The dilettante father of gothic horror

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This Halloween week sees a preponderance of spooky images and stories, many of the common themes and tropes of which date directly back to an 18th-century novel written by the dilettante son of Britain’s longest-serving Prime Minister and a man arguably most famous for creating a ridiculously ostentatious Gothic house in Strawberry Hill, near Twickenham – its delightfully overworked tangle of spiers, turrets and arches.

Hastily written by an author with little experience as a writer, there can’t be many books that have defined a genre as completely as possible. The castle of Otranto. Almost all of the future of Gothic fiction is already in place, fully formed: haunted castles, secret passages, ruined abbeys, clanking chains, the mournful tinkling of bells in the night, thunder and lightning, dark forests, the mysterious moans, the skeletons, the sighing portraits, secrets kept and revealed, ancient prophecies and revenge. Of Dracula at Sarah Perry Melmothghost stories from MR James to The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson, all spectral routes lead back to revolutionary European fantasy inspired by the dreams of Walpole.

This does not mean The castle of Otranto is a brilliant book. This is really not the case. The
the plot creaks like an old door on a rusty hinge and its characters are
superficial enough to make Liz Truss look like Simone de Beauvoir. Where he
succeeds by moving at a breakneck pace, keeping the reader guessing with twists, some surprising, some downright ridiculous, on a harrowing literary journey into fantastical excess. Otranto was the antithesis of the works firmly rooted in reason, realism and rationality that prevailed at the time, huge thickets of words like Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa that drove Walpole to despair.

“A god, at least a ghost, was absolutely necessary to frighten us with too much sense,” he wrote. And it was scary: just a week after publication, his friend, the poet Thomas Gray, wrote to Walpole that reading the book made “some of us cry a little and be afraid to go to bed on evening “.

Otranto seems unsophisticated to the point of hilarity today, but its novelty and willingness to bring the supernatural into the mainstream was groundbreaking for its time. Sir Walter Scott praised the book for its “happy combination of supernatural agency with human interest” as well as for the excitement Walpole induced in the reader through “the passions of fear and beauty “.

Almost 60 years after its publication, Lord Byron called Walpole “the Ultimus Romanorum, the father of our language’s first romance and last tragedy, and surely worthy of a higher place than any living writer”.


The book is set in medieval Italy where Manfred is Prince of Otranto thanks to a murderous scam by his grandfather and is unaware of the existence of Theodore, a legitimate heir to the title living as a peasant in an ignorant nearby village. of his noble birth. Manfred is determined to marry his son Conrad to Isabella, related to the true princely line, but on the morning of the ceremony Conrad is killed when “a huge helmet of stone, a hundred times larger than any helmet ever made to be human, and shaded with a proportionate amount of black feathers,” lands on him from a great height. Alfonso the Good.

Intending to marry the bereaved bride himself to secure his position, Manfred imprisons Isabella in his castle only for her to escape to a nearby convent through a secret passageway and sets off a series of dramatic twists involving identities. erroneous, unsuspected and revealed, an ancient curse, ghostly happenings in strange places and an ultimate happy resolution that usurps usurpers, avenges ancestors and satisfies spirits.

Walpole released The castle of Otranto on Christmas Eve 1764 but did not identify himself as the author. Instead, he claimed in a preface that the story was a translation of a document that appeared in Naples in 1529 and was found hidden in the library of a Catholic home in northern England. The preface posits that Otranto was written between the first crusade at the end of the 11th century and the last, in the 13th century, the title page attributing authorship to a priest named Onuphrio Muralto of the Church of St. Nicholas in Otranto, translated by a Marshal William.

The alleged ancient provenance only served to increase the mystery and weirdness surrounding the story, making it more plausible as a portrayal of seemingly true events, but when the first edition sold out within weeks of positive reviews, Walpole decided it was safe to impersonate the author.

In February 1765, only a few weeks after publication, he wrote to a friend “a little book of stories which I published some time ago, though not boldly under my own name, but so successful that I no longer entirely keep the secret”. The second edition, published at Easter with the added subtitle A gothic taleidentified Walpole as the author and presented a new preface explaining his intention to return fantasy to fiction amid the contemporary boredom of realism.

“It was an attempt to blend the two types of romance, the ancient and the modern,” he wrote. “In the first case, everything was imagination and improbability: in
in the latter case, nature is always meant to be, and has sometimes been, successfully copied. The invention did not fail; but the great resources of fantasy have been stemmed by a strict adherence to common life.

The castle of Otranto could not have happened without the extensive work of Walpole
trips to Europe. The third son of Sir Robert Walpole, Prime Minister of
From 1721 to 1742, Horace was educated at Eton where he befriended Gray, the future composer of the Elegy written in a country cemetery, and
Cambridge University.

Thanks to a few well-paid honorary political titles bestowed upon him by his father, Walpole became massively wealthy the day he turned 21. He left Cambridge without graduating and in March 1737 embarked with Gray on the grand tour of Europe taken by many of the wealthy. young men of his time. He will be absent for more than two years.

The couple enjoyed Paris, then spent three months in Reims learning French, from where an excursion to Geneva left Walpole in awe of the Alps long before they became one of the touchstones of the sublime romantic and an essential backdrop to many Gothic fictions. .

“Precipices, mountains, torrents, wolves, rumbles, Salvator Rosa,” he exclaimed in a letter to a friend, “here we are, lone lords of glorious desolate vistas!”

In Italy, Walpole passed through Turin, Genoa, Bologna and lingered in Florence where he met the British envoy Horace Mann, whose long
residence in the city and the hospitality of the Great Tourists made him a legendary character
is among the travellers. While Gray kept busy among the city’s many art galleries and concert halls, Walpole preferred to indulge in Florentine society with Mann, causing a rift between the travelers that led to them returning home separately but producing an encounter between Walpole and budding architect John Chute, who would become Strawberry Hill’s “oracle of taste” in its transformation into a gothic fancy house.

Besides the breathtaking landscapes of the Alps and the Tuscan hills, Walpole’s travels exposed him to some of the arts that would ignite his love of the Gothic – Rosa, Poussin, Lorrain – as well as the succession of ancient castles in different stages of rot that dotted the landscape throughout its
trips. The castle of Otranto would be a work informed by the landscape,
the history, art and culture of Europe that would change the course of the story of the novel. Walpole himself hoped it would last, even if he
could not have foreseen his extraordinary influence.

“It was not written for that age which wants nothing but cold reason,” Walpole wrote in a 1767 letter.
philosophers and that seems so much the better for that. I am even persuaded that later, when taste takes back the throne from which philosophy pushed it, my poor chateau will find admirers.

• by Shehan Karunatilaka The seven moons of Maali Almeida deservedly won the Booker Prize last week. Its first review was in these pages in July, where I described it as a “wonderful book about Sri Lanka, friendship, grief and the afterlife”.

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