, which encouraged Walpole to reveal his authorship in the second edition. In his preface he defined the work as "an attempt to blend the two kinds of romance, the ancient and the modern." The former, he explained, relied on imagination and improbability, with the result frequently being grossly incredible; the latter attempted to copy nature, but often lacked imagination. He concluded that these elements must be adequately balanced in order to create a plausible yet interesting narrative. An admirer of legends of the Middle Ages, he incorporated their fairy-tale elements and chivalric code into a storyline which featured characters who were contemporary in speech and thought. His use of a Gothic castle and its array of machinery (including trap doors, vaults, dungeons, and rattling chains), his manipulation of the forces of nature to accentuate the sense of ominousness, and his characterizations introduce elements central to the Gothic genre.
Walpole's lesser-known fictional works include The Mysterious Mother, a drama in blank verse, and Hieroglyphic Tales. The theme of The Mysterious Mother—incest—was such that Walpole printed the work himself and distributed it only to selected friends. Although it has received relatively little critical comment, the drama has come to be recognized as an important forerunner of Gothic drama. In the Hieroglyphic Tales, an early example of automatic writing, Walpole completely defies fictional conventions of his day as well as prevailing moral taste to create works rife with incest, scatology, and unwitting cannibalism and populated by concubines, dead children, and such fantastic elements as giant hummingbirds and carts made of giant pistachio shells. The effect is one of delirium and surrealism with—some critics claim—a detectable undercurrent of Walpole's obsessions and psychological disturbances.
Ambivalent assessments of Walpole and his works are conspicuously scarce. He seems to inspire the highest praise or the most acerbic criticism. A significant number of critics—most notably Thomas Babington Macauley—harshly attacked what they considered exaggeration or distortion in his correspondence, but twentieth-century critics, who have generally reevaluated Walpole's work, defend the significance of his letters as one of the most trustworthy and indispensable sources available for a thorough depiction of society, politics, and manners in eighteenth-century England. Responses to The Castle of Otranto have similarly varied. General critical assessment maintains that, in spite of its important historical contributions, Otranto's shortcomings are too serious to overlook. Many claim that the novel suffers from a convoluted and confusing plot, insufficient character development, and stilted dialogue, all of which discourage reader involvement. Nevertheless, these defects have not obscured Otranto's influence. Both Clara Reeve and Ann Radcliffe, prominent Gothic novelists, as well as Walter Scott, acknowledged their indebtedness to Walpole's work, with Reeve calling her acclaimed novel The Old English Baron "the literary offspring of The Castle of Otranto" and Scott praising Otranto as "not only … the original and model of a peculiar species of composition, attempted and successfully executed by a man of great genius, but… one of the standard works of our lighter literature." All told, Walpole's works—primarily his Letters and The Castle of Otranto—are considered to be of primary importance to the history of English literature: his Letters as one of the most complete and entertaining records of eighteenth-century English society and The Castle of Otranto as the quintessential source of Gothic literary conventions.
The Beauties: An Epistle to Mr. Eckardt, the Painter (poetry) 1746
Aedes Walpolianae; or, A Description of the Collection of Pictures at Houghton Hall in Norfolk, the Seat of the Right Honourable Sir Robert Walpole, Earl of Orford (catalog) 1747
A Letter to the Whigs, Occasioned by the "Letter to the Tories" (essay) 1747
A Letter from Xo Ho, a Chinese Philosopher at London, to His Friend Lien Chi at Peking (satire) 1757
A Catalogue of the Royal and Noble Authors of England, with Lists of Their Works 2 vols. (biography) 1758
A Dialogue between Two Great Ladies (satire) 1760
Anecdotes of Painting in England, with Some Account of the Principle Artists, and Incidental Notes on Other Arts 4 vols. (art history) 1762-71
The Opposition to the Late Minister Vindicated from the Aspersions of a Pamphlet Entitled "Considerations on the Present Dangerous Crisis." (essay) 1763
The Castle of Otranto: A Story (novel) 1765
Historic Doubts on the Life and Reign of King Richard the Third (essay) 1768
The Mysterious Mother: A Tragedy (drama) 1768
A Description of the Villa of Horace Walpole, Youngest Son of Sir, Robert Walpole, Earl of Orford, at Strawberry-Hill, near Twickenham (catalog) 1774...
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SOURCE: Preface to the Second Edition of The Castle of Otranto, by Horace Walpole, pp. 7-12. London: Oxford University Press, 1964.
[In this preface, written in 1765, alpole explains his intentions in writing the book: "to blend the two kinds of romance, the ancient and the modern."]
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 he shall appear excusable. He resigned his performance to the impartial judgment 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.
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...
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SOURCE: Historical and Literary Memoirs and Anecdotes Selected from the Correspondence of Baron De Grimm … Between the Years 1753 and 1969, and reprinted in Horace Walpole: the Critical Heritage, edited by Peter Sabor, Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1987.
[In the following excerpt from his Memoirs, Grimm expresses a favorable opinion of The Castle of Otranto.]
I alluded, on a former occasion, to a romance, in the old Gothic style, written by Mr. Horace Walpole, son to the celebrated English minister, and author of the letter from the King of Prussia to Rousseau, which was made by the latter the foundation of his quarrel with Mr. Hume. Mr. Walpole is the author of many other things besides the romance in question; his works must not be judged as those of a man of letters by profession, but as amusements of the leisure hours of a man of quality. A translation of his Gothic romance, which is entitled, The Castle of Otranto, has just been published.1 It is a series of supernatural appearances, put together under the most interesting form imaginable. Let one be ever so much of a philosopher, that enormous helmet, that monstrous sword, the portrait which starts from its frame and walks away, the skeleton of the hermit praying in the oratory, the vaults, the subterranean passages, the moonshine,—all these things make the hair of the sage stand on end, as much as that of the child...
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SOURCE: Introduction to The Castle of Otranto, by Horace Walpole, reprinted in Walpole: The Critical Heritage, edited by Peter Sabor, Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1987.
[In the following introduction to the 1811 edition of The Castle of Otranto, Scott cites Walpole's originality in initiating Gothic literature.]
The Castle of Otranto is remarkable not only for the wild interest of the story, but as the first modern attempt to found a tale of amusing fiction upon the basis of the ancient romances of chivalry. The neglect and discredit of these venerable legends had commenced so early as the reign of Queen Elizabeth, when, as we learn from the criticism of the times, Spenser's fairy web was rather approved on account of the mystic and allegorical interpretation, than the plain and obvious meaning of his chivalrous pageant. The drama, which shortly afterwards rose into splendour, and versions from the innumerable novelists of Italy, supplied to the higher class the amusement which their fathers received from the legends of Don Belianis and the Mirror of Knighthood;1 and the huge volumes which were once the pastime of nobles and princess, shorn of their ornaments, and shrunk into abridgements, were banished to the kitchen and nursery, or, at best, to the hall-window of the old-fashioned country manor-house. Under Charles II the prevailing taste for French...
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SOURCE: The History of Fiction, 2nd. ed., and reprinted in Walpole: The Critical Heritage, edited by Peter Sabor, Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1987.
[In the following excerpt from The History of Fiction (1814, 1816), Dunlop declares The Castle of Otranto to be true to its Gothicism but a failure at meeting Walpole's intentions.]
The production was ill received on its first appearance, and the extravagant commendations heaped on the imaginary author by the real one, appear abundantly absurd, now that the deception has been discovered.
The work is declared by Mr Walpole to be an attempt to blend the ancient romance and modern novel; but, if by the ancient romance be meant the tales of chivalry, the extravagance of the Castle of Otranto has no resemblance to their machinery. What analogy have skulls or skeletons—sliding pannels—damp vaults—trapdoors—and dismal apartments, to the tented fields of chivalry and its airy enchantments?
It has been much doubted, whether the Castle of Otranto was seriously or comically intended; if seriously, it is a most feeble attempt to excite awe or terror; an immense helmet is a wretched instrument for inspiring supernatural dread, and the machinery is so violent that it destroys the effect it was intended to raise. A sword which requires a hundred men to lift it—blood dropping from the nose of a...
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SOURCE: The Complete Works of William Hazlitt, 1933. Reprinted in Walpole: The Critical Heritage, edited by Peter Sabor, Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1987.
[In the following excerpt from his Lectures on the Comic Writers, delivered to the Surrey Institute in 1819, Hazlitt declares the ineffectiveness of Walpole's supernatural imagery.]
The Castle of Otranto (which is supposed to have led the way to this style of writing) is, to my notion, dry, meagre, and without effect. It is done upon false principles of taste. The great hand and arm, which are thrust into the court-yard, and remain there all day long, are the pasteboard machinery of a pantomime; they shock the senses, and have no purchase upon the imagination. They are a matter-of-fact impossibility; a fixture, and no longer a phantom. Quod sic mihi ostendis, incredulus odi.1 By realising the chimeras of ignorance and fear, begot upon shadows and dim likenesses, we take away the very grounds of credulity and superstition; and, as in other cases, by facing out the imposture, betray the secret to the contempt and laughter of the spectators.
1 'Whatever you thus show me openly leaves me incredulous and revolted'; Horace, Art of Poetry, 1. 188.
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SOURCE: "The Beginnings of Gothic Romance" in The Tale of Terror: A Study of the Gothic Romance, Constable 4 Co., 1921.
[In this excerpt, Birkhead enumerates the qualities of The Castle of Otranto that appealed to the popular taste of Walpole's contemporaries and briefly describes its legacy for later romances.]
To Horace Walpole, whose Castle of Otranto was published on Christmas Eve, 1764, must be assigned the honour of having introduced the Gothic romance and of having made it fashionable. Diffident as to the success of so "wild" a story in an age devoted to good sense and reason, he sent forth his mediaeval tale disguised as a translation from the Italian of "Onuphrio Muralto," by William Marshall. It was only after it had been received with enthusiasm that he confessed the authorship. As he explained frankly in a letter to his friend Mason: "It is not everybody that may in this country play the fool with impunity."1 That Walpole regarded his story merely as a fanciful, amusing trifle is clear from the letter he wrote to Miss Hannah More reproving her for putting so frantic a thing into the hands of a Bristol milkwoman who wrote poetry in her leisure hours.2The Castle of Otranto was but another manifestation of that admiration for the Gothic which had found expression fourteen years earlier in his miniature castle at Strawberry Hill, with its old armour and...
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SOURCE: "Horace Walpole as Dramatist," The South Atlantic Quarterly, XXVIII, No. 2, April, 1929, pp. 174-89.
[In this essay, Holzknecht reevaluates Walpole's importance to the historical development of drama by examining the romantic elements of The Castle of Otranto alongside the unacted drama The Mysterious Mother.]
The varied career of Horace Walpole is perhaps the greatest example English literature affords of what a man can do who is so fortunate as not to be obliged to have a definite aim in life. A dilettante primarily, he combined the rôles of politician, man of the world, literary amateur, art collector, spiteful gossip, archeologist, architect, and patron of art and letters. But dilettante virtuosity dominates everything the Earl of Orford attempted. Like Congreve, he affected even a contempt for authorship1 as being incompatible with the high social state of a gentleman, and sure that he had once possessed some talents, he himself seems to have been most aware of his own trifling. "My pursuits," he wrote in his letters,
have always been light and trifling and tended to nothing but my casual amusement; I will not say, without a little vain ambition of showing some parts; but never with industry sufficient to make me apply to anything solid. My studies, if they could be called so, and my productions, were alike desultory.2...
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SOURCE: "Horace Walpole and Shakespeare" Studies in Philology XXXI, No. 1, January, 1934, pp. 51-68.
[In the following essay, Stein examines Walpole's attitude toward Shakespeare—especially through his defense of Shakespeare against Voltaire. Stein concludes that, although Walpole regarded Shakespeare, highly he was not one of Walpole's literary influences.]
Within the last twenty-five years, there has been a marked growth of interest in Horace Walpole and the Gothic movement, of which he was both the originator and the outstanding representative.1 There have appeared a number of theories,2 pointing to possible sources of the "gooseflesh" tendency, most of them trying to show that the Elizabethan influence was quite potent in the formation and development of Gothicism,3 although some critics stray too far in their attempt to prove their theory.4 They are in agreement that the Elizabethan influence, if there was any, was transmitted mainly through Shakespeare, towards whom there was a "steady rise of idolatry … throughout the late eighteenth century."5 And yet, surprisingly little has been said about Walpole's critical attitude towards Shakespeare. This paper proposes to discuss the larger sphere of Walpole's relationship to Shakespeare, thus embracing the following three topies: (1) Walpole's attitude towards Shakespeare, (2) Walpole's...
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SOURCE: "Historical Gothic," in The Gothic Quest: A History of the Gothic Novel, Fortune Press, 1938.
[In this excerpt, Summers describes the importance of Walpole's extravagant residence, Strawberry Hill, to understanding The Castle of Otranto and briefly surveys the critical reaction to the novel.]
To The Castle of Otranto "we owe nothing less than a revolution in public taste, and its influence is strong even at the present day. It is hardly an exaggeration to say that to Walpole's romance is due the ghost story and the novel, containing so much of the supernatural and occult, than which no forms of literature are now  more common and applauded. The Castle of Otranto is, in fine, a notable landmark in the history of English taste and English literature."51 This is high praise, but I bate no jot of it, yet when I wrote more than a decade ago I chose my words carefully to say enough but not too much. We must not, we may not, go beyond what I have said.
As I have already shown, the tendencies of taste which culminated in the Gothic Novel had origins wider and deeper than any one book, even The Castle of Otranto, could develop. The dominant elements in the terror novel of the 1790's, of which the most famous exemplar is The Monk, came from Germany; the historical romance, which we have just examined, accounts for much; the French...
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SOURCE: "The First Gothic Tale: Its Potentialities," in The Gothic Flame, Russell & Russell, 1957.
[In the following excerpt from The Gothic Flame (1957), Varma conjectures about the impetuses to Walpole's composing The Castle of Otranto and discusses its strong and lasting influence on the Gothic and other genres.]
The Schauer-romantik, or "horror-romanticism", of the eighteenth century may be said to have originated one midsummer night, when Horace Walpole, sleeping beneath his stucco pinnacles at Strawberry Hill, dreamt he saw a giant hand in armour on the balustrade of the staircase. In this dream was born the first Gothic story, The Castle of Otranto: a bold and amazingly successful experiment in an absolutely untried medium. This immensely popular wild tale stands as a landmark in literary development and literary fashion. Although it has been alleged that this work is crude in attempt, incongruous and grotesque in its use of the supernatural, unrefined, distorted, and inartistic as a story form, yet it is not to be denied that this tale had far-reaching potentialities that were consciously developed by authors of succeeding generations. It is the parent of all goblin tales, the prelude to a long line of novels as unending as the spectral show of Banquo's progeny. It anticipates the genteel shudderings of Clara Reeve and Ann Radcliffe, and sets the scene for the...
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SOURCE: "The Castle of Otranto— Horace Walpole, His Life and Pursuits—Strawberry Hill—The Mysterious Mother," in The Haunted Castle: A Study of the Elements of English Romanticism, Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1927. Reprint: Humanities Press, 1964.
[In the following excerpt from The Haunted Castle: A Study of the Elements of English Romanticism (1964), Railo discusses the importance of castle imagery—and specifically Strawberry Hill—to The Castle of Otranto.]
The student of English literature is fairly certain at one time or another, as he arrives at the dawning romanticism of the latter half of the eighteenth century, to come across a small and unassuming booklet entitled The Castle of Otranto, with the subtitle A Gothic Story. The book consists of some hundred and fifty pages and has as frontispiece a fine steel engraving of an elderly man with a wide-awake expression dressed in eighteenth-century costume; underneath is the magnificent name: HORACE WALPOLE, EARL OF ORFORD. Acquaintance with the book in question, which appeared in 1764, is apt to awaken a varied series of visions of romantic authors and of the materials and history of romanticism, for scarcely a handbook of English literature exists in which some kind of mention is not made of it and of its noble author.1
Horace Walpole, bom in...
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SOURCE: "Gothic, Gothicism, and Gothicists," in The Adversary Literature: The English Novel in the Eighteenth Century—A Study in Genre, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1974.
[In this essay, Karl discusses elements of different genres found in The Castle of Otranto.]
So much of The Castle of Otranto seems nonsensical today that it is hard to believe it was taken seriously and still should be. Walpole, in his way, was a genius of the large and the outlandish, and we can say that with him a subgenre came into being. Although we must be careful not to make him the sole founder of Gothic,3 we can agree with Varma that Walpole brought together the various elements that we now identify as typical: "the Gothic machinery, the atmosphere of gloom and terror, and stock romantic characters." (The Gothic Flame, p. 57)
Even more, Walpole had the supremely romantic tum of mind which demanded that the supematural appear natural. In his preface to the first edition, he speaks of belief as relative to an age; so that "belief in every kind of prodigy was so established in those dark ages [ca. twelfth century] that an author would not be faithful to the manners of the times who would omit all mention of them." Walpole asks the reader to excuse "the air of the miraculous" and "allow the possibility of the facts." Thus, Walpole is very careful to turn the unusual into realistic...
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SOURCE: "The Gothic World as Stage: Providence and Character in The Castle of Otranto," Wascana Review 14, No. 2, Fall, 1979, pp. 17-30.
[In the following essay, Ehlers analyzes the theatrical elements of The Castle of Otranto.]
Perhaps no eighteenth-century writer has elicited more conflicting responses than has Horace Walpole. Known today primarily for his voluminous collection of letters, Walpole is also familiar to every beginning student of literature as the author of that notorious, entertaining piece of Gothic fiction, The Castle of Otranto. While Otranto is, and was in its own day, widely read, the question remains whether it has been well read. Walpole's self-proclaimed purpose is "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."1 But the critical reception of his Gothic romance was at best contradictory; while the book was popular with the reading public and went through six editions between 1764 and 1791, one reviewer sneered at its "rotten materials," particularly the giant helmet and sighing portrait.2 Modern critics are no less divided in their responses. Robert Kiely considers it a "slight work" betraying an "apparent lack of seriousness" and "total confusion."3 In contrast, Martin...
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SOURCE: "The Castle of Otranto: A Gothic Story, in A Reader's Guide to Fifty British Novels, 1600 1900, Heinemann, 1979.
[In the following excerpt, Phelps considers the historical importance of The Castle of Otranto.]
The events which the story narrates are supposed to have occurred sometime in the twelfth or the thirteenth century, and although there is a real Otranto (on the Strait of Otranto, in southern Italy) the location is essentially dreamlike, while the names of Manfred, the Prince of Otranto in the story, and of Conrad, his ailing son, sound more German than Italian.
The story opens as Manfred is making hasty preparations for the marriage of Conrad to Isabella, daughter of the Marquis of Vicenza, whom he has secured in the castle with the connivance of her guardians and during the absence of her father. Manfred's servants attribute the haste to his dread of an old prophecy which declares '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.'
Before the wedding can be solemnized, Conrad is crushed to death by a giant helmet which suddenly crashes into the courtyard. Afraid of being left without a male heir, Manfred determines to divorce his devoted wife, Hippolita, and to marry Isabella himself. Horrified by the...
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SOURCE: "Gothic Fathers: The Castle of Otranto, The Italian, The Monk, Melmoth the Wanderer," in Ghosts of the Gothic: Austen, Eliot, & Lawrence, Princeton University Press, 1980.
[In the following excerpt from her Ghosts of the Gothic: Austen, Eliot, & Lawrence (1980), Wilt examines the religious import of Walpole's Gothic tale.]
Horace Walpole's The Castle of Otranto (1765) is a rather gormless tale for which Walpole claimed little, and even the claim he did make—"Terror, the author's principal engine, prevents the story from ever languishing"1—is not entirely true. Its merits are not in character, plot, or prose, nor as he had thought, in the dramatic structure, but in half a dozen memorable tableaux,2 frozen moments of action, which are almost certainly lifted from Walpole's dreams, and maybe yours and mine too.
The narrative proper begins, like a primer in Gothic plot, with the father: "Manfred, Prince of Otranto, had one son and one daughter." A page later, on young Conrad's wedding day, the cry "Oh! the helmet! the helmet!" brings the family to the courtyard, where "—but what a sight for a father's eyes!—he beheld his child dashed to pieces, and almost buried under an enormous helmet, an hundred times more large than any casque ever made for human being, and shaded with a proportionable quantity of black feathers."...
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SOURCE: "Proto-Gothicism: The Infernal Iconography of Walpole's Castle of Otranto, Orbis Litter grum, 41, 1986, pp. 199-212.
[In the essay that follows, Frank explores the iconography of The Castle of Otranto as a fully developed Gothic inversion of positive value systems.]
The amazing preeminence of the Gothic novel from the death of Smollett in 1771 to the publication of Sir Walter Scott's Waverley in 1814 saw the ascendancy of many varieties of horror and the proliferation of many types of terror. Historians of the Gothic are still debating how many Gothics were written during these four frantic decades and they continue to make deeper inquiries about why the Gothic dominated English literature between Smollett's death and Scott's first successful novel.1 Whatever the answers to these questions of quantity, intention, and literary influence might be, the fact is undeniable that the scores of Gothic titles which flooded the literary market-place during the period could all claim one common point of origin: Horace Walpole's The Castle of Otranto, Gothicism's primal "long labyrinth of darkness."2 All critical considerations of what the Gothic communicates and how the genre does so must commence with an acknowledgement of Walpole's ingenious prototype.
Written in defiance of neoclassic forms and norms, Walpole's Castle of Otranto remains...
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SOURCE: "Time and Family in the Gothic Novel: The Castle of Otranto." Eighteenth Century Life, Vol X, n.s. 3, October, 1986, pp. 159-71.
[In this essay, Watt contends that the elements of the "imaginative matrices" of The Castle of Otranto that particularly structure the Gothic tradition are Walpole's treatment of time and the family.]
Long ago Matthew Arnold, confronting what Darwin had recently demonstrated to be our common ancestor—"a hairy quadruped furnished with a tail and pointed ears, probably arboreal in his habits"—was moved to wonder how "this good fellow" could ever have "carried in his nature, also, a necessity for Greek."1 It was even longer ago that an unpromising stripling named Conrad was dashed to pieces by some archaic military hardware in the courtyard of the Castle of Otranto; and even today we still hardly know how it was that this "enormous helmet, a hundred times more large than any casque ever made for human being, and shaded with a proportionable quantity of black feathers"2 also carried in its nature an evolutionary necessity for Emily Bronte's Heath-cliff and Faulkner's Thomas Sutpen.
Two aspects of that necessity are the subject of the present enquiry. What gave The Castle of Otranto—at first sight the most sensationally unpretentious novelette that can well be imagined—its power to bring into being a whole new...
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SOURCE: "Three Tyrants in The Castle of Otranto," English Language Notes, Vol. XXVI, No. 1, September, 1988, pp. 26-35.
[In the following essay, Dole suggests that Walpole borrowed a number of Shakespearean characters, themes, and motifs in writing The Castle of Otranto in response to current political events.]
Horace Walpole's well-known account of the genesis of The Castle of Otranto indicates that he wrote the first Gothic romance in an effort to distract himself from disturbing political events:
I waked one morning in the beginning of last June from a dream, of which all I could recover was, that I had thought myself in an ancient castle (a very natural dream for a head filled like mine with Gothic story) and that on the uppermost bannister of a great staircase I saw a gigantic hand in armour. In the evening I sat down and began to write, without knowing in the least what I intended to say or relate. The work grew on my hands, and I grew fond of it—add that I was very glad to think of anything rather than politics—In short I was … engrossed with my tale, which I completed in less than two months.1
A member of Parliament for twenty-seven years, Walpole was often deeply involved in political intrigue, usually to promote the causes of friends such as his cousin Henry Conway, to whom he was deeply devoted....
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Hazen, Allen T. A Bibliography of Horace Walpole. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1948, 189 p.
The most complete bibliography of Walpole's writings.
Sabor, Peter. Horace Walpole: A Reference Guide. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1984, 270 p.
Complete annotated bibliography of Walpole criticism through 1983.
Spector, Robert Donald. "The Beginnings: Horace Walpole and Clara Reeve." In The English Gothic: A Bibliographic Guide to Writers from Horace Walpole to Mary Shelley, pp. 83-110. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1984.
Surveys and describes the history of critical literature written on Walpole.
Dobson, Austin. Horace Walpole: A Memoir. 4th ed. Revised and enlarged by Paget Toynbee. London: Humphrey Milford, 1927, 395 p.
First reliable biography of Walpole, originally published in 1890. Dobson relies extensively on quotations from the Memoirs and Letters and includes a history of Walpole criticism.
Kallich, Martin. Horace Walpole. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1971, 147 p.
Critical biography of Walpole, with an extensive discussion of his works.
Lewis, Wilmarth Sheldon. Horace Walpole. New York: Pantheon Books, 1960, 215 p.
(The entire section is 1223 words.)