Last reviewed: June 2018
English novelist, essayist, and historian.
September 24, 1717
March 2, 1797
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.
Portrait of Horace Walpole.
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.