4/9/21 — This Week’s Reading Review

Michael Ducker
16 min readApr 9, 2021


Let us resume our summary of The Castle of Otranto and the life of Horace Walpole. The son of British statemen Robert Walpole — widely considered the first Prime Minister of England — Horace Walpole spent much of his life vacillating between politics and culture. Or, perhaps more accurately, politics and culture were one to Walpole. Besides having written the first Gothic novel, Walpole is also responsible for one of the significant pieces of Gothic Revival architecture. His Strawberry Hill House is a sprawling Gothic estate, ornamented with Medieval, Neo-Medieval, and Rococo flourishes. He seems to have envisioned it as the setting of The Castle of Otranto. In his introduction, Groom remarks on the pride taken by Walpole in the sense of “gloomth” (a nonce word coined by Walpole) that his estate could engender in visitors. Strawberry Hill combines the obsession with decay and abandonment of the Gothic imagination with the hybrid historical consciousness and artistic tastes of Walpole.

Both Strawberry Hill House and The Castle of Otranto share a playful penchant for historical hoaxes. Walpole took pride in the wallpaper he had commissioned for the house, bragging that “it is impossible at first sight to not conclude that they contain the history of Attila or Tottila, done about the very era” (xvii). The Castle of Otranto similarly purports to be a “work [that] was found in the library of an ancient catholic family in the north of England,” originally written in Italian by a priest named Onuphrio Muralto and subsequently discovered and translated by a man named William Marshal (Title-page of the first edition).

While Groom rejects the claim that The Castle of Otranto’s most lasting significance lies in the publicity surrounding its first printing — Walpole admitted to the hoax of its origin by the time of the second printing — I find this argument more convincing. While the novel may have seemed the height of Gothicism to Walpole’s contemporaries, the book’s narrative content has only a vague resemblance to subsequent “Gothic” literature, and any parallels between Otranto and 20th/21st-century horror culture exists only in the most general terms. There is, however, one exception to this apparent lack of influence: the hoaxical frame that adds to the horror of the fiction. This method of obscuring the origins of a cultural object intended to frighten the audience became an important one for subsequent Gothic literature and the horror fiction that is our contemporary inheritance from the Gothic. From found footage movies to creepypasta, the obscured origin has been such a reliable part of our Gothic and horror fictions that it is nearly cliche. While Walpole may not be the first English writer to pass off his fiction as a hoax, he does seem to be the father of this playful obscuring of origins for Gothic ends. For this reason, I must qualify Groom’s rebuttal and say that while Otranto’s historical importance extends beyond the hoax of its first edition’s title page, the latter is the book’s most enduring contribution to the genre.

Moreover, the book’s actual text lacks features that contemporary readers would identify as Gothic. There are a few mentions of supernatural beings — the helmet that crushes Conrad, the giant that the domestics see, and so on — but the majority of the text is given over to sentimentalism and dialogue in imitation of Shakespeare. That is to say, The Castle of Otranto is not a scary book according to modern standards, and while it likely did frighten some contemporary readers, I struggle to believe it did so in the way that even Frankenstein may have frightened readers. Let us turn now to the actual content of Otranto.

The novel takes place over the course of a few days and nights. Manfred is the Prince of Otranto, where he lives with his wife Hippolita, his daughter Matilda, and his son Conrad. Conrad is “a homely youth, sickly, and of no promising disposition” (17). Fearing that his son will soon succumb to illness, lacking any other male heir, and terrified of an ancient prophecy, Manfred intends to marry Conrad off to Isabella, the daughter of the long-missing marquis of Vincenza. Groom helpfully traces the sources of these names. Manfred is a name more common in the 18th century than nowadays. It can be found in James Thomson’s play Tancred and Sigismunda, a Tragedy, and a historical work by Voltaire concerning Manfred, King of Sicily. The latter seems significant not only for its Italian setting but also because this Manfred was said to have the vengeful bastard son of Frederick II, who also had a son named Conrad. Groom also gives Much Ado About Nothing as a possible source for the name Conrad. Isabella and Hippolita also seem to likely be names lifted from Shakespeare, the latter appearing in A Midsummer Night’s Dream and the former in Measure for Measure. Matilda, on the other hand, may be derived from Spenser, Chaucer, or William Mason (120).

Let us look more closely at the beginning paragraph. While Conrad’s death is arguably the novel’s inciting incident, the youth’s physical weakness is not mentioned until the second sentence. The first sentence centers not on Conrad but Matilda and her youthful virginity. The second sentence turns to Conrad. After learning of his infirmity, we are told that he is nevertheless “the darling of his father, who never showed any symptoms of affection to Matilda” (17). We are also told that the rashness of Manfred’s desire to see Conrad and Isabella wed is evident to both Hippolita and the tenants and subjects of Otranto. The latter are presumably ignored on the basis of class, while Manfred rebukes the former for not having given him more than a single heir. The narrator then tells us that an ancient prophecy haunts Manfred: “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” (17). The narration admits that this an obscure prophecy, one that the populace can neither understand in content nor relevance to Conrad’s hasty marriage.

While the anxious sovereign haunted by a prophecy may cause the reader to think of Oedipus — indeed, the temptation to draw this parallel is increased by the beginning’s emphasis on familial conflict — we would do well to note that the prophecy in Sophocles’ play is perfectly clear. Oedipus understands the prophecy concerning him, but he believes that he has avoided its fulfillment. Although we will later learn that Manfred knows he is not the rightful sovereign of Otranto, the condition (“whenever the real owner should be grown too large to inhabit it”) upon which the prophecy will be fulfilled is likely as obscure to him as it is to the reader and the populace. Thus, while Manfred may be toiling in ignorance like that Theban king, the latter lacks the anxiety of unknowing that plagues the former. Moreover, while Oedipus unwittingly works towards the revelation of his condition, Manfred struggles against it. In this anxious struggle to maintain his power’s stability, Manfred resembles a Shakespearian protagonist more than anything ancient.

The action of the play begins almost immediately after this introductory paragraph. The wedding underway, Conrad is missing. Manfred searches for his son only to discover the domestics of the castle running about in horror. He then comes across the source of their horror: “his child dashed to pieces, and almost buried under an enormous helmet, an hundred times more large than any casque ever made for human being” (18). If the reader has held the prophecy in mind, they will that the large helmet corresponds to the prophecy’s size-based condition. This raises a question: is Conrad’s death an accidental byproduct of the prophecy’s physical realization, or has he been murdered?

Conrad’s death sends Otranto into chaos. As a crowd gathers around the helmet, a young peasant remarks that the helmet that has crushed Conrad looks exactly like the one “on the figure in black marble of Alfonso the Good, one of their former princes, in the church of St. Nicholas” (20). Maddened by grief, this remark sends Manfred into a fury at the peasant. He demands him detained. After observing that the helmet is indeed missing from Alfonso’s statue, the crowd quickly reacts by further denouncing the peasant, pinning Conrad’s death on him. The preposterousness of the mob’s accusations not only brings Manfred back to reality, they also evidently bring Machiavellian inspiration to him. Despite knowing the peasant is innocent, Manfred denounces him as a necromancer and orders that he be imprisoned within the helmet until the church can take over the affair.

The narration then switches its focus to Matilda, whose mother has ordered her to comfort the grieving Manfred. She approaches his door and hears him “traverse his chamber backwards and forwards with disordered steps” (22). He then suddenly flings the door open and angrily sends her away in what might be anachronistically described as a textual jump scare. This scene is notable for the apparent suspense it builds up: the book’s action is interrupted so that Matilda can dwell on the threshold, listening to a noise behind a door. This suspense culminating in a frightening action appears more in accordance with contemporary notions of the Gothic as synonymous with horror than the supernatural helmet. Matilda then returns to her mother before a servant appears to inform the women that Manfred wishes to speak with Isabella rather than Hippolita or Matilda.

Once she arrives at his chamber, Manfred quickly tells Isabella that he desires her and wishes to divorce Hippolita so that they can marry and produce an heir. Isabella is predictably horrified by Manfred’s remarks, but the prince is undeterred. Yet whenever he tries to physically seize Isabella, supernatural events intervene. First, the moon — which seems to have a recurrent vessel of supernatural assistance in Otranto — directs Manfred’s sight to “the plumes of the fatal helmet” as it violently rises and moves around outside the window (24). Next, a portrait of Manfred’s grandfather sighs and begins to move within its frame. This sufficiently distracts Manfred, allowing Isabella to flee the room. The subject of the portrait then steps from the frame and begins to walk “sedately, but dejected, to the end of the gallery,” before turning into a room whose door is “clapped-to with violence by an invisible hand” before Manfred can follow the spectre into it. This scene is one of the most recognizably Gothic in the novel.

The distribution of supernatural phenomena around the scene’s domestic setting makes it somewhat akin to a haunted house. However, one should note that the paranormal phenomena feel less architecturally imminent than in more familiar haunted house fictions. Here, the supernatural phenomena do not come across as having gained their qualities from the property in question. Instead, their emergence feels like a consequence of a political issue — Manfred’s usurpation of the seat of sovereignty in Otranto — that has not even passed into myth. I mention this non-mythical quality out of an awareness that a number of familiar haunted house fictions posit the haunting as a consequence of a political situation that has — within the fiction — lost its practical solvability and passed into a mythical realm. The cliché of the house built upon a Native American burial ground in films like Poltergeist, for instance, never suggests that the haunting may be resolved through property redistribution or reparations. The injustice is instead taken as a given, a foundational fact of the land and property. The injustice in The Castle of Otranto, on the other hand, is eminently solvable and will be resolved soon after the haunting begins. The result is that supernatural entities and architecture never feel unified — their relation is incidental and politically contingent. This does point, however, to an important historical truth of Otranto’s status as a Gothic novel: the Gothic was not a cultural concept with submerged political qualities, but a simultaneously political and cultural concept that formed an essential part of Whiggish identity in 18th-century England.

Let us resume our summary. Isabella flees from Manfred, running through the lower parts of the castle to find an underground passageway that leads from the castle to the Church of Saint Nicholas. In the course of her escape, she meets the peasant who Manfred had imprisoned underneath the helmet. He is also trying to escape and helps Isabella find her way into the passageway after moonlight shines on the hidden door they are looking for (28). (I note the importance of moonlight in the novel again.) Once Isabella has entered the passageway, Manfred discovers the peasant and demands he reveal the means of his escape and confess to any secrets he is withholding. All the while, Isabella is trembling in the passageway below. The suspense of this scene is relieved by a comic dialogue between Manfred and two domestics who believe they have seen a giant or a ghost in the castle (32). The dialogue and the placement of a comic scene in an otherwise dramatic work are clearly modeled on Shakespeare, though Walpole certainly lacks the former’s wit. The peasant ultimately escapes Manfred’s wrath by volunteering to investigate the supernatural entity observed by the domestics (34). The first chapter ends with Manfred finally reunited with Hippolita. Passion and madness momentarily subside as he speaks with his wife, feeling “returning love force itself into his eyes” (35). This mood is not to last long, however, and “The next transition of his soul was to exquisite villainy” (36). Such mercurial emotional intensity characterizes Manfred throughout The Castle of Otranto.

The action of the second chapter is essentially dramatic. It begins with a lengthy dialogue between Matilda and her attendant Bianca, wherein we learn of the princess’ desire to join a convent, her penchant for gazing upon a portrait of Alfonso — the former prince of Otranto — and the resemblance of the imprisoned peasant to that portrait (35–8). They are interrupted by a voice in the chamber below Matilda’s — it is the peasant (40). He informs the women of Isabella’s flight — though not its cause — from the castle and impresses them with noblesse of his character; Bianca surmises that he is in love with someone (41). The following morning marks the arrival of the friar Jerome from the church where Isabella has taken shelter. He attempts to speak with Hippolita before Manfred, but the latter prevents this. Reproached by Jerome, the prince tries to plead his case but makes no good impression on the friar, who resolutely condemns his request for divorce from Hippolita and betrothment to Isabella (49). Manfred learns that the peasant aided Isabella in her escape and storms to find him, interrupting his conversation with Friar Jerome. The peasant informs us that his name is Theodore and pleads his case, but Manfred rages at him and demands his execution (51). However, the friar interrupts the scene, and we learn that Theodore is his long-lost son from a previous life (52–3). He begs for Theodore’s life, but before he can tell Manfred the story of Theodore’s origin, the plumes on the helmet begin to move around of their own accord (55).

The third chapter begins here, with Manfred disturbed by the helmet’s movements. A trumpet sounds at the castle’s gate. Manfred quickly abandons his conviction to execute Theodore and demands Jerome enquire who is at the gate. Jerome returns, followed by a herald of Frederic, the marquis of Vincenza and the father of Isabella, who had long been believed to be dead. On his behalf, the herald accuses Manfred of being a usurper to the throne of Otranto, which rightfully belongs to Frederic (56). While Manfred proposes to a knight representing Frederic that the two men should settle their claim peacefully before resorting to a dual, Jerome returns to the church to discover that Isabella has fled for fear of being returned to Manfred, who she believes to have killed Hippolita (59). Back at the castle, Manfred proposes a compromise to the knight representing Frederic: the latter should marry Matilda while the former marries Isabella. This negotiation is interrupted by Friar Jerome, who returns and announces that Isabella has gone missing (65). Manfred orders Theodore to be locked up in the castle while a search is conducted for Isabella (66). The court emptied, Matilda goes to free Theodore, and in a lengthy dialogue to two fall in love. Theodore then leaves to search for Isabella (67–9). He finds Isabella hiding in a cave and tells her of Manfred’s search party before assuring her that he will not let her fall into the prince’s hands (70). A knight from the search party, however, finds the cave. Theodore defends the cave against the knight’s advances, wounding him deeply in the process (71). A twist, however, reveals that this knight is no servant of Manfred but Frederic — the marquis of Vincenza and father of Isabella — himself, come to rescue his daughter (71–2). Father and daughter are briefly reunited before the party conducts the marquis to the castle for medical attention (73).

Chapter IV begins with the fallout of this unfortunate battle. With all the principal characters aside from Manfred gathered back at the castle, Frederic’s wounds are treated, and he tells the story of his imprisonment during a crusade. We learn that “while prisoner to the infidels, he had dreamed that his daughter […] was detained in a castle […] in danger of the most dreadful misfortunes; and that if he obtained his liberty and repaired to a wood near Joppa, he would learn more” (74). Once freed from prison, Frederic and his companions — in what feels like a scene from an Arthurian romance — “found a venerable hermit in the agonies of death” (75). This hermit tells the group the story of a vision in which Saint Nicholas appeared to him and told him of a secret that he should only reveal to another upon his deathbed. The hermit commands Frederic to “dug under the seventh tree on the left hand of this poor cave” once the men have performed last rites on him (75). Here, Frederic and his men discovered the same enormous saber that has since appeared in the court of Otranto. On the blade were inscribed the following lines: “Where’er a casque that suits this sword is found,/With perils is thy daughter compass’d round:/Alfonso’s blood alone can save the maid,/And quiet a long-restless prince’s shade” (76). It is at this point that Manfred comes upon the gathering, only to be taken aback by the sight of Theodore, who he mistakes for the ghost of Alfonso (76–7).

It is now Theodore’s turn to tell his story. He informs the incensed Manfred that when he was a child, he and his mother were captured by Muslim pirates and taken to Algiers, where his mother died soon after. She left him a letter informing him that he was the son of Jerome, the Count Falconara. He then remained in slavery for two years until the vessel he was on was captured by a Christian vessel. The captain of this vessel then dropped him ashore in Sicily, where he learned that Jerome/Falconara’s estate had been razed to the ground and that his father had retired to religious life in Otranto. This brings his story to the present moment marks the end of the night’s action (78). At this point, Walpole provides a lengthy dialogue between Isabella and Matilda where the two untangle their mutual affections for Theodore, each trying to acquiesce to the other and tell her she is the rightful heir to Theodore’s affections (79–82). Hippolita interrupts this “contest of amity” to inform the princesses that the princes have proposed Matilda be betrothed to Frederic (82). A highly sentimental dialogue follows from this, with many tears shed, and many bodies flung towards each other in emotion. At this point, Isabella confesses Manfred’s devious plan to divorce Hippolita and marry the former. Overwhelmed by Hippolita’s goodness, the two princesses leave the situation’s resolution in her hands (83–5). Hippolita departs the rooms in search of Jerome’s council. Jerome’s incense at Manfred’s plot is renewed.

The friar and Hippolita barge in on Manfred as he is proposing the double marriage to Frederic. Jerome threatens to bring the full force of the church to bear on the impious schemes of Manfred, who furiously turns upon the friar, only to be interrupted when “three drops of blood” fall “from the nose of Alfonso’s statue” (89). Interrupted by this supernatural sign, the chapter ends. The fifth and final chapter begins with Manfred worrying over how he will resolve the situation at hand. He is going to smooth things over with the marquis when he meets Matilda’s servant Bianca. Manfred suspects Theodore of secretly trying to wed Isabella and attempts to extract evidence of this from the deeply confused Bianca. They break off their conversation, and Manfred proceeds to Frederic. Bianca, however, has seen the giant that haunts the castle and bursts in on their conversation, causing much confusion and giving Frederic grounds to call off the marriage of Isabella and denounce Manfred. This conversation, in turns, is interrupted by word that a banquet is ready for them in the great hall of the castle (92–6). Once the banquet concludes, Frederic seeks Hippolita in her apartment. Instead of finding the princess, however, he finds a figure praying at an altar. He approaches to figure, but when it turns around, he finds “the fleshless jaws and empty sockets of a skeleton, wrapt in a hermit’s cowl.” This skeleton is, evidently, an apparition of the hermit he had encountered in the woods of Joppa, and the shade demands he forget his lust for Matilda (98).

Frederic flees back to his apartment, where an intoxicated Manfred accosts him. He snubs the prince, who is then informed by a domestic that “Theodore and some lady from the castle were at that instant in private conference at the tomb of Alfonso in St. Nicholas’s church” (99). Believing this lady to be Isabella, the enraged Manfred arrives at the church and, “guided by an imperfect gleam of moonlight” (again, the moon seems to have a hand in directing the fulfillment of this prophecy), sinks a dagger into the bosom of the lady he believes to be Isabella. It is, however, his daughter Matilda. All the characters gather around her for a protracted death scene. Amid his attempts to remain with Matilda’s body, Theodore lets loose he should now rightfully be considered the prince of Otranto. A supernatural occurrence affirms his claim: “The walls of the castle behind Manfred were thrown down with a mighty force, and the form of Alfonso, dilated to an immense magnitude, appeared in the centre of the ruins. Behold in Theodore, the true heir of Alfonso! said the vision” (103). Overcome by guilt and overawed by this vision, Manfred provides a confession: his grandfather Ricardo, chamberlain of Alfonso, had poisoned Prince Alfonso and written up a fictitious will proclaiming himself the heir to the throne. When God prepared to punish Ricardo for his crime, the traitor delayed judgment by vowing to Saint Nicholas that he would set up churches and convents in Otranto. Judgment, however, would ultimately come once “the rightful owner should be grown too large to inhabit the castle” and “Ricardo’s loins” should cease to produce male heirs (104).

Jerome then fills in the remainder of the mystery concerning Theodore’s claim to the throne. Jerome, he tells the crowd, is the son of Alfonso and a Sicilian woman named Victoria, whom he met when blown off course during a journey to the Holy Land. Alfonso had intended to return with her to Otranto after his time in the crusade, but when word reached her of Alfonso’s death and Ricardo’s usurpation, she declined to make a claim to the throne. Her daughter, in turn, was Victoria, wife of Jerome and father of Theodore, who is, therefore, the rightful heir to the throne of Otranto. The whole truth revealed, Manfred abdicates the principality; he and Hippolita have their marriage annulled, and each retires to a convent. Frederic offers Isabella’s hand to Theodore. Though the two still grieve for Matilda, they wed once Theodore is “persuaded he could know no happiness but in the society of one with whom he could forever indulge the melancholy that had taken possession of his soul” (105). Thus concludes The Castle of Otranto. Although it is not so recognizably Gothic as its reputation might suggest — and though it is not a very well-constructed novel, full as it is of confused genre and convention — it is still of historical importance.

Until next week,

Michael Ducker