(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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.

Principal Works

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

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


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Horace Walpole (essay date 1765)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

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...

(The entire section is 2072 words.)

Friedrich Melchior Grimm (essay date 1767

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

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...

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Walter Scott (essay date 1811)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

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...

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John Dunlop (essay date 1816)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

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;...

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William Hazlitt (essay date 1819)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

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;...

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Edith Birkhead (essay date 1921)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

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...

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Karl J. Holzknecht (essay date 1929)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

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...

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Jess M. Stein (essay date 1934)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

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 Shakespeareespecially 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"...

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Montague Summers (essay date 1938)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

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 [1923] more common and applauded....

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Devendra P. Varma (essay date 1957)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

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...

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Eino Railo (essay date 1964)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

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 imageryand specifically Strawberry Hillto 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...

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Frederick R. Karl (essay date 1974)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: "Gothic, Gothicism, and Gothicists," in The Adversary Literature: The English Novel in the Eighteenth CenturyA 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...

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Leigh A. Ehlers (essay date 1979)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

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....

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Gilbert Phelps (essay date 1979)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

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...

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Judith Wilt (essay date 1980)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

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...

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Frederick S. Frank (essay date 1986)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

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...

(The entire section is 5562 words.)

Ian P. Watt (essay date 1986)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

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...

(The entire section is 6308 words.)

Carol M. Dole (essay date 1988)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

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...

(The entire section is 3933 words.)

Further Reading

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))


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...

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