The Castle of Otranto: Gothic Readings, book 1

I planned to read just a few pages of this book last night, but ended up leaving only the final chapter for today.

The Castle of Otranto is seriously readable. It isn’t that long (200 some pages), it’s available online from several vendors (free for Kindle!), and has thrills and chills galore. (I sound like a movie poster.) 

The story is set sometime between 1095 and 1243 (the beginning of the first Crusade to the end of the last Crusade). In the first edition (published in 1764), Walpole claimed to be merely the translator, saying he had found the manuscript in the library of an ancient Catholic family in the north of England; he claimed the manuscript had been printed in Naples in 1529, handed down from an earlier story. In subsequent editions, Walpole admitted that the romantic story of his finding and translating the manuscript was not precisely true: he wrote the whole thing. 

The story opens on the wedding day of Conrad, only son of Manfred, duke of Otranto, to Isabella, daughter and heir of the Marquis de Vicenza. Conrad is a puny thing, only fifteen years old; Isabella is–as the women in the book predominately are–patiently awaiting her duty. Lo and behold, instead of the intended nuptials, a gigantic helmet crashes down (source unknown–there are no monstrous statues around) crushing poor Conrad. Shed a tear, dear reader, shed a tear. (Not really. You’ll get dehydrated by the end. And chances are Conrad would have been horrid–I think he would have been like Linton or Colin had he survived.)

Manfred, Conrad’s father, rages and then tries to take his son’s place as groom. Unfortunately there’s the pesky problem of Hippolita, his current wife, so he begins scheming to divorce her. (They were fourth cousins, after all. A fact that just now, after eighteen years of marriage, begins weighing on his tender conscience.) 

Isabella, horrified at the advances Manfred has made, rushes off to the convent, running into Theodore, (ostensibly) a tradesman from a neighboring village… ok, this story might be a trifle complex for a quick retell. Suffice to say, it’s good.

I’m particularly interested (surprise, surprise) in the role of the women in the book: many of the analyses of this work point to similarities between the plot of this and Hamlet; I believe my focus will be on the utilization of the virginity of the princesses (Isabella and Matilda) in the political schemings of Manfred and Frederic, and the similar use of Ophelia by Hamlet, et al. Maybe. Eve Sedgwick’s homosocial triangle seems to apply (women are certainly “forming the conduits through which male bonds are expressed”), but the male relationships seem to be primarily about dominance… which, I suppose, is just as telling. 

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