The Castle of Otranto

By Horace Walpole.

It’s a little hard to describe the plot of The Castle of Otranto succinctly because the story is told in such a way that no narrative thread is resolved before another interrupts it. Basically, Manfred, the Prince of Otranto, is trying to stave off the prophesied loss of his dominions, but no matter how hard he tries, Fate is ultimately against him. In the end, he accidentally kills his own daughter Matilda (his son Conrad having been crushed to death by a gigantic helmet on the second page), and it’s revealed that Theodore (who first appeared as a nameless peasant imprisoned under the helmet on Manfred’s orders) is the true heir to Otranto.

Manfred is desperate as the tyrant who is trying to evade his inevitable downfall. His wife, Hippolita, is painfully compliant. Their son, Conrad, is merely a mangled corpse, but being a sickly child, not the sort of heir that a ranting, fulminating despot might be proud of. Their daughter Matilda is your typical heroine of romance, although a tragic one since Manfred kills her. Isabella is more independent-minded than Matilda, being quite ready to flee from Manfred and then boss everyone around in the final chapter when someone needs to take charge after her friend’s death. Her father, Frederic, is easily gulled by Manfred when Matilda is dangled as bait before him. Theodore starts off as an anonymous peasant, although it takes the audience less than a moment to realise that he’s a player. Eventually, we learn that he’s the son of Father Jerome who was, formerly, the Count of Falconara and married to the daughter of Alfonso the Good. The cast is rounded out by Matilda’s garrulous and bubble-brained servant, Bianca.

If Walpole had been alive today, he’d be a writer for film or TV with a special talent for writing material where what’d take moments in reality gets annoyingly drawn out under the specious excuse that delay makes the moment more suspenseful rather than more dull. As the preface of the edition (Penguin Classics, edited by Michael Gamer) that I read noted, the story has a stage-y feel to it. You can imagine it as some farcical 18th century play with everyone constantly bursting in and leaving the audience wondering if anything was going to be resolved. (In fact, it was turned into a successful stage play called The Count of Narbonne.)

Ironically, Walpole, it could be said, is not only the progenitor of the Gothic genre, but has already produced it’s first parody. It’s the sort of genre which you can either write with a straight face (knowing that it’s very silly) or write with a smirk (again, knowing that it’s very silly). And The Castle of Otranto does have much silliness. Perhaps it’s just a little too much like the novel of the play.

I wonder whether The Castle of Otranto with its setting and supernatural apparatus was truly a new departure, or whether it was a revival of the sort material which you can find in Shakespeare’s plays packaged in a new format. The story was eventually to lead to the flowering of the Gothic genre at the end of the 18th century, but that may have been as much to do with the character of the age as it was to do with The Castle of Otranto itself.

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