(2010 Pocket Penguin Classics) by Horace Walpole
[Read 4-6 April 2015]
Background: I found the book whilst researching horror literature on the Internet. The book is arguably the first gothic novel, which influenced much written thereafter. I was excited to find it a relatively slim book in the classics section of Witham Library and couldn’t resist reading such a landmark text by a British author.
Plot: The book centres around Manfred, the prince of Otranto, who becomes delusional at the untimely, strange death of his only son and obsessed with averting an ancient prophecy that claims he will lose his castle and lordship. Whilst seeking Isabella, the woman his son would’ve married, as his new wife in order to gain an heir to his throne, a peasant called Theodore and the friar of the monastery called Jerome thwart his efforts. Manfred’s wife Hippolita, daughter Matilda and Isabella’s father Frederic also get embroiled in a frantic melee of mistaken identity, unexplainable phenomena, love afflictions, and even wrongful death before the legacy of Otranto comes to bear.
Strengths: The narrative is simple and easy to follow, using a third-person narrative to account for the many characters. The poetic, Shakespearean language is a joy to read and although there is plenty of repetition, exaggeration and long passages describing the character’s moods and dialogue this suits the fairy-tale style perfectly. The action is also quick paced and intriguing, which means the reader can never get distracted. I also found the structure creative with its long paragraphs and the absence of speech marks or indentations for dialogue, and instead various uses of dashes, colons, semi-colons and exclamation marks. Other charming features include the preface (of the first edition, which includes a sonnet) that gives a fair self-critical analysis using the fictitious background that the book is a translation, written and found hundreds of years earlier as well as the inspiration from the real coastal town in Italy. A particularly memorable quote I discovered was “But alas! my lord, what is blood? what is nobility? We are all reptiles, miserable sinful creatures. It is piety alone that can distinguish us from the dust whence we sprung, and whither we must return.” (page 64).
Weaknesses: Despite the praise I felt the book could’ve benefited from more direct action like a greater number of deaths and fight scenes. Manfred’s inability to act upon his aggressive words and Theodore’s continuous defiance of the prince throughout is a tad contrived, if not vaguely irritating. The ending could be considered a little rushed and on a few details, like the history of the lordship of the castle, greater clarity could’ve helped the reader. The revelations are not so much surprising as predictable, yet these are all minor issues that reflect its self-professed likening to a play.
Conclusion: The book maintains a light-hearted tone despite the severity of the character’s strifes. As indicated by the detailed synopsis I read prior, the complexity of the different relationships and fears was tantalising and impressive in such a short novel (at one hundred and forty pages split into five chapters it felt like a novella). I would recommend the book to anyone who cares for the beauty of simplistic storytelling and poetic prose. My aversion to such archaic phrases has been reversed because of this book and given its publication date and literary significance I am thrilled to have taken so much inspiration from it.
Word Bank: appellations, necromancy, preternatural, perusal, comport, bombast, vicissitude, anathema, inculcated, casque, portent, obeisance, poignarded, grandsire, ere, gulph, perdition, cloister, disculpate, asperity, dotards, acquiesce, orisons, tinctured, dower, hearken, wiles, betwixt, retinue, cavalcade, choler, viceroy, upbraiding, peremptory, execrable, oriel, halidame, encomiums, phrensy