Another rare foray into classics and it’s back to Gothic! I had heard of The Castle of Otranto around the time I was reading The Mysteries of Udolpho by Ann Ward Radcliffe. I had downloaded it to my Kobo and I was waiting for the inspiration to read it. Unlike The Mysteries of Udolpho, which took me 27 hours to read, this is a rather short read, at 3.4 hours. It is also a lot less scary. And I am not sure that the strangest mysteries get explained satisfactorily (How did the gigantic helmet kill the heir?) whereas in Udolpho, most mysteries had a very logical explanation and their apparent strangeness was magnified by fear and anxiety.
Horace Walpole wrote this book in 1765, when Ann Ward Radcliffe was only a baby. The Wikipedia article on the Gothic novel considers it the origin of the genre. The so-called preface to the first edition gives a fictitious origin to the manuscript:
The following work was found in the library of an ancient Catholic family in the north of England. It was printed at Naples, in the black letter, in the year 1529 How much sooner it was written does not appear.
So it starts with this aura of mystery, a story coming from the depths of the past. In the Castle of Otranto, Prince Manfred and Princess Hippolita have two children, Conrad and Matilda. Conrad is sickly but is getting married to the lovely Isabella who has been living in the castle with the family since an agreement was made with her guardian of a future marriage with the heir. Prince Manfred, who has been obsessed with having an heir to bear the family name goes a little nuts. He conceives a plan to divorce his wife and marry Isabella in the hopes that she can give him heirs. Isabella is horrified and fleas.
We later see that Mandred is accused of carrying the name of Prince of Otranto somewhat fraudulently and a true heir surfaces, a certain Theodore who is the spitting image of a former ruler of Otranto whose picture hand in the grand gallery of the castle.
Towards the end, after Manfred accidentally stabs his daughter Matilda, a spirit appears to resolve the situation:
Behold in Theodore the true heir of Alfonso! Said the vision: And having pronounced those words, accompanied by a clap of thunder, it ascended solemnly towards heaven, where the clouds parting asunder, the form of St. Nicholas was seen, and receiving Alfonso’s shade, there were soon wrapt from mortal eyes in a blaze of glory.
After such a humbling moment, Manfred abdicates the principality of Otranto and he and his wife enter convents nearby. And of course, Matilda dies and even though she was Theodore’s true love, he eventually develops feelings for Isabella.
The story features some of the staples of such mysteries: strange noises, dark passageways, caves, intriguing visitors who don’t speak, priests with odd origins, lost relations who resurface, travellers stranded for years on islands, shrieking women, fainting women, submissive women await their fate to be decided by fathers or husbands, etc. Whereas Udolpho was quite dramatic, The Castle of Otranto has a strong comedic strain… the exaggerated affect of the characters quite nearly turns them into caricatures of themselves.