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.) Read more…