The Year of Reading Dangerously: The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole

In Gordon Wood’s Revolutionary Characters: What Made the Founders Different, he writes that Revolutionary era literature contained a great deal of satire. He further argues that, “Satire as a literary device depends on a comprehending…audience…” (251). If we accept, as many Austen fans do, that Northanger Abbey is a satire of Gothic Romances, then in order to understand the full meaning of the satire, to get the jokes if you will, requires us to look at the stories and novels being satirized.  It is with this idea in mind that I have begun the Year of Reading Dangerously.

Jane Austen added a preface to Northanger Abbey, while preparing it for publication, in order to explain that because it had originally been finished in 1803, “The public are entreated to bear in mind that thirteen years have passed since it was finished, many more since it was begun, and that during that period, places, manners, books, and opinions have undergone considerable changes.” (Emphasis mine.) Austen herself knew that to enjoy Northanger Abbey fully, it was important to understand the books and opinions (often about books) which were in vogue at the time it was originally written.

This year, I will be reading as many books referenced in Northanger Abbey as possible and writing about those reading adventures here.  I will also be reading and writing about other books, but my major project for this year is The Year of Reading Dangerously. I have started with Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto.  Though this slim novel is not mentioned in the text of Northanger Abbey as many others are, it is considered to be the first British Gothic novel, having been published in 1764, at least 25 years before Gothic fiction became a popular literary form (Gamer in the introduction to the Penguin Classic edition of The Castle of Otranto). Interestingly, Austen uses the name Isabella for one of her main characters, and that same name is given to one of the heroines in Otranto. Other parallels include the use of a sinister castle, a mistress whom the owner of the castle is trying to be rid of, and a whole host of coincidences which serve to push the narrative along.

In Britain, France and the Gothic 1764-1820: the Import of Terror, Angela Wright lists Gothic tropes as “melancholia, oppressive feudal castles and dreams which foreshadow disastrous outcomes for their protagonists” (39). All of these are found in The Castle of Otranto. The action takes place in and around the titular castle, which contains underground passages, and various rooms which may be used to take refuge in or to hold people against their will. Almost all  the main characters and many of the secondary characters have dreams or supernatural visions, including Manfred, Hippolita, Isabella, Matilda, Father Jerome, and Frederic. The mood of the entire piece is melancholy. Dim passage ways, fog, a supernatural giant knight seeking vengeance, and worst of all, Manfred’s weirdly manic behavior. Once minute, he is grieving his dead son and the next, he’s trying to force his son’s betrothed into a quickie marriage (after he finds a way to have his marriage to the long-suffering Hippolita annulled, of course).

As noted in the introduction, modern readers will most likely find Otranto overwrought and slightly silly, but this in fact adds to the reader’s enjoyment of Northanger Abbey, as undoubtedly, Austen is poking a little fun at Otranto along with other Gothic fiction. In fact, General Tilney bears more than a passing resemblance to Manfred; he is handsome and respected, yet seems a little manic.  Also, just as Manfred oversteps the boundaries of good taste with his plot to marry Isabella and put away Hippolita after Conrad’s death, General Tilney’s designs on Catherine and his head-spinning banishment of her upon discovering her true social and economic standing are similar. Both Manfred and General Tilney are mercurial in their behavior and are trying to insure the continuance of their legacies into the future via nefarious means.

Should you decide to read The Castle of Otranto, here are a few discussion questions to consider:

  1. How do the coincidences move the plot along?  What would happen to the story if they were gone?
  2. Consider the actions of the three female leads.  How were Hippolita, Matilda, and Isabella acting as expected by women of their station?  How were they acting in opposition to expectations?
  3. Reviews of Otranto even from the beginning were mixed. If you were to review it today, what would be your recommendation to readers?
  4. What are some other comparisons between Otranto and Northanger Abbey?
  5. What other characters can you think of from literature who are similar to Manfred? Is he a hero, and anti-hero, a villian?  Why do you think so?

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