Thursday, November 14, 2013

The Castle of Otranto - Horace Walpole (1764)

Slowly slowly working on my reading challenge this year- reading more books written before the 20th century. It looks like we're slowly going further back in time, from the 19th Century (The Moonstone) to the 18th, with The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole, and sticking with genre fiction so far, from the detective story to the Gothic. As The Moonstone is known as one of the earliest examples of detective fiction, so The Castle of Otranto is an early Gothic novel. And how! A brief summary: the prince of Otranto (Manfred) is obsessed with carrying on the male line, and when his son dies unexpectedly just before his wedding to Isabella, best friend of Manfred's daughter Matilda, this obsession grows, as he tries to avoid the family curse. He is clearly concealing a family secret, and is horrified at the giant coat of armour which appears to haunt the library.

I thought what would stand out about this book is its part in the history of the Gothic, but what really stood out for me is its status as an early example of the novel, full stop. Well, that's what I was planning to say, and then realised it may have more to do with the fact that this is trying to masquerade as a much earlier novel (Walpole explains in his introduction how he 'found' a '16th century' 'Italian' manuscript, and then 'translated' it (one of the oldest tropes in fiction?). So I will settle for saying that, by accident or design, this definitely feels quite unpolished. It reads very theatrically somehow- there is lots of dialogue, the characters occasionally make asides that you can imagine them speaking to the audience and it seems less interested in the internal workings of people's minds than in how they play out in front of us. In fact, it reads mostly to me like a Jacobean revenge tragedy (or what I imagine one to be like). 

It's interesting to think of this book being inspired by these plays, and going on to inspire the later genre of gothic fiction. It casts a new light on it, for me anyway. I just decided to do a little background reading on The Castle of Otranto, and the first article that I decided to read says "Shakespeare's influence on the early Gothic was varied and profound."* There you go, it is apparently a long established connection. To my mind, though, the idea of 'gothic' conjures up the thought of a more atmospheric novel, full of dread and psychological horror, while The Castle of Otranto has more of a moustache-twirling villain feel to it. But the elements are there- the family secret, the haunting, an old castle, secret passageways, a romance. 

So maybe I was wrong. I have learnt something new about the Gothic genre, and mostly I have learnt how much more there is to know (why is this so often the case?).

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*Yael Shapira, 2012, 'Shakespeare, The Castle of Otranto, and the problem of the corpse on the Eighteenth-Century stage', Eighteenth-Century Life, 36(1), 1-29