Horace Walpole (1717–97) wrote the novel The Castle of Otranto (1764), which named and arguably began the modern tradition of Gothic fiction. His macabre playfulness set a tone for the Gothic that remains prevalent, and his interest in taboo subjects shaped the Gothic as a form dedicated to exploring and defying the limits of human identity and behavior.
Walpole was born September 24, 1717 to a life of fame that he initially owed to his father Sir Robert Walpole, Prime Minister and one of the most influential men in eighteenth-century British government. Horace Walpole spent his early years in London. His time at Eton nurtured a taste in Gothic architecture as well as prominent (and possibly erotic) friendships with his cousin Henry Seymour Conway, the ninth Earl (later Duke) of Lincoln Henry Fiennes-Clinton, and the poet Thomas Gray. At Eton and King's College, Cambridge, Walpole developed a lifelong habit of letter-writing, producing what amounts to a chronicle of his age that, beside his Gothic works, forms his greatest contribution to literary history. Among the letters' many gems is the coinage of the word "serendipity," found in a letter from Walpole to Sir Horace Mann in 1754 (Walpole 1937–83: 20, 407–11).
From these letters and other accounts, biographer Timothy Mowl draws conclusions about Walpole's erotic life that are potentially important because of sustained scholarly interest in Gothic literature's relationships with sexuality, particularly homosexuality. Mowl concludes, despite speculation to the contrary, that Walpole's relations with his cousin Conway never crossed from the erotic to the overtly sexual, but Mowl nevertheless grants enormous importance to Walpole's same-sex emotional attachments, particularly the attachment to Lincoln. Indeed, Walpole's putatively homosexual longings provide a primary means of understanding Walpole as "the great outsider," as the subtitle of Mowl's biography (1996) calls him. If Walpole, who died unmarried, led a life as a self-conscious sexual outsider, then his experience of sexuality strengthens readings of Otranto and other works as invested in critiquing the sexual and social norms of his day.
Setting aside questions about Walpole's sexual tastes, no serious Walpole scholar would dispute that Walpole's aesthetic tastes ran to the extreme. His most (in)famous aesthetic accomplishment outside the literary arena is the home he established for himself in Twickenham, which he dubbed Strawberry Hill. Walpole purchased the estate in 1747, after becoming Member of Parliament for Calling-ton in 1741 and receiving a large inheritance upon his father's death in 1744. Strawberry Hill became a mock castle, replete with elaborate stairways, battlements, towers, and archways that make it a testament to the eighteenth-century Gothic revival in architecture. In addition to providing inspiration for The Castle of Otranto's titular site of medieval mischief, Strawberry Hill became the site of his own printing press, which published limited editions such as Two Odes by Mr. [Thomas] Gray (1757) and Walpole's own Catalogue of Royal and Noble Authors (1758), Anecdotes of Painting in England (1762–71), The Mysterious Mother (1768), and Hieroglyphic Tales (1785). Though the press provided some amusement, Walpole preferred trusting his more important works, such as Otranto and Historic Doubts on the Life and Reign of King Richard the Third (1768) to more established London publishers.
While Strawberry Hill (and a nightmare that it inspired in June, 1764) might be the greatest influence on Otranto's composition, Walpole's experiences on London's Cock Lane in 1762, which he recounted in a letter to George Montagu (Walpole 1937–83: 10, 282), also deserve mention. Walpole went to a small house on Cock Lane reputed to be haunted by a ghost who communicated with visitors through scratching sounds. E. J. Clery contrasts Walpole's visit to the house with the visit of Dr. Samuel Johnson, who sought an encounter with the "‘real supernatural’" to help ground his own faith in the unseen. Walpole, on the other hand, sought the "spectacular supernatural," a source of entertainment for skeptics (Clery 1995: 24–32). Treating the supernatural as an amusement rather than as a matter for serious contemplation is crucial for approaching Otranto as Walpole did. In a letter to Madame du Deffand (Walpole 1937–83: 3, 261), Walpole rejoices in having duped the world into taking his joke of a novel far too seriously.
The trick Walpole played on the world when he published Otranto's first edition December 24, 1764 had multiple levels. The most obvious trickery appears on the original title page, which claims that the text is a translation of a medieval tale in an Italian manuscript recently rediscovered in the library of a Catholic family. In the guise of the work's translator, Walpole apologizes for the narrative's supernatural elements, which might have once helped a priest to reinforce people's superstitions. Thus this preface positions the work as an antiquarian bauble, deeply flawed but excusable because of its historically distant origin. Taking the work as such, critics approved the publication, but they reversed their approval upon publication of the second edition, which appended the subtitle "A Gothic Story" and confessed Walpole's authorship. Scandalized, critics condemned Walpole's novel for the very reasons that had prompted the imaginary translator in the first edition to apologize: a literary production from an age of enlightenment was supposed to eschew the supernatural, and failing to do so might reinspire what the reigning powers regarded as superstitious beliefs, particularly beliefs of the Catholic variety, from which the England of Sir Robert Walpole had constantly defended itself.
Since strains of the supernatural appear in modern tales of earlier dates, how much credit Walpole deserves for beginning the Gothic tradition is debatable, but his "Gothic Story" subtitle certainly popularized the tradition's best-known name, and his preface to the second edition functions as a Gothic manifesto, explaining that Otranto combines the imagination and improbability of ancient romances with the verisimilitude of modern novels. Viewed from the era's reigning critical perspective, this combination was pernicious: literature's purpose was to provide practical and moral instruction that verisimilitude could facilitate by making literary characters into believable role models, but if a Gothic story combines the supernatural ideas of unenlightened ages with contemporary realism, then it threatens to provide models of the worst kind. Otranto's story line about a ghost seeking to crush usurpers (literally) and restore the rightful heir to his noble line could teach people to believe and behave as if such fantasies could be reality.
Walpole's trickery, as well as the danger that his literary experiment poses, does not end at the second edition's revelation of his authorship. Subtle clues suggest that the serious literary experiment described in the second preface could also be a ruse: Otranto might lack seriousness altogether. Questioning the text's sincerity is particularly important when interpreting its politics. A sublime story – about supernatural intervention to preserve dynastic purity – might be conservative, reinforcing the divine placement of the nobility, so the novel might be the message of an author loyal to his king and eager to establish English Gothic as a legitimate source of national aesthetic pride. An absurd story, on the other hand – about a giant ghost assembling his oversized spectral body parts – might be subversive, suggesting that the very idea of dynastic purity having divine supernatural countenance is a giant joke, so the novel might be the message of an author known for continuing the most extreme of his father's Whig principles. Walpole's enthusiasm for King George II could support the conservative interpretation, and his habit of sleeping with copies of the Magna Carta on one side of his bed and of the writ for King Charles I's execution on the other could support the subversive interpretation. The ambiguity of Otranto's politics forecasts the ambiguity found in the works of his many literary heirs.
In fact, Walpole's heirs took his Gothic formula in directions sometimes seen as diametrically opposed. Widely considered to be the second Gothic novel, Clara Reeve's The Old English Baron (or The Champion of Virtue, 1778) claims to refine the formula by minimizing the supernatural and expanding verisimilar (that is, laudable) morality (see reeve, clara). The result sets the stage for a disagreement best represented by the acclaimed work of Ann Radcliffe and the decried work of Matthew Lewis. Radcliffe extends Reeve's refinement of the Gothic, eliminating the supernatural altogether and putting in its place the "supernatural explained," events of apparently supernatural origin that actually have reasonable explanations (see radcliffe, ann). On the other hand, Lewis reverses Reeve's move and dilates upon Walpole's supernatural and sexual excesses, creating in The Monk (1796) one of the wildest and most scandalous novels of eighteenth-century Gothic (see lewis, matthew). A set of binaries, all problematic but conceptually useful, emerges from this bifurcated tradition: as Walpole contrasts with Reeve, and as Lewis contrasts with Radcliffe, "horror" Gothic (interested in the supernaturally explicit) contrasts with "terror" Gothic (interested in lifelike suspense), and "male" Gothic (interested in issues such as dynastic politics) contrasts with "female" Gothic (interested in issues such as domestic oppression) (see female gothic).
Walpole's other Gothic work, The Mysterious Mother, troubles these binaries at the outset, as in it Walpole tweaks his own formula, using settings and characters recognizably related to Otranto but omitting oversized supernatural presences. Otranto approaches incest by having the novel's antihero, Manfred, scheme to marry his would-be daughter-in-law. The Mysterious Mother goes much further, having the protagonist discover not only that he once unknowingly slept with his mother, begetting a daughter, but also that his daughter/sister is now his wife. Estimating the play's influence is difficult because it had a very small circulation in its day, but some critics have reasonably concluded that The Mysterious Mother, along with Otranto, affected romanticera treatments of incest in works such as Lord Byron's Manfred (1817), whose title is likely a nod to Walpole (see incest).
The remainder of Walpole's fruitful literary life offers little to the Gothic tradition other than the Hieroglyphic Tales, which has fabulous elements that make it a cousin to the Gothic, especially William Beckford's Orientalist Gothic novel Vathek (1786). Walpole continued to write letters and works such as History of the Modern Taste in Gardening (1780) and A Description of the Villa of Mr. Horace Walpole (1784), about Strawberry Hill. He was made the Fourth Earl of Orford in 1791, and he died on March 2, 1797.
SEE ALSO: Female Gothic; Incest; Lewis, Matthew; Queer Gothic; Radcliffe, Ann; Reeve, Clara.
- The Rise of Supernatural Fiction, 1762–1800. New York: Cambridge University Press. (1995)
- Horace Walpole: The Great Outsider. London: Murray. (1996)
- A Catalogue of the Royal and Noble Authors of England. Edinburgh: W. H. Lunn and J. Mundell and Co. (1796)
- The Yale Edition of Horace Walpole's Correspondence (ed. ), 48 vols. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press. (1937–1983)
- A Description of the Villa of Mr. Horace Walpole. London: Gregg Press. (1964)
- Anecdotes of Painting in England. New York: Arno Press. (1969)
- Historic Doubts on the Life and Reign of King Richard the Third. Totowa, NJ: Rowman and Littlefield. (1974)
- Hieroglyphic Tales. Los Angeles, CA: William Andrews Clark Memorial Library. (1982)
- History of the Modern Taste in Gardening. New York: Ursus Press. (1995)
- The Castle of Otranto (ed. ). New York: Oxford University Press. (1998)
- Vathek; with the Episodes of Vathek (ed. ). Peterborough, ON: Broadview Press. (2001 )
- Manfred. In (ed.), Lord Byron: The Major Works. New York: Oxford University Press, pp. 274-314. (2008)
- Gothic Realities: The Impact of Horror Fiction on Modern Culture. Jefferson, NC: McFarland. (2010)
- Gothic: Four Hundred Years of Excess, Horror, Evil, and Ruin. New York: North Point Press. (1999)
- Queering the Gothic in the Romantic Age: The Penetrating Eye. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan. (2007)
- Odes by Mr. Gray. Farmington Hills, MI: Gale. (2010)
- Queer Gothic. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press. (2006)
- The Gothic ghost of the counterfeit and the progress of abjection. In (ed.), A Companion to the Gothic. Malden, MA: Blackwell, pp. 293-304. (2000)
- The Monk (ed. ). New York: Oxford University Press. (1998)
- The Old English Baron (ed. ). New York: Oxford University Press. (2008)
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