Monstrum: The Castle of Otranto, Gothic Fiction and the Origins of Genre (Public lecture, 5th December)

A brooding gothic-looking ruined castle with rooks and crows circling
Kenilworth Castle, by Tilliebean (Own work), via via Wikimedia Commons.

When he subtitled his novel The Castle of Otranto as a ‘Gothic story’, Horace Walpole could have little realised that he would give life to the genre that remains popular to this day. This free Walpole and His Legacies lecture with Fred Botting (Kingston University) will look at where the Gothic came from, and where it went to next. Starts at 18.15 on 5th December, in Elvet Riverside 141.

As a genre or, at the very least, as the first modern subgenre, Gothic fiction emerges ex nihilo, fully dressed in the features, devices and tropes of a distinct form of writing. The Castle of Otranto is subtitled ‘a Gothic Story’. At a stroke, as if out of nothing, textual elements conferring generic distinctiveness combine with paratextual devices to be furnished with extra-textual critical affirmation as a ‘new species’ of writing: Horace Walpole becomes the ‘father’ to numerous literary offspring well into the nineteenth century – and beyond.

Issues of paternity, however, are notably problematic given the author, the story and a period in which concerns about fiction overlap with vigorous debates across aesthetic, historical and political fields. Otranto’s novelty of fictional innovation (as ‘novum’) is shadowed by the wider resonances of its explicit aesthetic absurdity and effrontery (‘monstrum’). A ‘monster of perfection’ (a term from species-ridden eighteenth-century romantic criticism), the Gothic Story – as ‘Gothic’ – condenses, calls up and confounds many of the polarised and entangled usages of a word traversed by conflicting claims to political and national continuity, to historical, architectural or antiquarian veracities and authenticities, and to moralities and codes of fictional representation.

As a monster, moreover, Otranto assumes a more significant generic aspect: impossibly mixed in its combination of contrary aesthetic styles, tones and gestures, endlessly unravelling into the multiple sources informing its playfully genuine fabrication, the story’s forceful assertion of fictionality (of itself and its materials) comes to the fore as a strangely modern birthmark.

All members of the public are warmly welcome to this lecture series, looking at one of the most influential writers and thinkers of the eighteenth century. Booking is not required. Join the conversation online via #WalpoleLegacies, and find this event on Facebook.

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