Friday, January 25, 2013

The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole

A little rusty, but still manages to entertain
The Castle of Otranto is widely regarded as the first Gothic novel, and it definitely contains all the emotional melodrama, forbidden romance, spooky castle corridors, and supernatural happenings that one expects of that genre. In the preface to the first edition of 1764, Horace Walpole claimed that this work was a translation of a recently discovered Italian manuscript dating back to around the 12th century. The book was successful enough, however, that when the second edition came out, Walpole admitted that was all hogwash and took credit for writing his own work.

The story takes place in the principality of Otranto, in Italy, where Prince Manfred is lord of the land and its castle. Manfred is less than satisfied with the fertility of his wife Hippolita, for she has only given him one son and one daughter, but the impending marriage of his son Conrad serves to reassure him that soon he will have grandchildren to carry on the family line. When the wedding day arrives, however, Conrad is crushed to death by a mysterious giant helmet which falls from the sky. Naturally, all are horrified by this event, but it brings a special anguish to Manfred, for cruel fate has robbed him of his sole male heir. He becomes determined to rectify this matter by divorcing Hippolita and taking Conrad’s bride Isabella for his own, though the union is decidedly against the young lady’s will.

The Castle of Otranto still has some entertainment to offer the modern reader, but it’s definitely acquired a dull patina over the past two and a half centuries. Though the macabre ambience and supernatural events depicted in the book may have filled its 18th century audience with shock and horror, a quarter of a millennium later these elements merely inspire amusement in today’s reader. The reading public of 1764 also had a different attention span than readers of the 21st century. In those days they may not have minded sitting through dialogue that basically repeats the same conversation three or four times, but today these passages seem unnecessarily tedious. Nevertheless, there are enough twists and turns in this skillfully constructed fable to keep one interested. Over the course of the story each character’s secret past is revealed, and all find they are related directly or indirectly to one another in some way, all entwined in a twisted web of connectivity reminiscent of The Count of Monte Cristo. As the narrative progresses, it is a pleasure to watch Manfred become more and more tyrannical, more obsessed with possessing Isabella. This obsession drives him to behave immorally, betray his family, and scorn the church. The obvious message of the book is that the more you fight the hand of God, the more it’s going to come back to pound you, and there is a gratifying satisfaction in waiting for the inevitable hammer to fall.

I can’t say I’m enamored with this book enough to give it a wholehearted endorsement, but if you enjoy the Gothic literature of writers like Edgar Allan Poe or Bram Stoker, or just historical literature in general, like Sir Walter Scott or Balzac, it might be worth your while to blow the dust off of The Castle of Otranto and give it a try.

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