Paper Castles

Horace Walpole’s Enchanted Castles

Dale Townshend, Tuesday 16 Feb 2016, CEIR Seminar Series

IMG_1177Since the publication of Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto in December 1764, much debate has surrounded the origin of, what has been repeatedly described as, the first gothic novel. In an attempt to pinpoint the real architectural sources of the text’s haunting fortress, Dale Townshend’s paper exposed us to the various literary Gothic localities with which Walpole’s work converses. Yet, it was not until the publication of the second edition of the text in 1765 that Walpole identified his work openly with the gothic tradition, choosing to publish the novel with the sub-title ‘A Gothic Story’. It was also in this publication that Walpole acknowledged himself as the writer of the piece (using the initials ‘H.W.’, revealing that the ‘translator’ of the first edition, William Marshal, was in fact a pseudonym for himself. Much mystery, then, surrounded the publication of the work, leaving readers to question the source of this mysterious story, as well the site of its ghostly location.

walpole horace gothic B20115 66


Horace Walpole (1717–1797)

As a starting point for his discussion, Townshend used the ‘Preface’ of the first edition to disclose the mystery Walpole created around the precise location of the castle of Otranto. Here, Walpole, disguised as William Marshal, teases his readers into thinking that the ‘little Gothic castle’, Strawberry Hill in Twickenham, was the real setting for the events that unfold in the narrative. This house was, in fact, Walpole’s own residence, which he had set about gothicizing since the early 1740s. When Walpole’s authorship was revealed, however, the writer was much less open to acknowledge his own home as the foundation for the novel. Although he would later write that the castle of Otranto ‘puts one in mind’ of Strawberry Hill, he claimed, in a letter to Reverend William Cole, that his inspiration for the work came from a dream he once had of an Italian ruin in the summer of 1764.

Unaware of the fact that there actually existed a castle at the Italian town of Otranto, Walpole revealed that he had randomly chosen to set his story at the location after referring to a map of the Italian coast. As Townshend unveiled, it was not until Walpole was sent a drawing called ‘A View of the Real Castle of Otranto’, by the illustrator Willey Reveley in 1785 (twenty-one years after the composition of the novel), that the author became cognisant of the existence of the castle. Pleased to find that there was some material truth behind his already-drafted fiction, Walpole included Reveley’s illustration as a frontispiece for subsequent editions of the novel.

With much confusion surrounding the material existence of the castle, many admirers of Walpole continued to fervently assert the similarities between the fictional fortress and Strawberry Hill. Walpole’s home, like his narrative, was fashioned by the writer; he transformed, what he described as, a ‘Georgian cottage’ into the architectural neo-gothic masterpiece that still survives today. W. S. Lewis, in his article ‘The Genesis of Strawberry Hill’ (1934), notes: ‘[The house] may be said to have been assembled rather than built, for Walpole’s method was, briefly, to copy admired details of Gothic buildings (especially tombs) and translate them into whatever was required at the moment. […] Strawberry was an assemblage of historic examples of Gothic art fitted into a Georgian frame.’ [1] Although Townshend argues that Lewis’s association, here, between what is fiction and what is fact is somewhat strained, the idea of a ‘translation’ of the Gothic is significant in that it provides a framework for reading the similarities between the house and the novel: Walpole made a particular venture to transcribe elements of Gothicism in both of his creative endeavours.


Paul Sandby, Strawberry Hill from the Southeast (late c18th)

However, Walpole’s depiction of a gothic fort in The Castle of Otranto is not solely a result of imitation, and, as Townshend suggests, the castle in the novel is a reworking of the trope of the enchanted castle, which was a prominent feature in ancient romances. Various literary castles were also acknowledged by Walpole as influences for his work. Ludovico Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso (1516), in particular, acts as a formative intertext, with the castle of Atlante mirrored in the Castle of Otranto. Similarly, the labyrinthine and impenetrable castle of Torquato Tasso’s La Gerusalemme Liberata (1581), is also regarded by Townshend as a literary influence. English writers, too, played a part in shaping the text; Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene (1596) was much admired by Walpole, but it was Shakespeare who the writer regarded as central to the design of the novel. In the ‘Preface’ to the second edition of the text, Walpole praises Shakespeare as ‘a truly original genius and the exemplar of imaginative liberty’. [2] Parallels have also been drawn between Walpole and the figure of Prospero in The Tempest (1611); after the publication of Otranto, a poem appeared in which the playfully pseudonymous ‘Philotrantus’ wrote:

Again his characters, may see,
In soft Matild’, Miranda’s grace,
And his own Prospero in thee.[3]             

The poet positions Walpole as a representation of Shakespeare’s Prospero, a figure who understands that the ‘baseless fabric’ of material reality is transient, which is also reflected in Walpole’s insistence that ultimately ‘nothing remains’.

Literature and architecture are inextricably linked in Walpole’s narrative, and Townshend suggests that the disintegration of the castle of Otranto at the end of the novel can also be related to Walpole’s description of Strawberry Hill as a ‘paper castle’ decorated with various ‘painted papers’ and other ephemera. There is something distinctly material about Walpole’s novel, with the idea of architectural instability central to his design for both his home and his narrative.


Whether or not Strawberry Hill is the ‘real’ castle of Otranto is still widely disputed, but Townshend contends that ultimately both the novel and Walpole’s home look to the architectural structures of Medieval and Renaissance literature as their definitive point of inspiration. While echoes of Walpole’s narrative can be found in the work of later Gothic writers, such as Miles Peter Andrews and Anna Laetitia Aikin, the novel is still very much a part of Strawberry Hill; now a house-museum, the castle is indistinguishably bound to the gothic literary tradition, with readings of The Castle of Otranto a regular occurrence at the location. While Townshend’s research exposes the genesis of Walpole’s novel, his attempt to locate the architectural influences behind the work, the sense of material presence behind the text, reveals the importance of architectural reality for Walpole’s readers, both historical and contemporary.

— Amber Jenkins


[1] W. S. Lewis, ‘The Genesis of Strawberry Hill’, Metropolitan Museum Studies, 5.1 (Aug 1934), 57–92 (64).

[2] Robert B. Hamm Jr, ‘Hamlet and Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto’, Studies in English Literature 1500–1900, 49.3 (Summer 2009), 667–692 (668).

[3] Philotrantus, ‘Coliana: To the Honourable and Ingenious Author of the Castle of Otranto’ (1775).


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