My visit to Strawberry Hill made me re-read The Castle of Otranto, Walpole’s novel which is supposed to have started a fashion for Gothic novels that has never really gone away.
Published in 1764, it’s a curiosity piece rather than a book you would read for its literary merit. Seriously, it doesn’t have any literary merit but it does have a giant ghost that can smash down castle walls with his fists; an evil usurper; not one, but two, beautiful princesses; a peasant boy who turns out to be a prince (identifiable by a birthmark, obviously) … Honestly, if Walpole missed out a single Gothic trope, it wasn’t for lack of trying. Despite the packed plot line, it’s quite a short book and if you want to read the great-grandfather of all Gothic novels it’s an hour or two not entirely wasted.
The Castle of Otranto from an illustration in the original book. Rather larger than Strawberry Hill
For me, part of the fun came from the fact that the architecture of Strawberry Hill House is supposed to have inspired the book. (Walpole called Strawberry Hill “my own little Otranto”.) Sadly, Strawberry Hill lacks an underground passage to a nearby church although Walpole’s neighbour, Pope, did build an underground passage from his house to the famous grotto and this might have inspired Walpole’s imagination. Much of the rest of the story’s setting also has only tenuous links with Strawberry Hill House, but there is indeed a staircase with some assorted pieces of armour. Originally there was a lot more than we see today. Walpole claimed, rather improbably, that the armour had all been taken by one of his ancestors in the Holy Wars (though the descriptions of Indian weaponry make this unlikely). In any case, the armour inspired the story of the giant armoured knight who brings the Castle of Otranto to its doom and which we first meet in one of the rooms leading off the “armoury” gallery. Two servants bring the news to Manfred, the usurper Prince of Otranto.
“My Lord,” said Jaquez, “when Diego and I came into the gallery … We found nobody. … When we came to the door of the great chamber … We found it shut.” “And could not you open it?” said Manfred. “Oh yes, my lord; would to heaven we had not,” replied he. … “Trifle not,” said Manfred, shuddering, “but tell me what you saw in the great chamber, on opening the door.”… “It is a giant, I believe; he is all clad in armour, for I saw his foot and part of his leg …”
Sadly, the great chamber is a library – albeit quite a big and beautiful one – and the “gallery” is really no more than a landing, but Walpole deliberately arranged for the light to be gloomy just there so with a bit of effort of the imagination you can transport yourself from Twickenham to Italy and the cursed Castle of Otranto.
If you are interested in some of the themes underlying the book and the building, you might like to look at Reeve’s 2013 article on “Gothic Architecture, Sexuality, and License at Horace Walpole’s Strawberry Hill.” (The Art Bulletin, 95(3), 411-439.) There’s a lot of dubious pretension in the paper, which is not an easy read, but it does argue that both the book and the building were ways in which Walpole explored his sexuality. There is, indeed, quite a strong Freudian subtext in the book, which I have not explored in this blog post. The pictures of the Castle of Otranto and the staircase at Strawberry Hill are both taken from Reeve’s paper (worth a look for the illustrations alone). Reeve credits them as public domain artwork, photographed by the Lewis Walpole Library at Yale University.