Book review · Reading · Uncategorized

Review of Gothic fiction pioneer’s “The Castle of Otranto

In October, I started Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto because it was one of the works that inspired Jane Austen to write the Gothic satire “Northanger Abbey.” Walpole, the 4th Earl of Orford, was 48 when he wrote this work in 1765. He said he’d awakened from a dream about seeing at the top of a castle staircase a giant hand enclosed in armor. He wasn’t surprised he’d dreamed of ancient castles; he’d turned his Strawberry Hill home into an Gothic villa. The preface to the first edition acted as a positive book review and a way to make the work appear a true account and as far back as the dark ages.

“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 appear. The principal incidents are such as were believed in the darkest ages of Christianity; but the language and conduct have nothing that savours of barbarism. The style is the purest Italian.”

The plot opened with the murder of Conrad, the only son of Manfred who ruled Otranto. Conrad was to marry Isabella, a princess and daughter of Frederic, the Marquis of Vincenza. We learn later that Manfred’s grandfather usurped the throne. His plan was to have his son marry to legitimize his rule with the marriage. With Conrad’s death, he needed a different plan. Manfred decided he would divorce his wife, or worse kill her, just to wed Isabella himself. He was trying to hold on to this illegitimate claim to the throne, even after he learned of a prophetic curse against him and his family.

The plot circled around a possible giant in armor, mysterious knights, definitely a ghost or two, curses and prophecies, murder, lots of talk on becoming nuns – as opposed to having to marry a crazy ruler or an old one. When Isabella fled to the church after Manfred tried to rape her, and she used the caves within the castle with help from a peasant, Theodore, I really thought that the story might introduce some ghosts or something. Even with all the things meant to conjure my fright — the ginormous casque (helmet) & saber, ghostly encounters and loud sounds, the curses on Manfred and his family – I had a hard time staying interested. The dialogue seemed better suited for the stage. I found dialogue that reminded me of Shakespeare. Turns out I wasn’t the only one who thought so because I found a theatre that performed “The Castle of Otranto” called First Folio Theatre:

Walpole’s friend from Eton, Thomas Gray “at Cambridge the book made ‘some of them cry a little, and all in general afraid to go to bed o’ nights.” I’m not sure what book they were reading. I’ve read scarier fairy tales. Then again, the account came from a friend, a very kind friend.

What made me shake my head were the ways Walpole wrote his women. They were overly pious and too good to be realistic. They had no problem letting men decide their fate, even evil ones, and were okay with dying. I could see that Walpole thought women should be ruled by the men in their lives. Then the sentimental language – Oy! Characters gushed all over themselves, even while in peril. For example, Manfred’s daughter Matilda is trying to save Theodore from her murder-minded father and he wants to fawn all over her.

Theodore: “Thy looks, thy actions, all thy beauteous self seem an emanation of divinity, but thy words are dark and mysterious. Speak, Lady; speak to thy servant’s comprehension.”

Matilda: “Thou understandest but too well, but once more I command thee to be gone: thy blood, which I may preserve, will be on my head, if I waste the time in vain discourse.” (57) My translation: “Dude, do you want us both to die? There’s no time for talk. Get going!”

As I was reading though, I did enjoy imagining Austen’s reaction to the tale. Did she think like I did that Walpole needed to work on his manuscript for more than the two months he said he spent writing it? He needed an editor. I could see why Austen chose to write Northanger Abbey as a satire on the gothic form. I plan to read Ann Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho and The Romance of the Forest that also inspired Northanger, but probably after Christmas. To read this work for free on your Kindle, go to


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