Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Book Review: The Castle of Otranto (1764), by Horace Walpole

This was a great, quick read for a Gothic Romance.  It did not bog itself down in flowery language or try to become epic in nature.  The entire story takes place in just a few days.  It tells of a tyrant - a usurper - whose claim to his title is being challenged.  There are old, dark prophecies that frighten him, that foretell terrible things if his line is broken.

Manfred is the tyrant.  He has a wife, Hippolita, who he doesn't love, a daughter, Matilda, who he doesn't care about, and a son, Conrad, who we never meet.  The son dies at the very beginning of the story in a weird way that is never fully explained.  Let me point out that the supernatural plays a big part in this story.  Unlike other gothic romances, the author doesn't try to explain away the supernatural as being misunderstood normal events.  But neither does he do a great job of presenting the supernatural in a believable way.  The son is killed by a ginormous helmet falling on him and crushing him to death.  There are visions of a giant here and there, and not until the end to we get a glimpse of who the giant is.

I admit I enjoyed this story.  It was a page-turner.  I couldn't put it down, unlike other books that feel tedious to pick up.  This story moved along at a nice clip.

However, too much of it was based on misunderstandings.  Someone said something that someone else overheard and misinterpreted, and then we dash off to a whole scene that felt unnecessary.  Or maybe it was necessary but Walpole couldn't come up with a better reason for it to occur.  Even the very end-game is all due to a misunderstanding which changed the course of the end of the novel.  We see this plot device throughout the book.  It added more frustration than intrigue.

The plot revolves around a young girl, Isabella, who was to be wed to the dead son.  Now the father decides to take the young girl as his own bride.  Great plan, except his current wife might object.  So he tries to convince the local Friar to agree to his divorce.  The young girl, Isabella, is frantic with fear and escapes.  Will no one rescue her from this awful fate?  Enter the dashing young man who is filled with odd coincidences.  He's just a peasant standing around in the courtyard looking at the giant helmet that fell on the prince.  But wait, there's more!  I hate to give away too much, but this wouldn't be a proper melodramatic gothic romance if he didn't have a secret in his own past that put him above the rank of lowly peasant.

Unfortunately, he's in no position to rescue anyone as the king has decided he's a magician (what?) who caused the death of his son.  So now who will rescue the damsel in distress?  Enter the mysterious knight who comes to claim the throne and challenge the tyrant Manfred to a duel to the death - and who turns out to be the girl's father.  But then in an odd and awful twist, instead of rescuing her he agrees to give her to the tyrant!  What a dad!

A theme throughout the story was the obedience of women to men.  For instance, when Hippolita, the wife of the tyrant, spoke with her daughter about her proposed marriage, she said, "It is not ours to make election for ourselves: heaven, our fathers, and our husbands must decide for us."  Yikes!  Nice old fashioned attitude.  In addition, a daughter's duty to her mother is such that she cannot even have feelings of her own without her mother's permission.  We see this when the daughter, Matilda, falls in love.  Then she feels guilty and states, "I should not deserve this incomparable parent, if the inmost recesses of my soul harboured a thought without her permission…I have suffered a passion to enter my heart without her avowal."

Even when the two fathers agree to marry each other's daughters, which would turn their family into a big freak show, the mother (who would be divorced and sent to a convent in this deal) still refuses to go against her husband.  She even chastises her daughter for not going along with the freaky plan.

“Thy fate depends on thy father,” said Hippolita; “I have ill-bestowed my tenderness, if it has taught thee to revere aught beyond him."

In the end, things work out...sort of.  Actually, things don't work out that well at all.  Actually, they kind of suck.  The tyrant only gets his comeuppance in a weird, Deus ex machina sort of way.  I wonder if Walpole planned that ending from the start, or if he just gave up because he couldn't find a better way to wrap things up.

For lovers of gothic romance, or anyone who wants a quick, fun read, I would recommend this book.

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