Today on Project Gutenberg, we have…
The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole
It’s spooky season again, so why don’t we celebrate by looking at a classic of Gothic literature?
Published in 1764, The Castle of Otranto is considered the first true Gothic novel. The larger origins of Gothic fiction and the themes and tropes of the genre is a rich discussion that deserves its own article, but for now: think Lord Byron, Mary Shelley, Bram Stoker, etc. The kind of stuff that I usually talk about.
But The Castle of Otranto predates all of that. The author, Horace Walpole — son of Robert Walpole, Britain’s first Prime Minister — set out to combine the fantastical, supernatural nature of medieval romances with the literary realism of the day. In other words, to show “real” characters acting in a “real” way to unreal things. He gave it the subtitle “A Gothic Story,” and a subgenre was born.
Somewhere in Europe (we don’t know exactly where) is the titular Castle of Otranto, home to a lord called Manfred, his wife Hippolita, and their children Conrad and Matilda. Conrad is betrothed to a young princess named Isabella, but on the day of the wedding, there are a few…complications. For starters, a giant helmet falls out of the sky and crushes Conrad to death. Manfred has a totally normal reaction to this and decides that if his son couldn’t survive a giant-ass metal helmet falling on his head, then he was a crappy son anyway. Ergo, he (Manfred) should now cast aside his wife and marry Isabella instead. Isabella has a genuinely normal reaction to this, in that she freaks out and tries to flee the castle. Eventually she does go into hiding with the help of a servant named Theodore, resulting in both of them being targeted by Manfred. From there, things spiral even further out of control. Manfred schemes to divorce Hippolita and marry Isabella, Theodore and Matilda fall for each other and a prophecy is revealed which claims that the true master of the castle will soon overthrow Manfred. It all ends, of course, in overwrought tragedy.
So, which Gothic tropes did Walpole popularize in The Castle of Otranto? It would be easier to list the ones he didn’t popularize, honestly. This book gives us a crumbling, haunted castle full of secret passages, trap doors, moving pictures, ghosts and other dramatic, supernatural phenomena. It features the archetypes of a cruel, jealous and possessive villain and an innocent, pure-hearted young woman who ends up in his clutches. It has shocking twists, passionate forbidden romances, characters being driven to the edge of madness, all that good stuff. And let’s not forget the all-important Gothic tradition of encountering and meddling with things that you really shouldn’t be meddling with. So many characters in Gothic fiction try to bend the rules of nature somehow, whether that’s by marrying their sort-of daughter or by building a guy out of stitched-together corpses in their attic. But whatever the plan, somebody’s going to meet a terrible end because of it.
“Look, my Lord! see, Heaven itself declares against your impious intentions!”
“Heaven nor Hell shall impede my designs,” said Manfred, advancing again to seize the Princess.
At that instant the portrait of his grandfather, which hung over the bench where they had been sitting, uttered a deep sigh, and heaved its breast.
Isabella, whose back was turned to the picture, saw not the motion, nor knew whence the sound came, but started, and said—
“Hark, my Lord! What sound was that?” and at the same time made towards the door.
Manfred, distracted between the flight of Isabella, who had now reached the stairs, and yet unable to keep his eyes from the picture, which began to move, had, however, advanced some steps after her, still looking backwards on the portrait, when he saw it quit its panel, and descend on the floor with a grave and melancholy air.
“Do I dream?” cried Manfred, returning; “or are the devils themselves in league against me? Speak, infernal spectre! Or, if thou art my grandsire, why dost thou too conspire against thy wretched descendant, who too dearly pays for—” Ere he could finish the sentence, the vision sighed again, and made a sign to Manfred to follow him.
“Lead on!” cried Manfred; “I will follow thee to the gulf of perdition.”
The spectre marched sedately, but dejected, to the end of the gallery, and turned into a chamber on the right hand. Manfred accompanied him at a little distance, full of anxiety and horror, but resolved. As he would have entered the chamber, the door was clapped to with violence by an invisible hand. The Prince, collecting courage from this delay, would have forcibly burst open the door with his foot, but found that it resisted his utmost efforts.
“Since Hell will not satisfy my curiosity,” said Manfred, “I will use the human means in my power for preserving my race; Isabella shall not escape me.”Chapter 1
I’ve read The Castle of Otranto in its entirety twice now, and I’ve read excerpts from it at other times. Of course it’s nowhere near as thoughtful or sophisticated as later examples of Gothic literature, but all of the raw melodrama makes for great fun and entertainment. If you enjoy classic literature of this type, then it’s a read I would definitely recommend, especially for this time of year. Have some spooky fun!
And that’s what we found today on Project Gutenberg! See you next time!