He was 30 when he bought his house in Twickenham, then still a bucolic little town considered the perfect, short distance from London. The previous owner was a Mrs. Chevinix, who kept a famous toyshop in Charing Cross. “It is a little play-thing-house that I got out of Mrs. Chevinix’s shop,” wrote Walpole to a friend, “and it is the prettiest bauble you ever saw. … Dowagers as plenty as flounders inhabit all around.” The house itself was small and shapeless, but it was set amid hedges and meadows, these dotted here and there with sheep and cows in best pastoral tradition, and it had a beautiful view overlooking the Thames. He called it Strawberry Hill.

One of his first improvements was to put in some battlements.

Then he added some pinnacles. So, as you bumped along in a coach on your approach to old Horry’s cottage, you’d have seen a castle skyline peeping over the treetops. Intended to look as permanent as if they belonged to an ancient keep, these additions were made of plaster and lath. As Lewis notes: “It was said before he died that ‘Mr. Walpole has already outlived three sets of his battlements.’” (Not bad for a former potential grave-marker.)

Then he started on the interior. At first, his friends greeted his plans to re-do the house in a Gothic style with some mock-horror. As the biographer Ketton-Cremer notes, this was not because it was a new idea, but because it was a slightly out-of-date one. A fashion for Gothic recently had enjoyed a brief, bright flare of popularity in England and the style was now viewed, in Wapole’s set, as a little outré and (dread!) middle-class. So beyond the obvious eccentricity of the undertaking, his ambitions must have seemed strangely out of step at first—as if he’d taken the most Pinteresty of Pinterest boards for inspiration.

Never mind! Walpole didn’t care. He convened the Committee of Taste with his friends, Richard Bentley, a gifted and fanciful designer, and John Chute, a talented hobbyist architect. The two advised him on the changes to be made to each room. An elaborate chimneypiece for the parlor was designed. Beautiful chairs and tables, too. Wallpaper was custom-painted in London, using a pattern borrowed from the tomb of Prince Arthur, Henry VIII’s brother. And so it went, room by room.

It was, remember, not a big house at the start. Many rooms were cramped, with one staircase so narrow it was a scrape to get up it. One addition, however, was built on an especially grand scale. This was the Hall, considered by Walpole as his castle’s “chief beauty.” He reveled in its “gloomy arches” and “lean windows fattened with rich saints in painted glass.” Its staircase and shadows, its coat of armor and broadswords, will feel familiar to any Castle of Otranto reader. Walpole lifted them and put them straight into his book.

“Gloomth” was the word that Walpole coined for the effect he wanted in his house. That is, a mixture of warmth and gloom. So the swords and shadows of the Hall were offset by cheerful gardens outside, with sunning cats and well-annotated dogs, with comfortable places to roost around the house, and then, as the decades went on, Walpole’s own accreted layers of bric-a-brac. He was a helpless collector, a hoarder of beauty.

During these same decades, Walpole was serving in Parliament as a member of the liberal Whig party. He was active about it, too. While his weak voice prevented him from making the stirring speeches that would have placed him center-stage, he was a wheeler-dealer behind the scenes, peddling influence and advice. (Notably, he was one of England’s earliest critics of the slave trade.) He took wild, self-confessed enjoyment in the scuffling and skullduggery of politics. Reading his letters on the topic it’s amusing to watch the fluff-and-icing, dowagers-as-flounders absurdity of his style melt away, revealing something harder, stonier: “They say the Prince has taken up two hundred thousand pounds, to carry elections that he won’t carry—he had much better have saved it to buy the Parliament after it is chosen.”

By contrast, Strawberry Hill was a balm and a retreat, a stage-set fantasia. Walpole saw its creation, rightly, as one of his chief achievements, and it was important to him that it last. He fretted a great deal about what would happen to it after his death. And all the time came constant reminders of its vulnerability. Those eroding plaster battlements. The paper of the Hall that looked like stone but was not stone. In 1772, a massive explosion at a nearby powder mill broke eight of the stained-glass windows and, as he wrote to a cousin, “the north side of the castle looks as if it had stood a siege.” To another friend, he lamented: “…. My poor shattered castle… never did it look so Gothic.” Meanwhile, the river threatened with frequent flooding, and straw was often strewn on the parlor and bedroom floors to absorb drips from leaks.

In other words, while wanting to build something permanent, Walpole had built something dazzlingly impermanent. It could dissolve, erode, be shattered. Or it might be lifted up in a flood and float away, a toy castle swirling on the waves. It’s the sort of thing that if you think about too long can completely sink you in gloomth.

His mother Catherine had died when he was 19. He’d been close to her, and her death was one of his life’s great blows. His father died less than a decade later, the victim of an over-strong preparation given to him by one of his doctors. His complaint had been bladder stones; its cure killed him. It was an agonizing death, and Horace stayed with him through it.

Robert Walpole had himself built a great house, Houghton Hall—a magnificent country mansion, ideal for hunting and entertaining, that housed his gorgeous collection of paintings. It’s emblematic of the father and son, the contrast between these two houses, one so grand a landmark, the other a cock-eyed Gothic whimsy. After the senior Walpole’s death, the earldom passed first to an older brother of Horace’s and then a nephew. Each earl in his time added to the estate’s teetering amount of debt. The third Earl of Orford is described variously as “eccentric” and “mad.” He was, at best, a careless steward of his inheritance; at other times, a disastrous one. The once-great Houghton Hall began to decay. Walpole, visiting after an absence of sixteen years, walked its gardens—now choked with nettles and weeds, and overrun with rabbits—with dismay.

Later that day he wrote to one of his oldest friends. The letter stands out for its tone of pure heartbreak:

I hated Houghton and its solitude—yet I loved this garden; as now, with many regrets, I love Houghton—Houghton, I know not what to call it, a monument of grandeur or ruin! … I have chosen to sit in my father’s little dressing room, and am now by his scrutoire, where, in the height of his fortune, he used to receive the accounts of his farmers, and deceive himself—or us, with the thoughts of his economy—how wise a man at once and how weak! For what had he built Houghton? For his grandson to annihilate, or for his son to mourn over?”

I hated it, I loved it. I am nothing but a mourning ghost here. This monument looked permanent, and it wasn’t.

Three years after this visit, Horace wrote Castle of Otranto, that tricked-out novel of fathers and sons, heirs and dynasties, and castle-crushing.

The story originated, he later said, out of a strange dream: “I had thought myself in an ancient castle… and that on the uppermost bannister of a great staircase I saw a gigantic hand in armour. In the evening I sat down and began to write.” (In their meticulous book Strawberry Hill, Anna Chalcraft and Judith Viscardi share the conjecture that Walpole might have been taking laudanum, then a common prescription for gout, at the time.)

His fascination with the story grew as he wrote. He would sit down at his desk usually at “ten o’clock at night till two in the morning, when I am sure not to be disturbed by visitants. While I am writing I take several cups of coffee.” In two months his work was complete.

He was nearing 50, and he’d written a novel in which a giant helmet, “an hundred times more large than any casque ever made for human being” and covered in black feathers, falls from the sky and crushes—splat!—the sickly son of the house. And that’s by page 3. Did any other members of Parliament have such a manuscript on their desks? Likely not. Fearing ridicule Walpole had the novel published “as a translation from 1528 by the Italian, Onuphrio Muralto, Canon of the Church of St Nicholas at Otranto.” Once it became a sensation, he revealed himself.

The library at Strawberry Hill was the house’s quietest room. Its beautiful bookcases, stretching higher than you could reach, were designed by Chute. Each is topped by a Gothic arch, the elaborate carving of its wood painted gray to look like stone. As Chalcraft and Viscardi describe, Walpole’s collection was extensive. In it was Shakespeare, The Iliad and the Odyssey, “folios of works by Hogarth, Bunbury, Vertue, Tennier,” as well “Sir Julius Caesar’s travelling library, containing 44 small volumes in Latin.” There were books of engravings and history. Also his father’s pocket book. Shelf after shelf of gleaming leather bindings.

All those books, think of them lying there in the quiet. A line of little monuments to the ghosts who wrote them.

This story was funded by Longreads Members

The Gothic Life and Times of Horace Walpole


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