Page images
PDF
EPUB

sequence to the state. In the year 1758, and at the active age of fortyone, secured from the caprices of fortune, he retired altogether from public life, to enjoy his own pursuits and studies in retirement. His father's care had invested him with three good sinecure offices, so that his income, managed with economy, which no one understood better how to practise, was sufficient for his expense in matters of virtu, as well as for maintaining his high rank in society.

The subjects of Horace Walpole's studies were, in a great measure, dictated by his habits of thinking and feeling operating upon an animated imagination, and a mind, acute, active, penetrating, and fraught with a great variety of miscellaneous knowledge. Travelling had formed his taste for the fine arts; but his early predilection in favour of birth and rank connected even those branches of study with that of Gothic history and antiquities. His Anecdotes of Painting and Engraving evince many marks of his favourite pursuits ; but his Catalogue of Royal and Noble Authors, and his Historical Doubts, we owe entirely to his pursuits as an antiquary and genealogist. The former work evinces, in a particular degree, Mr Walpole's respect for birth and rank; yet is, perhaps, ill calculated to gain much sympathy for either. It would be difficult, by any process or principle of sub-division, to select a list of as many plebeian authors, containing so very few whose genius was worthy of commemoration ; but it was always Walpole’s foible to disclaim a professed pursuit of public favour, for which, however, he earnestly thirsted, and to hold himself forth as a privileged author, “one of the right-hand file,” who did not mean to descend into the common arena, where professional authors contend before the public eye, but wrote merely to gratify his own taste, by throwing away a few idle hours on literary composition. There was much affectation in this, which accordingly met the reward which affectation usually incurs; as Walpole seems to have suffered a good deal from the criticism which he affected to despise, and occasionally from the neglect which he appeared to court.

The Historical Doubts are an acute and curious example how minute antiquarian research may shake our faith in the facts most pointedly

averred by general history. It is remarkable also to observe, how, in defending a system which was probably at first adopted as a mere literary exercise, Mr Walpole's doubts acquired, in his own eyes, the respectability of certainties, in which he could not brook controversy.

Mr Walpole's domestic occupations, as well as his studies, bore evidence of a taste for English antiquities, which was then uncommon. He loved, as a satirist has expressed it, “ to gaze on Gothic toys through Gothic glass," and the villa at Strawberry-Hill, which he chose for his abode, gradually swelled into a feudal castle, by the addition of turrets, towers, galleries, and corridors, whose fretted roofs, carved

pannels, and illuminated windows, were garnished with the appropriate furniture of scutcheons, armorial bearings, shields, tilting lances, and all the panoply of chivalry. The Gothic order of architecture is now so generally, and, indeed, indiscriminately used, that we are rather surprised if the country-house of a tradesman retired from business, does not exhibit lanceolated windows, divided by stone shafts, and garnished by painted glass, a cup-board in the form of a cathedral-stall, and a pig-house with a front borrowed from the façade of an ancient chapel. But, in the middle of the eighteenth century, when Mr Walpole began to exhibit specimens of the Gothic style, and to shew how patterns, collected from cathedrals and monuments, might be applied to chimney-pieces, ceilings, windows, and balustrades, he did not comply with the dictates of a prevailing fashion, but pleased his own taste, and realized his own visions, in the romantic cast of the mansion which he erected.

Mr Walpole’s lighter studies were conducted upon the same principle which influenced his historical researches, and his taste in architecture. His extensive acquaintance with foreign literature, on which he justly prided himself, was subordinate to his pursuits as an English antiquary and genealogist, in which he gleaned subjects for poetry and for romantic fiction, as well as for historical controversy. These are studies, indeed, proverbially dull; but it is only when they are pursued by those whose fancies nothing can enliven. A Horace Walpole, or a Thomas Warton, is not a mere collector of dry and minute facts, which the general historian passes over with disdain. He brings with him the torch of genius, to illuminate the ruins through which he loves to wander ; nor does the classic scholar derive more inspiration from the pages of Virgil, than such an antiquary from the glowing, rich, and powerful feudal painting of Froissart. His mind being thus stored with information, accumulated by researches into the antiquities of the middle ages, and inspired, as he himself informs us, by the romantic east of his own habitation, Mr Walpole resolved to give the public a specimen of the Gothic style adapted to modern literature, as he had already exhibited its application to modern architecture.

As, in his model of a Gothic modern mansion, our author had studiously endeavoured to fit to the purposes of modern convenience, or luxury, the rich, varied, and complicated tracery and carving of the ancient cathedral, so, in The Castle of Otranto, it was his object to unite the marvellous turn of incident, and imposing tone of chivalry, exhibited in the ancient romance, with that accurate display of human character, and contrast of feelings and passions, which is, or ought to be, delineated in the modern novel. But Mr Walpole, being uncertain of the reception which a work upon so new a plan might experience from the world, and not caring, perhaps, to encounter the ridicule which would have attended its failure, The Castle of Otranto was, in 1764, ushered into the world, as a translation, by William Marshall, from the Italian of Onuphrio Muralto, a sort of anagram, or translation of his own name. It did not, however, long impose upon the critics of the day. It was soon suspected to proceed from a more elegant pen than that of any William Marshall, and, in the second edition, he disclosed the secret. In a private letter, he gave the following account of the origin of the composition, in which he contradicts the ordinary assertion, that it was completed in eight days.

“ 9th March, 1763. “ Shall I confess to you what was the origin of this romance ? I waked one morning in the beginning of last June from a dream, of

VOL. V.

e

which all I could recover was, that I had thought myself in an ancient castle, (a very natural dream for a head filled like mine with gothic story,) and that on the uppermost bannister of a great staircase, I saw a gigantic hand in armour. In the evening I sat down and began to write, without knowing in the least what I intended to say or relate. The work grew on my hands, and I grew fond of it. Add, that I was very glad to think of any thing rather than politics. In short, I was so engrossed with my tale, which I completed in less than two months, that one evening I wrote from the time I had drank my tea, about six o'clock, till half an hour after one in the morning, when my hands and fingers were so weary, that I could not hold the pen to finish the sentence, but left Matilda and Isabella talking in the middle of a paragraph."

רל

It does not seem that the authenticity of the narrative was at first suspected. Mr Gray writes to Mr Walpole, on 30th December, 1764 : “ I have received The Castle of Otranto, and return you my thanks for it. It engages our attention here, (i. e. at Cambridge,) makes some of us cry a little; and all, in general, afraid to go to bed o'nights. We take it for a translation ; and should believe it to be a true story, if it were not for St Nicholas." The friends of the author, as appears from the letter already quoted, were probably soon permitted to peep beneath the veil he had thought proper to assume ; and, in the second edition, it was altogether withdrawn by a preface, in which the tendency and nature of the work are shortly commented upon and explained. From the following passage, translated from a letter by the author to Madame Deffand, it would seem that he repented of having laid aside his incognito ; and, sensitive to criticism, like most dilletante authors, was rather more hurt by the raillery of those who liked not his tale of chivalry, than gratified by the applause of his admirers. “ So they have translated my Castle of Otranto, probably in ridicule of the author. So be it ;-however, I beg you will let their raillery pass in silence.

Let the critics have their own way; they give me no uneasiness. I have not written the book for the present age,

I am

even

which will endure nothing but cold common sense.

I confess to you, my dear friend, (and you will think me madder than ever,) that this is the only one of my works with which I am myself pleased; I have given reins to my imagination till I became on fire with the visions and feelings which it excited. I have composed it in defiance of rules, of critics, and of philosophers; and it seems to me just so much the better for that very reason. persuaded, that some time hereafter, when taste shall resume the place which philosophy now occupies, my poor Castle will find admirers ; we have actually a few among us already, for I am just publishing the third edition. I do not say this in order to mendicate your approbation.* I told you from the beginning you would not like the book,

your visions are all in a different style. I am not sorry that the translator has given the second preface ; the first, however, accords best with the style of the fiction. I wished it to be believed ancient, and almost every body was imposed upon.” If the public applause, however, was sufficiently qualified, by the voice of censure, to alarm the feelings of the author, the continued demand for various editions of The Castle of Otranto, shewed how high the work really stood in popular estimation, and probably eventually reconciled Mr Walpole to the taste of his own age. This Romance has been justly considered not only as the original and model of a peculiar species of composition, attempted and successfully executed by a man of great genius, but as one of the standard works of our lighter literature.

· Horace Walpole continued the mode of life which he had adopted so early as 1753, until his death, unless it may be considered as an alteration, that his sentiments of Whiggism, which, he himself assures us, almost amounted to Republicanism, received a shock from the French Revolution, which he appears from its commencement to have

Madame Deffand had mentioned having read the Castle of Otranto twice over; but she did not add a word of approbation. She blamed the translator for giving the second preface, chiefly because she thought it might commit Walpole with Voltaire.

« PreviousContinue »