Sunday, November 11, 2012

The Castle of Otranto

The Castle of Otranto

“It was an attempt to blend the two kinds of romance, the ancient and the modern.  In the former, all was imagination and improbability; in the latter, nature is always intended to be, and sometimes has been, copied with success.”  

I have been a fan of the Gothic probably all my life, but this relationship was never formalized until 2003 when I took the Gothic Horror course from the University of New Mexico’s Honors program.  I loved it and have since turned my eye toward all things Gothic (especially literature) with enjoyment.  

However, I had never read the granddaddy of them all, The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole, which is an amusing example of art inspiring life inspiring art inspiring hundreds more years of art!  To explain, Walpole was interested in the Gothic, as in the style of architecture you associate with Notre Dame in Paris.  He was also interested in medieval and Renaissance values and, as I understand, preferred to live in the past rather than in his 18th century present.  So in order to indulge himself (given he was a gentleman with a private income), he built Strawberry Hill, which is a Gothic architectural fantasy.  Then he had a dream while within the building that inspired The Castle of Otranto.  This novel(la) inspired all the other Gothic writers who soon followed, and the rest is history, as they say.

I didn’t have very high expectations for Castle of Otranto, I have to say.  I’d heard the plot was meandering and convoluted and the whole thing was difficult to read.  What you have to remember, however, is that in 1764 when he wrote it, the novel as a form was still in its infancy.  Every new novel was going to be an experiment in form and even content, and throughout the century debates raged on whether the novel had any instructive value or worth or whether it was frivolous, even corrupting, entertainment.  The subtitle is “A Story,” and I was surprised to find it actually a cracking good yarn.  

The plot is most definitely meandering, but in a weird sense, it’s like a historical novel, and an incident-filled plot filled with sorcery, fatalism, and the supernatural evokes comparisons to an attempt at writing prose after Shakespeare.  In what would become a hallmark of the Gothic style, the “editor” purports to have found a manuscript from 1549 which may be as old as from the 13th century, even though it is obviously Walpole writing the story himself; in another hallmark of the style, it is set in feudal Italy.  It is a story of dynasty and the dormant fears of lack of legacy and incest bubbling under the surface; there are hidden noblemen, and, as in Shakespeare, improbable coincidences concerning a long-lost father and son.  Also, like Shakespeare, there are interludes of lower class comedy; the retention of such characters for these purposes continues into fin de siècle Gothic.  Manfred, the corrupted villain, is not entirely unsympathetic, given he seems to be driven to his evil deeds by good intentions and often tries to repent, only to be driven back to his purpose by anger, embarrassment, and obsession.  Women, of course, are the principal victims; given they are selfless paragons of virtue, we can’t lavish too much interest on them.  Strangely, for a Gothic progenitor there is actually very little here in the way of the supernatural, and no ghosts, vampires, demons, or zombies.  However, some very uncanny things happen, so it cannot be explained away as a female Gothic (at least if read at face-value).  

The style of writing isn’t easy, but considering it is over two hundred years old, I don’t begrudge it that difficulty.  There is no dialogue in the way we would now recognize it.  Still, once one gets used to the rhythms of Walpole’s writing, it is quite a jaunty tale.  I wouldn’t ask anyone to read it who wasn’t interested in either the Gothic or the 18th century, as it is no truly timeless masterpiece of human experience, but it was much better than I had been led to believe. 

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