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.