The first book that I completed for the Gothic challenge was The Castle of Otranto, by Horace Walpole. The first edition of this work was released in 1764 and it was claimed to be a translation of a manuscript that was printed in 1529 that Walpole had rediscovered. And Walpole purported that the story was actually even older, and that it dated back to the time of the Crusades. Several reviewers, thinking that this was a medieval novel, were impressed by the work and gave it favorable reviews. However, Walpole came clean when the second edition of the work was released. He identified himself as the writer. He wrote, “The favourable manner in which this little piece has been received by the public, calls upon the author to explain the grounds on which he composed it.” He continued by saying that it was “an attempt to blend the two kinds of romance, the ancient and the modern. In the former all was imagination and improbability: in the latter, nature is always intended to be, and sometimes has been, copied with success.” After this admission, many of the critics were not happy to be duped and were not kind to the work or to the author. Many dismissed it as nonsense. Even though the critics disliked the work, the edition that I read of this novel was the 131st edition. It has had staying power and has rarely been out of print.
I started with this work since it is thought to be the first novel that fits into the gothic genre. It seemed like the perfect novel to begin this challenge.
This delightful tale starts off with a bang. On his wedding day, Conrad, the son of Manfred, is crushed to death by a large helmet. How and why did this happen? A prophecy may help to explain the bizarre event. “That the castle and lordship of Otranto should pass from the present family, whenever the real owner should be grown too large to inhabit it.”
The loss of his son causes Manfred, the lord of the castle, to panic. He wants his bloodline and control of the castle to continue. He resolves to marry Conrad’s intended, the princess Isabella. But there are two problems. Manfred is already married. And Isabella does not want to marry him. Manfred determines to divorce his wife. But Isabella runs away. Manfred, who is used to getting his way, pursues her.
From this point on, the story gets even better. The servants are running around frightened half to death by strange sounds and visions within the castle. Newcomers to town end up involved in the drama at the castle. Manfred’s daughter Matilda gets involved in the action. And nothing goes as planned. Haunted castles, a power-crazed lord of the castle, prophesies, frightened inhabitants, and mysterious strangers all add up to an entertaining and sometimes frightening tale.
Overall I enjoyed this work. It did take some getting used to since Walpole was imitating medieval writing and the writing style was quite different from the typical novels I read. I had a hard time figuring out who was talking in the book. Quotation marks were not used to indicate that someone was speaking. Also, the paragraphs are quite long and packed full detail. Once I became accustomed to this style, I found myself engrossed in the story.