One of my modules this semester is Romantic Literature which means I can spend a bit of time on the Gothic novel. This week I’m prepping lectures on the Gothic formula as seen in Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto (1764) which is considered to be the first Gothic novel. Like all the best Gothic tales (e.g. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818)), Walpole’s story was inspired by a dream and set in his very own Gothic castle, Strawberry Hill. During my lecture prep for this topic, I came across a wonderful interview about the various restoration efforts on this site and may be of interest to anyone researching not just Gothic literature but also eighteenth-century art, architecture, and/or interior design. It can be found here.

Strawberry Hill

Rather than discuss the novel itself, I want to focus on the Gothic formula that was created from the events and features in this novel. Having read it many years ago, I was already familiar with the basic story line and the unmistakably dark atmosphere that is set as events unfold. I remembered distinctively Gothic elements such as the castle setting and heightened emotions, as well as the presence of supernatural creatures and inexplicable events. I had however, somehow forgotten the impact of Walpole’s depiction of Isabella as she desperately tries to escape Manfred. The image of an almost fairy tale like heroine (i.e. Isabella is young, beautiful, virginal, gentle, and kind) running through the labyrinth like castle setting in an attempt to get away from a tyrannical villain is one that I have seen so many times during my research on female identity in Gothic narratives.

Cover art for early Gothic novel, The Third Woman, which depicts the heroine’s flight from the castle

As the genre’s popularity steadily grew over time, various branches and sub genres of the Gothic began to develop. What was most interesting to me as I researched this novel was the fact that the Gothic authors to whom I return on a regular basis (Angela Carter, Daphne du Maurier, Anne Rice) have taken this simple formula and used it to create the most complex of stories and characters. What’s more is that these figures and their patriarchal battles continue to reflect contemporary social concerns regarding the female figure and her freedom, future, bodily autonomy, etc. In terms of connecting this lecture prep to my own research on the genre, it confirms Gothic literature’s ability to act as a reflection of real life and the underlying horrors of the current state of world. It also highlights the sad fact that this is a dangerous time for women as Gina Wisker reminds us that their rights are in greater danger today than they have been in many years. I wonder if Walpole had any inkling that in creating Otranto’s Isabella, he was also creating an icon that would act as a medium for countless discussions and examinations of the fragile state of female identity within the strict confines of patriarchy.

Strawberry Hill image: Copyright of The Victorian Web & Gothic heroine image: Copyright of Hector Garrido


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