like a ghost, thro' narrow passages Walking, feeling the cold walls with her hands. -- William Blake, Fair Eleanor
The drowsy eye, half-closing to the lid, Stares on OTRANTO's walls; grim terrors rise The horrid helmet strikes my soul unbid -- Ann Yearsley
Horace Walpole (1717-1797), fourth Earl of Orford, son of Sir Robert Walpole, introduced and named the genre with The Castle of Otranto: A Gothic Story (1764).
Educated at Eton and King's College Cambridge. Between 1739 and 1741 Horace Walpole toured France and Italy with his friend the poet Thomas Gray (1716-71). On his return to England, Walpole become a Member of Parliament
Shortly after taking up his seat, Walpole leased (1747) then bought (1749) Strawberry Hill in Twickenham, London. Following his purchase, Strawberry Hill was remodelled in Gothic style, something resembling the set for a Hammer Horror movie.
It was the Gothic atmosphere of Strawberry Hill that led to the writing of The Castle of Otranto. One night, early June 1764, Walpole fell asleep in the gloom of Strawberry Hill and had a nightmare. The nightmare became The Castle of Otranto.
I waked one morning at the beginning of last June from a dream, of which all I could recover was, that I had thought myself in an ancient castle (a very natural dream for a head filled like mine with Gothic story) and that on the uppermost bannister of a great staircase I saw a gigantic hand in armour. In the evening I sat down and began to write, without knowing in the least what I intended to say or relate. The work grew on my hands, and I grew fond of it - add that I was very glad to think of anything rather than politics - in short I was so engrossed in my tale, which I completed in less than two months, that one evening I wrote from the time I had drunk my tea, about six o'clock, till half an hour after one in the morning, when my hand and fingers were so weary, that I could not hold the pen to finish the sentence, but left Matilda and Isabella talking, in the middle of a paragraph.
The Castle of Otranto was a 'translation' of a lost manuscript. This was not unusual for the genre.
The Castle of Otranto is a little over the top. It is almost as though Walpole was writing a parody of the very genre he was creating. It contains all the set pieces of Gothic fiction, the crumbling Gothic castle, frightened Isabella fleeing through a long subterranean passage has almost become the trade mark of the horror movie.
The Castle of Otranto inspired Mathew Lewis (1775-1818) to write The Monk (1796), as he noted in a letter to his mother 'a romance in the style of The Castle of Otranto'. Ann Radcliffe may have been influenced by The Castle of Otranto, as was Mary Shelley (1797-1851).
Other works by Walpole include Catalogue of Royal and Noble Authors of England (1758), Mysterious Mother (1768), Historical Doubts on the Life and Reign of Richard the Third (1768), Anecdotes of Painting in England 4 volumes (1762-71).
At Strawberry Hill Walpole established the Strawberry Hill Press. One of the writers whose works he published was the poet Thomas Gray.
Walpole succeeded his nephew as the fourth Earl of Orford (1791). Six years later, in his eightieth year, he died unmarried at his home in Berkeley Square (1797).
Today, Walpole is best known for his prodigious correspondence, amounting to some 3,000 letters.
Chris Baldick (ed), The Oxford Book of Gothic Tales, Oxford University Press, 1992
E J Clery, The Rise of Supernatural Fiction: 1762-1800, Cambridge University Press, 1995
Mathew Lewis, The Monk, ed Christopher Maclachlan, Penguin, 1998
W S Lewis (ed), Horace Walpole's Correspondence, Yale
Peter Sabor (ed), Horace Walpole: The Critical Heritage, 1987
Horace Walpole, The Castle of Otranto: A Gothic Story, ed W S Lewis intr E J Clery, Oxford University Press, 1998
Ian Watt, Time and the Family in the Gothic Novel: The Castle of Otranto [in Eighteenth Century Life 10, 3, 1986]