Friday, February 18, 2011

Review: The Castle of Otranto

The Otranto Observer:
Prince Squashed by Giant Airborne Helmet! Full News on Page Six!
Lord of Otranto Says - "Sorry, the Castle Ain't Mine!"
FULL Interview with Covergirl Isabella - "He was Never the One for Me!"
Love Advice from Star-Struck Pair! Theodore and Matilda Tell All - How YOU Can Find True Love in Just Ten Seconds!
Jerome and Hippolita's 'Faithful's Corner': Why Entering a Monastery's the Only Way to Go!
The Commoner's Chronicle: Bianca and her Fellows Tell Why THEY'RE the Ones Who Saved Otranto!

Phew. Sorry. With a novel like Otranto it's hard not to inject a little sarcasm into the reviewing of the book. In honour of Horace Walpole - father of Gothic fiction - I'm going to write this review with as many dashes - and breaks - as I possibly can.

It's not difficult to see why Otranto is still an important book today. As a novel it marks the beginning of a new form of popular fiction - the Gothic - which would never quite die down. Its ancestors are alive and well today - Just look at the shelves of any YA section in any bookstore in the world.

 So. It's an important book. It's pretty famous, too. Added to that, it's short, at a measly 100-or-so pages. It's a quick read, even if a little challenging. Otranto is a book I've long wanted to read but never found the time to. Mostly, it's due to laziness, but I decided now was the perfect time to take a dip into the pool of Early Gothic.

Original Title-Page. Source.
Primarily, Otranto is challenging because of the way it's written - kind of like this - with speech - bless old Horace Walpole - not even graced with a new line each time it presents itself. This leads to the disturbing technical difficulty of the text blending into one huge hunk. You really have to concentrate on your reading - or you find yourself drifting off. Everything happens rather quickly, so you might find that by the time you tune in, five different things have happened and you've completely lost the thread of the plot.

And what is the plot? Well, it's fairly simple. The son of Manfred, lord of Otranto, is killed on his wedding day to Isabella, by the aforementioned magical flying helmet. Manfred, who now needs a male heir, decides - oh, that most blackhearted of villains! - that he's going to divorce his wife Hippolita and marry Isabella. As a Gothic villain I would have expected him to try and kill Hippolita, so I guess Manfred gets points for good behaviour.

And there's romance, naturally; a love triangle, between Theodore, Matilda - daughter of Manfred - and Isabella. Theodore, the dashing young hero, speaks surprisingly well for a man who was a slave on a pirate ship for most of his youth. But that's pirates for you. Rightful heir of Otranto, though he doesn't know it yet, Theodore turns up dressed as a peasant and leaves as a Lord. Lucky him.
Walpole's famous house at Strawberry Hill,
said to have inspired Otranto itself. Source.

Because the book is so short, there's very little time to develop the characters. Walpole seems to sit on the fence about Manfred in particular. The women characters are simple and boring, as in most Gothic fiction - they exist simply as victims. Take Hippolita - "It is not ours to make election for ourselves; heaven, our fathers, and our husbands, must decide for us." (The Castle of Otranto, Chapter IV) But Manfred could potentially be seen as a bit more complex. One moment he's hurrying around trying to divorce his wife - "I desired you once before, said Manfred angrily, not to name that woman; from this hour she must be a stranger to you, as she must be to me ... too long has she cursed me by her unfruitfulness..." (Otranto, Chapter I), badmouthing her behind her back - but Walpole rushes to assure us that he's not all bad - he has a tender heart, we're told, which is not unsusceptible to goodness. Then he goes around trying to stab his would-be daughter-in-law (beacause, of course, the way to solve any problem is to stab the pretty woman. That'll make everything better) and ends up killing his daughter.

Manfred, whose spirts were inflamed, and whom Isabella had driven from her on his urging his passion with too little reserve ... Provoked ... and enraged at her father [Frederic], he hastened secretly to the great church ... the tryant, drawing his dagger ... plung[ed] it over her shoulder ... -Ah me, I am slain! cried Matilda sinking ... -Stop ... cried Matilda; it is my father! Manfred, waking as from a trance, beat his breast ... and endeavoured to recover his dagger from Theodore to dispatch himself.
...Matilda, resigning herself to her fate ... she begged the assistants to comfort her father. I took thee for Isabella [cried Manfred]; but heaven directed my bloody hand to the heart of my child!
Otranto, Chapter V
Oh, no. How embarrassing. Looks quite exciting, though, doesn't it? I must admit that bit was, though I wanted to slap Matilda for being a wet blanket. Then Manfred rushes to assure us, himself, that he's not really a bad guy; "My ancestor was really the evil one!" he cries, conveniently pinning the blame on a guy who can't refute his arguments on account of being dead:

I would draw a veil over my ancestor's crimes-but it is in vain: Alfonso died by poison ... I pay the price of usurpation for all!
Still from the 1979 film, depicting the
giant suit of armour which terrifies the
characters. Source.

Oh. Poor Manfred. But don't worry! Be jolly! Both his kids are dead, but that's OK, because he goes into a monastery with his wife and lives happily ever after. After a surprise appearance from a cloaked skeleton - the one bit in the book where I sat up and said, 'This is going to get good!' - Frederic is told - "Remember the wood of Joppa!" Ah, Joppa. I remember it well. Stopped by this apparition from doing something hasty - like trying to marry the gorgeous Matilda, for instance, that sinful dog! - it leaves, never to grace us with its presence again. We never really do find out what happened in Joppa. But religious conversion brightens that oh-so-jolly ending. Order and balance are restored! Tyrants are reformed! Lovers united! (Except for Matilda, poor dear, on account of having been stabbed in the heart by Daddy)
Engraving by James McArdell. Source.

All jokes aside, though, Otranto is an interesting read. It's easy to see why Walpole enjoyed writing it so much. Like many Gothic texts (think Mary Shelley's Frankenstein) it originated in a dream. "The work grew on my hands," Walpole says, "and I grew fond of it ... I was so engrossed with my tale ... I completed [it] in less than two months..." (Letter to the Rev. William Cole) In 'blending two types of romance: the old and the new' Walpole pioneered a popular genre which has as yet refused to die down. It really is a landmark in popular literature, and a triumph for the Gothic elements of storytelling over the seriousness of Enlightenment writers. Three cheers for our boy Horace! 

Review Posted on Goodreads: 3 out of 5 stars.

Cover picture from here.

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