Five Ways Horace Walpole Influences Us Today

Cake to celebrate 300 years since Walpole’s birth on 24th September, reproduced courtesy of Strawberry Hill. Cake courtesy of the Lewis Walpole Library and Konditor and Cook, London.

It is 300 years since the birth of Horace Walpole. In his own time, Walpole was a prominent figure in eighteenth-century literature, architecture and politics, and although today he may be less well-known his influence lives on. Ahead of our public lecture series celebrating Walpole, here are five facts that bring Walpole surprisingly close to our own times.

Disneyland and Graceland can trace a connection back to Walpole

With his development of Strawberry Hill House in London, Walpole helped to establish the neo-Gothic revival in Britain. But while we may think of gothic architecture as dark and brooding, Walpole’s vision of it was bright and clean – a kind of fairy-tale version of the medieval castles and cathedrals. In a way, this is the version of gothic taken up by the likes of Disney, with its Cinderella castle.

Horace Walpole’s Strawberry Hill House (left), and the Cinderella Castle at Disneyworld (right).

There is also a peculiar connection to Graceland. On the edge of his lands, Walpole constructed a miniature chapel, called ‘The Chapel in the Woods’. It is now on the edge of a car-park. Staging a miniature devotional space, surrounded by trees, Walpole sparked imitations worldwide which have never been traced to him. Today, Elvis fans can get married in the modern equivalent in the USA.

Walpole unleashed Gothic fiction on the world…

When Walpole gave his novel The Castle of Otranto the sub-title ‘A Gothic Story’ in its second edition in 1765, he unleashed ‘Gothic’ fiction on the world. From readers of Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel Frankenstein, to today’s viewers of horror movies, we owe Walpole a debt for inspiring one of our most enduringly popular forms. Without Walpole, we’d arguably have no Twilight saga. This may or may not be a good thing.

…while his prodigious written output defined the eighteenth century

Walpole didn’t just write gothic fiction; he was prolific across a range of genres. His letters alone span an astonishing 48 volumes in the authoritative modern edition. To put that into perspective, the combined letters of William and Dorothy Wordsworth only fill eight volumes.

Leslie Stephen wrote in the Cornhill Magazine June 1872: ‘the history of England, throughout a very large part of the eighteenth century, is simply a synonym for the works of Horace Walpole’. Walpole’s tastes define the age, and his voluminous letters and memoirs record eighteenth-century life as we wouldn’t otherwise have seen it.

Left: Title page to The Castle of Otranto (1764); it was not until the second edition that the book was labelled a ‘Gothic’ story, and that Walpole acknowledged himself as the author. Middle: Frontispiece to Frankenstein (1831). Right: Theatrical poster for Twilight (2008).

Walpole coined the word ‘serendipity’, among others

Serendipity, which the Oxford English Dictionary defines as ‘The faculty of making happy and unexpected discoveries by accident’, was first used by Walpole in a letter to H. Mann in 1754. Walpole was describing his discovery of a connection between coats of arms shared by two different families:

This discovery, indeed, is almost of that kind which I call Serendipity, a very expressive word, which, as I have nothing better to tell you, I shall endeavour to explain to you: you will understand it better by the derivation than by the definition. I once read a silly fairy tale, called “The Three Princes of Serendip;” as their Highnesses travelled, they were always making discoveries, by accidents and sagacity, of things which they were not in quest of: for instance, one of them discovered that a mule blind of the right eye had travelled the same road lately, because the grass was eaten only on the left side, where it was worse than on the right — now do you understand Serendipity?

Walpole also coined other, less common words like ‘gloomth’ (‘One has a satisfaction in imprinting the gloomth of abbeys and cathedrals on one’s house’) and ‘greenth’ (‘I found my garden brown and bare, but these rains have recovered the greenth’). The latter word was adopted by other literary writers like George Eliot and Thomas Hardy. It will be the subject of one of the public lectures on 14th November.

His writing on gardens changed the English landscape

Walpole’s 1771 essay On Modern Gardening has been described as the most influential work on ever written on the subject. The style of gardening Walpole advocated is best known to us today on the grand scale depicted in the grounds of Pemberley in Pride and Prejudice:

The park was very large, and contained great variety of ground. They entered it in one of its lowest points, and drove for some time through a beautiful wood stretching over a wide extent…They gradually ascended for half-a-mile, and then found themselves at the top of a considerable eminence, where the wood ceased, and the eye was instantly caught by Pemberley House, situated on the opposite side of a valley, into which the road with some abruptness wound. It was a large, handsome stone building, standing well on rising ground, and backed by a ridge of high woody hills; and in front, a stream of some natural importance was swelled into greater, but without any artificial appearance. Its banks were neither formal nor falsely adorned. Elizabeth was delighted. She had never seen a place for which nature had done more, or where natural beauty had been so little counteracted by an awkward taste.

Walpole was keen to champion a natural style of planting he saw as ‘English’ – informal, unforced, seemingly random and what he called ‘riant’. Later gardeners like Gertrude Jekyll really didn’t have much to do after this; though as Jekyll was working in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, this connection shows that – like so much of Walpole’s thought and work – we have to skip much of the nineteenth century in order to get back to his ideas in all their clarity, force, and brilliance.

Some of the gardens at Walpole’s Strawberry Hill house. Reproduced courtesy of Strawberry Hill House Gardens.

Walpole set up the first significant private printing press

On this he printed works by friends such as the poet Thomas Gray. The press reflected Walpole’s interest in the total design of works, integrating words and illustrations, and anticipated innovative print and production practices such as the work of William Morris and the private-press publications of Virginia and Leonard Woolf.

Come and learn more about the life and ongoing influence of Horace Walpole at our series beginning on 10th October. The first lecture in the series, by Professor Stephen Regan, will explore the astonishing variety of Walpole’s letters.

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