The early Gothic novelists are an interesting lot. Matthew Lewis, known for his 1796 novel The Monk, wrote his will on a servant’s hat while dying on board a ship from Jamaica to the UK. William Beckford wrote the bestselling Gothic novel Vathek in French in 1782, with the English version being translated by a vicar four years later. Beckford was tutored in music by none other than Mozart for a short while – a product of his vast family fortune (built on the proceeds from Jamaican sugar plantations), comprising some £114 million in today’s money as well as Fonthill (where Beckford had the famous abbey built).
But neither Beckford nor Lewis can claim the honour of writing the first Gothic novel. That accolade goes to a third man, Horace Walpole, who was the son of the first de facto Prime Minister of Britain, Robert Walpole. But the odd thing is that, at first, Walpole didn’t even put his name to the novel. There was a good reason for this.
The 1760s was the decade of literary forgeries. One of the most famous forgeries which that decade produced was Horace Walpole’s 1764 book The Castle of Otranto, which is single-handedly responsible for founding the Gothic novel genre. Walpole claimed the story was a genuine sixteenth-century Italian manuscript which had recently been discovered and translated by a ‘William Marshal’. The literary world flocked to buy this exciting new book. His marketing ploy had worked: critics and readers would give their attention to a work of history, but had they known it was ‘only’ a work of fiction they would have dismissed the novel as a ‘romance’ with little real value or substance.
A year later, when the book was reprinted, Walpole added a preface in which he came clean and admitted that he’d made the whole thing up. In doing so, he founded not only a new literary genre but also one of the most perennial features of the Gothic story, the so-called ‘found’ manuscript. Many of the features of Gothic which endure today, such as the subterranean secret, the gloomy castle, and the mysterious ghostly sightings, were all used in Walpole’s novel. Without Walpole, it is doubtful whether there could have been any of Edgar Allan Poe’s greatest short stories, Frankenstein, Dracula, or Daphne du Maurier. This one novel founded not only a genre but a whole style of writing.
Walpole got the idea for the novel from a dream he had: all he could recall when he woke was ‘that I had thought myself in an ancient castle (a very natural dream for a head like mine, filled with Gothic story), and that on the uppermost banister 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 rest, as they say, is history – or rather not history, but fiction, since the whole thing sprang from Walpole’s imagination.
Walpole was also a prolific inventor of new words, and is credited by the Oxford English Dictionary with introducing over 200 words into the English language, among them beefy, malaria, nuance, sombre, and souvenir. Without doubt his most celebrated neologism was ‘serendipity’, meaning the ‘faculty of making happy and unexpected discoveries by accident’. He coined the word in a letter of 1754, when recounting the ‘silly fairy tale’ (‘fairy tale’ is another term he is credited with inventing) of ‘The Three Princes of Serendip’ (Serendip being a former name for Sri Lanka). The tale is one of the earliest detective stories in existence: it recounts how three princes track down a missing camel largely through luck and good fortune, rather than any forensic skill. ‘Serendipity’ has been called one of the most difficult words to translate.
Walpole’s influence on the Gothic revival extended beyond literature. His London house, Strawberry Hill, was a vast villa that approached the scale and appearance of a castle. Walpole’s house became so celebrated that it gave its name not only to an area of London (near Twickenham and lying in the London borough of Richmond) but also to a style of architecture known as Strawberry Hill Gothic.