Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Janespotting: The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole

For my last exploration of the Gothic novels that inspired Austen's Northanger Abbey, I decided to go to the Grandaddy of them all, Horace Walpole's The Castle of Otranto. It's not that Austen references it specifically in NA; she only mentions The Mysteries of Udolpho and The Monk in any detail, and Walpole isn't among the seven other "horrid" novels Isabella Thorpe suggests Catherine add to her reading list. But Henry Tilney does make mention of a Gothic heroine named Matilda—also the name of Walpole's heroine, although Tilney doesn't seem to be referencing a specific one—and as The Castle of Otranto is considered the first Gothic novel, and I wanted to try Walpoling (see Monty Python cheese shop sketch), I thought, why not? (Especially since I saw that the Oxford University Press edition is only 176 pages long. Bonus!)

So I downloaded a copy from Project Gutenberg and made short work of Walpole's 1764 work, published while he was still serving in Parliament. The book was initially published anonymously—Walpole being the son of the former Prime Minister—and purported to be a translation of a medieval manuscript from the time of the Crusades. All the action centers around the Italian Castle of Otranto, which is owned by Lord Manfred and is to be the setting of his son Conrad's marriage to the Princess Isabella. Within the first ten paragraphs, Conrad is killed: squished by a giant helmet (complete with plumes) that has mysteriously fallen from the sky. By the end of the first chapter, Manfred has decided he should divorce his wife Hippolita, who only gave him the sickly Conrad and his sister Matilda as heirs, and marry Isabella himself. Since Isabella has been living with the family as a daughter, she is sickened by the idea and runs away to the local church, aided by a mysterious but attractive peasant boy.

Over the next four chapters—and that's all there are—the readers discovers that the peasant boy is the son of the prior Jerome, the former Count of Falconara; that Manfred's family stole the Castle from the virtuous Alfonso, Isabella's distant relative, and a prophecy foretells its return; that the Knight who comes to challenge Manfred for the castle on behalf of Isabella's father is actually her father; and that the peasant boy Theodore is actually the true heir to the castle. In the meantime, Isabella and Matilda both fall in love with Theodore; Theodore falls in love with Matilda; Manfred pursues Isabella; and the Knight Frederic is convinced to marry Matilda. Theodore accidentally wounds Frederic (he lives) and Manfred accidentally wounds Matilda (she dies), and we get ghostly noises and apparitions (and that giant helmet and a giant sword) until Manfred eventually gives up the castle to retire to the cloister, leaving Theodore free to marry Isabella. That may sound like a happy ending, but the marriage is only decided after "he was persuaded he could know no happiness but in the society of one with whom he could for ever indulge the melancholy that had taken possession of his soul." Yeesh.

That's a lot to pack into 176 pages, and a lot to keep track of, but since it happens all so fast, I really didn't need to pay attention. This novel was all plot and no character development (the opposite of Udolpho, if you can consider 700+ pages of moping "character development), so if I got confused, something new would happen soon enough and clear things up. The atmosphere wasn't what I thought of as Gothically spooky—it's hard to build suspense at a breakneck pace—but the novel was chock full of those coincidences, chance encounters, mysterious family resemblances, and endangered young women that Austen pokes fun at in Northanger Abbey.

So after my admittedly brief and incomplete survey of the Gothic novel, I have a fuller understanding of what Austen was parodying. I don't think I necessarily needed that understanding to enjoy the humor and wit of Northanger Abbey, but now that I can see more parallels, I think the next time I revisit it my experience will be enriched. I think I can stop with three Gothics, though and turn my attention to Northanger sequels. Stay tuned.

No comments:

Post a Comment