Title: The Castle of Otranto (Goodreads)
Author: Horace Walpole
Published: Penguin, 1764
Genre: Classic, Gothic
My Copy: Audiobook
Buy: Amazon, Book Depository, Kindle (or visit your local Indie bookstore)
Conrad, the heir to the house of Otranto, died under mysterious circumstances on the day of his wedding. His father, Manfred, lord of the castle, who feared the end of his dynasty, was determined to marry his son’s betrothed. However as Manfred tries to marry Princess Isabella, she escapes to a church and a number of supernatural events stand in his way. These terrifying omens soon threaten this unlawful union, as the curse placed on Manfred’s ancestor, who usurped the lawful Prince of Otranto, begins to unfold.
The Castle of Otranto established the Gothic as a literary genre and inspired Ann Radcliffe, Bram Stoker, Daphne Du Maurier and Stephen King. The Castle of Otranto has a unique blend of psychological realism, supernatural terror, guilty secrets and unlawful desires but I read this book as a critic on marriage. In 1773 The Marriage Act was passed, an act that is also known as “An Act for the Better Prevention of Clandestine Marriage”. The act was successful in preventing marriages not performed by an Anglican clergyman but also this act didn’t apply to royalty.
This act was passed eleven years before The Castle of Otranto was published and considering the fact that Horace Walpole was the Member of Parliament for Callington (1741–1754), Castle Rising (1754–1757) and King’s Lynn (1757–1768), I get the sense that he would have had strong opinions on the topic. From some quick research on Horace Walpole, I know that he had a strong interest in social and political issues. We can’t overlook his sexuality either, Walpole never married or had relationships with women; some claim he was asexual but I tend to side with the people that claimed he was a homosexual. Some of his closest friends including Anne Seymour Damer and Mary Berry are apparently lesbians as well. This information and the reading of this novel led me to interpret the fact that Walpole was against The Marriage Act.
Let’s look at the novel, Manfred was planning on ending his marriage with Hippolita and marry the much younger Isabella. The introduction of the Marriage Act (despite this book being set sometime between 1000 and 1200) meant that the marriage would have been easier to achieve and Isabella’s fear of Manfred more realistic. Putting aside Isabella’s reluctance to the marriage, there were also the supernatural events (the Church) standing in his way, in which I interpreted as the church still being against clandestine marriage despite it being possible for Manfred. I read the entire book as a metaphor of society and the church standing in the way of a desired marriage. This brings me to an interesting thought; Lord Manfred is considered the antagonist on the novel, portrayed as being deranged but I viewed this as the social view of homosexuality at the time.
There is so much more I can talk about here, like the archetype of Gothic characters (involving heroes and anti-heroes) and the setting (the Castle). While I have talked about Manfred, I want to quickly talk about Isebella and the castle. When Isebella tried to escape she turned into the outsider, a person thrown out of her community; this could also be used as a metaphor for Walpole’s feelings and sexuality. When she escaped she used the underground passages of the castle, which invokes all the characteristics of the Gothic genre; the darkness, obscurity, vastness, and the terror that may arising. Yet the castle and its mysterious characteristic could be a motif for Horace Walpole’s loneliness in the universe.
I won’t go into any more symbols, themes or motifs or this would turn into a really long review. My main interpretation of this novel is clear and I hope I have given you enough to back up my claims. While this isn’t my favourite example of Gothic literature, it was a great read and while short, there is a lot to digest. For all Gothic fans, I recommend checking out The Castle of Otranto; this is an excellent example of the gothic form.