So, I have finished reading The Castle of Otranto, and even started the next book on my list (!!!) The Spanish Tragedy by Thomas Kyd (tune in next time for my review of that little gem. It’s quite good so far actually…)
The Castle of Otranto then! The novel was published in 1764, and is one of the first in a very, very long line of Gothic novels. The Gothic novel is a novel we are all familiar with: dark, haunted mansions, heroes and heroines falling in love and dying, intrigue, and mystery. The Castle of Otranto is no different!
As always, readers, spoilers abound, so be careful!
I hesitate to say that The Castle of Otranto is a typical Gothic novel, because in reality, it was written before Gothic tropes were a ‘thing’. However, it does carry the hallmarks of one of the best (and my favourite) genres of fiction.
Set in a magnificent castle, the novel begins with a prophecy and a tragedy; on the day of his wedding, Conrad, the weak and sickly only son of Manfred, Viceroy of Otranto, is murdered. However, the circumstances are unusual. There is no real suspect, and yet the young man’s head has been crushed by an enormous helmet, one that no one has seen before. The plot thickens when a young peasant runs to the temple and finds that the marble helmet atop the statue of St. Nicholas is missing. The young man is imprisoned for his troubles as Manfred falls into a rage.
Following his son’s death, Manfred decides to marry Conrad’s intended, Isabella.
The young man, named Theodore, helps Isabella to flee from Manfred and later meets Matilda, Manfred’s daughter. The two fall quickly in love, but Isabella also harbours affection for the young man who helped her to escape.
As Theodore is to be killed, it transpires that he is not a peasant at all, but rather the son of the Count of Falconara. During this minor distraction, Isabella’s father arrives, and it is discovered that Frederick (Isabella’s father) is in fact a distant relation of Manfred’s family’s predecessor, Alfonso, who died “without issue”* and so has claim to the Otranto estate.
Later, while once again trying to protect Isabella, Theodore accidently wounds her father, almost killing him. Then, during a chance meeting between Matilda and Theodore, Manfred mistakes Matilda for Isabella and, believing her to be carrying on a secret tryst with Theodore, stabs her. After Matilda dies, it is discovered that Theodore is not only high-born, he is actually the true heir of Alfonso, who did not die without issue as it previously appeared.
And so, Theodore accedes the throne of Otranto, and marries Isabella, with whom he will always be able to commiserate the loss of his true love. I’m not joking, it literally says that, or words to that effect, at the end. Nice.
So! Now that I have laboriously explained the entire plot, what did I think of the novel itself? Well, it was mildly enjoyable, if a bit predictable, although I recognise that it may not have been at all predictable to readers of that time. I was a little bit annoyed with all of the characters at some point in the book, except Matilda who is barely a character at all, so I’m not sure if that counts. I was also very irritated by the fact that all the supernatural occurrences in the plot weren’t properly explained. I mean, one can infer from the events what the general idea is, but the story makes just as much sense without the supernatural elements, so I think they were a little bit unnecessary. Having said that, without this first foray into the mixing of the supernatural and romance genres, we might not have had Frankenstein, or Rebecca, or, heaven forefend, Dracula!
All in all, I don’t think I have a lot to say about this novel. It was interesting to see the first attempt at this style of writing, and I am immensely glad that it has grown the way it has, but it’s not one of my favourites so far.
Stylistically speaking, the tone was a little difficult. I couldn’t always tell who was speaking, but that was mostly because there is zero speech punctuation. No speech marks or anything. Very irritating. And also because Walpole used dashes far to often in the dialogue, sometimes to signify a change of speaker, but also sometimes to show a pause in the speech. As I say, quite difficult to read.
All the typical indicators of gothic writing were there: the weird happenings, lovers at cross-purposes, general miscommunication and misunderstanding, several surprise reveals. I can’t complain really, but I wasn’t enthralled by it as I have been by the other Gothic novels I mentioned before.
I am going to cease prattling on about this now and invite you to tell me if you’ve read The Castle of Otranto and thought differently, or if you thoroughly enjoyed it, or if my post as prompted you to go and find a copy. To be honest, if you love Gothic literature as much as I do, I would suggest that you give it a quick read when you have nothing better to do. It was great to see the origins of my favourite genre.
As I said, next time I’ll be writing about The Spanish Tragedy by Thomas Kyd, and I really think that that post will be much more interesting!
’til next time, readers!
*Interesting little titbit about me when I was younger: I always misunderstood the whole ‘he died without issue’ thing. I thought it meant that there wasn’t any problem when the guy died, and it used to confuse the life out of me, because, well, the guy’s dead, so obviously there was some sort of issue!