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.