The Gothic Life and Times of Horace Walpole

Two-hundred and fifty years ago, Horace Walpole published ‘The Castle of Otranto,’ a strange, campy book that’s widely considered to be the first Gothic novel. In real life, Walpole’s family was beset by tragedy and his life’s obsession was a Gothic castle called Strawberry Hill.

Carrie Frye | Longreads | December 2014 | 16 minutes (4,064 words)

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As a child, Horace Walpole frequently heard it said of himself that surely he would die soon. Born in England in 1717, the last of his mother’s six children, he was fragile and prone to illness from birth. Two siblings before him had died in infancy, and so in the family order it went: three older children, loud, healthy and opinionated; two grave markers; and then young Horace toddling up behind—half child, half potential grave marker.

Naturally, his mother, Catherine, spoiled him. His father, Sir Robert Walpole, was the King’s prime minister. This often kept him away from home, as did a long-time mistress who acted, more than his wife did, as his hostess and companion. For her part Catherine had her own dalliances. It was that sort of marriage. The Walpoles of old had been middling country gentry—ancient name, quiet prosperity—before Robert had come along and, through a blend of shrewdness and charisma, wolf-halled his family into riches and the nobility. When Robert was young, the hope for him was that he might one day make a fine sheep-farmer; he died the first Earl of Orford, after a 20-year run as prime minister, a colossus of English history.

His son Horace worked himself into history another way. In his early 30s, he bought a box-shaped house—just an ordinary sort of house, sitting on a bit of hill in a fashionable country suburb—and decided to transform it into a Gothic castle. Room by room he went. Stained-glass window of a saint here, ancient suit of armor stowed in a wall recess there.

Then one summer, sitting in his castle’s library, he wrote a novel called The Castle of Otranto. Its setting was a medieval castle, not unlike his own mock-castle in many of its details, but grown, in the way of novels and dreams, into something grand and imposing. There the villainous Manfred schemes to block the return of the castle’s rightful heir, a young man named Theodore. Commonly pegged as the first Gothic novel, The Castle of Otranto turns 250 this year. It’s a strange, great, terrible, campy novel, slim but with some paragraphs so long and dense that you have to slash your way through. If Gothic literature had a family tree, its twisted gnarled branches chock-full of imperiled, swooning heroines and mysterious monks, with ghosts who sit light on the branches, and Frankenstein’s monster who sits heavy, with troops of dwarves, and winking nuns, and stunted, mostly nonflammable babies, at its base would sit Horace Walpole’s Castle. (Presumably with some lightning flickering dangerously nearby.)

***

A lantern designed (and watercolored) by Richard Bentley, courtesy of the Lewis Walpole Library, Yale University.

A lantern designed (and watercolored) by Richard Bentley, courtesy of the Lewis Walpole Library, Yale University.

At nine, Horace was sent off to Eton. After the death of George I, he marched in a procession as a proclamation of the new king was read, crying and crying as he thought of the old king, but also trying to amplify his tears so that if anyone looked over at him, they’d see that the prime minister’s son was crying harder than other boys. There is so much of the future man in this anecdote: the spectral sense of himself as a figure that others might observe; the family pride that made him want to make a good showing; and then, not least, that we know the story at all, which is because he told it on himself.

As an adult he was pale—so many people noted this, he must have been ghostly indeed. Very pale, very thin, with a bright, bright gaze. Average height. He had an effacing, gliding kind of walk that was either affectation (early life) or gout (later life). His voice was not strong but pleasant. His friends called him ‘Horry’—they gossiped about him, envied him, loved him, needled him. “He is now as much a curiousity to all foreigners as the tombs and lions,” wrote one. He was extremely charming, confident and buoyant in manner. He had one of those temperaments that sees the sadness in comedy, and the comedy in sadness, and so at the risk of tipping too far toward sadness, tips determinedly the other way. He seems to have had little appetite for food or alcohol. He never married. As for his romantic heart, who knows? He was adept at self-camouflage. According to the biographer Timothy Mowl, he likely had a secret “off-and-on” relationship with Henry Pelham-Clinton, Lord Lincoln, a very handsome old school friend, for a few years after they left school. There were a few, rather wispy relationships with women around this time, too. Read his letters and a sharp sense of romantic detachment makes itself felt, one that doesn’t feel entirely like a pose. It’s as if having hovered so near death as a child, he remained part-ghost as an adult, pale and thin, with few food or drink requirements and looking on the passion-stricken follies of others with amused wonder. (His spare diet made friends view his struggles with gout, which were chronic and debilitating, as especially cruel.)

He attended Cambridge, leaving, as one chronicler notes, “without the superfluity of a degree.” He then went on the Grand Tour customary for young men of his class. His traveling companion was Thomas Gray, his long-time friend (they’d met at Eton), who was not yet the great poet he’d become but still a painfully earnest, studious son of an abusive London “scrivener” and a kindly woman who kept a milliner’s shop. Gray made the trip filled with uncertainty of what he was going to do with himself on his return. There was a vague notion that he would study law, but the idea filled Gray with dread. Meanwhile, Walpole had the guarantee of a lifetime income of at least 1,200 pounds a year, thanks to sinecures arranged by his father, and the assurance of a future place in parliament. Walpole paid for the trip, and Gray, probably feeling at times near invisible as he trailed behind the prime minister’s son at assemblies and receptions, seems to have tried to repay this debt with edifying suggestions on how Walpole (blithe, careless) might improve himself.

Still, for a long while, the friends travelled well together, journeying through France and Switzerland, before advancing to Italy (“Turin—Genoa—Florence—Rome—Naples—Rome—Radicofani—Florence again” and onward). Along the way they took notes on all they saw: the stained glass of the old churches; the fineness of Richelieu’s tomb; operas that were disappointing, and plays that weren’t; the “crimson damask and gold” wallpaper of a Paris room where the windows had been patched up “in ten or dozen places with paper”; beautiful city squares and the “tawdry” coaches that rattled across them; the riches of the Medici family’s art collection in Florence. Their shared attentiveness to these sights shows what bound them as friends. Neither was going through the motions of appreciation; each was moved and transformed by what he saw.

(Here is Walpole in a letter to a friend, written during their crossing of the Alps: “Precipices, mountains, torrents, wolves, rumblings, Salvator Rosa—the pomp of our park and the meekness of our palace! Here we are, the lonely lords of glorious desolate prospects.” Gray’s mood was similarly exalted.)

While in Paris, Walpole watched the evening funeral procession for the Lord Mayor of Paris, reporting that some of the monks set to watch over the body as it lay in state had fallen asleep late in the night and “let the tapers catch fire to the rich velvet mantle lined with ermine and powdered with gold flower-de-luces, which melted the lead coffin, and burned off the feet of the deceased…” (There’s our future Gothic author!) Then during the Alps crossing, near Mount Cenis, his spaniel (“the prettiest, fattest, dearest creature!”) was snatched up by a wolf.

Near the end of the trip, after two years of jostling travel, tensions broke into the open. The friends quarreled, and Gray made his way, all stiff pride, back to England alone, with Walpole, behind the scenes, trying to find ways to get money to him without his knowing the source. (They reconciled a few years later, and remained friends thereafter. Walpole helped usher Gray’s “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard” into print, as well as publishing a couple books of his poems.)

In Florence, Walpole had one of his wispy affairs. His mistress was Elisabetta Grifoni, wife of a marchese and one of the city’s noted beauties. After his return to England, he sent her a few presents, and the two corresponded for a time, the letters rapturous on her side, congenial and increasingly perfunctory on his. In his fine biography, R.W. Ketton-Cremer describes how Grifoni, in a last attempt to rekindle Walpole’s interest, inquired into sending him a hamper of hams and cheeses. Here let’s pause to picture that tepid young man, standing in his rooms, staring with dismay at an enormous ham. Luckily, she didn’t send the package, and the two eventually ceased to write.

Walpole kept her portrait in his bedroom for the rest of his life, but, as Ketton-Cremer notes, “this need not be taken as a sign of romantic devotion, as he referred to the work in later years as ‘a frightful picture by a one-eyed German painter.'” So love goes.

***

A Gothic chair design by Richard Bentley and Horace Walpole, courtesy of the Lewis Walpole Library, Yale University.

A Gothic chair design by Richard Bentley and Horace Walpole, courtesy of the Lewis Walpole Library, Yale University.

It was unlike Walpole to call off a correspondence. Generally, once he started writing someone he continued writing them until either they died (and thus stopped reading their mail), or the friendship died (rare for him, but it did happen). Known as one of his century’s great letter writers, he’s still considered among the best practitioners of the art.

If you know Walpole only through Castle of Otranto, these letters are a revelation. The Castle, whatever its virtues, is a block-y piece of work. It can be praised, but the praise would not, say, be directed at its psychological complexities or… the sophistication of the dialogue. (“‘I respect your virtuous delicacy,’ said Theodore; ‘nor do you harbor a suspicion that wounds my honor.'”). As a novel it is, as all progenitors should be, sort of a grand lumpy thing, like an early god. Not the letters, though. These are marvelous little masterpieces: subtle, witty, and dripping with description and gossip and observation. They read like the literary equivalent of a cat curling itself around your ankles, showing off, sure, but glad to see you all the same.

Some bits have grown murky and mysterious with time. “… I am retired hither like an old summer dowager; only that I have no toad-eater to take the air with me in the back part of my lozenge-coach…” (A ‘toad-eater’ was a paid companion. Well!) The vast majority, however, with their swirl of high and low, of official statecraft and candid backroom gossip, feel peculiarly modern.

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A scene from one letter, written during the Grand Tour with Gray:

It is 1740 in Florence, at the house of the British envoy. An elderly Italian of noble background and shabby dress enters. He gives every appearance of nervous fright. It seems that he’s been summoned to a duel by an English subject named Martin, a painter living in Florence, for the discourtesy of “having said Martin was no gentleman.” The older Italian notes to the envoy that he would happily duel Martin except, you see, he has a strict rule of only dueling fellow gentlemen and Martin is not a gentleman and ipso facto thus therefore cannot be dueled thank you good day. Exits, still nervous as a cricket.

Horace and Co. rumble along in a carriage to the place appointed for the duel.

We had not been driving about above ten minutes, but out popped a little figure, pale but cross, with beard unshaved and hair uncombed, a slouched hat, and a considerable red cloak, in which was wrapped, under his arm, the fatal sword that was to revenge the highly injured Mr Martin, painter and defendant. I darted my head out of the coach, just ready to say ‘Your servant, Mr Martin,’ and talk about the architecture of the triumphal arch that was building there; but he would not know me, and walked off. We left him to wait for an hour, to grow very cold and very valiant the more it grew past the hour of appointment. We were figuring all the poor creature’s huddle of thoughts, and confused hopes of victory, or fame, of his unfinished pictures, or his situation upon bouncing into the next world. You will think us strange creatures; but ’twas a pleasant sight, as we knew the poor painter was safe.

***

From another letter: “This sublime age reduces everything to its quintessence; all periphrases and expletives are so much in disuse, that I suppose soon the only way of making love will be to say ‘Lie down.'”

And another: “Indeed, the ambassadress could see nothing; for Doddington stood before her the whole time, sweating Spanish at her…”

***

The word “posterity” crops up again and again in Walpole’s letters. “No one,” the scholar W.S. Lewis writes, “was ever more aware of unborn readers.” Posterity was Walpole’s desire; his eye was always fixed on it, and these letters were his way of courting and wooing it. Even more than most of us, he wished to be remembered, and he seems to have been willing to sacrifice many of the ordinary happinesses of life in order to live on after. As he wrote to one friend, “How merry my ghost will be, and shake its ears to hear itself quoted as a person of consummate prudence!”

His regular correspondents were directed to safe-keep his letters. One, in Italy, returned them in bundles at regular intervals (“for a work in progress”). The letters were transcribed if a fairer copy was needed, shaved here and there, and annotated by Walpole himself. (One of the funniest of these self-annotations makes note that the “Patapan” referred to is “Mr. Walpole’s dog.” “‘That’s my dog!’ wrote Mr. Walpole, for future generations to know.”)

***


He was 30 when he bought his house in Twickenham, then still a bucolic little town considered the perfect, short distance from London. The previous owner was a Mrs. Chevinix, who kept a famous toyshop in Charing Cross. “It is a little play-thing-house that I got out of Mrs. Chevinix’s shop,” wrote Walpole to a friend, “and it is the prettiest bauble you ever saw. … Dowagers as plenty as flounders inhabit all around.” The house itself was small and shapeless, but it was set amid hedges and meadows, these dotted here and there with sheep and cows in best pastoral tradition, and it had a beautiful view overlooking the Thames. He called it Strawberry Hill.

One of his first improvements was to put in some battlements.

Then he added some pinnacles. So, as you bumped along in a coach on your approach to old Horry’s cottage, you’d have seen a castle skyline peeping over the treetops. Intended to look as permanent as if they belonged to an ancient keep, these additions were made of plaster and lath. As Lewis notes: “It was said before he died that ‘Mr. Walpole has already outlived three sets of his battlements.'” (Not bad for a former potential grave-marker.)

Then he started on the interior. At first, his friends greeted his plans to re-do the house in a Gothic style with some mock-horror. As the biographer Ketton-Cremer notes, this was not because it was a new idea, but because it was a slightly out-of-date one. A fashion for Gothic recently had enjoyed a brief, bright flare of popularity in England and the style was now viewed, in Wapole’s set, as a little outré and (dread!) middle-class. So beyond the obvious eccentricity of the undertaking, his ambitions must have seemed strangely out of step at first—as if he’d taken the most Pinteresty of Pinterest boards for inspiration.

Strawberry Hill engraving.

Strawberry Hill engraving.

Never mind! Walpole didn’t care. He convened the Committee of Taste with his friends, Richard Bentley, a gifted and fanciful designer, and John Chute, a talented hobbyist architect. The two advised him on the changes to be made to each room. An elaborate chimneypiece for the parlor was designed. Beautiful chairs and tables, too. Wallpaper was custom-painted in London, using a pattern borrowed from the tomb of Prince Arthur, Henry VIII’s brother. And so it went, room by room.

It was, remember, not a big house at the start. Many rooms were cramped, with one staircase so narrow it was a scrape to get up it. One addition, however, was built on an especially grand scale. This was the Hall, considered by Walpole as his castle’s “chief beauty.” He reveled in its “gloomy arches” and “lean windows fattened with rich saints in painted glass.” Its staircase and shadows, its coat of armor and broadswords, will feel familiar to any Castle of Otranto reader. Walpole lifted them and put them straight into his book.

“Gloomth” was the word that Walpole coined for the effect he wanted in his house. That is, a mixture of warmth and gloom. So the swords and shadows of the Hall were offset by cheerful gardens outside, with sunning cats and well-annotated dogs, with comfortable places to roost around the house, and then, as the decades went on, Walpole’s own accreted layers of bric-a-brac. He was a helpless collector, a hoarder of beauty.

During these same decades, Walpole was serving in Parliament as a member of the liberal Whig party. He was active about it, too. While his weak voice prevented him from making the stirring speeches that would have placed him center-stage, he was a wheeler-dealer behind the scenes, peddling influence and advice. (Notably, he was one of England’s earliest critics of the slave trade.) He took wild, self-confessed enjoyment in the scuffling and skullduggery of politics. Reading his letters on the topic it’s amusing to watch the fluff-and-icing, dowagers-as-flounders absurdity of his style melt away, revealing something harder, stonier: “They say the Prince has taken up two hundred thousand pounds, to carry elections that he won’t carry—he had much better have saved it to buy the Parliament after it is chosen.”

John Carter, 'View from the Hall at Strawberry Hill,' courtesy of the Lewis Walpole Library, Yale University.

John Carter, ‘View from the Hall at Strawberry Hill,’ courtesy of the Lewis Walpole Library, Yale University.

By contrast, Strawberry Hill was a balm and a retreat, a stage-set fantasia. Walpole saw its creation, rightly, as one of his chief achievements, and it was important to him that it last. He fretted a great deal about what would happen to it after his death. And all the time came constant reminders of its vulnerability. Those eroding plaster battlements. The paper of the Hall that looked like stone but was not stone. In 1772, a massive explosion at a nearby powder mill broke eight of the stained-glass windows and, as he wrote to a cousin, “the north side of the castle looks as if it had stood a siege.” To another friend, he lamented: “…. My poor shattered castle… never did it look so Gothic.” Meanwhile, the river threatened with frequent flooding, and straw was often strewn on the parlor and bedroom floors to absorb drips from leaks.

In other words, while wanting to build something permanent, Walpole had built something dazzlingly impermanent. It could dissolve, erode, be shattered. Or it might be lifted up in a flood and float away, a toy castle swirling on the waves. It’s the sort of thing that if you think about too long can completely sink you in gloomth.

***

His mother Catherine had died when he was 19. He’d been close to her, and her death was one of his life’s great blows. His father died less than a decade later, the victim of an over-strong preparation given to him by one of his doctors. His complaint had been bladder stones; its cure killed him. It was an agonizing death, and Horace stayed with him through it.

Robert Walpole had himself built a great house, Houghton Hall—a magnificent country mansion, ideal for hunting and entertaining, that housed his gorgeous collection of paintings. It’s emblematic of the father and son, the contrast between these two houses, one so grand a landmark, the other a cock-eyed Gothic whimsy. After the senior Walpole’s death, the earldom passed first to an older brother of Horace’s and then a nephew. Each earl in his time added to the estate’s teetering amount of debt. The third Earl of Orford is described variously as “eccentric” and “mad.” He was, at best, a careless steward of his inheritance; at other times, a disastrous one. The once-great Houghton Hall began to decay. Walpole, visiting after an absence of sixteen years, walked its gardens—now choked with nettles and weeds, and overrun with rabbits—with dismay.

Later that day he wrote to one of his oldest friends. The letter stands out for its tone of pure heartbreak:

I hated Houghton and its solitude—yet I loved this garden; as now, with many regrets, I love Houghton—Houghton, I know not what to call it, a monument of grandeur or ruin! … I have chosen to sit in my father’s little dressing room, and am now by his scrutoire, where, in the height of his fortune, he used to receive the accounts of his farmers, and deceive himself—or us, with the thoughts of his economy—how wise a man at once and how weak! For what had he built Houghton? For his grandson to annihilate, or for his son to mourn over?”

I hated it, I loved it. I am nothing but a mourning ghost here. This monument looked permanent, and it wasn’t.

***

Three years after this visit, Horace wrote Castle of Otranto, that tricked-out novel of fathers and sons, heirs and dynasties, and castle-crushing.

The story originated, he later said, out of a strange dream: “I had thought myself in an ancient castle… and that on the uppermost bannister of a great staircase I saw a gigantic hand in armour. In the evening I sat down and began to write.” (In their meticulous book Strawberry Hill, Anna Chalcraft and Judith Viscardi share the conjecture that Walpole might have been taking laudanum, then a common prescription for gout, at the time.)

An early copy of The Castle of Otranto listing the novels author as Onuphrio Muralto.

An early copy of The Castle of Otranto listing the novels author as Onuphrio Muralto.

His fascination with the story grew as he wrote. He would sit down at his desk usually at “ten o’clock at night till two in the morning, when I am sure not to be disturbed by visitants. While I am writing I take several cups of coffee.” In two months his work was complete.

He was nearing 50, and he’d written a novel in which a giant helmet, “an hundred times more large than any casque ever made for human being” and covered in black feathers, falls from the sky and crushes—splat!—the sickly son of the house. And that’s by page 3. Did any other members of Parliament have such a manuscript on their desks? Likely not. Fearing ridicule Walpole had the novel published “as a translation from 1528 by the Italian, Onuphrio Muralto, Canon of the Church of St Nicholas at Otranto.” Once it became a sensation, he revealed himself.

***

The library at Strawberry Hill was the house’s quietest room. Its beautiful bookcases, stretching higher than you could reach, were designed by Chute. Each is topped by a Gothic arch, the elaborate carving of its wood painted gray to look like stone. As Chalcraft and Viscardi describe, Walpole’s collection was extensive. In it was Shakespeare, The Iliad and the Odyssey, “folios of works by Hogarth, Bunbury, Vertue, Tennier,” as well “Sir Julius Caesar’s travelling library, containing 44 small volumes in Latin.” There were books of engravings and history. Also his father’s pocket book. Shelf after shelf of gleaming leather bindings.

All those books, think of them lying there in the quiet. A line of little monuments to the ghosts who wrote them.

An engraving of the library at Strawberry Hill.

An engraving of the library at Strawberry Hill.

 

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Carrie Frye is writing a novel about the Arctic. She lives in Asheville and is the former managing editor of The Awl. Find her at Tingle Alley, or follow her @caaf.

Fact-checked by Brendan O’Connor. Edited by Mike Dang.