Gothic revival architecture is something I’ve always found appealing, it’s all that exuberant decoration bordering on excess and then taking it a step further, it makes it look like someone was having fun (though clearly no one was thinking about what a nightmare it would be to dust) and that can’t be a bad thing (unless you have to dust it). Horace Walpole was an early champion of the Gothic revival, his Strawberry Hill a stage set for his imagination to play on.
Having discovered the architecture the literature soon followed but I’ve been better at collecting gothic novels than reading them. I bought ‘The Castle of Otranto’ 18 months ago on the back of the excellent Strawberry Hill exhibition at the V&A and still hadn’t read it when I saw it come up on the classics circuit. It’s a short book and this seemed like a good opportunity to buckle down – after all if you’re going to read gothic at all you really should get the book that started it all ticked off the list.
Having read Otranto my overall feeling is just that – one of box ticking, I’ve done it and I don’t need to do it again. Horace Walpole is not a brilliant novelist - though he does have some dazzling ideas. It’s hard to gauge how I’d have felt about ‘The Castle of Otranto’ if I hadn’t already read ‘Northanger Abbey’, or ‘Frankenstein’ or a good chunk of ETA Hoffman and plenty of others besides. I can just about imagine that it must have caused something of a stir when first published; with its collection of walking portraits, creaking doors, visions, death via giant mystical helmets, mysterious knights and damsels in distress there’s plenty to enjoy. It’s a testament to Walpole that plenty of people did enjoy Otranto and more than that took up his ideas and made some great books out of them.
Reading some of the other responses to ‘The Castle of Otranto’ from the classics circuit I find myself wanting to defend it – there are plenty of redeeming features; Manfred is a decently complex villain with a lot on his shoulders, Theodore the pattern book hero with a positively suicidal desire to show his heart and soul are pure just manages to stay on the right side of parody, and Bianca the maid - well she belongs to eighteenth century London rather than 11th century Italy and is a great comic touch.
I’m pleased to have finally read this book, just for the curiosity value alone it was time well spent. I think it will add to my appreciation of Scott when I come to read him again, and hope that it will help me with Thomas Love Peacock and Ann Radcliffe when they come off the shelf. Mostly though it’s inspired me to want to reach for Georgette Heyer’s ‘Sylvester’ where she does her own parody of the Gothic novel, it’s a while since I’ve read it and I’m wondering how it will hold up.