Two-hundred and fifty years ago, Horace Walpole published ‘The Castle of Otranto,’ a strange, campy book that’s widely considered to be the first Gothic novel. In real life, Walpole’s family was beset by tragedy and his life’s obsession was a Gothic castle called Strawberry Hill.


As a child, Horace Walpole frequently heard it said of himself that surely he would die soon. Born in England in 1717, the last of his mother’s six children, he was fragile and prone to illness from birth. Two siblings before him had died in infancy, and so in the family order it went: three older children, loud, healthy and opinionated; two grave markers; and then young Horace toddling up behind—half child, half potential grave marker.

Naturally, his mother, Catherine, spoiled him. His father, Sir Robert Walpole, was the King’s prime minister. This often kept him away from home, as did a long-time mistress who acted, more than his wife did, as his hostess and companion. For her part Catherine had her own dalliances. It was that sort of marriage. The Walpoles of old had been middling country gentry—ancient name, quiet prosperity—before Robert had come along and, through a blend of shrewdness and charisma, wolf-halled his family into riches and the nobility. When Robert was young, the hope for him was that he might one day make a fine sheep-farmer; he died the first Earl of Orford, after a 20-year run as prime minister, a colossus of English history.

His son Horace worked himself into history another way. In his early 30s, he bought a box-shaped house—just an ordinary sort of house, sitting on a bit of hill in a fashionable country suburb—and decided to transform it into a Gothic castle. Room by room he went. Stained-glass window of a saint here, ancient suit of armor stowed in a wall recess there.

Then one summer, sitting in his castle’s library, he wrote a novel called The Castle of Otranto. Its setting was a medieval castle, not unlike his own mock-castle in many of its details, but grown, in the way of novels and dreams, into something grand and imposing. There the villainous Manfred schemes to block the return of the castle’s rightful heir, a young man named Theodore. Commonly pegged as the first Gothic novel, The Castle of Otranto turns 250 this year. It’s a strange, great, terrible, campy novel, slim but with some paragraphs so long and dense that you have to slash your way through. If Gothic literature had a family tree, its twisted gnarled branches chock-full of imperiled, swooning heroines and mysterious monks, with ghosts who sit light on the branches, and Frankenstein’s monster who sits heavy, with troops of dwarves, and winking nuns, and stunted, mostly nonflammable babies, at its base would sit Horace Walpole’s Castle. (Presumably with some lightning flickering dangerously nearby.)

At nine, Horace was sent off to Eton. After the death of George I, he marched in a procession as a proclamation of the new king was read, crying and crying as he thought of the old king, but also trying to amplify his tears so that if anyone looked over at him, they’d see that the prime minister’s son was crying harder than other boys. There is so much of the future man in this anecdote: the spectral sense of himself as a figure that others might observe; the family pride that made him want to make a good showing; and then, not least, that we know the story at all, which is because he told it on himself.

As an adult he was pale—so many people noted this, he must have been ghostly indeed. Very pale, very thin, with a bright, bright gaze. Average height. He had an effacing, gliding kind of walk that was either affectation (early life) or gout (later life). His voice was not strong but pleasant. His friends called him ‘Horry’—they gossiped about him, envied him, loved him, needled him. “He is now as much a curiousity to all foreigners as the tombs and lions,” wrote one. He was extremely charming, confident and buoyant in manner. He had one of those temperaments that sees the sadness in comedy, and the comedy in sadness, and so at the risk of tipping too far toward sadness, tips determinedly the other way. He seems to have had little appetite for food or alcohol. He never married. As for his romantic heart, who knows? He was adept at self-camouflage. According to the biographer Timothy Mowl, he likely had a secret “off-and-on” relationship with Henry Pelham-Clinton, Lord Lincoln, a very handsome old school friend, for a few years after they left school. There were a few, rather wispy relationships with women around this time, too. Read his letters and a sharp sense of romantic detachment makes itself felt, one that doesn’t feel entirely like a pose. It’s as if having hovered so near death as a child, he remained part-ghost as an adult, pale and thin, with few food or drink requirements and looking on the passion-stricken follies of others with amused wonder. (His spare diet made friends view his struggles with gout, which were chronic and debilitating, as especially cruel.)

He attended Cambridge, leaving, as one chronicler notes, “without the superfluity of a degree.” He then went on the Grand Tour customary for young men of his class. His traveling companion was Thomas Gray, his long-time friend (they’d met at Eton), who was not yet the great poet he’d become but still a painfully earnest, studious son of an abusive London “scrivener” and a kindly woman who kept a milliner’s shop. Gray made the trip filled with uncertainty of what he was going to do with himself on his return. There was a vague notion that he would study law, but the idea filled Gray with dread. Meanwhile, Walpole had the guarantee of a lifetime income of at least 1,200 pounds a year, thanks to sinecures arranged by his father, and the assurance of a future place in parliament. Walpole paid for the trip, and Gray, probably feeling at times near invisible as he trailed behind the prime minister’s son at assemblies and receptions, seems to have tried to repay this debt with edifying suggestions on how Walpole (blithe, careless) might improve himself.

Still, for a long while, the friends travelled well together, journeying through France and Switzerland, before advancing to Italy (“Turin—Genoa—Florence—Rome—Naples—Rome—Radicofani—Florence again” and onward). Along the way they took notes on all they saw: the stained glass of the old churches; the fineness of Richelieu’s tomb; operas that were disappointing, and plays that weren’t; the “crimson damask and gold” wallpaper of a Paris room where the windows had been patched up “in ten or dozen places with paper”; beautiful city squares and the “tawdry” coaches that rattled across them; the riches of the Medici family’s art collection in Florence. Their shared attentiveness to these sights shows what bound them as friends. Neither was going through the motions of appreciation; each was moved and transformed by what he saw.

(Here is Walpole in a letter to a friend, written during their crossing of the Alps: “Precipices, mountains, torrents, wolves, rumblings, Salvator Rosa—the pomp of our park and the meekness of our palace! Here we are, the lonely lords of glorious desolate prospects.” Gray’s mood was similarly exalted.)

While in Paris, Walpole watched the evening funeral procession for the Lord Mayor of Paris, reporting that some of the monks set to watch over the body as it lay in state had fallen asleep late in the night and “let the tapers catch fire to the rich velvet mantle lined with ermine and powdered with gold flower-de-luces, which melted the lead coffin, and burned off the feet of the deceased…” (There’s our future Gothic author!) Then during the Alps crossing, near Mount Cenis, his spaniel (“the prettiest, fattest, dearest creature!”) was snatched up by a wolf.

Near the end of the trip, after two years of jostling travel, tensions broke into the open. The friends quarreled, and Gray made his way, all stiff pride, back to England alone, with Walpole, behind the scenes, trying to find ways to get money to him without his knowing the source. (They reconciled a few years later, and remained friends thereafter. Walpole helped usher Gray’s “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard” into print, as well as publishing a couple books of his poems.)

In Florence, Walpole had one of his wispy affairs. His mistress was Elisabetta Grifoni, wife of a marchese and one of the city’s noted beauties. After his return to England, he sent her a few presents, and the two corresponded for a time, the letters rapturous on her side, congenial and increasingly perfunctory on his. In his fine biography, R.W. Ketton-Cremer describes how Grifoni, in a last attempt to rekindle Walpole’s interest, inquired into sending him a hamper of hams and cheeses. Here let’s pause to picture that tepid young man, standing in his rooms, staring with dismay at an enormous ham. Luckily, she didn’t send the package, and the two eventually ceased to write.

Walpole kept her portrait in his bedroom for the rest of his life, but, as Ketton-Cremer notes, “this need not be taken as a sign of romantic devotion, as he referred to the work in later years as ‘a frightful picture by a one-eyed German painter.’” So love goes.

It was unlike Walpole to call off a correspondence. Generally, once he started writing someone he continued writing them until either they died (and thus stopped reading their mail), or the friendship died (rare for him, but it did happen). Known as one of his century’s great letter writers, he’s still considered among the best practitioners of the art.

If you know Walpole only through Castle of Otranto, these letters are a revelation. The Castle, whatever its virtues, is a block-y piece of work. It can be praised, but the praise would not, say, be directed at its psychological complexities or… the sophistication of the dialogue. (“‘I respect your virtuous delicacy,’ said Theodore; ‘nor do you harbor a suspicion that wounds my honor.’”). As a novel it is, as all progenitors should be, sort of a grand lumpy thing, like an early god. Not the letters, though. These are marvelous little masterpieces: subtle, witty, and dripping with description and gossip and observation. They read like the literary equivalent of a cat curling itself around your ankles, showing off, sure, but glad to see you all the same.

Some bits have grown murky and mysterious with time. “… I am retired hither like an old summer dowager; only that I have no toad-eater to take the air with me in the back part of my lozenge-coach…” (A ‘toad-eater’ was a paid companion. Well!) The vast majority, however, with their swirl of high and low, of official statecraft and candid backroom gossip, feel peculiarly modern.

It is 1740 in Florence, at the house of the British envoy. An elderly Italian of noble background and shabby dress enters. He gives every appearance of nervous fright. It seems that he’s been summoned to a duel by an English subject named Martin, a painter living in Florence, for the discourtesy of “having said Martin was no gentleman.” The older Italian notes to the envoy that he would happily duel Martin except, you see, he has a strict rule of only dueling fellow gentlemen and Martin is not a gentleman and ipso facto thus therefore cannot be dueled thank you good day. Exits, still nervous as a cricket.

Horace and Co. rumble along in a carriage to the place appointed for the duel.

We had not been driving about above ten minutes, but out popped a little figure, pale but cross, with beard unshaved and hair uncombed, a slouched hat, and a considerable red cloak, in which was wrapped, under his arm, the fatal sword that was to revenge the highly injured Mr Martin, painter and defendant. I darted my head out of the coach, just ready to say ‘Your servant, Mr Martin,’ and talk about the architecture of the triumphal arch that was building there; but he would not know me, and walked off. We left him to wait for an hour, to grow very cold and very valiant the more it grew past the hour of appointment. We were figuring all the poor creature’s huddle of thoughts, and confused hopes of victory, or fame, of his unfinished pictures, or his situation upon bouncing into the next world. You will think us strange creatures; but ’twas a pleasant sight, as we knew the poor painter was safe.

From another letter: “This sublime age reduces everything to its quintessence; all periphrases and expletives are so much in disuse, that I suppose soon the only way of making love will be to say ‘Lie down.’”

And another: “Indeed, the ambassadress could see nothing; for Doddington stood before her the whole time, sweating Spanish at her…”

The word “posterity” crops up again and again in Walpole’s letters. “No one,” the scholar W.S. Lewis writes, “was ever more aware of unborn readers.” Posterity was Walpole’s desire; his eye was always fixed on it, and these letters were his way of courting and wooing it. Even more than most of us, he wished to be remembered, and he seems to have been willing to sacrifice many of the ordinary happinesses of life in order to live on after. As he wrote to one friend, “How merry my ghost will be, and shake its ears to hear itself quoted as a person of consummate prudence!”

His regular correspondents were directed to safe-keep his letters. One, in Italy, returned them in bundles at regular intervals (“for a work in progress”). The letters were transcribed if a fairer copy was needed, shaved here and there, and annotated by Walpole himself. (One of the funniest of these self-annotations makes note that the “Patapan” referred to is “Mr. Walpole’s dog.” “‘That’s my dog!’ wrote Mr. Walpole, for future generations to know.”)

The Gothic Life and Times of Horace Walpole


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