Author: Horace Walpole
Genre: Gothic, mystery, ghost/supernatural
First Published: 1764
Manfred is lord of the castle of Otranto. The beginning of the book sees the preparations of the wedding between Manfred’s sickly son Conrad, and the princess Isabella. However, as the ceremony is due to begin, Conrad is crushed to death by a gigantic helmet, which echoes the eerie prophecy that “the castle and lordship of Otranto should pass from the present family, whenever the real owner should be grown too large to inhabit it”.
As Conrad was Manfred’s only son, he is now in danger of the lordship slipping from his family name. With no heir, Manfred desperately claims that he will divorce his wife, Hippolita, and marry Isabella himself, so that he can start a new family and produce an heir. Terrified, Isabella flees from the castle to the neighbouring church via a subterranean passage, where she is aided by a peasant named Theodore.
When Manfred discovers Theodore’s role in the escape, he sentences him to death, but as he removes his shirt, friar Jerome recognises a mark on his body as that belonging to his own son. As Manfred is bargaining with Jerome – the life of his son for his return of Isabella to the castle – they are interrupted by the entrance of knights. The knights bare with the a giant sword, which leaps from their hands and joins the helmet in the courtyard.
Upon discovering that Isabella has run away from the church, Manfred and this army of knights race out in search of her, meanwhile, Theodore has been imprisoned by Manfred in the tower, where Manfred’s daughter, Matilda, comes to rescue him. Theodore also goes in search of Isabella, and finds her hidden in a cave, and when their safety becomes threatened by a knight, he seriously wounds him, only to discover that it is actually Isabella’s father.
Distraught about her father’s injury, Isabella returns to the castle with him and Theodore retreats to the church with his father. Manfred has the idea of a double wedding, which sees him marrying Isabella, and Isabella’s father, Frederic, marrying his daughter Matilda. The two fathers consent to this idea, but Manfred is convinced that Isabella is secretly meeting Theodore. He goes to the church armed with a knife and stabs the woman he sees conversing with Theodore, only to discover that it is his own daughter, Matilda.
As the party return to the castle distraught, Manfred repents and Theodore’s true lineage is revealed, making him the true Prince of Otranto. Matilda dies and pleads that Theodore and Isabella should be united, meanwhile Manfred leaves the castle in disgrace and Theodore takes over the title.
This is the second time that I have read ‘The Castle of Otranto’ and both times I have been completely fascinated with it. Considered to be the first Gothic novel, the plot may not seem particularly frightening, but the presence of ghosts and the supernatural offers a premonition of what is to come.
While the plot can seem slow-going at first, it does become more interesting as you progress, and the relationships between the characters grows more complex and intriguing. Considering the story is so old, it isn’t written in a particularly difficult way to understand. While some of the phrases may sound archaic, they are still easily understood.
‘The Castle of Otranto’ is certainly an interesting read, even though it is often unheard of. I would recommend it to anyone who likes Gothic texts and would like to experience the origins of the genre.