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Reading the World: Italy

Our next stop is Italy; hopefully it will fill you with springtime joy to visit the beautiful landscapes and well-paced way of life which are evoked in the following books.

1. Inkheart by Cornelia Funke (2003)
‘Meggie loves books. So does her father, Mo, a bookbinder, although he has never read aloud to her since her mother mysteriously disappeared. They live quietly until the night a stranger knocks at their door. He has come with a warning that forces Mo to reveal an extraordinary secret – a storytelling secret that will change their lives for ever.’

2. Titus Andronicus by William Shakespeare (c. 1588-1593) 9780199536108
‘Titus Andronicus was the young Shakespeare’s audacious, sporadically brilliant experiment in sensational tragedy. Its horrors are notorious, but its powerful poetry of grief is the work of a true tragic poet.’

3. The Enchanted April by Elizabeth von Arnim (1922)
‘A discreet advertisement in ‘The Times’, addressed to ‘Those who Apppreciate Wisteria and Sunshine…’ is the impetus for a revelatory month for four very different women. High above the bay on the Italian Riviera stands San Salvatore, a mediaeval castle. Beckoned to this haven are Mrs. Wilkins, Mrs Arbuthnot, Mrs Fisher and Lady Caroline Dester, each quietly craving a respite. Lulled by the Mediterranean spirit, they gradually shed their skins and discover a harmony each of them has longed for but never known. First published in 1922 and reminscient of ‘Elizabeth and her German Garden’, this delightful novel is imbued with the descriptive power and light-hearted irreverence for which Elizabeth von Arnin is renowned.’

4. Death in Venice by Thomas Mann 9780486287140
‘”Death in Venice, ” tells about a ruinous quest for love and beauty amid degenerating splendor. Gustav von Aschenbach, a successful but lonely author, travels to the Queen of the Adriatic in search of an elusive spiritual fulfillment that turns into his erotic doom. Spellbound by a beautiful Polish boy, he finds himself fettered to this hypnotic city of sun-drenched sensuality and eerie physical decay as it gradually succumbs to a secret epidemic.’

5. The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole (1764)
”Look, my lord! See heaven itself declares against your impious intentions!’ The Castle of Otranto (1764) is the first supernatural English novel and one of the most influential works of Gothic fiction. It inaugurated a literary genre that will be forever associated with the effects that Walpole pioneered. Professing to be a translation of a mysterious Italian tale from the darkest Middle Ages, the novel tells of Manfred, prince of Otranto, whose fear of an ancient prophecy sets him on a course of destruction. After the grotesque death of his only son, Conrad, on his wedding day, Manfred determines to marry the bride-to-be. The virgin Isabella flees through a castle riddled with secret passages. Chilling coincidences, ghostly visitations, arcane revelations, and violent combat combine in a heady mix that terrified the novel’s first readers.’

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‘The Castle of Otranto’ by Horace Walpole ****

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.

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