The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole.

The Castle of Otranto is a short novel by Horace Walpole (the son of one of the first Prime Ministers Robert Walpole) first published in 1764 and claimed to be a translation of a work published in 1529. It is believed to be the first Gothic novel that combined horror and romance with a medieval feel, and it sparked a whole new literary movement (Walpole can thus be thanked for the likes of Bram Stoker, Edgar Allan Poe, even Jane Austen, for Northanger Abbey, and Emily BrontĂ« for Wuthering Heights. He is also to be damned for Ann Radcliffe and also Twilight).

Truth be told, this isn't a great novel (though it deserves recognition not only for creating a new wave of literature but also for the sheer audacity and impudence of having the thing published). It leaps straight into the action:
Manfred, Prince of Otranto, had one son and one daughter: the latter, a most beautiful virgin, aged eighteen, was called Matilda.  Conrad, the son, was three years younger, a homely youth, sickly, and of no promising disposition; yet he was the darling of his father, who never showed any symptoms of affection to Matilda.  Manfred had contracted a marriage for his son with the Marquis of Vicenza’s daughter, Isabella; and she had already been delivered by her guardians into the hands of Manfred, that he might celebrate the wedding as soon as Conrad’s infirm state of health would permit.
Poor Conrad barely makes it through the second page - he is crushed by a giant helmet (leading to cries of "Oh! the helmet! the helmet!", now my favourite quote in literature). An attractive peasant, Theodore, points out that the offending helmet looks not unlike the helmet on the statue of Otranto's founder Alfonso. This observation goes down like, well, a giant helmet with Manfred who imprisons him (under the helmet) for his utterances. Why? It brings to mind a prophecy - 
... which was said to have pronounced 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."  It was difficult to make any sense of this prophecy; and still less easy to conceive what it had to do with the marriage in question.  Yet these mysteries, or contradictions, did not make the populace adhere the less to their opinion.
The sensible course of action is of course for Manfred to divorce his wife Hippolita and marry Conrad's intended Isabella. Isabella however welcomes that proposal even less than Conrad's and so escapes with Theodore to a convent. Manfred, unperturbed by her escape nor the strange goings on in the castle, follows her to the convent where she is protected by Father Jerome. He warns Manfred not to persist and that his divorce offends the very heavens. Manfred, then, opts to execute Theodore but by a strange twist of fate, Theodore turns out to be Jerome's son, and Jerome, it is revealed, is the count of Falconara. Manfred, then, swaps Theodore for Isabella. As luck would have it, however, a knight happens to be passing by who has come to rescue Isabella. The search is on, then, for Isabella.

Meanwhile, Matilda, Manfred's daughter who is "a most beautiful virgin, aged eighteen" aids Theodore's escape. In his hiding place in the woods he finds Isabella, but so too does the knight. Theodore battles him, assuming he is working for Manfred, and wounds him. It is then revealed that the knight is Isabella's father Frederic, so they return with him to the castle so that he might recover. There Manfred tries to get Frederic to marry Matilda, so that Manfred can marry Isabella. Frederic agrees, and Hippolita rather kindly agrees to sort out the divorce. The rub is, however, Matilda wants to marry Theodore. Manfred however thinks Theodore and Isabella are intending to marry behind his back so he goes to the church armed. There, I'm afraid to say, he mistakes Matilda for Isabella and kills his own daughter. But it's not all doom and gloom! Oh no, for Theodore turns out to be the true heir of Otranto. He becomes the Prince of Otranto, Isabella marries him, and Manfred is left to repent.

And that is The Castle of Otranto, which is in short awful but important. It would seem to have been partly inspired by Henry VIII and his divorce from Catherine of Aragon (who was Arthur Tudor, Henry VIII's brother) and marriage to Anne Boleyn. Manfred is a great Gothic villain and Matilda a wonderful virgin victim. It is entertaining, but perhaps not in the way Walpole had intended. I'm glad to have read it and wouldn't be surprised if it had been made into a rather wonderful Hammer Horror.

The Castle of Otranto : the old English Baron by Horace Walpole (1800 edition).

Comments

  1. Oh, I love this crazy whacked-out book. Has anybody ever topped that giant helmet? Also, why are so many Gothic-novel women named Matilda??

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    1. Oh! the helmet! Indeed nothing has ever topped the helmet :)

      And I hadn't noticed the Matilda thing - I don't read much in the way of Gothic but I'll keep it in mind :)

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  2. Okay so you didn't tell us whether or not you laughed through it. It kind of makes you want to write something equally as ludicrous. I don't know why. Perhaps it takes you completely out of this world to inhabit another one that is so absurd that it's rather compelling. I'm smiling right now just thinking about it.

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    1. I did laugh, out loud at the helmet part! Such a mad tale. Fun, in a way :)

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  3. i recall approaching this with a certain amount of trepidation but by the end i was thinking of a "Three Stooges" movie... i still think Horace wrote this tongue in cheek...

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    1. I hope so :) I don't know anything about him to work it out!

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