The Castle of Otranto, A Story – by Horace Walpole

Otranto bookplate final

First Edition Provenance

The Castle of Otranto, A Story, trans. William Marshal, Gent. from the Original Italian of Onuphrio Muralto, Canon of the Church of St. Nicholas at Otranto (London: Thomas Lownds, 1765).

Excerpt Provenance

Horace Walpole, The Castle of Otranto: A Gothic Story, from Three Gothic Novels, ed. E.F. Bleiler (New York: Dover, 1966), 1-106.

Introduction to the Selection from The Castle of Otranto — by Amber Harding:

Given the extent of Horace Walpole’s affinity for anything Gothic in his life, it is hardly surprising that the book by which he should have ended up best remembered is, in many aspects, the codifier of Gothic literary style: a slim volume, originally published with much mystique. The Castle of Otranto, A Story first appeared on Christmas Eve, 1764, though the first edition printing bears the next year’s date. From a run of 500 copies, Walpole sent out several to his friends and reviewers, though he did so pseudonymously. The manuscript for The Castle of Otranto, the first edition’s preface notes, dates from 1529, in Naples, though it is proposed to have been written much earlier, c. 11th century and the era of the Crusades. The preface also praises, rather humourously in hindsight, “the beauty of the diction, and the zeal of the author.”1 Onuphrio Muralto, Walpole’s fictive construct (whose name is not too far removed from the truth), would be the one to receive the critic’s scorn, while Walpole could bide his time and emerge to claim the credit only if the novel was received favourably. This tactic backfired a bit, however, as the book was widely held to be some sort of joke, lacking the authority of Walpole’s name, his status as a connoisseur, and his apparent sincerity with respect to the Gothic style. Despite mixed reactions, the book went into a second print run in April of 1765, this time with a preface from Walpole that drops all pretenses: “It was an attempt to blend the two kinds of romance, the ancient and the modern,” Walpole writes, explaining that he wanted to take his characters and “make them think, speak, and act, as it might be supposed mere men and women would do in extraordinary positions.”2 Sometime between the first and third printing, Otranto added a key word to its subheading, appearing in 1766 as The Castle of Otranto, A Gothic Story.

Otranto’s origins are numerous, carrying hints of Walpole’s time at King’s College, Cambridge; the actual historical dukedom of Otranto in Lecce Province, Puglia, Italy; a dream Walpole had of an enormous armoured hand; and, most clearly, Strawberry Hill House, Walpole’s Gothic revival project in Twickenham, London. Under constant construction from 1749 onwards, Strawberry Hill grew from a fairly nondescript house into a sprawling Gothic castle, complete with library, cloisters, oratory, and armoury. Walpole wrote to his friend Horace Mann in Florence, explaining his “little Gothic castle” in progress, and requesting “any fragments of old painted glass, arms, or anything.”3 Though Mann followed the prevailing view that the Gothic was overdone to the point of no longer being fashionable, he agreed. What grew out of Strawberry Hill brought the Gothic back into fashion, recuperating the word itself from being a marker of bad taste and granting it a new definition, one grounded in a dark, moody aesthetic and an accompanying sense of romantic heroism.

Walpole’s hundred-page story marked a dramatic departure from contemporaries such as Henry Fielding and Samuel Richardson, whose “histories” and epistolary novels often spanned a thousand pages. Within those brief confines, Walpole sets up what are to become the defining characteristics of the Gothic style: a medieval setting, usually a castle, often in the Latinate European countries or Germany, with a strong supernatural presence (explained away in earlier fiction, but later left to stand on its own), a passive hero contrasted with an active villain, and the legacy of an unavenged crime recently brought to light. In the end, everything is solved by an act of fate.

The lord and prince of the Castle of Otranto is Manfred, overbearing and tyrannical, father to Matilda (eighteen, beautiful, virginal) and favoured son Conrad (fifteen, sickly, dead within the first two pages). Hippolita, his wife, has given Manfred only one son, and therein lies the cause of many of the novel’s problems. Conrad had been engaged to Isabella, a nobleman’s daughter staying at the castle, in an attempt to ensure the bloodline and allay Manfred’s fear of a cryptic prophecy: ownership of Otranto will change hands “whenever the real owner should be grown too large to inhabit it.” When Conrad is abruptly crushed to death by a giant helmet, the words of the prophecy become clear, and the novel’s plot is set into motion: newly arranged marriages, love triangles, clandestine meetings, and mistaken identities run through the pages amidst various supernatural happenings at break-neck speed.

This excerpt follows Isabella as she flees Manfred’s clutches, running through the castle’s underground passages (34-40).

1. E.F. Bleiler, introduction to Three Gothic Novels, ed. E.F. Bleiler (New York: Dover, 1966), 17.
2. Ibid., 21.
3. R.W. Ketton-Cremer, Horace Walpole: A Biography (Ithaca: Cornell U.P., 1964), 118.


“I desired you once before,” said Manfred, angrily, “not to name that woman: from this hour she must be a stranger to you, as she must be to me.  In short, Isabella, since I cannot give you my son, I offer you myself.” “Heavens!” cried Isabella, waking from her delusion, “what do I hear! you! my lord!  you!  My father-in-law! the father of Conrad! the husband of the virtuous and tender Hippolita!”—“I tell you,” said Manfred, imperiously, “Hippolita is no longer my wife; I divorce her from this hour.  Too long has she cursed me by her unfruitfulness.  My fate depends on having sons, and this night I trust will give a new date to my hopes.” At those words he seized the cold hand of Isabella, who was half dead with fright and horror.  She shrieked, and started from him, Manfred rose to pursue her; when the moon, which was now up, and gleamed in at the opposite casement, presented to his sight the plumes of the fatal helmet, which rose to the height of the windows, waving backwards and forwards in a tempestuous manner, and accompanied with a hollow and rustling sound.  Isabella, who gathered courage from her situation, and who dreaded nothing so much as Manfred’s pursuit of his declaration, cried, “Look! my lord! see! Heaven itself declares against your impious intentions!”—“Heaven nor Hell shall impede my designs,” said Manfred, advancing again to seize the Princess. At that instant, the portrait of his grandfather, which hung over the bench where they had been sitting, uttered a deep sigh, and heaved its breast. Isabella, whose back was turned to the picture, saw not the motion, nor knew whence the sound came, but started, and said, “Hark, my lord! what sound was that?” and, at the same time, made towards the door. Manfred, distracted between the flight of Isabella, who had now reached the stairs, and yet unable to keep his eyes from the picture, which began to move, had, however, advanced some steps after her, still looking backwards on the portrait, when he saw it quit its panel, and descend on the floor with a grave and melancholy air. “Do I dream?” cried Manfred, returning; “or are the devils themselves in league against me?  Speak, infernal spectre!  or, if thou art my grandsire, why dost thou too conspire against thy wretched descendant, who too dearly pays for”—ere he could finish the sentence, the vision sighed again, and made a sign to Manfred to follow him. “Lead on!” cried Manfred; “I will follow thee to the gulf of perdition!” The spectre marched sedately, but dejected, to the end of the gallery, and turned into a chamber on the right hand. Manfred accompanied him at a little distance, full of anxiety and horror, but resolved. As he would have entered the chamber, the door was clapped to with violence by an invisible hand. The prince, collecting courage from this delay, would have forcibly burst open the door with his foot, but found that it resisted his utmost efforts. “Since hell will not satisfy my curiosity,” said Manfred, “I will use the human means in my power for preserving my race; Isabella shall not escape me.”

The lady, whose resolution had given way to terror the moment she had quitted Manfred, continued her flight to the bottom of the principal staircase. There she stopped, not knowing whither to direct her steps, nor how to escape from the impetuosity of the prince.  The gates of the castle, she knew, were locked, and guards placed in the court. Should she, as her heart prompted her, go and prepare Hippolita for the cruel destiny that awaited her? she did not doubt but Manfred would seek her there, and that his violence would incite him to double the injury he meditated, without leaving room for them to avoid the impetuosity of his passions. Delay might give him time to reflect on the horrid measures he had conceived, or produce some circumstance in her favour, if she could, for that night, at least, avoid his odious purpose.  Yet where conceal herself! how avoid the pursuit he would infallibly make throughout the castle! As these thoughts passed rapidly through her mind, she recollected a subterraneous passage, which led from the vaults of the castle to the church of St. Nicholas.  Could she reach the altar before she was overtaken, she knew even Manfred’s violence would not dare to profane the sacredness of the place; and she determined, if no other means of deliverance offered, to shut herself up for ever among the holy virgins, whose convent was contiguous to the cathedral.  In this resolution, she seized a lamp, that burned at the foot of the staircase, and hurried towards the secret passage.

The lower part of the castle was hollowed into several intricate cloisters; and it was not easy for one, under so much anxiety, to find the door that opened into the cavern. An awful silence reigned throughout those subterraneous regions, except, now and then, some blasts of wind that shook the doors she had passed, and which, grating on the rusty hinges, were re-echoed through that long labyrinth of darkness. Every murmur struck her with new terror; yet more she dreaded to hear the wrathful voice of Manfred, urging his domestics to pursue her. She trod as softly as impatience would give her leave, yet frequently stopped, and listened to hear if she was followed. In one of those moments she thought she heard a sigh. She shuddered, and recoiled a few paces. In a moment she thought she heard the step of some person. Her blood curdled; she concluded it was Manfred. Every suggestion, that horror could inspire, rushed into her mind. She condemned her rash flight, which had thus exposed her to his rage, in a place where her cries were not likely to draw anybody to her assistance. Yet the sound seemed not to come from behind; if Manfred knew where she was, he must have followed her: she was still in one of the cloisters, and the steps she had heard were too distinct to proceed from the way she had come. Cheered with this reflection, and hoping to find a friend in whoever was not the prince, she was going to advance, when a door, that stood a-jar, at some distance to the left, was opened gently; but e’er her lamp, which she held up, could discover who opened it, the person retreated precipitately, on seeing the light.

Isabella, whom every incident was sufficient to dismay, hesitated over whether she should proceed. Her dread of Manfred soon outweighed every other terror. The very circumstance of the person avoiding her, gave her a sort of courage. It could only be, she thought, some domestic belonging to the castle. Her gentleness had never raised her an enemy, and conscious innocence made her hope that, unless sent by the Prince’s order to seek her, his servants would rather assist than prevent her flight. Fortifying herself with these reflections, and believing by what she could observe that she was near the mouth of the subterraneous cavern, she approached the door that had been opened; but a sudden gust of wind that met her at the door extinguished her lamp, and left her in total darkness.

Words cannot paint the horror of the Princess’s situation. Alone in so dismal a place, her mind imprinted with all the terrible events of the day, hopeless of escaping, expecting every moment the arrival of Manfred, and far from tranquil on knowing she was within reach of somebody, she knew not whom, who for some cause seemed concealed thereabouts; all these thoughts crowded on her distracted mind, and she was ready to sink under her apprehensions. She addressed herself to every saint in heaven, and inwardly implored their assistance. For a considerable time she remained in an agony of despair. At last, as softly as was possible, she felt for the door; and, having found it, entered trembling into the vault from whence she had heard the sigh and steps. It gave her a kind of momentary joy to perceive an imperfect ray of clouded moonshine gleam from the roof of the vault, which seemed to be fallen in, and from whence hung a fragment of earth or building, she could not distinguish which, that appeared to have been crushed inwards. She advanced eagerly towards this chasm, when she discerned a human form, standing close against the wall.

She shrieked, believing it the ghost of her betrothed Conrad. The figure, advancing, said in a submissive voice, “Be not alarmed, Lady; I will not injure you.” Isabella, a little encouraged by the words, and tone of voice, of the stranger, and recollecting that this must be the person who had opened the door, recovered her spirits enough to reply, “Sir, whoever you are, take pity on a wretched Princess, standing on the brink of destruction! Assist me to escape from this fatal castle, or in a few moments I may be made miserable for ever!” “Alas!” said the stranger, “what can I do to assist you? I will die in your defence; but I am unacquainted with the castle, and want—” “Oh!” said Isabella, hastily interrupting him, “help me but to find a trap-door that must be hereabout, and it is the greatest service you can do me, for I have not a minute to lose.” Saying these words, she felt about on the pavement, and directed the stranger to search likewise, for a smooth piece of brass, enclosed in one of the stones. “That,” said she, “is the lock, which opens with a spring, of which I know the secret. If we can find that, I may escape; if not, alas! courteous stranger, I fear I shall have involved you in my misfortunes: Manfred will suspect you for the accomplice of my flight, and you will fall a victim to his resentment.” “I value not my life,” said the stranger, “and it will be some comfort to lose it in trying to deliver you from his tyranny.” “Generous youth!” said Isabella, “how shall I ever requite”—as she uttered those words, a ray of moonshine, streaming through a cranny of the ruin above, shone directly on the lock they sought. “Oh! transport!” said Isabella, “here is the trap-door!” and, taking out the key, she touched the spring, which, starting aside, discovered an iron ring. “Lift up the door,” said the princess. The stranger obeyed; and beneath appeared some stone steps descending into a vault totally dark. “We must go down here,” said Isabella: “Follow me; dark and dismal as it is, we cannot miss our way; it leads directly to the church of St. Nicholas. But, perhaps,” added the princess, modestly, “you have no reason to leave the castle, nor have I farther occasion for your service; in a few minutes I shall be safe from Manfred’s rage—only let me know to whom I am so much obliged.” “I will never quit you,” said the stranger, eagerly, “until I have placed you in safety—nor think me, princess, more generous than I am; though you are my principal care”—the stranger was interrupted by a sudden noise of voices, that seemed approaching, and they soon distinguished these words: “Talk not to me of necromancers! I tell you she must be in the castle; I will find her in spite of enchantment.” “Oh! heavens!” cried Isabella, “it is the voice of Manfred! make haste, or we are ruined! and shut the trap-door after you.” Saying this, she descended the steps precipitately, and, as the stranger hastened to follow her, he let the door slip out of his hands; it fell, and the spring closed over it. He tried in vain to open it, not having observed Isabella’s method of touching the spring; nor had he many moments to make an essay. The noise of the falling door had been heard by Manfred, who, directed by the sound, hastened thither, attended by his servants with torches. “It must be Isabella,” cried Manfred, before he entered the vault; “she is escaping by the subterraneous passage, but she cannot have got far.” What was the astonishment of the prince when, instead of Isabella, the light of the torches discovered to him the young peasant, whom he thought confined under the fatal helmet! “Traitor!” said Manfred, “how camest thou here? I thought thee in durance above in the court.” “I am no traitor,” replied the young man, boldly, “nor am I answerable for your thoughts.”—“Presumptuous villain!” cried Manfred, “dost thou provoke my wrath? tell me, how hast thou escaped from above? thou hast corrupted thy guards, and their lives shall answer it.”—“My poverty,” said the peasant calmly, “will disculpate them: though the ministers of a tyrant’s wrath, to thee they are faithful, and but too willing to execute the orders which you unjustly imposed upon them.” “Art thou so hardy as to dare my vengeance?” said the prince; “but tortures shall force the truth from thee. Tell me! I will know thy accomplices.” “There was my accomplice!” said the youth, smiling, and pointing to the roof. Manfred ordered the torches to be held up, and perceived that one of the cheeks of the enchanted casque had forced its way through the pavement of the court, as his servants had let it fall over the peasant, and had broken through into the vault, leaving a gap, through which the peasant had pressed himself some minutes before he was found by Isabella. “Was that the way by which thou didst descend?” said Manfred. “It was,” said the youth.—“But what noise was that,” said Manfred, “which I heard as I entered the cloister?”—“A door clapped,” said the peasant; “I heard it as well as you.” “What door?” said Manfred, hastily. “I am not acquainted with your castle,” said the peasant; “this is the first time I ever entered it, and this vault the only part of it within which I ever was.” “But I tell thee,” said Manfred (wishing to find out if the youth had discovered the trap-door), “it was this way I heard the noise: my servants heard it too.” “My Lord,” interrupted one of them, officiously, “to be sure it was the trap-door, and he was going to make his escape.” “Peace! blockhead!” said the prince, angrily; “if he was going to escape, how should he come on this side? I will know from his own mouth what noise it was I heard. Tell me truly! thy life depends on thy veracity.” “My veracity is dearer to me than my life,” said the peasant, “nor would I purchase the one by forfeiting the other.” “Indeed! young philosopher!” said Manfred, contemptuously; “tell me, then, what was the noise I heard?” “Ask me what I can answer,” said he, “and put me to death instantly if I tell you a lie.” Manfred, growing impatient at the steady valour and indifference of the youth, cried, “Well, then, thou man of truth! answer; was it the fall of the trap-door that I heard?” “It was,” said the youth. “It was!” said the prince, “and how didst thou come to know there was a trap-door here?” “I saw the plate of brass by a gleam of moonshine,” replied he. “But what told thee it was a lock?” said Manfred; “how didst thou discover the secret of opening it?” “Providence, that delivered me from the helmet, was able to direct me to the spring of a lock,” said he. “Providence should have gone a little farther, and have placed thee out of the reach of my resentment,” said Manfred; “when Providence had taught thee to open the lock, it abandoned thee for a fool, who did not know how to make use of its favours. Why didst thou not pursue the path pointed out for thy escape? why didst thou shut the trap-door, before thou hadst descended the steps?” “I might ask you, my Lord,” said the peasant, “how I, totally unacquainted with your castle, was to know that those steps led to any outlet? but I scorn to evade your questions. Wherever those steps lead to, perhaps I should have explored the way—I could not be in a worse situation than I was. But the truth is, I let the trap-door fall: your immediate arrival followed. I had given the alarm—what imported it to me whether I was seized a minute sooner or a minute later?” “Thou art a resolute villain for thy years,” said Manfred; “yet on reflection I suspect thou dost but trifle with me: thou hast not yet told me how thou didst open the lock.” “That I will show you, my Lord,” said the peasant; and, taking up a fragment of stone that had fallen from above, he laid himself on the trap-door, and began to beat on the piece of brass that covered it; meaning to gain time for the escape of the Princess.


As discussed in class, the short Surrealist film on Otranto: “Otrantský zámek.”

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