Fat Books & Thin Women


Classic Read: Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto


My interest in The Castle of Otranto was partly stirred by memorizing (well, trying to memorize) its baffling plot while I studied for the literature GRE, but mostly by Amanda’s review of the book over at The Zen Leaf. Although she wasn’t a big fan of the book, something about her description of the plot caught me. I am not one who can long resist reading a book that opens with a prince being crushed by a giant helmet on his wedding day.

Horace Walpole wrote The Castle of Otranto, and originally claimed that the work was a translation from the French. It’s widely seen as the first Gothic novel, and although it was first published in 1764, Walpole claimed it came from a 1529 manuscript. The style of the book reminds me of what works I’ve read from that earlier period; conversation tends to come second to description of conversation, and even what speaking there is doesn’t attempt to recreate the cadences of real speech, but exists to pass on information.

The short novel takes place over three days (according to Manfred at novel’s end, anyway; I found it hard to keep track of time) at the Castle of Otranto. Manfred, the castle’s lord, is crushed (ha, ha) after his son Conrad is crushed, literally, on his wedding day by a giant helmet that falls from the sky. Following his son’s death Manfred seeks the advice of the Friar Jerome; he wants to divorce his wife, Hippolita, and marry Isabella (who was to marry his son) so that he can have a male heir.

Why all the fuss? There is an ancient prophecy about the castle, and Manfred fears that it is coming true: “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.”

Isabella, unwilling to marry Manfred, runs away and hides with the aid of a peasant, Theodore. Because of Jerome’s efforts to dissuade Manfred from marrying Isabella, by claiming that she loves Theodore, Manfred decides to kill the youth; but when Theodore lowers his shirt slightly from around his neck in preparation for his beheading, Friar Jerome sees a birthmark and recognizes the peasant as his son.

Manfred is interrupted from making any further decisions regarding Theodore’s life by the arrival of knights from another kingdom seeking Isabella. These knights, to give you a better sense of the feel of this scene, arrive bearing a sword so large one hundred men are needed to carry it.

The knights and Manfred are each trying to find Isabella first. Theodore, locked in a tower following his near-beheading, is freed by Manfred’s daughter, Matilda (who he falls in love with), and races to find Isabella. The pair end up in a cave, rumored to be haunted, which is found by one of the knights. Not realizing that the knights are on his side, Theodore wounds the knight, who is then discovered to be Isabella’s father, Frederic. They race back to the castle so the knight can be treated.

Frederic’s wounds turn out not to be serious. In the course of treatment, Frederic falls in love with Matilda, and Manfred and Frederic agree to marrying each others daughters: Frederic with Matilda, Manfred with Isabella. Although Matilda and Theodore are in love with each other, Manfred remains under the illusion that Isabella and Theodore are having an affair. He goes to the chapel in search of them, with a knife, and stabs his own daughter, before realizing he’s found Matilda and Theodore in the chapel, not Isabella and Theodore.

Matilda dies, and Theodore is revealed (by the vision of the giant Alfonso) to be the true prince of Otranto, via some baffling and heretofore unknown trysts. Theodore eventually marries Isabella because she is the only one who can understand his lasting sadness over Matilda’s death.

There are a lot of ridiculous elements to the plot: the giant helmet (or, “casque”) crushing Conrad, the giant sword found by Frederic’s knights and then carried to the Castle of Otranto, the giant Alfonso appearing to declare Theodore the true heir of the castle and then ascending to heaven, and the innumerable discoveries of heretofore unknown relations. It strikes me, stylistically, as a book you’ll either love or hate, and something about the tone hit me in the right place. I really, really liked this book. Take the description of the arrival of the knights, and how the word choice pushes the scene just slightly over the top:

Manfred’s heart misgave him when he beheld the plumage on the miraculous casque shaken in concert with the sounding of the brazen trumpet.

Or this exchange, after Manfred has instructed Jerome to leave his newly discovered son, Theodore, and go to discover who is arriving at the castle:

“I acknowledge I have been too hasty,” said Manfred. “Father, do you go to the wicket, and demand who is at the gate.”

“Do you grant me the life of Theodore?” replied the Friar.

“I do,” said Manfred; “but inquire who is without!”

Jerome, falling on the neck of his son, discharged a flood of tears, that spoke the fulness of his soul.

“You promised to go to the gate,” said Manfred.

“I thought,” replied the Friar, “your Highness would excuse my thanking you first in this tribute of my heart.”

This conversation is so ridiculous – the idea that Jerome has just discovered his long-lost son in Theodore, has just saved Theodore from being beheaded, and how oblivious Manfred is to this in his insistence that Jerome “go to the gate.”

Moments later Manfred learns that knights are at the gate, and that their arrival is no way connected to some cosmic displeasure at his plan of beheading Theodore; rather, they are they to question Manfred’s right to the castle. Manfred tells Jerome that his son, Theodore, is to be imprisoned:

“Good heaven! my lord!” cried Jerome, “your Highness did but this instant freely pardon my child – have you so soon forgot the interposition of heaven?”

“Heaven,” replied Manfred, “does not send Heralds to question the title of a lawful Prince. I doubt whether it even notifies its will through Friars – but that is your affair, not mine. At present you know my pleasure; and it is not a saucy Herald that shall save your son, if you do not return with the Princess.”

I’m over quoting, but I want you to get a sense of the tone of the novel, which is fluffy and excessive and somehow kind of wonderful. This morning I began to read (I think from the scene I quoted so much above, actually) while I was making Turkish coffee, and I got so distracted by the book that my coffee boiled all over the stove and I had to make a second pot. If there is one true test of the quality of a book I would guess that that is it, and that The Castle of Otranto passed.

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7 Comments

I think most likely the reason I didn’t like this one as much as I could have was 1) the way the dialogue was set out in pages-long blocks of text, so I had a hard time differentiating who was speaking, and 2) I’d just read The Monk, which was an absolutely fantastic gothic novel and I’d hoped Otranto would be more like it. I’m glad you enjoyed it though! What struck me most about the book were the feathers on the casque bowing when the trumpets sounded.

Comment by Amanda

thanks for commenting. I did notice you mentioned the blocks of text in your review. I was reading with a download from project gutenberg and i wonder if they laid it out differently, because the speech was split up pretty well on my kindle.

I’ve never been interested in gothic fiction before, but suddenly have this inexplicable desire to read it…just downloaded “the monk” and will be starting it soon. (right after i finish the hunger games which at the rate i’m going will be…tomorrow.)

Comment by Ellen Rhudy

The gutenberg version was laid out well? I might need to download to my kindle and reread it then! I swear my version had 7-page long paragraphs!!

Comment by Amanda

yeah, i was surprised when i read that you had problems with the long paragraphs! there were still some, for sure, but the reading went pretty quickly because the dialogue was split up so well. sometimes looked like half the screen was white space.

Comment by Ellen Rhudy

I’ve been getting much more into classics lately — I love a good fiction read, so I’ll be putting this on my list. Love the review!

Comment by Coffee and a Book Chick

[…] November I read, and fell in love with, Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto. Otranto is widely recognized as the first gothic novel and opens with a man being crushed by a […]

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