The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole was originally published in 1764 and is commonly considered to be the first gothic novel. The first edition title was The Castle of Otranto, A Story. Translated by William Marshal, Gent. From the Original Italian of Onuphrio Muralto, Canon of the Church of St. Nicholas at Otranto. Quite the mouthful! The novel was presented as a translation of a manuscript printed in Naples in 1529 but the manuscript’s story is claimed to have come from a still older story dating back to the Crusades. Critics of the time took it for a medieval romance and some really believed it was a translation.
The novel was so successful, however, that Walpole acknowledged his authorship in later editions. In the introduction he explains the novel is an attempt to blend ancient and modern romance — pre-novel prose of the fantastic with the modern novel of the supposedly real (real people, real places, real situations).
The Castle of Otranto has many of the elements that become standard gothic tropes: virginal maiden (Matilda, Isabella), foolish older woman (Hippolita), Hero (Theodore), tyrant (Manfred), servants as comic relief/ stupid or gossipy servants, clergy (Father Jerome), setting (castle/church/secret tunnels), a prophecy, omens, a hermit, the supernatural.
And melodrama. Can’t forget the melodrama. This book hits the ground running and doesn’t let up for a second. Manfred’s son is killed on his wedding day by a giant helmet that appears from nowhere. Manfred has no more male heirs and is therefore in danger of losing his rights to the castle and surrounding lands. He therefore proposes to Princess Isabella, the woman his son was going to marry. Manfred will divorce his wife and Isabella will give him an heir. Isabella flees the castle through secret tunnels, one of which connects the castle to the church.
There are signs and portents that Manfred is committing grave deeds and his days as Prince are numbered. The feathers on the top of the helmet in the castle courtyard wave ominously on occasion and a mysterious knight appears with a large retinue and a giant sword, companion to the giant helmet. There is also a possible ghost spied by Manfred and others at various times as well as a giant foot.
But Manfred is nothing if not single-minded in his pursuit of Isabella. We are assured early in the novel that Manfred is not a bad man and then he proceeds to prove that, while he may have once been a good man, he is no longer:
Manfred, though persuaded, like his wife, that the vision had been no work of fancy, recovered a little from the tempest of mind into which so many strange events had thrown him. Ashamed, too, of his inhuman treatment of a Princess who returned every injury with new marks of tenderness and duty, he felt returning love forcing itself into his eyes; but not less ashamed of feeling remorse towards one against whom he was inwardly meditating a yet more bitter outrage, he curbed the yearnings of his heart, and did not dare to lean even towards pity. The next transition of his soul was to exquisite villainy.
I love that last line, “The next transition of his soul was to exquisite villainy.” Most excellent!
No more about the plot. You have to read it to believe it. And reading it is great fun. I expected it to be completely silly, and it was, but it was also engaging and kept me turning those e-book pages. I can imagine it must have been frightening and shocking to readers back in the day when there was no gothic tradition and cliche for it to fall into. Readers today might roll their eyes a bit and giggle now and then, but it is still well worth the read, especially as a RIP choice.