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...
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