The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole

The Castle of Otranto

Title page from the third edition. (Wikipedia)

A few weeks ago, I found myself between books and decided to download something. I decided to go for something from the 1700s.

I have been thinking, on and off, about the importance of fiction. How it shaped my life, how it defines communities, how it’s both a trailing and leading indicator of anxieties and aspirations, etc., etc. That dovetails with an interest in print culture, the construction of narratives, and the questions of how people thought and lived day-to-day. I wanted to be a Jedi when I grew up (so did a lot of other kids of my acquaintance) and knew I could escape Daleks in a split level (a fact known by far fewer American kids, back before there was such a thing as geek chic and well before Doctor Who attained it). You are what you eat, or otherwise consume: my entertainment choices, and how they were perceived (actually or supposedly) by others, helped shape me and one could extrapolate something about my attitudes and relationships based on entertainment preferences. (The Facebook folks would be doing so even now, had I deigned to fill in those fields. Ah, but who am I kidding? They’re doing so based on friends’ data, and maybe someday those mountains of data will be sifted for an interesting purpose, not just marketing. Sometimes I do have the desire to be completist, just to help any theoretical future historian who might, for some reason, care about my favorite books or movies.)

So the fact that I am, overall, rather poorly read in 18th century literature is problematic. But it’s an easy problem to begin solving. I decided to start with The Castle of Otranto. The selection was facilitated by Wikipedia, which noted it as the first Gothic novel. (Really, what did we all do before Wikipedia? Maybe that’s why the Buggers and the Borg seemed scary: when they first trotted out on stage, we didn’t yet know the banal joy of accessing the hive mind.) My experience with Gothic novels is likewise patchy: I’ve read many things with Gothic elements, but temporally and generically rather removed from what I consider proper Gothics. (An admittedly vague and poorly informed designation: it would doubtless be better had I not decided, lo these many years ago, that literature would be entertainment rather than a subject of study. Ninety percent of the time I am certain I made the correct decision there, and even more often am able to reconcile literature-as-source with this approach. So reading The Castle of Otranto in an English class would’ve been trying, and reading it purely for fun would’ve been odd, but reading it with an eye to eighteenth century tastes is perfectly cromulent.) And I recalled the mention of Gothics in the framing of the Haitian Revolution (in Matt Clavin’s “Race, Rebellion, and the Gothic”), which made me think that a) hey, sure, read a Gothic, and b) maybe I should start actually mining footnotes for reading material rather than just thinking about it.

The lack of psychological realism is striking. So is my reaction to it: I found myself analyzing the intended purpose and likely audience reaction, rather than rolling my eyes. (Score one for literature-as-source.) I read it over the course of a few days, so the shifts in tone were particularly obvious and amusing; perhaps less so for readers spreading out sessions. (Intended format is always important to keep in mind: reading the first volume of Fables feels, near the end, more than a little jerky; but it’s structured in a more reasonable manner if one considers it in terms of issues.) Given the date, there’s the question of whether or not people just weren’t yet very good at writing (or reading) novels…and the raison d’être of any given work. The goalposts for High Literature and Trashy Entertainment are not set in the same place…and even though the precise meaning of the distinction is a lengthy debate which I do not find particularly interesting (see ninety percent above), certainly there can be a general sense of authorial intent and audience consensus. And I always think it’s useful to remember that old need not be good, in as objective a sense as possible when discussing Art (or art), nor must it be refined. The popular entertainment of Shakespeare is now high culture; if Aristophanes has endured, then it only seems fair that people watch and analyze South Park a couple millenia hence.

Also amusing is the preface to the first edition (still included in the tenth edition I snagged from Project Gutenberg). It describes the provenance of the manuscript the author allegedly discovered and discusses the possible date of authorship. The work is thus back-dated to the Middle Ages and Walpole makes it, sort of, part of the Now We Know Better* genre: the fantastic elements belong to a more superstitious age, and audiences expected such events in their literature. However clumsily it reads now, the preface is a bid for authenticity (a tactic hammered on, back in freshman English, for various 19th century works). It doesn’t rise to the level of a frame story. The preface also includes praise for the prose and author’s piety, as well as an assertion of realism in the description of the castle layout. The first two have the stench of anonymized reviews of oneself on Amazon; the latter is simply laughable, given the general dearth of description in the book (to say nothing of the expectation of an author being capable of conjuring hallways in his imagination).

* A term applied quite perfectly to Mad Men; I like the show more than Greif, but agree with many of his points (particularly flattery vs. scourging).