The Castle of Otranto (1764)
By: Horace Walpole
On Prince Conrad's wedding day he is crushed by a massive helmet that seems to have fallen from the sky. His father, Prince Manfred, is furious and believes there to be some culprit. When a young man, Theodore, steps forward and notes that the helmet is from the statue of a former ruler, he is accused of witchcraft and sentenced to death. Manfred realizes that he has no heir, so he decides to divorce his wife and take his son's promised bride as his own. Isabella, the bride, doesn't like this and decides to flee to the nearby abbey run by Friar Jerome. In her escape she is aided by a ghost and the mysteriously escaped Theodore. Soon Manfred's wife, Hippolita, and daughter, Matilda are drawn into the mysteries of the Castle of Otranto.
As identified in the forward, the closest we get to a moral is that the sins of the father are visited on his heirs. In this story that means giant ghosts and statues crying blood. The Castle of Otranto is very much a product of the eighteenth century. Everyone seems either bursting with virtue or descends into sin at the slightest provocation. All the characters have an intense fear of God and most are easily dissuaded by omens. The only character with a touch of grayness is the priest and he seems to sin more often than not. Though, unlike Manfred he has good reason most of the time. As such, it is very difficult to measure on a modern scale, but I'll do my best.
Theodore is a young man who starts off as a minor character down on his luck, but rapidly ascends through the course of the book. He is so good it's almost painful to read. He has no flaws. He forgives all who wrong him and speaks only the truth. He is so virtuous that he can make any good person come to his aide just by giving an impassioned speech. It seems the only ones able to resist him are vile assholes. Fortunately, there's one of those to oppose him.
Hippolita is the infinitely virtuous Princess and wife of Manfred. She won't even hear bad things said about her husband. This gets really obnoxious since she just comes off as stupid.
Matilda is Hippolita and Manfred's daughter. She is attracted to Theodore, but they can't be together because he is a peasant, and it would ruin Manfred's plotting. She is pious and chaste and is alright sometimes, but some of her overly polite conversations with Isabella, Hippolita and her servants are unbearably tedious.
Isabella is the former fiance of Manfred's son Conrad. Most of the novel involves her trying to avoid marrying Manfred. She is very similar to Matilda, but with less family ties. As such she can also be kind of tedious, but she has less opportunity due to the fact that she's constantly fleeing Manfred.
Friar Jerome is a priest who knows Hippolita well and is the chief religious official in the area. He comes under Manfred's sway, but struggles with his own sins. As mentioned above, he is perhaps the most interesting character. His struggle and motives are the easiest to relate with in this tale.
Frederic is Isabella's father who arrives near the end to reclaim Castle Otranto to his family. He ends up being almost as bad as Manfred, but not quite.
Prince Manfred is one of the worst fathers in literature. It is only due to the limit of his title that he doesn't go around raping and pillaging. He is a cunning asshole though, as he uses leverage and deceit to manipulate all those around him. Toward the end you find out why, but it really doesn't make him any better.
This is considered the first Gothic novel and it has everything a haunted castle, virtuous maidens, secrets, you name it. It comes across as a medieval fairy tale and that is how it was originally marketed. The writing is nothing special, but it will give you a look at the structures and vocabulary of the time.
|The Real Otranto Castle in Italy|
The secrets are revealed and prophecies come true. It was pretty much as advertised complete with bittersweet ending.
Old men are perverts, women are chaste and young men are beacons of chastity. I didn't love it, but it wasn't bad. This is will be an interesting read for fans of Eighteenth century or Gothic literature, but likely rather puzzling for most others. I'm in the latter category, but I thought it was okay.
Of course, it's free on Kindle and at Project Gutenburg!