Completed: The Castle of Otranto, Classics Spin

The Castle of Otranto - Horace WalpoleThe Castle of Otranto
Horace Walpole
1764, England

Eep! Between extra busyness at work (they’re expanding–lots of furniture moving going on), taxes (at points yesterday I  was feeling a bit stabby about the number of forms I had to fill out), and other distractions (books, actually!), here it is a good week after I finished The Castle of Otranto and I’m just now getting around to posting about it. Good thing the family Easter dinner isn’t until this evening…

The Classics Spin challenge proved a very effective means of finally returning to my Classics Club list (and also my Sensation! project for that matter). Lucky number 14 in my case turned out to be the novel considered the earliest Gothic novel, Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto.  It is really more a novella, which is a bit fortunate, as I found my reading attention more often directed elsewhere this month.

The Castle of Otranto is the second early (pre-1800) Gothic novel I’ve read (along with Castle Wolfenbach), and so far my impression of the genre–at least these early examples–is that they feel equivalent to today’s bestseller: fast-paced action stories full of unlikely twists and turns and unremarkable prose. Were it not for the archaic vocabulary (more or less difficult depending on one’s familiarity with the language of the era) a reader could zip through these novels in no time. Were it not for The Castle of Otranto‘s status as the first example, I could believe it easily forgotten. True, it might not be fair to compare The Castle of Otranto and Castle Wolfenbach, as the latter was forgotten, assumed a fictional creation of Jane Austen, but I confess I do not find the former any more remarkable or memorable. (Of course, well over a year later, I can still recall Eliza Parsons’s abundance of semi-colons.)

In the preface to the 2nd edition, Walpole claims to be attempting a blend of “two kinds of romance, the ancient and the modern. …in short, to make [the characters] think, speak and act, as it might be supposed mere men and women would do in extraordinary positions.” Whether this was a true motive or merely Walpole’s invented justification for creating a supernatural thriller, I do not know, but I find it a stretch to believe his characters “real,” at least as a 21st century reader. Not only are the women angelically good, some of the men are as well. Only the villain of the piece, Manfred, has any sort of complexity, and his motives and actions seem a bit of a stretch (or at least too susceptible to superstition for the 21st century mindset). In some ways, I find it amazing that we’ve ever believed women to be the more emotional of the species–literature seems to abound with men whose passions overtake their reason and Manfred is no exception. Of course, this could just be another example of the 18th/19th century English prejudice against the “exotic” Italian–Otranto is set in Italy (despite some very Germanic sounding names!)–and this is not the first novel I’ve read by an Englishman to portray the Italians as more susceptible to their passions for the worse. I imagine the foreign setting also made the supernatural elements go down easier with Walpole’s original readers.

Regardless of Walpole’s success or failure at realism–which I admittedly likely judge by different standards than his–his creation of a new genre is in do doubt. It is no wonder that Catherine Morland and Isabella Thorpe discussed with such animation their favorites of the day–they are undoubted entertainment. I was merely surprised that the father of them all seems to have so little meat to it.

10 thoughts on “Completed: The Castle of Otranto, Classics Spin”

  1. Great post! Ful confession: I’ve started this twice now and failed to finish on both occasions. I’m not sure what it is, but Otranto and I just don’t jive well together. Perhaps the third time is the charm? 😉

    1. Thanks, Diana! I think it was easier for me to finish Otranto not only because it was my Classics Spin title, but because it was the only book I had with me to read on my lunch breaks. 🙂 If you pick it up again, I hope the third time IS the charm!

  2. I’ve heard a lot about this book, but I don’t really remember where. Should check it next time I read another Gothic novel.

    1. As the first of the Gothic novels, I think Otranto gets talked about a lot, especially when readers are looking for one of the original Gothics. I’m not sure I would have read it except for that. And it’s short!

  3. I don’t think the novel is very good, but his collection of stories, Hieroglyphic Tales, is warmly recommended. They’re smarter, funnier and more playful, like the work of a totally different writer.

    1. Thanks for the recommendation! Based just on Otranto, I don’t think I’d be likely to pick up another Walpole, but since you recommend the stories so warmly I might check them out some time.

  4. I read this one a few years back for one of the R.I.P. challenges and thought it was great fun. It is interesting to read and realize how much the elements of the story have been used and re-used through the years. The stuff he created turned into gothic tropes that are still being used and reworked today.

    1. This would be a perfect R.I.P. read! I wonder what it must have been like to read it in its era, before other Gothic novels existed. Today I can only imagine so far as the tropes are all too recognizable, but it must have been something then.

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