Saturday, 6 February 2016

strange_complex: (Dracula 1958 cloak)
(Still working through my 2015 reading, here...)

This is the first ever self-declared Gothic novel, in that from at least the second edition onwards it bore the subtitle 'a Gothic story'. But we are at the birth of a genre here, and the meaning of the word 'Gothic' has changed a great deal since. By it, Walpole meant primarily 'medieval' and 'Romantic' - not dark, anguished or (obviously, as they were yet in the future) Victorian. The castle of the title is not remote, storm-battered or half-ruined, but the living seat of a southern-Italian nobleman and his family, inhabited by princesses and visited by knights trailing pennants behind them. And while there are supernatural goings-on, they are more in the vein of the fantastical elements in medieval stories like Sir Gawain and the Green Knight than the lurking, horrible Things from the Other Side which the word 'Gothic' tends to evoke now. Indeed, Walpole presented it on first publication as a translation of exactly such a newly-discovered medieval Romance - not as his own work at all. (Wikipedia has reasonable background details.)

All of this means there are quite a few assumptions to unpick for the 21st-century reader who approaches this book through the filter of later Gothic literature. Is it worth it? I think yes, but more for the sake of understanding the history of the novel and the Romance generally than the genre of Gothic specifically. There are Generational Feuds, Terrible Tyrants, Lost Heirs, Mistaken Identities, Tragic Misunderstandings, Unrequited Loves, Forbidden Loves, Crossed Loves, Wronged Women and Pious Heroes. Probably most 18th-century novels are much the same, but I think this may actually the earliest English novel I have ever read right through, so I am mostly familiar with these tropes and devices through later works, where they are usually being subverted, given new twists or knowingly satirised. Indeed, even here Walpole is doing something quite new by introducing fantastical and supernatural elements into the mix. And it would be unfair to suggest that the work is stuffily self-important - there are touches of humour, too, particularly (à la Shakespeare) revolving around the lower-class characters. But the melodrama setting is definitely higher, and more in earnest, than I am used to. As such, I found it a fascinating insight into the world of the 18th-century novel - and particularly the reasons why young ladies were so often forbidden to read them!

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