The first ever gothic novel, Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto marked the beginnings of a genre that is still popular today.
Horace Walpole was a politician and a man of letters. His house in Twickenham began a revival in gothic architecture, and the publication of The Castle of Otranto in 1764 sparked the vogue for gothic romance in English literature.
The preface to the first edition of the novel, published under a pseudonym, stated that it was a translation of a 16th-century Italian manuscript recounting a story dating back to the Crusades. As a literary hoax it was a huge success.
The novel begins with the impending marriage of Conrad, son the lord of the Castle Otranto, to Isabella. On the day of the marriage, Conrad is mysteriously killed by a helmet that falls from the sky and crushes his skull. Remembering a curse on the inhabitants of the Castle of Otranto that, should they become too proud, they will be replaced by another family, Conrad’s father Manfred panics. He sends his wife, Hippolita, to a convent and decides he will marry Isabella himself and attempt to continue his line.
Aided by a noble peasant, Theodore, Isabella escapes to Friar Jerome who gives her sanctuary. Infuriated at her attempt to thwart him, Manfred sets out to get Isabella back. He finds Theodore and sentences him to death. Jerome realizes that Theodore is his son and begs Manfred to spare his life. Manfred makes the deal that if Jerome gives Isabella up, Theodore can live.
A group of knights arrive on the scene and chaos ensues as the knights are enlisted to help save Isabella from Manfred. Theodore is locked in a tower by Manfred before he can help find Isabella.
Locked in the tower, helpless, Theodore has lost hope, but he is saved by Matilda, Manfred’s daughter. After Matilda releases him, Theodore joins the race to find Isabella and manages to reach her first. A fight ensues during which Theodore wounds one of the knights, who turns out to be Isabella’s father, Frederic.
Everyone gathers back at the castle of Otranto. Frederic falls for Matilda and he and Manfred discuss each marrying the other’s daughter. Manfred suspects that there is a romance between Theodore and Isabella. Going to the chapel to expose them, he takes a dagger and, in a jealous rage, he stabs Matilda, mistaking her for Isabella.
Soon afterwards, it is revealed that Theodore is the true Prince of Otranto. While Manfred wallows in self-pity, shame, and despair at the slaughtering of his own daughter, Theodore and Isabella marry.
Walpole famously declared that ‘the world is a tragedy to those who feel, but a comedy to those who think’. The Castle of Otranto established both the stock characters of the gothic genre (evil tyrant, virtuous maiden, noble hero) and its themes (the supernatural, incest, mistaken identities). By turns lurid, sensational and amusing, it remains a powerful and imaginative tour de force.