« PreviousContinue »
The Castle of Otranto is remarkable, not only for the wild interest of the story, but as the first modern attempt to found a tale of amusing fiction upon the basis of the ancient romances of chivalry. The neglect and discredit of these venerable legends had commenced so early as the reign of Queen Elizabeth, when, as we learn from the criticism of the times, Spenser's fairy web was approved rather on account of the mystic and allegorical interpretation, than the plain and obvious meaning of his chivalrous pageant. The drama, which shortly afterwards rose into splendour, and English versions from the innumerable novelists of Italy, supplied to the higher class the amusement which their fathers received from the legends of Don Belianis and the Mirror of Knighthood ; and the huge volumes, which were once the pastime of nobles and princes, shorn of their ornaments, and shrunk into abridgements, were banished to the kitchen or nursery, or, at best, to the hall-window of the old-fashioned country manor-house. Under Charles II., the prevailing taste for French literature dictated the introduction of those dullest of dull folios, the romances of Calprenede and Scuderi, works which hover between the ancient tale of chivalry and the modern novel. The alliance was
so ill conceived, that these ponderous tomes retained all the insufferable length and breadth of the prose volumes of chivalry, the same detailed account of reiterated and unvaried combats, the same unnatural and extravagant turn of incident, without the rich and sublime strokes of genius, and vigour of imagination, which often distinguished the early romance; while they exhibited all the unnatural metaphysical jargon, sentimental languor, and flat love-intrigue of the novel, without being enlivened by its variety of character, just traits of feeling, or acute views of life. Such an ill-imagined species of composition retained its ground longer than might have been expected, only because these romances were called works of entertainment, and that there was nothing better to supply their room. Even in the days of the Spectator, Clelia, Cleopatra, and the Grand Cyrus, (as that precious folio is christened by its butcherly translator,) were the favourite closet companions of the fair sex. But this unnatural taste began to give way early in the eighteenth century; and, about the middle of it, was entirely superseded by the works of Le Sage, Richardson, Fielding, and Smollett ; so that even the very name of romance, now so venerable in the ear of antiquaries and book-collectors, was almost forgotten at the time The Castle of Otranto made its first appearance.
The peculiar situation of Horace Walpole, the ingenious author of this work, was such as gave him a decided predilection for what may be called the Gothic style, a term which he contributed not a little to rescue from the bad fame into which it bad fallen, being currently used before his time to express whatever was in pointed and diametrical opposition to the rules of true taste.
Horace Walpole, it is needless to remind the reader, was the son of Sir Robert Walpole, that celebrated minister, who held the reins of government under two successive monarchs, with a grasp so firm and uncontrolled, that his power seemed entwined with the rights of the Brunswick family. Horace was born in the year 1716-17; was educated at Eton, and formed, at that celebrated seminary, a school-boy acquaintance with the celebrated Gray, which continued during the earlier part of their residence together at Cambridge, so that they became fellow-travellers by joint consent in 1739. They disagreed and parted on the continent; the youthful vivacity, and, perhaps, the aristocratic assumption of Walpole, not agreeing with the somewhat formal opinions and habits of the professed man of letters. In the reconciliation after
[“ At Reggio arose an unfortunate dispute, which ended in their sudden separation ; and of this dispute and separation Mr Walpole was afterwards content to bear the blame. He represents, as the cause of the quarrel, that Gray was 'too serious a companion' for him. “Gray,' he says, was for antiquities, &c., while I was for perpetual balls and plays; the fault was mine.' The difference of temper here mentioned has been already hinted at, and had probably, for a considerable time, been preparing the mind of both parties for the crisis of a rupture. Walpole was vain, and had early been accustomed to flattery; Gray was no courtier, and might, on his part, have betrayed something of discontent at being so long dependent, in his own movements, on those of another. But for information on the immediate cause of this quarrel, we are indebted to Mr Mitford, who states, on what would claim to be considered good authority, that Mr Waipole, suspecting Gray of
wards effected between them, Walpole frankly took on himself the blame of the rupture, and they continued friends until Gray's death. · When Walpole returned to England, he obtained a seat in Parliament, and entered public life as the son of a prime minister as powerful as England had known for more than a century. When the father occupied such a situation, his sons had necessarily their full share of that court which is usually paid to the near connexions of those who have the patronage of the state at their disposal. To the feeling of importance inseparable from the object of such attention, was added the early habit of connecting and associating the interest of Sir Robert Walpole, and even the domestic affairs of his family, with the parties in the Royal Family of England, and with the changes in the public affairs of Europe. It is not therefore wonderful, that the turn of Horace Walpole's mind, which was naturally tinged with the love of pedigree, and a value for family honours, should have been strengthened in that bias by circumstances, which seemed, as it were, to implicate the fate of his own house with that of princes, and to give the shields of the Walpoles, Shorters, and Robsarts, from whom he descended, an added dignity, unknown to their original owners. If Mr Walpole ever founded hopes of raising himself to political eminence, and turning his family importance to advantage in his career, the termination of his father's power, and the personal change with which he felt it attended, disgusted him with active life, and early consigned him to literary retirement. He had, indeed, a seat in Parliament for many years; but, unless upon one occasion, when he vindicated the memory of his father with great dignity and eloquence, he took no share in the debates of the House, and not much interest in the parties which maintained them. Indeed, in the account which he has himself rendered us of his own views and dispositions with respect to state affairs, he seems rather to have been bent on influencing party spirit, and bustling in public affairs, for the sake of embroilment and intrigue, than in order to carry any particular measure, whether important to himself, or of consequence to the state. In the year 1758, and at the active age of forty-one, 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.
having spoken ill of him to his friends in England, clandes. tinely opened a letter of his and re-sealed it, an injury which Mr Gray very properly resented. If any thing could add to the meanness of such an action, it was the cowardly manner in wbieh it is slurred over in Mr Walpole's general acknowledgment of blame, and that too, as though he thought the world, judging by its own maxims, would readily acquit him." Life and Works of Gray, vol. i., p. 28.]