On Christmas Eve 1764, a small book appeared in London with the title: The Castle of Otranto, A Story, translated by William Marshall, Gent. From the original Italian of Onuphrio Muralto, Canon of the Church of St. Nicholas at Otranto. The Preface explained that the book, which had been printed in black letter at Naples in 1529, had been found “in the library of an ancient catholic family in the north of England”. The events were dated to the period of the crusades but the Italian was of a kind current in about 1500, and it was suggested that it had been published as a Catholic riposte to the attack on superstition mounted by the proponents of the Reformation.
This much was obfuscation, though of an interesting kind, since the story was actually written by Horace Walpole, the aristocratic son of Sir Robert Walpole, the political superman of the early eighteenth century, and on his own account an antiquary, art historian and letter-writer. When the work was republished a year later it was still anonymous, but some initials to an accompanying sonnet gave away the author's identity. In a Preface to this second edition, in which the explanation “A Gothic Story” is added to the title page, Walpole accounts for his ruse as the effect of diffidence and explains the story as an attempt to blend the ancient style of romance, where “all was imagination and improbability”, with the modern style in which “nature is always intended to be […] copied with success”. The return to a period of superstitious belief in the miraculous, as outlined in the first Preface, was clearly a source of novelistic pleasure to Walpole. In private correspondence he was still more keen to stress how the story represented his own free imaginative play. In one letter, to his fellow antiquary William Cole, he points out the origin of some of the details of the setting in aspects of his own house, and describes the origin of the novel as an unconscious imaginative stimulus:
I waked one morning […] 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 like mine filled 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 result was a plot that sounds, in summary, melodramatic. Manfred, prince of Otranto, is desperate to avoid the effects of a prophecy which warns that the lordship of Otranto will pass from his family when there are no more male heirs and “whenever the real owner should be grown too large to inhabit it”. He attempts to marry his son, Conrad, to the unenthusiastic Isabella, in order to prolong the line, but Conrad is killed by the fall of an immense helmet. A peasant, Theodore, who recognises the helmet as resembling that of Alfonso, a former prince of Otranto, is suspected of sorcery and imprisoned under it (the plumes of the helmet continue to wave at key moments through the rest of the story). A gigantic foot and leg also appear in the castle. Theodore escapes into an underground passage and helps Isabella to escape to the neighbouring monastery where she claims sanctuary; he is recaptured. Manfred, who has seen the ghost of his grandfather walk out of a picture to admonish him, tries to enlist the help of the priest, Jerome, to dissolve his marriage to Hippolita so that he can marry Isabella himself and thus produce heirs. Manfred's daughter, Matilda, falls in love with Theodore, who is recognised as his own son by Jerome. Isabella's father (Frederic) arrives, with an improbably enormous sword, to reclaim both her and the seat of Otranto, which Manfred is alleged to have usurped. Theodore escapes with Matilda's help and discovers Isabella in a cave in a gloomy forest; he protects her from a masked knight, who turns out to be her father. Manfred then offers Matilda to Frederic if he will agree to his own marriage to Isabella. These events are accompanied by further portents: dreams, thunder, unearthly groans, drops of blood falling from statues. A giant hand interrupts proposals for furthering the marriages, and Frederic is warned off by a spectral skeleton. Enraged, Manfred follows Theodore and stabs the woman with him, thinking she is Isabella; but she turns out to be his own daughter, who then dies. The final apparition unites the scattered members of the phantasmal body and indicates something of the aspirations of Walpole's gothic imagination:
The moment Theodore appeared, the walls of the castle behind Manfred were thrown down with a mighty force, and the form of Alfonso, dilated to an immense magnitude, appeared in the centre of the ruins. Behold in Theodore, the true heir of Alfonso! said the vision: and having pronounced those words, accompanied by a clap of thunder, it ascended solemnly towards heaven, where the clouds parting asunder, the form of saint Nicholas was seen; and receiving Alfonso's shade, they were soon wrapt from mortal eyes in a blaze of glory.
Manfred finally confesses that Alfonso was poisoned by Manfred's grandfather and that the will declaring him heir was a forgery. He and Hippolita retire to neighbouring monasteries. Theodore turns out to be the grandson of Alfonso and becomes lord of Otranto, eventually marrying Isabella, but the gothic mood is maintained by a surprisingly sombre conclusion: “It was not until after frequent discourses with Isabella, of his dear Matilda, that he was persuaded he could know no happiness but in the society of one with whom he could forever indulge the melancholy that had taken possession of his soul”.
The main feature of the novel is thus its open use of supernatural events as indicators of human crimes and psychological states in an exotic pre-modern setting. Characterisation is, by modern standards, fairly limited. Theodore is unimpeachably noble, Hippolita virtuous, Matilda sympathetic, and so on. But Manfred is less unambiguously evil than later Gothic tyrants and is given motivations and responsibilities that reflect constraints outside his own ambition. Walpole is also careful to provide most of the characters with divided loyalties: Jerome is anxious for his son but trapped by his duties as a priest and the protector of Isabella; Frederic dislikes Manfred but is attracted by his daughter; Hippolita actually countenances the fatal divorce; Isabella is jealous of Matilda. The form of the novel is, as the first preface notes, dramatic, with five chapters corresponding to five acts, much speechifying, and a series of revelatory disclosures borrowed from theatrical models. The teasing-out of fatal secrets against resistance derives ultimately from Greek drama. Much of the language of the novel also derives from the theatre. Shakespeare was for Walpole the ultimate model, and he defends him against the strictures of Voltaire in the second “Preface”; but he was well versed in the theatrical tradition from Shakespeare onwards, which tended to heighten and express emotion more directly, and he had also witnessed the emotional extremes of the opera in London and Paris. The book is “theatrical” also in the sense of heightened display of sentiment and gesture.
The story narrates the interweaving of dynastic struggles with personal emotions; it is fascinated with lineage (both in the story itself and in the first, obfuscatory Preface that projects a fictional provenance for the story); it is also permeated by a strong sense of guilt. A strongly-defended family home is blown apart by the sins of the past.
Otranto has, not surprisingly, been the subject of considerable speculative attention. Certainly Walpole's position of complete financial and social independence allowed him the imaginative freedom to pursue his singular curiosity. He was able to enjoy whimsical generic hybridisation and to delight in surfaces, inventions, and “pure” performance, as few others could. The sexual tyranny exerted by the powerful father over the weak son and all the women within his circle has led to suggestions that Walpole was drawing on some suppressed elements of his family background (in public he was staunchly defensive of Sir Robert Walpole). In his political life Walpole was an unvarying Whig, but in Otranto he was fascinated by images of (almost) unlimited power and the authority of the Catholic church; in the first Preface he also impersonates a Catholic nobleman and crypto-Jacobite, for no very obvious satiric purpose. A story in which the tyrannical grandson of a usurper is replaced by the noble grandson of the rightful ruler has a disconcerting fit with Jacobite views of George III. The book thus allows Walpole to identify with fantasies of power and restoration fundamentally at odds with his normal political position. Walpole himself claimed to have written Otranto as an escape from the dispiriting world of political intrigue; it has also been argued, however, that the novel actually transmutes some of the elements of Walpole's quarrels in the House of Commons into its gothic power struggle. A much less convincing suggestion is that the novel was written to prove Walpole's masculinity at a time when, for political reasons, his sexuality was called in question.
The novel has wider cultural roots. It was part of the revival of interest in Gothic architecture, as evinced also in Strawberry Hill, Walpole's home in Twickenham, which he had been rebuilding and decorating in eclectic “Gothic” style since 1751. Popular antiquarian studies, of which Walpole was a main proponent, were leading towards increased interest in the imaginative possibilities of early literature. Richard Hurd's Letters on Chivalry and Romance (1762) argued strongly for the value of medieval fabling; Spenser and Chaucer were re-edited; the pseudo-Gaelic poetry of Ossian was “discovered” in the early 1760s; and (partly in the wake of Otranto), Bishop Percy published an edition of early ballads (Reliques of Ancient English Poetry, 1765).Thomas Chatterton's invention of a fifteenth-century poet was clearly inspired by, and in some ways addressed to, Walpole and his novel.
Early reviews of the novel found it absurd but entertaining, and were especially impressed by its psychological handling of situation and emotion. Once the authorship was known, there was some disquiet at the extravagance of the novel's imaginings, and its critical history has continued to exhibit uneasily mixed reactions, perhaps a symptom of its disquieting blend of pacy, goggle-eyed terror with moments of tongue-in-cheek burlesque and campness. Clara Reeve's The Champion of Virtue (1777; retitled The Old English Baron, 1778) transposed the events to England and a more rationalistic and legalistic context; this version too was popular, though not with Walpole. The novel was adapted for the stage, with Walpole's assistance, by Robert Jephson under the title The Count of Narbonne; largely dispensing with unstageable elements of the supernatural, it had a successful run in 1781-2. There were many editions of the novel, including some notable illustrated ones; the gothic wave that began its full force with the novels of Ann Radcliffe in the 1790s carried Otranto with it. The novel was republished with a highly appreciative introduction by Sir Walter Scott, whose own historical fictions bear witness to Walpole's influence, in 1811; Scott valued the book not only for its unfettered dreaming but also for its imaginative historical reconstructions.
Overblown, outrageous, cheerfully unstable and in some ways silly as it is, Otranto was hugely innovative and influential, and remains an indispensable document in the history of the gothic and of proto-romantic literature. It was universally read, and though it provided, more or less in kit form, a standard apparatus for the shilling shocker of the early nineteenth century (castle, subterranean passage, mysterious noises, apparitions, skeletons, tyranny, guilt, predatory sexuality, and so on) it also had the more serious effect of making it possible to cast “the novel” in non-realist guises, with exotic and historical settings and overt psychological symbolism.