The Castle of Otranto (First Edition) by Horace Walpole
The Castle of Otranto is a Gothic novel by Horace Walpole (1717-1797). The first edition of this work was published in 1764 by Thomas Lownds.
The first edition stated its full title as: The Castle of Otranto, A Story. Translated by William Marshal, Gent. From the Original Italian of Onuphrio Muralto, Canon of the Church of St. Nicholas at Otranto. The castle of Otranto is a real medieval castle in the Italian region of Otranto. However, the idea to suggest that a 1529 Italian manuscript had been uncovered and the story therefore true, dating back to even earlier, was completely fictionalised.
Walpole acknowledged authorship in later editions. When believed to be medieval fiction, the novel was well received, however, after Walpole admitted authorship, the critics often dismissed the work.
Walpole stated that the work’s popularity necessitated an explanation from its author, and described his composition of the story as an attempt to combine ancient and modern romance. In doing so he attempted to blend two literary genres to create a new one.
He succeeded. The Castle of Otranto is generally regarded as the first gothic novel. By using the novel form to place real characters into fantastical situations and settings, and imagining their ‘real’ responses, Walpole created a new vogue for Gothic romances and a new direction for fiction. However, as is recognised by critics and acknowledged by Walpole himself, the novel owes much to Shakespeare.
Plot, Characters, Themes
The story centres on the lord of Otranto castle, Manfred, and his family. His son is crushed to death by a giant helmet on the day of his wedding. This reminds Manfred of a prophecy 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’.
This prophecy terrified Manfred and he decides to divorce his present wife and marry his late son’s bride to be, however, the girl escapes with the aid of a peasant. Manfred hunts for her, and simultaneously some mysterious knights ride in to rescue her. Manfred thinks she is meeting the peasant for a tryst in the church, and stabs the girl he finds there, only to find out that the girl he has stabbed is his own daughter. The peasant is revealed as the true prince of Otranto.
Certain gothic elements were engendered by this novel. For example mysterious sounds, doors opening on their own, the image of gothic architecture as embodying something beyond a mere building, and a obsessive and powerful male figure in pursuit of an innocent and beautiful heroine.
Horace Walpole is best known as the eccentric builder of gothic mansion Strawberry Hill, as a collector of a huge number of interesting Gothic and antiquarian items, and for writing the first Gothic novel.
Notable auction sales and collecting tips
It must be noted that the first edition states its publication date as MDCCLXV (1795) despite it in fact being published in 1764. However, it can be recognised by the simple fact of not stating Walpole as the author, but the full title claiming it was translated from the Italian of Onuphrio Muralto by William Marshall. Later editions are titled ‘The Castle of Otranto: A Story’.
Sothebys sold a first edition for £2,400 in March 2005. Christie’s sold first edition copies for £2,350 in November 2001, $3,760 in April 2000, and £3,750 in June 2010.
It is extremely unusual to see copies of The Castle of Otranto in their original bindings. They have usually been rebound in leather. However, they are worth much more if they retain their original bindings, so restoration is not recommended.
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