The Castle of Otranto and The Old English Baron (Book Review)

The front cover of a hardcover edition printed by the Oxford University Press in 1964.

The front cover of a hardcover edition printed by the Oxford University Press in 1964.

Horace Walpole The Castle of Otranto and Clara Reeve’s The Old English Baron are both seminal works in the history of the gothic novel but while they approach the same subjects (even in regards to plot) they diverge in interesting ways.

Walpole’s novel has fared better in the public memory than Reeve’s, though it reputations is primarily based on it being the first gothic novel. Nevertheless, both address the problems of social justice and virtue; both evoke the imagination through supernatural terror and suspense. However, how they portrayed and dealt with the supernatural elements are very different and perfectly represent a problem that was, in the 18th century, known as “probability.”

Eighteenth century authors were concerned with the notion of probability and whether or not the depiction of the supernatural could be seen as more likely than another. In other words, if ghost truly did exist, some depictions were considered to be more realistic and therefore more probable.

Walpole was deliberately fanciful in The Castle Otranto and accepted the melodramatic qualities of his story as he accepted the equally melodramatic conventions of opera and ballet. Reeve wanted to portray ghosts more realistically and restrained her ghosts considerably, to the point of making them seem rather dull  and too proper to many readers.

The front cover of a hardcover edition printed by the Oxford University Press in 1967.

The front cover of a hardcover edition printed by the Oxford University Press in 1967.

The notion of a probable ghost is rather difficult to define and I tend to believe that neither attempt is necessarily more probable than the other. After all, we have no model to judge it against other than fictional portrayals, which are primarily and appropriately poetic, and the personal testimonies we hear on the many ghost hunting programs on television today, which are sincere but rather mundane in contrast. If we want to be as realistic and probable as possible, we would be forced to rely on the latter model. The result would likely resemble the Paranormal Activity films. While films like these more closely approximate alleged encounters with ghosts and other supernatural entities, they lack the poetic elements that give stories of the supernatural element their dramatic power.

Overall, I personally found The Castle of Otranto more entertaining than The Old English Baron. Of course, neither of these evoke the same kind of tension and suspense as Radcliffes achieved so well in The Mysteries of Udolpho and The Italien. Dialogue tends to run line after line, instead of being indented into new paragraphs, which I found to be rather tedious on the eyes. Nevertheless, I found both book interesting in their own ways and will provide any reader invested in the history of the gothic in literature some knowledge regarding its development.

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