Wednesday 26 October 2022

Review: The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole

 I’d last read The Castle of Otranto over ten years ago and I remembered being fairly underwhelmed by the experience. It was hard to believe that this was the book that is given the title of the first gothic novel. Having just read Clara Reeve’s The Old English Baron, an attempt to rewrite without the overt supernatural stuff, I decided to reread Walpole’s original. 

I was struck by the fact that I remembered the first chapter of the book with astonishing accuracy and detail but I remembered absolutely nothing about the rest of it. True, the first chapter includes many of the most memorable elements of the book; the sudden appearance of the very large helmet, Manfred’s offer to his son’s wife, the sighing ghost of a grandfather coming out of the portrait and the escape in the secret tunnels, but how had I forgotten all the other nutty stuff that happens in this book.

A huge problem for the modern reader of this book is that much of it feels like something from Monty Python. This stems from the setting, a mediaeval world full of knights, lackeys and set in one particular castle. It doesn't help that this castle is in turn based on Wapole’s own Strawberry Hill, a papier-mâché fantasy that is a few steps away from being ‘only a model’. Then there’s the inciting incident, in which a huge car-sized helmet descends from the sky and squashes the heir to the castle, which isn’t so far away from Python’s giant foot. 

Later in the book, a knightly retinue enter with a claim to the castle. This group of people are so numerous and described in such detail it reminded me of the Prince Ali song from Aladdin, to make them even more ridiculous the people belonging to ‘The Knight of Gigantic Sabre’ come shuffling in, carrying a ginormous sword which they plonk down next to the helmet. These knights are a little laconic and there follows a ridiculous dinner scene where our tyrannical usurper volubly makes excuses for his actions to them as they do little more than shrug - rather like Basil Fawlty explaining his latest faux-pas to some guests.

It was clear that the intentional comic scenes, those with the servants, rubbed some readers up the wrong way. Walpole’s second preface mainly deals in explanations for these moments, summoning the ghost of Shakespeare and explaining the long and glorious history of comic servants in serious texts. Unfortunately for the modern reader aware of Monty Python, the key scene with these servants, where two terrified domestics obfuscate and fail to properly explain a terrifying vision of a giant arm, is structured like a Monty Python sketch. Be it the cheese-shop, dead parrot, the haggling salesman in Life of Brian or the hiccoughing guard in Holy Grail, many Monty Python sketches are structured around one character trying to get information and other characters getting in the way. 

As such, I really enjoyed The Castle of Otranto but mostly as a silly comedy. The skeleton-monk was pretty creepy but most of the rest was either silly or boring Theodore/Father Jerome stuff, though I did like Father Jerome being sassy sometimes.

So how did this book give birth to the gothic genre and the books that grew from that? I don’t think it’s the novel itself but the preface. Not the first preface, where Walpole actually managed to convince early readers that the text was a translated one (and which explains what great literature that original is). It’s the second preface that did it. True, most of it tries to excuse the comic servants but Walpole describes what he was trying to do in the book. “It was an attempt to blend the two kinds of romance, the ancient and the modern.” Walpole (always the antiquary) explains how the old stories were so imaginative and fun, not so tied to the dull and everyday but the newer stories add realism and psychological depth. The Castle of Otranto, as a gothic novel, was Walpole’s attempt to have his cake and eat it too. 

The fact that his novel doesn’t achieve this is most significant of all. The failure of Castle of Otranto to blend this different elements set down a problem for other authors to try and solve. Though later writers did respond to the book itself, I think more responded to the challenge in the preface, giving birth to a fun, giddy vein of literature that’s still being mined today.

Wednesday 19 October 2022

Review: The Old English Baron by Clara Reeve


Clara Reeves wrote The Old English Baron in response to The Castle of Otranto. In the (very engaging) preface to the second edition she explains how Otranto tried to ‘unite the various merits and graces of the ancient romance and modern novel’ into a form it called the gothic novel. The benefits of ancient romance are the expanded realm of ‘the marvellous which excites the attention’ and the benefits of the modern novel are ‘to give an air of probability to the work; and enough of the pathetic to engage the heart’ in its behalf. The problem, as Reeves saw it, was that The Castle of Otranto leans too heavily into its romance aspect which makes the work ridiculous. She feels that the ‘machinery is too monstrous’ which dispels the effect and, instead, caused her to laugh. She found that many other readers also had this problem and thought it could solved if the book had gone to ‘the verge of probability’ but no further.

In response, she wrote The Old English Baron as an attempt to carry out Walpole’s gothic project properly by taking out the more bombastic, sillier parts. While I’d agree that The Castle of Otranto is often a very silly book (my more recent re-read kept putting me in mind of Monty Python) it is those parts which are the most entertaining and linger longest in the reader’s memory and removing them takes much of the fun out of the experience.

The reader is introduced to Sir Phillip Harclay, a soldier returning from the crusades who seeks out his old friend, Arthur Lord Lovell. When he reaches Lovell’s seat, he finds that Arthur, his wife and son have all died, the house has passed to his brother, who leases it to a Baron Fitz-Owen. He feels an emptiness in finding his beloved friend gone and it reminded me a little of the set up of Lady Audley’s Secret. However, unlike Robert Audley, it’s not Phillip who’s going to investigate the mysteries though. Instead he meets Fitz-Owen, who he likes a lot and takes a particular shine to Edmund, a peasant boy with especial charm, who he asks to join him. Edmund says he can’t, he owes too much to the Fitz-Owens, who have lifted him from the plough and are training him to be a squire. Sir Phillip leaves, offering Edmund any assistance in the future and remarking on how similar he was to his old friend Lovell. As soon as the mystery is set up, it’s pretty much revealed by this suspicion.

Once Phillip has left, the reader spends time with Edmund, which is a little jarring because Phillip was given a fair amount of backstory and really seemed like he would be the protagonist. Edmund is a perfect person. He has innate nobility, manliness, wisdom, kindness and general chivalric perfection - there’s no way he can really be a peasant, can he? While he stands firm in Baron Fitz-Owen’s favour and the favour of the younger son William, the older son, Robert is jealous of his accomplishments. His jealousy is encouraged by Wenlock and Markham, the sons of the current Lord Lovell, who lives in a grand house somewhere else.

The first draft of this book, The Champion of Virtue, Reeves followed Walpole’s example of having the story told in fragments of manuscript. When she revised the novel under the current title, she removed most of those elements but a few remain. These give the novel little time-skips so we can see Edmund’s progress and the build up of the forces against him in snippets and are very effective - I think the found manuscript frame should probably have been kept. I also prefer the original title as Sir Phillip literally stands as a (tourney) champion of virtue, whereas the old English baron could refer to a number of the characters. Presumably it refers to Fitz-Owen, the person most often referred to as a baron but he’s not really a central character, certainly he isn’t a very active part of the book.

There are also spooky goings on in the castle, a suite of rooms is shut up following the death of the last Lord Lovell and the death in childbirth of his distraught widow. Edmund’s manliness is being disparaged by Wenlock and crew, so he proves it by spending the night in the haunted rooms. There he finds clues of foul play and an old servant helps him put together the clues and suspicions that point to him being the true heir of the Lovell name. An interview with his mother confirms this and it is quickly understood that Lovell was murdered and buried under the floorboards, his wife ran away but drowned in a nearby river, leaving him as a baby to be found and brought up by peasants. The difficulty is in finding someone with enough clout to prove it.

He decides to go to Sir Phillip but disguise his flight by the fiction of being stolen away by the supposed ghost who haunts the castle. The best part of the book then follows, when Wenlock and Markharm have to prove their manliness by staying in the haunted part of the castle. They blame each other for their predicament and almost come to blows when a ghostly figure in a suit of armour comes in and frightens them silly. It’s revealed that the ghost is actually the old servant pulling a Scooby-Doo.

Edmunds meets up with Sir Phillip who takes a challenge to the current Lord Lovell (who is not the kind Fitz-Owen who actually lives in the Lovell house, he’s only renting). The two fight, Lovell loses and confesses to the murder and Edmund is generally acclaimed to be the rightful Lord Lovell and not a peasant at all.

This should be the end. It’s not. The book is about 80 pages in and the next 50 are about the various meetings of nobility, commissions of investigators and interminable legal wranglings which result from the climactic joust and confession that’s happened two thirds through the book. Essentially: faff, faff, faff, marriages, lots of house swapping, the end. As such, the book is really quite disappointing. The set-up is nice, we like Sir Phillip and look forward to him finding out the truth, then we spend time with Edmund who solves the mystery in 20 pages, leading to an interesting duel and a wrap-up that takes a third of the book.

I think Clara Reeve did identify a main problem in Walpole’s own attempt to fuse ancient and modern forms of storytelling but in trying to go in the direction or greater realism, she left something that is fairly entertaining at its best moments and utterly dull at its worst. The magic formula of the gothic novel - using heightened emotion and old myth within a recognisably and grounded psychology - was yet to be achieved. 

Wednesday 12 October 2022

Review: A Sicilian Romance by Ann Radcliffe

 A Sicilian Romance was Ann Radcliffe’s second novel and the elements that went into The Mysteries of Udolpho aren’t quite as integrated or fleshed out.

The story claims to be of two sisters of two different temperaments. Emilia is quiet and subdued in her passions and Julia is less controlled but more vivacious. There’s not really any need to remember Emilia though, she does nothing, says nothing and has no impact on the plot - Julia will be our main innocent plunged into a journey of castles, ruins, banditti and bad men with power.

Chief of the bad men is her father, Marquis Mazzini. He harried his first wife to death, married a new (and evil) stepmother and took her and his favoured son to Naples, where they yummed it up and had a good time. The two daughters were left in Mazzini’s old castle in the company of a few servants and their tutor Madame de Menon, where they grew up in peaceful seclusion and rational entertainment. This quiet is burst into when the Marquis, his wife and the son come back to the castle to celebrate the son’s coming-of-age. This son, Ferdinand, is not such a bad lad and he also brings his friend, the dishy Hippolytus, who falls in love with Julia. This is a problem, because an old and nasty duke has his heart set on marrying Julia and her father has his heart set on using the marriage to gain influence.

From then Julia has to avoid being married, whether she is locked in a tower, fleeing through forests or hiding out in a convent. Not that the convent is the best place to hide, the abate who runs it is extremely conceited and unhelpful, meaning that soon Julia has to run from a Father as well as her father. There are caverns and catacombs, trapdoors and locked doors, ruins and shipwrecks - and it being a Salvator Rosa inspired environment, banditti everywhere.

Radcliffe ticks off many of the expected elements, there’s ghostly goings on with a (mostly) logical explanation, there’s unfair imprisonment and a genuinely creepy expedition into a bandit camp that includes torture and a rather horrific body-dumping vault.

Even though character is one of Radcliffe’s weaker skills, I did find a few of the characters in Udolpho interesting or engaging in some way, that wasn’t really the case here. We are told Julia is vivacious and winning but never really get to see it. The villainous stepmother doesn’t have the opportunity to do anything actively villainous, even though she is the cause of villainous actions in others. The Marquis is also a rather blank slate, so the extremity of his actions don’t feel grounded in a personality, even a disordered one. I suppose if I were to name a favourite character, it’d be Madame de Menon, but she’s mostly defined by her steadfast loyalty and her listening skills then anything particularly dynamic.

This lack of character was exacerbated by the rather shifting point-of-view. I remember that the narrator stayed pretty close to Emily in Udolpho, giving the reader the same experiences she was and putting her in the same position of dizzy ignorance. A Sicilian Romance strays from Julia sometimes, following nasty-duke as he tries to track her through the island, or having a brief check in with the Marquis - this is contrasted with the times someone just suddenly turns up at the right place with a short narrative to explain the coincidence. It makes it an uneven read.

However, some of the scenes were gripping and the mis-en-scene interesting. I liked the castle with the mysterious southern section (though I did guess the central mystery of the book fifteen pages in). I also like the casual references to people being burned alive by lava and the constant stream of bandits and mercenaries that made every trip treacherous.  

I suppose what I enjoyed most was the rudimentary elements of Radcliffe’s later novels and others inspired by them, seeing those parts laid pretty bare before they became blended more tastily together. It’s like seeing some pretty decent preparatory sketches to a more fleshed out full painting. Probably one for enthusiasts.

Wednesday 5 October 2022

Review: The Koran: Or, Essays, Sentiments, Characters, and Callimachies, of Tri Juncta in Uno, M.N.A. or Master of No Arts by Richard Griffith


A few years ago a bought a book from Oxfam titled Something New, Volume Two. It was a mysterious and strange book by a writer called Automathes that included a strange array of essays. I now know that this was Richard Griffith, husband of Elizabeth Griffith the playwright and he was a writer of numerous other works. Most confusing in Something New were a serious of essays signed ‘Tria Juncta’. The first made a bet that Tria Juncta’s forthcoming work would be mistaken for Laurence Sterne. The next made all sorts of astounding claims for his ability to control his body, being able to be incidentally happy, asleep or kill people from afar.

While Tria Juncta was styled as Automathes friend, he was of course another pseudonymn for Richard Griffith and his Tria Juncta books were collected as The Koran: Or, Essays, Sentiments, Characters, and Callimachies, of Tria Juncta in Uno, M.N.A. or Master of No Arts.  

In Something New, Tria Juncta says, “I had a considerable wager depending with a friend of mine, that the work would pass current on the world as writing of Mr Sterne’s.” If this bet is true, Griffith cheated. The first book of The Koran outright claims to be a posthumous autobiography of Laurence Sterne. To be fair Sterne and Griffith had met, and Griffith claimed that Sterne had given him notes to work up, though to be also fair, Griffith doesn’t seem to have been the most truthful of people. There are real biographical details in the book, from the career of Sterne’s father, his dabbling in church politics and even a claim for the real inspirations for the Tristram Shandy characters of Le Fevre and Uncle Toby. 

Even though this first volume claims to be an autobiography, there’s still time to fit in short essays much like those in Something New. There’s some critic-needling, laughing at how his books are well spaced to pad them out. There are many articles about morality, particularly ‘mechanical christians’ who do the right things without feelings of compassion, compared to the genuinely kind-hearted people (like our author) who occasionally make mistakes. There are also discussions of the morality of Sterne and his work. One, ‘Triglyph and Tristram Compared’, talks about a critic and novelist called Triglyph, who was too harsh on Sterne and his occasional use of rudeness - it’s no surprise that Triglyph was also Richard Griffith, the name he used to write a novel called The Triumvirate; or, The Authentic Memoirs of A. B. and C. He’s wonderfully shameless. 

There’s one essay called ‘Cardinal Virtues’, where they are listed as, “Build houses, rear trees, write books, get children”. I like the forward-looking, build for the future element of these virtues. Leave the world with more houses, trees, books and people. It’s a glimpse of the positive, likeable person that Griffith reveals in his writings (as opposed to the pub-bore he also sometimes sounds like).

The second book starts off with Tria Juncta talking about his favourite groups of threes and announcing that his essays were too long in the last book and that he wants to invent a new form he calls callimachies. These are short, snappy thoughts about various things which, to a modern reader, feels a bit like scrolling through one person’s tweets. It’s a surprisingly effective form, Griffith veers between serious, silly, pedantic, generous in quick succession and the reader is pulled through, wondering what will be next.

There are callimachies making a recommendation for limited peerages and reform in the House of Lords, others stating that, “men tire themselves in search of rest,” and others saying that, “kindness can never be cancelled, not even by repaying it.” In one, he argues for the death penalty, saying it’s fine if one innocent person is accidentally killed for every ten guilty people as it’s better to get evil people out of the world then save the odd innocent one. He then realises what he has said and remarks how it’s the first time he’s ever had a political thought that went against humanity. He’ll often be honest if he can’t remember where a quote is from. Another of the callimachies says, “live to learn, and learn to live”. He then pauses and calls the phrase ‘quaint’ - essentially he’s realised that it’s in ‘live, life, laugh’ territory and a little naff.

This book includes a message to a Kit, who “was master of a kind of inverted wit, this consisted of a remarkable quickness of misapprehension. He would often pretend to mistake some word in a sentence, for another of similar sound, and, by commenting, or running a parody of it, contrive to throw the speaker into an embarrassment.” There’s no way of knowing if this is in reference to Kit Smart, but they did move in similar circles and it’s certainly something I can imagine Smart doing. 

The third book was the weakest. It took a similar, callimachie, short style but instead of being his own musings about things and sketches of people he knows, it was a collection of anecdotes from what he’s read. The selection shows an interest in women’s history and includes anecdotes about women philosophers, athletes and poets. He suggests that Descartes, “Cogito ergo sum’ should have used the Latin word for doubt, as Descartes is doubting, therefore he is. There are lots of anecdotes about naughty popes to show how silly papal infallibility is. There’s one about how red-headed people are great, because their red hair shows their passion and their’s more affection in warm passions then lukewarm ones. Otherwise, the third book is filler. 

In my reading of Richard Griffith, he still remains an elusive figure. He’s sententious and stuffy (and way too pedantic about Latin) but he has some genuinely funny jokes and quirky ways of looking at the world. I’d like to find the novel he wrote under the name of Triglyph and the love letters he wrote and published with his wife. He’s not lost me yet.