As a teenager, I spent much of my time wearing black velvet, listening to the Sisters of Mercy, and writing depressing poetry. At university, I enrolled in classes like “Byron and Byronism” and “The Rhetoric of Monstrosity,” and devoured stories like Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Polidori’s The Vampyre, and the tales of Edgar Allan Poe. Much to my chagrin, however, I never read what is commonly accepted as the first gothic novel: Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto. These days, my wardrobe contains significantly more colour and I’ve left off the poetry, but I still have a soft spot for gothic fiction. So when this year’s blog theme was announced, I decided it was time to correct that omission and searched the stacks for a copy of Walpole’s novel.
The first edition of The Castle of Otranto, published in 1764, presented itself as a translation “by William Marshal, Gent. from the Original Italian of Onuphrio Muralto, Canon of the Church of St. Nicholas at Otranto.” The preface states that the work was “found in the library of an ancient catholic family in the north of England”, and it was only after the success of the first edition that Walpole publicly acknowledged the work as his own. In a new preface for the second edition he explained that his aim in writing the tale had been “to blend the two kinds of romance, the ancient and the modern. In the former all was imagination and improbability: in the latter … Invention has not been wanting; but the great resources of fancy have been dammed up, by a strict adherence to common life.”
To a 21st-century reader, the story may fall short of Walpole’s goal that his characters “think, speak, and act, as it might be supposed mere men and women would do in extraordinary positions”, but there is no denying the story’s influence on later writers. Several of the hallmarks of gothic fiction can be seen in Walpole’s tale: haunted castles, damsels in distress, and ancestral curses. Clara Reeve, in her preface to The Old English Baron (1778), another early gothic novel, describes her work as “The literary offspring of The Castle of Otranto”.
The action revolves around Manfred, Prince of Otranto, and his attempt to strengthen his family’s political position by marrying his only son, Conrad, to the beautiful Isabella, the daughter of a rival family. On the day of the wedding, Conrad is crushed to death suddenly and without explanation when an enormous helmet falls from nowhere. Driven mad by grief and frustrated ambition, Manfred devises a plan to divorce his wife and marry Isabella himself, setting in motion a chain of events involving a handsome and mysterious stranger, a love triangle, mistaken identities, deadly duels, and a series of terrible apparitions of an armoured giant haunting the castle.
If you are looking for a story populated with subtly nuanced characters who grow and change over time, in situations that you can easily relate to, this is perhaps not the novel for you. The supernatural occurrences border on the absurd; when a terrified servant sees an apparition of a gigantic foot in one of the castle galleries, I can’t help but think of the opening credits of Monty Python’s Flying Circus. A little later, a stranger arrives at the castle, proclaiming himself the herald of the “knight of the gigantic sabre.” Sure enough, the knight arrives preceded by “An hundred gentlemen bearing an enormous sword, and seeming to faint under the weight of it.”
If, however, you are looking for a tale filled with high emotion, fantastic occurrences, and a clear, unambiguous message (in other words, a gothic novel), The Castle of Otranto is a quick read that comes to a satisfying, if not unexpected, conclusion: the bad guy loses, the good guy wins, order is restored, and the princess is saved. (In true gothic fashion, however, nobody is particularly happy about it.)
Although our rare book collection does not include any first or early editions of the novel as a stand-alone work, we do hold the 1976 Folio Society edition, illustrated with appropriately gloomy and atmospheric lithographs by Charles Keeping, as well as several early 19th-century anthologies of literature where The Castle of Otranto appears alongside the work of more familiar authors such as Samuel Johnson and Oliver Goldsmith. The well-worn 1964 edition that I borrowed from the Library’s circulating collection, with its many layers of underlining, highlighting, and notes from past students, bears witness to the novel’s enduring popularity–if only on the syllabi of university literature modules.
Rare Books Cataloguer