Horace Walpole Walpole, Horace (1717 - 1797) - Essay


(Gothic Literature)

HORACE WALPOLE (1717 - 1797)

English novelist, biographer, memoirist, historian, essayist, playwright, and letter writer.

One of the most flamboyant personalities in eighteenth-century English letters, Walpole is often considered the outstanding chronicler and correspondent of his era. According to biographer W. S. Lewis (see Further Reading), "Walpole is the man who brought the art of letterwriting to the highest point it reached in our language." The Letters, which date from 1732 to 1797 and number in the thousands, are noted for their remarkable content as well as their distinctive style. While the detailed description they provide of English politics and society in Walpole's time is unsurpassed, they also possess stylistic charm and wit which make them highly entertaining prose. 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 (1764), a work which pioneered the introduction of supernaturalism and mystery into the romance and is thus 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 the Britons. His 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 Orford. Because Horace was considerably younger and both physically and temperamentally different from the other children of Sir Robert and Catherine Shorter Walpole—and because his parents had a notoriously strained marriage—there was considerable speculation over Horace's paternity. He, however, was unaffected by the gossip and remained fervently loyal to both of his parents until their deaths. Conditions in the Walpole home enhanced Horace's tendencies toward impetuosity and self-indulgence. Lady Walpole, a reputedly vain and capricious woman, compulsively pampered her youngest son, and the atmosphere of the Walpole home can perhaps best be summed up by the family motto: "Fan qua sentiat" ("Say what you think"). From 1727 to 1734 Walpole attended Eton, which proved a much more stable environment than his family's estate. Here 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 make the Grand Tour of the Continent with Gray as a traveling companion. They toured for two years but eventually quarreled and returned to England separately. Much of the strain on their friendship stemmed from the class differences between them: while Gray was a scrivener's son, Walpole was the prime minister's, which admitted him to elite social circles and enabled him to spend without consideration of cost. While on the Continent he was elected to Parliament, and he served in that body intermittently until 1768. His terms were characterized by brief, fervent bouts of enthusiasm amidst an overriding sense of apathy. Despite his occasional passion over a particular issue, he was generally more interested in the drama of the political scene than actual policymaking. Although Walpole classified himself as a "settled Whig"—that is, one opposed to the bulk of power residing in any single branch of government or class of society—he once described his political objective as being "at the liberty of pleasing myself without being tied to a party."

In 1747, the year in which he published Aedes Walpolianae, a catalog of Sir Robert's art collection and the first book on a private art collection in England, 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 which also captured a viewer's imagination and sense of make-believe. The result was a museum-like tribute to Gothic detail as well as to Walpole's unbridled determination to make his fantastic conception a reality. The completed Strawberry Hill exhibited lavish examples of Gothic ornamentation, including stained-glass windows, balustrades, loggias, and hidden stairways. Unfortunately, since neither Walpole nor his associates were experienced engineers, many parts of Strawberry Hill were structurally unsound. For example, during Walpole's lifetime alone the battlements had to be replaced three times. Although Strawberry Hill became the object of ridicule in some quarters because of its outlandish appearance, it inspired an architectural fad, as many members of the upper class began to add Gothic touches to their homes. 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. The estate ultimately became an elaborate showcase for Walpole's extensive collections of armor, coins, books, art, and bric-a-brac, which were viewed by ticket-holding visitors. In 1842 the contents of Strawberry Hill were sold in a widely publicized auction which lasted over a month; Strawberry Hill itself now serves as a training college for teachers. In spite of changes made in the house and gardens, much of its original splendor remains and contemporary visitors may still perceive the fanciful, if eccentric, imagination responsible for its design and creation.

In 1765 Walpole made the first of four extended trips to Paris, where he was received by the pinnacle of French society. Members of the French upper class were widely known for their scathing wit and expertise at verbal assault: thus, Walpole, who was despised by many of his fellow Britons for these very qualities, became the toast of Parisian society. While in Paris, he was bedridden with a severe case of gout—to which he finally succumbed at age eighty—and was visited by an illustrious parade of well-wishers. Walpole was befriended by Madame du Deffand, the grand dame of French society, who was twenty years his senior and with whom he corresponded until her death in 1780. Deffand fell in love with Walpole, who had never shown any romantic interest in women, and expressed her emotions in letters to him. Although Deffand's letters to Walpole survived, he requested that his be destroyed after his death. Biographers and critics consider this an unfortunate loss and speculate that this correspondence would have shed light on Walpole's generous and compassionate nature, a dimension of his personality which has received little attention. Throughout his life Walpole was always devoted, sometimes irrationally, to a select group of friends, and this was especially true during his later years. Particularly close to him near the end of his life were the Berry sisters, Agnes and Mary, daughters of one of his Strawberry Hill neighbors. After Walpole's death it was rumored that he had wanted to marry Mary, so charmed was he by her intelligence and wit. However, biographers conclude that this was most unlikely considering his stalwartly negative stance on marriage and their age differences—Walpole was seventy and Miss Berry was in her early twenties. Nevertheless, the Berry sisters lived at Little Strawberry Hill, a cottage on Walpole's estate, for many years and Mary became literary executrix of his papers upon his death in 1797, editing his works under her father's name in accordance with the prejudices of the age.


The only fictional work for which Walpole is widely known is his novel The Castle of Otranto. Although considered a seriously flawed work, The Castle of 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, The Castle of Otranto was inspired by a dream in which he was in a castle and a gigantic armorclad hand appeared to him at the top of a staircase. After two months of continuous, almost fevered, writing, Walpole completed the story, but published it anonymously under the pretense that it was an Italian manuscript written during the Last Crusade and translated by one William Marshal. Some early reviewers accepted it as a medieval text and praised it as possessing surprisingly "modern" qualities. Other commentators were not convinced or amused by this claim: the novel was generally faulted as being preposterously unbelievable and insulting to its readers. However, the negative critical reception of The Castle 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 upon 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. Walpole was largely successful in accomplishing his objective. 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 (trap doors, vaults, dungeons, rattling chains, etc.) was original not only in its inclusion but in its off-handed presentation. In The Castle of Otranto, statues bleed, apparitions stalk the castle, and ancestral portraits sigh, but all are accepted as natural occurrences by the characters. In addition to this technique, Walpole manipulated the forces of nature to accentuate the sense of ominousness. For example, a gust of wind extinguishes the heroine's candle at a critical moment and moonlight magnifies and plays tricks on the characters' perception of objects. Another important element of The Castle of Otranto is the introduction of what eventually became stock characters in Gothic literature: the handsome hero, the virginal heroine, sinister monks, and the nobleman in peasant's garb.

Walpole's lesser-known fictional works include The Mysterious Mother (1768), a drama in blank verse, and Hieroglyphic Tales (1785). The theme of The Mysterious Mother—incest—was so controversial 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. Of The Mysterious Mother Bertrand Evans (see Further Reading) wrote: "Elements of setting, character, machinery, and technique, combined for a single purpose, make The Mysterious Mother the first play in the Gothic tradition." The Hieroglyphic Tales are considered Walpole's most peculiar fictional effort. By his own admission the Tales were "written extempore and without any plan." In these early examples of automatic writing, Walpole completely defied 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.


Critics generally consider Walpole's letters the masterwork for which he is most deservedly known to posterity. 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. A harsh critic of dry and uninteresting writing by his contemporaries, Walpole sought to avoid similar weaknesses in his own prose and concentrated on developing seemingly artless but riveting narratives which came alive through carefully selected and embellished detail. While most critics agree that Walpole's vivid imagination and strongly-held opinions make the letters less than objective portrayals of his era, a significant number have harshly attacked what they consider exaggeration or distortion in his correspondence. In the twentieth century, critics reevaluated Walpole's work and began to 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.

General critical assessment maintains that, in spite of its important contributions to the Gothic tradition, The Castle of Otranto's shortcomings are too serious to overlook. The novel suffers from a convoluted and confusing plot, insufficient character development, and stilted dialogue, all of which discourage and virtually prohibit reader involvement. One prevalent criticism is that the work is too rapidly paced, with the Gothic devices occurring in such quick succession that little of the sense of mystery Walpole wished to create is present. Nevertheless, these defects have not obscured The Castle of Otranto's influence upon novelists who have received more recognition than Walpole. Both Clara Reeve and Ann Radcliffe, prominent Gothic novelists, as well as Sir Walter Scott, acknowledged their indebtedness to Walpole's work, with Reeve (see Further Reading) calling her acclaimed novel The Old English Baron "the literary offspring of The Castle of Otranto" and Scott praising The Castle of 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."

Principal Works

(Gothic Literature)

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...

(The entire section is 244 words.)

Primary Sources

(Gothic Literature)

SOURCE: Walpole, Horace. "Translator's Preface." In Castle of Otranto, A Story, pp. iii-ix. Dublin, Ireland: J. Hoey, J. Exshaw, P. Wilson, S. Cotter, W. Sleater, J. Potts, S. Watson, J. Hoey, junior, J. Williams, and J. Sheppard, 1764.

In the following "Translator's Preface" to The Castle of Otranto Walpole offers a fictional account of the "discovery" of the manuscript, presented as a medieval document.

The following work was found in the library of an ancient Catholic family in the north of England. It was printed at Naples, in the black letter, in the year 1529. How much sooner it was written does not...

(The entire section is 1210 words.)

Title Commentary

(Gothic Literature)


SOURCE: A review of The Castle of Otranto: A Story, by Horace Walpole. The Critical Review 19 (January 1765): 50-1.

In the following excerpt from a negative review of The Castle of Otranto, the critic expresses disapproval of the gross absurdity of the supernatural elements and suggests that the anonymously-published novel is the work of a modern, not medieval, author.

The ingenious translator of this very curious performance [The Castle of Otranto] informs that it was found in the library of an ancient catholic family in...

(The entire section is 16415 words.)

Further Reading

(Gothic Literature)


Lewis, Wilmarth Sheldon. Horace Walpole: The A. W. Mellon Lectures in the Fine Arts. 1960. National Gallery of Art, Washington, Vol. 9. Bollingen Series 35, Pantheon Books, 1961. 215 p.

Authoritative biography by a foremost Walpole scholar.

Mowl, Timothy. Horace Walpole: The Great Outsider. London: John Murray, 1996, 274 p.

Full-length biography of Walpole.


Beers, Henry A. "The Gothic Revival." In A History of English Romanticism in the Eighteenth Century. 1899. Reprint...

(The entire section is 1128 words.)