Walpole, Horace (1717 - 1797)

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(1717 - 1797)

English novelist, biographer, memoirist, historian, essayist, playwright, and letter writer.

One of the most flamboyant personalities in eighteenth-century English letters, Walpole is often considered the outstanding chronicler and correspondent of his era. According to biographer W. S. Lewis (see Further Reading), "Walpole is the man who brought the art of letterwriting to the highest point it reached in our language." The Letters, which date from 1732 to 1797 and number in the thousands, are noted for their remarkable content as well as their distinctive style. While the detailed description they provide of English politics and society in Walpole's time is unsurpassed, they also possess stylistic charm and wit which make them highly entertaining prose. In addition to this achievement, Walpole is widely recognized as one of England's first art historians, an influential revivalist of Gothic architecture, and the author of The Castle of Otranto (1764), a work which pioneered the introduction of supernaturalism and mystery into the romance and is thus regarded as the first Gothic novel.


Walpole was born into a family of old Norfolk stock which could be traced back to the last king of the Britons. His immediate family came into wealth during his father's political career. Sir Robert Walpole, who held many influential posts including secretary of war and treasurer of the navy, served during the reign of George II as England's first prime minister and became the first Earl of Orford. Because Horace was considerably younger and both physically and temperamentally different from the other children of Sir Robert and Catherine Shorter Walpole—and because his parents had a notoriously strained marriage—there was considerable speculation over Horace's paternity. He, however, was unaffected by the gossip and remained fervently loyal to both of his parents until their deaths. Conditions in the Walpole home enhanced Horace's tendencies toward impetuosity and self-indulgence. Lady Walpole, a reputedly vain and capricious woman, compulsively pampered her youngest son, and the atmosphere of the Walpole home can perhaps best be summed up by the family motto: "Fan qua sentiat" ("Say what you think"). From 1727 to 1734 Walpole attended Eton, which proved a much more stable environment than his family's estate. Here he became close friends with Thomas Ashton, Richard West, and Thomas Gray. Referring to themselves as the Quadruple Alliance, the four schoolmates prided themselves on their intellectual precocity and delved into Latin classics as well as French and English literature, which they read, translated, and parodied. Along with Gray, Walpole entered Cambridge, but he did not take a degree; in 1739 he left school to make the Grand Tour of the Continent with Gray as a traveling companion. They toured for two years but eventually quarreled and returned to England separately. Much of the strain on their friendship stemmed from the class differences between them: while Gray was a scrivener's son, Walpole was the prime minister's, which admitted him to elite social circles and enabled him to spend without consideration of cost. While on the Continent he was elected to Parliament, and he served in that body intermittently until 1768. His terms were characterized by brief, fervent bouts of enthusiasm amidst an overriding sense of apathy. Despite his occasional passion over a particular issue, he was generally more interested in the drama of the political scene than actual policymaking. Although Walpole classified himself as a "settled Whig"—that is, one opposed to the bulk of power residing in any single branch of government or class of society—he once described his political objective as being "at the liberty of pleasing myself without being tied to a party."

In 1747, the year in which he published Aedes Walpolianae, a catalog of Sir Robert's art collection and the first book on a private art collection in England, Walpole moved into a former coachman's cottage near Twickenham. He named this residence Strawberry Hill and began remodeling it in 1753, a project which grew in extravagance year by year. The original Strawberry Hill was a fairly modest dwelling; Walpole turned it into a late-medieval castle designed in the Gothic style. The architectural "committee" responsible for the castle's appearance consisted of Walpole and two of his friends, John Chute and Richard Bentley. Their primary goal was to create a structure that reflected the beauty of older English architecture, but which also captured a viewer's imagination and sense of make-believe. The result was a museum-like tribute to Gothic detail as well as to Walpole's unbridled determination to make his fantastic conception a reality. The completed Strawberry Hill exhibited lavish examples of Gothic ornamentation, including stained-glass windows, balustrades, loggias, and hidden stairways. Unfortunately, since neither Walpole nor his associates were experienced engineers, many parts of Strawberry Hill were structurally unsound. For example, during Walpole's lifetime alone the battlements had to be replaced three times. Although Strawberry Hill became the object of ridicule in some quarters because of its outlandish appearance, it inspired an architectural fad, as many members of the upper class began to add Gothic touches to their homes. Walpole also established a private press at Strawberry Hill in 1757 which operated for thirty-two years and is still recognized for publishing one of the most impressive lists of titles of any private press in England, including Walpole's works and the poems of Thomas Gray. The estate ultimately became an elaborate showcase for Walpole's extensive collections of armor, coins, books, art, and bric-a-brac, which were viewed by ticket-holding visitors. In 1842 the contents of Strawberry Hill were sold in a widely publicized auction which lasted over a month; Strawberry Hill itself now serves as a training college for teachers. In spite of changes made in the house and gardens, much of its original splendor remains and contemporary visitors may still perceive the fanciful, if eccentric, imagination responsible for its design and creation.

In 1765 Walpole made the first of four extended trips to Paris, where he was received by the pinnacle of French society. Members of the French upper class were widely known for their scathing wit and expertise at verbal assault: thus, Walpole, who was despised by many of his fellow Britons for these very qualities, became the toast of Parisian society. While in Paris, he was bedridden with a severe case of gout—to which he finally succumbed at age eighty—and was visited by an illustrious parade of well-wishers. Walpole was befriended by Madame du Deffand, the grand dame of French society, who was twenty years his senior and with whom he corresponded until her death in 1780. Deffand fell in love with Walpole, who had never shown any romantic interest in women, and expressed her emotions in letters to him. Although Deffand's letters to Walpole survived, he requested that his be destroyed after his death. Biographers and critics consider this an unfortunate loss and speculate that this correspondence would have shed light on Walpole's generous and compassionate nature, a dimension of his personality which has received little attention. Throughout his life Walpole was always devoted, sometimes irrationally, to a select group of friends, and this was especially true during his later years. Particularly close to him near the end of his life were the Berry sisters, Agnes and Mary, daughters of one of his Strawberry Hill neighbors. After Walpole's death it was rumored that he had wanted to marry Mary, so charmed was he by her intelligence and wit. However, biographers conclude that this was most unlikely considering his stalwartly negative stance on marriage and their age differences—Walpole was seventy and Miss Berry was in her early twenties. Nevertheless, the Berry sisters lived at Little Strawberry Hill, a cottage on Walpole's estate, for many years and Mary became literary executrix of his papers upon his death in 1797, editing his works under her father's name in accordance with the prejudices of the age.


The only fictional work for which Walpole is widely known is his novel The Castle of Otranto. Although considered a seriously flawed work, The Castle of Otranto is credited with introducing a number of important innovations that influenced the development of the Gothic novel, which enjoyed a great vogue during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. According to Walpole, The Castle of Otranto was inspired by a dream in which he was in a castle and a gigantic armorclad hand appeared to him at the top of a staircase. After two months of continuous, almost fevered, writing, Walpole completed the story, but published it anonymously under the pretense that it was an Italian manuscript written during the Last Crusade and translated by one William Marshal. Some early reviewers accepted it as a medieval text and praised it as possessing surprisingly "modern" qualities. Other commentators were not convinced or amused by this claim: the novel was generally faulted as being preposterously unbelievable and insulting to its readers. However, the negative critical reception of The Castle of Otranto did not prevent it from becoming extremely popular, which encouraged Walpole to reveal his authorship in the second edition. In his preface he defined the work as "an attempt to blend the two kinds of romance, the ancient and the modern." The former, he explained, relied upon imagination and improbability, with the result frequently being grossly incredible: the latter attempted to copy nature, but often lacked imagination. He concluded that these elements must be adequately balanced in order to create a plausible, yet interesting, narrative. Walpole was largely successful in accomplishing his objective. An admirer of legends of the Middle Ages, he incorporated their fairy-tale elements and chivalric code into a storyline which featured characters who were contemporary in speech and thought. His use of a Gothic castle and its array of machinery (trap doors, vaults, dungeons, rattling chains, etc.) was original not only in its inclusion but in its off-handed presentation. In The Castle of Otranto, statues bleed, apparitions stalk the castle, and ancestral portraits sigh, but all are accepted as natural occurrences by the characters. In addition to this technique, Walpole manipulated the forces of nature to accentuate the sense of ominousness. For example, a gust of wind extinguishes the heroine's candle at a critical moment and moonlight magnifies and plays tricks on the characters' perception of objects. Another important element of The Castle of Otranto is the introduction of what eventually became stock characters in Gothic literature: the handsome hero, the virginal heroine, sinister monks, and the nobleman in peasant's garb.

Walpole's lesser-known fictional works include The Mysterious Mother (1768), a drama in blank verse, and Hieroglyphic Tales (1785). The theme of The Mysterious Mother—incest—was so controversial that Walpole printed the work himself and distributed it only to selected friends. Although it has received relatively little critical comment, the drama has come to be recognized as an important forerunner of Gothic drama. Of The Mysterious Mother Bertrand Evans (see Further Reading) wrote: "Elements of setting, character, machinery, and technique, combined for a single purpose, make The Mysterious Mother the first play in the Gothic tradition." The Hieroglyphic Tales are considered Walpole's most peculiar fictional effort. By his own admission the Tales were "written extempore and without any plan." In these early examples of automatic writing, Walpole completely defied fictional conventions of his day as well as prevailing moral taste to create works rife with incest, scatology, and unwitting cannibalism, and populated by concubines, dead children, and such fantastic elements as giant hummingbirds and carts made of giant pistachio shells. The effect is one of delirium and surrealism with—some critics claim—a detectable undercurrent of Walpole's obsessions and psychological disturbances.


Critics generally consider Walpole's letters the masterwork for which he is most deservedly known to posterity. The primary purpose of the letters was to entertain Walpole's readers: their secondary purpose was to inform. Therefore the letters are marked by a highly distinctive style—witty, colorful, and vividly descriptive—but they are not always factually accurate. A harsh critic of dry and uninteresting writing by his contemporaries, Walpole sought to avoid similar weaknesses in his own prose and concentrated on developing seemingly artless but riveting narratives which came alive through carefully selected and embellished detail. While most critics agree that Walpole's vivid imagination and strongly-held opinions make the letters less than objective portrayals of his era, a significant number have harshly attacked what they consider exaggeration or distortion in his correspondence. In the twentieth century, critics reevaluated Walpole's work and began to defend the significance of his letters as one of the most trustworthy and indispensable sources available for a thorough depiction of society, politics, and manners in eighteenth-century England.

General critical assessment maintains that, in spite of its important contributions to the Gothic tradition, The Castle of Otranto's shortcomings are too serious to overlook. The novel suffers from a convoluted and confusing plot, insufficient character development, and stilted dialogue, all of which discourage and virtually prohibit reader involvement. One prevalent criticism is that the work is too rapidly paced, with the Gothic devices occurring in such quick succession that little of the sense of mystery Walpole wished to create is present. Nevertheless, these defects have not obscured The Castle of Otranto's influence upon novelists who have received more recognition than Walpole. Both Clara Reeve and Ann Radcliffe, prominent Gothic novelists, as well as Sir Walter Scott, acknowledged their indebtedness to Walpole's work, with Reeve (see Further Reading) calling her acclaimed novel The Old English Baron "the literary offspring of The Castle of Otranto" and Scott praising The Castle of Otranto as "not only … the original and model of a peculiar species of composition, attempted and successfully executed by a man of great genius, but … one of the standard works of our lighter literature."


The Beauties: An Epistle to Mr. Eckardt, the Painter (poetry) 1746
Aedes Walpolianae; or, A Description of the Collection of Pictures at Houghton Hall in Norfolk, the Seat of the Right Honourable Sir Robert Walpole, Earl of Orford (catalog) 1747
A Letter to the Whigs, Occasioned by the "Letter to the Tories" (essay) 1747
A Letter from Xo Ho, a Chinese Philosopher at London, to His Friend Lien Chi at Peking (satire) 1757
A Catalogue of the Royal and Noble Authors of England, with Lists of Their Works. 2 vols. (biography) 1758
A Dialogue between Two Great Ladies (satire) 1760
Anecdotes of Painting in England, with Some Account of the Principal Artists, and Incidental Notes on Other Arts. 4 vols. (art history) 1762–71
The Opposition to the Late Minister Vindicated from the Aspersions of a Pamphlet Entitled "Considerations on the Present Dangerous Crisis" (essay) 1763
The Castle of Otranto: A Story (novel) 1764
Historic Doubts on the Life and Reign of King Richard the Third (essay) 1768
The Mysterious Mother: A Tragedy (play) 1768
A Description of the Villa of Horace Walpole, Youngest Son of Sir Robert Walpole, Earl of Orford, at Strawberry-Hill, near Twickenham (catalog) 1774
Hieroglyphic Tales (short stories) 1785
Memoires of the Last Ten Years of the Reign of George the Second. 2 vols. (memoirs) 1822
Memoirs of the Reign of George the Third. 4 vols. (memoirs) 1845
Last Journals, from 1771 to 1783. 2 vols. (journals) 1859
Letters of Horace Walpole. 19 vols. (letters) 1903–25
Horace Walpole's "Fugitive Verses" (poetry) 1931
The Yale Edition of Walpole's Correspondence. 48 vols. (letters) 1937–83
Memoirs and Portraits (memoirs) 1963
Selected Letters (letters) 1973



SOURCE: Walpole, Horace. "Translator's Preface." In Castle of Otranto, A Story, pp. iii-ix. Dublin, Ireland: J. Hoey, J. Exshaw, P. Wilson, S. Cotter, W. Sleater, J. Potts, S. Watson, J. Hoey, junior, J. Williams, and J. Sheppard, 1764.

In the following "Translator's Preface" to The Castle of Otranto Walpole offers a fictional account of the "discovery" of the manuscript, presented as a medieval document.

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 stile is the purest Italian. If the story was written near the time when it is supposed to have happened, it must have been between 1095, the aera of the first crusade, and 1243, the date of the last, or not long afterwards. There is no other circumstance in the work, that can lead us to guess at the period in which the scene is laid: The names of the actors are evidently fictitious, and probably disguised on purpose: Yet the Spanish names of the domestics seem to indicate that this work was not composed, until the establishment of the Arragonian Kings in Naples had made Spanish appellations familiar in that country. The beauty of the diction, and the zeal of the author [moderated, however, by singular judgment] concur to make me think that the date of the composition was little antecedent to that of the impression. Letters were then in their most flourishing state in Italy, and contributed to dispel the empire of superstition, at that time so forcibly attacked by the reformers. It is not unlikely that an artful priest might endeavour to turn their own arms on the innovators; and might avail himself of his abilities as an author to confirm the populace in their ancient errors and superstitions. If this was his view, he has certainly acted with signal address. Such a work as the following would enslave a hundred vulgar minds beyond half the books of controversy that have been written from the days of Luther to the present hour.

This solution of the author's motives is however offered as a mere conjecture. Whatever his views were, or whatever effects the execution of them might have, his work can only be laid before the public at present as a matter of entertainment. Even as such, some apology for it is necessary. Miracles, visions, necromancy, dreams, and other preternatural events, are exploded now even from romances. That was not the case when our author wrote; much less when the story itself is supposed to have happened. Belief in every kind of prodigy was so established in those dark ages, that an author would not be faithful to the manners of the times, who should omit all mention of them. He is not bound to believe them himself, but he must represent his actors as believing them.

If this air of the miraculous is excused, the reader will find nothing else unworthy of his perusal. Allow the possibility of the facts, and all the actors comport themselves as persons would do in their situation. There is no bombast no similes, flowers, digressions, or unnecessary descriptions. Every thing tends directly to the catastrophe. Never is the reader's attention relaxed. The rules of the drama are almost observed throughout the conduct of the piece. The characters are well drawn, and still better maintained. Terror, the author's principal engine, prevents the story from ever languishing; and it is so often contrasted by pity, that the mind is kept up in a constant vicissitude of interesting passions.

Some persons may perhaps think the characters of the domestics too little serious for the general cast of the story; but besides their opposition to the principal personages, the art of the author is very observable in his conduct of the subalterns. They discover many passages essential to the story, which could not be well brought to light but by their naivete and simplicity: In particular, the womanish terror and foibles of Bianca, in the last chapter, conduce essentially towards advancing the catastrophe.

It is natural for a translator to be prejudiced in favour of his adopted work. More impartial readers may not be so much struck with the beauties of this piece as I was. Yet I am not blind to my author's defects. I could wish he had grounded his plan on a more useful moral than this; that the sins of fathers are visited on their children to the third and fourth generation. I doubt whether, in his time, any more than at present, ambition curbed its appetite of dominion from the dread of so remote a punishment. And yet this moral is weakened by that less direct insinuation, that even such anathema may be diverted by devotion to St. Nicholas. Here the interest of the Monk plainly gets the better of the judgment of the Author. However, with all its faults, I have no doubt but the English reader will be pleased with a sight of this performance. The piety that reigns throughout, the lessons of virtue that are inculcated, and the rigid purity of the sentiments, exempt this work from the censure to which romances are but too liable. Should it meet with the success I hope for, I may be encouraged to re-print the original Italian, though it will tend to depreciate my own labour. Our language falls far short of the charms of the Italian, both for variety and harmony. The latter is peculiarly excellent for simple narrative. It is difficult in English to relate without falling too low or rising too high; a fault obviously occasioned by the little care taken to speak pure language in common conversation. Every Italian or Frenchman of any rank piques himself on speaking his own tongue correctly and with choice. I cannot flatter myself with having done justice to my author in this respect: His stile is as elegant, as his conduct of the passions is masterly. It is pity that he did not apply his talents to what they were evidently proper for, the theatre.

I will detain the reader no longer, but to make one short remark. Though the machinery is invention, and the names of the actors imaginary, I cannot but believe, that the ground-work of the story is founded on truth. The scene is undoubtedly laid in some real castle. The author seems frequently, without design, to describe particular parts. The chamber, says he, on the right-hand; the door on the left-hand; the distance from the chapel to Conrad's apartment: These and other passages are strong presumptions that the author had some certain building in his eye. Curious persons, who have leisure to employ in such researches, may possibly discover in the Italian writers the foundation on which our author has built. If a catastrophe, at all resembling that which he describes, is believed to have given rise to this work, it will contribute to interest the reader, and will make the castle of Otranto a still more moving story.


The Castle of Otranto


SOURCE: A review of The Castle of Otranto: A Story, by Horace Walpole. The Critical Review 19 (January 1765): 50-1.

In the following excerpt from a negative review of The Castle of Otranto, the critic expresses disapproval of the gross absurdity of the supernatural elements and suggests that the anonymously-published novel is the work of a modern, not medieval, author.

The ingenious translator of this very curious performance [The Castle of Otranto ] informs that it was found in the library of an ancient catholic family in the north of England; that it was printed at Naples, in the black letter, in the year 1529; and that the style is of the purest Italian; he also conjectures, that if the story was written near the time when it is supposed to have happened, it must have been between 1095, the era of the first crusade, and 1243, the date of the last, or not long afterwards….


Unlike the first Gothic novel, the first Gothic drama consigns its characters permanently to the outer darkness. The Mysterious Mother is not only the darkest work that Walpole himself ever wrote, it is probably the darkest tragedy written on incest or any other subject of sexual transgression in the entire eighteenth century. In later forms of the high Gothic, the soul often dies before the body dies and evil supplants good. Surely, this tragic fact is what moved the publisher of the 1798 edition of the play to celebrate Walpole's achievement in these terms: "Of the present tragedy we may boldly pronounce, that for nervous, simple, and pathetic language, each appropriated to the several persons of the drama; for striking incidents; for address in conducting the plot; and for consistency of character uniformly preserved through the whole piece; it is equal, if not superior, to any play of the present century" (Mysterious Mother, Advertisement from the Publishers, 174).

SOURCE: Frank, Frederick S. Introduction to The Castle of Otranto: A Gothic Story and The Mysterious Mother: A Tragedy, by Horace Walpole, edited by Frederick S. Frank, pp. 11-34. Peterborough, Ontario: Broadview, 2003.

Such is the character of this work given us by its judicious translator; but whether he speaks seriously or ironically, we neither know nor care. The publication of any work, at this time, in England composed of such rotten materials, is a phenomenon we cannot account for. That our readers may form some idea of the absurdity of its contents, we are to inform them that Manfred, prince of Otranto, had only one son, a youth about fifteen years of age, who on the day appointed for his marriage was 'dashed to pieces, and almost buried under an enormous helmet, an hundred times more large than any casque ever made for human being, and shaded with a proportionable quantity of black feathers.' This helmet, it seems, resembled that upon a statue of Alfonso the Good, one of the former princes of Otranto, whose dominions Manfred usurped; and therefore the helmet, or the resemblance of it, by way of poetical justice, dashed out his son's brains.

The above wonder is amongst the least of the wonderful things in this story. A picture comes out of its panel, and stalks through the room, to dissuade Manfred from marrying the princess who had been betrothed to his son. It even utters deep sighs and heaves its breasts. We cannot help thinking that this circumstance is some presumption that the castle of Otranto is a modern fabric; for we doubt much whether pictures were fixed in panels before the year 1243. We shall not affront our readers understanding so much as to describe the other monstrosities of this story; but, excepting those absurdities, the characters are well marked, and the narrative is kept up with surprising spirit and propriety.


SOURCE: Langhorne, John. A review of The Castle of Otranto, a Story, by Horace Walpole. The Monthly Review 32 (February 1765): 97-9.

In the following excerpt from a laudatory review of The Castle of Otranto, Langhorne applauds the vivid writing and dramatic power of the novel. This review, written when the work was supposed to be the work of a medieval author, contrasts sharply with a scathing review written by Langhorne for the same periodical three months later when the identity of the author was revealed.

Those who can digest the absurdities of Gothic fiction, and bear with the machinery of ghosts and goblins, may hope, at least, for considerable entertainment from [The Castle of Otranto ] …: for it is written with no common pen; the language is accurate and elegant; the characters are highly finished; and the disquisitions into human manners, passions, and pursuits, indicate the keenest penetration, and the most perfect knowledge of mankind….


The Castle of Otranto is remarkable, not only for the wild interest of the story, but as the first modern attempt to found a tale of amusing fiction upon the basis of the ancient romances of chivalry….

This romance has been justly considered not only as the original and model of a peculiar species of composition, attempted and successfully executed by a man of great genius, but as one of the standard works of our lighter literature….

The style of The Castle of Otranto is pure and correct English of the earlier and more classical standard…. Description, for its own sake, is scarcely once attempted in The Castle of Otranto; and if authors would consider how very much this restriction tends to realise narrative, they might be tempted to abridge, at least, the showy and wordy exuberance of a style fitter for poetry than prose. It is for the dialogue that Walpole reserves his strength; and it is remarkable how, while conducting his mortal agents with all the art of a modern dramatist, he adheres to the sustained tone of chivalry which marks the period of the action. This is not attained by patching his narrative or dialogue with glossarial terms, or antique phraseology, but by taking care to exclude all that can awaken modern associations. In the one case, his romance would have resembled a modern dress, preposterously decorated with antique ornaments; in its present shape, he has retained the form of the ancient armour, but not its rust and cobwebs.

SOURCE: Scott, Sir Walter. "Walpole." In Lives of the Novelists. 1811. Reprint edition, pp. 177-96. London: Oxford University Press, 1906.

The principal defect of this performance does not remain unnoticed. That unchristian doctrine of visiting the sins of the fathers upon the children, is certainly, under our present system, not only a very useless, but a very insupportable moral, and yet it is almost the only one deducible from this story…. However, as a work of genius, evincing great dramatic powers, and exhibiting fine views of nature, The Castle of Otranto may be read with pleasure. To give the reader an analysis of the story, would be to introduce him to a company of skeletons; to refer him to the book will be to recommend him to an assemblage of beautiful pictures.


SOURCE: Lubbock, Percy. A review of The Castle of Otranto: A Story, by Horace Walpole. The Nation and The Athenaeum 33, no. 8 (26 May 1923): 267-68.

In the following excerpt from a review of The Castle of Otranto, Lubbock concludes that the novel is of no interest to the general reader, its plot and characterization being too trivial, unsubstantial, and tedious. Lubbock asserts that this work is of interest only because of its historical importance and is correctly relegated to the classroom as an example of early Gothic fiction or the eighteenth-century Romantic revival.

It is certainly hard on [Walpole], the trick that a later age has played with his Gothic romance [The Castle of Otranto ]. Gray said it made the dons at Cambridge afraid to go to bed in the dark, Scott found a "wild interest" in it, Macaulay spoke of its unflagging excitement; and the end has been, not merely that it excites and frightens nobody, not only that it lies unread, but worse—that it is relegated to the very place of all others which is least congenial to Horace Walpole. It is handed over to the schools, to the critical handbooks, to the literary lecture-rooms; in these The Castle of Otranto lives on vigorously, but this is its only life. It is never mentioned, never thought of anywhere else; but as soon as the lecturer reaches the "romantic revival" of the eighteenth century we know what to expect—punctually the epoch opens with Horace Walpole's tale of terror. He invented, we always understand, a "new form" in fiction, and his invention was symptomatic of the great new turn of thought that was changing the world of Pope into the world of Coleridge; and so The Castle of Otranto, ceasing to be terrible, remains historic, and doubtless it will continue to open the age of romance as long as there are handbooks and lectures on English literature in which to do so. Such is the company into which the fastidious author appears to have fallen irredeemably. As a collector and a wit and a letter writer, he may enjoy a society more to his mind; but as a romancer, no—as a romancer he belongs exclusively to the frumpish inelegance of the schools. He would rather be forgotten outright….

Can we do anything, even now, to retrieve his situation?… [Read] the story straight through—and say whether you find the story attractive in any way on its unsupported merit. It may be that the answer is surprising, if the experiment is made for the first time. Taken on its own merit, the story has an interest, neither wild indeed nor unflagging, but an interest as a piece of writing carefully studied and mannered, a neat exercise in an artificial tone. There is no crudity and no violence in its accent; it seems to be describing the adventures of a well-bred and courtly company in a rococo stage-pastoral, a world which at times will gracefully unbend to the humours and extravagances of its domestic servants. It is a pleasing and familiar effect, classical in its disciplined taste. It may be a shock to discover, on listening more closely, that these distinguished people are enduring agonies, experiencing portents, plunging into disasters such as "words cannot paint"—the author, staggered by the succession of enormities, can find no other phrase. But their style is not seriously ruffled by their tortures; they are still classical in their sufferings, and with a noble resignation they meet their doom, models of antique deportment in their despair and their extinction. It is not exciting, it is not terrifying, it is rather dull; but it has all the proprieties of an urbane tradition.

And is this, then, the spirit-shaking fiction that inaugurated a new method of romance? After all, The Castle of Otranto must remain what it has been for so long, the text of the lecturer; for its respectable manners, though well maintained, are not so striking as to restore it to the casual liberal reader. Its interest as a tale is a very thin matter compared with its interest as a document; but this latter is heightened, perhaps, by the attempt to read it as a tale. For the startling novelty of its method, that to which it owes its prominence in the history of taste, unexpectedly disappears if it is not specially sought; unless you are purposely looking for it to point a moral, the Gothic rudeness and grimness of the Castle is easily missed. The dismal horrors that were once so medieval have turned to the baroque in their decorative exuberance; not a hollow groan, not a clanking chain, not a hair-raising shriek in the story, but is now the very echo of an age that comfortably toyed with marvels, persuading itself to a pleasing shudder. The revival of romance?—… it carries us back to the days when the imagination of man was so bright, so clear, so complacent, that it had actually, for its own relief, to create a little pretence-obscurity and mystery in one of its polished corners. We have changed all this so thoroughly—such vapours of the pit now curl and swirl in our haunted minds—that we may claim to have discovered, at last and again, the recesses of the grotesque and the mysterious, the places where the antic sits and grins. Perhaps it is we who are inaugurating a Gothic revival; at least we have plenty to shudder at that was never dreamed of at Strawberry Hill.

As for Horace Walpole, the moral he may point in the schools, or part of it, is the very long way a very little matter will go when it is really new. It was really a new idea to use the supernatural once more in fiction as a means of making your flesh creep; and Horace used the supernatural so inexpertly that we now hardly notice it is there; but in its day it frightened dons from their rest and struck even Scott with its gruesome power. Horace handled his marvels precisely as Mr. Anstey and Mr. Wells handle theirs; only he asked of them exactly the opposite effect. To bring the supernatural into your story without precaution, to tumble it forth into life that is unprepared and unattuned—this is the way to use it for burlesque and satire; taken for granted, blandly precipitated into normal life, the effect of a miracle is richly comic. Horace Walpole thought that it might become tragic and solemn by no other arts; and he was right: it could become both for a time, since the idea was a new revival. And so a gigantic helmet dropped from heaven into a castle-yard, a picture groaned, a statue shed blood from its nose; and for the space of a generation and more these prodigies met the demand of their author, crept upon his readers with delicious thrills. Enough, The Castle of Otranto had its turn, and more than its turn, in the genial world; let it remain henceforward in the handbooks, for ever heralding an historic movement.


SOURCE: Clery, Emma. "Against Gothic." In Gothick Origins and Innovations, edited by Allan Lloyd Smith and Victor Sage, pp. 34-43. Atlanta, Ga. and Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1994.

In the following essay, Clery explores the significance of the change in critical perception of The Castle of Otranto from positive to negative following the disclosure of the novel's true authorship, noting particularly the potentially subversive nature of the work.

In February 1765 a critic in the Monthly Review said of The Castle of Otranto :

Those who can digest the absurdities of Gothic fiction, and bear with the machinery of ghosts and goblins, may hope, at least, for considerable entertainment from the performance before us: for it is written with no common pen; the language is accurate and elegant, the characters are highly finished; and the disquisitions into human manners, passions and pursuits, indicate the keenest penetration, the most perfect knowledge of mankind.1

In May 1765 the same critic in the Monthly Review wrote:

While we considered [The Castle of Otranto a translation] we could readily excuse its preposterous phenomena, and consider them as sacrifices to a gross and unenlightened age. But when, as in this edition, [it] is declared to be a modern performance, that indulgence we offered to the foibles of a supposed antiquity, we can by no means extend to the singularity of a false tale in a cultivated period of learning. It is, indeed, more than strange that an Author, of a refined and polished genius, should be an advocate for reestablishing the barbarous superstitions of Gothic devilism!

And he went on to complain about the author's attempt to defend in his preface 'all the trash of Shakespeare … what that great genius evidently threw out as a necessary sacrifice to that idol the caecum vulgas, the ignorant masses he would adopt in the worship of the true God of Poetry'.2

What we have here is one of the great double-takes in the history of book-reviewing. Three months divide the two judgements. The incitement was the appearance in the interim of a second edition with a new preface and the initials H. W. Otranto stood revealed as a modern scandal rather than an ancient curiosity, a sinister hoax rather than a naive genuine article. Most interesting for present purposes is the reminder that the founding text of the tradition of gothic fiction as we see it was a double text for the first audience. What does it mean, that a work is today installed in all its unitary and canonical splendour at the head of a literary genus, when the same work, as a historical event, provoked such a profound doubleness, disjunction, or even disfunction, incoherence, in response?

How are we to understand this initial hiccup in Otranto's reception? How much importance should we attach to it? From the perspective of the present that seeks to establish the essential coherence of a gothic aesthetic it must register as mere surface noise. At the most basic level, a critical discourse that employs 'Gothic' as a useful genre classification, presupposes 'Gothic' as the 'already read', the already known. It cannot imagine, or has no interest in imagining, a position from which a modern fiction employing the marvellous, like Otranto, figures as a disruption of norms and expectations. By disruption, I don't mean the tired 'gothic versus neo-classicism' formula. This still posits a 'Gothic' in place as a retrospective unity. I'm talking about a horizon within which 'Gothic' does not exit as given entity, stable and reassuringly objective. Where, instead, Walpole's experiment of updating superstition for modern consumption can be glimpsed only differentially, interpreted only in so far as it affirms or negates what existed before. A literary work addresses itself to what Hans Robert Jauss calls the horizon of expectation of the reader. It 'predisposes its audience to a very specific kind of reception by announcements, overt and covert signals, familiar characteristics, or implicit allusions.'3 From its first pages it arouses expectations which can then be confirmed intact, disorientated, reorientated or fulfilled ironically in the course of the reading.4 What is stressed in this version of literary history is dialogism, the constitutive role of the historical reader in establishing the work's meaning. The meaning of a text is not immanent and fixed, but spun out through the process of interaction. Such a perspective grants real hermeneutic value to the double-take of the critic from the Monthly Review and allows that he was, in effect, judging two entirely different works. One, a curious relic by 'Onuphrio Muralto, Canon of the Church of Otranto' translated by a certain 'William Marshall, Gent.'; the other, identical in almost every respect to the first, the work not only of a living author, but one who has inherited one of the best-known names in the country.

The question that next presents itself, is why the first of these works should be allowed and the second disallowed. Again, projections of a preconstituted 'gothicism' which confounds critical orthodoxies, can only obscure by their essentialism. There is a logic that joins together the reviewer's two disjunct verdicts and it can be at least partially reconstructed from the terms used in the articles. A systematicity, a discourse, subtends the move from enthusiastic appreciation to sour grapes. The preface to The Order of Things, where Foucault introduced his theory of discourse, famously cites a Chinese encyclopedia as discussed by Borges, with its alien and fabulous taxonomy of animals, including among the classifications, 'belonging to the Emperor', 'frenzied,' 'embalmed', 'innumerable', and 'having just broken the water pitcher'. I won't pretend that I can uncover anything as arresting in the Monthly Review, but one of the procedures of discursive discipline described by Foucault, the principle of exclusion, is especially relevant here. The articles bring together a number of, for us, mysteriously disconnected elements under two categories of fiction, the commendable and the prohibited. They could be arranged in two columns like this: commendable: antique object (even with 'gothic absurdities' attached, contemporary parallel, Ossian); translation (mediation with the past, contextualising preface quoted at length in reviews); verisimilitude (with reference to the representation of character); prohibited: modern use of the marvellous; famous author (MP and son of Prime Minister); 'trash of Shakespeare' (appealing to the vulgar). The opposition could be construed in the following way. An antiquity which is firmly situated as a product of the past by the apparatus of translation but at the same time is rather like a modern novel of manners is commendable. A modern fiction that exploits the marvellous and is written by a man with political connections to appeal to the basest instincts of the audience is prohibited.

Now, rather than continuing to discuss the reviews in isolation, I want to turn to Walpole's two prefaces, and try to show how the binary system I've sketched draws its coherence as a discourse from a dialogic exchange with the prefaces. The discourse is summoned into voice by the familiar signals of the first preface, only to be undermined by the second. I should mention that in the second edition of Otranto, only the second preface was printed, therefore assuming a knowledge of the first, but from the third edition in 1755 onwards they were printed together, as they are today.

Lack of space forbids subtlety, so I will say straight away that I see the first preface as an invocation of the discourse of material and social improvement used by the reviewer. The twist is, that when Walpole eventually comes clean about the authorship, this preface will be revealed as a parody in advance of the terms in which the reviewer will reject the work. The second twist is, that its account of the work's origins in the dark ages will turn into an allegory of the present. Let me show how this happens with a few specific references to the text:


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. If the story was written near the time when it is supposed to have happened, it must have been between 1095; the æra of the first crusade, and 1243, the date of the last, or not long afterwards. There is no other circumstance in the work that can lead us to guess at the period in which the scene is laid: the names of the actors are evidently fictitious, and probably disguised on purpose: yet the Spanish names of the domestics seem to indicate that this work was not composed until the establishment of the Arragonian kings in Naples had made Spanish appellations familiar in that country. The beauty of the diction, and the zeal of the author [moderated however by singular judgment] concur to make me think that the date of the composition was little antecedent to that of the impression. Letters were then in their most flourishing state in Italy, and contributed to dispel the empire of superstition, at that time so forcibly attacked by the reformers. It is not unlikely that an artful priest might endeavour to turn their own arms on the innovators; and might avail himself of his abilities as an author to confirm the populace in their ancient errors and superstitions. If this was his view, he has certainly acted with signal address. Such a work as the following would enslave a hundred vulgar minds beyond half the books of controversy that have been written from the days of Luther to the present hour.

The solution of the author's motive is however offered as a mere conjecture. Whatever his views were, or whatever effects the execution of them might have, his work can only be laid before the public at present as a matter of entertainment. Even as such, some apology for it is necessary. Miracles, visions, necromancy, dreams, and other preternatural events, are exploded now even from romances. That was not the case when our author wrote, much less when the story itself is supposed to have happened. Belief in every kind of prodigy was so established in those dark ages, that an author would not be faithful to the manners of the times who should omit all mention of them. He is not bound to believe them himself but he must represent his actors as believing them.

'Letters were then in their most flourishing state in Italy, and contributed to dispel the empire of superstition …'. The trope of the spread of learning driving out superstition is, of course, a ubiquitous feature of the language of enlightenment. With technological determinism á la Marshall McLuhan, it places the printing press at the centre of world historical progress. The present, witnessing an unprecedented dissemination of print and rapid expansion of the reading public, represented the glorious conclusion of this progress. The trope was, in fact, habitually applied to modern times and, in Britain, most often joined to elaborate panegyrics of English liberty and English institutions, and to denunciations of those institutions raised on superstition, notably the Catholic Church and the despotic forms of government found abroad. Walpole, with what will appear in retrospect a transparent irony, projects the contemporary struggle between light and darkness into a murky Italian past.

The potential irony then intensifies. 'It is not unlikely that an artful priest [ie Onuphrio Muralto, the author of this work] might endeavour to turn their own arms on the innovators; and might avail himself of his abilities as an author to confirm the populace in their errors and superstitions.' Onuphrio Muralto, it will emerge, is Horace Walpole; and it is precisely as an 'artful priest', a propagator of the 'barbarous superstitions of gothic devilry' that he will be condemned. Like the priest, he is hijacking the primary instrument of reform, the press, and reintroducing fabulous lies by means of the widely-circulated form of popular fiction.

Here the discourse of socio-historical improvement intersects with debate on the power of fiction and the proper methods of directing it to useful and moral ends. The critics, straight-faced and earnest, will reverse against Walpole his teasing assertion in the preface that, 'Miracles, visions, necromancy, dreams, and other preternatural events, are exploded now even from romances'. As the Monthly Review puts it, the 'singularity of a false tale' is incompatible with 'a cultivated period of learning'. Or the Critical Review: 'The publication of any work, at this time, in England, composed of such rotten materials, is a phenomenon we cannot account for'. However, with the transposition of the discourse of improvement into the fiction controversy, 'superstition', the other-to-be-subjugated, is subsumed by a much nearer anxiety, the threat of unregulated consumerism.

Like superstition, hedonistic consumption is a manifestation of the passions without the guidance of reason. In the view of the discourse of improvement, which is sometimes called the discourse of civic humanism, the economic passions, which include the love of luxury and are the basis of national prosperity, need to be reigned in and coordinated for the public good under the rational direction of wise governors. This view was scandalously challenged by Bernard Mandeville who argued in The Fable of the Bees that the private vices of greed and luxury would translate into the public benefits of a healthy national economy and strength abroad without the need for moral or political intervention, a position not far from the laissez-faire and 'invisible hand' of Adam Smith. I want to suggest that Walpole's prefaces represent a similar scandal, disguised in the first instance and later confirmed by the second edition. And naturally the scandal would be magnified by the fact that the author was himself in a position of political power (as it was, 30 years later, in the case of 'Monk' Lewis).

Mimicking the shocked tones of the civic humanist, he observes in preface number one: 'Such a work as the following would enslave a hundred vulgar minds beyond half the books of controversy that have been written from the days of Luther to the present hour'. 'To the present hour' exactly—for the statement lexically hooks into a literary critical discourse that speaks of the reading public's 'enslavement' by authors of fiction who calculatingly manipulate the passions, and Walpole obliquely confesses himself guilty, of just this crime. Neither are the remarks about 'entertainment' or 'faithful to the manners of the times' as innocent as they seem. A work of the distant past may be presented as pure entertainment, since it can contain no useful moral for the enlightened present; but this is far from being the case with a modern work of fiction, which must justify and redeem its fall from truth to illusion with a clear moral function. Walpole will go on to refuse a moral function outright in the second preface, and already in the first he obligingly draws attention to this heterodoxy, pointing out, in the role of translator, the 'author's defect' in not finding a more useful moral than that 'the sins of the fathers are visited on their children to the third or fourth generations' (a moral, though, not without interest). In the same fashion, the detached stance of the antiquarian who simply offers the public a record of 'things as they were' disguises the amoral modern author, happy to cater to the regressive public taste for the marvellous, because he accepts, without judgement, 'things as they are'.

If we move on now to the second preface, we can see the way this position of economic amoralism is articulated in aesthetic terms:


The favourable manner in which this little piece has been received by the public, calls upon the author to explain the grounds on which he composed it. But before he opens those motives, it is fit that he should ask pardon of his readers for having offered his work to them under the borrowed personage of a translator. As diffidence of his own abilities, and the novelty of the attempt, were his sole inducements to assume that disguise, he flatters himself that he shall appear excusable. He resigned his performance to the impartial judgment of the public; determined to let it perish in obscurity, if disapproved; nor meaning to avow such a trifle, unless better judges should pronounce that he might own it without a blush.

It was an attempt to blend the two kinds of romance, the ancient and the modern. In the former all was imagination and improbability: in the latter, nature is always intended to be, and sometimes has been, copied with success. Invention has not been wanting; but the great resources of fancy have been damned up, by a strict adherence to common life. But if in the latter species, Nature has cramped imagination, she did but take her revenge, having been totally excluded from old romances. The actions, sentiments, conversations, of the heroes and heroines of ancient days were as unnatural as the machines employed to put them in motion.

The author of the following pages thought it possible to reconcile the two kinds. Desirous of leaving the powers of fancy at liberty to expatiate through the boundless realms of invention, and thence of creating more interesting situations, he wished to conduct the mortal agents in his drama according to the rules of probability; in short to make them think, speak and act, as it might be supposed mere men and women would do in extraordinary positions. He had observed, that in all inspired writings, the personages under the dispensation of miracles, and witnesses to the most stupendous phenomena, never lose sight of their human character: whereas in the productions of romantic story, an improbable event never fails to be attended by the most absurd dialogue. The actors seem to lose their senses the moment the laws of nature have lost their tone. As the public have applauded the attempt, the author must not say he was entirely unequal to the task he had undertaken; yet if the new route he has struck out shall have paved a road for men of brighter talents, he shall own with pleasure and modesty, that he was sensible the plan was capable of receiving greater embellishments than his imagination or conduct of the passions could bestow upon it.

In a very well known passage, the author speaks of a 'new route' in fiction, and of a 'blend of the two kinds of romance, the ancient and the modern'. The idea of a blend is based on the perceived deficiencies of these two existing types. Modern fictions are overly mimetic, cramped by their imitation of nature. Ancient fictions are too wildly improbable, in particular their delineation of character is too unnatural, Walpole seems to be suggesting, to allow a modern reader a proper point of identification. Both the proposal to salvage the extravagances of the past, and the criticism of an aesthetic of nature that really amounted to an ethic, are controversial. But how do they engage with the social and economic issues just mentioned?

First, I should say, by context. The preface quickly launches into a digression of three or four pages addressed to Voltaire, (establishing that Shakespeare is Walpole's model and defending the presence of comedy in the tragedies from the criticisms of the Frenchman). Walpole's rehabilitation of genre hybridism in Shakespeare parallels Elizabeth Montagu's contemporary, influential rehabilitation of the preternatural in Shakespeare. In both these instances, the exemplary function of literature is discounted. Walpole and Montagu ignore the objection that drama which included gross improbabilities like ghosts and fairies, or promiscuously mixed comedy and tragedy, threatened to lapse from the role of instruction and elevation to mere unredeemed entertainment, from didacticism to aimless affectivity. Conversely, when Walpole and Montagu's revaluations are resisted and condemned, it is rationalised as resistance to a groundling's-eye-view of the drama, the passive, uncritical, sensuous pleasure of the spectacle. Not incidentally, Walpole's argument is framed in terms of rank, as the right of the fictionalised domestic servant to laugh, 'however grave, important, or even melancholy, the sensations of princes or heroes may be'.

This lengthy aside of Walpole's on drama illuminates the libertarian language used in the passage quoted. The powers of fancy in fiction have been dammed up and cramped, in his view, by the same prescriptions, the same critical strictures, aimed at Shakespeare. The subordination of fiction to moral instrumentality is refused. In place of this function 'boundless realms of invention' are evoked, prompting ideas of the infinite vistas of commercial expansion. The absolute value of freedom is novelty, 'creating more interesting situations'; suggesting the central place of the fashion system in that most commercially up-and-coming literary form, the novel. Walpole spotted a gap in the market. He decided to try to reconcile the 'powers of fancy' with 'the rules of probability'. The success of the first edition has vindicated his venture, and encouraged him to reveal his authorship and point the way for 'men of brighter talents' to build on his entrepreneurial foundations.

But this vision of liberty is not without its tensions. The remark that 'the great resources of fancy have been damned up by a strict adherence to common life', removes the notion of moral instrumentality at the same time as it metaphorically introduces an idea of economic instrumentality by representing fancy as a property, a form of mineral wealth. More immediately, the author's deferential address to 'the public' masks a more complex relation involving both antagonism and dependency. On the one hand, there is the memory of the claim that 'such a work as the following would enslave a hundred vulgar minds', relocated in present fears concerning the addictive, pathological pleasures of fiction, and the extraordinary powers wielded by the novelist over the sensibilities of his or her readers. On the other hand, there is the reverse possibility, raised by the simple observation 'the public have applauded the attempt', that fiction, having asserted its autonomy from moral ends, its social uselessness, may become in turn a slave to the whims of the audience, or the law of supply and demand, reinstrumentalised by the operations of the market, (reformed) as a commodity.

This possibility is raised more provocatively in the final sentence of the preface: 'Such as [Otranto ] is, the public have honoured it sufficiently, whatever rank their suffrages allot to it.' An elaborate way of saying, 'this is a bestseller, so stuff the critics'. A hierarchical, judgemental conception of taste is superseded by 'kitchen taste' relating to a 'culinary' or entertainment art, based on a gustatory model, subjectivist and nonevaluative, as in 'each to his own taste'. The word 'rank' does double service here: not only indicating the indifference of the author to critical hierarchy, but also playfully mauling the cherished correlation of social rank and the proper exercise of taste. The rather forced use of 'suffrages' may, too, be an attempt to crank up the level of critical reaction one degree closer to hysteria, its radical political connotations overlaying the radical prospect of a 'republic of consumption'.

The two prefaces of The Castle of Otranto raise the spectre of a thoroughgoing transformation in the relation between literary fiction and society; not in order to analyze or resolve the difficulties involved in such a transformation, certainly; more, if I can change the metaphor, to wave it like a red flag in the face of the opposition. But we find there not only a proposal for a new kind of reading matter, but the outlines of a new mode of fiction reading, one which still largely determines our expectations today.

The reading I offer is, I think, incompatible with the assumptions of genre criticism. That said, I wouldn't question the interpretative value of the term 'gothic' when applied to works of the 19th and 20th century, when self-consciousness in the writing of fantastic or supernatural fictions has reached a level such that 'gothic' becomes determinate as the name for a species of writing. But it seems to me that when applied to earlier works, 'gothic' can only serve to widen the cause of ontology, the search for essences. I wonder if we wouldn't be better off examining some of the categories in which contemporary commentators actually placed the works—the 'terrorist system of novel-writing' for instance, or most often, 'modern romance', a term which for the 18th century was instilled with the fascination of paradox.

In the first edition, The Castle of Otranto is subtitled, 'A Story'. On the title page of the second edition this has been changed to 'A Gothic Story'. For the reader of today, this supplement has no resonance. As a consequence of overuse or misuse, the term has no elasticity. It is merely what we expect to see. The main point I want to establish in the paper is that in its historical moment this word is absolutely full, taut, with meaning; invested, in fact, with all the significance I've allotted to the interaction between author and critic and the interplay between one preface and the other. 'Gothic' in this place is no ordinary sign—as an adjective, as a representation, it would be properly applied to the first edition of Otranto —it would be used as the reviewer uses it, to delimit the work of a past era. Instead, 'gothic' is introduced precisely in the place where it shouldn't be, where it doesn't fit, rupturing coherence, severing a modern fiction from its function as an index of enlightenment, an anti-sign, a negativity, semantically dislocated but ominous with a futurity that figures as regression. The future of autonomous fiction that cannot escape the condition of a commodity.

What I hope I've shown is that The Castle of Otranto interprets its own project in material terms, most specifically with reference to class hierarchy and the development of a consumer society. It's my belief that the works written and published prior to the canonization of gothic have a lot to tell us about the social causes and consequences of that aesthetic conversion.


1. Monthly Review (Feb. 1765), pp. 97-99.

2. Ibid, (May 1765), p. 394.

3. Towards an Aesthetic of Reception, trans. Timothy Bahti (Brighton: Harvester Press, 1982), p. 23.

4. Ibid, p. 23.


SOURCE: Gamer, Michael. Introduction to The Castle of Otranto, by Horace Walpole, pp. xiii-xxxv. London: Penguin, 2001.

In the following essay, Gamer discusses how The Castle of Otranto has been received by critics from the eighteenth century through the twenty-first century, and explores Walpole's vision as evidenced in the novel.

1. Reception

Since its first publication in 1764, The Castle of Otranto has rarely, if ever, been out of print, and over 130 editions precede this one.1 Few books of fiction have surpassed its sustained popularity in the history of literary publishing; even fewer can claim so central an influence on the history of the novel or on late eighteenth-century prose romance. Appearing a quarter of a century before Gothic fiction became a popular literary form, Walpole's story is startling for the way in which it assembles, almost prophetically, an array of generic devices recognizable to any reader familiar with Frankenstein (1818), Northanger Abbey (1818), Wuthering Heights (1847) or Dracula (1897). The fatal prophecy against Manfred's house, the supernatural visitations attending it, and the Draconian attempts of Manfred to combat both found their way into countless late eighteenthand early nineteenth-century fictions, including those of Anna Letitia Barbauld, Clara Reeve, Ann Radcliffe, Matthew Lewis, W. H. Ireland, Charlotte Dacre and Charles Robert Maturin. In addition, the book's breathless pace and mysterious opening, packed with unexplainable happenings and sinister portents, anticipate later detective and sensation fiction. Most influential and evocative of all, of course, has been the icon of the castle, transformed in Walpole's handling from a locus of safety into a place of sexual transgression and supernatural visitation, of secret passageways and political intrigue. With its adjacent monastery, it is a place that harbours guilty secrets and unlawful desires, a fortress not for keeping people out but for keeping them in. Modern readers, therefore, will find in Walpole's Gothic structures the prototypes not only for other Gothic fictions like The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794) and Melmoth the Wanderer (1820), but also for twentieth-century films as popular and disparate as Nosferatu (1922), Rebecca (1940), Alien (1979) and The Name of the Rose (1986).

Yet in its immediate reception and in the many appraisals that have followed, critical responses to The Castle of Otranto and to its author have been consistently mixed, characterized by a recognizable blend of pleasure and bewilderment, admiration and discomfort. Early nineteenth-century anthologies of the British novel, for example, included Walpole's romance almost without exception; yet when Anna Letitia Barbauld chose in 1810 to include it in her monumental series The British Novelists, she began by pointing uneasily to its popularity with younger readers and by expressing reservations about its cultural value. Walpole's 'slight performance', as she called it, may have been 'one of the first of the modern productions founded on appearances of terror' and may have shown 'a livelier play of fancy' than most of its successors, but these virtues did not entirely excuse the supernatural fiction that it apparently had inspired: 'it is calculated to make a great impression on those who relish the fictions of the Arabian Tales, and similar performances … Since this author's time, from the perusal of Mrs Radcliffe's productions and some of the German tales, we may be said to have "supped full with horrors".'2


Fond of mediaeval romance and mystery as a dilettante's diversion, and with a quaintly imitated Gothic castle as his abode at Strawberry Hill, Walpole in 1764 published the Castle of Otranto; a tale of the supernatural which, though thoroughly unconvincing and mediocre in itself, was destined to exert an almost unparalleled influence on the literature of the weird….

Such is the tale; flat, stilted, and altogether devoid of the true cosmic horror which makes real literature. Yet such was the thirst of the age for those touches of strangeness and spectral antiquity which it reflects, that it was seriously received by the soundest readers and raised in spite of its intrinsic ineptness to a pedestal of lofty importance in literary history. What it did above all else was to create a novel type of scene, puppet-characters, and incidents; which, handled to better advantage by writers more naturally adapted to weird creation, stimulated the growth of an imitative Gothic school which in turn inspired the real weavers of cosmic terror—the line of actual artists beginning with Poe. This novel dramatic paraphernalia consisted first of all of the Gothic castle, with its awesome antiquity, vast distances and ramblings, deserted or ruined wings, damp corridors, unwholesome hidden catacombs, and galaxy of ghosts and appalling legends, as a nucleus of suspense and daemoniac fright…. All this paraphernalia reappears with amusing sameness, yet sometimes with tremendous effect, throughout the history of the Gothic novel; and is by no means extinct even today, though subtler technique now forces it to assume a less naive and obvious form. An harmonious milieu for a new school had been found, and the writing world was not slow to grasp the opportunity.

SOURCE: Lovecraft, H. P. "The Early Gothic Novel." In Supernatural Horror in Literature. 1945. Reprint edition, with a new introduction by E. F. Bleiler, pp. 23-9. New York: Dover, 1973.

A year later, another essay on Walpole and The Castle of Otranto appeared, this time published in an Edinburgh edition of the novel edited by Walter Scott.3 Like Barbauld, Scott expressed reservations about the source of Otranto 's popularity and its frequent recourse to the supernatural before moving on to more enthusiastic praise; but there the similarities between the two essays ended. No longer (as in Barbauld's description) a slight, spirited work written by a dilettante in eight days, The Castle of Otranto in Scott's treatment constituted a daring synthesis of historical realism and unfettered imaginative liberty. Scott, therefore, presents Walpole as at once an eccentric dreamer, an insightful antiquarian, and a gifted and imaginative historian. Tapping 'that secret and reserved feeling of love for the marvelous and supernatural, which occupies a hidden corner in almost every one's bosom',4 Walpole's antiquarian knowledge, Scott argued, had allowed him the coup of introducing apparitions seamlessly into a carefully historicized setting:

The association of which we have spoken [that of overcoming rational disbelief in the supernatural] is of a nature peculiarly delicate, and subject to be broken and disarranged. It is, for instance, almost impossible to build such a modern Gothic structure as shall impress us with the feelings we have endeavoured to describe. It may be grand, or it may be gloomy; it may excite magnificent or melancholy ideas; but it must fail in bringing forth the sensation of supernatural awe, connected with halls that have echoed to the sounds of remote generations, and have been pressed by the footsteps of those who have long since passed away. Yet Horace Walpole has attained in composition, what, as an architect, he must have felt beyond the power of his art. The remote and superstitious period in which his scene is laid, the art with which he has furnished forth its Gothic decorations, the sustained, and, in general, dignified tone of feudal manners, prepare us gradually for the favourable reception of prodigies, which, though they could not really have happened at any period, were consistent with the belief of all mankind at that time in which the action is placed.5

Coming from a writer traditionally credited with inventing the historical novel—whose estate Abbotsford was modelled, in many ways, on Walpole's own Strawberry Hill—Scott's tribute probably should not surprise us. That Scott should agree with Barbauld (herself an early theorist and practitioner of supernatural fiction6) in so many particulars while differing so markedly on Otranto 's cultural significance, however, is at once unexpected and yet typical of the book's varied critical reception. It remains one of the few works of fiction to draw strong praise and censure from so many authors of note, boasting famous dismissals by William Hazlitt and Thomas Babington Macaulay and encomiums from writers as different from one another as Lord Byron and Ann Yearsley.7 Scott's celebration may be the one more often quoted in scholarly essays and editions, but twenty-first-century readers will find themselves surprised by the justness of Barbauld's observations, particularly her fascination with the volume's slightness and theatricality and her representation of it as 'the sportive effusion of a man of genius, who throws the reins loose upon the neck of his imagination'.8 If readers have found difficulty finding stable footing when reading Walpole's romance, their uneasiness has stemmed at least in part from its unsettling combination of careful historicism and imaginative outrageousness, of solemnity and burlesque.

In addition to these difficulties of irony and tone, The Castle of Otranto 's first reviewers were forced to cope with the ruse of its initial publication. Anxious over the book's reception, Walpole had disguised its first edition by publishing it under the pseudonym of 'William Marshall, Gent.' and by having Thomas Lownds print and sell the work rather than doing so at his own press at Strawberry Hill. Walpole then added a bogus Preface that still reads as one of the work's triumphs, burlesquing scholarly tone and gleefully attending to minute details of the forgery. Writing in the persona of Marshall, Walpole declares Otranto to be an English translation of a sixteenth-century text printed in Naples in 1529 and written by one 'ONUPHRIO MURALTO, Canon of the Church of St. NICHOLAS at OTRANTO' (see p. 1). He then proceeds to give this genealogy an extra twist, surmising Onuphrio Muralto to have taken as the source of his narrative a tale originally written during the Crusades. Walpole's Preface even provides an account of the work's probable religious and political origins, speculating it to be a document of the Italian Counter-Reformation: 'It is not unlikely that an artful priest … might avail himself of his abilities as an author to confirm the populace in their ancient errors and superstitions' (see p. 5). The sum is a fabrication whose complex historicism is typical of Walpole's sense of humour, since to pull off the forgery in convincing fashion he must impersonate an eighteenth-century Catholic English country gentleman translating a militant sixteenth-century Neapolitan priest appropriating (for religious and political ends) a thirteenth-century local history. With this elaborate frame and a few additional observations on its dramatic excellence and the difficulties of translating Italian into English, The Castle of Otranto appeared in masquerade on Christmas Eve of 1764.

The immediate response was not auspicious. Perhaps suspicious of the book's holiday publication date, the Critical Review reacted defensively. It flatly condemned the book's subject matter and, after displaying its own command of antiquarian knowledge, cavalierly refused to judge its authenticity: 'whether he speaks seriously or ironically, we neither know nor care. The publication of any work, at this time, in England composed of such rotten materials, is a phœnomenon we cannot account for'.9 The Monthly Review chose a more charitable course, recommending the book as a historical curiosity and as 'a work of genius, evincing great dramatic powers, and exhibiting fine views of nature'.10 When Walpole's second edition showed the work to be a modern production with pretensions to literary innovation, however, the Monthly was forced to recant its judgement:

While we considered it as [a translation from an ancient writer], we could readily excuse its preposterous phœnomena, and consider them as sacrifices to a gross and unenlightened age.—But when, as in this edition, the Castle of Otranto is declared to be a modern performance, that indulgence we afforded to the foibles of a supposed antiquity, we can by no means extend to the singularity of a false taste in a cultivated period of learning. It is, indeed, more than strange, that an Author, of a refined and polished genius, should be an advocate for re-establishing the barbarous superstitions of Gothic devilism!11

No doubt the Monthly's irritation stemmed from a dislike of being made to look foolish. Still, its response is worth examining for what it yields about the literary culture into which Walpole published his romance. Strikingly, none of the immediate responses to The Castle of Otranto allowed for the possibility that a cultivated mind could enjoy reading, let alone be capable of writing, such a book. In the above quotation, the Monthly Review's objections arise out of assumptions about its role as a respectable and enlightened literary journal. The reviewer, John Langhorne, appears especially keen to separate his own 'period of cultivated learning' from past ages, and especially from Otranto 's culture of chivalry and its 'barbarous superstitions of Gothic devilism'. What is interesting here is the way in which imagining this kind of gulf between superstitious past and enlightened present brings with it other assumptions about readerly pleasure. From the Monthly's relative position of enlightenment, it is unwilling on some fundamental level to believe that rational readers or writers can take pleasure in supernatural representations. Its first review, therefore, had instead presented The Castle of Otranto as a historical curiosity, and within this framework had invited readers to discern a recognizable human nature transcending history and overcoming the most egregious superstition. Put another way, the Monthly Review's stance of finding pleasure in Otranto 's 'fine views of nature' while being repulsed by its barbarism allowed for the accompanying belief that noble, laudable aspects of human nature could transcend the centuries while other, less desirable aspects could not.

The Monthly's applause in its first review had arisen, then, from the narrative of historical progress it had been able to impose on Walpole's book. In doing so, it wielded a story that recurs in critical writing frequently during the second half of the eighteenth century, shaping debates about the function of the supernatural not only in fiction but also on the stage.12 We find it operating even in the responses of Walpole's own circle of friends—as with George 'Gilly' Williams, who felt Otranto 's archaic setting and subject matter to be so patently absurd and innately uninteresting that 'no boarding-school Miss of thirteen could get half through without yawning'.13 We see it also in the accounts of more flexible and sympathetic readers like William Mason, who could not fathom the idea that the book was a modern production. Writing to Walpole immediately after the publication of the book's second edition, Mason confessed that, 'When a friend of mine to whom I had recommended The Castle of Otranto returned it me with some doubts of its originality, I laughed him to scorn, and wondered he could be so absurd as to think that anybody nowadays had imagination enough to invent such a story.'14 In the face of such statements, we can begin to grasp how completely the assumptions of readers like Mason could be challenged by the revelation that The Castle of Otranto was not an ancient text but a 'Gothic story' (the subtitle Walpole affixed to Otranto 's second edition) by a modern author. To understand the particular nerves that Walpole's book struck we need to consider the social position of its inventor and his relation to this historically specific question of 'imagination', since Walpole brought both to bear on his attempts to transform how his contemporaries read prose fiction and understood its function.

2. The 'Master of Otranto'

With the appearance of its second edition, The Castle of Otranto ceased to be written by a zealous priest from bygone times. Its author became instead a living, mature man of forty-seven years of age, a Member of Parliament of nearly twenty-five years' standing, and the son of a celebrated Prime Minister. Part of The Castle of Otranto 's contemporary reception, then, has always been tied to Walpole's notoriety as a public figure, since readers and reviewers alike were forced to ask what it meant for a man of such eminence to write such a book. Educated at Eton and Cambridge, Horace Walpole had grown up during the height of Robert Walpole's power. As Walpole's biographers have suggested, his social position no doubt helped to render his time at Eton free of the usual bullying and brutality associated with the school in the eighteenth century, and made his Grand Tour a heady, exuberant and formative experience.15 While travelling in Italy in 1740 with his childhood friend Thomas Gray, Walpole mixed with its best society, befriending diplomats like Horace Mann and taking great pleasure in purchasing works of art for his father's extensive collection at his country estate Houghton in Norwich. Elected to Parliament while abroad, Walpole arrived back in England in September of 1741 expecting to take his seat in the House of Commons and his place among London's élite. His first speech six months after his arrival, however, could hardly have accorded less with his expectations. In that time, Robert Walpole's government had fallen after over two decades in power. Consequently, Walpole's first address was in defence of his father who, in the wake of his resignation, faced multiple allegations of corruption. With this reversal of fortune, Horace Walpole's involvement in parliamentary matters over the next decades was intermittent and behind the scenes. Rather than acting as a direct participant in affairs of state, he moved between the role of periodic strategist and pamphleteer and that of perpetual observer and chronicler. Steadfastly loyal to his father's memory, his first book was a catalogue of the paintings Robert Walpole had collected and housed at Houghton, entitled Aedes Walpolianae, written in 1743 and printed privately in 1747. Walpole's later Memoirs, begun in 1751 and forty-one years in the writing, constitutes a textual version of this lifelong work of defending the family's political legacy.16

Over the next years Walpole wrote primarily as a gentleman author and elegant essayist, publishing when it suited him and taking pleasure in helping to publish the works of his friends. Three of his early poems—'Epistle to Thomas Ashton from Florence', 'The Beauties' and an Epilogue to Tamerlane—appeared in 1748 in the first volumes of James Dodsley's Collection of Poems, which also featured Gray's first published work. After this joint appearance, Walpole spent considerable energy over the next decade persuading Gray to publish more poetry and overseeing its production and reception. The Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard appeared in 1751 to great applause; Designs by Mr. R. Bentley, for Six Poems by Mr. T. Gray (featuring elaborate rococo illustrations by Walpole's friend Richard Bentley) appeared two years later. It is no accident that when Walpole opened the Strawberry Hill Press in 1757, he chose Odes by Mr. Gray (1757) as its first published work.

In spite of this sustained interest in writing and publishing poetry, however, Walpole emerged in the 1740s and 1750s primarily as a prose writer—one capable of moving between savage parody, graceful elegance and pointed observation. His first essays, written for magazines such as the Museum and the World, were determinedly frivolous and deliberately at odds with the moral essays of Samuel Johnson and with the serious tone of periodicals like the Gentleman's Magazine. The 'Advertisement to the History of Good Breeding' and 'On the Relative Simplicity of Gothic Manners to Our Own', for example, indulged in parody and burlesque. Others, like the 'Scheme for Raising a large Sum of Money by Message Cards and Notes', were at once more outrageous and more intellectual, and showed Walpole developing ideas that would prove central to the literary and aesthetic projects that culminated in The Castle of Otranto :

The notion I have of a Museum is an Hospital for every Thing that is singular; whether the Thing have acquired Singularity, from having escaped the Rage of Time; from any natural Oddness in itself; or from being so insignificant that nobody ever thought it worth their while to produce any more of the same Sort. Intrinsic Value has little or no Property in the merit of curiosities … If the Learned World could be so happy as to discover a Roman's old Shoe (provided the Literati were agreed it were a Shoe, and not a leathern Casque, a drinking Vessel, a balloting Box, or an empress's Head Attire), such Shoe would immediately have the Entrée into any collection in Europe.17

This notion of singularity and uniqueness informs most of Walpole's writing and publishing in these years. The Strawberry Hill Press, moreover, provided him with a means of bypassing the usual channels of book printing and bookselling when he chose to do so. Abjuring both profit and politics when choosing manuscripts for publication, the press quickly acquired a reputation for publishing books fundamentally different from those available elsewhere.

In his own compositions Walpole appears often to have been driven by a similar desire for innovation even when writing anonymous partisan tracts for other presses. His successful political satire, A Letter from Xo Ho, a Chinese Philosopher at London, to His Friend Lien Chi at Peking (N. Middleton, 1757), anticipated later works like Robert Southey's Letters from England by Don Manuel Alvarez Espriella (1807), while his Catalogue of Royal and Noble Authors (Strawberry Hill Press, 1758) was one of the first books of its kind. It was for his groundbreaking Anecdotes of Painting (Strawberry Hill, 1762), however, that Walpole became best known before the success of The Castle of Otranto. At once a treasure-trove of information and a sustained assessment of English painting, the book shows Walpole moving at ease between the minutiae of historical research and engaging, arresting writing. W. S. Lewis puts the matter succinctly: 'It was an instant success. Gibbon spoke of his "minute curiosity and acuteness." Strangers wrote to him with gratitude and volunteered additions and corrections for the next edition. It was no wonder that this work was so popular: it was new, informative, and entertaining … [and] laid the foundations for an historical study of the Fine Arts in England.'18

One of the difficulties readers have faced when attempting to come to grips with Walpole's writings and reputation has stemmed from his diversity of interests and this fondness of 'Singularity'. For nineteenth-century historian and essayist Thomas Babington Macaulay, Walpole's eccentricity and determination to be considered a gentleman author who wrote with ease on many subjects smacked of affectation and effeminacy. '[None] but an unhealthy and disorganized mind,' he argued, 'could have produced such literary luxuries.'19 Likely the most influential assessment of Walpole ever written, Macaulay's account derives its persuasiveness from its ability to present Walpole's work and life as projections of a single set of affectations that, while assembled and put on like masks, nevertheless comprise Walpole's character.20 Whether by reading Walpole's correspondence, wandering through Strawberry Hill, or perusing the volumes published by its press, one nevertheless imbibes the same aesthetic experience:

The motto which he prefixed to this Catalogue of Royal and Noble Authors, might have been inscribed with perfect propriety over the door of every room in his house, and on the titlepage of every one of his books. 'Dove diavolo, Messer Ludovico, avete pigliate tante coglionere?' ['Where the devil, Sir Ludovico, did you collect so many imbecilities?'] In his villa, every compartment is a museum; every piece of furniture is a curiosity; there is something strange in the form of a shovel; there is a long story belonging to the bell-rope. We wander among a profusion of rarities, of trifling intrinsic value, but so quaint in fashion, or connected with such remarkable names and events that they may well detain our attention for a moment. A moment is enough.21

Deriving much of its rancour from his own sense of professionalism, Macaulay's distaste arises out of a belief not just that Walpole's interests are 'unhealthy', but that they also constitute an affront to artistic seriousness and therefore a denigration of appropriate authorship. Yet what Macaulay dismissed pejoratively as a 'profusion of rarities' in Walpole's life and works has been reappraised by twentieth-century literary historians as a body of innovative writing of unparalleled range, one typical of the generation of Samuel Johnson and Hester Thrale Piozzi and surpassing even that of Oliver Goldsmith. Between 1747 and his death in 1797, Walpole wrote and published several poems, a historical romance, a tragedy, a comic afterpiece, a book of art history, a biblio-graphic study, a memoir, a diary, a description of his own house, several catalogues of paintings, political pamphlets, fables and fairy tales. After his death his executors published what remains an authoritative political history of late eighteenth-century Britain and perhaps the most famous body of correspondence ever written.22

Even in the face of this voluminous output, it is fair to say that Walpole was equally famous in his lifetime for his achievements as a collector and architect. At the time of his death his collection of miniature and print portraits was arguably the best ever assembled in Britain. His villa Strawberry Hill, moreover, was without question the most famous house of its kind. Like The Castle of Otranto, which, though often called the first Gothic novel, was in many ways anticipated by the poetry of William Collins and novels like Tobias Smollett's Ferdinand Count Fathom (1753) and Thomas Leland's Longsword (1762), Strawberry Hill was more influential than entirely original. While not the first attempt to appropriate Gothic architecture into a domestic setting, it effectively revived Gothic as a popular architectural style.23 In 1748 Walpole had purchased the original Chopp'd-Straw Hall and its five acres in Twickenham because of its nearness to London and its attractive location on the banks of the Thames. He did not start remodelling until 1751, and for that purpose commandeered the help of friends John Chute (who transformed much of the exterior) and Richard Bentley (who brought to Walpole's interiors the same extravagant flair with which he had illustrated Gray's poems). Calling themselves 'The Committee', the three transformed the house, quadrupling its original size in a little over a decade and adding battlements, turrets, cloisters, stained glass, fireplaces and other fixtures to give it the effect of a medieval castle. Their work, moreover, was decidedly unlike Robert Walpole's Palladian estate at Houghton, largely because Strawberry Hill's small size and irregular design dictated different choices of architectural style and materials. Where Houghton achieved its effects through stone, grand rooms and columns, Straw-berry Hill used theatrical devices like trompe-l'oeil painting and materials like plaster and papier mâché. Writing to Horace Mann in 1750, Walpole explained that '[t]he Grecian is only proper for magnificent and public buildings. Columns and all their beautiful ornaments look ridiculous when crowded into a closet or a cheesecake house. The variety is little, and admits no charming irregularities.'24

By the end of its second stage of building in 1763, Strawberry Hill had already become a celebrated attraction, further gaining in reputation as the century closed. A telling measure of its popularity occurs in The Ambulator: or, A Pocket Companion in a Tour Round London (1800), which devotes five pages to Strawberry Hill while allocating only two to the British Museum.25 While the steadily increasing stream of visitors to his villa forced Walpole later in his life to print rules for admission, he also openly encouraged the attention that the house conferred on him by twice printing a description of it and its contents.26 This transformation of house into textual form was hardly accidental. As early as 1765 Walpole began to encourage friends and readers to associate Strawberry Hill with the setting of The Castle of Otranto by playfully referring to the villa as 'Otranto' and himself as 'The Master of Otranto'.27 More importantly, he repeatedly associated the house with Otranto 's composition:

Your partiality to me and Strawberry have I hope inclined you to excuse the wildness of the story. You will even have found some traits to put you in mind of this place. When you read of the picture quitting its panel, did not you recollect the portrait of Lord Falkland all in white in my gallery? Shall I even confess to you what was the origin of my romance? I waked one morning in the beginning of last June from a dream, of which all I could recover was, that I had thought myself in an ancient castle (a very natural dream for a head filled like mine with Gothic story) and that on the uppermost bannister of a great staircase I saw a gigantic hand in armour. In the evening I sat down and began to write, without knowing in the least what I intended to say or relate. The work grew on my hands, and I grew fond of it—add that I was very glad to think of anything rather than politics—In short I was so engrossed with my tale, which I completed in less than two months, that one evening I wrote from the time I had drunk my tea, about six o'clock, till half an hour after one in the morning, when my hand and fingers were so weary, that I could not hold the pen to finish the sentence, but left Matilda and Isabella talking, in the middle of a paragraph.28

The dream, pointedly, is 'a very natural dream' within the surroundings of Strawberry Hill, one that opposes Gothic story, Gothic villa and Gothic dream to their 'modern' and 'rational' counterparts. In this sense, Walpole's account of his romance's origin constructs a fairly elaborate analogy, one in which the same differences that distinguish Strawberry Hill from other eighteenth-century houses also distinguish The Castle of Otranto from other contemporary fiction. House and text stand, here and elsewhere, as analogous expressions of the same singular urge, serving as both excuse for, and vindication of, one another. It is within the surroundings of Strawberry Hill and this notion of complementarity that we should understand The Castle of Otranto 's choice of aesthetics and its narrative strategies, particularly its fondness for dreamlike setting and theatrical effect.

3. 'Two Kinds of Romance'

However much it might have begun as a random exercise in composition, The Castle of Otranto exhibits in its opening pages the purposiveness of a manifesto. Walpole's narrative of the book originating in a dream, suggestive as it has been to explorations of consciousness in Gothic fiction,29 is more than counterbalanced by the critical accounts he provided in the book's second Preface and in his own correspondence. The story's opening lines, furthermore, with their strong allegiance to fairy tales, signal a departure from established forms of eighteenth-century fiction, while the miraculous events frequently invoke and subvert literary conventions in ways that smack of anti-romances like Charlotte Lennox's The Female Quixote (1752). Here, however, the conventions that are being subverted are not those of romance (as with Lennox) but those of formal realism. Walpole may open, for example, with an unwilling bride left at the altar, but he does not devote his ensuing pages (as one might expect in a novel) to providing that bride's 'history' or to describing the chain of individual motivations and contingent events that brought about the occurrence. Instead, he provides a supernatural spectacle—the groom Conrad 'dashed to pieces, and almost buried under an enormous helmet, an hundred times more large than any casque ever made for human being' (p. 18)—that obliterates the possibility of rational explanation and raises more questions than it answers. We see similar strategies at work as well in the book's almost allegorical handling of character. Even in the case of his most fully developed character, Manfred, Walpole spends considerably more time describing Manfred's strategic decisions than the internal processes that produce them. The Castle of Otranto 's supernatural agents, moreover, contribute to this strategy, actively thwarting the very kinds of characterization that form a staple of the fiction of Defoe and Richardson and even of the social satires of Henry Fielding, Charlotte Lennox and Tobias Smollett. All of Manfred's plotting and re-plotting, his gifts for calculating probabilities and responding to contingencies, fail because he is presented with a fixed narrative and fate that no amount of character, no attention to detail, and no amount of strategizing can avert.

If the ruse of Walpole's first Preface governed how The Castle of Otranto 's first edition was received, the critical discourse with which he opens the Preface to the second edition has proven equally influential with modern readers. Part of its persuasiveness is more than understandable; Walpole's description of the book, as 'an attempt to blend the two kinds of romance, the ancient and the modern' (see p. 9), does capture its innovative combination of supernaturalism and psychological realism, of chivalric romance and modern novel. His Epigraph, moreover, tellingly revises Horace's Ars Poetica to express Otranto 's aesthetic ends. While the original Horace translates roughly into 'Idle fancies shall be shaped like a sick man's dream so that neither foot nor head can be assigned to a single shape,' Walpole's rewriting of the Latin changes the meaning of the final words to 'nevertheless head and foot are assigned to a single shape'.30

What Walpole's critical statements do not adequately capture are the ways his text consistently transgresses the conventions of both fictional traditions rather than compromising between them—an assertion suggested elsewhere by Walpole in a letter to Madame du Deffand:

Let the critics have their say: I shall not be vexed: it was not written for this age, which wants nothing but cold reason. I own to you, and you will think me madder than ever, that of all my works it is the only one in which I pleased myself: I let my imagination run: my visions and my passions kindled me. I wrote it in defiance of rules, critics, and philosophies: and it seems to me all the better for that.31

Stated in the terms of his second preface, Walpole's 'defiance' arises from his belief that the critical 'rules' separating ancient and modern romance are more artificial than any fiction that could result from their indiscriminate mixing. In the place of such strictures he offers the counter-argument that his generic mixture of the supernatural and the mundane, of broad comedy and classical tragedy, is both appropriate and natural because it functions as a formal expression of medieval consciousness and culture. A modern critic, E. J. Clery, describes the various historicisms at work here nicely: 'Rationally speaking, ghosts and goblins are not true, but when they appear in the literary artifacts of past ages, they are true to history, accurate representations of an obsolete system of belief: a stance we might call exemplary historicism.'32 Walpole puts this matter of the nature of history more ironically, provocatively insisting within The Castle of Otranto 's historicized setting, 'My rule was nature' (p. 10).

Writing within the literary culture of the 1760s, Walpole's confident celebration of The Castle of Otranto 's 'nature' owes a considerable debt to Richard Hurd's Letters on Chivalry and Romance (1762), a text that helped to revive the status of medieval 'Gothic' literature and architecture in the second half of the eighteenth century. Published only two years before Walpole's romance, Hurd's study had argued for the fundamental similarity of Homeric epic and 'Gothic' metrical romance. From this 'remarkable correspondency', Hurd had proceeded to make a striking defence of the formal logic of the Gothic:

When an architect examines a Gothic structure by Grecian rules, he finds nothing but deformity. But the Gothic architecture has its own rules, by which when it comes to be examined, it is seen to have its merit, as well as the Grecian … The same observation holds of the two sorts of poetry. Judge of the Faery Queen by the classic models, and you are shocked by its disorder: consider it with an eye to its Gothic original, and you find it regular. The unity and simplicity of the former are more complete: but the latter has that sort of unity and simplicity, which results from its nature. The Faery Queen, then, as a Gothic poem, derives its METHOD, as well as the other characters of its composition, from the established modes and ideas of chivalry.33

Walpole's appropriation of key ideas in Hurd's Letters has understandably been important to modern assessments34 of The Castle of Otranto, providing a sense of its intellectual underpinnings and anticipated readership. As the attacks on Voltaire in its second Preface suggest, Walpole was more than willing to repackage Hurd's arguments in the language of anti-French sentiment and in the logic of cultural nationalism. Given Macaulay's later condemnation of Walpole as 'the most Frenchified English writer of the eighteenth century',35 his recourse to national chauvinism here strongly suggests a desire to mitigate reader and reviewer censure that might have otherwise resulted from the initial ruse of its first edition. The criticisms of Voltaire, after all, could just as easily have been directed against his own countrymen David Garrick and Nahum Tate, whose popular stage versions of Shakespeare had frequently purged scenes perceived to be at odds with the overall tone of the play in question.

Apart from this decision to represent his romance as homage to the natural genius of the national Bard, other political currents run through The Castle of Otranto as well. Walpole's account of the book's composition as a kind of therapy against a particularly bad year in Parliament has been well documented,36 as have been the correspondences between Manfred's tyranny and aspects of Walpole's own life, particularly George III's treatment of Walpole's cousin Henry Seymour Conway. Other commentators have called attention to the almost Oedipal family violence that pervades the text, finding in Manfred's political downfall a kind of political exorcism by Walpole of his father.37 It is when we remind ourselves of Walpole's fondness for masquerade and ventriloquism, however, that we begin to sense the extent of Walpole's deep play in The Castle of Otranto with issues of defiance and transgression, whether literary or political. For if the character of Manfred raises questions concerning the nature of Walpole's identification with the psychology of power, then Walpole's impersonation of the translator 'William Marshall, Gent.' presents us with an equally striking piece of political theatre. Walpole's politics throughout his life were resolutely Whig, in part out of loyalty to his father and in part because of his innate suspicion of power and those who held it. Yet within the fiction of The Castle of Otranto 's first edition, Marshall is unquestionably Tory and likely an old Jacobite supporter of the Stuart monarchy. Standing at the head of 'an ancient catholic family in the north of England' (p. 5), Marshall discovers, translates and publishes a tract of the Italian Counter-Reformation. The story, furthermore, dramatizes the restoration of a wrongfully ousted ruler and the downfall of a usurping house after three generations in power, one in which Manfred's position as the grandson of the usurper Ricardo corresponds nicely to George III's position as the grandson of the first Hanoverian king of Great Britain. Given the horror Walpole expressed in his correspondence during the 1745 Jacobite rebellion, his reasons for choosing a figure like Marshall are difficult to ascertain. Unlike the 'artiful priest' he supposedly translates, Marshall functions in Walpole's representation as neither a figure of allegory nor an object of ridicule, and falls equally far from embodying Jacobite parody or from functioning as a fictional means of acting out fantasies of political defiance. He does, however, form part of Walpole's sense of aesthetic subversion and knowing impropriety—what Macaulay criticized as perversion and what recent commentators have characterized as an obsession with surface, performance and counterfeiting.38

For Susan Sontag, Strawberry Hill (and Gothic fiction more generally) embodies the essence of 'camp' because each displays a nostalgic affection for its source materials and a self-conscious 'love of the exaggerated, the "off"'.39 Such 'off' moments in The Castle of Otranto have been noted by even its earliest readers. They occur in the book's superfluous details (as when Bianca notes that no one has slept in the chamber below them 'since the great astrologer that was your brother's tutor drowned himself' (p. 38)), in its habit of setting conventions against one another (as when the chivalry-mad Theodore unchivalrously pledges himself both to Matilda and to Isabella because he cannot tell the two heroines apart), and in its crucial scenes (as when the statue of Alphonso the Good ludicrously bleeds from its nose). Such occasions most often show Walpole gesturing to literary conventions yet refusing to wield (or oppose) them with propriety. Responding to these unstable moments in the text, readers as far-ranging as Clara Reeve, Walter Scott and William Hazlitt all noted that Walpole's ghosts often undermined the very effects they were supposed to produce. They appeared too often, or else were too large, too substantial, too corporeal. Hazlitt's distaste is especially telling. Calling Walpole's supernatural 'the pasteboard machinery of a pantomime', he characterizes it as too obtrusive and too artificial to produce authentic terror in its reader. Lacking appropriate sublimity and seriousness, Walpole's ghosts 'are a matter-of-fact impossibility; a fixture, and no longer a phantom'.40 Such formulations nicely anticipate the critical assessments of Robert Miles and Jerrold Hogle, who, while differing from one another in the questions they ask of Walpole's texts, none the less isolate Walpole's self-consciousness about questions of authenticity as emblematic of Gothic writing more generally.41 For Miles, Walpole's romance is not only about uncovering correct genealogies; it also thematizes such questions of lineage by putting forward a false account of its own origins and then insisting on its veracity. Hogle finds a similar practice of counterfeiting—and a similar nostalgia about literary and class origins—in Walpole's ghosts, which parade as medieval Italian spirits while gesturing with every action to Shakespeare. Hogle's term, 'the Ghost of the Counterfeit', recalls not only Macaulay's disgust for Walpole's 'masks within masks' but also Sontag's notion that The Castle of Otranto presents us not with ghosts but rather with 'ghosts'—what Hazlitt calls 'chimeras … begot upon shadows and dim likenesses'.42

It is this sense of inherent irony and self-conscious artifice—that one is somehow not meeting with characters and things but rather with performances of characters and representations of things—that has so often produced the revulsion of critics like Macaulay and the excitement of writers like Sontag. Addressing Walpole's habit of infusing his text with allusions to Shakespeare and other works, Robert Mack finally attaches the word 'parody' to Walpole's text—but not 'parody' in its usual sense:

Otranto is parody not in the sense that it seeks to deride or to mock the characteristics and language of Shakespearean drama, but parody rather in the more etymologically precise sense of the word. It is a literal para-odos, a complementary 'song' to be heard not in place of, but alongside the original. It asks its readers to carry their knowledge of the entire corpus of Shakespeare's drama to the work so that those very readers can themselves fill in the narrative gaps in the volume with the resonance of a shared theatrical tradition.43

The same can be said for the position of theatre and performance in The Castle of Otranto as well. While Walpole's first reviewers sensed that they were reading an eighteenth-century forgery and not a medieval romance, because of small historical errors in the text, twenty-first-century readers will discover Otranto 's eighteenth-century origins in the sentimental and overblown acting styles of its character-performers. The blushes, sighs and fainting spells of Walpole's heroines, and the dark brow and moody stalking of Manfred, are as much a part of the theatre of Garrick as is the spectacle in which Manfred's servant reports the death of Conrad:

The servant, who had not staid long enough to have crossed the court to Conrad's apartment, came running back breathless, in a frantic manner, his eyes staring, and foaming at the mouth. He said nothing, but pointed to the court. The company were struck with terror and amazement. The princess Hippolita, without knowing what was the matter, but anxious for her son, swooned away.

                                  (p. 18)

This focus on sentiment and emotional gesture—on representing the expression of emotional conflict rather than on describing its internal processes—provides us with another way of understanding the self-consciousness of Walpole's narrative style and characterization. That an inveterate theatre-goer and author of an acclaimed tragedy (The Mysterious Mother ) and a successful comic afterpiece (Nature Will Prevail ) should construct character theatrically rather than novelistically should not surprise us. Similar observations can be made about Otranto 's narrative structure. Its five chapters and general fidelity to the classical unities of the drama make it resemble a five-act tragedy far more than an eighteenth-century romance. Certainly Walpole cultivated the association; in his first Preface to Otranto he noted playfully: 'It is a pity that he did not apply his talents to what they were evidently proper for, the theatre' (p. 7).

Responding to Walpole's cue, we may wish to attend to the seemingly endless ghosts, counter-feits and masks in The Castle of Otranto by investigating the degree to which they are informed by a logic of performance and by the cultural history of Georgian theatre and opera. For Charles Beecher Hogan and Anne Williams, such a suggestion opens up a number of fruitful possibilities for understanding how and why Walpole's book has troubled its readers for so long. Locating the aesthetics of The Castle of Otranto in opera seria, Williams reimagines Strawberry Hill and the romance it inspired as essentially theatrical: 'For Walpole, Gothic is always just that, performances, its structures always full of imitation, disguise, and travesti.'44 Looking to late eighteenth-century dramas of spectacle and the invention of melodrama in the early nineteenth century, Hogan's assessment is equally sweeping and suggestive. 'The grandfather of the Gothic novel,' he concludes, 'was also the grandfather of the Gothic play.'45

We might wish to reverse this pronouncement, however, when we consider The Castle of Otranto 's sustained popularity and influence. Commentators on Walpole and the Gothic have often been puzzled by the seemingly inexplicable gap between the publication of Otranto (1764) and the later popularity of Gothic fiction and drama in the 1780s and 1790s, wondering why such an explosively popular genre should have taken nearly twenty years to gain its hold on British imaginations. Examining its publication history a final time, we see only one significant span of years (1767–81) in which no printing of The Castle of Otranto occurred—perhaps the only time the book might ever have been out of print. This single dry spell was ended by the stage success of Robert Jephson's The Count of Narbonne (1781), an adaptation of The Castle of Otranto to which Walpole contributed many hours of his time hoping for its success. He was not disappointed. Performed twenty-one times during its initial run, The Count of Narbonne was the hit of the 1781–2 theatrical season and held the stage for the next two decades. With Jephson's success, a fresh edition of The Castle of Otranto was called for in 1782, and thereafter the book experienced a similar, sustained popularity: it received fourteen printings in English between 1782 and 1800; spawned numerous imitations; and acquired its status as a foundational work of Gothic fiction. Certainly the Gothic novel gave rise to the Gothic play, but the suggestion here is that Jephson's adaptation invited readers to do more than merely take up Walpole's romance again and read it alongside its theatrical representation. The sustained popularity of both points to a symbiosis between Gothic text and Gothic drama—one that anticipates the Gothic's later returns in film and digital media, and that is present since the first Gothic 'revival' of the genre Jephson and Walpole helped to construct.


1. See A. T. Hazen, A Bibliography of Horace Walpole (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1947), pp. 52-67; and W. S. Lewis, Introduction to Walpole, The Castle of Otranto, ed. W. S. Lewis (London and New York: Oxford University Press, 1964), pp. vii-viii.

2. See [Anna Letitia Barbauld, 'Horace Walpole', The British Novelists, ed. A. L. Barbauld, 50 vols. (London: F. C. & J. Rivington et al., 1810), Vol. 22, pp. i-iii.] By 'German tales' Barbauld refers not only to German works popular in Britain in the 1790s, like K. F. Kahlert's The Necromancer, or a Tale of the Black Forest (1794) and Gottfried August Bürger's oft-translated poem Lenore (1774), but also to English celebrations of German supernaturalism like Matthew Lewis's The Monk (1796) and Charlotte Dacre's Zofloya (1805).

3. See [Walter Scott, Introduction to The Castle of Otranto (Edinburgh: James Ballantyne, 1811), pp. iii-xxxvi. Extract.] Scott later reprinted the essay for Ballantyne's Novelist's Library, ed. and intro. Walter Scott, 10 vols. (London: Hurst, Robinson & Co., 1821–4).

4. See [Walter Scott, Introduction] p. xvii.

5. Ibid., pp. xx-xxi.

6. Barbauld's Miscellaneous Pieces in Prose (London: J. Johnson, 1773), written with her brother John Aiken, contains a theoretical essay on suspense ('On the Pleasure Derived from Objects of Terror') and a supernatural short story ('Sir Bertrand, a Fragment').

7. See Appendix: Early Responses to The Castle of Otranto [, in The Castle of Otranto, with an introduction by Michael Gauer, New York: Penguin Books, 2001.]

8. See [Anna Letitia Barbauld, 'Horace Walpole'] p. i.

9. See [Review of The Castle of Otranto, Critical Review 19 (January 1765), pp. 50-51. Extract.] p. 51.

10. See [Review of The Castle of Otranto, Monthly Review 32 (February 1765), pp. 97-9. Extract.] p. 99.

11. See [Review of The Castle of Otranto (2nd edition), Monthly Review 32 (May 1765), p. 394.] p. 394.

12. See especially Robert P. Reno, 'James Boaden's Fontainville Forest and Matthew Lewis's The Castle Spectre: Challenges of the Supernatural Ghost on the Late Eighteenth-Century Stage', Eighteenth-Century Life 9 (1984), pp. 95-106; and Further Reading, Clery.

13. See Further Reading, Lewis, The Yale Edition of Horace Walpole's Correspondence (hereinafter referred to as Correspondence), Vol. 30, p. 177.

14. Ibid., Vol. 28, p. 5.

15. See Further Reading, Kallich, Ketton-Cremer, and Mowl.

16. By Walpole's injunction, the manuscripts of the Memoirs were not published until nearly three decades after his death.

17. Museum 2 (1746), pp. 46-7.

18. See Further Reading, Lewis, Horace Walpole: The A. W. Mellon Lectures in the Fine Arts 1960, p. 155.

19. See [Thomas Babington Macaulay, Review of Letters of Horace Walpole, Earl of Orford, to Sir Horace Mann, Edinburgh Review 58 (October 1833), pp. 227-58. Extract.] p. 227.

20. Ibid., esp. p. 227: 'His features were covered by mask within mask. When the outer disguise of obvious affectation was removed, you were still as far as ever from seeing the real man.'

21. Ibid., p. 239.

22. See Further Reading, Ketton-Cremer and Lewis (Correspondence).

23. As a revived architectural style, Gothic was first popularized by the engravings that appeared in Thomas and Batty Langley's Gothic Architecture, Improved, which was first published in 1741 under the title of Ancient Architecture. Walpole criticized the Langleys' attempts to graft Gothic decorations on to classical forms. Other early attempts, like those of Lord Brooke at Warwick Castle, failed in Walpole's mind for similar reasons, while Saunderson Miller's work at Wroxton simply collapsed.

24. Walpole to Horace Mann, 25 February 1750 (Correspondence, Vol. 20, p. 127).

25. See The Ambulator: or, A Pocket Companion in a Tour Round London (London: J. Scatcherd, 1800), pp. 14-15, 198-202.

26. See Walpole, Journal of the Printing-Office at Strawberry Hill, ed. Paget Toynbee (London: Constable & Houghton Mifflin, 1923). Under 1784 the entry reads 'printed a page of rules for admission to see my House', but does not indicate how many copies were printed. See also Walpole, A Description of the Villa of Mr. Horace Walpole (Twickenham: Strawberry Hill, 1774; 2nd edition, 1784).

27. See Walpole to William Cole, 9 March 1765 (Correspondence, Vol. 1, p. 88); Walpole to Horace Mann, 18 November 1771 (ibid., Vol. 23, pp. 349-51); and Walpole to Mme du Deffand, 27 January 1775 (ibid., Vol. 6, p. 145). Angry over Walpole's refusal to believe his forgeries genuine, Thomas Chatterton later wrote a long diatribe against the 'Baron of Otranto', which formed the basis of the later controversy over Walpole's role in Chatterton's death (ibid., Vol. 15, pp. xvi-xvii).

28. Walpole to William Cole, 9 March 1765 (Correspondence, Vol. 1, p. 88). See also Walpole, A Description of the Villa of Mr. Horace Walpole, p. iv.

29. See Further Reading, Guest, Harfst, Kiely and Punter.

30. This was first noted in W. S. Lewis, Introduction to The Castle of Otranto, pp. 12-13.

31. Walpole to Mme du Deffand, 13 March 1767. This translation quoted from Stephen Gwynn, The Life of Horace Walpole (London: Thorton Butterworth, 1932), p. 191.

32. See Further Reading, Clery, p. 54.

33. Richard Hurd, Letters on Chivalry and Romance, ed. Edith J. Morley (London: Henry Frowde, 1911), pp. 94, 118-19.

34. See Further Reading, Clery, Guest and Kiely.

35. See [Thomas Babington Macaulay, Review] p. 233.

36. See Further Reading, Fothergill, Ketton-Cremer and Samson.

37. See Further Reading, Harfst and Haggerty.

38. See Further Reading, Hogan, Hogle, Sedgwick and Williams.

39. See Further Reading, Sontag, p. 108.

40. See [William Hazlitt, Lectures on the Comic Writers (1819), The Complete Works of William Hazlitt, ed. P.P. Howe (London and Toronto: J.M. Dent, 1930–33), Vol. 6, p. 127. Extract.]

41. See Further Reading, Miles and Hogle.

42. See [William Hazlitt, Lectures]

43. Robert Mack, Introduction to Walpole, The Castle of Otranto and Hieroglyphic Tales (London: J. M. Dent, 1993), p. xx.

44. See Further Reading, Williams, p. 115.

45. See Further Reading, Hogan, p. 237.

Further Reading
Books and Articles:

Clery, E. J., The Rise of Supernatural Fiction 1762–1800 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995). This material history of Gothic and supernatural fiction devotes two chapters to Walpole and Otranto: Ch. 3, 'The Advantages of History', places Walpole's hoax with the first edition in the context of popular antiquarianism in the 1760s and the various historicisms it practised; Ch. 4, 'Back to the Future', reads Otranto within contemporary re-imaginings (Richard Hurd, James Stuart and Adam Smith) of chivalry and feudalism as 'a distinctive stage in historical evolution with a prevailing mode of subsistence giving rise to characteristic social, intellectual and political structures' (p. 68).

Fothergill, Brian, The Strawberry Hill Set: Horace Walpole and His Circle (London: Faber & Faber, 1983). A biographical account of Walpole, focusing on his many friendships.

Guest, Harriet, 'The Wanton Muse: Politics and Gender in Gothic Theory after 1760', Beyond Romanticism: New Approaches to Texts and Contexts, 1780–1832, ed. Stephen Copley and John Whale (London and New York: Routledge, 1992), pp. 118-39. This article focuses on early theories of Gothic; on their ambivalent gendering and how they define a 'territory of … pleasure in terms that do not readily yield their political affiliation' (p. 119). These early theories provided a marked contrast to those affiliated with Gothic texts in the 1790s.

Haggerty, George E., 'Literature and Homosexuality in the Late Eighteenth Century: Walpole, Beckford and Lewis', Studies in the Novel 18 (1986), pp. 341-52. Explores the relation between Gothic fiction and the homosexuality of three of its primary eighteenth-century male practitioners.

Harfst, Betsy Perteit, Horace Walpole and the Unconscious: An Experiment in Freudian Analysis (New York: Arno, 1980). This published dissertation 'attempts to expose the unconscious repressions which could have been responsible for the erratic behavior of Horace Walpole … and to determine the relationship between these repressions and his romantic works' (p. i).

Hogan, Charles Beecher, 'The "Theatre of Geo. 3"', Horace Walpole: Writer, Politician, and Connoisseur, ed. Warren Hunting Smith (New Haven and London: Yale Univer-sity Press, 1967), pp. 227-40. This article establishes Walpole's interest in both reading plays and attending the theatre as a foundation for reading The Castle of Otranto, ultimately arguing that '[t]he grandfather of the Gothic novel was also the grandfather of the Gothic play … Far more than The Mysterious Mother or Nature Will Prevail its form is dramatic; so is its theme; so are its characters' (p. 237).

Hogle, Jerrold, 'The Ghost of the Counterfeit and the Genesis of the Gothic', Gothick Origins and Innovations, ed. Allan Lloyd Smith and Victor Sage (Amsterdam and Atlanta: Rodopi, 1994), pp. 23-33. This playful essay interprets Walpole's (and Gothic fiction's) obsession with forgeries and counterfeited signs through the work of Jean Baudrillard, Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, focusing particularly on their contention that with the advent of mercantile and capitalist culture one sees a widening gulf between sign and signifier.

Kallich, Martin, Horace Walpole (New York: Twayne, 1971). This study of Walpole's literary historical importance gives primacy to his published writings rather than to his letters.

Ketton-Cremer, R. W., Horace Walpole: A Biography, 3rd edition (London: Methuen, 1964). First published in 1940, this remains the most recent standard biography of Walpole.

Kiely, Robert, The Romantic Novel in England (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1972). This book devotes its opening chapter to The Castle of Otranto, stressing the book's relation to epic and eighteenth-century politics, and its interest in Catholicism and the irrational.

Lewis, W. S., Horace Walpole: The A. W. Mellon Lectures in the Fine Arts 1960 (London: Rupert Hart-Davis, 1961). Five readable and cogent introductory lectures on Walpole's 'Family', 'Friends', 'Politics', 'Strawberry Hill' and 'Works'.

Lewis, W. S., ed., The Yale Edition of Horace Walpole's Correspondence, 48 vols. (New Haven: Yale University Press; London: Oxford University Press, 1937–83). The monumental edition of Horace Walpole's correspondence.

Miles, Robert, Gothic Writing, 1750–1820: A Genealogy (London and New York: Routledge, 1993). Defining Gothic as a heterogeneous aesthetic crossing the genres, this book devotes a chapter to Walpole's (and the Gothic's) self-reflexive fixation upon questions of lineage and descent.

Mowl, Timothy, Horace Walpole: The Great Outsider (London: John Murray, 1996). This most recent biography of Walpole takes issue with earlier treatments of Walpole's homosexuality by W. S. Lewis, R. W. Ketton-Cremer and others; it is most persuasive in its treatment of Walpole's Grand Tour and his relationship with Lord Lincoln.

Punter, David, The Literature of Terror: A History of Gothic Fictions from 1765 to the Present Day: Volume 1: The Gothic Tradition (London and New York: Longman, 1980; 2nd edition, 1996). A foundational study of the Gothic from both Freudian and Marxist approaches, treating its persistent themes, its relation to other contemporary aesthetic movements, and its various transformations and their contexts.

Samson, John, 'Politics Gothicized: The Conway Incident and The Castle of Otranto', Eighteenth-Century Life 10 (1986), pp. 145-58. Countering the widespread assumption that Walpole wrote The Castle of Otranto as an escape from politics, this essay argues that 'the book evinces a startling infusion of the characters, events, and ideas in Walpole's political life in 1764' (p. 145).

Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky, The Coherence of Gothic Conventions, 2nd edition (New York: Methuen, 1986). This book provides an account of the relation between Gothic conventions and the ways in which its practitioners wield language and structure narrative.

Sontag, Susan, 'Notes on Camp', Against Interpretation (New York: Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, 1966). Also printed in A Susan Sontag Reader, intro. Elizabeth Hardwick (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1983), pp. 105-19.

Williams, Anne, 'Monstrous Pleasures: Horace Walpole, Opera, and the Conception of Gothic', Gothic Studies 2 (April 2000), pp. 104-18. This article explores Walpole's fondness for opera and grounds The Castle of Otranto and the Gothic in operatic travesty, theatricality and subject matter.



Lewis, Wilmarth Sheldon. Horace Walpole: The A. W. Mellon Lectures in the Fine Arts. 1960. National Gallery of Art, Washington, Vol. 9. Bollingen Series 35, Pantheon Books, 1961. 215 p.

Authoritative biography by a foremost Walpole scholar.

Mowl, Timothy. Horace Walpole: The Great Outsider. London: John Murray, 1996, 274 p.

Full-length biography of Walpole.


Beers, Henry A. "The Gothic Revival." In A History of English Romanticism in the Eighteenth Century. 1899. Reprint edition, pp. 221-64. New York: Henry Holt & Company, 1916.

Finds it impossible to take The Castle of Otranto seriously as a work of literature and difficult to understand the respect accorded to the work.

Birkhead, Edith. "The Beginnings of Gothic Romance." In The Tale of Terror: A Study of the Gothic Romance. 1921. Reprint edition, pp. 16-37. New York: Russell & Russell, Inc., 1963.

Chapter from what is widely regarded as a key early analysis of Gothic literature. Contends that The Castle of Otranto was not a serious contribution to literature, but supports the now commonly accepted belief that the novel was the inspiration for later works of Gothic romance.

Bleiler, E. F. "Horace Walpole and The Castle of Otranto." In Three Gothic Novels: The Castle of Otranto, Vathek, The Vampyre, edited by E. F. Bleiler, pp. vii-xviii. New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1966.

Provides details of Walpole's biography that pertain to The Castle of Otranto and surveys public and critical reaction to The Castle of Otranto since the time of its first publication.

Clark, Kenneth. "Ruins and Rococo: Strawberry Hill." In The Gothic Revival: An Essay in the History of Taste, third edition, 1962. Reprint edition, pp. 46-65. New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1974.

Discusses Walpole's creation of Strawberry Hill as the preeminent example of the Gothic fashion. He finds Walpole's sham castle not merely a local absurdity, but the culmination of the aesthetic taste of his period.

Conger, Syndy McMillen. "Faith and Doubt in The Castle of Otranto." Gothic 1 (1979): 51-9.

Restates René Descartes' assertion that "radical doubt, left to itself, can come full circle to become primitive faith," and maintains that "[f]rom its first exemplar, The Castle of Otranto, the Gothic novel has been a fascinating combination of radical doubt and primitive articles of faith like animism, ancestor worship, and belief in ghosts, giants, or devils."

Davenport-Hines, Richard Treadwell. "The Dead Have Exhausted Their Power of Deceiving." In Gothic: Four Hundred Years of Excess, Horror, Evil and Ruin, pp. 115-50. New York: North Point Press, 1998.

Provides contextual information surrounding Walpole's composition of The Castle of Otranto, including Walpole's political writings and the construction of his Gothic "castle," Strawberry Hill.

Evans, Bertrand. "The First Gothic Plays." Gothic Drama from Walpole to Shelley, pp. 31-48. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1947.

Provides a detailed discussion of the themes and techniques of The Mysterious Mother.

Frank, Marcie. "Horace Walpole's Family Romances." Modern Philology 100, no. 3 (February 2003): 417-35.

Maintains that "[i]n both Otranto and The Mysterious Mother, incest blocks inheritance, a narrative combination that points not to an intrafamilial or intrapsychic conflict, but rather to a sociopolitical context, which I read as a clash between aristocratic and bourgeois models of the family."

Haggerty, George E. "Fact and Fancy in the Gothic Novel." Nineteenth-Century Fiction 39, no. 4 (March 1985): 379-91.

Discusses Walpole's innovations in blending "opposing modes of literary expression"—fact and fancy—in The Castle of Otranto and how this legacy affected later works in the Gothic tradition. Asserts that "[b]y introducing into the novel material that emerges so specifically from private fantasy … Walpole brought into focus both the seeming limitations of the novel form as it emerged in the eighteenth century and the terms under which those limitations were to be overcome."

Kahn, Madeleine. "'A By-Stander Often Sees More of the Game Than Those That Play': Ann Yearsley Reads The Castle of Otranto." Bucknell Review 42, no. 1 (1998): 59-78.

Examines poet Ann Yearsley's assessment of The Castle of Otranto as expressed in her poem "To the Honourable H____e W____e, on Reading 'The Castle of Otranto.' December, 1784."

Kiely, Robert. "The Castle of Otranto: Horace Walpole." In The Romantic Novel in England, pp. 27-42. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1972.

Examines The Castle of Otranto and The Mysterious Mother in detail as characteristic works exhibiting the strengths and weaknesses of Gothic fiction. Asserts that Gothic and Romantic fiction evolved because of the inability of Neoclassical literature to explore the complexities of human nature.

McKinney, David. "'The Castle of My Ancestors': Horace Walpole and Strawberry Hill." British Journal for Eighteenth-Century Studies 13 (1990): 199-214.

Probes the reasons Walpole "chose the Gothic style for his house" and included "stage-set designs as an attempt to create the atmosphere of a medieval castle," thereby "determining [his] vision for Strawberry Hill."

Mehrotra, K. K. Horace Walpole and the English Novel: A Study of the Influence of The Castle of Otranto, 1764–1820. 1934. Reprint edition. New York: Russell & Russell, 1970, 197 p.

Discusses eighteenth-century conceptions of the novel and of the moral purpose of fiction, and demonstrates the ways in which The Castle of Otranto violated those rules.

Morrissey, Lee. "'To Invent in Art and Folly': Postmodernism and Walpole's Castle of Otranto." Bucknell Review 41, no. 2 (1998): 86-99.

Argues that "Gothic follies, and The Castle of Otranto, dispense with conventional proportions, on the one hand, and show that Enlightened people, on the other, are subject to a 'milling confusion' that prevents them from seeing the truth."

Mudrick, Marvin. "Chamber of Horrors." In Books Are Not Life but Then What Is?, pp. 303-09. London: Oxford University Press, 1979.

Argues that The Castle of Otranto merits consideration not only as the inspiration for later works in the Gothic tradition, but for what it reveals about the nightmares and subconscious fears of Walpole's age.

Reeve, Clara. "Preface to the Second Edition." The Old English Baron: A Gothic Story. 1778. Reprint edition, edited by James Trainer, pp. 3-6. London: Oxford University Press, 1967.

Preface to Reeve's novel in which she discusses the influence of The Castle of Otranto on her work, and the flaws in Walpole's novel that she hopes to avoid in hers.

Varma, Devendra P. "The First Gothic Tale: Its Potentialities." In The Gothic Flame: Being a History of the Gothic Novel in England: Its Origins, Efflorescence, Disintegration, and Residuary Influences, pp. 42-73. London: Arthur Barker, 1957.

Provides one of the most extensive discussions of the literary influences upon Walpole's work and Walpole's influence on other writers. Also examines in detail the structure of The Castle of Otranto and Walpole's presentation of his characters.


Additional coverage of Walpole's life and career is contained in the following sources published by Thomson Gale: British Writers, Vol. 3; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vols. 39, 104, 213; Literary Movements for Students, Vol. 1; Literature Criticism from 1400 to 1800, Vols. 2, 49; Literature Resource Center; Reference Guide to English Literature, Ed. 2; St. James Guide to Horror, Ghost & Gothic Writers; Supernatural Fiction Writers, Vol. 1; and Twayne's English Authors.

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Walpole, Horace (1717 - 1797)

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