Walpole - PA Criticism Archive

TEI-encoded version

THE Castle of Otranto was written by The Honourable Horace Walpole, son of Sir Robert Walpole, who at the close of his life became Earl of Orford. It was printed at Strawberry Hill, and composed, the author tells us in one of his letters, in eight days or rather evenings. Though a slight performance, it is calculated to make a great impression upon those who relish the fictions of the Arabian Tales, and similar performances. It was one of the first of the modern productions founded on appearances of terror.

Since this author's time, from the perusal of Mrs. Radcliffe's productions and some of the German tales, we may be said to have "supped full with horrors," [2]  but none of those compositions have a livelier play of fancy than The Castle of Otranto. It is the sportive effusion of a man of genius, who throws the reins loose upon the neck of his imagination. The large limbs of the gigantic figure which inhabits the castle, and which are visible at intervals; the plumes of the helmet, which rise and wave with ominous meaning; and the various enchant-

vol. xxii. b


ments of the place, are imagined with the richness and wildness of poetic fancy. A sufficient degree of interest is thrown into the novel part of the story; but in the characters of some of the attendants there is an attempt at humour which has not succeeded.

The works of Horace Walpole are well known. He was a gentleman author, and wrote and printed for his own amusement, living in literary ease at his elegant seat of Strawberry Hill, in the architecture and furniture of which he has also shown a predilection for the romantic ideas connected with gothic and chivalrous times. He always moved in the highest circles of company, and joined the man of fashion and man of wit to the elegant scholar. Mr. Walpole was fond of French literature, and few Englishmen have more imbibed the spirit and taste of the writers of that nation. His little jeu d'esprit upon Rousseau is well known. [3] 

The Castle of Otranto is much in the spirit of the tales of Count Hamilton. In one of those tales we meet with a vast leg of a giant, which probably suggested the prodigy in the former. Horace Walpole wrote, A Catalogue of royal and noble Authors; Anecdotes of Painting, enlarged from Vertue; An Essay on modern Gardening, in which there is a good deal of taste; and The Mysterious Mother, a tragedy. The last work was much spoken of while it was handed about with a certain air of secrecy, [4]  but sunk into neglect soon after it was published. Not but that there are some fine lines, and some strong moral sentiment in the piece; but no play


could be expected to support itself under a subject so disgustingly repulsive. The story itself is in the Gesta Romanorum, [5]  and in Taylor's Cases of Conscience; and as in a play it never could be acted, it had better have remained in the form of a story.

Lord Orford's works have been published since his death, in a pompous edition, [6]  with his letters and some posthumous fragments, in both of which there is a good deal of light easy wit and entertaining court anecdote; but what is new in them has not been made very accessible to the public in general, as it is not to be had without purchasing works which they were long before in possession of.


[1] The British Novelists; with an Essay; and Prefaces, Biographical and Critical, by Mrs. Barbauld, 50 Vols. (London: Printed for F.C. and J. Rivington; W. Otridge and Son; A. Strahan; T. Payne; G. Robinson; W. Lowndes; Wilkie and Robinson; Scatcherd and Letterman; J. Walker; Vernor, Hood, and Sharpe; R. Lea; J. Nunn; Lackington and Co.; Clarke and Son; C. Law; Longman, Hurst, Rees, and Orme; Cadell and Davies; E. Jeffery; J.K. Newman; Crosby and Co.; J. Carpenter; S. Bagster; T. Booth; J. Murray; J. and J. Richardson; Black, Parry, and Kingsbury; J. Harding; R. Phillips; J. Mawman; J. Booker; J. Asperne; R. Baldwin; Mathews and Leigh; J. Faulder; Johnson and Co.; Sherwood and Co.; J. Miller; W. Creech, Edinburgh; and Wilson and Son, York, 1810), 22: i-iii. Pages are numbered i-iii though the essay and Walpole's novel The Castle of Otranto appear in the volume after Clara Reeve's The Old English Baron. Victoria Wynn and Mary A. Waters co-edited this essay for The Criticism Archive. BACK

[2] Shakespeare, Macbeth V.v.13. BACK

[3] Published in a British newspaper in 1766 as a letter from the King of Prussia to Rousseau, Walpole's satire mocks Rousseau's fear of persecution for his political writings. BACK

[4] The first Gothic drama ever written, The Mysterious Mother explores an intense and incestuous relationship between a mother and a son. The subject matter was considered too heightened and graphic for eighteenth-century audiences and the play was not intended for public performance. BACK

[5] A collection of Latin folklore probably compiled during the late thirteenth-century. BACK

[6] Walpole’s collected works were edited by close family friend Mary Berry and published in five large volumes in 1798. BACK

POETESS ARCHIVE / The Criticism Archive / Essay