August 29, 2018

Book Review: The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole

The Castle of Otranto

by Horace Walpole

Genres: Gothic, Fiction, 18th-Century Classic Literature, Fantasy 
Publisher: Oxford University Press 
Length: 125 pages 
Published: Reprinted 2008 (originally published 1764) 
Purchase Links: Amazon, Barnes & Noble

Official Book Summary: 

"First published pseudonymously in 1764, The Castle of Otranto purported to be a translation of an Italian story of the time of the crusades. In it Walpole attempted, as he declared in the Preface to the Second Edition, "to blend the two kinds of romance: the ancient and the modern." Crammed with invention, entertainment, terror, and pathos, the novel was an immediate success and Walpole's own favorite among his numerous works"


"It is piety alone that can distinguish us from the dust whence we sprung, and whither we must return." 

Excerpt (from Chapter One): 

"The lady, whose resolution had given way to terror the moment she had quitted Manfred, continued her flight to the bottom of the principal staircase. There she stopped, not knowing whither to direct her steps, nor how to escape from the impetuosity of the Prince. The gates of the castle, she knew, were locked, and guards placed in the court. Should she, as her heart prompted her, go and prepare Hippolita for the cruel destiny that awaited her, she did not doubt but Manfred would seek her there, and that his violence would incite him to double the injury he meditated, without leaving room for them to avoid the impetuosity of his passions. Delay might give him time to reflect on the horrid measures he had conceived, or produce some circumstance in her favour, if she could—for that night, at least—avoid his odious purpose. Yet where conceal herself? How avoid the pursuit he would infallibly make throughout the castle?

As these thoughts passed rapidly through her mind, she recollected a subterraneous passage which led from the vaults of the castle to the church of St. Nicholas. Could she reach the altar before she was overtaken, she knew even Manfred’s violence would not dare to profane the sacredness of the place; and she determined, if no other means of deliverance offered, to shut herself up for ever among the holy virgins whose convent was contiguous to the cathedral. In this resolution, she seized a lamp that burned at the foot of the staircase, and hurried towards the secret passage.

The lower part of the castle was hollowed into several intricate cloisters; and it was not easy for one under so much anxiety to find the door that opened into the cavern. An awful silence reigned throughout those subterraneous regions, except now and then some blasts of wind that shook the doors she had passed, and which, grating on the rusty hinges, were re-echoed through that long labyrinth of darkness. Every murmur struck her with new terror; yet more she dreaded to hear the wrathful voice of Manfred urging his domestics to pursue her."

Alternate cover

My Book Review:

Horace Walpole's The Castle of Otranto is considered to be the first book to initiate the Gothic literature mode of the eighteenth century. First published in 1764, Walpole's slim volume--just five chapters in length--tells the story of the corrupt (and rather perverse) lord of the Castle of Otranto, Manfred. Manfred is married to Hippolita and has two children, Conrad whom he adores and Matilda whom he despises. Conrad is set to marry Isabella, the daughter of Frederic. On the day of Conrad's wedding, Conrad is killed by a ginormous, feathered helmet (yes, you read that correctly). This horrific act and fantastic appearance wreak havoc in the castle and the results of this moment propel the plot forward as Manfred responds in what can only be classified as a truly Gothic mode: since his son can no longer bear Isabella's children and carry on his family name, he will divorce his long-suffering wife and marry Isabella (his once future daughter-in-law) himself. Icky.

Poor Isabella is disgusted and horrified by Manfred's pursuit and runs to hide herself in a subterranean passageway, aided by Theodore, a brave and increasingly noble servant who vows to protect Isabella at the cost of his own life. Readers might think he does this for love of Isabella (who falls for him), but he declares that he is promised to another--Manfred's despised daughter, Matilda. But there will be more of that story later (read the book to see what happens, but women don't exactly get a fair deal anywhere in this book).

Manfred and Theodore face off in a heated exchange, and though I've read this novel twice, the moment of greatest confusion for me occurs in this conversation where a friar, Jerome, tries to reason with Manfred and then is revealed as Theodore's long-lost father. (Yeah, weird.) Someone comes to try to save the imprisoned Isabella and guess who he is? Yep, Isabella's father Frederic.

While all of this is happening, a giant hand appears and frightens everyone (because, of course a giant hand would appear).

I won't spoil the ending, but suffice it to say that the book not only started a new novel genre, but had lasting impact upon audiences and writers, including Matthew Lewis (author of The Monk--my definitively favorite eighteenth-century Gothic novel) and Ann Radcliffe (author of The Mysteries of Udolpho).

The book is weird and strange and creepy, in other words exactly what a Gothic novel should be.

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