Authors: Horace Walpole

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Last reviewed: June 2018

English novelist, essayist, and historian.

September 24, 1717

London, England

March 2, 1797

London, England


A brilliant essayist, historian, and letter writer, as well as a notable novelist, dramatist, and amateur antiquary, Horace (christened Horatio) Walpole was born in London on September 24, 1717. He was the third son and youngest child of Catherine Shorter and the great eighteenth-century British prime minister Sir Robert Walpole. Horace Walpole was raised at Houghton Hall, a miniature palace that had an art collection rivaling the best in Italy and a semi-naturalistic garden that provided young Walpole with a frame of mind through which he later looked on life.

Portrait of Horace Walpole.

By John Giles Eccardt, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

At the age of ten Walpole was sent to Eton, where he formed friendships with boys such as Thomas Ashton, Thomas Gray, and Richard West and belonged to the Quadruple Alliance, a literary group whose members included Gray and West. This involvement stimulated Walpole’s love of literature. After graduating from Eton, Walpole went to Cambridge University. In March of 1739 he left Cambridge without earning a degree and invited Gray to be his companion on a grand tour of continental Europe, which lasted about two and a half years. The grand tour has been regarded as one of the major events of Walpole’s life. It gave him the friendship of the famous American Horace Mann, whom Walpole met in Florence and with whom he corresponded extensively for the next fifty years of his life, although he never saw him again; his correspondence with Mann was the largest of his many correspondences. The tour also furnished Walpole with the friendship of John Chute, who later helped him design his toy castle Strawberry Hill, and with a perspective from which he would later create the Italian settings for The Castle of Otranto (1765) and The Mysterious Mother (1768).

Following his return to England, Walpole became a member of Parliament, serving from 1741 to 1768. In 1748 he purchased a cottage in Twickenham, which for the remainder of his life he spent remodeling into a pseudo-gothic castle. Strawberry Hill became famous as Walpole’s home, as the center of his enthusiasm for gothic architecture, as the home of Strawberry Hill Press, and as a kind of park-museum-showplace. Through his work on Strawberry Hill, Walpole—an eighteenth-century celebrity who knew everybody and went everywhere—was to make a name for himself as a gardener and an architect. His tragic drama, The Mysterious Mother, a punishment dream, was published by Strawberry Hill Press, but his famous gothic novel The Castle of Otranto was not.

The supernatural elements of The Castle of Otranto were designed to provide terror for Walpole’s readers; they do so no longer. In The Castle of Otranto, Walpole delineates the customs of the Middle Ages, a period he regarded as rife with superstition. Notably, the novel contains a strict unity of action, for everything therein occurs over a period of three days and two nights at the castle and its surroundings. Incest and patricide feature heavily in the plot. At the end, Theodore, a young peasant with a strawberry birthmark, marries the virtuous princess Isabella and is revealed to be a noble prince.

Critics generally agree that The Castle of Otranto was most likely inspired by Walpole’s rage over the problems of his cousin Henry Conway, who was dismissed in 1764 from his command of the Royal Dragoons regiment for voting in Parliament against general warrants. Walpole was especially close to Conway and came to his defense with a pamphlet titled A Counter-Address to the Public on the Late Dismission of a General Officer (1764), in which he tried to show that Conway did not merit banishment for his conduct in Parliament and claimed that the total ruin of Conway was not proper. Without question, Walpole’s anger and frustration over the Conway affair influenced his writing of The Castle of Otranto in that year; the resolution of the novel, in which power is restored to the wrongfully dispossessed in spite of the machinations of the wealthy and the militarily powerful, can be read as wish fulfillment with regard to Conway's situation.

Walpole’s memoirs, covering the latter half of the eighteenth century, were written in a conscious effort to be the historian of his times. Few men have planned their engagement with posterity so carefully. Walpole was determined to achieve a lasting reputation independent of his father. A vast amount of information on the culture and affairs of England and the Continent is contained in Walpole’s letters. They are a source of extensive historical knowledge and have been compared in value to a thousand of the documentary films of the twentieth century.

Walpole became the fourth earl of Orford in 1791. He never married. He died in London on March 2, 1797, at the age of seventy-nine, and was buried in the vault beneath the church on the grounds of the Houghton Hall estate.

Author Works Long Fiction: The Castle of Otranto, 1765 Short Fiction: The Lessons for the Day: Being the First and Second Chapters of the Book of Preferment, 1742 (satire) A Letter from Xo Ho, a Chinese Philosopher at London, to His Friend Lien Chi at Peking, 1757 (satire) A Dialogue between Two Great Ladies, 1760 (satire) An Account of the Giants Lately Discovered: In a Letter to a Friend in the Country, 1766 (satire) Hieroglyphic Tales, 1785 Drama: Epilogue to Tamerlane, on the Suppression of the Rebellion, pr., pb. 1746 The Mysterious Mother, pb. 1768 Poetry: The Beauties: An Epistle to Mr. Eckardt, the Painter, 1746 Nonfiction: Aedes Walpolianae; or, A Description of the Collection of Pictures at Houghton-Hall in Norfolk, the Seat of the Right Honourable Sir Robert Walpole, Earl of Orford, 1747 A Letter to the Whigs: Occasion’d by the Letter to the Tories, 1747 A Second and Third Letter to the Whigs: By the Author of the First, 1748 The Original Speech of Sir W[illia]m St[anho]pe, on the First Reading of the Bill for Appointing the Assizes at Buckingham, Feb. 19, 1748, 1748 The Speech of Richard White-Liver Esq.: In Behalf of Himself and His Brethren, 1748 Three Letters to the Whigs: Occasion’d by the Letter to the Tories, 1748 (collects previous letters) A Catalogue of the Royal and Noble Authors of England, 1758 (2 volumes) Anecdotes of Painting in England, 1762–71 (4 volumes) The Opposition to the Late Minister Vindicated, 1763 (authorship uncertain but strongly attributed to Walpole) A Counter-Address to the Public, on the Late Dismission of a General Officer, 1764 Historic Doubts on the Life and Reign of King Richard the Third, 1768 A Description of the Villa of Horace Walpole, 1774 A Letter to the Editor of the Miscellanies of Thomas Chatterton, 1779 Essay on Modern Gardening, 1785 The Works of Horatio Walpole, Earl of Orford, 1798 (5 volumes) Notes to the Portraits at Woburn Abbey, 1800 Reminiscences, 1805 Letters from the Hon. Horace Walpole, to George Montagu, Esq. from the Year 1736, to the Year 1770, 1818 (John Martin, editor) Letters from the Hon. Horace Walpole, to the Rev. William Cole, and Others, from the Year 1745, to the Year 1782, 1818 (John Martin, editor) Memoires of the Last Ten Years of the Reign of George the Second, 1822 (2 volumes; Henry Richard Vassall Fox, editor) Letters from the Hon. Horace Walpole, to the Earl of Hertford, during His Lordship’s Embassy in Paris: To Which Are Added Mr. Walpole’s Letters to the Rev. Henry Zouch, 1825 (John Wilson Croker, editor) Memoirs of the Reign of King George the Third, 1845 (4 volumes; Denis Le Marchant, editor) The Letters of Horace Walpole, Earl of Orford, 1857–59 (8 volumes; Peter Cunningham, editor) Journal of the Reign of King George the Third, from the Year 1771 to 1783, 1859 (2 volumes; John Doran, editor) The Letters of Horace Walpole, Fourth Earl of Orford, 1903–5 (16 volumes; Helen Toynbee, editor) The Yale Edition of Horace Walpole’s Correspondence, 1937–83 (48 volumes; W. S. Lewis, editor) Bibliography Brownell, Morris R. The Prime Minister of Taste: A Portrait of Horace Walpole. Yale UP, 2001. A biography focusing on Walpole’s career as a collector and patron of the arts. Fothergill, Brian. The Strawberry Hill Set: Horace Walpole and His Circle. Faber and Faber, 1983. An intellectual biography and sociological study of Walpole in the context of his time. Jacobs, Edward H. Accidental Migrations: An Archaeology of Gothic Discourse. Bucknell UP, 2000. Evaluates Walpole’s contribution to the development of the gothic genre. Kallich, Martin. Horace Walpole. Twayne Publishers, 1971. A solid bio-critical study of Walpole. It contains a useful chronology and chapters on Walpole’s life, his political career, and his role as a social butterfly in eighteenth century England, as well as analyses of The Castle of Otranto, The Mysterious Mother, and Hieroglyphic Tales. Ketton-Cremer, R. W. Horace Walpole: A Biography. 3rd ed., Cornell UP, 1964. The standard biography of Walpole. Mowl, Timothy. Horace Walpole: The Great Outsider. Murray, 1996. An intellectual biography emphasizing Walpole as a legislator, writer, and collector, with attention paid to his sexuality. Sabor, Peter, editor. Horace Walpole, the Critical Heritage. Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1987. A substantial collection of critical essays on Walpole’s works. Van Luchene, Stephen Robert. Essays in Gothic Fiction: From Horace Walpole to Mary Shelley. Arno Press, 1980. Includes a chapter on The Castle of Otranto that considers its influence on gothic fiction to be threefold: it ushered in stock characters, established set narrative techniques, and conveyed an idealized view of the Middle Ages.

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