The Castle of Otranto

Forget Ann Radcliffe–The Castle of Otranto has prior claims as the earliest gothic novel. It was published anonymously in 1764 by Horace Walpole, who claimed it to be an actual Italian story from the Middle Ages. Later, in a preface, he explained the work as an attempt to combine the “ancient and modern;” that is, the supernatural events of earlier romances and the contemporary emphasis on nature. He wanted his characters to react naturally to mysterious happenings.

The house of Otranto consists of the prince Manfred, his wife Hippolita, and their children Conrad and Matilda. Conrad has been betrothed to Isabella by his father, but on the day of the wedding he is mysteriously killed in the courtyard. Thus a chain of fated events is set off, including sinful pursuits, noble peasants, uneasy ancestors, and secret identities.

I have read Jerusalem Delivered, a real Crusades romance by Tasso, and the attitudes and actions of the characters definitely ring true. Chivalry, virtue, and obedience to the will of God are prized above all, while the punishment for evil must last generations. The writing style did take a little getting used to, long paragraphs including dialogue without quotation marks. I know it was a hard life back then for the common people, but I don’t think I would have minded a castle with knights and princesses running around.

Walpole wrote in a letter to a friend,

“I almost think there is no wisdom comparable to that of exchanging what is called the realities of life for dreams. Old castles, old pictures, old histories, and the babble of old people make one live back into centuries that cannot disappoint one.”

Even at the date of publication the world described here was a thing of the past, able to be romanticized as an escape. I think that’s a large part of why I read historical fiction, and especially books set in the earlier twentieth century, because life somehow seems simpler.

This book meets the “building” category for the What’s in a Name 2 Challenge. It is also on both the 1001 Books and Guardian lists, which I hadn’t realized.

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Published in: on July 5, 2009 at 3:19 pm  Comments (2)  
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2 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. […] book with a “building” in its title: The Castle of Otranto, by Horace […]

  2. […] being written in the early 1900s, The Scoundrel is very medieval in feel, like The Castle of Otranto but without the supernatural (except for the girl frozen in ice). It’s divided into four […]


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