Hesperus’ edition of Horace Walpole’s classic The Castle of Otranto has been published in honour of the novella’s 250th anniversary. It is widely recognised as the first ever Gothic novel, and has inspired authors as diverse as Edgar Allen Poe, Daphne du Maurier and J.K. Rowling. It is worth mentioning that Horace Walpole, born in 1717, was the son of Robert Walpole, Britain’s first prime minister.
The Castle of Otranto, says its blurb, ‘abounds in mystery and melodrama’. Its premise is interesting, and one can see how it has inspired so many works which have been published since. In the novella, there is an ancient prophecy attached to the Otranto family, which tells that in the future, the royal family will have to ‘relinquish control’ of their kingdom: ‘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 crux of the story comes when the young prince Conrad – ‘the darling of his father’ – is killed in a mysterious accident on the morning of his wedding. His father, Manfred, now without an heir and intent upon disproving the prophecy, vows to divorce his wife, Hippolita, and marry his son’s fiancee, Isabella, the daughter of the Marquis of Vicenza. As one might expect, Isabella is horrified, and decides to flee the castle before she is forced into an unwanted marriage contract. A peasant named Theodore – the sharp contrast to the wealth and power which the Otrantos hold – discovers her trying to run away, and gallantly tells Isabella, ‘I will die in your defence’.
Walpole came up with the setting for his story by basing it upon a Gothic-style house which he built in 1747 and named Strawberry Hill. The entire castle certainly has a creepy feel to it, and is filled with shadows and secrets. Walpole builds the sense of foreboding and the more Gothic elements of the tale very well indeed – ‘that long labyrinth of darkness’, for example. He has also drawn his cast of characters in such a way that the range of emotions which they display renders them eminently believable beings.
The Castle of Otranto is very of its time; the sentences are sometimes complex, the whole is overdramatic at times – sometimes unnecessarily so – and there is a veritable mountain of ‘womanish panic’ which abounds, with the female protagonists both shrieking and swooning away. It is undoubtedly well written, and Walpole’s grasp of language is marvellous, so much so that his prose style feels absorbing from the very first. The dialogue is strong, and the entirety of the novella is very rich indeed. The Castle of Otranto is one of those rare classics; one which everyone is sure to enjoy.