The son of the celebrated Prime Minister Robert Walpole, Horace Walpole was a dilettante at politics but a serious student of the Middle Ages. Taken with antiquities (he wrote several volumes of nonfiction on historical subjects), Walpole wrote The Castle of Otranto to combine in one volume two of his most passionate interests: a fascination with the supernatural and a keen appreciation of the medieval romance. Walpole turned away from the growing appetite of the English reading public for realism, seen most vividly in the works of his contemporaries Henry Fielding, Samuel Richardson, and Tobias Smollett; instead, he capitalized on readers’ interest in the “far away,” as evidenced by the popularity of numerous travel books in the eighteenth century.
The accuracy of his judgment about readers’ tastes is borne out by the spate of “gothic” novels that followed the publication of Walpole’s slim volume. For the next sixty years, works such as Clara Reeves’s The Old En-glish Baron (1778), Ann Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794), Matthew Gregory Lewis’ The Monk (1796), and Charles Robert Maturin’s Melmoth the Wanderer (1820) captivated readers in England and on the Continent.
Throughout The Castle of Otranto, Walpole sacrifices complexity of characterization for intricacies of plotting. His heroes and heroines are little more than cardboard cutouts representing good or evil. The villain Manfred evokes little sympathy, and the plethora of admirable characters exist with hardly a blemish on their characters. Although he claimed that his model was William Shakespeare, Walpole is actually more closely aligned with the writers of revenge tragedies and tragedies of blood, dramas that were popular in the early decades of the seventeenth century. He makes use, as did those types of work, of sinister suggestions and ominous supernatural occurrences that highlight the impending doom for those who practice evil.
Walpole’s primary contribution to the development of fantasy literature, however, lies in his focus on the reaction of men and women to extraordinary events: He is less interested in the appearance of ghosts and giants for their own sake than he is in gauging the reaction of his heroes and heroines to these aberrations. Although it may be difficult to classify Manfred, Theodore, Isabella, and Matilda as “ordinary,” in Walpole’s view they represent “real” men and women placed in extraordinary circumstances. Whether their trials occur on a strange planet or in strange circumstances on Earth, they reveal to readers the best and the worst of human nature when their values are tested.