Horace Walpole and the Rise of the Gothic Novel

Horace Walpole (1717-1797), painting by Joshua Reynolds 1756

Horace Walpole (1717-1797, painting) by Joshua Reynolds 1756

On September 24, 1717, English art historian, man of letters, antiquarian, connoisseur, and collector as well as Whig politician Horatio Walpole, 4th Earl of Orford was born. Walpole built Strawberry Hill House in Twickenham, south-west London, reviving the Gothic style some decades before his Victorian successors. Moreover, he was famous in his day for his medieval horror tale The Castle of Otranto, which initiated the vogue for Gothic romances. He is remembered today as perhaps the most assiduous letter writer in the English language. I learned about Horace Walpole in the books of Jane Austen, in particular in Jane Austen‘s Northanger Abbey, where the female protagonist and her romantic thoughts are always influenced by her reading of Walpole‘s and Ann Radcliffe‘s gothic novels [1,2].

“The world is a comedy to those that think; a tragedy to those that feel. ”
(Horace Walpole in a letter to Anne, Countess of Ossory, on 16 August 1776)

The Son of the British Prime Minister

Horace Walpole was born in London, the youngest son of British Prime Minister Sir Robert Walpole and his wife Catherine. In the footsteps of his famous father, he received early education in Bexley, as well as further education at Eton College and King’s College, Cambridge. But, Walpole ceased to reside at Cambridge at the end of 1738 and left without taking a degree.

Inheriting the Peerage

In 1739 Walpole embarked with his Eton schoolmate, the poet Thomas Gray, on a grand tour of France and Italy, in the midst of which they quarreled and separated. They were later reconciled, and Walpole remained throughout his life an enthusiastic admirer of Gray’s poetry.[3] On his return to England in 1741, Walpole was elected Whig Member of Parliament for Callington, Cornwall, shortly before his father’s fall from power, where his career was undistinguished, although he attended debates regularly until 1768. In 1791 he inherited the peerage from a nephew, a grandson of Robert Walpole.

Strawberry Hill

Strawberry Hill

Strawberry Hill

In his early 30s, he bought a box-shaped house — just an ordinary sort of house, sitting on a bit of hill in a fashionable country suburb — and decided to transform it into a Gothic castle. Room by room he went. Stained-glass window of a saint here, ancient suit of armor stowed in a wall recess there.[4] The original cottage became transformed into a building without parallel in Europe. Towers and battlements outside and elaborate decoration inside to create “gloomth” to suit Walpole’s collection of antiquarian objects. Moreover, Walpole amassed a valuable library. The house was open to tourists and became widely known in Walpole’s own lifetime. Strawberry Hill was the stimulus for the Gothic revival in English domestic architecture.

Strawberry Hill from the Southeast, 18th-century watercolour by Paul Sandby

Strawberry Hill from the Southeast, 18th-century watercolour by Paul Sandby

The Castle of Otranto

Walpole paid several visits to Paris, where he made the acquaintance of Madame du Deffand in 1765, and they corresponded until her death in 1780. The pen was ever in Horace Walpole’s hands, and his entire compositions would fill many volumes. In 1764 he wrote his most prominent work of fiction, the romance “Castle of Otranto“, which was first published anonymously, succeeded in restoring the element of romance to contemporary fiction. In it he furnished the machinery for a genre of fiction wherein the wildest fancies found refuge.


Walpole’s numerous letters are similarly useful as a historical resource. In one, dating from 28 January 1754 to his friend Horace Mann, he coined the word serendipity. In it, he explained that he had coined it in reference to a Persian fairy tale with the English title The Three Princes of Serendip, in which the three princes make many of these unexpected discoveries. Serendip or سرنديب / Sarandīb is an old name for Ceylon, today’s Sri Lanka, coined by Arab traders and has its roots in the island’s old Sanskrit name, Simhaladvipa.[2] The worldwide spread of the term, however, which the term received mainly in scientific circles, goes back to the American sociologist Robert K. Merton (1910-2003). He first appeared in 1945 in his work The Travels and Adventures of Serendipity.

Further Literary Works

He also wrote The Mysterious Mother (1768), a tragedy with the theme of incest. Walpole’s most important works were intended for posthumous publication. His private correspondence of some 4,000 letters constitutes a survey of the history, manners, and taste of his age. Walpole revered the letters of Mme de Sévigné (1626–96) and, following her example, consciously cultivated letter writing as an art.[3] Walpole had his own print shop where his works and those of Thomas Gray were published

Later Days

In his later days, Walpole was horrified by the events of the French Revolution. Gout and recurring attacks of rheumatism had dogged Walpole for years and on 2 March 1797, at his London house in Berkeley Square he died.[6] The massive amount of correspondence he left behind has been published in many volumes, starting in 1798. Likewise, a large collection of his works, including historical writings, was published immediately after his death.

Mini-conference on Horace Walpole’s “The Castle of Otranto”
Led by Jonathan Kramnick [10]

References and Further Reading

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