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.
It's been years since I read this, but I remember it being much more readable than Radcliffe's books. I think Sylvester holds up pretty well!ReplyDelete
I used to teach this book as part of a module on gothic and romantic literature. I have to say that almost without exception the students thought it was a very silly book and I had a hard time convincing them otherwise as I really thought so too. The best I could do was say it was historically interesting. You should try The Monk by Matthew Lewis -- a much better novel though needing quite a strong stomach.ReplyDelete
Lisa May - Sylvester is holding up very well.ReplyDelete
Harriet, I've half tried the monk but didn't get very far. This was a silly book but it's fizzing with ideas and I love that about it - and all those much better books which might never have been written without Walpole making someone think 'I can improve that'...
I had to study this for A level, our English mistress said we'd never read 18th C literature through choice so she'd make us. All I can say about Otranto was that it was better than Vathek by Beckford. I enjoyed The Mysteries of Udolpho though, but I agree with Lisa May, Sylvester holds up very well indeed.ReplyDelete
I think yours is the first review I've seen of Otranto which doesn't completely dismiss it as silly or ridiculous. I think it's sometimes difficult to look at the really old books and see them as their original readers might have--we forget that Walpole was inventing something new, and it must have seemed thrilling to his readers at the time.ReplyDelete
Victoria Corby, Sylvester was excellent. I think your English teacher might have had a point - how do you look back on her now?ReplyDelete
Simpler Pastimes - it won't ever be a favourite, but a book that was so influential will always be intriguing and as it's so short I feel reading it was an afternoon well spent.
I think the trick to reading some of these older works is to push all thoughts out of your mind and just read. I just finished Udolpho, and thought I might have a tough time, but knew if I went into it with that in my head, I would fail. Or Radcliffe's writing is just excellent?ReplyDelete
Either way I like giving older books a try and will certainly pick up Otranto the next time I am the library. Great review and appreciate your thoughts.
Oh and Sylvester is only list as well. Thanks for recommendation. Slowly working my way through Heyer.
Hi Jenny, I take the same approach with older books. Head down and get on with it because despite it sometimes being hard work there are also plenty of rewards. Hope you enjoy Sylvester.ReplyDelete
I should probably hold my hand up and say that I was one of the dismissive bloggers but I do agree that Bianca was a decent comic character and Walpole was certainly full of ideas. Maybe we do need to think how his contemporary readers would have read this but we are reading today and i just don;t think it holds up well, especially when we have all read better gothic novels.ReplyDelete
Anyway, interesting post that made me go back and have another think!
Falaise - it's not the best book but at least it was short and I'm glad I've ticked it off the list of Things I'm Quite Curious About. I think it was worth reading - but only once.ReplyDelete
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