Monday, October 12, 2015

Something Old

Not everything worth reading is hot off the press. In this section, we recommend "something old" that is still well worth reading. "Something old" can mean anything from a venerable and antique classic to a good book first published four or more years ago. 

 “THE CASTLE OF OTRANTO” by Horace Walpole (first published 1765)

The vagrant spirit leads me once again to consider a novel that was a bestseller in its own time, but is to us a mere curiosity and indicator of a taste that is now dead.
            There is one line from the British TV sitcom Black Books, which my wife and I are fond of quoting. The series concerns a seedy second-hand bookshop run by a grumpy and misanthropic Irishman, Bernard (played by Dylan Moran). Bernard treats customers as unwelcome intrusions upon his life of slouching behind a desk smoking, reading and drinking red wine. In one episode, a customer is dithering over whether he should buy a book. Finally, in desperation, Bernard hustles him out of the shop, uttering the immortal line “Take it, take it – it’s dreadful but it’s short!
            It’s dreadful, but it’s short!” The perfect one-line book review, and a very practical approach to the whole enterprise of reading. I now think of this line whenever I think of Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto.
To orient you to the novel’s context: Horace Walpole (1717-1797) was the highly camp son (“he never married” etc) of the bluff, devious and long-serving English prime minister Robert Walpole. The younger Walpole had a brief career as an MP and was largely supported in his earlier years by lucrative sinecures his father had arranged for him. Thereafter, when he wasn’t taking European tours with male pals, he set himself up in Strawberry Hill, the “gothic” mansion he had built outside London, and dabbled in letters and literature.
            His best-known book The Castle of Otranto was first published under a pseudonym, purporting to be the translation of an ancient found manuscript. It was wildly popular and much praised by some critics, who were taken in by the claim that it was an authentic ancient tale. After a number of printings, Walpole revealed his authorship and the critics retired blushing, but the novel remained popular. It is now regarded as the first English “Gothick” novel. You will know from earlier postings my frustrated quest for a really satisfying Gothic novel (see comments on E.T.A.Hoffman’s The Devil’s Elixirs and Sheridan Le Fanu’s In a Glass Darkly). Reading The Castle of Otranto, however, frustration turned to yawns. If this is the founding father of English Gothick novels, then Daddy is a tiresome pasteboard bore.
            Supposedly set in the Italy of the Middle Ages, The Castle of Otranto concerns a curse that hangs over Manfred, Lord of Otranto. He is a usurper. His wife Hippolita has presented him only with one daughter, Matilda, and one male heir, the sickly 15-year-old Conrad, whose betrothal to the princess Isabella has been arranged by Manfred, to secure the claims of Manfred’s descendants.
But on the day Conrad is to wed Isabella, a huge helmet falls from the sky and kills Conrad. There is no explanation of whence or how it falls – it just falls. Manfred imprisons the well-spoken peasant Theodore, who says that the lethal great helmet is just like the one on the statue of Alfonso, the last rightful ruler of Otranto, and is therefore a sign of heaven’s disapproval.
Evil Manfred now determines to divorce Hippolita and marry the princess Isabella himself, to perpetuate his line. Why another son should avoid the fate of the first one is never explained.
What follow are Manfred’s wicked pursuit of Isabella who is at first protected by Theodore; and the tribulations of Manfred’s wronged daughter Matilda.
The denouement involves a curse being fulfilled when Manfred, in a jealous rage, stabs and kills his own daughter Matilda, mistaking her for Isabella, who has spurned him. The giant ghost of Alfonso appears in full armour and proclaims Theodore (son of the monk Jerome) to be the rightful heir of Otranto. Theodore and Isabella wed, rightful order is restored, and Hippolita and Manfred retire to separate convents, Hippolita to grieve and Manfred to expiate his sins.
In the course of the narrative occur many theatrical effects. There is the giant helmet falling from heaven. There is a painted portrait of Alfonso that comes to life every so often to utter dire warnings. The skeleton of a holy hermit appears in a chapel to remind Frederic (Isabella’s father) of a holy prophecy. And there is the final intervention of the giant Alfonso.
In his preface, Horace Walpole congratulates himself on following Shakespeare’s plan of having comic characters to offset the serious (!) drama. These appear in the form of the incredibly unfunny servant Bianca and others. They almost deserve the most-unfunny-comic-relief-ever award that belongs to the servant Caleb Balderstone in Sir Walter Scott’s The Bride of Lammermoor. Walpole also draws connections between Hamlet (the vengeful ghost of a usurped monarch) and this narrative. Walpole had big ideas of himself.
The Castle of Otranto has amusingly formal and theatrical dialogue throughout (sacred oaths, damning curses etc.) and such scenes as a virtuous armoured knight (Theodore) protecting a virtuous lady by fighting off intruders at the mouth of the forest cave where she is hidden.
Now I understand perfectly that this was the first English “Gothick” novel, wowing mid-eighteenth-century readers who wanted a change from the depictions of more recognisably contemporary life in Fielding, Richardson and others. But the genre was born camp. Within half a century, Jane Austen was satirising this novel, and Ann Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho, in her Northanger Abbey. Its ridiculous theatricality had already faded from public favour.
The Castle of Otranto is mildly amusing up to a point, but its chief virtue is that it is so short – barely 100 pages in the Oxford World Classics edition.
Take it, take it – it’s dreadful but it’s short.”

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