Walpole, Horace

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Walpole, Horace (1717-1797): English Writer.

Horace Walpole was an influential political operative during his lifetime and a prolific writer, publishing a wealth of letters, memoirs, and historical commentary as well as the novel which sealed his literary reputation as the eighteenth-century’s most notable gothic artist: The Castle of Otranto. Walpole was born into a wealthy and powerful family, and like his father Sir Robert Walpole, the first earl of Oxford, was educated at Eton and King’s College Cambridge. While at Cambridge, Walpole became friends with the poet Gray, Thomas, and upon graduation in 1739, they traveled together for two years throughout France and Italy. The European tour took its toll on their friendship, though he and Gray would continue to correspond throughout their lives. Back in London, Walpole served as a member of Parliament for six years, and while he retired from politics proper in 1747, he continued to exert his influence as an advisor through his letters and friendships.

In his letters, which now fill several dozen volumes, Walpole gave his personal opinion and judgment on major events of his day, such as the Jacobite Trials and Gordon Riots, and with Sir Horace Mann, in particular, he discussed party politics and foreign affairs. Letters to Thomas Gray and Mary Berry reveal much about Walpole’s literary ideas, and thousands of other private letters deliver their autobiographical insights into Walpole’s social and artistic life. Aside from maintaining some social and political influence through his correspondence, Walpole used his letters to recall events he published in works like his Memoirs of the Reign of George II and Memoirs of the Reign of George III.

Walpole’s own literary career blossomed after he purchased a country house that would become known as Strawberry Hill. He remodeled the house along the lines of a gothic castle, which included a simple cloister and an ornate art gallery, and for years continued to add battlements, pinnacles, and arches. In 1757, he established a printing press at Strawberry Hill where he published his own works and those of his friend Thomas Gray. Walpole published The Castle of Otranto, his own gothic romance, at Strawberry Hill in 1764. In this tale of love, intrigue, and incest, set in an Italian castle during the medieval Crusades, Walpole portrays the most horrific of passions run amuck through a complicated set of mysterious events that ultimately lead to fortuitous murders and the reaffirmation of rightful lines of aristocratic descent. Just as his mock castle revived interest in gothic architecture, his gothic novel initiated a vogue for gothic romances.

Further Reading:

Timothy Mowl, Horace Walpole: The Great Outsider, 1996.

Jason Horn

Gordon College