What is is you would see?
If aught of woe or wonder, cease your search.
Hamlet, Act V, Scene ii, lines 362-363Shakespeare
Before there was Dracula’s castle in the popular imagination there Otranto’s castle. Fictional, set in Italy, and beset with vague prophecies of doom, Otranto emerged on the scene in 1764—Horace Walpole’s only work of fiction. By our standards today, it isn’t even that thrilling or titillating and Walpole was critically lambasted and praised for it simultaneously. Today, it would probably be a very descriptive novel on Radish, Dream, Wattpad, or even a part of a Shakespeare fanfic forum—living in the shadows of the literary realm and if it did come to light garner the same sort of praise and criticism as Fifty Shades of Grey, or Twilight. Only with ghosts, saintly apparitions, and floating pieces of armor.
The events in Otranto are straightforward: Manfred, Prince of Otranto has a family of his own. His wife Hippolita (definitely ripped from Shakespeare) his daughter Matilda, and his son Conrad. There is also Isabella who is betrothed to Conrad and is close friends with Matilda and Hippolita. There is a prophecy foretelling that “The castle and lordship of Otranto should pass from the present family, whenever the real owner should be grown too large to inhabit it.”
In typical B-grade movie horror style—that is exactly what happens. Conrad is crushed to death, Hippolita is verbally divorced, Matilda dies, and Manfred makes sexual advances towards Isabella in an attempt to beget another heir since, obviously, Hippolita was less than a real woman for only giving him one and he was sickly at that. Isabella runs straight into the arms of the person who turns out to be the real owner—Theodore. There’s a delightful chase around the castle as Isabella and Matilda try to outwit and outrun Manfred’s villainous schemes. In the end, when Theodore is revealed as the true heir to the title, Manfred confesses the truth—he came into the title because his grandfather, a mere chamberlain, murdered to get the title. Interspersed with all of this are secret passages, floating helmets, pictures which come to life briefly, and clergymen who know more than they let on.
Yes, that is the whole gist of the novel: Manfred isn’t the true heir to the title of Prince of Otranto—Theodore is and the natural order has to be restored by supernatural means because Manfred is such a villain.
What I think we can take away from this short and abrupt narrative is the idea of perception and reality as regarding family history and the role this interplay has in gothic literature overall. Because it does play a role as we will see. Family history, of course, is a mere microcosm of the greater historical narrative of which we are all a part. So there is what is seen, and then there are the facts which even the family members themselves may not know i.e. family secrets or “hidden history.”
If you yourself are a history buff, you may recognize elements of Henry VIII’s numerous exploits in his quest for a male heir—much like Manfred’s. Too like Manfred’s, in fact. The perception in both cases was that royal line had to be continued through them and only through them. The reality in Henry VIII’s case was that the Tudors had the least claim to the throne out of all the Plantagenet heirs which is why they so systematically exterminated all of them. For Manfred, it was that he had no claim at all—he was a descendent of a chamberlain who first poisoned the true ruler and then forged a will to get Otranto.
To the enlightened intelligentsia of Walpole’s day, anything which happened before was barbaric, full of superstition, disorder, and religious sentimentality which was particularly distasteful. Coincidentally, this attitude towards the past is partially where the Medieval Era got the name “Dark Ages.” Rome was considered the height of human civilization. The 1700s, having thrown off the shackles of religiosity in the Reformation were the closest anyone had been to Rome in over a thousand years and were therefore a more civilized, advanced age. This is, at least, the perception which had to be upheld.
The reality is something which we know all too well at this point. The trans-Atlantic slave trade was all too alive and well in the 1700s, abolitionism was still on the fringes; women, by law, were the property of their husbands; and what we know today as “human rights” was still in its infancy and could be discarded at any moment for the benefit of whoever was in power. Or indeed to cover up what was actually happening behind the scenes—George III’s madness for instance. The American Revolution and French Revolutions throw into start light just how far the idea of human civil rights had to come and how easily mankind could regress into barbarism to try and either maintain the perception of the status quo.
History is full of it. From the 1520s to the 2020’s you can see everyone from government on down struggling to maintain what they want you to perceive. From history books written in favor of the current regime, political pageantry, Instagram, fake news sites, mainstream news sites, You Tube channels, Google Search, even governmental websites, there is a concerted effort to maintain a particular story—just as Manfred did in Otranto. Gothic fiction is largely about showing the contrast between the story perceived and the story that is “real.”
How often do we see this same pattern repeated today? The perceived story with which we are presented in a movie or a book turns out to either be a fragment of the real story that has been amplified or a perception which is slowly changed as the plot unfolds. Look at any spy or mystery thriller that you have seen in the past few years—it’s true, isn’t it? The resolution only comes when the full truth is revealed, and all the facts known. Then, the perception can be cast aside and the remaining people free to heal from their ordeals.
It doesn’t come from hiding behind propaganda, whoever the propaganda supports, it doesn’t come by heaping more wrongs to cover the old ones, and it doesn’t come from merely blackening the name of whatever came before. Walpole saw that all too well in his day. He lived to see the King of France executed and Pairs dissolve in rivers of blood—the price of discarding hundreds of years of history for the sake of appearing less barbaric and maintaining what they saw as the “right side of history.” How often in his own country’s history had the same thing happened? How often in other countries has this happened? How often in our own nations do we see this happen? How much history do we discard in favor of our own perceptions?
So shall you hear
Of carnal, bloody, and unnatural acts,
Off accidental judgments, casual slaughters,
Of deaths put on my cunning and forced cause,
And in this upshot, purposes mistook
Fall’n on th’ inventors’ headsHamlet, Act V, Scene ii, Lines 380-385
Horace Walpole said in his first preface that he wished that Otranto had a more useful moral than “the sins of the fathers are visited on their children to the third and fourth generation.” While history definitely bears out this universal truth–just look at Henry VIII’s own sins or even the long shadow of slavery in the United States. However, I think to leave it at that is to not do Walpole enough credit either as a thinker or as man of letters. I think, in the now 257 years since Otranto was first published, the book finally does have a more useful moral—beware the narrative you follow for it may only be part of the story.