Professor Ian Duncan
August 18, 2000
National Narratives: Examining the Connection Between Horace Walpole and Sir Walter Scott
"Pray read Waverley," John Murray advised his wife in 1814, "[It] is excellent. No dark passages; no secret chambers; no wind howling in long galleys" (Robertson 28). To Murray and his contemporaries, Scott's debut was a striking novelty in a market saturated with the rusting machinery of Gothic literature, and Scott himself was the hero who had single-handedly "rescued the public from Gothicism" (Robertson 31). This perception of Scott as the nemesis of Gothic literature created problems for later generations of critics, who wondered at Scott's experimentation with Gothic conventions and his praise for Gothic novelists such as Horace Walpole. Recent criticism has done much to illuminate Scott's relationship with Gothic literature, and his use or adaptation of Gothic conventions to the historical romance; but little has been said on the influence of specific Gothic authors on Scott. In this essay I intend to describe the connection between the 'father of the historical novel', Sir Walter Scott, and the self-proclaimed father of the Gothic novel, Horace Walpole. In particular I wish to suggest that Walpole's The Castle of Otranto and its two Prefaces were a major influence on Scott's development of the historical romance, and that Scott saw in Walpole's The Castle of Otranto a national project similar to his own.
The early part of the 1760s was a time of great literary controversy. In 1761 and 1763, James Macpherson, with the support of many of the Scottish elite, published what he claimed were translations of the ancient epic poems of a third century Scottish bard called Ossian. The poems, which feature gloomy landscapes, doomed heroes, and a plethora of ghosts, proved both extremely popular and highly controversial. At issue was the authenticity of the poems, which the Highlands-born Macpherson claimed to have translated from the Gaelic at a time in which the Scottish Highlands were generally regarded as the most primitive part of the British nation. English historians and antiquarians denounced the poems as fakes, thus igniting a highly charged literary debate with barely concealed nationalist undertones. Like most other English antiquarians, Horace Walpole regarded the poems as a fraud, but admired them for their gothic landscapes and use of the supernatural. Moreover, the antiquarian framework of the poems suggested to Walpole a way of circumventing "the problem of reproducing superstition for the eyes of an enlightened audience" (Clery 56).
Thus, when The Castle of Otranto first appeared in 1764, it purported to be a translation from "the purest Italian" (Walpole 5) of an ancient manuscript discovered near the Scottish border. The translator, one "William Marshall", apologized for the presence of the supernatural in the work which he was presenting to the public, but argued that
Belief in every kind of prodigy was so established in those dark ages, that an author would not be faithful to the manners of the times who should omit all mention of them. He is not bound to believe them himself, but he must represent his actors as believing them. (Walpole 6)
This parallels Macpherson's argument that the authenticity of the Ossian poems is inherent in the text, because they "abound with those ideas, and paint those manners, that belong to the most early state of society" (Macpherson 5). However Walpole's ambiguous use of the word "author" in the above passage demonstrates that he is already hinting at the inauthentic nature of his project. As Watt points out, Walpole's Preface was not a serious attempt at deceit: in addition to the parallels with Macpherson's introduction to the already suspect Ossian poems, the historical evidence which the so-called translator cites is contradictory, and the translator concludes his introduction by challenging antiquarian readers to seek out the 'real' castle of Otranto (actually modeled on Strawberry Hill, and Trinity College, Cambridge).
After the critical and commercial success of the first edition of The Castle of Otranto, Walpole published a second edition in 1765, the same year that the popular edition of The Works of Ossian made its first appearance. But whereas The Works of Ossian now included Hugh Blair's "Critical Dissertation on the Poems of Ossian" (the most famous defense of the Ossian poems' authenticity) appended to the work, Walpole's new Preface revealed Otranto's inauthentic nature in what is sometimes referred to as the "manifesto" of Gothic literature. According to Walpole's second Preface, The Castle of Otranto, now subtitled "A Gothic Story", is a new type of fiction, one which attempts "to blend the two kinds of romance, the ancient and the modern" and in so doing liberate "the great resources of fancy" which contemporary fiction has "dammed up, by strict adherence to common life" (Walpole 9). Again, Walpole's Preface shows the influence of Macpherson, who defended the supernatural elements of the Ossian poems by drawing comparisons between the use of supernatural incident in the poems of Ossian and the classical epics of Homer and Virgil. As Clery says, Macpherson's extensive annotation of the poems acts
both to legitimate a literary novelty by association with the classical canon, and at the same time to suggest that anything the classical authors had done a native bard could do as well if not better. (Clery 56)
Similarly, Walpole defends the genre mixing in his work by declaring that
I had higher authority than my own opinion for this conduct. That great master of nature, Shakespeare, was the model I copied… The result of all I have said is to shelter my own daring under the cannon of the brightest genius this country, at least, has produced" (Walpole 11-15).
Opposing Shakespeare and, by extension, Walpole, are the French critics led by Volitaire, who are portrayed as treating "our mighty poet" with "derision" (Walpole 11). Thus Walpole, in a clever move of prolepsis, situates the anticipated debate over his novel in a nationalist context, with Walpole as the defender of English bards, and native opponents of his fiction cast as Frenchified enemies of an English institution of genre mixing. As for possible objections about the "disguise" (Walpole 9) in which his work was first presented, Walpole implies that the English public are so good at reading critically that there was never any doubt that "the editor and author were the same person" (Walpole 12) -- this despite the fact that critics of the time made "no allowance for the reader's reflective distance" (Clery 59). Walpole concludes his second Preface by repeating his claim that his "new species of romance" (Walpole 14) is part of the national canon of English literature headed by Shakespeare, and reiterates his hope that "the new route he has struck out shall have paved a road for men of brighter talents" (Walpole 10).
Almost fifty years after the second edition of Otranto, Sir Walter Scott published Waverley, the novel that some contemporary critics hailed as sounding the death knell for the Gothic genre established by Walpole, and which, ironically enough, Scott later claimed was born of an attempt to write a novel "in the style of the Castle of Otranto, with plenty of Border characters, and supernatural incident" (Scott 350). Yet superficially Waverley bears as much resemblance to The Castle of Otranto as The Castle of Otranto does to the 'ancient romances' Walpole claims to be imitating (Robertson 96). So how seriously are we meant to take Scott's claim that his writing career was inspired by Walpole's The Castle of Otranto, and that Waverley was the next stage in an attempt to follow the 'road' described by Walpole in his second Preface? While Waverley is by no means a strict imitation of Otranto, I would suggest that The Castle of Otranto provided Scott with an important model: a novel which overtly 'created' a genre to meet a perceived need; a work of 'historical' fiction which unlike the Ossian poems acknowledged its artificial nature; and a novel which (possibly) dealt on an allegorical level with the Jacobite insurrections and with a traumatic 'Gothic' split between the past and the present.
Like Otranto, Waverley "bears no obvious relation to the antecedents it claims for itself; yet it is also clearly designed to intervene in literary tradition" (Robertson 96). Scott's aim of 'intervening in literary tradition' is indicated in his introduction, where he gently mocks the stereotypes of the romances (particularly the Gothic romances) of his day:
Had I, for example, announced in my frontispiece, ``Waverley, a Tale of other Days,'' must not every novel-reader have anticipated a castle scarce less than that of Udolpho, of which the eastern wing had long been uninhabited, and the keys either lost, or consigned to the care of some aged butler or housekeeper, whose trembling steps, about the middle of the second volume, were doomed to guide the hero, or heroine, to the ruinous precincts? …Again, had my title borne ``Waverley, a Romance from the German,'' what head so obtuse as not to image forth a profligate abbot, an oppressive duke, a secret and mysterious association of Rosycrucians and Illuminati, with all their properties of black cowls, caverns, daggers, electrical machines, trap-doors, and dark-lanterns? (Scott 16)
By listing the clichés of the various romance genres to which Waverley does not belong, the introduction implicitly claims that Waverley, like Otranto, is a new type of fiction, invented to meet a need that is not currently being satisfied by the market.
In writing Waverley, Scott wanted to write "something… for my own country of the same kind with that which Miss Edgeworth so fortunately achieved for Ireland" (Scott 314) -- a national tale, and moreover one which would also provide an acceptable 'history' of the British Union. Walpole's fiction suggested a way of creating a national story without falling into Macpherson's trap of authenticity: namely, to acknowledge the artificial nature of the project, and to invite the reader's participation in it. One of the things which attracted Scott to The Castle of Otranto was Walpole's acknowledgement of the inauthentic nature of his project. Instead of striving for authenticity by "patching his narrative or dialogue with glossarial terms, or antique phraseology" (Scott xlvi), Walpole admitted his deceit and instead relied on the reader's willingness to suspend disbelief (Scott xxxix), a practice Scott adopted in his own fiction. The second problem, which Walpole had failed to address in 1765, was how to share one's sympathy for a bygone age without being accused of rebellion against historical progress, and an at "re-establishing the barbarous superstitions of Gothic devilism” (Monthly Review 394). Scott solved this problem in his Scottish fiction through 'elegiac' conclusions, in which his protagonists accept the past as a 'tale which has been told' and embrace modernity.
The stylistic influence of Otranto on the Waverley novels in general can be seen in their frequent use of the Gothic machinery and character types introduced by Walpole, as well as the 'national institution' of genre mixing that he defended. The strategic influence can be seen in the novel's antiquarian framework, the false personas employed by Scott to discuss the narrative, and the contrived anonymity of the real author, all of which encouraged his readers to feel they 'participating' in the discourse. But perhaps the most important influence on Scott's writing can be seen in the issue both he and Walpole chose to address: the Gothic theme of the traumatic division between the present and the past, in which the repressed past returns to haunt the present.
Scott has often been praised for translating this conflict into a specific historical context: most famously, the Jacobite insurrections of 1714, 1745, and the 'scare' of 1759 (Colley 29). But I would suggest that The Castle of Otranto was already addressing the threat of the Jacobite insurrections on the level of historical allegory: the plot describes the downfall of an usurping aristocratic family which is constituted in terms of a Protestant dynasty (Cavaliero 26), and the restoration of the rightful heir, the Catholic grandson of the usurped Alfonso. Although the allegory is general enough to be applied to any historical situation where a 'Gothic' division between past and present occurs, I would suggest that Otranto, (written a mere five years after the scare of 1759, and twenty years after the last armed attempt to restore the Catholic grandson of the usurped James Stuart to the throne,) expresses a Protestant anxiety over legitimacy in the wake of the Jacobite insurrections. This interpretation is reinforced by the first Preface's claim that the novel was probably a work of Catholic propaganda written by an "artful priest" (Walpole 5), and that the manuscript for the novel was discovered "in the library of an ancient Catholic family in the north of England" (Walpole 5). Thus, The Castle of Otranto may not only have suggested the theme of Waverley, (the conflict between the past and the present), but also its historical context (the Jacobite insurrection of 1745).
In his introduction to The Castle of Otranto, Sir Walter Scott claims that the novel is " the first modern attempt to found a tale of amusing fiction upon the basis of the ancient romances of chivalry" (Scott xxiii). Scott further claims that Walpole's purpose went far beyond an attempt at evoking horror:
Mr. Walpole's purpose was both more difficult of attainment, and more important when attained. It was his object to draw such a picture of domestic life and manners, during the feudal times, as might have actually existed. (Scott xxxiv)
This passage has proved a constant puzzle to critics, since The Castle of Otranto is quite obviously not an accurate depiction of feudal life and manners, and the praise Scott applies to the work seems better suited to his own fiction. The consensus of most critics is that Scott either seriously misread Walpole's novel, or was engaged in unconscious projection of his own ideals onto Walpole's fiction. But Scott's reviews and fiction show him to be both a perceptive reader and a very self-conscious writer who is constantly engaged in the rhetorical creation of literary personas, making either error unlikely. I would argue that in his introduction to The Castle of Otranto Scott is deliberately inviting comparisons between himself and the 'character' he describes. Compare the explanation Scott gives of his anonymous authorship in Waverley to that he gives for Walpole's anonymity in 1764:
My original motive for publishing the work anonymously, was the consciousness that it was an experiment on the public taste which might very probably fail, and therefore there was no occasion to take on myself the personal risk of discomfiture. (Scott 422)
Mr Walpole, being uncertain of the reception 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 ushered into the world as a translation from the Italian. (Scott xxx).
This raises interesting questions about the degree to which Scott identifies with (and wants to be identified with) a figure he characterizes as rebellious: "he did not comply with the dictates of a prevailing fashion, but pleased his own taste, and realised his own visions" (Scott xxix). Elsewhere, Scott shows that he is aware of (and identifies with) the nationalist dimensions of Walpole's project:
His [Walpole's] 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 romantic fiction…" (Scott xxiv, emphasis mine).
Once again, one could substitute "Scott" for "Walpole", and "Scottish" for "English", with no great difficulty and possibly far more accuracy. In other words, Scott not only was influenced by Walpole's writing, but in his introduction to Otranto he appears (whether unconsciously or consciously) to identify himself with Walpole.
A possible explanation for this may be found in Ivanhoe, a Walpolean novel which represents a turning point in Scott's career as a novelist, and contains some of his most famous descriptions of the relationship between fiction and history, and the role of the historical romance in forging a nation. Written during an illness which Scott later claimed he had not expected to survive (Wilson 146), Ivanhoe marks a return to Scott's original plan for a novel written 'in the style of the Castle of Otranto, with plenty of Border characters, and supernatural incident': it abandons the now-familiar temporal and geographical settings of the Scottish novels, and returns to the English, feudal setting of "Queenhoo-Hall". The plot is replete with Gothic imagery and incidents, and concludes with an unsatisfactory marriage which mirrors the one in Otranto. As Duncan notes, whereas the Waverley novels "had absorbed Gothic elements into a larger scheme of historical romance, Ivanhoe appears to mark a ceremonial return to the Gothic: a re-Gothicization of historical fiction" (Duncan x). Like Otranto, the narrative is contained within an antiquarian frame: the author of the "Dedicatory Epistle", one 'Laurence Templeton', is an English antiquarian who, spurred by nationalistic sentiment and aided by an ancient Scottish manuscript, has attempted to create an English historical romance to rival the Waverley novels.
I cannot but think it strange that no attempt has been made to excite an interest for the traditions and manners of Old England, similar to that which has been obtained in behalf of our poorer and less celebrated neighbours. (Scott 14)
'Templeton' claims that the act of writing a medieval romance is far more difficult than the writing of a Scotch novel, but comforts himself by reflecting that a similar project was successfully undertaken by "Horace Walpole [who] wrote a goblin tale which has thrilled through many a bosom" (Scott 17).
The "Dedicatory Epistle" is one of the most interesting frame narratives in Scott, not only for the irony of the situation, but for the declaration that historical accuracy is subordinate to the interests of the national project. Templeton casually admits that he "may have confused the manners of two or more centuries" in his narration, but comforts himself that "errors of this kind will escape the general class of readers" thus allowing him to share in the "applause of those architects, who, in their modern Gothic, do not hesitate to introduce, without rule or method, ornaments proper to different styles and different periods of the art" (Scott 21). Most critics see this passage as one of the key indicators of Scott's attitude towards historical verisimilitude:
he regards the combination of history and fiction inevitable in any work which attempts to make medieval subjects [or historical subjects in general] accessible and comprehensible to the reading public… "Historical 'keeping' is not a matter of antiquarian scrupulousness. It is pointless to be accurate if that accuracy does not correspond in any way to the reader's preconceptions" (Robertson 62-64).
This in turn may explain the so-called apparent naivete of Scott's introduction to The Castle of Otranto: it wasn't that Scott genuinely believed Walpole's novel to be an attempt at accurate representation of feudal manners, rather, like Scott's own historical romances, Otranto was based on contemporary perceptions of an earlier age.
Far from revealing a pure, uncorrupted source of national identity, Ivanhoe reveals the Gothic past to be a microcosm of contemporary Britain, complete with racial and religious conflict and colonial resentment on the part of the recently conquered Saxons: the 'original' nation is thus revealed to be a nation already (and perhaps always) divided. In a move which seems to anticipate Anderson's theory of "imagined communities", the plot of Ivanhoe reveals that in order for an undivided nation to exist a story must be constructed which is not constrained to historical facts, and indeed must necessarily be in opposition to the 'real history' which is introduced towards the end of the novel. Thus, in Ivanhoe, historical romance is revealed as a vehicle for a nationalist project which aims at unifying the nation through narrative.
Scott saw both Walpole and Macpherson participating in this national project: not only does Templeton cite Walpole as an English forerunner of this type of fiction, but he repeats Dr. Dryasdust's accusation that Scott is an uncreative writer, "a second M'Pherson" who merely avails himself "of the antiquarian stores which lay scattered around him, supplying his own indolence and poverty of invention, by the incidents which had actually taken place in his country at no distant period" (Scott 14). An odd allegation, considering that English antiquarians generally accused Macpherson of doing the precise opposite. The comparison is an interesting one, because if taken literally it would appear that Scott subscribes to the view that the Ossian poems were not a complete fraud, but rather, that Macpherson saw the fragments of poetry he had collected as "the broken remnants of great Celtic epics, and to have seen the task of recovery as one of sympathetic restoration" (Stafford xiv). Therefore Macpherson, like Scott and Walpole, was engaged in the creation of a national story as opposed to a national history.
Walpole appears to have had a profound influence on Scott in terms of the stylistic and strategic elements of his work. Moreover, Scott perceived that both he and Walpole (and possibly Macpherson) were working on a similar project of reconciling their readers to a national past they perceived as dangerously divided from the present. In their writings, both Scott and Walpole express concern that this division is resulting in the alienation of their fellow countrymen from the national resources of imagination and genre-mixing (in the case of Walpole), and so-called primitive virtues (in the case of Scott and possibly Macpherson). To counteract this, they attempted to revive what they perceived to be the valuable elements of a national past through architecture, antiquarian research, and literature. Scott in particular appears to perceive literature as a medium through which readers could regain a sense of national identity, and reconnect with 'alienated' values through identification with the characters and sentiments of an earlier period of history. This accounts for both his identification with and praise of Horace Walpole, for Scott perceived that Walpole's greatest innovation in The Castle of Otranto was his goal of " wind[ing] up the feelings of his reader till they become for a moment identified with those of a ruder age" (Scott xxxvii).
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---. Ivanhoe. Ed. Ian Duncan. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1996.
--- Introduction. The Castle of Otranto. By Walpole. London: Catto and Windis, 1930.
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