Something you should know about The Castle Of Otranto is that most people see it as the first Gothic novel; it was allegedly translated from Old Italian by “William Marshal”. Allegedly. It is now common knowledge that the real author was Horace Walpole. And that it was certainly not translated from Italian. Anyone who has an interest in Gothic fiction will probably tell you that Horace Walpole used the pseudonym “William Marshal” so as not to draw any unwanted attention to himself; in those days (The book was written in 1764) there was kind of a debate going on about “realistic writing” vs “Romantic fiction” and he didn’t want to alienate potential readers that might look down on what they thought was an improbable story. His book was supposed to blend Romantic fiction with realistic consequences. By claiming he was merely translating the work, he was able to give the story more literary credibility. It provided him with a reason to “analyse the author’s intentions and literary devices” in the introduction, which made the book seem pre-approved! Oh, and I must add that not only did Horace Walpole say that “William Marshal” translated the story from old Italian, but he also claimed that the original manuscript was found in the library of an “Ancient family in the North of England”, and that it was printed in… 1529. He detailed that the novel was from The Original Italian of Onuphrio Muralto, Canon of the Church of St. Nicholas at Otranto.
The introduction (in the first edition) of the novel is deliciously funny because it’s SO full of bullshit. In it, Walpole weaves this detailed back-story, which of course the modern reader knows is utterly fabricated. That’s what makes it so funny to read. He goes on about how the events in the novel he “translated” could have been based on truth – minus the bits about magic -, and that just because the characters believe in spectres and visions, doesn’t necessarily mean the author believed in them as well. Walpole also continues to point out bits in the novel where the writing could have been improved (much to my mirth!) and praises the author’s work in other areas. The introduction is in a way similar to the one Mary Shelley wrote for Frankenstein – full of disclaimers (Both Shelley and Walpole were also inspired by dreams to write their books – however, Mary admitted her inspiration from the beginning, something Walpole obviously couldn’t do without blowing his cover!).
Now the cool thing is that, contrary to Horace’s expectations, his book was a hit with the public. When it achieved such a good reception, he decided to step out from behind the curtain and admit his authorship. Go Horace! The Castle Of Otranto inspired many Gothic novels to come, including The Monk by Matthew Lewis, which is like, one of the most famous books in the genre.
I found The Castle Of Otranto was pretty short, and quick to read. It was a great book, relatively fast-paced – not as scary as I’d expected, more sad. However, I’d been meaning to read it for so long that I’d gradually built up this huge expectation for it, which unfortunately it didn’t live up to. There were only a few magical visions, and I’d expected there to be more. Oh yeah, the weirdest thing in the book was… well, I’m not going to spoil it too much for you, but two characters start planning to marry each others daughters? I shan’t say any more. Still, I’d recommend reading it. Especially since it’s supposed to be the first Gothic novel! In fact, this blog entry is a sign from the universe telling you to pick it up if you haven’t already 😉 You can download a free virtual copy from Project Gutenberg.
If you’ve read the book, what did you think of it? And if you haven’t, what is your favourite Gothic novel – or favourite book in general?