‘Terrorist Novel Writing’: the Contemporary Reception of the Gothic
The following work was found in the library of an ancient catholic family in the north of England. It was printed at Naples, in the black letter, in the year 1529. How much sooner it was written does not appear. The principal incidents are such as were believed in the darkest ages of Christianity; but the language and conduct have nothing that favours of barbarism. The style is the purest Italian. If the story was written near the time when it is supposed to have happened, it must have been between 1095, the aera of the first crusade, and 1243, the date of the last, or not long afterwards. … It is not unlikely that an artful priest might endeavour to turn their own arms on the innovators; and might avail himself of his abilities as an author to confirm the populace in their ancient errors and superstitions.
… Whatever [the author’s] views were, or whatever effects the execution of them might have, his work can only be laid before the public at present as a matter of entertainment. Even as such, some apology for it is necessary. Miracles, visions, necromancy, dreams, and other preter-natural events, are exploded now even from romances. That was not the case when our author wrote; much less when the story itself is supposed to have happened. Belief in every kind of prodigy was so established in those dark ages, that an author would not be faithful to the manners of the times who should omit all mention of them. He is not bound to believe them himself, but he must represent his actors as believing them.
(Horace Walpole, Preface to the first edition of The Castle of Otranto (1764), ed. E. J. Clery, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996, pp. 5–6)
Otranto and the uses of ‘Romance’
When Horace Walpole first published The Castle of Otranto
on Christmas Day in 1764, he pretended that the novel was a translation from an
obscure Italian work. The first Preface to the novel established this hoax, with the ‘translator’, one ‘William Marshall, Gent.’, commenting upon the circumstances under which he discovered the original work, offering some observations on the Romance genre, and arguing for the superior merits of the Italian language.
There are a series of tensions in the opening paragraphs of Walpole’s first attempt at a preface to his novel, and it spawns some significant markers for the genre that took after it: the Gothic Romance. The first is in its very first line (see above). Note how the work was allegedly discovered ‘in the library of an ancient catholic family in the north of England’. This immediate specificity is not accidental. Whilst the discovery of the work is in Britain, it is distanced – the ‘north of England’ is far from Walpole’s residence to the west of London. This locale enables Walpole to accredit the work’s ownership to an ‘ancient catholic family’ far removed from the Protestant modernities of metropolitan London.
There is a second tension in the opening paragraph of the first Preface. The ‘incidents’ described belong to systems of thought ‘believed in the darkest ages of christianity’. Despite this, though, the language and conduct ‘have nothing that favours of barbarism’. ‘William Marshall’ – the putative translator – speculates that the work’s original author could be ‘an artful priest’, one who could ‘avail himself of his abilities as an author to confirm the populace in their ancient errors and superstitions’. The belief system that the novel presents is thus seemingly at odds with the talents and art of its ‘author’, the ‘artful priest’. The supposed author’s name is offered on the title-page of the first edition. It is given there as ‘Onuphrio Muralto’. We should be suspicious, for this is an Italian approximation of Walpole (Mur
= wall, ‘alto’ is literally translated as ‘old’). Walpole’s literary gag depends on the ‘artful’ and skilful Catholic priest-author being hard to tell apart from the actual, Protestant and Whig, author.1
In his essay ‘Europhobia: the Catholic Other in Horace Walpole and Charles Maturin’ (2002), Robert Miles relates the tensions of this opening Preface to the ongoing debate on the function of the novel in the eighteenth century:
A great deal of anxiety surrounded the invention of the modern novel, which was understood to have been revolutionized by print technology (making the circulating library possible) and by the new writing technology of ‘realism’. Walpole’s experiment provoked unease, partly because it wilfully interfered with the received Whig progress of literary history, from marvellous tales of adventure (fit for children, Catholics and other primitives) to probable representations of everyday life (fit for those living in a Protestant nation); and partly because he was employing the arms of the novel-writing innovators in support of a tale whose sole aim
appeared to be the undermining of the Protestant rationality of its readers. What was Walpole’s game? One answer would be that there wasn’t one. The imposture was meant to be transparent: as a pro-Catholic text Otranto
is clearly self-subverting. Indulging in impostures and using the blessed invention of the novel to inculcate superstition is precisely the dastardly behaviour one would expect of Catholics, even those from ancient Northern English families.2
Miles’s argument regarding the transparency of the imposture is persuasive, and helps to account for the parodic nature of the literal translation of Walpole’s name into ‘Onuphrio Muralto’.
The contemporary reception of The Castle of Otranto
in the periodical press, however, failed to identify this ‘transparent subversion’. Writing for the Monthly Review
, John Langhorne pronounced the first ‘hoax’ edition a ‘work of genius, evincing great dramatic powers’, clearly written by ‘no common pen’.3
Buoyed by this successful reception, Walpole acknowledged his authorship in a second edition. It appeared in April 1765. As E. J. Clery notes in an essay entitled ‘The Genesis of “Gothic” Fiction’ (2002), the word ‘Gothic’ was appended only to this second Preface.4
In the first Preface, Walpole ascribed Otranto
’s use of supernatural apparatus to its apparent authorship by an ‘artful’ Catholic priest. ‘Miracles, visions, necromancy, dreams, and other preternatural events,’ argued Walpole, ‘are exploded now even from romances.’ This apologia
for using the supernatural, though, left Walpole with an even more pressing need to justify its use, a challenge he met in the Preface to his second edition:
The favourable manner in which this little piece has been received by the public, calls upon the author to explain the grounds on which he composed it. But before he opens those motives, it is fit that he should ask pardon of his readers for having offered his work to them under the borrowed personage of a translator. As diffidence of his own abilities, and the novelty of the attempt, were his sole inducements to assume that disguise, he flatters himself he shall appear excusable. He resigned his performance to the impartial judgment of the public; determined to let it perish in obscurity, if disapproved; nor meaning to avow such a trifle, unless better judges should pronounce that he might own it without a blush.
It was an attempt to blend the two kinds of romance, the ancient and the modern. In the former all was imagination and improbability: in the latter, nature is always intended to be, and sometimes has been, copied with success. Invention has not been wanting; but the great resources of fancy have been dammed up, by a strict adherence to common life. But if in the latter species Nature has cramped imagination, she did but take her revenge, having been totally excluded from old romances. The actions,
sentiments, conversations, of the heroes and heroines of ancient days were as unnatural as the machines employed to put them in motion.
The author of the following pages thought it possible to reconcile the two kinds. Desirous of leaving the powers of fancy at liberty to expatiate through the boundless realms of invention, and thence of creating more interesting situations, he wished to conduct the mortal agents in his drama according to the rules of probability; in short, to make them think, speak and act, as it might be supposed men and women would do in extraordinary positions.5
Here, Walpole finds fault with both the ‘ancient’ type of romance (too much ‘imagination and improbability’) and the modern type of romance (too ‘strict’ an ‘adherence to common life’). Essentially, the battle is between supernatural romances characteristic of the Middle Ages, and eighteenth-century romances (‘novels’) written by the likes of Samuel Richardson (1689–1761) and Tobias Smollett (1721–1771).6
In ‘The Genesis of “Gothic” Fiction’ E. J. Clery explains the eighteenth-century struggle between the words ‘romance’ and ‘novel’:
Novelists quibbled over the boundaries of probability and attempted to balance the demands of instruction and entertainment. Moral messages would be useless if not joined to compelling narratives that stirred the emotions of the reader. Some of the most successful works contained episodes that would not be out of place in Gothic fiction. The imprisonment and madness of Richardson’s Clarissa looks back to the melodramatic ‘she-tragedies’ of Nicholas Rowe [1674–1718] and forward to [The Recess
(1783–5) by] Sophia Lee [1750–1824]. The scene from Smollett’s Ferdinand Count Fathom
(1753) in which the Count finds himself trapped in a bandit’s den with a fresh corpse was undoubtedly a source for a similar adventure in The Monk
. … But natural horror was as far as novelists were prepared to go at this stage: there could be no appeal to the imagination that went beyond rational causes.
The Castle of Otranto
was presented to the public, especially in the preface to the second edition, as an outright challenge to this orthodoxy. Romances had been called improbable; now Walpole accused modern fiction of being too probable: ‘the great resources of fancy have been dammed up, by a strict adherence to common life’. The chief enemy of fancy in his view was Samuel Richardson, whose narrative practices had been raised to the level of absolute moral prescription by Samuel Johnson [1709–84] in a well-known essay in the journal The Rambler
(no. 4, 31 March 1750). In order to carry out its true function of instructing the young, fiction should ‘exhibit life in its true state, diversified only by accidents that daily happen in the world’. The novel must be exemplary, and ‘what we cannot credit we shall never imitate’.7
Walpole’s consideration of the relative merits and demerits of ‘ancient’ and ‘modern’ romances represents a significant intervention in the debate about the origins of the novel. Clery’s argument highlights how Otranto
is both a departure from the moral prescriptivism of Samuel Richardson’s fiction and a revision of ancient (more supernaturally-inclined) romances.
However, when Walpole confessed his hoax in the second Preface to The Castle of Otranto
, Langhorne (the critic who had initially praised the novel as a work of ‘genius’) changed his tune. He called it ‘preposterous’, and excusable only when he thought that it was a ‘translation’ from a ‘gross and unenlightened age’.8
Of course, Langhorne’s personal pride was one reason for his swiftly revised opinion of this now self-titled ‘Gothic romance’. More significant, though, was the sense of injury on behalf of the larger British literary community. That a British author felt the need to adapt that most continental of genres, the Romance, and then to masquerade it under the auspices of a translation seemed to go against British ideas of fair play in the literary arena. To Langhorne’s dismay, Walpole had found the Romance’s modern British counterpart, the novel, wanting. To make matters worse, Walpole had praised some elements of the Romance’s structure that had been discarded by other British authors.
The hostility which the second edition encountered was matched only by Walpole’s own self-deprecation regarding his literary creation. When writing to the famous dramatist and religious author Hannah More (1745–1833) on 13 November 1784, Walpole protested about the likely effects of his magical romance on readers such as Ann Yearsley, a poet better known as the ‘Bristol milkwoman’:
What! if I should go a step farther, dear Madam, and take the liberty of reproving you for putting into this poor woman’s hands such a frantic thing as The Castle...