Monday, October 17, 2011

2,541: 1,001 Book Challenge - The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole

When the Classics Circuit announced that its latest tour was to take in pre-1840 gothic literature, a lightbulb went on (dimly, it must be said) above my head.  Here was a chance both to participate in the tour and to tick off another of the 1,001 books I must read before I die.  So I was pretty enthused about reading Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto.  After all, it is acknowledged to be the first gothic novel and, if it is in the 1,001 books list, it must be good – right? And I loved Dracula and Frankenstein so the genre can appeal to me.

Well, it didn’t quite work out like that.  On reflection, just because something is the first in its field, it doesn’t necessarily make it the best, or even any good and I suspect it is the book's place in literary history that gets it the nod for the 1,001 books list rather than any inherent merit.

The Castle of Otranto purports to be a late medieval manuscript that the author has discovered in the home of a prominent northern English catholic family (although Walpole admitted his authorship in later editions). The manuscript tells the story of Manfred, Lord of Otranto and the calamities that befall his family following the mysterious death of Manfred's only son on his wedding day, caused by a gigantic helmet falling on him from nowhere.

Manfred, whose sole raison d’être is to retain power in Otranto for him and his family, then determines that, since his wife Hippolita is unlikely to bear him another heir, he must divorce her and marry Isabella, his late son’s fiancée, who, as well as being the daughter of another powerful noble with a claim to Otranto, just so happens to be young and beautiful, which I am sure played no part at all in Manfred’s thinking.  Young Isabella isn’t overly keen on the idea of becoming the randy old goat’s wife and so does a runner from the castle, abetted by a curiously chivalrous and brave peasant, Theodore.

From here on in, Walpole throws a slew of gothic tropes at the reader, rather like an over-enthusiastic cook thinking that “just one more” ingredient will render a dish perfect.  So, we have doors opening with no human presence, supernatural artefacts suddenly appearing, damsels in distress, masked knights, long-lost family members, noblemen masquerading as peasants, the madness and hubris of princes and, of course, the satisfaction of an ancient prophesy, which leads to the extinction of Manfred’s bloodline and a happy ever after ending for Theodore and Isabella who marry and become rulers of Otranto.

Looking on the positive side, it’s short.  I read it on my Kindle but, in print, I suspect it must be less than a hundred pages.  This means that I didn’t waste too much time reading it.  To be fair, I did still keep turning the pages, although this was more to confirm that I was correct in my plot forecasts than out of any sense of intrigue as most of the plot twists are pretty obvious.  It is also funny in parts, sometimes intentionally, as with the character of Bianca, one of the servants of Matilda, Manfred’s daughter, who is clearly the designated comic relief, but, generally, unintentionally, through its excessive melodrama and the rollercoaster nature of the characters’ reactions such as Hippolita’s spontaneous flip-flopping on whether she should fight Manfred’s desire to divorce her and pack her off to a convent.

Unfortunately, that’s about everything on the credit side of the ledger.  On the debit side, as I have already mentioned, the characters have a habit of not just changing their minds but seemingly changing their entire moral outlooks within the space of a few pages.  Now I know it is a gothic novel and as such, has a great deal of inbuilt implausibility but this adds so much to it that it destroys any tension that might otherwise have been in the book.  It's also not helped by the fact that the plot is dependent on a number of unlikely occurrences that fortuitously beocme public knowledge at just the right time.

Added to this is the way Walpole treats his female characters.  Even allowing for the fact that he was writing in the 18th Century, they are amongst the drippiest and most sanctimonious collection of females that I have ever come across in a book.  Just to give you two examples, Hippolita, faced with divorce and confinement to a convent, refuses even to criticise her husband and when Manfred stabs his daughter, Matilda, to death, she forgives him and says how much she loves him!  All of the women, with the honourable exception of Bianca, behave as if they are mere chattels of their husbands and fathers and brook no criticism of their male relatives.  I know the book is set in the medieval period but, to this modern reader, it was truly annoying.  Let’s just say that if mini-Falaise were to grow up like them, I would be slitting my wrists in despair.

The Castle of Otranto is also predictable, over-melodramatic and completely lacking in horror or tension.  It actually reminded me of the episode of Dallas in which Pam Ewing wakes up and realises that Bobby hadn’t really died in the previous season but that she had, in fact, been dreaming all along.  Not so much jumping the shark as pole vaulting the aquarium.

It was an interesting read because it is possible to see the genesis of some of the staples of the genre in it and it does give some context to better and later examples of gothic literature so, to that extent, it was worth reading but it certainly won’t be qualifying for a re-read.

Finally, I’d like to thank Rebecca and everyone who helps out with the Classics Circuit tours both for another fascinating topic but for all the work they put in on this fantastic idea.

If you’d like to read more on pre-1840 gothic literature, today’s other tour stops are:

·        A Striped Armchair - The Old English Baron by Clara Reeve or Wieland by Charles Brockden Brown
·        Devouring Texts - Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
·        Birdbrain(ed) Book Blog - The Devil’s Elixir by E.T.A. Hoffman


Chrisbookarama said...

I'm reading The Castle of Wolfenbach by Eliza Parsons for the Circuit and I got to wonder if she just didn't rip off Walpole. The main character is named Matilda. If I had time, I'd read this one just to compare.

Alex (The Sleepless Reader) said...

"the drippiest and most sanctimonious collection of females that I have ever come across in a book" YIKES! I'm sure that's saying something!

When reading classics in general I'm always struggling not to judge female characters' sanctimoniousness to harshly, but usually to no avail. One good example Clarissa by Samuel Richardson. Have you read it?

Shann said...

Lol @ pole vaulting the aquarium. I completely believe you that this is a pretty crappy story but I have to read it one day anyway, just to see the development of the genre

LL said...

Hmmm... sounds like this one has a high level of annoyance possibility and yet I'm still interested. Good thing it is short.

Song said...

I'm not wasting my time on this one. I generally am not into the gothic genre, so if it doesn't recommend itself well to a reader then I'm not trying it!....great and fun review, Falaise!

Desperate Reader said...

Just about to write this up myself - broadly speaking agree with everything you say. Oh dear.

Anonymous said...

Wow, this sounds a lot like the book I read for Classics Circuit (Castle of Wolfenbach). Not in the plot specifics, but in the characterizations (the women forgave their tormentors? really?!), the melodrama, the predictability. The Castle of Otranto must not only have been the first, but an oft-imitated model. I have a feeling the stories were much better received in their time than now.